Georg Simmel, Strangeness, and the Stranger

Jörg Heinke, University of Kiel, Germany

In David Malouf's novels An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon and The Conversations at Curlow Creek the phenomenon of strangeness appears in different shapes. One way to understand the concepts of starnger and strangeness is to employ the sociological approach advanced by Georg Simmel's brief "Essay about the Stranger" ("Exkurs über den Fremden," 1908). He sees the stranger as a wanderer who comes today and may stay tomorrow. The attributes of that stranger are his differences of time and place of his origin, his socially not belonging to the host society and also his independence in moving, staying and in his way of behaviour compared to the rest of society which he enters. If we communicate with strangers we have - at the same time -- the impression of being close to someone from a distance and of being far away from someone who is in our immediate environment. While wandering the stranger moves from outside the society towards the inside. This opposition of inside and outside is, however, the basis of our conscience.

The identity of a human develops along the line of differentiation between the self and everything which is not the self, which is outside. The process of recognition of what is 'I' and what is 'Not-I' is influenced by the individual socialisation. The definition of identity of every 'I' does only occur in the individual mind. Everyone defines oneself individually while setting the self into opposition with every other individual. As it happens individually, it is not possible to express one's own identity in relation to others completely. The problem of language arises at this point because it can only approximate what the individual wants to express and means by it. As the socialisation of every person is an individual one and as experiences are gained differently by everyone and have different impact on people, their way of thinking and their definition of meaning is unique. The only way to learn somebody's thought is through his objectivations (i.e. everything we see and hear from people), we cannot know what the real meaning of words is for the other.

In that respect we are faced with a fundamental problem: everything we hear and see from other people -- even in our own society -- is relatively strange and relatively unknown. All members of society have, however, agreed on a basic meaning of things. This is important for the continuity of life and social behaviour because the basic meaning ensures a way of dealing with each other on a common and accepted basis.

If there is anything as a collective mind we do not know. There is, however, something we call a collective, cultural or social identity. On a wider scale it refers to the relation of inside and outside as well. Again, during socialisation a whole group or society is formed in certain ways of thinking and behaving. Not only language but also the political system, cultural values, moral standards and ethics or the relation between the sexes belong to a set of pieces which complete a cultural identity. Comparing the own set of values with other societies or minority groups within a society, the similarities among many produce a feeling of togetherness, they form a 'we-feeling'.

The normal behaviour of the inside group of a society is the standard. Every other behaviour is deviant and can be connoted by the majority as negative. This has to do with expectations of the inside group towards new-comers or immigrants into that group of how they should assimilate. Most of the times, however, it is not the behaviour which shows the inside group who is a stranger or not, but features as colour of the skin, the language, religion etc. Especially behaviour or customs which are not at all similar to that of the inside group may cause suspicions about socially negative ways of living.

The same way as the inside group expects new-comers into the group to behave according to the inside group's rules, there is also an expectation which one group generally has about the behaviour of outside-groups. The expectations or pictures of outside-groups can be called stereotypes or prejudices. They exist not only for outside-groups but also for the self-definition of the inside-group, though they are mostly connected with positive values. Therefore strangeness is not only a social problem of somebody who is new in a group or has a new experience, it is also a problem of expectations towards other social entities. Strangeness occurs when the expectations are not met by others. How someone, other than ourselves is classified has to do with how we see ourselves (if we take into consideration that the 'I' defines itself only by contact with everything which is 'Not-I').

If another group has access to resources (in any direction) that we desire, it is automatically a competitor and therefore an outside group. Its behaviour is seen as 'negative'. Depending on the strength or power which the inside-group has, there are several patterns of evaluating outside-groups:

The classifications of strangers with stereotypes or prejudices do not develop out of itself but have their ground in every socialisation. Their frequent usage -- in everyone -- is the expression of being unsure of oneself in certain situations because with everything which is strange or new to us we have to define ourselves anew in the relation to that object of strangeness. To limit this process of re-defining, comparing and ensuring, we use pre-experienced incidents and stereotypes to keep up the ability to act. Classifications are safety mechanisms of the self to avoid the incapacity of action.

Stereotyping can become dangerous if we give away our ability to see and judge for ourselves to people who we think competent to overlook complex situations. If these 'specialists' of perception and interpretation have access to mass media and also have political motifs of presenting strangeness in a certain light, this can have fatal effects on a society. The possibilities range from mere helping of understanding to political propaganda. Before turning to aspects of strangeness in David Malouf's novels one question remains to be tackled: how can strangeness have an effect on our lives? Possible reactions may be the following:

The requirement for actual interchange lies in the self-assurance of the people involved; if unsure and bad informed, with little access to information and also little ability to interpret it, groups tend to draw themselves back onto traditional, inflexible ways of reaction to strangeness. Strangeness becomes a threat.

If people are sure enough of themselves and their identity and have sufficient possibilities and the ability to handle and interpret information they are the ones who can win from experiences with the unknown.

This document has been adapted by kind permission of the author from the English summary of "The Phenomenon of the Stranger in David Malouf's An Imaginary Life, Remembering Babylon and The Conversations at Curlow Creek," his University of Kiel Master's thesis. You can contact Jörg Heinke at or visit his personal home page.

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