Of Hospitality

As readers of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality, we are from the very first confronted by the question of how to receive the text.  How is such a text to be read?  Should we first read Anne Dufourmantelle’s essay, which she labels an “Invitation”, and which appears on the left-hand pages, always visually preceding Derrida’s own words on the right-hand pages?  Or should we first read Derrida’s lectures, which were delivered first and to which Dufourmantelle’s “Invitation” responds?  Is it possible that we might read the two together, one alternating with the other, page alternating page?  How, in other words, are we to receive this singular text, how do we make a reception for it, keeping in mind the connotations of hospitality that these words ‘receive’ and ‘reception’ bear with them?  To read Of Hospitality, therefore, is to involve ourselves in the question of reading as hospitality, in the question of how to receive what Dufourmantelle and Derrida have written.

When I take up a text to read it, any text, I extend an invitation through it, not an invitation to the author in person, of course, except perhaps in certain exceptional senses, but an invitation to what the author has written, or, in the case of Jacques Derrida’s Of Hospitality, to what has been transcribed on behalf of the author, but in any case, to the words beneath which the author’s name has been signed.  The act of reading opens the reader to this text like the act of invitation opens the home to the guest.  It makes the reader available, attentive, receptive, concerned with the text, puts the reader in the position of the host.  To read is to host what arrives through the text as a guest.

In this sense, Of Hospitality imposes gravely on my hospitality as a reader, not only in the ways that every guest always imposes on any hospitality, but because my hospitality, my invitation, which was extended to Derrida, to whom my invitation has been extended so many times in the past, becomes also, though I did not bargain for it, did not account for it, an invitation to Dufourmantelle as well, whom I do not know, to whom I would never have made my invitation had she not come in Derrida’s company, had she not arrived with him as his guest.  I invited one, but this other came to claim my hospitality also, this one who now becomes my guest through my guest, whom I am forced to receive as the guest of my guest.

This arriving-with makes all the difference.  Dufourmantelle does not arrive before Derrida, does not arrive in a preface or an introduction or a note on the text.  Nor does she arrive after him, as a postscript or an envoi or an epilogue.  She arrives at almost precisely the same moment, she on one page, he on the other, her text interpolated with his.  For this reason she is not merely a stranger who happens to arrive before or after Derrida, a stranger who might still require my hospitality, who might even demand it, but who could in either case be extended hospitality in her own right.  She is instead a stranger who arrives with Derrida, with an already invited guest, and her arrival presumes on an invitation that was never hers, assumes a hospitality, not in her own name or her own right, but in the name and the right of another.  She does not receive her invitation directly from the host, from me, but only indirectly, through the invitation that I extend to another.  She is not my guest.  She is the guest of my guest.  I am not her host.  I am the host of her host.

This relation between the guest-of-the-guest and the host-of-the-host arises because of the one who first received the invitation and then extended it to another, because of the guest who presumed to offer an invitation on behalf of the host, because of the guest who takes the place of the host.  This guest-host is invited, but also invites, stands between his host and his guest, offers his host to his guest and his guest to her host in a way that is necessarily an imposition on them both, even if this imposition is in some cases a welcome one.  The host is imposed on the guest just as much as the guest is imposed on the host.  My hospitality is imposed on Dufourmantelle, just as her arrival is imposed on me, and this is the case even when the guest-host extends the invitation unwillingly, even when he does not extend it at all, for even if Dufourmantelle has merely seized upon Derrida’s text and written herself into it without his assent, my invitation to hospitality, extended through Derrida, is as much an imposition on her as her arrival, enabled by this invitation, is an imposition on me.

It is not necessary, therefore, that either the guest-host or the guest-of-the-guest intend to impose on the host’s invitation or the host’s hospitality, because the imposition takes place quite apart from any intention, in the very structure of the relationship between the three parties.  The imposition is structural and insuperable, even when it is not unwelcome.  It arises essentially in the asymmetry between the invited guest and the uninvited guest, between the expected guest and the unexpected guest, between one kind of hospitality and another.  The host, extending an invitation, expects to receive the guest in a certain way and to be hospitable in a certain way, but discovers that there is expected of him another kind of reception and another kind of hospitality, an unexpected hospitality that arrives like a parasite on the expected.

This figure of the guest-of-the-guest is a risk that is implicit in every invitation and every hospitality.  Anyone whom I welcome across my threshold, whether a complete stranger or my spouse, whether my friend of my child, may extend an invitation to others to cross my threshold also, may extend an invitation that is not mine but that my hospitality is nevertheless obligated to recognize and to respect.  Any of those who enter my home, whatever their relationship to me, may be accompanied by another, may arrive with another, and this other must be received as a guest, or better, as the guest-of-my-guest.  This risk only grows as I extend an invitation to the hospitality of my home more often, since each such invitation bears in it the possibility that it will be extended to another, that my guest will arrive in the company of one or more that I did not expect.

The invitation that I extend, therefore, whether to my friend or to the words of Derrida, always implicitly invites the possibility of the guest-of-the-guest.  It does not merely accept this possibility, but in fact invites it in the same act of invitation that it extends to the guest, since the guest always implies the possibility of the guest-of-the-guest.  The first is not possible without the possibility of the second.  In the very act of opening the home to the guest, the host opens it also to the guest-of the-guest, not necessarily in person, not as such, but always in possibility, in potentiality.

This is one of the senses in which I read Derrida’s declaration that “the right to hospitality commits a household, a line of descent, a family,” because the hospitality that any member of the household might extend to another always commits the whole of the household to receive a guest that it did not in fact invite, and commits them to receive this guest as though she were invited, as though the household as a whole had together extended an invitation to her.  In this way, a member of the household is never able to extend an invitation to hospitality on his own behalf only, but is always necessarily making his invitation on behalf of the entire household, asking the household to host both his guest and himself as the host of his guest.  The household becomes the host-of-the-host, and the guest becomes the-guest-of-the-guest, in every case.

This figure of the guest-of-the-guest, this figure who is in this case embodied in the “Invitation” of Dufourmantelle, imposes on the hospitality of the host, on my hospitality, precisely because it blurs the boundary of the threshold, or, to be more precise, because it blurs where the guest-host stands in relation to this threshold.  The guest who extends my invitation to another and thereby acts as a host in my place bears an ambiguous relation to the threshold of my home, stands on both sides at once, straddles this boundary and therefore obscures it.  Likewise, the member of the household who extends an invitation on behalf of the household and thereby makes of himself a guest in his own home also straddles the threshold in this way.  Yet, as Derrida says, “any reflection on hospitality presupposes, among other things, the possibility of a rigorous distinction of threshold or frontiers: between the familial and the non-familial, between the foreign and the non-foreign, between the citizen and the non-citizen.”  The guest-host, standing with one foot in the home and one foot without, obscures these thresholds, these definitions, these categories, and therefore also prevents a clear reflection on the very idea of hospitality.

Much of what Derrida has to say in Of Hospitality is concerned with the relationship, both of conflict and collusion, that exists between the absolute law of hospitality and the conditional laws of hospitality.  He argues that “there is an antimony, an insoluble antimony between, on the one hand, the law of unlimited hospitality, and on the other hand, the laws, those rights and duties of hospitality that are always conditioned and conditional.”  He goes on to say that, between the law of absolute hospitality and the laws of conditional hospitality, “there is distinction, radical heterogeneity, but also indissociability. One calls forth, involves, or prescribes the other.”  Thus, the law and the laws of hospitality are both opposed absolutely and involved absolutely, which is one of the reasons that Derrida describes hospitality as the impossible and even as being defined by this impossibility.

This impossible relationship between the law and the laws of hospitality is, I think, critical to understanding the figures of the guest-of-the-guest and the guest-host as I have been describing them.  This is the case, not only in the most obvious sense, where the law of absolute hospitality requires me to receive both the invited and the uninvited guest “before any determination, before any anticipation, before any identification,” while the laws of conditional hospitality require me to receive them precisely as they are determined, anticipated, and identified.  It is also the case in the sense that the laws of conditional hospitality by which I receive one guest are being used to invoke the law of unconditional hospitality and to impose on me, as the host, a further conditional hospitality that I would not otherwise have extended.  In other words, the guest-host is making use of the impossible relationship between conditional and unconditional hospitality in order to manipulate the rights and duties of my hospitality against my will and my choice.  If I refuse to receive the guest-of-the-guest according to the expectations of the guest-host, then I am seen as having transgressed against the law of absolute hospitality.

Yet, as I have already argued, the risk of this guest-of-the guest, the risk of this manipulation of my hospitality through an appeal to an unconditional hospitality, is inherent in every invitation and in every hospitality.  In every invitation to hospitality that I extend, I also invite an imposition on my hospitality, a manipulation of my hospitality, a turning of my hospitality against my will.  The hospitality that I offer is always potentially the means to impose on me a hospitality that I did not offer.  Hospitality always, at least in potentiality, imposes on hospitality.

The implications of this imposition of one conditional hospitality on another are not insignificant, because they are deeply ethical in nature. As Derrida says, “The problem of hospitality is coextensive with the ethical problem.  It is always about answering for a dwelling place, for one’s identity, one’s space, one’s limits, for the ethos as abode, habitation, house, hearth, family, home.”  The ethics of the home are at stake here, are bound up in the impossibility of hospitality, in the imposition of hospitality on hospitality.  If it is the case that the guest-host imposes a hospitality on the host, then the hospitality of the home, the ethics of the home, are always in fact, at least in part, determined from beyond the home, apart from the home, by the one who enters the home and extends its hospitality beyond what it has in fact offered.  The hospitality and the ethics of the home are never what they offer themselves to be, but are always imposed upon, distorted, made other than they would choose to be.

This is the situation in which Of Hospitality places me, in which it places all of its readers.  Derrida’s text, to which we offer a conditional hospitality, appeals to the law of unconditional hospitality on behalf of Dufourmantelle’s text, imposes on us a hospitality that we would not otherwise offer.  It imposes a hospitality, already also an ethics, for which the dwelling place and the family and the home and the reader as self will be made to answer.

1 comment
  1. John Jantunen said:


    I just finished watching Thirst by Chan-wook Park and I don’t think that I am stretching it (too much) to say that he would agree with much of what you (and Derrida) have said (though he may substitute household with body or self). In the film, the lead character’s willingness to allow a foriegn substance into his body (he becomes a test subject in an experiment with an incurable disease) opens the door to another foriegn substance (namely vampirism, through a blood transfusion). He accepts the second, the guest of the guest, conditionally, that is he refuses to kill anyone to feed his thirst but because of this condition he acts to save the woman he loves after snapping her neck in a sudden moment of rage. Revived as a vampire, she refuses to impose his condition, acting instead unconditionally, and the man is made, unltimately, to answer for his weakness (which he mistook to be his greatest strength). Quite the work anyway (as are all of his films – the asian equivalent to Haneke I’d almost say).


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