Jacques Derrida: Of Hospitality

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Reading Jacques Derrida: Of Hospitality: Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond

by Søren Rafn

The late French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality deals with the question of the foreigner, or the stranger (Derrida’s French term etrangér covers both concepts); a question which primarily addresses the host more than the guest. Derrida emphasizes that a home must have some kind of opening in order to be a home, meaning that the host must be hospitable to preserve his identity as a host. Thus the stranger is the crucial character in the social order that will otherwise regard her as a parasite.

In his approach to the concept hospitality Derrida deconstructs the relation between host and guest through poetic and political philosophy that draws on characters and philosophers such as Lot, Oedipus, Socrates, Kant and Levinas. Undeniably the text requires much of its reader, but on the other hand it also invites the reader as a main character – and at a linguistic level strives to show the hospitality that is the thematic focal point of the text.

Derrida distinguishes between to kinds of hospitality: The conditional hospitality, which is grounded in the law and the right, for instance the asylum right. Here the guest is forced to ask for hospitality in a language which, in a broad sense, is not her own. This allows the host to come up with questions that the guest must answer faithfully according to the law: What is your name? Where do you come from? In other words this classical form of hospitality presupposes (national) sovereignty: It recognizes and tolerates the guest, but it also reminds the guest that she is not in her own house.

In contrast, Derrida speaks of an unconditional hospitality which does not demand that the guest’s identity is maintained as, for instance, a foreigner with a motive of asylum, but signifies a radical openness to an absolute, indistinguishable other. In this way it breaks with the law and the (asylum) right, and does not refer to duty. In this perspective the guest is viewed as a liberator that brings the keys to the prison of the nation or the family. In this sense the host is the deficient being who views himself as a parasite – and eagerly encourages the awaited guest to step inside as the host of the host.

This does not mean that classical hospitality, for instance the struggle for the right to asylum for certain migrants, should be discredited. Or that the unconditional hospitality, which cannot be sustained and inscribed in the law, floats freely in the realm of ideas. It must keep its relation to the conditional hospitality and be manifested in the concrete law, and right – which on the other hand has to seek inspiration in the unconditional hospitality. The policy that has lost its relation to this has lost its relation to justice.

Jacques Derrida: Of Hospitality – Anne Dufourmantelle invites Jacques Derrida to respond, Stanford University Press, 2000 [De l’hospitalité, Callmann-Lévy, 1997]