In The Transparency of Evil, Jean Baudrillard insists that for hospitality to remain hospitality it must give up every attempt to understand the other, every attempt to reduce the other’s foreignness. We exist, he says, “not to be known or recognized,” but “solely to be received and to receive,” and so we must “seek the other’s cruelty, the other’s intelligibility, the other as spectre; constrain the other to foreignnness; violate the other in his foreignness.” The task of hospitality then is not to reduce the other’s foreigness through understanding, but to maintain the other’s foreignness, to receive the other precisely as the entirely foreign, apart from any knowledge.
Yet, I wonder how this hospitality of pure reception might actually appear in the world, since every reception of the other, even the purest reception of the other as entirely and in every way foreign, would immediately become the occasion of a kind of knowledge, however illusory this knowledge might be, and the act of hospitality would come to know despite itself, falling irresistibly into inhospitality.
Baudrillard seems to account for this problem by suggesting that the other’s foreignness must be continually maintained over against any understanding of the other that we might obtain, that we must continually set aside whatever knowledge we have of the other and receive the other only as foreigner, as stranger, as unknown. In this sense, we may certainly relate to the other with respect to our knowledge of the other, must in fact relate to the other in this respect, but this relation is not hospitality as such. Rather, we are hospitable only to the degree that we are able to set aside our knowledge of the other, with all the relations that attend it, and receive the other apart from this understanding, receive the other simply as other, beyond all understanding, knowledge, and relation. Hospitality, then, becomes defined, perhaps, as a relation without relation, as a relational gesture that precedes relation as such, that precedes even the possibility of relation, that appears in advance of relation.
The ethical imperative to hospitality, therefore, in the most practical terms, becomes an imperative for me to recall at all costs the insufficiency of my knowledge to account for the other’s foreignness, and to receive continually the foreignness of the other, the incomprehensibility of the other, despite whatever understanding that I might think I have.