With The Lights Switched Off
Infinitude haunts finitude and finitude spooks existence; it is the ultimate stranger — the long shadow cast over existence. This unbearable spectre, that for some is too much, is cast as a long shadow onto unsuspecting strangers who we name our worst enemies; monsters scapegoated on the altars of our deepest fears. Monsters that no longer roam the foggy hinterland, the distant far-away places of ‘once upon a time’. No longer intricately carved in stone on the sides of Cathedrals, but enlightenment wings spread have flown into our modern souls. Yet, what happens when those ‘monsters’ come knocking at the door; pressing at the borders; presenting their papers; building their bonfires …….
Let’s turn to a Derridian accounting of a Levinasian ethics as hospitality. For Derrida in his appropriation of Levanisian ethics, places hospitality centre stage where; “hospitality is not simply some region of ethics ... it is ethicity itself, the whole and the principle of ethics” ( Derrida, 1999: 50). “Hospitality is culture itself and not simply one ethic amongst others” (Derrida, 2001: 16-17). Before I look at how Derrida deals with the pre-ontological universality of the infinite demand I will briefly rehearse an overview of Derridian hospitality. For Derrida the etymology of the word hospitality found in its Latin root reveals its auto-deconstructive nature. The words ‘stranger’; ‘guest’; ‘power’, capture the impossibility of what he calls “unconditional hospitality”, where the etymology of the word reveals a “‘self limitation’ built right into the idea of hospitality, which preserves the distance between one’s own and the ‘stranger’, between owning one’s own property and inviting the ‘other’ into one’s home” (Caputo, 2002: 110). It is this ‘self limitation’ that means in hospitality there is always the possibility of hostility, thus Derrida introduces the word “hostipitality” (Derrida, 2000: 3-18). Unconditional hospitality is impossible, “hospitality is a self-contradictory concept an experience which can only self-destruct put otherwise, produce itself as impossible”. However, the possibility of unconditional hospitality must remain and “only be possible on the condition of its impossibility or protect itself from itself, auto-immunize itself in some way, which is to say, deconstruct itself – precisely – in being put into practice” (Derrida, 2000: 3-18). Unconditional hospitality is then conditional on its impossibility, for if we talked only of conditional hospitality it would work against deconstruction imposing universal rules making hospitality only permissible on the grounds of certain conditions. Unconditional hospitality is then (im)possible. Like Levinas, it is the necessary autodeconstructive tendency at work in hospitality that problematises the ethics.
To understand this problem we will consider a section from Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility (Derrida, 1999: 71), where Derrida begins by saying that “For pure hospitality or a pure gift to occur … there must be an absolute surprise. The other, like the Messiah, must arrive whenever he or she wants.” It is this possibility of a “visitation” that must remain open so that at any time someone, whoever, or whatever that someone may be, might arrive. Derrida continues “If I am unconditionally hospitable I should welcome the visitation, not the invited guest, but the visitor. I must be unprepared, or prepared to be unprepared, for the unexpected arrival of any other” (71). Here then is the radical openness at the core of Derridian hospitality — be not prepared, lest in your preparation you begin to formulate conditions; peering between the gap in the curtain, concerned at who it may be that is coming. Here Derrida deals with the pre-ontological universality of the infinite demand placed upon us all. Without that demand becoming a universal structure whose sedimentary deposits solidify into a ridged systematic set of rules by which Others may be deemed more acceptable than others. The answer is that the event of hospitality is not a transcendent universal, but a quasi-transcendent singularity. What Levinas attempts to do with his pre-ontological deep structure of Otherness, Derrida does with differance. Differance for Derrida is not an either/or binary, a choice of two options, it is a multiplicitious “this and that (e.g. the act of differing and of deferring)” (Derrida, 2015: 205). Differance is non-representational, it has no transcendental ideal, a perfect copy to which it must conform; this as Caputo says would just “nail things down, pin them in place, inscribe them firmly within rigorously demarcated horizons” (Caputo, 1997: 13). On the other hand quasi-transcendental conditions allow things “to slip loose, to twist free from the surrounding horizons, to leak and run-off, to exceed or overflow their margins” (13). Hospitality for Derrida is not a universal but a surprise, always a surprise. If it is anything but a surprise then it is anything but hospitality, for as Derrida said “if you can see it coming … it is not an event. If you already know who is on the other side of the door, it is not hospitality, or only half” (Caputo, 2013: 41). Hospitality for Derrida is rooted in messianicity, the always-coming of the messianic event, the always-open future, lest the messiah come and ruin everything. “If you can foresee the future, it is already present, only the future present, not the absolute future” (2013: 41). The irony here being that to be always open to the possibility of a future event, that if fully arrived would be the end of your philosophical system, is akin to the tail of messianicity wagging the deconstructive dog.
In Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility Derrida asks a revealing question: “Is this possible?” Is this kind of hospitality possible? and the even more revealing answer: “I don’t know” (Derrida, 1999: 71) This is the impossibility of unconditional hospitality, the undecidability, the unknown. Derrida continues by saying that if “there is pure hospitality, or a pure gift, it should consist in this opening without horizon, without horizon of expectation, an opening to the newcomer whoever that may be. It may be terrible because the newcomer may be a good person, or may be the devil” (1999: 71). Derrida is well aware of the paradoxical nature of hospitality. Commenting on the host / hostage relationship he says that,
But it is the relationship between the justice of hospitality and hospitality as a right that proves problematic. For Derrida’s hospitality to be truly just “we must allow some way for the absolute other to enter our ‘home’” (Kearney, 2004: 70). It is for this reason that the justice integral to hospitality can never be separated from the law of right — the right of the other to find hospitality. The inevitable conclusion is that the one arriving at the threshold of the home, whose right it is to hospitality, may be evil or good, may be the devil of the divine; but, says Derrida, “if you exclude the possibility that the newcomer is coming to destroy you house, if you want to control this and exclude this terrible possibility in advance, there is no hospitality”. The stranger at the door must like the messiah, be free to arrive whenever he or she wants” (Derrida, 1999: 71).
Richard Kearney is critical of this approach and says “that it undervalues our need to differentiate not just legally but ethically between good and evil aliens. It downgrades —without denying — our legitimate duty to try to distinguish between benign and malign strangers, between saints and psychopaths…” (2003: 70). Kearney concludes that “to be absolutely hospitable to the other is, it appears, to suspend all criteria to ethical discrimination. And in such non-discriminate opens to alterity we find ourselves unable to differentiate between good and evil” (2003: 72). Again, as we saw with Levinas, Derrida’s use of a Levanisian ethics the infinite demand of the other becomes a infinite burden; a persecution of the self, the “shudder of subjectivity”; the self “exposed to the other as a skin is exposed to what wounds it …” (2003: 71). This radical exposure of the Self to the Other as masochistic; a traumatic rupturing of the self, leads Simon Critchley to ask “if this is the case, why is radical otherness goodness? Why is alterity ethical? Why is it not, we may wonder, ‘rather evil or an-ethical or neutral’?” (Critchley, 1997: 80). Derrida himself admits as much when he says that hospitality is “an interruption of the self” (Derrida, 1999: 51), but he appears to give no account of what this interruption might entail. I want to argue then that unless we are aware of the traumatic, schizophrenic splitting of the infinite demand of the Other, of the self, we are doing no more than trying to read the face of the other with the lights switched off.