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The Stranger and The Estranged

In this post, I posit the concept – the Estranged – as a dialectical opposite to Simmel’s concept of the Stranger. If the stranger is remembered for his ‘distance’ from the (host) group, the estranged is remembered for his ‘departure’ from the (reference) group.

Simmel defined the Stranger as an “organic member of the group” (p. 149), who “comes today and stays tomorrow”[1] (p. 143), who is defined by his “nearness” over “remoteness” to the group (p. 143), who brings “qualities into it (the group) that are not, and cannot be, indigenous to it” (p. 143), which make him “attractive and meaningful” (p.145), whose “objectivity” that is by no means “detachment and non-participation” (p. 145) lend as “specific form” to his interaction with the group (p. 143) by “both being outside it and confronting it” (p. 146). A stranger is “freer practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent” (p. 146). 

[1] as opposed to a wanderer “who comes today and leaves tomorrow” (p. 143)

A wanderer is innocuous, but a stranger threatening. A wanderer enjoys the community, but a stranger exposes it. A wander amuses and praises, but a stranger assesses and critiques. A stranger invades and pervades the social life and provides a reality-check against the illusions the lay the foundations of such life. The ‘in-betweenness, the ‘inside-outness’ of a stranger puts him at a vantage point from where the society lays exposed and vulnerable to cross-cultural, cross-ethical judgments. The very fact that a stranger can see the unseen; the manifest contradictions that go undetected to both the native and the foreign eye yet only visible to someone ‘in-between’ makes the stranger a frightening creature. Yet, an equally damning beast is estranged who is similar to the stranger in his insights but dialectically opposite in his distance to the group.

 The Estranged is also an organic member of the society who leaves today to come back not tomorrow but on the day after tomorrow perhaps to leave and revisit in the future. He can also decide to stay in the future the very fact that he left and stayed elsewhere for a day (a metaphor to a noticeable instance of time) is what makes him an interesting category. His outside experience lends him the similar insights that a stranger acquires through his inside experience. While the stranger is defined through his remoteness to the group, the estranged is defined through his closeness to it. While a stranger only has an objective insight, an estranged one has a subjective insight. While the stranger only ‘sees’ the contradictions, the estranged ‘feels’ the contradiction. His freedom stems from the very fact that he can ‘leave to revisit anytime. Because now he is a participant in another group (although as a stranger), he is freer to defy the habits and precedents of his own group. He is immune to social sanction per se because he can readily leave the geographical domain where these sanctions apply.

As the stranger, his defining characteristic is his mobility and in-betweenness. As a stranger, his distance to the community is defined by others. Just like a stranger can never be a native, an estranged can never stay native. The very act of departure is like a pilgrimage that transforms him and endows him with a new form of knowledge that becomes his benchmark for comparison. His departure is a similar vantage point as a stranger and exposes the contradiction in his group to a degree that he feels the compulsion to do something about it, which in turn lends him notoriety and estrangement in his group. An interesting fact about the estranged is he is never allowed to judge the mores of the reference group simply because he is no longer defined as a member or through his closeness to the group, but always defined through his estrangement, through his act of departure, through his achieved distance from the reference group.

The stranger and the estranged are dialectical opposites: the negative distance (closeness) of a stranger to the host group increases at the cost of positive distance (remoteness) from the reference group. In fact, these two categories are the bulbs of an hourglass as one empties, the other fills and the hourglass is reversed when a stranger leaves the host group to visit the reference group. The attributes of strangeness and estrangement vacillate as long as the subject remains mobile – that he is destined to – and the dialectical transformation i.e., the synthesis of (re)becoming native is never achieved.

Reference: Simmel, G. (2011). Georg Simmel on individuality and social forms. University of Chicago Press.

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