Waldenfels’ Egocentric Reading of Rimbaud

by hyphology

Bernhard Waldenfels wrote Phenomenology of the Alien (Grundmotive einer Phänomenologie des Fremden) in 2006 and a translation into English was quickly made available by 2011. As the original title suggests, this work is a groundwork that lays out the basic motifs of a phenomenology that focuses specifically on the “alien” (Fremd). While the translators have rendered Fremd as “alien” according to the standards of Husserlian scholarship, it must be kept in mind that it could also mean stranger, foreign, or, at times, Other (although the translation of Fremd as Other will soon be complicated).

This work contains constant references to Waldenfels’ previous books. In the introduction, he correlates each chapter with some previous book that he has written (only one of which is available in English). The text is thus not only an outline of the basic motifs of a phenomenology of the alien, but also a survey of Waldenfels’ corpus. Given that Waldenfels is a scholar of Edmund Husserl, it is no surprise that Husserl’s name appears more frequently than any other in the book. What is surprising is that one of the other most mentioned names is that of the French poet, Arthur Rimbaud. Specifically, Waldenfels repeated refers to a line from a letter that Rimbaud wrote when he was 16. What does the gossip of a teenager have to do with transcendental phenomenological science? Waldenfels believes there is an important link and, while he may be right, he is right for the wrong reasons.


Alien vs. Other

In reading Husserl, it is common to think of the “alien” as a synonym of the Other. The problem that occurs in the fifth meditation of Cartesian Meditations is precisely how it is possible to know that others/aliens exist. Here, Waldenfels believes there is a conflation. For him, Other always posits a binary opposition with the same, which we traditionally find in many continental philosophers. Alien, however, denotes a foreignness that exceeds the mere indication of difference or the not-I. Whereas the distinction between Other and same is based on a fundamental separation (as we see so clearly in Levinas), the alien is always articulated through a process of exclusion.

What is the alien excluded from? It is excluded from the proper, from what is one’s own, and from those who are included. Unlike the designation of the Other which implies a third-party to register the separation, alienness derives from the nature of ownness itself. The fact that there exists a sphere of influence, which designates the order of things as normal or belonging to one’s world, implies an abnormality or strangeness at the borders of propriety: “Alienness presupposes that a self (ipse) should have a sphere of ownness and its own being” (11).

The problem of the alien, much like the problem of the Other, is how to welcome the alien as alien rather than reducing it to an object or elevating it to a transcendent Being. The reason why the problem of the Other is misguided according to Waldenfels is that it believes the originary position of the subject to be based on sameness. The Other, in turn, is simply defined as difference. Rather than originary sameness, Waldenfels posits an originary difference within the subject itself based on the experience of temporality. Instead of sameness, the subject must be defined according to its established order or ownness, which is at once ontological, ethical, cultural, political, and economic. The first paragraph of Phenomenology perfectly sums up the difficulty of this problem:

To pose the alien as a special theme is to have missed it already. For it means to begin from the place of the familiar and the known, and if the journey goes as planned, to expect to return to the same place. Most certainly, the experience of the alien will bring about a change, maybe even a catharsis. Yet, in the end, the original familiarity will prevail; it might even expand or deepen itself. And since the alien is not harmless, it might alienate us from ourselves. Hence the perpetual motivation to resist, avoid, or assimilate the alien. However, giving in to this motivation is to make the subject remain at home with himself or herself. It also means that the strong fortifications of an order which excludes the unordered should remain in place, preventing the alien from disturbing us from within. The alien can inspire curiosity and imagination, it can even enlighten us about ourselves—all this must be granted. Yet as soon as the alien breaks into the arcanum of freedom and reason, it trips the “chaos” alarm. Freedom and reason take up their arms. They fight because otherwise they would need to give up on themselves. But, inevitably, alienness leads to hostility, which only escalates, with each involved party becoming more and more committed to their belief that they alone have right on their side. We become watchful of the other, moving closer together. There are certain safety devices built into an experiential network, which originates in what is one’s own and seeks a hold in what is common. Assumed to be coming from the outside, the alien is expected to carry its identification at all times as if it were an intruder. It then becomes subjected to evaluation and judgment. As a result, an everyday moral, political, religious, cultural, and also intellectual quarantine is imposed on it.


Waldenfels references to becoming alienated from oneself and ending up right where one began highlight an important theme in his Phenomenology. This theme is that alienness is an aspect of subjectivity itself. There is no absolutely present, self-same subject in all its supposed purity. To put it bluntly, consciousness is messy. The phenomenological position provides a hint to a solution concerning the problem of the alien. If alienness is already a constitutive component of subjectivity, then there is no need to worry that alienness is so alien that it can never be known. (This form of argument, so popular in phenomenology, can originally be found in Arthur Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation at the beginning of Book II. Without being able to develop this here, it is necessary to demand that all phenomenologists return to Schopenhauer.)

And yet Waldenfels wavers on this essential point. He mentions in the introduction that alienness cannot begin with myself otherwise it would be an aspect of the proper. But on three other occasions, he returns to the position explained in the previous paragraph, which is most clearly articulated by Levinas’ claim from Totality and Infinity, “alterity begins only with me.” In two of these instances, Waldenfels merely asserts that alienness begins “at home” and with oneself. As for the final instance, he argues that it would not be possible to know the alien without “implicitly” referring to the self. Caught up in this self-contradiction is an interpretation of Rimbaud’s statement “I is an Other” (Je est un autre).

An Egocentric Rimbaud?

Waldenfels’ first mention of Rimbaud is cryptic: “Even if the question ‘Who am I?’ happens to revert all too quickly to ‘What am I?,’ this strange question, which short circuits the questioner and the questioned, already contains a trace of Rimbaud’s ‘JE est un autre’” (12). This thought concludes a meditation on the Cartesian discovery of the ego. Waldenfels finds an affinity between Descartes and Rimbaud insofar as they both supposedly emphasize the ego. While this is true for Descartes, it is not so clear in the case of Rimbaud. And one should be immediately suspicious of Waldenfels’ reading when he capitalizes the “Je” to emphasize a word that Rimbaud had originally not emphasized. Regardless of this affinity, Rimbaud is attributed with an awareness of the shortcomings associated with the Cartesian ego, since his statement “contains a trace” of the short circuiting Cartesian line of thought.

On two other occasions, Waldenfels links up Rimbaud’s statement with his claim that alienness begins at home. What Rimbaud is able to demonstrate for Waldenfels is that the “I” is primary, but not completely defined by self-identity. It is true that for Rimbaud the “I” has no positive ground and is always in a process of becoming-Other. To Waldenfels, this sounds like a familiar notion and he assimilates it into his phenomenology of the alien. At one point, he equates Rimbaud’s statement with his concept of “intra-personal alienness,” which denotes the very structure of self-alienation that I have been describing.


Ultimately, Waldenfels’ reading of Rimbaud attempts to conflate him with Levinas. It is essentially unable to distinguish between “I is an Other” and “alterity begins only with me.” However, for Rimbaud, and even Levinas, there is a world of difference between these two statements. This is the reason why Levinas corrects Rimbaud in the first lines of Totality and Infinity. He, like Waldenfels, clings to the phenomenological primacy of the ego. Without the same, there cannot be an Other; without an established order, there cannot be an alien. This reading attempts to elevate an “I” that has lost all meaning. What is the sense of an “I” that cannot even say “I am”? If any word should be emphasized in Rimbaud’s statement, it is the third-person singular is through which the “I” finds its mode of expression.

In the seer letters, Rimbaud illustrates that the “I” is an empty function, a mere gathering point for the experiences of the seer. In a similar way, Waldenfels states that “I” is a word devoid of content. He claims that the “ego” (Ich) is a circumstantial indexical as much as we believe “alien” to be (since this latter word can denote an experience or a person). But rather than a point of agreement, this is the heart of Waldenfels’ misreading of Rimbaud. The ego’s context-dependent nature is only significant from a propositional standpoint. From the phenomenological attitude that Waldenfels advocates, the ego is always me, I (Ich) am the ego (Ich). Since this marker of transcendental subjectivity must be situated in the world through embodied consciousness, it is unthinkable that it can vary in any significant way. For this ego to become-Other, or even to lose its fundamental ability to say “I am,” it would require a new body, a new me. Yet this is exactly what Waldenfels (and Levinas) refuse to give up.

Sauvage, Wildness

Now is not the time to offer a defense of Rimbaud’s positive account of alienness. To a certain extent, the preliminary gestures of this project have already been made. The issue here is that Waldenfels misreads Rimbaud by over-emphasizing the role of the ego. Whereas Levinas makes the same move, it is oriented as a rejoinder to Rimbaud. Waldenfels, in contrast, believes he has discovered Rimbaud’s key insight. At this point would it be reasonable to ask if there is even a place in Waldenfels’ phenomenology for Rimbaud?

The answer is yes, but the place will not be found where one may initially expect. Waldenfels at times coyly gestures toward an originary transcendental neutrality that precedes the differential individuation of own and alien. When discussing the political-economic capture of attention (e.g. reality TV, social media, etc.), he declares that “Resistance is only to be expected from attention itself, in the shape of attention sauvage, an attention which preserves the moments of the an-economic and the anarchical and allows for a surplus of the given attention” (69). That is, attention by nature is focused, but genetically derives from a wild in-attention that allows for the perception of previously-unseen elements that have not been filtered through corporate interests and State security programs. Furthermore, Waldenfels closes the book by mentioning that a science of the alien (i.e. xenology) “leads us to a form of alogon that is not just opposed to reason [i.e. logos] as something merely irrational (which would simply come down to an indirect confirmation), but that leaves its marks as moments of the ‘wild’ in the logos of a culture” (83). Is this inherent wildness and attention sauvage not precisely what Rimbaud had envisioned in his parade sauvage?