Tożsamość transmigranta

A Transmigrant’s identity

Publication:17 August 2021

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A few decades ago, saying that we were dealing with “a Polish composer,” “a central-European poet” or “a Viennese painter” did have a deep meaning. Today, using such terms is increasingly losing its relevance. We are in trouble when we have to define identity in terms of belonging to a place.

Introduction: creating in motion

And it is not only about the problem of the artist’s nationality and the well-known discussion about art becoming cosmopolitan in the global world. The artist can be global. However, he can also be local, and what is more, he can even arbitrarily choose his own place. Such terms as “a Viennese painter” lose their meanings not only because they no longer adequately describe anybody’s origin (the places we come from disappear and their names sink into oblivion). The thing is, rather, that such terms no longer carry any meaning. In the past, however, they did inform about something significant: about the starting point determining somebody’s direction. They made it available to measure the distance which he had covered in his life. And this, in turn, gave an opportunity to understand the assumption based on imagination rather than senses, stating that the length of the life journey covered by a man affects him in a definite and known manner. Having known which places and experiences the artist had gone through, we could classify him as “a victim of the Great War,” “a child of the Holocaust” or “an offspring of Slovak peasants.” The artist’s life journey began in a particular place, went through time and space along the ways we could follow him, along some kind of Philosophenweg.

Let’s imagine the journey along a contemporary artist’s way. Will it make it easier to retrace his route, enrich our understanding, deepen the interpretation of his work or strengthen our reception? Won’t we rather come to the conclusion that we know and understand less because touching stationary space has distanced us from what is the most important in each creator’s life – from the sources of his creativity?

At present, such a source is not moving from to, but the process of movement itself. The artist, through his works, does not reflect anything else other than ‘being–in-motion’ and shows us himself as the only constant of his own existence in the world, disintegrating and uniting into kaleidoscopic shapes. This kaleidoscope is becoming a set of components for the artist, from which he constructs his own unique self. We will not discover the sources of the self in the external world , in places, times or vectors. Contemporary artists collect themselves in such a way that the knowledge of the starting point becomes simply misleading. It promises such meanings which, in fact, it does not carry or which we cannot interpret as our inference about the creator’s identity based on the knowledge of geographical, economic, cultural, historical and all other contexts leads us astray. It stems from the fact that we think about the artist as a traveller.

A journey: an outdated metaphor

It can be said that we are accustomed with treating artists as characters from a computer game. They move from one level to another (the degree of difficulty usually rises), collect various objects, sometimes get bonuses or fall off something. All the time these are the same characters, though, of course, richer in a variety of artifacts, moving in a stationary space. And that is what a journey looks like.

Until recently, a journey was a tempting metaphor for the movement, both in the physical and spiritual areas. Covering different distances was assigned the same impact on identity as journeys in general, always leading from point A to point B, having, even the longest ones, the beginning and the end. In our culture, the experience of transformation of somebody who is coming back from a long journey is a well-understood phenomenon. Time, space and experience must, as we think, leave some trace which we will recognize on a familiar face. A journey can enrich and change the traveller, but it should preserve his or her identity – this is its meaning. A journey shapes and educates only when the experience of being different collides with a complete, though, of course, preferably open, self. And that is why the Faustian motif of losing identity through movement has a great impact on us. We know that it is possible to forget where we are from and where we are to return to, to get stuck in one of the points of the journey; self may turn out to be too weak. The strength of this impression is a measure of risks, which, to our best knowledge, movement poses for identity. That is the reason why we wrap movement in safe categories of travel, and want to believe that we grasp the essence of the phenomenon this way.

It is difficult to deny that considering the circumstances looking at life as a journey makes no sense today. It is enough to read biographies of some artists. Many of them still include tedious enumeration of towns, countries and continents which needlessly tell us that their hero had been travelling a lot before he settled down somewhere and “presently” resides there. Such an artificial construction of narration obscures the essence of the artist’s movement and can only distance us from understanding the mystery of creativity, which is the artistic self, rather than a bunch of stickers on suitcases. The artist’s movement is not just a journey – his essence seems to be changing. If we want to understand it, it is worth examining the start of our thinking about movement.

Social movement

People have always taken an interest in movement as a physical as well as a philosophical issue. It was not until the 19th century, however, that we started thinking differently about movement. It was then that important economic, political and cultural changes made movement become interesting as a social, rather than physical or philosophical phenomenon. From that inspiration a new branch of knowledge was born and, not by mere accident, did it become known as “social physics.”

With time, the social movement, individual and collective, became known as migration. The former one was the repositioning of an individual – in this sense we speak about mobility in sociology, thinking about movement of people in physical space (from a village to a town, from one country to another) or in social space (to a different social layer, whether it be up or down). The collective movement, which in the 19th century was associated with a revolution and capitalism, meant migration of a whole mass of population. It was a situation in which trajectories of individual mobility became common for many, giving somehow a tectonic effect, noticeable at a macro level.

Migration: an outdated term

The social thought of the 19th century was characterized by the omnipresence of the opposition of permanence and change, statics and dynamics. It can be said that Eleatic opposition of movement and stillness was one of the founding idées fixes of the social sciences. Nevertheless, contrary to the Eleatics, it turned out that movement as such did exist, but stillness became a default state. It can be understood as follows: the social movement of the 19th century was a movement of an individual or a group on a stationary background. Even for those who did notice the growing importance of mobility in the life of societies of the industrial era and recognized it as inevitable, structural stability still remained the target state, desirable despite the impossibility. So, until the mid 20th century our thinking remained dominated by the poetics of migration.

For a long time it seemed, however, that the concept of migration would be sufficient to satisfy the need of describing and understanding movement in a contemporary society. The figure of a migrant, who moves on a stationary background, like in a theatre of shadows, clearly disassociating himself from the settlement and duration, is still present in the narration of the social sciences. We notice it in human types which we have been creating for over 100 years, drawing on the motif of movement. Flâneur, a tourist, a nomad – all being heroes of sociological imagination, are the inspiration for the next generations of researchers of social life. These characters, though more and more distant from the traveller’s figure, are still being modeled on it.

The attractiveness of various moving figures obviously stemmed from the fact that our mobility was continuously growing. However, we still used to reach for the same repertoires of expressions in order to render the essence of our mobility, we still referred to the metaphor of a journey to talk about migration. Meanwhile, as our movement does not resemble a journey anymore, our mobility has moved away from the model of migration.

The change of the movement principle is felt most clearly in connection with a problem of identity. The discomfort mentioned at the beginning which we feel trying to describe the artist’s life in connection with the one of the traveller’s, the sense of inappropriateness of terms result from the fact that the artist lives in a new, different movement which I call “transmigration.”

A change of the nature of movement

Perhaps Georg Simmel, being one of the co-founders of the social sciences, was the only one who felt the change heralding postmodernism. At the beginning of the 20th century, he recognized movement (literal and symbolic) as being the dominant of economic, social and cultural life in Europe. Long ago had he understood Pascal’s words, “Our nature is in motion, the absolute rest means death,” which became the motto of the contemporary British sociologist John Urry’s study of social mobility.[1] Probably never before did they mean as much as at the end of the modern era.

Simmel noticed that at the end of the 19th century movement stopped being described in relation to a stationary background. Instead of a calm rhythm of the journey, we get disorder in tourism,[2] instead of a neat academic sculpture – incompleteness and dynamism of Rodin’s figures,[3] instead of an orderly middle class life – a chaos of a large agglomeration.[4] A new form of movement, born out of capitalism and democratization is the continuous emergence of nothingness. The old form becomes non-existent when the new one is born, but the transition is so smooth that the whole process of transformation consists only of indirect states, including past and future together.

Following Simmmel’s contemplation on a principle of the new movement, we are starting to understand where the premonition of the end of modernism is, the same phenomenon which gained the author, slightly in advance, the opinion of the first sociological postmodernist. So the movement of characters is not opposed to stillness of surroundings – there is no “outside” which movement should be related to. Relationism, which would order to look for a proper system to define the position of a moving object, transforms smoothly into relativism. Each reference system is adequate on one hand, but at the same time invalidates the very idea of referring. And this, in turn, invalidates the idea of a journey; so because everything is moving and is smooth, there is no traveller any longer, or we are all travellers. It is just a question of the choice of the perspective. The journey being the contact between two motionless entities no longer exists. Thus, the idea of identity, like a prop in changing sceneries, loses its sense. A new principle of movement becomes a new principle of creating identity. This consequence was illustrated by Simmel through a variety of metaphors, out of which the best known is the metaphor of a stranger.[5]

A stranger’s mobility

A stranger is a wanderer who comes and stays. Such a statement usually begins a debate on man who is in a paradoxical relation with society; he lives in reality which he does not associate with. The stranger comes from somewhere, but he is nowhere for good. The fact where he comes from has no meaning for his relationships with others. Hence, the duality of the stranger’s distance in relation to his social surroundings; he is close, at his fingertips, and at the same time far away because his thinking, perception and the way of living have shaped his own perception of movement, which he does not share with anybody. The stranger is lonely and this experience shapes his identity.

However, it is not the loneliness of a hermit. The stranger is mobile, he is not afraid of movement because he has managed to tame it. It can be said that he got rid of the fear of a settled man before losing his identity in a kaleidoscope of variable atoms of the social world. He knows that nothing is constant in the world, that all the principles are subject to a decision and not the pre-established truth. The stranger seems to be an existential relativist. He is aware of the fact that what describes him is in motion as well. However, it is not necessary for it to exist and to be as it is. Even apparently attached to his desk, house, town or country, the stranger continuously stays mobile, because his soul sees reality as a variable and his key experience is “being-not-from-here”[6] – everywhere he happens to be. But, because he moves by both his body and soul, the only point of reference for his own identity is his own self, not as a constant, fixed shape but as potentiality being realized in motion. And in this way, the stranger becomes a transmigrant.

Transmigration: a new metaphor

I use the term “transmigration” to describe a movement which refers to nothing else but itself. It is going beyond the principle of migration which is based on moving in relation to something stationary and entering a meta-level, on which every kind of movement is related to all the other objects as well being in motion in relation to one another. Such an understanding of transmigration would be close to the original sense of the term, namely the transmigration of souls. A transmigrating soul keeps its identity within itself (it is the same entity) but does not keep any features of character. Moving to a new body, it finds itself in a new reference system – its place in reality is only temporarily petrified, because together with each subsequent transmigration the whole reality changes. Moreover, this continual movement concerns all the entities, thus the smoothness of the reference point is the property of existence in general. No wonder that stillness is seen as perfection, the only constant in relation to which everything could be measured.

For the oriental mentality pursuing the full escape from the world which Max Weber called “virtuosic asceticism”, transmigration, in the philosophical and religious sense described above, is nothing else but torment. Indeed, the stranger’s life can change into torment. European belief, as we traditionally understand it, is less scared of the pain connected with being in the world. It attaches more importance to the value of individualism. From this point of view, transmigration is an ambivalent phenomenon. It brings what is the most valuable for the Western European man – the feeling of being himself, extracted from the surroundings, who is not followed, however, by the equally desired feeling of being “somebody.” A self belonging to a transmigrant-stranger is an axiom, but one devoid of properties. However, because the identity of an individual cannot do without the feeling of being “somebody,” transmigration understood as the constant crossing the principle of movement, is in fact a process of active and continual filling “oneself” with substance.

It depends only on the activity of the individual self how much and what substance it will obtain. Its creative power is the only factor which determines what the mentioned self will be filling. In a way, the stranger-transmigrant is a hero of our times, because it leads the principle of individualism to extremes, making his own identity as well as his creation. A variety of aspects of the transmigration movement can give an opportunity to look for the contents out of which identity will be built – a new space, new time, new routes and trajectories of movement open countless possibilities of arranging yourself.

Transmigrational movement: a new space

Transmigration is characterised, first of all, by spatial flexibility. It is impossible to determine the vector of the transmigrant’s movement. Referring to the natural sciences, so much favoured in the social sciences way, just to satisfy hunger for new comparisons, it can be said that it is impossible to give both the position and the momentum of the transmigrating individual. Trying to measure them simultaneously, as we often do in sociological research, we forever lose the sense of our own reality, in which the principle of movement has subordinated to the principle of indeterminacy.

Movement in space in itself is no longer a sequence of the sections of the same thickness, of which the end of one is always the beginning of the next one. By moving, we can be in many places simultaneously, moreover, we can be more in some than others. And it is not about the fact that we live in many countries, temporarily come back, though not for good, we are here and somewhere else at the same time, we are constantly travelling. The more important seems to be the definition of space itself – thanks to new media and technologies which let us constantly immerse in the stream of communication, we are always everywhere, never are we far in such a sense in which 20 years ago a child was at university in a distant city, a husband working on a building site in Germany. The world is becoming smaller and smaller because the access to the places once far away is possible due to fast passages of transmission competing effectively with imagination. Thanks to it all, everything is closer. However, it does not result from the fact that space is shrinking. Quite the opposite, it is a result of its implosive growth.

Space implosion can also be observed in the intellectual and spiritual sphere. Once impossible to reconcile views, values and attitudes, now they exist alongside one another with no problem – contrary opinions and paraphrases are equally close to one another. Transmigration favours eclecticism: aesthetic, religious, political, philosophical. Intertextuality born out of eclecticism makes a work become a conglomeration of other works, not as a compilation or quotation but as being based on the holographic principle of concluding the overview of many dimensions. Everything can be the essence of self and only self determines the acceptability of coexistence of different contents.

Emil Durkheim could have been right when he claimed that the conception of space and imagination of a relation between materialistic objects in a given culture was a reflection of social reality. Our life goes on simultaneously in many discontinuous areas, our physical space begins to be a collection of separate enclaves of existence.

Transmigrational movement: new time

The enclaves of existence crook not only space but also time, which for the transmigrant does not move forward with constant, uniform and rectilinear motion any longer.

It results, first of all, from globalised experience of multiplicity of times. Even our telephone asks us kindly what time we choose. Let’s notice – the idea of choosing time would make no sense a few decades ago; time was assigned to the place then, and both time and the place were constant. Nowadays, people are coming back to the old idea that time is a thing of convention and comfort – the place I am temporarily in does not determine my choice of time. According to the famous thesis of Jacques La Goff,[7] modernity was characterized, among others, by the inclusion in the scores and taming time, standardizing its measures and abolishing its social relativity. It could be perversely stated, that we are then returning to a pre-modern, lax construction of time being the measure of movement. A medieval merchant used to change times, travelling from town to town. We can do that sitting in an armchair. The association of space with time stops being an abstract argument of physics, it becomes an everyday experience.

It gives us a sense of power, which we willingly want to use, constructing our own self. The power allows us over time not only to jump into parallelism, but also into the future (the term itself becomes inaccurate, in such an approach the past is as parallel to the present as to the future). We are coming back to the good times, to various times immemorial of our individual and collective life in order to find these elements of ourselves which we need in our identity bricolage. We are freely looking into the past for the answers to our own and others’ questions, we are seeking ancestors, roots, Heimat, trauma – not connected with what is current, treating the fact where and who we are as a trampoline for jumping into the universe of meanings.

Transmigrational movement: new routes and trajectories

Because the transmigrant moves in space, which has stopped being just physical, it is impossible to describe his movement in travelling terms of routes and trajectories. A route implies the coexistence of individual sections; however, everything moves and disappears so fragments of space can change their nature, too. That is why it is so difficult to draw a map which we could use longer or which we could lend to somebody else. Movement happens in time, and space in time does not remain the same. The landmarks disappear, new mountain tops rise, the seas recede, the rivers change their course. That is why we often get lost and dream of compasses which convictions, beliefs, traditions, habits and the sense of belonging were for our ancestors. We long for something which would lead us, without fail, to a target based on the objective principles of physics, without our participation, with no work contribution on our part. However, we do not long so much to be able to give freedom of the change of direction at any time in return.

At the same time, we pay more attention to setting the targets rather than routes – going in any direction we, ourselves, create space where it was non-existent before. We move in the same way as we browse through websites: from one point to another, not dealing with what is between the points and not looking backwards. Originally, this kind of movement was going somewhere – we were looking for something definite, not knowing where it was, but being aware of the fact that we could reach the place jumping between network nodes. So each of our movements formed new trajectories. Gradually, we simply stopped dealing with the problem of the relation of individual points to the target. The attractiveness of measures exceeded that of targets, the charm of the protected jumps into the void made us forget where we had been going to.

Our transmigration uses the intangible channels – the waves filling the air around us are full of wanderers. The movement which does not require roads in real space becomes unnoticeable, does not bother anybody, does not produce friction. We do not bump into one another despite our briskness. We move collecting what we want to consist of, and rejecting what we do not wish to have in ourselves – there is enough building material for everybody.

Conclusion: non-static identity

The artist, more than anybody else, embodies the characteristic features of the transmigrant profile. His identity arises in motion in the process of active accumulation of experiences, which he chooses, strengthens and generates – to announce in his artistic expression the confusing truth about all the resources he used to build himself, exactly the same as he is in the act of creation. What is the institutional necessity, psychological threat, economic obligation or temporary inconvenience for other mobile characters of our contemporary world – managers, refugees, scholars, businessmen, employment emigrants, criminals, for the artist is the sense of his creative activity.

It is the artist’s strangeness, his double distance towards reality, which helps him express what is the essence of the present and what others can only sense. The artist intuitively grasps what is the key in the existence of the society surrounding him, that is a new principle of creating identity. The artist who “is-not-from-here” feels the change of the principle of movement intuitively and reflects it with his own life, giving a foretaste of what will be our common fate in the 21st century. The essence of creative transmigration does not lie in its uniqueness and elitism, is not an issue of unique biographical experience. On the contrary: there is nothing more common and given in a more direct way – we will all find ourselves in new spaces, times and trajectories of the transmigrational mobility. In this way the creator became a spiritual embodiment of the present trend which involves the formation of individual identity through physical and social movement. The artist reveals a rainbow kaleidoscope of reality and makes us recognize a frightening, though inevitable, necessity of an immediate arrangement of our own self from spinning, colourful puzzle pieces.

Essay written for the catalogue of the exhibition Transmigracje(Transmigrations). Mysłowski, Puntos at the Gallery of the International Cultural Centre in Kraków (21 January – 6 March 2011). Read more: www.mck.krakow.pl

[1] John Urry, Sociology Beyond Societies. Mobilities for the Twenty-First Century, London-New York 2001.

[2] Georg Simmel, Alpenreisen, first published in: “Die Zeit. Wiener Wochenschrift für Politik, Volkswirtschaft, Wissenschaft und Kunst”, 4. Band 1895, Nr. 54 vom 13. 7. S. 22-24).

[3] Georg Simmel, Die Kunst Rodins und das Bewegungsmotiv in der Plastik, first published in: Nord und Süd. Eine deutsche Monatsschrift, 129. Band, 33. Jg. 1909, Heft 386, Mai 1909, S. 189-196 (Berlin).

[4] Georg Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life (adapted by D. Weinstein from Kurt Wolff [Trans.] The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York 1950, pp.409-424).

[5] Georg Simmel, The Stranger (From Kurt Wolff [Trans.], Ibidem, pp. 402-408).

[6] Andrzej Waśkiewicz, Obcy z wyboru. Studium z filozofii aspołecznej (A Stranger of Choice. Study from Antisocial Philosophy), Warszawa 2008.

[7] Jacques Le Goff, Time of Church and Time of a Merchant Polish edition in: Time in Culture, ed. Andrzej Zajączkowski, Warszawa 1998.

O autorach

Marta Bucholc

A sociologists, specialising in the field of history of sociological thought. Assistant Professor at the Institute of Sociology of the University of  Warsaw, in the Department of the History of Sociological Thought. Her scientific interests include: Max Weber’s sociology, theory of rationalisation and modernisation, theory of capitalism, sociology of knowledge, especially Karl Manheim’s sociology and the Strong Program of the Sociology of Knowledge, plus laws of the philosophy of language. Moreover, Bucholc translates scientific literature from English, French and German. She also: has won the Florian Znaniecki Prize (2000), holds the scholarship of “Polityka” weekly (2003(, of the Foundation for Polish Science (2006), and the Bronisław Geremek Scholarship of the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna (2010).

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