The Conditions of Hospitality
Ethics, Politics, and Aesthetics on
The Threshold of the Possible

Thomas Claviez
(Fordham University Press)
Don't be put off by the title or the stuffy format. This one can be an eye-opener. Especially when we consider what hospitality means to those we refer to as "immigrants," "illegals," "undocumented workers" or worse.

As several of the writers suggest, exclusion --- or what we might call "anti-hospitality" --- comes in many forms and may have had serious historical consequences. World War II grew out of America's various earlier immigration laws (including the Asian Exclusion Act of 1924). These legislative fiats announced to the world that the United States did not welcome Southern Europeans, Eastern Europeans, or Jews. It limited the immigration of these populations, along with Arabs, East Asians, and Indians, to 2% a year. The purpose of these laws, according to a State Department directive, was "to preserve the ideal of American homogeneity."

Such exclusionary tactics have now grown to be a world-wide phenomena. In one essay in The Conditions of Hospitality, Paola Zaccaria tells of events in the Italian town of Bari, where she was born. In 1991, it was the site of "one of the most dramatic events to prove our unpreparedness to deal with mass exoduses."

    The event was called the "Albanian emergency, in which the word "emergency" was used as a synonym for danger of invasion, flooding, or border crises."

The Albanians had previously thought of Italy as "the land of freedom and bounty," but in that year, they were promptly detained in the city's stadium, which, "at this time of year, resembled a roasting desert." Despite many classic narratives of exodus --- "Noah's ark, our Saint Nicholas, and various Madonnas arriving from Eastern or African lands on boats," there was a new perspective, "a blistering wound inflicted upon hospitality which had heretofore been "a practice ingrained in Southern Italian culture."

Annie Dufourmantelle takes the concept of acceptance or rejection of strangers a step further. She views being born as the "first act of hospitality:"

    We come from a mother's womb, we begin our beings as cells splitting and growing, until we finally part, indeed "disassemble" ourselves from another human being who has nourished and loved us, but at least carried us long enough to be born.

As we read what she has written here in "Hospitality --- Under Compassion and Violence," we recall that in the early days of 20th Century psychology some professionals considered birth as the original act of anti-hospitality, evoking a powerful sense of no longer being welcome (in the womb). We are ejected with great force from the gentle nesting space where have been all of our conscious lives laved in the warm waters of mother-love.

But it was seen by these professionals not as act of benign parturition but as a violent "birth trauma." Otto Rank suggested that birth was an epochal event which left deep personality scars, creating negative attitudes and anti-social behaviors for years to come. Elizabeth Noble called it "infant trauma." Arthur Janov referred to it as the "primal scream" ... which could only be erased by later extreme extirpation. Even Sigmund Freud gave fleeting attention to birth as the possible source of anxiety symptoms.

§   §   §

In his introduction, Claviez reminds us that Foucault sees the present age as "the age of space," that the "first condition of humanity is exile."

    We are thus forced to engage with the other --- for better or worse --- in order to become full human beings at all.

The introduction, by the way, might scare you from taking on the book at all because the editor drags in the very language that may scare away the lay reader. Viz., "This fact enormously problematizes the entire dynamics of recognition, but if alterity is not accounted for in all facets of social life --- not as a concept, but as the arché-experience of sociality --- we will never get a grip on the 'social' as such."

All the essays here are drawn from a conference given in Norway in 2008 titled on "The Conditions of Hospitality." There are ten in all, and one of them stood out from the others --- at least for this reader. It's "Hospitality and the Zombification of the Other" and it's by "Nikos Papastergiadiss." The title is for real as is the author. He is a professor of communication and culture at the University of Melbourne.

In his first paragraphs, he sums up past visions of hospitality; for instance, "a sacred duty" in Homer's Odyssey. "A Greek could never know in advance whether the stranger was an enemy or a god in disguise. The conventions of Greek hospitality were therefore laced with a mixture of self-interest and the desire to please the gods.

    To share food and offer gifts to a stranger was considered the highest form of civilization.

By contrast, he notes, a monster like Cyclops "preferred to devour his guests."

In classic Greek society, "the host looked and determined the status of the stranger in silence and then offered his hand. After the invitation to enter the house was made, the place of reception and seating arrangement again followed the protocols of status. It was only after food had been shared that speech commenced."

Papastergiadias then moves into the realm of the spectral, most of all, after 9/11. One cultural theorist he quotes writes that the suicide bombers looked "like ordinary graduate students."

    How can I imagine the suicide bomber as a person who shares the same human consciousness as me?

This begins in Papastergiadis' view, the spectral, the "zombification" of others. For instance, immigrants in Australia's refugee camps see themselves as "living corpses." Their rallying cry is "I want my life back:" release from detention can be a return to the "place of the living." Those from Iran recall the horror of looking at the faces of other refugees and thinking "the color of their skin was bad, they were living but they were dead, like zombies."

Another social critic suggests that the "unstoppable human waves" coming to Europe created children who could be confused with zombies. Any one of them lacked

    any profound attachment to the soil on which he was born ... and in truth, he is from another planet: the ghetto.

Papastergiadias sees it as "cogs vs. wogs:" a cog (in the machinery of the industrial world) being transformed into a "wog" (as defined by his new society.)

    Migrants had always been considered frightening because they usually look different: they sometimes make incomprehensible sounds, and since they are from elsewhere, there is a suspicion that they will not conform to the dominant moral categories.

"The encounter with migrants is thus framed by the problems of sensorial appreciation and noncommunication." The result is a "global culture" of ambient fear. Gangs in France are outside the social contract. They are in a no-man's land, and they even self-identify as no longer human, but as "mad-dog" --- seen as rabid. His parents' and grandparents' home was Algeria, but in France he has no place, or, better, any human place.

    Unlike their parents. who saw themselves as cogs in the state machine, these gangs find themselves without any function.

There is no dialogue, and the gang is in a non-state. Their position becomes "One way or another, we are headed for prison. It might as well as be for actually doing something."

    Mad dogs, ghost prisoners, and zombie refugees --- such stigmatic appellations have been ancient forms of addressing the enemy, foreigner, and even the deviant that lives within society. However, it is now difficult to place the mad dogs, ghost prisoners, and zombies in the same continuum as the wogs that turned the cogs. These new names shift the position and the integrity of the boundary between humans and nonhumans.

Papastergiadias concludes, "Even if the wog migrant was reduced to a cog, there still remained a begrudging admission of utility, and every migrant hung onto the hope that one day he would either return home to become a whole man again, or his own child's entry into society would redeem his sacrifice."

--- Richard Saturday
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