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Home arrow Language & Literature arrow Occupying Space in American Literature and Culture: Static Heroes, Social Movements and Empowerment

Welcome and the Double Summons

The other becomes my neighbor precisely through the way the face summons me, calls for me, begs for me, and in so doing recalls my responsibility, and calls me into question.

—Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics as First Philosophy,”

The Levinas Reader

Spurred by his former wife’s dismay at his indifference to the plight of the refugees, when Simon sees Bilal and his friend on the street on his way home, he offers to give them a ride to the harbor. Surprisingly, instead of taking them to this nonhome, he drives them to his apartment and invites them to stay for the night. Thus Simon, like Walter in Thomas McCarthy’s The Visitor, opens his home to the Other, the alien, the voyou, the roue, and extends the gift of hospitality and the temporary sharing of space. Hospitality, writes Judith Still, “is by definition a structure that regulates relations between inside and outside, and, in that sense, between private and public. Someone or -ones, categorized as ‘outside,’ as not necessarily by right or legal contract part of the ‘inside,’ is temporarily brought within” (2006, 704). Hospitality rewrites the discourse of the border as line that intermittently communicates and separates. In hospitality, the line is temporarily deactivated and communication ensues. The outside becomes part of the inside and vice versa. This bringing-in does not come without conditions and restrictions. As a host, Simon remains the master of the house and defines the conditions of hospitality or welcome. He imposes the law of identity, as well as the law of place, the chez soi, and in so doing delimits the very place of proffered hospitality. Bilal and his friend cautiously cross the different thresholds and doors into Simon’s apartment, first the entrance to the building, significantly guarded by an improvised border-keeper, the law-abiding neighbor who is walking his dog, and then the threshold into Simon’s apartment, where the youngsters linger as if aware of entering a different or forbidden territory. This hesitance is revealing, for it locates the space and the workings of hospitality and the place of the guest. “For there to be hospitality,” Derrida claims, “there must be a door. But if there is a door, there is no longer hospitality. There is no hospitable house. There is no house without doors and windows,” Derrida claims, for “as soon as there are a door and windows, it means that someone has the key to them and consequently controls the conditions of hospitality. There must be a threshold. But if there is a threshold, there is no longer hospitality” (2000a, 14). Hospitality is deconstructed by the very places where it is exercised and by the line that delimits the outside versus the inside. Hospitality, Derrida (ibid.) claims, governs the threshold and its unpredictable opening and closing. Simon, transformed into a host, is the master of his house, perfectly assured of his sovereignty over the space he occupies and shares.

Simon invites the two youngsters to stay for the night; just one night, he cautions. As a grateful guest, Bilal keeps on saying thank you, and Simon simply asks him to stop saying it. There is no welcoming of the foreigners or the immediate answer to Bilal’s politeness, just a laconic “keep it clean.” The absence of the word “welcome,” to follow Derrida’s analysis, dismantles the position of the host and his or her instant appropriation of place. Simon does not speak the language of hospitality; he just folds the foreigner into the internal law of the apartment (cf. Derrida 2000a, 7), as he sets out the rules of engagement. In the morning, Simon’s ex-wife comes by to pick up her books and meets the two young men as they get ready to leave. She is surprised to see them, and Simon, who has staged the encounter, creates a casual image of himself as a Good Samaritan. He met them at the pool where they went to take a shower, he claims. They had been staying for three or four days. They were on the street, freezing, and he could not leave them there, he offers as an explanation. The narrative reveals how Simon’s gift of hospitality is deeply rooted in his ipseity, for it is his self-image he tries to improve before his deeply committed ex-wife. Yet the contact, if conditional and limited in time, is not without consequences.

His wife breaks the news that he may run into trouble for sheltering the Kurds. It is his problem, he answers. Certainly it is, for even if the two men leave that morning, they truly never leave Simon’s home or life. Levinas has explained that the “otherness or strangeness of the other manifests itself as the extraordinary par excellence.” It is the xenos that brings “a certain disquietude, as a derangement which puts us out of our common tracks” (Waldenfels 2002, 63). Simon’s initial gesture to impress his wife turns out to be more than a staging of hospitality. By receiving and sheltering the Other, the Other “whose interpellation originates from outside, from an exteriority” (ibid., 66), Simon’s self is called into question. In the process, all the routines that structured his life will be left behind. Hospitality, Still writes, is more than a legal contract or a verbal agreement, for it is “overlaid with crucial affective elements” (2006, 704), and the guest and the host may be utterly changed by the experience. For Simon, who never had a son and is in the midst of separating from his wife, meeting Bilal equals meeting the Other and, with it, the redrawing of the lines of his identity.

Emmanuel Levinas has insisted that the articulation of an identity, of a unicity, or a uniqueness of the subject derives from responsibility to the Other. By extending hospitality to Bilal and his friend and by sharing a meal, the movie shows Simon’s awakening. His identity departs from ipseity and moves onto the terrain of relation. The shattering of the self in the face of the Other refers to “breaking up the limits of identity, breaking up the principle of being in me” (Levinas [1974] 2009, 114). After the encounter with Bilal, Simon will experience “the impossibility to come back from all things and concern oneself only with oneself” (ibid.). Like Ray and Lila in Frozen River, Simon will not become a full subject until he commits himself to this Other outside himself. As a consequence, his initial claims to an identity anchored in ipseity prove insubstantial, for identity presents itself related or influenced elsewhere. The line surrounding the subject, like the liquid line of the pool, like the boundary separating France from England, is fluid. Both lines drawn in the water, just like the “Un-National Monument” Stafford described, become “un-national” in the face of ethics and the relation to the Other. Just as in Frozen River the baby revitalized motherhood for Lila, Bilal, another representative of live cargoes that move across nations, will become the son Simon never had. Thus “the emphasis shifts to the subject as constituted by and through a relation of responsibility which antedates the subject” (Toumayan 2004, 33). The subject’s unicity or identity can neither be established nor justified on his or her own terms through a logic of autonomy (Levinas [1974] 2009, 106); rather it is established by way of a relation. For Levinas, as he expresses it in Totality and Infinity, subjectivity is conceptualized as “welcoming the Other, as hospitality” ([1961] 2008, 27). Simon, like Lila and Ray, is constituted across the divisible border of race, culture, language, and territory.

Transgressing the invisible line that separates citizens from aliens has a price, as Simon’s wife cautions him, and he is immediately summoned to the police station. The interview with the officer shows the official need to redefine what is properly French in the face of the Other. The spatial practices of this Other are reconfigured into spatial stereotypes where he/she can be isolated and extricated from the body politic. Any contact outside this mobile border is deemed suspect, and the officer needs confirmation that Simon picked up the two Kurdish youngsters in his car. When Simon asks what the two youngsters have done, he is informed that that is not the right question. The issue is not what they have done but what he has done, for “aiding illegal immigrants is an offense,” he claims. In trying to specify what aiding means, Simon inquires if giving people lifts is forbidden. “To them, yes,” the officer concludes, and adds, “There are five hundred on the coast, trying to get to the UK, and more each day. I am paid to stop this town becoming an illegal alien camp,” he explains. Space, according to this logic, does not enjoy the throwntogetherness of a casual encounter but is seen as the changeable site of an endless divisible border. When Simon tells him that he “did not invite them” to come to France, the officer clarifies that “helping them encourages others,” and they “have strict orders to stop locals helping these people.” Thus the violence of separation and severing human contact is cloaked in the rationality of homogeneity and unification against a presumably threatening enemy. The rationale rests on the state’s right to interfere in the definition of what constitutes an authorized guest and on the assumption that the host’s house is a subset of the national territory. Private gestures of hospitality, such as offering shelter for the night, are always a subcategory of so-called national hospitality (Rosello 2001, 37-38). This correlation between private and public realms naturalizes the idea that identity checks must precede the granting of hospitality. As a consequence, the host adopts a policing role, that of a professional identifier or customs official (ibid.).

The conversation lays down the parameters of hostility on the national stage. Not only is the nation inhospitable to the newcomers, who are automatically spatialized in rigid and striated spaces (cf. Kandiyoti 2009, 40-41), but it also forces its own citizens to exercise the same kind of reception towards the alien, the roue. Failure to comply translates into inner hostility. The state, as becomes apparent in the exchange, can expel and suspend modes of legal protection and obligation when citizens do not collaborate with its roles of policing the territory. The state can make its citizens “destitute and enraged” (Butler and Spivak 2007, 3-4), for it compels them to participate in an apartheid regime and threatens with its exercise of power, with prisons and carceral containment (ibid., 4-5). When the official claims that his job is to prevent another camp, he is referring to Sangatte, the refugee center that under the patronage of the French Red Cross harbored migrants from Kosovo, Kurdistan, and Afghanistan from August 1999 to December 2002.12 The officer does not seem to be aware, however, of the fact that the city is already a rerouted camp, a striated space where human “borders” occupy non-places and where French citizens are persecuted for sheltering the “illegals.” On February 4, 1997, Jacqueline Deltombe was found guilty of harboring a friend and her partner from Zaire, who did not have the correct papers. The arrest and the court case were widely contested. For the Bishop of Clermont-Ferrand, “hospitality still has something sacred about it. It comes out of those unwritten laws which we know every individual and even the State should obey” (Still 2006, 707). This unofficial welcoming increased after Sangatte was closed and the migrants roamed around Calais with nothing to do and nowhere to go. A number of citizens from Calais offered food, clothes, and short-term accommodation. In August 2005 two teachers, Jean-Claude Lenoir and Charles Frammezelle, were accused of aiding a foreigner to stay in France without the necessary permits, thus violating a clause in a law dating from 1945, and were prosecuted as if they were human traffickers. Hospitality, the delit de solidarite, as it was called by activists, carries a penalty. It also garnered support, as the signing of the petition Si la solidarite est un delit, je demande a etre poursuivi pour ce delit demonstrated (Stephanie 2004). These names, as Stephanie writes in the journal Liberation, will not be the last to face justice. Two volunteers were accused of distributing food to twenty-nine illegals (clandestins) in a squat near Dunkerque. They risked ten years in prison plus a 750,00 0 euro fine. Aiding these clandestins is a crime according to Article 21 of the ordinance of November 2, 1945. The sentences were increased by the Sarkozy law of 2003. What in 1945 was a criminal act is now in danger of becoming an act of terrorism (Derrida [1997] 2001, 16).13 These episodes demonstrate that the nation-state expects “each individual to abide by the state definition of hospitality, even if the rule encroaches upon the sphere of the private” (Rosello 2001, 37). This transgression may take place under the premise that the host (and host society) are to be protected from a potentially dangerous guest. The rationale behind it is that “before granting hospitality, one must ascertain to which category the guest belongs,” according to the state definition of identity (ibid.). Thus the law breaks into the private realm. Paradoxically in this invasion of privacy (or occupation), it is the law that becomes the unwanted guest that threatens the safety of the host.

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