Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

The migrant as central figure of the 21st century


           A stranded one sleeping on the Likavitosstairs in Athens

As Michael D. Higgins would stress, culture is afterall a search for truth and thus in need of such spaces which do promote participation in society. This has to be done in respect of every individual with human dignity having different meanings in a diverse world.

And in conjunction with that, Michael D. Higgins, President of the Republic of Ireland since Nov. 2011, states that the central figure of the 21st century is the migrant! What happens to this figure, is therefore decisive for the future. A positive one is only possible in Europe avoids making certain mistakes which were made in the past. That would be the case if forms of Racism similar to anti-Semitism would put a blame on the migrant as if the reason for all the uncertainties and loss of a job. It would come to a political desolate situation with supposingly Right Wing Extremists chasing on their motor cycles migrants down the streets. Instead of integration and participation, it would mean Europe allows fear and hatred to grip the minds of those threatened otherwise by social and economic mechanisms of exclusion and thus begin to turn against any openness, politically speaking.

Especially in times of a crisis, there is the danger that fears (of survival, of preserving one's own dignity in society) are projected upon a scape goat figure since the real causes for concern are not dealt with directly. Jean Pierre Faye in 'Totalitarian Languages' describes how people being made malleable by these mechanisms begin to hate themselves for being so spineless, for giving in to superiors, for hiding the truth even from a partner. Consequently hate builds up within. It is like loading a gun for such a person will have such hate which is ready to be 'unloaded' at any given moment, that is when a suitable subject is found. IN the past it was the Jew, today there is at risk the migrant. This unloading of hatred has been described by Jean Pierre Faye.

In Greece, but not only in this country, anti-migrant groups are beginning to form themselves with the aim to use when necessary extreme measures to oust any, for example, non Greek. They do so under a new Nationalist orientation. Whether in Germany, Holland or Greece, they benefit from a general feeling of disgust and frustration, summed up best in newly formed anti Political schools of thoughts. It involves the uneducated as much as the educated. As such they begin to act in contradiction to the basic founding principles of the European Union.

To remind the cosmopolitan was identified in the 19th century by state orientated philosophy as the outsider who does not swear any allegiance to the state. Hegel named in his 'philosophy of law' him to be like the Jew not to be trusted since his allegiance would lie elsewhere.

Michael D. Higgins in his book 'Causes for Concern', he stated something of crucial importance for the twenty-first century:

„The twentieth century will end, and the twenty-first emerge, with the figure of the migrant at the centre of things. Continued in the essence of the migratory experience are relationships to time and space that have, up to now, been seen as the experience of the minority which, for most policy purposes, could be neglected without cost.

The neglect of the migratory experience has meant that the nature of intellectual life has become distorted in its assumption of the sedentary, of the systematic, of the power and possibility of tradition.

At the heart of migration lies the transience of things. It is that transience that explains both the risks and the neglected benefits of having chosen, or of having been condemned to break the inherited links to space, time and cultural certainties.

The migratory experience is one of pain. The fact has been documented again and again. If migrants are to possess rights as both human persons and collectives, their rights attach less to place, nation, race or, indeed, property, than they do to persons, individually and collectively. The appalling destruction of the phrase 'human rights' as a term of abuse, hurled by one state at another, is made possible in part by the distortion of locating rights conditionally in space, culture or property.

The migrant's experience cannot be reduced to the learned assumptions of the point of origin or the point of destination. It is an experience born of the flux of things, not only precariously balanced between the learned past and the anticipated future, but creative in itself of something new and different. Migrants are at once the carriers of fear, wonderment and hope.

From that flux is created a unique capacity for tolerance. It is of the nature of transience that absolutes are left behind, that truths are varied and tenuous, all to be tested against the requirements of the human group and persons on the move.

The importance of today's displaced people and migrants is, in part, that they represent all our future possibilities for renewing and reshaping the human composition, the human contribution to the planet.

From an observation of the migrant's world of transience, a problem observed can become an empowerment. For the migrant also gains from the letting go of boundaries, barriers to seeing, cognition, understanding, action and historicity. The migrant regularly reinvests the world within the flux of time and space, as we all must learn to do now. This means letting go, and renewing and replacing institutional certainties, system of logic, patterns of thoughts and cultural security blankets. It is not accidental that the artist often foresees what the politician will labour to learn. It is very understandable when one recognises how often exile is chosen, even if only symbolically, by the artist as a necessary condition for creativity and celebration of the humanistic impulse."

The poetess Anne Born describes in her poem 'migrants' something which is so often amiss, equally a missed out opportunity to welcome the strangers at risk to be simply washed ashore and left there like stranded objects:

Before we arrived at the sea

a swallow looped over the road

a small wave making landfall

joyous after the crossing

billowing home to nest.


Alongshore the shingle shone

with an endless selection of stones

raven and kestrel cronked

and mewed near the quarry


and out over the silver-plated sea

two white birds flew westward

on a closely parallel course

as we walked east in the sun

hearing out on the skerries

the sad song of the reedbuoy

wingless and anchored

each siging exhalation

the breath of its warning voice.

           - Anne Born from her collection 'Planting Light',

                                                          West Kirby: Headland, 1999, p. 50

Michael D. Higgins concludes on a note of cautious optimism, for if we can learn to be tolerant and establish hospitality as a general rule, then we would open up ourselves to hearing a multitude of stories. Only then it becomes possible to share a panoply of dreams – as migrants have always been called upon to do. Here Michael D. Higgins reminds of the importance of the story teller who knows the many dreams of mankind. When telling them, he can set free dreams from all kinds of boundaries and inhibitions towards the others.

Still, there is a harsh reality. Many migrants have left not only stories stemming from powerful dreams behind, but also the home they once had. And it was there that they dreamt about destinations in far away lands so that they came to believe once there it could alleviate them from all their present pains. Instead sea weed has become the food for disappointment after a hard landing! Once washed ashore, all those dreams have been replaced by just one dream, the dream conjured up and held onto although an indomitable hope, namely to be able to return home one day and that safe and sound.

Michael D. Higgins reaccounts at personal level that he has often felt the experience of migration in his own life. It is an endless voyage through another sense of not belonging. And he means an experience he made not as a stranded migrant but as someone brought up in Europe: "As a participant in the intellectual and political world, I have been made conscious of how little sharing there is of insights, what little companionship in struggle, what little celebration of creativity – or what the authoritarians squash in their madness, namely a love for humanity."

He concludes out of this that instead of coming to realize through studies and sharing of knowledge that one does belong to mankind, everything is treated in an abusive manner and belonging reduced to a matter of intellectual property. Thus knowledge and poems are traded at will. Consequently those who still adhere to a sense of humanity, they end up being side lined by joint ventures in derived and dead theoretical postulates which flourish with ready made conceits and ill wills.

The migrant in the academy risks to forget his or her own story. Like all migrants, he quickly gets to know the way fights are conducted. A preferred one is that of imitation. It begins with a close observation and then scrutinizes the texts, if there is anything still alive. If so, then it is immediately squashed for only dead materials can be worked on. Foucault called it the 'pathology of the glance'. That kind of observation is the most important tool in how possession is taken by those who would want belong to the academic world, but can only do so by denying the others a chance of belonging. In the end, the academia becomes a privileged group but without the experience of how to share knowledge with others. Michael D. Higgins is most emphatic when he concludes that if they would only open up their doors and allow newcomers to wander in, it would put an end "to the alienating terror of transience."

Hatto Fischer

Athens 2012 (updated 1.8.2013)


Michael D. Higgins, “The challenge of building the mind of peace” in: Cause for Concern (2006/2007), Dublin: Liberties Press, p. 62 - 64

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