The politics of hospitality are usually settled in European culture through the nation state’s discourses of multiculturalism, where tolerance and inclusivity are managed toward a more or less stable ‘diversity’. Yet, this discourse cannot itself be hospitable toward alternative calculations, such as those in an indigenous setting that precede European arrival. While not always directly oriented to the question of colonisation, Jacques Derrida has given a thorough explication of the European tensions in his writings on hospitality. There is, first, a paradox ‘where the question of hospitality begins’:

must we ask the foreigner to understand us, to speak our language, in all the senses of this term, in all its possible extensions, before being able and so as to be able to welcome him into our country? If he was already speaking our language, with all that that implies, if we already shared everything that is shared with a language, would the foreigner still be a foreigner and could we speak of asylum or hospitality in regard to him?[2]

A certain recognition seems to sit at the impulse toward hospitality. Derrida then notes that in the Greek world ‘xenos indicates a relation of the same type between men linked by a pact which implies precise obligations also extending to their descendants’.[3] Derrida here opens a space between the pact and its genealogical imposition. This is not simply the fusing of citizenship with bloodlines in the contract of the nation: the kinship relation does not in itself necessarily require this kind of pact or contract. This contract of hospitality is one that ‘links to the foreigner and which reciprocally links the foreigner, it’s a question of knowing whether it counts beyond the individual and if it also extends to the family, to the generation, to the genealogy.’ (The root hostis relates to food and gives us hostility, a stranger who eats differently.) It is a contract, duty, or law that hosts the foreigner for as long as the foreigner can remain foreign, who does not complicate the protocols by which things are done. We can perceive this lineage in the classic justifications for multiculturalism, which allow differences of food and culture on the proviso that the pact of cultural management by the state is not disrupted.

Against this calculated pact, Derrida opposes ‘absolute hospitality’, which would allow the arrival of the unknown and unknowable, which would ‘give place’ to those who arrive and that which arrives, ‘without asking of them either reciprocity (entering into a pact) or even their names. The law of absolute hospitality commands a break with hospitality by right, with law or justice as rights’.[4] This kind of hospitality is to respond to a call – we will return to the call – a demand that precedes and exceeds any calculation. The terms ethics and justice are two ‘undeconstructible’ terms that govern this type of hospitality. If we had time, we could discuss the many cases of native title that illustrate the difficulty in reconciling indigenous occupation to settler-colonial state ‘rights’ that have been imposed from above. Derrida points at the problem in this way: ‘How can one give place to a concrete politics and ethics, including a history, evolutions, actual revolutions, advances – in short, a perfectibility? A politics, an ethics, a law that thus answer to the new injunctions of unprecedented historical situations, that do indeed correspond to them, by changing the laws, by determining citizenship, democracy, in­ternational law, etc., in another way?’[5]

Derrida seems sceptical of any easy transformation happening this other way, yet he opens movement through the classic Kantian questions of critique: In what way does hospitality occur? And by what right does it occur?[6] In relation to indigenous communities in particular, we approach these questions in English through the term protocol. However, underneath the protocols we still have unfinished business with Derrida’s account of hospitality. For the bulk of Derrida’s book, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak notes, the figure of alterity remains ‘the foreigner at the door’.[7] We can sense that this is the kind of hospitality that is figured in gestures of hospitality in much socially engaged art – openness to the stranger who arrives. But Derrida also points to a divided origin of hospitality, a ‘nonethical opening of ethics’[8] that opens to a situation much larger and resistant to amelioration through good intention. At the end of Of Hospitality, Derrida suggests ‘we should now examine the situations where not only is hospitality coextensive with ethics itself, but where it can seem that some people, as it has been said, place the law of hospitality above a “morality” or a certain “ethics.”’[9]

Derrida turns to Genesis 19 and Judges 19, two infamous biblical stories in which gender and sexuality do not merely complicate the ethical/political tension in hospitality, but allow it to be disposed of for the pure fraternal expedience of sexual violence. Genesis 19 describes Lot, stranger in a strange land, who is visited by two angels. Lot refuses to make available the angels to the rampaging Sodomites who seek to penetrate them (which would break the pact of hospitality), and instead offers up his two virgin daughters to be assaulted. Derrida writes: ‘In order to protect the guests he is putting up at any price, as family head and all­ powerful father, he offers the men of Sodom his two virgin daughters.’[10] For this he (and his wife and daughters, for his benevolence) are rewarded by God’s angels and transported to safety. Meanwhile, in Judges 19, the Levite and his concubine arrive late to an old man’s house, where the sons of Belial ask to ‘penetrate’ the Levite. The host also (‘hospitably’) offers his daughter rather than his male visitor, but with this offer not being accepted, the Levite offers up instead his concubine, who is assaulted through the night; in the morning, the Levite severs her into twelve pieces to send to the twelve tribes of Israel, in order to signal the Israelites’ moral superiority over the barbarians. Derrida’s arguments about a pact between men as the ‘hospitable’ grounding of our heterosexual Abrahamic ‘civilisation’ reach a haunted conclusion: ‘Are we the heirs to this tradition of hospitality? Up to what point? Where should we place the invariant, if it is one, across this logic and these narratives? They testify without end in our memory.’[11]

Derrida’s account takes us to the darkness of hospitality – how within every economy of exchange there is a shadow economy lurking on the obverse. In Aboriginal sovereignty or indigenous self-determination struggles, that shadow is never far away, registered in the lands that have been dispossessed and the memory of the peoples who belong to it. The ‘culture’ that brings the colonies the European modes of visual arts has also, in living memory, brought the attempted annihilation of the land’s original peoples in order to, like the Levite, demonstrate to the world its own superiority. One could consider the resonance of the Levite’s actions with the various indigenous cultural materials sent to all corners of the colonial world through the museological system – a forced movement that continuously exceeds narrative justification. Against this history, the indigenous call for sovereignty, the right to host in one’s own land, is not a call for acceptance or tolerance by the colonial, or a call for hospitality to be shown by the settler. It calls instead for settler dispossession, for dispensing with the sovereign right to host and to homeliness.

Spivak notes that Derrida ‘ends Of Hospitalitywith the story of a gang rape, but builds nothing on it.’[12] To address this ‘what next’, Spivak points to the protagonist Mary in Mahasweta Devi’s The Hunt, an Adivasi or tribal woman born when a white planter raped her mother before leaving India for Australia at the Indian nation’s independence. With Mary, Devi begins where Derrida ends. The climax of Mary’s story is at a traditional twelve-yearly spring festival of the hunt, now reduced to a simulacrum by the oppressive regime’s destruction of the animals and the forest habitat. The regime is represented by Collector Singh, who plies the natives with alcohol as he steals their land and assaults their women. In the wake of an attempted assault, Mary makes the collector the prey during the ritual hunt, penetrating him with a machete. For Spivak, Mary ‘corrects the failure of decolonization by the solitary exercise of a wild justice, a reinscription of aboriginality. An impossible model, as all conceptual art must be.’[13]

While this essay cannot do justice to Mahasweta Devi’s incredible story, nor Spivak’s acute reading, the injunctions Spivak makes have importance for a larger argument. First, we have to supplement Derrida’s question of the migrant if we want to grapple with the grave presuppositions that forces such as settler colonialism and patriarchy have left us. Second, Spivak claims, the ethics of such an engagement is an ‘experience of the impossible’,[14] where the ethical never reaches the political and where justice never reaches the law, and so the structure of this engagement cannot be implemented as a moral programme. Justice and ethics are ‘structureless structures’, ‘neither available nor unavailable’ (in contrast to the political and the legal: all too available). For Spivak, moves toward justice and ethics are always ‘empirically scrupulous but philosophically errant’.[15] In considering the community that enables these moves among the readers, Spivak has referred to Derrida’s term teleopoeisis, an ‘imaginative making at a distance’ that allows us to connect to others in our imagination and attempt to bring that connection into being. It captures the process by which the stranger would inevitably ‘err before he can acquire permanent residence.’[16]

From Spivak’s reading of Derrida we can take the requirement to evade all assumptions of beneficence when engaged in hospitably reaching toward the other, as it is our own benevolence that blinds us to the questions of responsibility underpinning our fractured world’s production of subjective power. The classic role of socially engaged art, to the degree it seeks to take the responsibility of amelioration, is more problem than solution here. Inhabiting the developmental imaginary, it seeks to heal the wounds its culture has itself created. At a structural level, developmentalism is abusive, as the instrumentalisation of the weak becomes a repetition of every paternalist initiative. To escape this diagnosis of responsibility is an impossibility, wherever or whenever one works inside art’s paradigm – whether the paradigm claims to engage the community or not. Perhaps all we can do is court Derrida’s sense of the reversal where, in the hospitable gesture, those being hosted potentially control the terms of hosting: a reversal Devi takes to an ultimate conclusion. The reversal opens in response to a demand – not the articulated demand of a specific gesture or question, but a millennial demand for justice that precedes and exceeds all legal and political claims.

All our weak gestures carry the potential to attract this reversible force from outside, and artistic work also allows us to sense ourselves in the middle of the forces and all the responsibilities they entail. In sensing these forces and responsibilities, Spivak urges ‘the need to imagine a world that is not necessarily looking for help’.[17] Responsibility is figured here not as a Christian-heritage monitoring of individual action toward rightness, but as a sensibility located in the relation of incompatible protocols. 

Next: III. Waiariki: colonial and indigenous governance

[2] Jacques Derrida and Anne Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, trans. by Rachel Bowlby (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2000), p. 15.

[3] Ibid., p. 21.

[4] Ibid., p. 18.

[5] Ibid., pp. 147–49.

[6] Judith Butler, ‘Critique, Dissent, Disciplinarity’, Critical Inquiry, 35.4 (2009), 773–95.

[7] Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, An Aesthetic Education in the Era of Globalization (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2012), p. 209.

[8] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. by Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), pp. 139–140.

[9] Derrida and Dufourmantelle, Of Hospitality, p. 149.

[10] Ibid., p. 151.

[11] Ibid., p. 155.

[12] Spivak, An Aesthetic Education, p. 315.

[13] Ibid., p. 315.

[14] Ibid., p. 349.

[15] Ibid., p. 349.

[16] Ibid., p. 567n21.

[17] Ibid., p. 570n26.