Rootedness in the homeland and the dwelling

I had a kind of eureka experience last week, that I at once knew what the structure of my dissertation should be like. My (possible) second supervisor said that I should focus and balance more and that I should choose one central theme, of which he considered "hospitality" to be the most suitable one. My first supervisor said he totally agreed.

And then I started to think about why hospitality would be such an important issue to link the philosophy of Levinas to the way individuals and the society as a whole (politicians) deal with strangers / immigrants.

I wondered why hospitality is needed to have a peaceful and well functioning society, in the same way as I argued before why forgiveness is needed to end conflicts / wars. The "I got it" reaction last week was because I made a link from Heidegger (rootedness in the homeland) via Levinas (ethical confrontation with the face of the other) to Derrida (hospitality).

Heidegger says in "Sein und Zeit" that people have a special relation to the ground where they are born, where they are rooted. To be means to be firmly attached in the empirical material world, to the particular place where you come from, that you own. This idea from Heidegger is where the biggest part of Levinas' criticism is aimed at. He says that when people have to be enrooted, that people who are not in their homeland are immediately excluded, they are considered to be inferior because they don't have the strength of their roots established firmly in their own ground.

Levinas strongly dissaproves of the idea of rootedness. He says that we are all guests in the land of God, we don't own the land on earth, in fact we borrow it from God, he allowed us to live there. So who is living where exacly, is in fact random. We are all equal as humans and we are free, we cannot be imprisoned by our background or race. A status as homeless or as a stranger cannot make us inferior human beings.

We are equal, but as far as our relation is assymetrical, the other is the higher person, never me. The people who are the best teachers, the most suitable people to make an appeal to my moral responsibility, are the people who are vulnerable themselves; the poor, the stranger, the widow and the orphan. These are people who are not rooted, they are unstable, they miss a firm connection with the material world. They miss their homeland, they miss wealth (food, a house, money), they miss their parents or their husband. As a human the stranger is equal to me, but in our ethical relation he is higher than me. The one who is fragile and asks for my help is able to open up my little selfish world. In his later work Levinas even describes this as if I am a hostage of the other, as if I am obsessed by him and as if I cannot escape from his confronting gaze, from his naked face in front of me that demands my response.

Derrida further elaborates on this relation between the first person and the other, in the relation between the host and the guest, the owner of the house and the stranger who knocks at the door. The image of the house and the host can be combined with the land where a nation is located. Derrida agrees that it's Gods house, the host doesn't posess the house, he only happens to live there. So he is already a guest in his own house. The fact that he lives behind that door, a door he can open to strangers, means that he has by definition the possibility to welcome a stranger. The welcome of the other is taking place in many ways, the host is welcomed in his own house and is then able to welcome a stranger. The stranger turns the host into a hostage, he is handed down to the guest who becomes his teacher, his master, because of the ethical relation that they have.

This part of the theory is maybe too complex to explain in a few words, but what is important, is that the attitude of hospitality, to welcome the other, especially the stranger, forms the core of both the ethics of Levinas and of Derrida. It applies to any kind of contact between humans, but especially for the contact between a native and a stranger. When the native welcomes the stranger, this means he respects him as a human, it means peace and justice, it means they are equal as humans, and it means that the host doesn't take away the freedom of the guest, his welcome is unconditional, the guest is not imprisoned by the host in his cultural and historical background. The host doesn't doesn't have a sign at his door that Jews or blacks or whoever are not welcome, every stranger is welcome, no matter who he is or where he comes from.

Derrida and levinas don't say that every nation should be completely open to whoever wants to enter the country, that idea is of course completely unrealistic. Especially Derrida focusses on the impossible but necessary combination between unconditional hospitality, the absolute welcome of the other, on the one hand, and on the other hand the necessity to create national laws and conditions for whom can enter the country and whom not.

The same applies to the example of the house. I you really welcome everybody you will end up in a very full and dirty center for homeless or a place where criminals can make their deals, there are some limits to the kind op people and the number of them that you can accept in your house.

The main point I want to make in my dissertation, is that Derrida at least considers this a complicated dilemma, one in which one constantly has to look for a balance between a universal unconditional welcome of strangers and the national laws and conditions that limit the number and type of strangers that can enter a country.

For the Dutch Minister Verdonk of Immigration there is no dilemma at all. The barbarian strangers should be kept out of the country as much as possible, and she will violate as many national and international treaties and constitutional laws of universal human rights for that as possible. She tried to push a law through that people from the Antilles, who are Dutch in fact, can never enter the country, unless they have proven that they are no criminals and that they earn ebough money. This is a very clear form of institutionalized racism. The colour of their skin is a condition to close the borders, unless they can prove that they are not the barbarians that Verdonk expects them to be.

Not only at the political level but also at the individual level there's an increase in simplistic and hostile sentiments towards strangers. We clearly need more hospitality in the Netherlands. So my dissertation will be a plea to welcome the other, whoever he may be. A plea to always treat strangers as human beings, no matter how many votes politicians think they can win by dehumanizing immigrants and creating the image of an iron lady who closes the Dutch borders almost completely to non-western strangers.
I like the theme, and how it ties 3 philosophers together (possibly more of course!). Well done!
Are you going to go into the history of guest/host relations and tradition a bit? That's something that interests me a lot. But I'm studying Anglo-Saxon views on guests (and a Russian friend of mine writes on the same theme in ancient China!). Funnily enough, there are many commonalities between ancient Chines and ancient Anglo-Saxon attitudes towards guests. Of course, this is the ideal, described/proscribed and ritualised version of guest/host relations, we have no idea what the reality was. But still...
very happy to find this blog through the key word 'Levinas'. i am writing my thesis for Master degree about his thought. hope you can continuely post some good text on there, thanks!

// usher.
// usherwu@yahoo.com.tw
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