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What Would Derrida Do About The Incidents in Cologne?

A specter is haunting Europe in the figure of the refugee.  And though commentators have used the so-called refugee crisis to point out the internal contradictions of liberal democracy, these aporias, as the philosopher Derrida is famous for calling them, have seemingly crystalized over the past 10 days in the events in Cologne, Germany.

As of this past week, over 600 criminal complaints have arisen from the New Years Eve gathering in Cologne, Germany.  Of them, 40% allege sexual assault. An official report on the attacks said that the perpetrators were “almost exclusively” North African or Arab migrants. Nineteen individuals are currently under investigation for the attacks; of those 19 suspects, 14 are men from Morocco and Algeria, 10 total are asylum seekers, and nine of those 10 arrived in Germany after September 2015. None of the suspects are German nationals.

As one might expect, heads are already rolling,  Cologne’s police chief, Wolfgang Albers, was fired last week, and both local and national German authorities are being harshly scrutinized for their handling of the attacks. Debates are raging throughout Germany over Chancellor Angela Merkel’s “open-door” policy on refugees and migrants, with recent polls suggesting that German nationals want to stem the tide of refugees being granted asylum status

Predictably and lamentably, reactionary violence against migrants has materialized.  Reports from the previous weekend state that six Pakistanis were attacked by a group of around 20 people.  Two Syrian men were attacked in two separate incidents, and in a fourth incident, three men from Guinea were assaultedThe assaults come on the heels of massive anti-immigration protests last Saturday, January 9, by right-wing, anti-Islamic nationalist groups such as Pegida (or “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamization of the West”) and HoGeSa (or “Hooligans against Salafists”), who have seized the current political environment to renew their vitriolic rhetoric.

As this story unfolded, Jacques Derrida’s thoughts on the nature of conditional hospitality kept oscillating in my mind. Like a megaton of socio-political explosiveness, Derrida’s aporetics of hospitality seems to illuminate the type of dire situation being put in play in Germany this week. Let me explain.

In an interview published in 1999 and entitled, “Hospitality, Justice, and Responsibility: a Dialogue with Jacques Derrida”, Derrida questions Kant’s notion of “universal hospitality” and wonders whether the limitations placed on a welcome can manifest anything other than the violence of exclusionKant saw it fit for nation-states to extend hospitality to the stranger not out of philanthropy but right: strangers should be granted the right of visitation while also being extended the right to be treated fairly and not with hostility.

However, according to Kant the status of this right is one of resort and not one of guest, for states also hold the right 1) to refuse the stranger or 2) to demand, upon entrance, that the stranger behave in a peaceable manner. In other words, Kant’s hospitality comes with a catch: guests are welcome so long as they understand the restrictions placed upon them, restrictions that, in Kant’s mind, inaugurated a universal cosmopolitanism. “Only under (these) condition(s) can we flatter ourselves that we are continually advancing toward a perpetual peace.” (108)

In response, Derrida wondered whether placing conditions on hospitality actually annihilated any notion of its welcome and generosity. For Derrida, hospitality means assuming an orientation of unconditional openness toward the other. Yet, this openness is truly vulnerable, for in Derrida’s words, one must be “prepared to be unprepared” for any other, including those who might do harm. “It may be terrible because the newcomer may be a good person, or may be the devil; but if you exclude the possibility that the newcomer is coming to destroy your house — if you want to control this and exclude in advance this possibility — there is no hospitality” (70)

Setting aside the unfortunate religious metaphors for a moment, Derrida notes how this “pure” hospitality applies to the “burning issue” of “displaced persons” seeking asylum and holding no citizenry rights. As it regards the migrant-other, unconditional hospitality…

…implies that you don’t ask the other, the newcomer, the guest, to give anything back, or even to identify himself or herself. Even if the other deprives you of your mastery or your home, you have to accept this. It is terrible to accept this, but that is the condition of unconditional hospitality: that you give up the mastery of your space, your home, your nation. It is unbearable. If, however, there is pure hospitality it should be pushed to this extreme.(70)

The citizens of Germany would likely disagree.

The rub, then, between Kant and Derrida is the exclusionary aspect of invitation. Radical hospitality must not become entangled with the act of invitation, which is always extended on the terms dictated by the host, but must consist “in receiving without invitation, beyond or before the invitation.” (360) Thus if it is to act against the violence of Kantian “universal” hospitality, Derridean hospitality must concern itself with inhabiting a posture of indeterminate visitation that is restricted by no conditions, specifications, or constraints, and must open itself to an other that is “not mine…my other, not even my neighbor or brother… (363)

Certainly, Derrida’s discussion regarding Kant does not neatly fit all of the complicated contours of the refugee crises, but it does seem to expose the performative contradictions of nation-states that are supposedly representing the true democratic “values” of life, liberty, and justice for all.  In other words, in their discussions on the nature of welcome, Kant, and especially Derrida, are gesturing toward the deeper relationship that exists between acts of hospitality and the “undeconstructible” force of justice. J

Justice, then, is the specter haunting European liberal democracies through these migrant figures, who by their mere presence in the cobbled streets of Europe’s town centers are beleaguering their hosts with questions about the force of justice and the nature of rights in representational democracies.

For instance, while the perpetrators of the Cologne attacks must certainly be brought to justice in accordance with local jurisdiction, one may ask in line with Kantian universalism: does reason demand the sort of reactionary impulse to shut borders and harass migrants? To banish the many for the acts of the few? To deny hospitality for the stranger? What room is there in Kantian universal cosmopolitanism for those not merely desiring the rights of resort but the sort of ethical response which accompanies those escaping a brutal civil war initiated by a despotic tyrant? What is the perimeter of reasonable justice for those sans rights?

In line with Derridean pure hospitality: if, for Derrida, the performativity of justice is always a strange iterability or a responsibility to the other, which “other” takes precedence in Cologne: German sexual assault victims or Mediterranean refugees? Or, to put it slightly differently, if pure hospitality is pushed to the extreme of absolute relinquishment, by what means can the oppressed possibly find voice against their oppressors?

To put this slightly differently and perhaps more provocatively: if we have a German polis and the idea of the proper distribution of rights to certain sets of people, and if this idea is still an order of representation that is founded on established force (i.e. the “mystical founding of authority” via Benjamin and Derrida), by what force of law does one negate the mutual responsibility toward the other who is stateless and sans rights when mutual responsibility is the only form of true democracy?

Deep polarities are being unearthed in Cologne, not only between host nations and migrant others, but also between the force of European law, representational democracy, and what Derrida refers to as the undeconstructible force of justice, which is descending on Europe like a thief in the night.

Indeed, it appears, as Derrida writes in the opening of Spectres of Marx, that time like Hamlet’s is “out of joint.”

Jeff Appel is a Ph.D. student in the University of Denver and Iliff School of Theology joint program in religious studies specializing in contemporary philosophy and theology and media theory.   He is also editor for The Grayscale Collective: Postmodernity, Critical Theory, Contemporary Culture, Global Affairs


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