Internal conversation/eternal emigration

Thames, Coromandel, New Zealand, March 2015

Knowing people is what we do to them when they are not there

Adam Philips, On Flirtation (1994), p. 82

The original tagline of this blog was ‘Inner migration/Eternal emigration’. The combined forces of ‘inner migration’ and ‘eternal emigration’ are a key motive of both my life and the initial blog that this website grew out of.

Internal (or inner) migration is a (relatively disputed) term that has been variously attached to intelligentsia in Nazi Germany, Stalin-era Soviet Union, or other Eastern European countries of the Soviet bloc, in order to describe withdrawal into the ‘inner self’, or away from public life. It is considered a form of passive resistance provoked by the combination of inability to find expression in (largely oppressive and tightly politically controlled) public life and lack of opportunities to emigrate.

Internal conversation is a sociological term popularised by G.H. Mead and other pragmatists/symbolic interactionists such as Blumer, Peirce and Dewey, referring to the process of internal deliberation, evaluation or analysis that characterises people’s ‘inner monologue’, which, they argued, has an important bearing on how we conceptualise agency and social change. ‘Internal conversation’ is also the foundation of Archer’s theory of reflexivity, specifically developed to address the structure/agency ‘impasse’. Besides the fact that a blog can (by definition) be framed as internal conversation externalised, I am particularly interested in how reflexivity  is practised in public, including how arguments are made for the delineation of ‘lay’ and ‘sociological’ forms of reflexivity – in other words, what can social sciences tell us about everyday life that ‘ordinary’ people cannot?

Eternal emigration, on the other hand, is a somewhat self-coined term – not that I credit myself with inventing it, but for me it invokes the well-worn trope of ‘travelling scholar’ (or Wandering Jew destined to walk the Earth forever), exile, etc. This is not necessarily to romanticise this form of existence: while, to me, both migration (as in changing the countries where I live) and travel (as in frequent journeys) were largely motivated by the desire to explore, learn, and inhabit different spaces, this isn’t always easy (and, for a lot of people, including many from the region I come from, it was not a choice at all). In this sense, emigration stands for the practice of displacement or detachment – or estrangement – that is the inevitable, but also sought-after, outcome of any change of perspective or vantage-point, and the affordances and challenges it brings.

In philosophical terms, the duality of ‘inner migration’ and ‘eternal emigration’ – reflection and detachent – is related to Arendt’s dichotomy of vita activa and vita contemplativa as the two sides of intellectual and public life. It is also central to what Constantinou highlighted as the other meaning of [Greek] theoria, in addition to the practice of detached observation or contemplation that Arendt recognizes: travel, or quest, in order to ‘consult an oracle’ – that is, inquire into the nature of reality.  In conceptual terms, this constant interplay between engagement and withdrawal, or proximity and distance, remains at the foundations of what knowledge, at least in the way I conceive of it, as well as many other things, are about.

Ultimately, these concerns come together in a reflection on the nature of knowledge (thought) and its relation to action. Taking, in part, the cue from Arendt’s Life of the Mind, the purpose of this blog is to engage in a form of public thinking about how what we know influences what we can do, as individuals and societies.

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