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© Sonia Ricci

Migrant narratives

Celeste Ricci

In remembering something (se souvenant de quelque chose),

 one remembers oneself (one se souvient de soi). [1]

                                                                                                                                                                                         Paul Ricoeur




Traditionally, men have used various ways to record the past, delegating this task to oral tradition, drawing, writing and, when possible, to photography and moving images. These means have seen their development in the constant flow of the progress, of which men themselves are the first facilitators. Documents, evidences, books and nowadays the Internet are references to which we often go back to. They represent our history in the physical form, although not quite: everything we use to preserve the past does not give us the totality of what really happened. Information is always partial and relative, especially when it concerns history.


We should always ask ourselves why we choose to tell something and omit something else. I am sure this is the way both you and I recall our memories. Our re-telling is always biased by our thoughts and circumstances that surround us. Given the fundamentally private character of memory [2], the process of remembering is always personal, even though with the time it might become a collective story. Often, when talking about history, the focus is how certain stories reached us and how we end up thinking them as collective. A memory repeated in time, shared with others, might become official, if believed, or otherwise neglected. Keeping in mind this perspective, from the individual to the collective, history is not a repository of certainties [3], but a teacher of doubts [4]. The official history is that which everyone knows, ignoring everything else that has been left behind.


Our vision of the past is not only related to what happened or did not happen, but it implies a number of more specific aspects that involve the process through which living bodies re-tell their narratives. Without a re-thinking, or better, a re-telling we would not be aware of what was before us. This process goes through the physical body, to which is strictly bound.


The Body – understood as a site where regimes of discourse and power inscribe themselves [5] - is a re-source of memories and temporalities: a historical body. As Judith Butler observed:


“for Foucault not unlike Kafka in the Penal Colony, the cultural construction of the body is effected through the figuration of “history” as a writing instrument that produces cultural significations – language – through the disfiguration and distortion of the body, where the body is figured as a ready surface or blank page available for inscription, awaiting the “imprint” of history itself.” [6]


Bearing this in mind, we understand the body as a place for transformation; it is affected by traditions, habits and relationships with others. It is the means through which narratives survive. The body-as-mean, in a state of constant flow, suggests that our being present is strictly connected to our being in the past, which is not a fixed condition, at least not in the way we re-call it.


A way to delve into this historicised body is to go back, to move from the present to the past tense, to re-tell or re-act the past. We are driven by the necessity to investigate ourselves as individuals, in the unstable flux of history. Remembering implies a motion and it is, by its very nature, performative.

We migrate back to what we were before and re-think, or better, re-interpret what happened. This repetition brings something new: our going back unfolds a stratified history and each time reveals a different being.


Thus, being – hic et nunc – is never fixed and it finds its nature in the constant flow of history, which is not a fact but a process. This moving condition implies becoming as the final reality [7]; being as an unstable flux. We are constantly on the move between our past and present.


Hence, remembering is not only an instrument to reclaim lost histories, but reveals a more complex understanding of the unstable flow in which we find ourselves. In remembering, one dis-places herself to a different state, bringing back the past in a different form. We act as migrants in our own historical condition. The result is never the same, but it produces a difference: it is a continuous process, a multiplicity of narratives. We cannot claim one history or one memory as they are subject to the performative nature of our being in the present, while looking back to the past.



Post scriptum:


Years have past since I listened to my grandparents talking about their years as migrants. Working across the border between France and Switzerland. They moved every day to work. I always thought it was for necessity, as their families were very poor and had nothing. No choice for them, that is what I thought. I was of course mistaken. Remembering those years, first in Germany and then in France, my grandpa once said:


“We were happy far away from where we were born. After many years when we decided to move back home, we felt foreigners in our own land. That was our biggest mistake, not to move again as we loved moving, but to come back here to put down roots.”


Anyway, these are memories, I am not sure this is what they really thought back in 1973.




[1] Ricoeur, P, Memory, History, Forgetting, London: The University of Chicago Press, 2004, p. 96


[2] Ibid.


[3] Viola, E, “The Lesson of History”, in Not Suitable for Work. A Chairman’s Tale, catalogue of Estonian Pavilion, 56th Esposizione Internazionale d’Arte di Venezia, Berlin, Sternberg Press, 2015, p.30


[4] Ibid.


[5] Butler, J, “Foucault and the Paradox of Bodily Inscriptions”, in The Journal of Philosophy. Eighty-Sixth Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division. Vol 86, No. 11, November 1989, p.601


[6] Ivi., p. 603


[7] See Deleuze, G, “Repetition for Itself”, in Difference and Repetition (1968), London: Bloomsbury, 2014

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