Hospitality and the reception of the stranger

by Nelli Kambouri

Nelli Kambouri argues that hospitality is a “democratic relation” not only amongst citizens, but also amongst non-citizens: reaching out for the stranger without juridical and formal requirements, or even the prerequisite of identification, but most of all welcoming the prospect that the stranger may arrive in order to radically transform what pre-exists.

Temples, churches, embassies, house entrances, yards, airports, stations, ports, hotels, clinics: in different historical periods and cultures these spaces have constituted passages – meeting places but also places of segregation – between the inside and the outside of the community. Both hospitality and reception are inscribed on such passages, on short and fragile encounters, where people, whose identities are still floating and the power relations amongst them are not yet clearly determined, cross each other. The concept of hospitality, however, contains a paradox that Derrida tried to convey with the term hostipitalité: on the one hand, reaching out to strangeness and the harmonious living together of people with different identities (hospitalité), and, on the other, presupposing a strong opposition to the stranger that can also reach levels of extreme violence (hostilité). Today this paradox takes a specific form: the concept of hospitality without juridical or institutional mediation is limited to the private space, that is the peculiar ceremonies and habits within a closed home or to special occasions (such as in periods of celebration in the big cities), while reception is determined by the state, taking the characteristics of a juridico-political right, which is given selectively on the basis of the stranger’s identity.

Contemporary practices of reception

Thus, despite the traditional commitment to the folklore of hospitality, contemporary practices of reception do not lead towards an opening up to strangeness but towards a particular type of exclusion based on the precarity and fluidity of limits and identities. In Europe, this is mirrored in the multiplication of migrant detention centers, which appear and disappear depending on temporary and isolated needs. Situated near the entry points to the national territories, but also in the city outskirts, these centers are usually jerry-built constructions that can be evacuated or moved quickly. The geographical dislocation of these centers becomes a “more economic” strategy of control: from West European territories these centers are moved to Eastern Europe and North Africa. This is the reason why their mapping has to be constantly renewed. In parallel with these detention centers, after having assimilated the teachings of humanitarianism, most Western European states have also created “reception centers” for immigrants and refugees, designed to fulfill the basic humanitarian standards of detention and hygiene. It is there that control (power exercised without the use of direct violence) is revealed as the real problem. The purpose of both “detention” and “reception” is not to stop the entry of the migrant population as a whole, but to host temporarily all those unknown strangers in order to register and categorize them before they enter (legally or illegally) or before they are being subjected to (legal or illegal) refoulement. In other words, these centers are spaces of transition, from where the “threatening” impersonal migrant subject can be placed within the categorization of what constitutes a list of recognizable identities according to gender, race, age, education or religion.

Although the primary threat for the community is not the stranger per se (tourism and business traveling of foreigners is a sign of prosperity) but the unidentified migrant (the illegal migrant), the categorization established at the exit of those transitional spaces is not of a permanent character, but is constantly re-defined. “Internment” cannot function as an effective strategy for the containment of migrants: the limits between travelers, tourists, migrants, refugees remain fluid even after the exit from the space of transition, since legalization is in most cases temporary. The stranger is not determined at once but is engaged, or is forced, to play many different parts during his stay in the community.

The contradictions of migration policies

This is where it is important to refer to a parameter of control that is closely linked to the creation of nation-states and communities. Migrant groups, as diverse as they might be, do not simply constitute “threats”. National groups open and close their limits sometimes to include, to assimilate and integrate, sometimes to exclude and expel the stranger. As Balibar argues, neo-racism should include both humanitarian practices that conceive of foreigners as victims in need of protection, and xenophobic reactions of exclusion directed against “illegal migrants”. In parallel, neo-racism is determined equally by the ideal multi-ethnic image of contemporary consumers and the dissemination of negative stereotypes of inherent or social criminality. In terms of aesthetics, the mimicry of “exotic” symbols co-exists with the repulsion for the dirty, polluted stranger. These contradictions are part of migration policies, establishing temporary limits between the legal and the illegal, limits that can be constantly transformed. Their temporary character legitimizes the constant shifting of the limits between citizens and migrants. The national community can welcome “hospitably”, desire and imitate travelers but also certain categories of immigrants and refugees that need protection and enlightment, and exclude, subject to maltreatment without remorse or legal and social limitations others (or the same ones in different occasions). Culture, origin, gender, education, age are not simply neutral categories for categorization in relevant statistics, but distinct signs that determine the extent to which one is accepted or excluded. The temporary character of identities constitutes necessary condition for the strategic opening and closing towards the stranger.

Perhaps migrants themselves might experience these contradictions and paradoxes in everyday life as a continuous sense of insecurity and uncertainty, but through the fluidity of limits there is also a possibility that alternative practices may arise. Migrants (political and economic) are a privileged category of the “poor” which constitute the “ontological condition not only of resistance but also of productive life itself”. Something that is often silenced in humanitarian discourse, is the desire for creativity that co-exists with the escape from poverty, violence and insecurity: migrants are not simply cheap labour, “immigrants invest the entire society with their subversive needs”. And this is what distinguishes them from the amalgam of all those who are forced to move constantly, to constantly change their identity, to be educated for life in new specializations, to be flexible in the workplace, to be willing to travel and live temporarily wherever they find more profitable contracts, to follow the dictates of fashion, consuming without stop different styles and desiring new ethnic enjoyments that despite the cost are never satisfied. The beggar, the homeless, or the migrant that succeeds in making a home of the spaces of transition, on the contrary fools practices of control. Just like in the gaze of the citizen, the migrant might be a victim and a threat at the same time, in the gaze of the migrant, the citizen can be a victim and a threat at the same time. In both cases, the fluidity of different identities constitutes them as both victims and victimizers of control that comes from nowhere but is dispersed.

A democracy among non-citizens

The question that arises, therefore, is if we could discern a possible line of flight in the tension between hospitality and reception, from where a politics of hospitality of the stranger can emerge. An opening to strangeness is an opening to the paradox of hospitality, that includes the possibility of violence not only by the host but also by the hosted. Hosting someone without previously having asked for a name, an identity, a passport, or even an origin may mean risking the possibility that the stranger may transform, move and even destroy his space. The prospect of such an alternative gaze appears in the videos of the Korean artist Kimsooja: she travels in contemporary migrant passages and public “non places” of big cities, she stands still and speechless against people that move. Her position though is not one of passivity. As she argues, nothing is static, there is rhythm in everything. Her stance is decision and praxis that assimilates the paradoxes of Derrida’s “open hospitality”. To the imposition of constant movement she posits her own immobility. To the imposition of constant control she posits her own gaze. Gradually a relationship of hospitality is being developed, where it is not clear who exerts violence: the passers-by staring at her with curiosity or the artist herself who observes them. This relationship, though, remains contradictory. Kimsooja turning her back, but keeping her head on the same level as the observers’ eyes mediates, without disrupting the relationship “between individual and society, stranger and natives, woman and the phalocentric society”. Through this mediation the impersonal “non spaces” are inhabited by those who divide them. Hospitality is no longer limited to the folkloric representations of welcoming, but becomes a movement that may originate either from the native or from the stranger.

Such practices of hospitality require from us to overcome the language of rights and the strict attachment to juridical and political dimensions of reception that anchor the meaning of the political to the state. Therefore they are opposed equally to the practices of border control and the practices of humanitarian aid that reproduce existing power relations. This is a search for a politics devoid of state entities and identities that derive from the virtue of citizenship. This is the “promise” of a future democracy opposed to Kantian cosmopolitanism that imposes the idea that the right to hospitality should and could only be given to the citizens of other states. Therefore the challenge that we are faced with today is a “democratic relation” not only amongst citizens, but also among non-citizens: reaching out for the stranger without juridical and formal requirements, or even the prerequisite of identification, but most of all accepting that the stranger may arrive in order to radically transform what pre-exists.

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