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The Alternative Summons

Folklore recounts a rather amusing exchange between Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau. Emerson spoke first, “Why,

Henry, why are you in jail?” To which the younger Thoreau replied,

“My dear Waldo, the question is why are you not!” The conversation reportedly took place as Thoreau spent a night in a Massachusetts jail for failure to pay his poll tax. Thoreau conscientiously refused to pay a tax that would support both slavery and a war with Mexico that he deemed unjust. The night in jail would prompt Thoreau’s classic essay on civil disobedience.

—Daniel Ostas, “Civil Disobedience in a Business Context”

As the movie escalates both Simon’s loneliness in a home emotionally vacated after the formal separation with his wife and the violence on the streets, the question is how long it is possible to maintain this invisible line between law-abiding citizens living in comfortable homes and the open camp populated by the surplus population that cannot find a place, that is, by “those who are constructed as living outside the polis—literally, the ‘alienated’” (Fassin 2005, 379). Simon’s home is closed in that it provides a contraction of identity, the place to return to after a routine day at the pool; yet it is also open, inasmuch as it implies a relation to an exterior world of violence and chaos that increasingly gains space in his comfortable abode. This going out of the self, as Levinas has remarked, implies a recollection that, in the philosopher’s view, refers to a welcome. The recueillement has an embedded accueil. As in Frozen River, the act of dwelling can no longer be reduced to a closed economy of the I reflecting on itself as Simon closes the evening with a TV dinner. His dwelling implies a recollection that refers to an exteriority and to a welcome of the Other. As if responding to a silent summons, Simon leaves the apartment to look for Bilal. There is no one at the harbor, Simon finds out, for the police dispersed the group with tear gas, and the migrants moved to the jungle, a forest of thorn bushes where Afghans have put up their huts, always in fear of the French riot police.14 As in McCarthy’s The Visitor, Simon steps outside the self to respond to a quiet convocation to justice. It is once again the foreigner, the xenos, that “shakes up the threatening dogmatism of the paternal logos” as well as its traditional dichotomies, “the being that is,” a democracy in need of protection from outsiders and their contamination, and “the non-being that is not,” an expanding threatening camp made up of voyous and rues (Derrida 2000b, 5).

Simon takes Bilal home for the second time and dispenses the rituals of hospitality. Being more than a ritual or an agreement, hospitality entails affective elements (cf. Still 2006, 704), and the guest and the host may be utterly changed through the experience. Simon, transformed into a father figure, tries to persuade Bilal to learn French and stay in France rather than venture across the icy waters of the channel. Bilal’s determination, to Simon’s growing frustration, remains undeterred. The ideal scene between father and son deteriorates when Simon finds that his gold medal is gone, which in Simon’s mind proves that Bilal has abused his hospitality. Hospitality, therefore, does not move in a linear manner and can turn against the guest at the slightest intimation of abuse. Like the border, it can open and close and morph into its own parasitic other, hostility. The host can turn into hospes, and Simon impersonates this transformation as he tries to force a plastic bag over the youngster’s head. It is a crucial scene that bifurcates in at least two ways. It situates Bilal on the level of the inanimate, the merchandise that forces the suppression of the human; it also depicts him as the victim of torture, a flashback to his capture by the Turkish army.15 The scene also reveals how the welcoming home can morph into a prison, with the guest forcibly transformed into the Other who one seeks to “appropriate, control, and master according to different modalities of violence” (Derrida [1997] 2001, 17). The guest may momentarily metamorphose into the hostage. When Bilal hurriedly leaves, Simon apologetically runs after him and pleads for him to return. Bilal has been his hostage in a perversion of the laws of hospitality, yet Simon as host is also a hostage to Bilal, for, as Levinas indicates, the exercise of responsibility towards the Other implies that the self must be the hostage of the Other. Host and its derivation into hostage are the pivotal tropes for responsibility (Ferreira 2001, 455). And it is through the position of hostage, Levinas claims, “that there can be in the world pity, compassion, pardon, and proximity” ([1974] 2009, 117). The fact of being oneself, for Levinas, is tantamount to “being a hostage” (ibid.).

The scene on the landing is witnessed by the law-abiding neighbor, who, in his gatekeeping role, reminds Simon that it is illegal to harbor immigrants. When Simon claims Bilal is just a kid, the neighbor sticks to his policing and site-making role and retorts that he is illegal and that is what counts. “They have lice; they steal,” he adds, as if trying to explain the reason for their illegality. Undeterred by the threats to be reported to the police, Simon extends the gift of unconditional hospitality to Bilal a third time. Simon accepts that Bilal might indeed be the thief, the Other of the Other, that took his medal; that he might transform himself into quasiinanimate cargo to cross the liquid line. Significantly, Simon incorporates him into the family structure as he gives him his wife’s ring, a very valuable piece of jewelry. It will impress Mina’s father even if he wants to marry her off to a cousin, Simon anticipates confidently. The young man will find a way to cross, Simon concludes, and Bilal will invite him to his wedding. As a perfect circular structure, the ring will bring them together at the end of the narrative.

The police arrive early the next morning to question Simon and search the apartment. As they look at the improvised bed on the couch, they automatically accuse him of sheltering the clandestins. Bilal and the wetsuit are gone. Simon searches the beach for traces of the youngster, and the viewer has a chance to see the booming hospitality industry of Calais and the series of beach houses that string the coast. When Simon reports Bilal’s disappearance to the coast guards, he provides Bilal’s last name as Calmat. “He is my son,” he claims in distress. It is the statement that synthesizes the threefold movement that Levinas traces in dwelling, the ultimate welcome of the Other into the home of the self. The “son” is later found, but the “father” is held for questioning. The charges, now materialized through his neighbor’s statement, are aiding an illegal immigrant and smuggling people. When the officer threatens to incriminate his wife, the kind of volunteer he is always under pressure to nab, Simon confesses to the narrative that was required from him: he has sheltered illegal immigrants, he smuggles them, and he has sex with them. Now Bilal is in detention, but Simon is, too. This convergence revealingly situates the comfortable home next to the nonhome of the streets; the civilized polis next to the camp; terra next to terrere; the host side by side with the xenos. The bars and the fences that cut through a society, to return to Obata’s words at Tanforan Racetrack, cut both ways. The walls that keep out also keep in. Even though he is bailed out and forbidden to leave the district, Simon will disobey once again and find Bilal at the harbor, where he delivers his last paternal task, as he conveys Mina’s last message and gives the youngster his coat. Like Bilal, now Simon carries his own coordinates of exception and gradually becomes the political abject, ejected from the isomorphism of land, language, culture. Simon becomes the Other in an exercise of what Levinas calls substitution: “The-one-for-the-other goes to the extent of the-one- being-hostage-for-the-other. In its identity invoked the one is irreplaceable, and does not return to itself; in its bearing of itself, it is an expiation for the other, in its ‘essence’ an ex-ception to essence, or a substitution” ([1974] 2009, 141).

At the pool the next morning, boards and ropes insistently display the colors of the French flag, as if visibly claiming the lanes of the contained line as national. Fittingly, from the lanes of the pool the camera travels to Bilal, synchronously swimming across the liquid line and making out Dover’s white cliffs. This image of continuity and indivisibility, however, is deceiving, for it carries an invisible line drawn in the water. Bilal pauses as he catches his breath before the “un-monument of the border,” where, to go back to Stafford’s poem, the only heroic thing is the sky and the water. Yet, like the frozen river in Courtney Hunt’s movie, the channel is binational and closely policed by the Royal Navy. Bilal, however, situates his body between the lines drawn on the water and maintains with his occupation his belief, to return to Lefebvre, that the body rejects “the reproduction of relations which deprive it and crush it” (1976, 89). Bilal will not allow himself to be dismembered or divided into fragments. Like Bartleby, he transforms the lines into his lines of flight as he drowns. Water, as his suicide implies, is smooth and un-national. Back in Calais, the officer returns Simon’s gold medal, which was found in the hands of a handler. Bilal’s friend had stolen it and paid his way across the channel. The officer also breaks the news that the British authorities sent back Bilal’s body in a bag. They found him eight hundred meters away from their coast. Significantly, Bilal returns the same way he intended to depart. Wrapped in a plastic bag and with no need for high-tech sensors, Bilal’s body is treated as merchandise and is expeditiously waved through checkpoints, finally able to move freely across the liquid line. Significantly, the movie does not provide images of Simon’s home after Bilal’s disappearance. It does show Simon in an unfamiliar neighborhood, as he waits for Mina to deliver the ring Bilal never had a chance to give her. Father and girlfriend mourn together. It is Simon’s way of asserting Bilal’s right to a horizon, of inscribing himself in Bilal’s memory, now adjacent to his own, and determining his actions.

In his act of responsibility towards the Other, Simon ends up being Bilal’s host and hostage and replacing him across the channel. Substitution crystallizes our responsibility for the Other, for it is tantamount to saying and performing the principle that “the other is in me and in the midst of my very identification” (Levinas [1974] 2009, 125). This is the self that, in forgetting and divesting itself, becomes what we have termed the “un-self.” Yet, for Levinas, it is through this “substitution that I am not ‘another,’ but me” (ibid., 127). The philosopher uses the term “total altruism” to speak of the responsibility that “rids the I of its imperialism and egotism” ([1975] 1996, 73) through the ultimate act of responsibility. Substitution, therefore, goes beyond the psychological event of pity or compassion and implies a putting oneself in the place of the Other by taking responsibility for their responsibilities (Bernasconi 2002, 239). Far from signifying the alienation of the self, “subjectivity is being hostage” (Levinas [1974] 2009, 127), and the position of being a subject implies a deposition, a de-substantiation of the subject, and its de-reification (ibid.). If at the end of The Visitor, Walter could claim his citizenship to “somewhere else” that paradoxically rooted and routed his narrative of belonging, the closing of Welcome shows that Simon cannot claim his citizenship to a country that materializes more like terrere than terra. For he knows his return will be ruled by the protective custody reserved for the others. Like Bilal, Simon is now the representative of a shifting boundary that is no longer contained within the Heim of the national culture and its unisonant discourse. For him, like for Bilal, hospitality now materializes as hostility within the autoimmune country; the polis is hardly distinguishable from the camp. In the midst of this terminological fluidity, however, the characters in Frozen River and Welcome make an attempt at emptying out the premises of dividing lines as they confront the violence inherent to the making and the maintaining of the nation-state. In doing so they forge what seems to be an un-self along and across the un-monument of the border. They do so by un-nationalizing place. The prefix un-, as stated before, implies the reversing of an action. In so doing, both movies propose an alternative rationalization of space. What is the kind of place that materializes in this process of undoing? Not the non-place of supermodernity, or the trans-place that is the equivalent to Appadurai’s translocalities; this conceptual reversal leads us to the unplace. The un-place dismantles not one line, but the line within the line within the line, that is, the constantly repeated boundary that multiplies and bifurcates as we speak.

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