In Derrida’s lectures, a generously ambiguous approach to thinking about paradox, power, and borders during a time of global emergency.
Hospitality, Volume I, by Jacques Derrida, translated by E. S. Burt,
edited by Pascale-Anne Brault and Peggy Kamuf,
University of Chicago Press, 267 pages, $45
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Wherever thinking happens, there is the question of who gets to join in and whose language counts. July 1999: at the end of my PhD in literature, I took my clumsy thoughts about Specters of Marx to a conference on Jacques Derrida at Staffordshire University, in the English Midlands. If the most fraught moment of his Anglophone academic reception was long past, it seemed he still mattered, and in unexpectedly political terms. The philosopher himself was not in attendance at “Deconstruction/Reading/Politics”—still, the lineup included several scholars and translators of his work, whom I greatly admired and was thrilled to hear. But wait: What was this tone that seemed to dominate proceedings? Solemn, venerating, sacerdotal, diligently leeching all energy from the texts I loved. Was it possible I no longer belonged here?
Hospitality, Volume I translates and frames, via a scholarly introduction and editorial notes, a series of eleven seminars Derrida delivered in Paris between November 1995 and June 1996, in new English version by E. S. Burt. (Two of these were previously translated by Rachel Bowlby and published as Of Hospitality in 2000, four years before the philosopher’s death.) They derive from a period when Derrida had apparently swerved away from metaphysical questions concerning language and presence—including, to much Anglo-American excitement, literary meaning—toward a set of reflections on almost embarrassingly large topics: friendship, secrets, hospitality, and death (there was a lot about death). But this ethical and political “turn” was a mirage only perceivable at some remove: all these concerns had been there all along. (Always already, we learned to say.) For sure, there had been a politics present in the critique of phallogocentrism, in the diagnosis of a white mythology at the heart of Western metaphysics, in his careful undermining of the sovereign Word. Imagine trying to read this stuff in, let’s say, Catholic and postcolonial Ireland at the end of the 1980s, and pretending it wasn’t political.
Of course, there’s political and political—analysis is not action. Among the accusations frequently leveled at Derrida and Derrideans in those days was that his work, however acute in its understanding of the force, the lures, the self-deceptions of Eurocentric thought and power, offered no answers, no actual escape route from the metaphysical hall of mirrors. (This is different from the more common, and much dumber, assertion that Derrida didn’t believe in truth, or even in reality.) Among other period details and biographical particulars, Hospitality reminds us, especially in its bristling footnotes, that the Jewish Algerian Derrida had long been involved in very precise and personally exposing political campaigns and movements, including, in the 1990s, his support of undocumented migrants in France. How might such activities align with his philosophical thinking? What might the latter offer today in times of global emergency concerning neighbors, guests, and thresholds? Hospitality is one of the most urgent and still-relevant places where those questions may be answered.
“We do not know what hospitality is. Not yet.” No surprise here, at the outset—and at the outset is pretty much where one stays in a lot of Derrida’s writing. This can be frustrating, or it can be absolutely thrilling in its questioning of all the grounds we thought we were about to explore. Not to mention our authority to do so. All the usual Derridean caveats about beginnings are even more apt in the case of this devious concept, hospitality. Its etymology is ambiguous; it seems to describe the identity and responsibilities of both host and guest—is there even a difference? Hospitality implies a master of the house and a visiting stranger, but they easily swap places, power, relative vulnerabilities. An absolute hospitality, a total openness to the stranger or foreigner, would be an unthinkable invitation to violence or colonial usurpation. But a limited hospitality (such as imagined by Immanuel Kant in his writings on cosmopolitanism), restricted to certain individuals or circumstances, is no hospitality at all. The whole notion is inherently aporetic and paradoxical, seemingly unworkable: the host cedes and claims authority in the same gesture of invitation; the guest is welcomed as herself and then subject to distorting laws or conditions. Derrida traces such complexities in readings of Plato, Benveniste, Klossowski, and others.
He was writing this at a time of deep European unease. (I say writing because these “seminars” are in effect lectures: Derrida spoke from a written text, and most traces of his audience have here been effaced, apart from the odd parenthetical, as when he speaks of a divorce brokered by email: “[Laughter].”) A few years after the fall of the Berlin Wall and dissolution of the Soviet Union, in the midst still of the Yugoslav Wars, the European Union sought to dissolve its internal borders and harden its frontiers with the so-called East. As editorial footnotes record, Derrida sometimes departed from his written lectures, and didn’t hold back about recent events: “All these words themselves being subject to turbulence; the words exile, immigration, deportation are no longer completely adequate for what is happening now.” Neighbors become foreigners, natives become others, differences are canceled and secured in the same moment, all in the name of global flows of capital and information. In the name, too, of a soft cultural cosmopolitanism: thinking of the encounter with the other as a species of cultural “enrichment” is just another form of tyranny, says Derrida. We cannot use foreigners simply to discover and celebrate the foreigner inside ourselves. What, then, is hospitality to mean?
A way of being between, perhaps? James Joyce was for Derrida one of the great exemplars of unsettled identity and ambiguous homeland: “a man from the Irish enclave within the English language, etc.” Though Derrida doesn’t mention it, the peace process in Northern Ireland was underway while he was teaching these classes: an effort to imagine what devolved power and permeable borders might mean. Much of the world—Europe, for certain—has since drawn back from that task, which Hospitality now invites us to take up again. Hospitality is also at issue in the sort of writing and speech that a philosopher practices. The Derrida of these seminars sounds much like the author of his books and essays, which is to say, despite what you might have read before reading him, like an extraordinarily generous, encouraging teacher. I had never thought it before: thinking and reading with Derrida is like being an uncozy, energized guest or invitee. Or is the reader in fact the host, committing (as French laws had it concerning Basque separatists) “the crime of hospitality” by allowing this tentative but fearless thought and thinker a home? The paradox—in the end, the impossibility—of hospitality is the place where Derrida had always been inviting us to stay, or at least sojourn. To live this impossibility in all its pain and potential was the political step he wanted from us.
Brian Dillon’s Affinities: On Art and Fascination, Suppose a Sentence, and Essayism: On Form and Nonfiction are published by New York Review Books. He is working on Gone to Earth (on Kate Bush) and Ambivalence, a book about aesthetic education.