François Noudelmann, “Face of migration / Migration of faces”

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François Noudelmann is a philosopher and Professeur at the Université Paris 8 Vincennes – St Denis. He also teaches at the European Graduate School in Saas-Fee (Switzerland), Johns Hopkins University and NYU in the United States. His numerous works have been translated into multiple languages. For many years François Noudelmann also radio shows related to philosophy on France Culture, and was in charge of a blog for Libération.

The arrival of migrants in Europe has renewed the question of family resemblances. Who is the other, what does he or she look like, whose family do other people belong to? In philosophy, the question of the Other is very old. It has been commented on from a rational perspective, through the notion of the alter ego, or from a moral point of view. Rational categories are usually required to establish the place that one should allow to the other — the stranger who both looks like me and is also different. But the role of imagination is often undervalued in the experience of encountering another person. Integrating strangers into a community depends not only on rational commitment but also on the process of the imagination. Seeing the other as similar or dissimilar implies conceptions of archetypes and genealogy.

Seeing the Other

What is “seeing” in the expression of seeing the other as or like a person? Levinas, a philosopher who dedicated his entire philosophy to the issue of the other, argued that an authentic relationship with the other implies blindness: I am not supposed to be aware of the other’s appearance — origins, manners, physical aspects, gender…— because surface details should be irrelevant. After such a genuine encounter, I should not be able to remember the colour of the other’s eyes. According to Levinas, it is because of the implicit presence of a third person that I could miss an authentic relationship with the other. By considering the other as a member of a group, either social or ethnic, and not as a unique and singular individual, I reduce otherness to a category. The other is supposed to be the same as a third person belonging to his social group. However, Levinas’ praise for an ethical and blind relationship to the surface features of the other remains perhaps a utopian horizon and such encounters do not work in this way. Meeting another person implies a world of signs, affect and images that determine, both consciously and unconsciously, the meaning of this kind of encounter.

Seeing the other as a member of a particular social class is not based on a rational decision; it involves family resemblances. The stranger, and migrant are seen and identified through mental patterns which are based on kinship categories. This is what I call a “genealogical paradigm”, a system of signs and images that shape the concept of relationships. Many cognitive schema and metaphors are at stake in this paradigm; they determine how we see the other and define resemblance and dissimilarity. The other is supposed to look like me because we share the same roots; or he does not because he comes from another family tree. But any paradigm is a conventional construction and today we can observe a transformation that could reshape the concept of family resemblances. In this lecture, I will present a philosophy of affinities and I will consider migration through this notion in order to take into account the changing patterns of a world in the process of creolization.

Affinities : being well matched

I have chosen the word “affinity” for several reasons: it is both an ancient and new term to analyse relationships. It encompasses many intellectual fields: chemistry, law, sociology, literature and philosophy. Through these different meanings I will attempt to distinguish a constructivist conception of family resemblances from a genealogical one.

Today, the notion of affinity is undergoing a renewal in everyday language, even if it seems romantic and outdated. Several Internet sites in Europe have updated this notion, proposing to bring people together. “Meet a man or a woman by affinity.” “Take an affinity test”… they suggest, displaying this word affinity that also refers to cultural tastes, sexual preferences, psycho-emotional profiles, even astrological compatibility. Do you enjoy the same sports, the same vacations, the same films, the same food? You go well together, you are compatible with each other. If you don’t, you face disaffinities.

This version of relationships could lead us to think that we have entered a world of free encounters, based on individual choices and fantasies. Anyone could meet anyone else, just by expressing one’s desires without constraints. But as sociologists have observed, two individuals find themselves well matched if they share the values and desires that confirm their membership in the same social group.

Let’s take a look at the way affinities have been appropriated by discursive formations that make claims on this quasi-concept. And let’s explore the different meanings of the word “affinity” to better understand the sense of relationships and the divergent conceptions of family resemblances.

As the French proverb goes: “Qui se ressemble s’assemble” [Birds of a feather, flock together, or more directly that which resembles tends to come together]. Yet, these assemblages are determined by social legacies quite remote from the romantic notion of the mystery that unites individuals through a community of souls. Studies have shown how the attraction for people with similar appearances and tastes has nothing to do with this romantic notion, and follows, rather, a logic of recognition. Family resemblances produce social effectiveness, through which the members of a same group recognize and accept one another. Pierre Bourdieu observed these “family resemblances” and affirmed that culture constitutes a form of capital, that is, a family asset. What may seem to belong to individual taste, like clothing, furniture or food, derives in fact from a form of psychic and physical imprinting, acquired during childhood. All the practices of the members of a particular social class possess an “affinity of style”. This also means that the feeling of sharing affinities with the other, socially or ethnically, means that we belong to the same family of style. The image of migration is thus the displacement of different styles of life.

From a sociological perspective, elective affinities confirm the social and ethnic determination of family resemblances. There is nothing “elective” about them. Unconsciously, individuals who experience such affinities play a pre-arranged score whose variations are circumscribed by their class positions. Couples are well matched like the dishes in a dinner set.

“Arrangement” (in French “assortiment”) is the sociological word for affinity, reduced to a determined harmony of habitus. The secret correspondences of style between beings are nothing more than the recognition of styles shared by members of the same social class: “Two people can give no better proof of the affinity of their tastes than by their attraction to each other,” observes Bourdieu, in La Distinction, with a tinge of irony. So the alchemy of the encounter boils down to social etiquette: some matches are possible; others are not.

Despite the illumination it brings, sociology’s demystification of elective affinities depends nonetheless on the idea that the feeling of affinity brings together similar individuals. However, chemical treatises about affinities have always, since the 18th century, stated the opposite, and the novelists inspired by them tend to show that affinity calls to mind differences rather than similarities. Here is the main opposition that will lead us to another conception of the relationship with the other, the stranger and the dissimilar.

The origins of resemblance and dissimilarity

In order to understand this conflict, we must agree upon the notion of “family resemblance”. A famous novel, written by Goethe, allows us to go further and to observe how the notion of affinity is indebted to conceptions of family resemblances. It is above all a question of language. Elective Affinities is the English translation of Goethe’s novel, even if the word affinities does not appear in the German title: Die Wahlverwandtschaften. This shift is very important to understanding what meaning is at stake in family resemblances. In this German novel, affinity is designated by the word Verwandtschaft and not by Affinität. Verwandt imposes the terminology of kinship: those who are made to find each other are “soul mates” (âmes sœurs). Such a reference to family ties immediately inscribes affinities within an imaginary genealogy. The secret of sentimental attractions must then be looked for among the natural ramifications that connect two beings to a common source, to a seminal origin.

Different from the German Verwandt, the Latin etymology of the word affinity doesn’t go beyond geographic proximity. From borders or limits, ad-finis designates a contiguous, adjoining position. adfinitas, the origin of the word affinity, refers to the condition of being neighbours. The figurative sense can be traced back to the Middle Ages, when the affinities referred to the links between different branches of knowledge. There are affinities of many kinds.

In Goethe’s novel, we can observe two opposite versions of affinities: the confirmation of family roots (Verwandt) but also unexpected encounters, suggested by the notion of Wahl in Wahlverwandtschaften: wälhen means to choose, and the question, in Goethe’s novel is to know if one can choose one’s family, or if there are some hidden families that link people far from their kinship affinities. Goethe remains ambiguous: he refers to treatises of chemistry to explain why there is chemistry between certain people, but he also suggests that randomness plays a role in successful encounters.

I would like to show that there are two ways of understanding affinities: first according to a genealogical paradigm, and second according to a philosophy of contingence. I will trace two contradictory paths, thanks to two thinkers who have reflected on affinities: Darwin and Wittgenstein.

Affinities versus Family Resemblances

What is amazing in Darwin’s conception of affinities is its scope for ambiguities, even if one meaning finally prevailed. Darwin began reflecting on affinities at an early age. When he was twenty-nine, he imagined his future: he saw himself living in a house near Regent’s Park in London, collecting zoological specimens, and studying biological affinities. A good twenty years before publishing The Origin of Species – the work that would make him famous – he thus found a tireless passion and emphasized the word upon which his theory of evolution would place such importance: affinity.


At that time, he was still open to several different models to conceptualize the notion affinities. His notes reveal a great interest in coral: he was fascinated by these curious sea organisms that possess animal characteristics and live in symbiosis with vegetal life. He was compelled by the epistemological model they could constitute. Darwin brought a piece of coral back with him from his trip to the Patagonia coast, and draws sketches in his notebooks.

What is so singular about the structure of coral? Different from the branches of a tree, its ramifications don’t follow a uniform path. Their path is non-linear, they become entangled, turn back on themselves in a swarming of multiplicities. They can turn around and intersect, offering a model of profusion in every sense. Darwin was perfectly aware of the inadequacy of the arborescent model, and as he writes in his notebooks: “The tree of life should perhaps be called the coral of life, base of branches dead; so that passages cannot be seen”.

And yet, the genealogical tree is what would constitute the model for the theory of evolution. The story of the publication of The Origin of Species is well known: upon discovering that Wallace was about to publish similar hypotheses, Darwin hastened to write down his theory adopting arborescent genealogy.

Darwin thus imposes a genealogical version of affinities that contradicts the notion of resemblance. In The Origin of Species, he insists heavily upon “the very important distinction between real affinities and analogical resemblances,” because forms change, and are unreliable. A few examples of errors committed due to the criteria of resemblance confirm this: for instance, the similarity between the whale and the shark leads us to forget that one is a mammal and the other a fish. Conversely, dissimilarities should not dissuade the naturalist from connecting two beings and discovering their affinities. Moreover, original similarities can be modified thus turning into dissimilarities. A great temporal flux pushes forward living creatures, which do not remain congealed in their original forms. Darwin invents a new form of resemblance that no longer depends on morphology. He thus distinguishes false resemblance from true resemblance: he rejects the primacy of morphology which underscores the analogical, favouring the place accorded to affinity by phylogenetics. From then on, the question concerning resemblance by affinity emerges. In this way, crocodiles “resemble” birds despite their apparent dissimilarities, for they descend from the same ancestor.


On the one hand Darwin broke the illusion of natural resemblances but on the other he referred affinities to a straight genealogical paradigm. With Darwin and the nineteenth century, genealogy imposed itself as the general grammar of knowledge. It structured discourses on nature, on nation, on politics and culture. Family research was infused with the representation of cultures, especially within German Romanticism, from Herder to Spengler. The study of the affinities among cultures gave rise to genealogies that focused on kinship and filiation. Nietzsche employs the expression “family resemblance” (Familienähnlichkeit) to designate linguistic and philosophical kinship between Hindu, Greek and German thought. These thinkers constantly flirted with the naturalization of cultures. In France, Zola proposed a huge narrative, Les Rougon-Macquart, based on a genealogical paradigm, according to Darwin. But it would be a renegade philosopher and great reader of Goethe, Nietzsche, and Spengler who would propose a real turning point, a break through the genealogical paradigm: Wittgenstein, by reformulating the notion of family resemblance, denaturalized affinities.

Denaturalizing family resemblances

The expression Familienähnlichkeiten made an appearance in his Philosophical Investigations when Wittgenstein tried to define the notion of game. This moment has a certain importance, for language-games have been a key to Wittgenstein’s approach to concepts since the 1930s. The philosopher asks: What are the criteria that allow one to identify certain activities as games? Do card games, chess, ball games and combat games really possess common qualities? One can group them together according to their functions, according to their rules, according to the parts of the body that are mobilized, or to the qualities they require… Groupings are possible, but each time, common traits disappear. In the final analysis, even if it seems possible to identify “a complex network of similarities that overlap and intersect”, one cannot identify a game concept about which to speak in a general or philosophical manner. There is no core concept from which to follow the ramifications of all game types; however, one can observe the correspondences, the occasional affinities among things. Unlike Darwin for whom affinities are cast naturally, and unlike philosophical tendencies to confer essence, Wittgenstein described affinities as denaturalized and de-essentialized.

With Wittgenstein, then, affinities change meaning. They are no longer thought of as the genealogical connection between beings trapped within a natural community. Instead, affinities now designate different ways of bringing together phenomena that, seen in a certain light, appear to share striking similarities. Wittgenstein thus changed the direction of the Darwinian and Goethian reference to genealogy.

His usage of Francis Galton shows this clearly: he modelled himself upon the photographic process utilized by Darwin’s cousin. By superimposing a multiplicity of Chinese faces onto the same sensitive plate, Galton searched for the prototypical Chinese face. This attempt to find out and to identify ethnic faces could seem funny or stupid but we must be aware that it participated to a wide interest in anthropometry in Italy and France. Discovering the prototype of criminals, strangers and mad people was a constant goal, as we can see through the famous Bertillon’s photographic pictures, made to identify prototypical faces.

Wittgenstein appears to follow this method by superimposing all sentences that convey a definition. Yet by superimposing the sentences upon each other, he doesn’t claim to arrive at the truth of something like ethics, as he does with game or music. Instead, he observes the similarities among definitions, and thus presents an approximate idea of what one means when one speaks of ethics, games or music, even if there is no absolute truth to back it up. Galton’s photographic method, reformulated by Wittgenstein, doesn’t result in a prototype that allows one to extract the true face to emerge, but rather it exposes a blurriness upon which one might recognize a certain number of affinities.

Blurry faces

Looking at a stranger’s face thus implies an implicit grammar of relationships. On the one hand, belief in prototypes comes from a conception of natural genealogies. It is not even a matter of genetics because we know, thanks to Darwin, that family resemblances have nothing to do with real genealogies. On the other hand, seeing a face as an indistinct connection between multiple sources implies another paradigm for considering of belonging and affinities. The primary grammar, by which I mean the genealogical paradigm, has framed the conception of identities among sedentary cultures. It determines relationships with strangers and explains fears of migration. One could interpret the loud protests against the decline of sedentary identities as a return to a traditional sense of culture and nation, but one could also explain these reactions as a symptomatic world of migration — stemming from several causes: economic, political, ecological. It seems therefore necessary to adopt a new paradigm in order to understand the emerging world.

By referring to Goethe, Darwin and Wittgenstein, I don’t pretend that great thinkers have really changed our way of thinking but I suggest that we can find, in their work, powerful resources to make a shift in our mind set and in our way of “seeing” others. I could also have referred other thinkers, especially those who lived in eras of globalization, such as the Renaissance. Writers, thinkers, artists have given us patterns, figures, schema that allow us to consider identities, kinship, communities from new perspectives.

Family resemblances are a touchstone to understand the grammar of relationships, especially in a time of creolization. Global migration, indeed, involves new conceptions of kinship through the way we look at others’ faces. Creolizing means change and transformation; it is not simply a matter of mixing people. According to Édouard Glissant, the poet and philosopher of creolization, this corresponds not only to the Caribbean situation but also to the global world process. It implies a new understanding, a new way of looking at relationships. Identities do not disappear in this process; they become nomadic. He suggests that the relationship is more important than the elements it links. This means that identities are never established, that they do not exist before the process of interaction. In the wake of Glissant, many thinkers of post-colonial studies have proposed alternative figures of hybridity, borders, archipelagos and so on. These alternative patterns have consequences on our way of looking at others’ faces. Following Wittgenstein’s expression, they modify the way of “seeing as”: seeing the other “as” a contingent and circumstantial member of a community. His identity is not an essence, nor is it a genealogical filiation but rather an intertwined complex of relationships. The faces of migration are blurred and opaque.


Coming back to the old notion of affinity, I would say that it embraces the many figures of relations according to a philosophy of contingency and transformation. To conclude, I would refer, one last time, to the novel, Elective Affinities. Usually this novel is read as an illustration of chemistry: a loving couple is led to separate because of an irresistible attraction to other people, like chemical substances which attracted or repel each other. But another relationship paradigm secretly torments the characters. Undetermined forms, anarchic metamorphoses, bodies with unforeseen resemblances relentlessly thwart the order of nature. The female character, Charlotte, even if she plays the role of ingénue, makes perhaps the most pertinent remark. She says: “Opportunity makes relationships” (Gelegenheit macht Verhältnisse). This simple remark changes everything. It suspends the search for an essence; it renders identities secondary and focuses on the opportune moment. It allows one to approach affinities as a relationship that is not pre-determined by chemistry or genealogy. It opens faces to new connections and to new landscapes.

The idea that chance determines affinities gives a new sense to the meaning of election in “elective affinities”: beings come together according to a opportune disposition that shifts them from the regulated course of their lives. In the place of an ontology of material identities, affinities shed light on a pragmatics of unpredictable relationships. Affinities become elective between dissimilar people if the situation of their encounter favours such a relationship. They radically alter our approach to our identities, to our resemblances, to our relationships with others. Affinities suggest dubious kinships. They disrupt the unity of a community and invent affiliations by adoption or by transplant.

In conclusion, affinities defy categories. Neither natural, nor essential, off the tables of elements and distant from their sociological determinations, affinities score a different resonance with the contingent possibility — or impossibility — of approaching others. Affinities and disaffinities explain the migration of the image of the other as well as one’s own image. Faces never remain the same. Never definitively trapped in any ethnic or genealogical prototype, they are transformed in relation to dissimilar faces. Dissimilarity is all: more than the evidence of differences between people, it is the active process of the contemporary world of migration.