On Hospitality

Perspectives on borders and border-crossing

The U.S.-Mexico border wall in Baja, California (Rey Perezoso/Flickr)
The U.S.-Mexico border wall in Baja, California (Rey Perezoso/Flickr)

How do we maintain the identity and security of a nation, a group, or an individual? How do we assure freedom and mobility across and within these entities? Such questions have become fraught in recent years. Again and again, we find ourselves fighting about the answers across an ideological border.

To understand the nature of what fuels this debate, it is helpful to consult Jacques Derrida (1930-2004), the French philosopher and father of the critical method known as deconstruction. A Jew born in Algeria who climbed to the top of the French intellectual establishment, Derrida had an interest in borders that was both personal and theoretical. The term he chose as a means of exploring this issue was hospitality. What does it mean to invite someone across one’s threshold? What is the relationship between host and guest? The term hospitality, with its ring of hearth and home, suggests how attuned Derrida was to the allure of a warm welcome. Yet in deconstructing hospitality, he argued that hospitality is a paradox—that the notions of charity and inclusiveness that the term suggests are contradicted by the notions of property, security, and identity that serve as its foundation.

The deconstruction of hospitality turns on the notion of making a guest feel at home. In an absolute sense, this means giving the guest free run of the host’s establishment, causing the host to lose sovereignty and, hence, the power of hosting. Because this is not logical, laws of hospitality limit the host’s welcome and the behavior of the guest. Yet laws of hospitality contradict an absolute law of hospitality. This is why Derrida writes: “It is as though hospitality were the impossible: as though the law of hospitality defined this very impossibility, as if it were only possible to transgress. ”

The reasoning here, to anyone but a postmodern Frenchman, will seem foolish. Most concepts taken to their extreme can seem so, and thus we use common sense to maintain them within certain parameters. Aristotle’s notion of the mean as a guide for behavior and a test for the good becomes a counterpoint to Derridean deconstruction. Still, there is value in Derrida’s extreme treatment of this issue as it casts light on today’s extreme positions on borders and border-crossing.

The inherent impossibility of hospitality seems to be behind the Trumpian response to immigration. It is profoundly attuned to the threat inherent in absolute hospitality, and determined to eliminate this threat by a complete elimination of hospitality altogether as it pertains to certain groups of people. In contrast, the extreme progressive position decries as bigoted and cruel all steps that ban immigrants and impose profiling of any sort.

Some middle ground is called for: to be open to those in need, but to maintain some form of vetting for those who might be dishonest or duplicitous. But where to draw the line between welcoming the guest and protecting the host? Any sort of vetting can result in an injustice; by the same token, any laxness with regard to who gains entry can have dire effects on the safety of the host.

In the United States today, both extremes depend on an imagined idea of the country. Keeping people out is fueled by a sense of strength and autonomy. Letting people in is supported by our devotion to diversity and openness. Both reflect an American exceptionalism that sees the nation as different from the more conformist nature of other countries, with conformity meaning different things, depending on one’s perspective. (If this polarized thinking has now become prevalent across Europe, its origin in contemporary culture seems to me to be American.)

Some people fear that the country will become something other than what it is. Here, part of the assumption of threat is that the immigrant guest will not be a guest for long but will settle down and become part of the host. In this case, the destruction of the host is not a hostile takeover but a numerical one. Most liberals would say that new immigrant groups have had and continue to have an enriching influence on American life. Still, with each infusion of new people, the original host loses authority and is forced to embrace different ideas and values—politically strengthening the country, but also changing it. The views of Trump supporters on Muslim and Mexican immigrants reflect a fear of such change.

Even if we grant that America is a special place, uniquely suited to assimilate difference, it is possible to see some groups (“radical Islamic” ones, for example) as a genuine threat to our values as well as our lives. This perspective is even more evident in other countries with more homogeneous identities, where a pronounced threat from another group exists, or where there is reason to maintain a singular identity. I am thinking particularly of Israel, where the idea of welcoming the Arab population risks the loss of continued viability as a Jewish state. By the same token, Palestinians say that they suffered this loss when they were evicted and refused rights by the Israelis. If we shift back to the origins of the United States, one might say that Native Americans were once in such a position; whatever hospitality they showed to Europeans was obliterated by their guests, both through violence and through numerical usurpation.

Tribalism, the most primitive form of social grouping, relies on the power of the group as protection against a guest’s potential hostility. A group host can be magnanimous, because it has the power of the group to back it up. Even here, however, there are cases in which the guest usurps the group in question through the power of ideas or personality—missionaries, for example, have done this, converting entire populations. Charismatic leaders have risen to great heights, coming from nothing and defeating entrenched authority. Jews, as a group, have existed in a unique position in the course of history. They are a tribe and gain a certain power through that identification, but they are also scattered. Indeed, as the Holocaust shows, Jews, in being traditionally diasporic, were generally seen as guests in the nations in which they resided. In times of plenty, they were welcomed, drawn on for their contributions to their host society. But in times of austerity, they were condemned as parasitic and power-hungry. So much may be a matter not of the nature of the guest but of the context in which the guest appears and is judged.

Hospitality cannot be purged of potential hostility (Derrida even coined the term hostipitality to emphasize this fact). But perhaps the very idea of hospitality no longer makes much sense. Even in its flawed or partial form, it has an archaic ring, the residue of an extreme idea of charity on the one hand and a prescribed sense of decorum on the other. In a society where good manners have ceased to be meaningful—where one can break up with a romantic partner by text, ghost a former friend, troll an enemy, and disseminate false or misleading news—where does an idea such as hospitality fit?

The demise of hospitality can also be seen as connected to technological advances. Surveillance by the government of its own people is a version of the extreme vetting that some want done to foreigners seeking entry to the country. All people sacrifice their privacy in exchange for the assurance of safety. The surveillance mechanisms now being developed and promoted in our society may obviate the need to welcome or reject a guest. If implemented, we will no longer be sovereigns within any domain, and any act of welcome or prohibition on our part will be merely gestural.

If we understand Derrida’s statement that absolute hospitality is “impossible” in the widest context, it ceases to concern itself with safety and sovereignty. For who is safe in the long term? Who can be fully at home or in charge in the world? Death is the ultimate hostile guest, usurping us no matter how much power or wealth we accrue, or how vigilant we are. To reverse terms, we are always conditional guests in our own lives, our welcome qualified, even hostile, as age and illness do their work.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Paula Marantz Cohen’s new book, Of Human Kindness: What Shakespeare Teaches Us About Empathy, will be published next month.


Please enter a valid email address
That address is already in use
The security code entered was incorrect
Thanks for signing up