Autochthony and Welcome:
Discourses of Exile in Levinas and Derrida
Is hospitality not a solicitation to its addressee, "Viens,
all that I have, all that I am, is at your disposal?"
Is hospitality, as Emmanuel Levinas writes, "an incessant alienation
of the ego... by the guest entrusted to it ... being torn
from oneself for another in giving to the other the bread from one's
mouth," a one for the other that fissures the ego, a hospitality
that does not expect reciprocity and withholds nothing from the
guest?1 Or is there, as Derrida observes, an ineliminable
tension between an unconditional offer to another and the
juridical, political and economic conditions that actually constitute
the offer and without which the extending of hospitality is meaningless?
Does this tension inhere in Abraham's proffering of bread and refreshment
to the three strangers who arrive after God appears to him at Mamre
(Genesis 18.4-5), an offer generally adduced as a paradigmatic instance
of biblical hospitality?
the invitation to the other, "Viens," issues from a corporeal
subject to another corporeal subject who must traverse a space to
a site to which that other is invited, it would seem that hospitality
is bound up with distance and contiguity. But the awareness
of the "to and fro" of this traversal is, for Levinas,
a theoretical apprehension of space that is contingent upon a prior
relation to the other, not one of perception but of proximity.
In Levinas' terms in Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence:
"As a subject that approaches, I am not in the approach
called to play the role of a perceiver that reflects or welcomes....
Proximity is not a state, a repose, but a restlessness, null site,
outside of the place of rest. It overwhelms the calm of the non-ubiquity
of a being which becomes a rest on a site. No site then is ever
sufficiently a proximity...."2
Prior to representation or reflection, the subject who
approaches in proximity, the one who is nigh (near), the neighbor,
is caught up in the relation to the other, in what Levinas calls
fraternity, itself a primordial act of signifying. It would
seem that meaning is born in and as hospitality thus understood.
3. Yet if, as Levinas also concedes, ontological
significations cannot be disengaged from their empirical conditions,
the relation with the Other may call the world into question but
is not produced outside the world. Thus in Totality and
Infinity, Levinas maintains that human relationships must not
remain "a beatific contemplation of the other" which would
(on his view) constitute idolatry. In contrast to his later
account of hospitality in Otherwise than Being as occurring
at a "null site," that of a proximity that cannot be measured,
the earlier work acknowledges the necessity for habitation.
For there to be hospitality there must be a home: "Recollection
in a home open to the other [is] hospitality."3
The home is a site that allows for self-enclosure, the shutting
in of oneself that constitutes individuation, yet is also open to
the other. To be sure, the home founds possession or ownership
but is not itself owned in the same way as are moveable goods; it
is possessed because "it already ... is hospitable for its
proprietor."4 Yet the home is "the very
opposite of a root. It indicates a disengagement, a wandering
that has made it possible."5 Did Abraham,
the biblical paradigm of hospitality, not claim, "A wandering
Aramean was my father?" [page 37]
The Problem of Autochthony: Abraham
4. The other who can be seen on the
one hand as the neighbor can also for Levinas be encountered as
a magisterial presence. It is, the presence of the other as a human
face that binds me in fraternity, another that is encountered as
asymmetrical and higher than myself. Does Abraham in Genesis
18.2 not run from the entrance of his tent and "bow down to
the ground" in a primal gesture of hospitality as subservience
to the other, to the strangers in recognition of their alterity
and of the elsewhere from which they come. Derrida sees this
event as an exemplary instance of hospitality in the Abrahamic religions,
6 an account that would support Levinas' contention that
"the relation with the other is accomplished as service and
5. The biblical narrative continues with Abraham's
intervention on behalf of the righteous in the sinful city of Sodom
(Genesis 18.16-23). This plea is followed by Lot's serving
as host to the strangers and his effort to protect them from the
sexual desires of the citizens of Sodom by offering them his virgin
daughters in their stead. The alarming implications of the
proposed trade with respect to the status of daughters requires
extended analysis that cannot be undertaken here. Relevant
in the present context is the sacrifice, the becoming hostage of
that which is held dear. For Levinas, the primordial act of
expiation is the willingness to substitute for the other.8
Is this acceptance of being hostage for the other not also the very
law of hospitality?
6. These brief comments on Genesis 18.1-9 and
Genesis 19.1-11 lie within the disclosive conditions of a Levinasian
biblical hermeneutic but, it can be argued, the aporias of the Abrahamic
narrative require further exploration. If one invites another
to one's home is not the precondition of this hospitality a certain
agency and a certain belonging to a site on the part of the host?
Do these conditions not presuppose that the host is justified in
soliciting the other in that the host can lay claim to the site?
Thus, the right to invite would seem to intrinsic to the act of
invitation. If however the other is absolutely other, descriptively
unspecifiable, the host can only offer the other in his/her unspecifiability
a non-site. And, if so, has the host not abandoned the power
of agency required in order to fulfill the responsibility to offer
food and shelter? The difficulty is compounded when we see
that the face of the other that in its vulnerability solicits hospitality
always already relates one to a third party:
"[The other] moves into the form of the We, aspires
to a State, institutions, laws, which are the source of a universality.
But politics bears a tyranny within itself; it deforms the I and
the other who have given rise to it, for it judges them according
to universal rules...."9
Still, it is not enough to define the
stranger in terms of ethos, family, civil society or the state as
did Hegel.10 Today, as Derrida reminds us, states
attempt to regulate the boundaries between public and private, to
control the technological channels of communication thereby altering
these boundaries. The state is an outside that is inside so
that being at home (chez soi ) in an inviolable domain is
no longer possible.11 Derrida points to current
ethnic, national and religious reactions against anonymous technologies.
It must also be added that the rationality of the infoculture, what
Dominique Janicaud calls technodiscourse, exerts a power of its
7. To be sure, the rationality of technodiscourse
can contest the space of the site but the latter does not disappear.
If the site persists, the paradox of hospitality, in Derrida's terms,
"the unconditional or the hyperbolic on the one hand, and the
juridico-political... on the other" is ineliminable.13
The ethical then extends between the two, the one governed by the
absolute gift, the other by the rules of economy, between hospitality
of the proper name, "Peter, come," or the absence of the
name, "Whoever you are, you are welcome. As my interlocutor
you are absolutely strange to me, the stranger par excellence."14
If this [page 38] tension is to be maintained, the nameless
subject of ethics must be deterritorialized so that s/he emanates
from a null-site. Still, it must be recalled that, for Levinas,
it is impossible to become detached from empirical conditions, as
though significations could be produced from outside the world.
Yet is the other as signifying, as the subject of approach and proximity,
not decorporealized, dispossessed of its empiricity in the interest
of this deterritorialization? Levinas describes the subject
as a self in the accusative, passive in its exposure to being, an
offering of itself that is a suffering. "The subject
is in the accusative, expelled from being, outside of being.15
If so, must it not be conceded that the one who suffers, who is
not a gnostic subject but an incarnate someone, be somewhere?
8. I cannot enter into the details of Levinas'
critique of an autochthony that he sees as grounding Heidegger's
philosophy. However, insofar as the relation of hospitality to alterity
and to a certain politics of the site are at issue in the present
context, it is necessary to consider, however briefly, Heidegger's
account of dwelling. For Heidegger, on Levinas' view, being
at home is inextricably tied to autochthony: to dwell is to
be rooted in the earth. To be, Ich bin, is linked to
the word bauen, to build, so that the manner in which one
exists is as one who dwells.16 For Heidegger, it is poetry
both as a measuring of that which cannot be measured, the Godhead,
and as a kind of building that opens the possibility of dwelling.
Significant in the present context is the claim that authentic poetry
exists as long as there is kindness, understood not as a welcoming
of the other in her alterity but as "the pure, [that comes]
to the dwelling being of man... as the claim and appeal of the measure
to the heart."17
9. In Totality and Infinity , the hospitable
subject is, as already noted, localized, inhabiting a site from
which food and shelter are offered and, as such, having the right
to invite. The home in its concreteness exists as granted
to a subject by a political or an economic entity that is empowered
to do so. The home is always already a place of inclusion
and exclusion, of friend and enemy, a place in which the stranger
may evoke distrust: is s/he friend or enemy? In an exemplary
biblical instance of such suspicion, it may be recalled that the
men of Sodom say of Lot, "This fellow came here as an alien,
and he would play the judge," (Genesis 19.9).
10. Is the friend/enemy
relation not already to be discerned in the etymology of the term
hospitality? It can be assumed that the Indo European ghost
is the root of the Latin hospitalitas and of the old Norse
gestri, a root that denotes guest and host, someone with
whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality. The term also
derives from the Latin hostis , enemy or stranger as in hostile.18
Does not the German Gastfreundlichkeit, hospitality, not
evoke its root Geist, spirit or ghost, so that one is reminded
of the spectral possibility of the enemy in the guest? In
what might be seen as a subtle correction of this picture, Carl
Schmitt (admittedly a politically problematic thinker who
figures in Derrida's account of hospitality) considers another etymological
distinction having important semiotic implications.19
In order to preserve the Christian injunction to love one's enemies,
Schmitt distinguishes personal animus from political enmity thereby
cordoning off a discursive space for the personal in which Christian
love can be expressed. Derrida explains:
"In Chapter 3 of The Concept of the Political,
[Schmitt] emphasizes ... that inimicus is not hostis
in Latin and ekhthros and polemios is not poleimos
in Greek. This allows him to conclude that Christ's teaching concerns
the love we must show to our private enemies, to those we might
be tempted to hate through through personal or subjective passion
and not to public enemies."20
For Schmitt, the precondition for the possibility of
politics is precisely a war that [page 39] does not presuppose
hatred of an enemy (hostis). But for Derrida the reciprocal
imbrication of public and personal cannot be dismissed. Turning
to the text of Matthew 5.43-44, Derrida links the command to love
one's enemy to the Levitical command to love one's neighbor.
The neighbor, Derrida maintains, is eo ipso a member of the same
ethnic group (amith) as oneself and thus always already belongs
to the political in Schmitt's sense. Thus, if one loves the
enemy as one loves the neighbor, Derrida concludes, "it would
be difficult to keep the potential opposition between one's neighbor
and one's enemy." Is the political then not already "within
the sphere of the private?"21 Do the men of
Sodom not see Lot as an enemy when he assumes the role of judge
because he attempts to usurp an autochthony he does not possess?
The Linguistic Turn and the Political
11. The etymological difference between hostis
and inimicus, an aporia that brings to light what is ineliminably
political in the sphere of the private, can be discerned in Levinas'
account of the rhetorical aspect of language. Consider first
that, for Levinas, hospitality arises in and as language.
The relation with the other not only leads to the generality that
language or the word makes possible but is this generality,
the primordial donation or offering of the world as word.
To be sure, Levinas insists that the relation to the other is realized
in and as the vocative, the language of interpellation. "The
interpellated one is called upon to speak, to come to the assistance
of his word." 22 Such speech is essentially
a coinciding of teacher and teaching, so that true teaching is not
merely drawing out of truths, (a recognizably Kierkegaardian point).
Instead, "truth is made possible by relation with the other,
our master" so that justice crystallizes in recognizing in
the other a magisterial presence.23 But - and
this is the point - Levinas concedes that "rhetoric, taking
the position of him who approaches the neighbor with ruse... is
absent from no discourse."24 As propaganda,
diplomacy etc., rhetoric solicits the other's agreement and is,
as such, violence, injustice. If rhetoric is always already
intrinsic to language must it not also infiltrate hospitality?
Referring to Carl Schmitt, Derrida writes "War has its own
rules and perspectives, its strategies and tactics but they presuppose
a political decision... naming who is the enemy.25
12. In addition, it is crucial to note that for
Levinas the relation to another is not that of two monadic individuals
but ineliminably plural. The other is imbricated in social
existence, thus already reflecting a third person who opens the
possibility for justice. The relation to the other is not
one of intimacy, an a deux, but one in which "the third
party looks [out] at me in the eyes of the Other -- language is
justice.... the epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity."26
The meaning of "third in the eyes of the other" is a matter
of considerable complexity. The other is both destitute and
an equal. "His equality within this essential poverty
consists in referring to the third party... whom the other
already serves .... He comes to join me in service."27
13. Once hospitality and justice are linked,
the category of the political cannot be bypassed. In this
regard, it is helpful to elaborate further upon Derrida's reading
of Carl Schmitt's "polemical use of the concept of the political"
and Schmitt's rendering of the friend/enemy relation.28
For Schmitt, Derrida argues, key concepts are already presupposed
in the analyses intended to establish them. Thus, "concepts
of the polemical are never implemented... except in a polemical
field [and] have a strictly polemical use."29
This question begging as it were is intrinsic to the "logical
matrix" of Schmitt's vision of the political. Thus Derrida:
"The State presupposes the political, to be sure logically
distinguished from it; but the analysis of the political... its
irreducible core, the friend/enemy configuration, can only privilege...
as its sole guiding thread, the State form of this configuration
-- the friend or enemy qua citizen."30 [page 40]
One must of course decide who is to count as the friend.
14. There are, Derrida maintains,
three logical possibilities in determining the meaning of this crucial
relation. First, there is no friend without the possibility
of killing, a possibility that establishes a political or non-natural
community that is contingent upon the mortality of all parties,
so that the parties are in a sense "dead for one another."
Second, what is true of the enemy, his mortality, suspends or annuls
friendship. The same possibility, mortality, is true of both
friend and enemy and yet altogether different in relation to the
friend. The interdiction against killing in the case of the
friend both expresses and forbids this possibility. Third,
Derrida asks whether there may be a politics of friendship beyond
that of killing, whether polis and filia can be associated
differently. We are, Derrida says, at the crossroads of an
"undecidable triviality." Are we in pondering this tension
returned to Aristotle's apothegm: "My friend there is
15. Are we, in applying comparable logical strategies
to hospitality, compelled to say to a putative host, "There
is no hospitality?" Like the bestowing of a gift, hospitality
consists in an act of donation, in giving something to someone,
as Derrida points out, conditional when the gratitude of the guest
is expected but unconditional if no reciprocity is anticipated.
When conditional, the mastery of the host is asserted in that it
is he who invites, whose house, city, and nation control the relation
to the guest. When hospitality is unconditional no invitation
is issued. The other, his coming a pure surprise, simply arrives
and is welcomed with no thought given to the possible consequences.
"For unconditional hospitality to take place you have
to accept the risk of the other coming and destroying the place...
stealing everything or killing everyone." 32
16. Levinasian hospitality can be seen to exhibit
a similar tension: one invites another to one's home thereby
implicitly expressing proprietary rights while, at the same time,
the other who arrives exerts an unconditional ethical demand.
In response to the other who has come one must be willing unconditionally
to offer oneself as hostage for that other so that self-donation
is, in its pure form, the gift of death. For Derrida, the
risk of "wild war and terrible aggression" renders the
question of pure hospitality's existence undecidable. Can
it then be said that the apothegm "My friend there is no friend,"
re-arises spectrally in Derrida's claim with respect to hospitality,
"There may be no such thing?"33
17. The inquiry into the private and
the political, into the meaning of friend and enemy, is not an excursus
in the analysis of hospitality but exposes the risks and paradoxes
built into the discussions of hospitality in the works of Levinas
and Derrida. The personal is shown to remain personal yet
is at the same time already demonstrably political, autochthony
persists while engaging in its own deterritorialization. As
Derrida argues, "[a]bsolute hospitality requires that I risk
opening my home to the stranger... to the absolutely unknown, [who
remains] anonymous... [so that the other can] have a place
in the place that I offer him"34 Still, it
must be asked, is hospitality not also rendered to one who is named
as well as to the nameless subject? If I am host is there
not already a collusion between hospitality and power? Even
if, as host, I may be willing to risk inviting the enemy into my
home, does not the fact that I speak from a site implicate me in
the polemos of the political? Private or family law
is always already mediated by public or state law that can be both
repressive and protective in keeping with Schmitt's model of friend
and enemy as grounding political power. Is this configuration
of power not attested in the failure to extend the privileges of
inhabitants to the resident alien as exemplified in the men of Sodom's
questioning of Lot's right to extend hospitality to the stranger?
18. Although the absence of physical boundaries
in the virtual spaces of the new communication technologies radically
alters [page 41] biblical accounts of the home, one does
not feed the hungry and shelter the destitute from the nowhere of
a website. Virtual space is infiltrated by an ethical subject
who is always already corporeal. To say this is not to confuse
the corporeality of the ethical subject with a state of nature,
as it were, but rather to see the subject in her/his bodily vulnerability
as contesting political power grounded in the friend/enemy distinction
wherever it is to be found.
1. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, Trans. Alphonso Lingis, (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1981), 79.
2. Emmanuel Levinas,
Otherwise than Being, 82.
3. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, Trans. Alphonos Lingis, (Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 172.
4. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 157.
5. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 172.
6. Jacques Derrida, Anne Dufourmantelle invite Jacques Derrida a repondre: De
l'hospitalite, (Paris: Calmann-Levy, 1997), 135. Translations of direct citations from this work are mine.
7. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 300.
Otherwise than Being, 114, Levinas writes: "In responsibility for another, subjectivity is only [the] unlimited passivity of an accusative .... [reducible] to the passivity of a self only as
a persecution... that turns into an expiation (p.112). He goes on to say that "the self of this passivity... is a hostage."
9. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 300
10. Jacques Derrida, De l'hospitalite, 44-45.
11. Jacques Derrida, De l'hospitalite, 47ff.
12. Dominique Janicaud, Powers of the Rational: Science, Technology and the Future of
Thought, Trans. Peg Birmingham and Elizabeth Birmingham, (Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1994). See esp. chap. 3, pp59-75.
13. Jacques Derrida, On Hospitality, 119.
14. The latter position is that of Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 73.
15. Emmanuel Levinas, Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, 110.
16. Martin Heidegger, "Building, Dwelling, Thinking," in Poetry, Language, Thought, Trans. Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 147.
17. Martin Heidegger, "Poetically Man Dwells," in Poetry, Language, Thought, Trans. Albert Hofstadter, (New York: Harper and Row, 1971), 228-29.
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Ed. William Morris (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1981), 1518. See also Derrida's play on the ambiguity of his coined word hostipitalite
expressing both welcome and hostility in De l'hospitalite, 45.
19. A brief account of Schmitt's membership in the Nazi party and for a certain time his
articulation of juridical principles in consonance with its doctrines can be found in George Schwab, The Challenge of the Exception, (Berlin: Duncker and Humblot, 1970). See esp. Part
II, "Schmitt and National Socialism 1933-1936." For recent engagement with Schmitt in a theological vein, see Jacob Taubes, Ad Carl Schmitt Gegenstrebige Fugung (Berlin: Merve
Verlag Berlin, 1987).
20. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death, Trans. David Wills (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 103.
21. Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death
22. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 69.
23. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 72.
24. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity,
25. Jacques Derrida, Politics of Friendship,
Trans. George Collins (London: Verso, 1997), 126. [page 42]
26. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 213.
27. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, 213.
28. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, 116-17.
29. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, 116.
30. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, 120.
31. Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship, 122-23.
32. Jacques Derrida, "Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility"
in Questioning Ethics: Contemporary Debates in Philosophy, (London: Routledge, 1999), 70.
33. Jacques Derrida, "Hospitality, Justice and Responsibility," 70.
34. Jacques Derrida, De l'hospitalite, 29.