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an international and interdisciplinary journal of postmodern cultural sound, text and image

 Volume 14, Fall 2017, ISSN 1552-5112



Derrida’s Politics to Come: Aporetic Cosmopolitanism, Hospitality and Deconstructive Ethics



Ida Nursoo







Aporia — the Greek word — Jacques Derrida remarks, refers to “nonpassage” or impassability, but more specifically it is an event that affects the trajectory of a pathway, whether that be a thought, an experience, or an event, to the point of not merely interruption or disruption, but often complete annihilation of a presumed identity.[1] It refers to an inherent contradiction but differs from the Kantian antinomy, which also refers to contradiction: whereas antinomies can be resolved, aporias cannot; instead, aporia means that the condition of possibility of something is also the condition of its impossibility. Aporia’s potential is to initiate conceptual ruptures that bring to the surface the limits of previous modes of thought. For Derrida, “…ethics, politics and responsibility, if there are any, will only ever have begun with the experience and experiment of the aporia.”[2]


This article examines Derrida’s response to the cosmopolitan turn in ethico-political thought. I think that Mark Bevir is correct in his assessment that “Derridean cosmopolitanism” differs from the universalism of liberalism.[3] But I have reservations about the category of “Derridean cosmopolitanism” as Bevir describes it. It is true that cosmopolitan sentiments did inform some of Derrida’s later works, including his writings and interviews on hospitality,[4] democracy and international institutions,[5] animals[6] and the place of the modern University.[7] They inspired his interventions into current political matters, particularly those relating to asylum seekers, human rights, crimes against humanity and terrorism. Yet Derrida seemed somewhat ambivalent about cosmopolitanism. On the one hand, he identified with and promoted sentiments of a cosmopolitan point of view in the face of state violence, but on the other hand he distanced himself from it. This ambivalence, I will argue, is the key to understanding how Derrida’s thinking on cosmopolitanism ruptures the ethical idealism of cosmopolitanism and demands a rethinking of both the foundations upon which it relies and the future to which it aspires. Instead, I use the term aporetic cosmopolitanism to characterise the ethico-political contribution of Derrida’s intervention.


Questioning the Passage

Between Ethics and Politics


Since Nancy Fraser’s provocations: “Does deconstruction have any political implications? Does it have any political significance beyond the byzantine and incestuous struggles it has provoked in American lit crit departments? Is it possible – and desirable – to articulate a deconstructive politics?”[8] the ethico-political contribution of Derrida’s unique and profoundly complex thought has been fiercely debated.[9] Asserting that Derrida had himself abandoned deconstruction, and assessing the shortcomings of its remaining defenders, Fraser argued that what was particularly lacking in deconstruction’s contribution to politics was, despite its claims to engage with difference, deconstruction’s inability to “tolerate” one particular kind of difference: “difference as dispute, as good, old-fashioned, political fight.”[10] However, perhaps it is the conceptualization of the political, as an antagonistic struggle between two sides with a winner declared at the end, that demands such polarized certainty from deconstruction and which misses the opportunity to appreciate how it might rethink the political whilst also rethinking the ethical, for structurally, the two are not so clearly dissociated in Derrida’s thought. Such appreciation of deconstruction can only be achieved through the discomfort of uncertainty and unknowing.


Others have made the claim that, after the publication of Margins of Philosophy, deconstruction made an “ethical turn” or, as Richard Kearney puts it, an “ethical re-turn.”[11] For such commentators this signals the point at which the question of ethical responsibility becomes more pronounced in Derrida’s writings. Kearney contends that here Derrida’s engagement with the Heideggerian project of deconstructing metaphysics is supplanted by an ethical inflection influenced by Levinasian attention to the ethical demands of the other. Simon Critchley has also argued that an ethical demand is central to the work of deconstruction, where “ethics” is not to be understood in terms of a Kantian claim to a transcendent morality, but in terms of a relationship to the other in which my subjectivity is called into question. As he summarizes the thrust of Levinasian ethics: “The ethical is therefore the location of a point of alterity, or what Levinas also calls ‘exteriority’ (extériorité), that cannot be reduced to the same.”[12] However, what we find in Derrida’s approach, Critchley points out, is a “double-handed treatment of ethics.”[13] By this he means that the influence of Levinasian ethics is one strand of Derrida’s understanding of ethics and the other is its calling into question, that is, an inquiry into its conditions of possibility.


While commentators have often identified Derrida’s essay on the “Force of Law” or his appeal to a “democracy to come” in his later writings since Spectres of Marx[14] as signaling a political turn in his thought, importantly, Derrida has disagreed with the marking of any particular moment in which his thought “becomes” political. In Rogues he clarifies: “The thinking of the political has always been a thinking of différance and the thinking of différance always a thinking of the political, of the contour and limits of the political, especially around the enigma or the autoimmune double bind of the democratic.”[15]


That is to say that a concern with the political is embedded deep within the project of deconstruction since Derrida’s early work on the problem of the speech/writing opposition in the history of Western metaphysics. In différance Derrida presents a neologism. Neither a word nor a concept; it is of an order that “resists philosophy’s founding opposition between the sensible and intelligible. ”[16] Belonging neither to the voice nor to writing in the usual sense; it occurs between speech and writing. Neither present nor absent; différance is “what makes the presentation of being-present possible.”[17] Neither active nor passive, it occurs in between: it is the middle voice if you like. Différance conveys a theme that would resound throughout Derrida’s writings, that is, an interest in the notion of the boundary as mutually constituting the inside and outside. Considering the application of the play of différance to the play between ethics and politics, deconstruction then, is neither ethical nor political, but “ethico-political.” That is to say that it calls into question the tendency to separate ethics from politics and to subordinate the political to the ethical, which are the conditions of possibility demanding that politics be carried out in the name of ethics as exemplified by the universal cosmopolitanism approach. Such separation is a feature of Platonic-Western oppositions that came to be amplified by Kant’s treatment of ethics and politics as separate spheres and the alignment of philosophy with the former as the means by which it engages with the latter.


Deconstruction, then, may be situated as neither ethical nor political insofar as it problematizes the very structure of the either/or opposition. Instead it may be regarded as a questioning of the passage of that separation that tends to be made between ethics and politics. Central to deconstruction, I am suggesting, is an ethico-political vigilance where ethics is not an imposition of an external agenda, as in claims to ethics-as-morality that would limit politics, but ethics-as-politics and politics-as-ethics is an awareness and address of its internal contradiction: although charged with an undecidable irreducibility that stays open to alterity, or to the horizon of the future, at the same time it calls for the urgency and violence of the interruptive decision endeavoring in the least not to recommit the violence of the origin nor to perform the violence of the “worst.”[18] It is aware of this ‘double bind’ that we might also call aporia.



Revealing the Aporias of Cosmopolitan Ethics

through the Logic of Hostipitalité


Derrida’s deconstruction of cosmopolitanism commences with an encounter with aporia. One event in particular conveys the aporia of cosmopolitanism and it is worthwhile spending some time setting it out in order to provide the background necessary for understanding the context of Derrida’s intervention. The text On Cosmopolitanism is an address Derrida gave to the International Parliament of Writers in 1996 marking the anniversary of the Network of Cities of Asylum project. It was originally published in French in 1997 as Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un effort! Much of the title’s playfulness is lost in the official published English translation, which could otherwise be taken, in the spirit of a rally cry, as “Cosmopolitans of all countries, try again!” There is here a subtle play on Karl Marx’s “workers of the world unite” from the Communist Manifesto – another cosmopolitan movement that fell short of its promise. There may also be a play on the Marquis de Sade’s Français encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains!”[19] Published in 1795, the same year as Kant’s Perpetual Peace, Sade’s anti-Enlightenment nationalism expressed in this small pamphlet presents a stark contrast to the Enlightenment cosmopolitanism that Kant has been made famous for. Already in Derrida’s title there is a sense that what we are encountering in this so-called cosmopolitan experience marking the occasion of his address is a certain repetition: we can find traces of cosmopolitan experiences already passed and, like the movement of différance, we are engaged in repetition but also differentiation and deferral.


The International Parliament of Writers (IPW) is a human rights organization concerned with literary freedom, censorship and protection for persecuted writers. It was established in 1994 in Strasbourg in response to the assassination of Algerian writer, Tahar Diaout, the previous year. Strasbourg is notable because it offered asylum to the Anglo-Indian writer Salman Rushdie after Iran’s Ayatolla Khomeini declared his novel The Satanic Verses[20] blasphemous, a distortion of the Koran and issued a fatwa against him. The question that is raised by these events is: how does the assassination of one writer and the urgency of asylum of another open up the question of the status of writing as a question of ethics and politics?


We can find in Derrida’s early writings an engagement with these ethico-political themes. “The Pharmakon and writing are thus always involved in questions of life and death,” Derrida observed.[21] In a close and detailed reading of Plato’s Phaedrus Derrida traced the undecidable character of the Greek word pharmakon — meaning both “poison” and “remedy” — to point to the instability of binary oppositions demarcating inside from outside, which characterized much of the history of Western metaphysics. Like the pharmakon, according to the Platonic logic, in opposition to spoken speech (logos) writing is poisonous, uncontrollable, dangerous; like the pharmakon, the writings of many persecuted authors and intellectuals are considered to be distortions of the truth, contaminating culture and religion, and therefore they are deemed improper and evil. Like the two forces of the pharmakon, whatever virtues these texts may have do not prevent them from injuring.


The case of Salman Rushdie may illustrate the point further. Published in 1989, Rushdie’s Satanic Verses questions the meaning of good and evil. The novel was considered by some Muslims to be blasphemous in its depiction of a character that dreams of himself as the Prophet Muhammad and in its references to the Koran. It was burned, it caused riots around the world and it was banned in several countries. Publishers and people associated with the novel received death threats. Rushdie himself was forced into hiding. Considering the Platonic logic, the opposition between truth and falsehood is at stake in this case. Its possibility rests on the axes of the opposition between good and evil; pure and impure; inside and outside. But when we look at how the event played out, we can notice that the difference between inside and outside, as demarcated by the Ayatollah, was constituted by Rushdie’s writing itself — that is to say that since inside is constituted by its outside, the distinction between inside and outside cannot hold. Rushdie’s text takes the form of the undecidable threatening the traditional foundations of the canon and Rushdie himself comes to occupy an undecidable space oscillating between life and death. Here the writer is displaced; forced into exile by the threat of death; forced into hiding like the secret of the community. The pharmakon becomes a very real and urgent question of life and death that repeats itself throughout history.[22]


Following the Rushdie affair, the IPW declared Strasbourg the first “City of Asylum” for persecuted intellectuals and writers. In 1994 the IPW appealed for the transnational extension of the Network and, in collaboration with the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of Europe (CLRAE), drafted The European Charter of Cities of Asylum. On 31 May 1995, CLRAE undertook to implement the Charter and support the Network. Following this, on 21 September of the same year, the European Parliament adopted a Resolution in support of the Network. The asylum system of the Network is co-ordinated by the IPW. The IPW nominate threatened writers for asylum to participating cities and the cities that accept to adopt, or host, these nominated writers pay a contribution to the IPW to cover the writers’ living expenses and undertake to provide them with accommodation for one year as well as access to public services and intellectual support.


The Charter and Network provide for the protection of the writer with respect to two main aspects: first, the right to freedom of expression and creativity and second, the right to asylum. As such, its two basic ethical premises are human rights and hospitality. With regard to human rights, it draws upon the human rights traditions in post-Second World War international law and European Union law as it emphasizes the rights to enjoy asylum and to freedom of expression. With regard to hospitality, the Charter’s position is less specifically defined, noting:



…the Congress denounces violations to freedom of expression and artistic creativity, condemns the fact that writers throughout the world feel themselves to be more and more menaced and persecuted because of their writing and underlines that only a Network of Cities of Asylum wishing to offer true solidarity and ‘hospitality which opens up to the proximity which exists between local authorities and citizens’, can provide an appropriate response.[23]



The Charter also proclaims that:



This new threat to literature demands a new response, particularly the creation of new forms of hospitality and patronage which consider multiculturalism to be an essential condition for literary creation.[24]



At first glance, the Network of the Cities of Asylum may appear to be a cosmopolitan achievement in the sense claimed by moral-universalist cosmopolitans. The Network seems to echo the Kantian notion of cosmopolitanism, which was expressed in his Third Definitive Article for a Perpetual Peace in terms of a “right” the conditions of which were defined by “universal hospitality.” They also invoke the earlier classical Greek notion of the cosmopolis in their treatment of citizenship as an affiliation to something of a world city rather than to the state. This would otherwise constitute a significant shift in contemporary legal conceptions of citizenship in a world that is divided into (nation)states as we know them today. And further, it may appear that an ethic of hospitality, of opening the city’s doors to the foreigner, has exceeded the sovereignty of the state in deciding who may gain entry to its territory.


But what seems like an innovative approach repositioning power from states to cities and laying hopes for a new ethic of hospitality towards (albeit particular) foreigners in the Cities of Asylum project, is in fact the product of a treaty between states.[25]  Significantly, the condition of possibility of the city’s hospitality is its impossibility: it is only possible that cities have this seemingly principal political status because it has been granted by the sovereignty of states in which they are located. Hospitality here is but an effect of the force of international law. Meanwhile, France and other European states are tightening their borders and hardening their immigration and asylum policies, especially for a certain kind of foreigner, the anonymous sans papiers.[26] For Derrida, the political climate raises an ontological uncertainty in the idea of cosmopolitanism: “…we do not know if the Cities of Asylum experience is a cosmopolitan one because the current situation is not quite living up to its promise.”


Derrida acknowledges the urgency of the threat to writers and supports the project in its human rights initiative. But at the same time, given the uncertainty of its “cosmopolitan” achievement, he uses the occasion of the IPW conference marking the anniversary of the Cities of Asylum network to deconstruct cosmopolitanism, the Network and their inheritance in order to re-state the ethico-political problem. When the juridico-political paradox of the Cities of Asylum undermines what might otherwise be perceived as a cosmopolitan achievement, in a move signalling a rupture with the tradition, Derrida distances himself from this secular establishment and renames it the “Cities of Refuge” in the spirit of the historical Judaeo-Christian parables of the Torah’s “Book of Numbers” [27] and the “Book of Joshua” in the Christian Bible’s Old Testament.[28]


In the Book of Numbers, the Lord commanded Moses to set aside six cities of refuge in the land of Canaan. The cities were to serve the Israelites and their resident aliens as places of refuge for anyone that unintentionally killed another person. They were to constitute a safe haven from revenge for the accused. There he would be “restored” by the assembly until the death of the high priest after which time he could return to his homeland. Protection would only be afforded to an accused within the bounds of the city of refuge. In the Old Testament of the Bible we find the cities of refuge in the Book of Joshua. Again, the Lord tells Joshua, as He did Moses, to allocate cities of refuge as a “sanctuary” for a man that accidentally kills another. In this version, the man must stand at the gates of the city of refuge and present his case to the city’s elders. Only if they are satisfied, will he be admitted to the city and, until he stands trial before the community, “they will grant him a place where he may live as one of themselves.”[29]


Derrida’s act of renaming is a gesture of iterability: the paradox of the hospitality practiced by the Cities of Asylum can be traced back to the practices of the biblical Cities of Refuge. His analysis reveals that the starting point of the Network of Cities of Asylum is not a point at all, but a différance from what has come before and what is yet to come. The play of différance occurs as “this new ethic or this new cosmopolitics of the cities of refuge” in a gesture of revival of “an original concept of hospitality”[30] is, at the same time, the recuperation or reappropriation of an old ideal that may be inherently self-subverting; for the starting point is not the presence of cities of refuge or the presence of hospitality, but the desire for their presence, which is also their lack. In this present that is not present, there is here a sense of “…That Dangerous Supplement…” that Derrida had expressed earlier in Of Grammatology:



…différance makes the opposition of presence and absence possible. Without the possibility of difference, the desire of presence as such would not find its breathing-space. That means by the same token that this desire carries in itself the destiny of its non-satisfaction. Différance produces what it forbids, makes possible the very thing that it makes impossible.[31]


Derrida’s interruption of this seeming-cosmopolitan event points out that the very conditions that made the Cities of Asylum possible make them also impossible. We have encountered the knot in the ideal; we are here confronted with cosmopolitanism’s aporias. To take it back to the philosophical analysis, we have here the non-passage in the idea of cosmopolitanism: ethics has not found its passage through politics.


The deconstructive approach to cosmopolitanism neither claims a cosmopolitan ethics nor sets out to design a cosmopolitics, but concerns itself with the identification and negotiation of this non-passage in the discourse of cosmopolitanism. Now let me offer a more expansive illustration of what this means. “What happens at this moment…” Derrida explains, “…is that every time the ethical and the political are caught in a knot, in an irreducible intrication, this does not mean that they are simply tangled, but that what seems not to have to be negotiated politically, not to have to be reinscribed in a relation of powers, thus, the nonnegotiable, the unconditional is, as unconditional, subject to political transaction: and this political transaction of the unconditional is not an accident, a degeneration, or a last resort; it is prescribed by ethical duty itself.”[32] Importantly, the distinguishing feature of Derrida’s ethico-political approach (from neo-Kantian-normative approaches to ethical and political questions, for example), is that for Derrida, ethics is not a transcendental domain providing the answers for how political affairs ought to be conducted; rather, Derrida regards the ethical and political as inextricably linked and ethical duty as the task of negotiating their tensions.


What concerns us then, for the purposes of identifying the aporia of cosmopolitanism, is the violation of the unconditional. Specifically, this is the unconditionality of hospitality. The question of asylum offers a point of entry into the problem. To be received by an ethic of hospitality, as the cosmopolitan ideal would require, would imply openness free of any limitations. Such hospitality would be unconditional. But the encounter with the foreigner-asylum-seeker is not one that is generally met by unconditional hospitality. Standing at the border of the city or state, such a figure is put into question and obstructed, first by the asking of his/her name, second by questioning his/her nationality and further by demands that he/she comply with the laws of the host.  In his late work entitled Of Hospitality, Derrida puts such hospitality into question outlining the dilemma that it presents:


Does hospitality consist in interrogating the new arrival? Does it begin with the question addressed to the newcomer…Or else does hospitality begin with the unquestioning welcome, in a double effacement, the effacement of the question and the name? Is it more just and more loving to question or not to question? to call by the name or without the name? to give or to learn a name already given? Does one give hospitality to a subject? to an identifiable subject? to a subject identifiable by name? to a legal subject? Or is hospitality rendered, is it given to the other before they are identified, even before they are (posited as or supposed to be) a subject, legal subject and subject nameable by their family name, etc.?[33]


But notably, the only hospitality that we have ever seen in the history of the Westphalian system of states, is that which has conditions imposed upon it. Another way to express the problem at stake would be to ask whether hospitality could ever be unconditional? An unconditional hospitality would be a “pure,” “absolute” and “infinite” hospitality, which Derrida refers to as “the unconditional law of unlimited hospitality.”[34] This is “to give the new arrival all of one’s home and oneself, to give him or her one’s own, our own without asking a name, or compensation, or the fulfilment of even the smallest condition.”[35]


Let us call this new arrival that turns up on our doorstep unannounced, the arrivant(e). An unassuming disposition, unconditional hospitality demands nothing of the arrivant(e), withholds nothing from the arrivant(e), yet takes responsibility for the arrivant(e). Ethical obligation emerges not from the conceit of reason or the superiority of morality or anything external to the encounter, but from the humility demanded by the Other’s radical alterity. Such welcoming of alterity’s guest is elaborated by Levinasian ethics in terms of openness to the face of the Other:


The relationship with the Other, the face-to-face with the Other, the encounter with a face that at once gives and conceals the Other, is the situation in which an event happens to a subject who does not assume it, who is utterly unable in its regard, but where none the less in a certain way it is in front of the subject. The other ‘assumed’ is the Other.[36]


The distinction between small “o” other to capital “O” Other signals the question of ethics for Levinas. If otherness is alterity, how can we know it as Other? In the act of knowing, the Otherness of the latter is constituted by certain presumptions bestowed upon the former; it is to make assumptions or prejudices about something that is ultimately unknowable to us and to distort whatever may come.  The nakedness of the face symbolizes an other stripped of all its identity or meaning; its presentation of the other before me alienates any ideas I might have had of the Other before its arrival. The other here is unknowable and perhaps is more accurately represented in writing as (other); that is as a symbol enclosed by parentheses.


An intimate, yet confronting moment, this face to face encounter with the other is one that challenges the assumed stability of a self that is capable of forming a prejudice of the other. To face the other in this raw moment of facing is to be drawn to the other in a movement that is not motivated by will or reason, but as one that demands abstraction and transcendence from the self in order to receive whatever comes before it. Drawing towards the other in this moment is therefore a time prior to ontology, which, for Levinas, is the time of ethics.[37] The relationship with the other is therefore a temporal relationship and ethics is therefore a question of the time of the other and responsibility for the other. But this is not a responsibility in the sense of a programme for handling others as Kantian inspired cosmopolitanisms advocate; it is a notion of ethics that seeks to be non-egotistical, pre-ontological and non-prescriptive. In the ethical relation of the “face to face,” responsibility occurs in the phenomenology of reception, not in the reduction of the other to the categories of the self. [38] It is a relation that would appear to epitomize unconditional hospitality as openness to whatever may come.


Conditional hospitality, by contrast is defined as “the laws of hospitality, these rights and obligations always conditioned and conditional.”[39] This is a hospitality that would be conditioned by an external law as Kant specifies and as the experience of the Network of Cities of Asylum demonstrates. To impose conditions upon an ethic that must be unconditional for it to be at all, commits a gross violation. However, as Derrida explains further, the aporia of hospitality is not just a simple opposition between unconditional and conditional forms. Rather, like the structure of différance, the two meanings of hospitality cannot be reduced into each other but require negotiation between them for there is an inherent contradiction in the notion of hospitality, even in its unconditional form, which renders it impossible. Thus, we have here a double law of hospitality, which Derrida represents by the neologism hostipitalité.


Derrida observes that even its etymology is aporetic:


…the word for ‘hospitality’ is a Latin word (Hospitalität, a word of Latin origin, of a troubled and troubling origin, a word which carries its own contradiction incorporated into it, a Latin word which allows itself to be parasitized by its opposite, “hostility”, the undesirable guest [hôte] which it harbors as the self-contradiction in its own body...).[40]


“Hospitality” (Hospitalität) and “host” (hospes) share their Latin roots with what may seem to be their opposites; “hostility” (hostiliter) and “enemy” (hostis). Further, “hospitality’s” contradiction is built into the very meaning of the word, for the term “hospitality” is suggestive of an unconditional openness to, or accommodation of, an absolute, unknown, anonymous Other. As Derrida puts it, “pure hospitality consists in welcoming whoever arrives before imposing any conditions on him, before knowing and asking anything at all, be it a name or an identity ‘paper.’”[41] But even in its unconditional ideal, as “pure hospitality,” hospitality can never be unconditional; for, as an ethic owed to the stranger, hospitality is conditional upon its very recognition and naming of a stranger. It is always, therefore, a compromised position.[42] The point is that “hospitality” commits a kind of violence in its very subjectivation of the stranger to whom it professes its welcome. To put it another way, its power and authority over identification of the stranger is an act of violence of mastery over, and subjugation of, its subject. The problem raised for cosmopolitanism is how can it ever be ethical if it is predicated upon an ethic of hospitality, which itself harbours a violation of the Other whom it professes to treat ethically? Has it not slapped the face of the other before even facing it?


Despite his admiration for Levinasian ethics and acknowledgement of its influence on his own ethical thought, Derrida identifies the aporia of hospitality even in Levinas’ writing. Although Levinas’ account of the face to face with the other conveys a hospitality that would appear unconditional, Derrida finds as its limit the implication of the speaking human subject as the subject of the face. He expresses the problem as follows:


In the face, the other is given over in person as other, that is, as that which does not reveal itself, as that which cannot be made thematic. I could not possibly speak of the Other, make of the Other a theme, pronounce the Other as object, in the accusative. I can only, I must only speak to the other; that is, I must call him in the vocative, which is not a category, a case of speech, but, rather the bursting forth, the very raising up of speech.[43]


Derrida’s concern is that Levinas, like many before him in the tradition of Western metaphysics, still privileges language and, more accurately, to return to an earlier theme, it is the living speech of logos (logocentrism) that has been favoured over the dead speech of writing (the pharmakon). Conceived as such, Levinas’ ethics tends towards a certain kind of humanism perhaps, following the title of one of his books The Humanism of the Other Man (Humanisme de l’autre homme), where it would appear that the ego has been suspended in the embrace of the other man. But as Derrida stresses, “the other-man is the subject”[44]: it is from the standpoint of the other-man that Levinas defines the humanity of man. Levinas’ hospitality cannot be purely unconditional so long as it cannot resist the subjectivation of the other. Implicit in Levinas’ approach is also another problem for ethics, concerning the privileging of the human subject against the animal as the limit of hospitality. Derrida notes that the face of Levinas’ ethical system does not include the face of the animal that would challenge the prejudices of logocentrism.[45]  


But to sum up the issue at hand, the inherent violence of hospitality can be explained further by noting the shift that Levinas makes from “host” to “hostage” as the subject of hospitality such that, in Derrida’s words, “the guest becomes the host’s host.”[46] Unconditional hospitality requires that the host not only invite the other into his/her home, but that he/she give it up for the other such that the other may become master of the home to host the original host that is now held hostage by the other. Within unconditional hospitality lurks the threat of self-annihilation, or what Derrida calls an autoimmunitary process.[47] Kant’s conditional hospitality might therefore be read as a vain attempt to counter this threat of the unconditional within the ethic of hospitality in order to preserve the conceit of its ethical desire.


Rupturing Cosmopolitanism’s

Kantian Foundation


Deconstruction of cosmopolitanism requires disrupting Kant’s tyrannical hold on the idea by deconstructing the central tenets of Kant’s notion of cosmopolitanism. For Derrida, Kantian cosmopolitanism cannot solely be read within the high-mindedness of “morality” or the virtues of the moral law that Kant had formulated in his philosophical system. Rupturing Kantian ethics is to question the tendency in strands of philosophical scholarship to claim a certain purity for Kant’s ethics, where “purity” of knowledge is of the nature of the transcendental, that is beyond experience and superior to what arises from experience. Such knowledge, as Kant had defined it in the Critique of Pure Reason, was “a priori, meaning thereby that we do not derive it immediately from experience, but from a universal rule — a rule which is itself, however, borrowed by us from experience.”[48] According to this logic, for a moral philosophy to be pure, its source had to lay outside human experience. The latter, in Kant’s view, was open to distortion and therefore it was not a reliable source for the grounding of ethics.


At the risk of over-simplifying what are very complex and technical philosophical categories for the sake of offering some context to the discussion of the Kantian aporias that follow, we might contrast “pure reason” with “practical reason” (or the practical use of reason), which Kant had presented in the second critique as being concerned with “a general determination of the will.”[49]  If I can state the distinction more plainly, insofar as they both relate to freedom, pure reason is concerned with a transcendental notion of freedom of the will (free will), which, being prior to experience, is the condition of possibility of experience. Practical reason relates to the kind of freedom of the subject that can be directed by principles and their deliberation to obey the law (free choice). The two kinds of reason correspond to two domains of law: ethical or moral law and juridical law.[50] The latter is given by an external authority such as the state and has the role of constraining the exercise of human free choice, while the former, the “moral law,” is of an a priori form. The authority of the moral law in establishing the standard of conduct for human beings to follow lay outside subjective human desires and cognitions but derived from the capacity of human beings to act morally. While this seems like a circular logic leaving the concept of “pure reason” as only a weak link between the moral law and what gives it its authority, Kant attempts to avoid the weakness in his reasoning by attributing to it a status of unconditional universalism expressed as the categorical imperative: “act only in accordance with that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it become a universal law[51] which is then conceived teleologically (purposively) as a law of nature.[52]


Now, hospitality would appear to be of the order of ethics or the moral law in the Kantian logic. But Derrida highlights how the a priori of cosmopolitan ethics in Kant’s system is in fact aporetic. Accordingly he identifies the Kantian moment of the Western philosophical heritage of cosmopolitanism as its fundamental aporia. Having addressed the Stoic, Judaeo-Christian and Medieval heritage of the Cities of Refuge, in his lecture On Cosmopolitanism, Derrida turns to their Enlightenment legacy and the emergence of cosmopolitan secularism in Kant’s Third Definitive Article in Perpetual Peace. To repeat this problematic clause which recurs throughout this thesis, Kant proposed that “Cosmopolitan Right Shall be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality.”[53] Derrida asks us to notice that at first, Kant’s cosmopolitan law appears “to encompass universal hospitality without limit,[54] but then Kant posits this hospitality in terms of natural law. What was seemingly an expression of unconditional hospitality is in fact of the order of law.


For Derrida, the primary problem with Kant’s proposal, concerns Kant’s imposition of conditions on cosmopolitanism, of which there are three: first the cosmopolitan condition is a matter of right, wherein right is a limitation imposed by the sovereign; second, this right is to be limited further by conditions of universal hospitality; third, Kant’s “hospitality” is a “conditional hospitality” — hospitality is restricted to the right of visitation and, since it is negotiated by treaty, it is ultimately determined by law. Kant’s idea of hospitality is therefore dependent upon state sovereignty, not ethics, where ethics, in Kant’s philosophical framework, is a realm outside of politics. In other words, Kantian hospitality is a creature of juridical law, itself a creature of politics. Hence, there has been a violation of the separation that Kant had tried to establish between ethical law/pure reason and juridical law/practical reason: what is ethical in Kant’s system is only possible if it is attained through political means; ethics and politics are mutually constituting — not separate realms as Kant would like to maintain.


To summarize, Derrida’s key arguments relating to Kantian cosmopolitanism are as follows: first by imposing conditions on the practice of hospitality, Kant’s hospitality contradicts the basic underlying presumption of hospitality: if “hospitality” means to extend our home to the other, so as to be at one with the other, how can we impose conditions upon our receipt of the other as Kant’s principle of cosmopolitan right does? Second, Kant’s hospitality demonstrates that within the hospitality of the modern system of states, there is always the perversion of hospitality: for Kant, hospitality is a reception and inclusion of “the Other” in which “the Other” is appropriated and controlled by the sovereign’s law and, for Derrida, law is ultimately a force of violence. This is to pick up on the argument that “force” and “law” are inextricable.[55] Kant’s hospitality is ultimately deceitful by its harbouring of a double-layer of violence: it is inherently violent in its conceptualization of hospitality as subject to conditions, and it performs a secondary violence upon its subject in its delivery through the rule of law and imposition of territoriality.


For Derrida, the Kantian moment of cosmopolitan ethics is one of the most uncosmopolitan and unethical moments in the Western philosophical heritage of cosmopolitanism. The predicament of the contemporary asylum seeker denied entry into foreign states, owes much to Kant’s cosmopolitan vision. Comparing Kant’s version of hospitality to that of Levinas amplifies this observation with respect to the pursuit of peace that is claimed for Kant’s notion of cosmopolitan right:


Instituted as peace, universal hospitality must, according to Kant, put an end to natural hostility. For Levinas, on the contrary, allergy, the refusal or forgetting of the face, comes to inscribe its secondary negativity against a backdrop of peace, against the backdrop of a hospitality that does not belong to the order of the political, or at least not simply to a political space. Here is perhaps a second difference from Kant. Whereas the Kantian concept of peace is apparently juridical and political, the correlate of an inter-state and republican institution, Levinas, at the end of “Politics After!” puts forward the suggestion (and “suggestion” is his word, just about the last one of “Politics After!”) that “peace is a concept that goes beyond purely political thought.”[56]


In this last line lies the key to undoing the Kantian system of the opposition of ethics from politics upon which, in Derrida’s reading, Kantian hospitality and cosmopolitanism are predicated. For Kant, contra Levinas, peace is something that is to be pursued to interrupt the state of nature, which is the state of war. It is to be pursued through juridico-political means; specifically, a juridico-political hospitality that takes the name of “cosmopolitan right.” What ought to be an otherwise ethical domain can only be possible by political manipulation. The political must contaminate the ethical for an ethic of hospitality to be at all possible in Kant’s logic. As such, the opposition between ethics and politics cannot be sustained and philosophical purity cannot be retained following Kant.


By deconstructing its heritage, Derrida ruptures the very ideal of “cosmopolitanism” and questions the desire to institute anything bearing that name. For example, in closing his lecture On Cosmopolitanism, Derrida remarks:


Experience and experimentation thus. Our experience of cities of refuge then will not only be that which cannot wait, but something which calls for an urgent response, a just response, more just in any case than the existing law. An immediate response to crime, to violence, and to persecution. I also imagine the experience of cities of refuge as giving rise to a place (lieu) for reflection – for reflection on the questions of asylum and hospitality – and for a new order of law and a democracy to come to be put to the test (experimentation). Being on the threshold of these cities, of these new cities that would be something other than ‘new cities’, a certain idea of cosmopolitanism, an other, has not yet arrived, perhaps.

   -If it has (indeed) arrived…

-…then, one has perhaps not yet recognised it.”[57]


This excerpt captures the essence of a deconstructive intervention given that Derrida had described the interest of deconstruction as “a certain experience of the impossible.”[58] Considering the experience and experiment of a specific movement striving for cosmopolitan justice, Derrida here points to its non-arrival to illuminate the paradoxes of a present that is not present, a hospitality that is not hospitable and a justice that is not just. The task is to attend to the conditions of possibility that would be cosmopolitanism’s impossibility. Derrida’s engagement with the question demonstrates that, despite the irreducibility of the contradiction, aporia need not lend itself to abandonment, for at the same time, it is precisely its non-arrival that is the key to the ethico-political urgency of the demand since justice cannot wait. This goes to show that deconstruction offers no direct passage to a cosmopolitan utopia, nor does it claim to; instead it confronts an impasse that questions the passage between ethics and politics from the event’s philosophical heritage as well as from the ethical and political context from which it arises.


The Aporia of a Politics “to come”


In opening a place for reflection on the ethico-political, Derrida’s lecture On Cosmopolitanism represents what I have been referring to in this article as “aporetic cosmopolitanism.” While it does not make any guarantees, aporetic analysis at least allows for the awareness of structures of violence, of being confronted by the structure of “inside-outside” or “subject-object” and to acknowledge that our task is not to dissolve its awkwardness, nor to gain mastery over that which threatens. Ethical responsibility lies in raising questions of the limits and attempting to negotiate between the tensions instituted by the boundaries. Hence, it seeks not to resolve the political differences in response to which cosmopolitanism has recently been recuperated as an ethical gesture. In fact, it is precisely the tendency to oppose and hierarchize the ethical and political that Derrida rejects, treating the relationship between ethics and politics instead in terms of différance.


Another way to think of it, as Rodolphe Gasché offers, is that “différance recognizes an irreducible difference between differences…”[59] and it “…must also be understood as the attempt to foreground not only difference as binary opposition, but, more important, difference as binary, polar, dual to begin with.”[60] This presents a unique space: neither present nor absent it is the space of “undecidability” and within this space of undecidability, the decision is played out. Différance is also suggestive of the inherent violence of any decision: for in this play of possibilities, there is always the eclipsing, overshadowing or suppression of “the other” in the making of a decision. Différance is therefore a relationship of deferral, differing or othering. Not only does it construct an Other, in the production of what becomes difference, but it permits the construction of that Other by relegating it to another time and another place.  However, “time” here, is not of the order of “historical time” unfolding in a progressive and linear direction. Rather, it denotes a “ruptured temporality” where the end is not foreclosed, but where it is the work of ethics to create ruptures and new openings in thinking which Derrida signals with the injunction “democracy to come.” 


“The “to-come”” Derrida explains, not only points to the promise, but suggests that democracy will never exist, in the sense of a present existence: not because it will be deferred but because it will always remain aporetic in its structure…”[61] The logic of “democracy to come” parallels the logic of différance as an ethico-political impulse of urgency: attentive to its internal contradictions, it is charged with an undecidable irreducibility that stays open to alterity, or to the horizon of the future, whilst at the same time calling for the urgency of the interruptive decision endeavoring in the least not to recommit the violence of the origin nor to perform the violence of the “worst.” [62]  It emphasizes the duty of responsibility in ethico-political decision-making and the consideration of singularity rather than presumption of universality in what guides ethico-political decision-making.  Its threshold would be the “necessity to avoid the worst violence.”[63]


Derrida’s notion of ethico-political responsibility is a demand for an ethico-political vigilance where ethics is not an imposition of an external agenda, as in claims to ethics-as-morality that would limit politics, but ethics-as-politics and politics-as-ethics represent an awareness and negotiation of its internal contradictions. Derrida proposes, the injunction “democracy to come” would go beyond the limits of cosmopolitanism defined in terms of world citizenship. He argues that the concept of “citizenship” implies a lawful subjectivity in a membership tied to the nation-state or even to a world state that will inevitably be exclusive and hierarchical in its mode of inclusion.[64] However, at this point of his argument, what Derrida shares with the Kantian cosmopolitan ideal, is a faith in the authority of international institutions and international law that would limit the power of states.[65] There is here an aporia within Derrida’s own alternative to Kantian cosmopolitanism.


The question remains whether Derrida’s notion of “democracy to come” offers a radical enough critical alternative for addressing the political struggles that “cosmopolitanism” has recently been recuperated for. Following Jacques Rancière,[66] I am inclined to suggest that it cannot. Rancière’s central criticism of Derrida is that his approach results in the depoliticization of political. “The political” as Rancière understands it, consists of two “antagonistic logics.”[67] The first is the “rule of the police” which is the part played by those who rule over others. The second concerns the supplement to the power of the first. And it is here that the fundamental difference occurs between Rancière and Derrida. Rancière does not understand the democratic supplement as “something more” as in the “to come” that supplements Derrida’s democracy. For Rancière, the democratic supplement is “the principle of politics itself”[68] — without it there cannot be politics. Crucially, what is absent in Derrida’s notion of “democracy to come,” and hence in his understanding of the political, Rancière maintains, is “the idea of the political subject, of the political capacity.”[69]


Derrida’s alternative therefore suffers two major deficiencies that place it much closer to Kant’s approach to politics than Derrida had intended. First, it relies upon a theological concept of the political, which takes sovereignty to be the core of politics. Second, despite his notion of ethico-political responsibility as the negotiation between limits and their internal contradictions, the operation of Derrida’s injunction “democracy to come” functions according to a logic that frames politics in terms of an ethics that would exceed it. [70] As such, it implicitly makes a separation between ethics and politics as Kant had, where ethics is nevertheless that which transcends politics.






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 Volume 14, Fall 2017, ISSN 1552-5112



[1] Jacques Derrida, Aporias, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1993), 12.

[2] Jacques Derrida, The Other Heading: Reflections on Today’s Europe, (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1992), 41.

[3] Mark Bevir, “Derrida and the Heidegger Controversy: Global Friendship Against Racism,” Critical Review of International Social and Political Philosophy, 3 (2000), 121-138.

[4] See the following by Jacques Derrida: “Hostipitality,” Angelaki 5.3 (2000): 3-18; Of Hospitality, (Stanford, Stanford University Press, 2000); “Hostipitality,” in Acts of Religion, ed. Gil Anidjar (New York, Routledge, 2002), 356-420; "The Principle of Hospitality," Parallax 11,1 (2005): 6-9.

[5] Jacques Derrida, “Autoimmunity: Real and Symbolic Suicides – A Dialogue with Jacques Derrida,” in Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida, ed. Giovanna Borradori (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2003), 86-136; Jacques Derrida, Rogues: Two Essays on Reason, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2005).

[6] Jacques Derrida, “The Animal that Therefore I am (More to Follow),” Critical Inquiry 28,2 (2002): 369-418; “Violence against animals,” in Jacques Derrida and Elisabeth Roudinesco, For What Tomorrow…A Dialogue (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004), 62-76; The Animal That Therefore I am (New York: Fordham University Press, 2008).

[7] Jacques Derrida, “The future of the profession or the unconditional university (Thanks to the “humanities”, What could take place tomorrow),” in Deconstructing Derrida: Tasks for the New Humanities, eds. Peter Pericles Trifonas and Michael A, Peters (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 11-36.

[8] Nancy Fraser, “The French Derrideans: Politicizing Deconstruction or Deconstructing the Political?” in Working Through Derrida ed. Gary B. Madison, (Illinois: North Western University Press, 1993), 51.

[9] For example Richard Rorty argued that Derrida’s work could not contribute anything to normative political concerns. See Rorty’s “From Ironist Theory to Private Allusions: Derrida,” Chapter 6 of Contingency, of Irony and Solidarity, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989). See also the exchanges between Simon Critchley, Jacques Derrida, Ernesto Laclau and Richard Rorty in Deconstruction and Pragmatism, ed. Chantal Mouffe (London: Routledge, 1996). For a thorough account of Derrida’s work as a political thinker see Richard Beardsworth, Derrida & the Political, (London: Routledge, 1996).

[10] Fraser, “The French Derrideans: Politicizing Deconstruction or Deconstructing the Political?” 65.

[11] Richard Kearney, “Derrida’s Ethical Re-Turn”, in Working Through Derrida ed. Gary B. Madison, (Illinois: North Western University Press, 1993), 28-50.

[12] Simon Critchley, The Ethics of Deconstruction: Derrida and Levinas (Oxford: Blackwell,

1992), 5.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Jacques Derrida, Spectres of Marx, (New York: Routledge, 1994).

[15] Derrida, Rogues, 39.

[16] Jacques Derrida, “Différance,” in Speech and Phenomena and Other Essays on Husserl’s Theory of Signs, (Evanston: North Western University Press, 1973), 133. See also the excellent collection of critical essays by David Wood and Robert Bernasconi, Derrida and Différance, (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1988).

[17] Ibid. 134.

[18] As Derrida puts it: “It is a matter of limiting the worst violence with another violence.” See Jacques Derrida, “Force of Law: The “Mystical Foundation of Authority,” in Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice, ed. Drucilla Cornell, Michael Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson, (New York: Routledge, 1992) at p. 49.

[19] This may be translated as “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen if You Would Become Republican!” See the fifth dialogue of Marquis de Sade’s, La Philosophie dans le Boudoir. For a reading of Sade as an integral but overlooked thinker is the genealogy of cosmopolitanism see Meredith Evans, “Cosmopolitics and Its Sadian Discontents,” in Cosmopolitics and the Emergence of a Future, ed. Diane Morgan and Gary Banham (Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), 69-90.

[20] Salman Rushdie, The Satanic Verses, (New York: Viking Penguin, 1989).

[21] Jacques Derrida, “Plato’s Pharmacy” in Dissemination, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981), pp. 65-171 at p. 105.

[22] For a more recent analysis of the phenomenon of exiled writers as, in part, see Derrida’s “Displaced Literatures” in the IPW journal Autodafe 1(2001): 63-66.

[23] Congress of Local and Regional Authorities, The European Charter of Cities of Asylum, adopted 31 May, 1995, (accessed June 4, 2005), p. 12.

[24] Ibid. p. 8.

[25] See the Council of Europe, “European Charter of Local Self-Government,” 15.X. (Strasbourg: European Treaty Series – No. 122, 1985) (accessed June 4, 2005).

[26] Literally translated as “without papers,” a term referring to undocumented migrants.

[27] “Numbers XXXV 9-32,” in The Torah (Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society of America, 1962), 317-319.

[28] “Book of Joshua, 20-24” in The Revised English Bible (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989), 199-203.

[29] Ibid., p. 199.

[30] Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism, p. 5.

[31] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, [1974] 1997), 43.

[32] “Ethics and Politics Today,” 304.

[33] Derrida, Of Hospitality, pp. 27-29.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Ibid., p. 77.

[36] Emmanuel Levinas, “Time and the Other,” in The Levinas Reader, ed. Seán Hand, (Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishing, 1989), 45.

[37] For a more complex account of Levinas’ ethics, see Robert Bernasconi and David Wood, eds., The Provocation of Levinas, Rethinking the Other, (London: Routledge, 1988.)

[38] See Emmanuel Levinas, “Ethics and the Face” in Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority, (The Hague: M. Nijhoff Publishers, 1979), 194-219.

[39] Ibid.

[40] Derrida, “Hostipitality,” p. 3.

[41] Derrida, “The Principle of Hospitality,” p. 7.

[42] Naas, Taking on the Tradition, p. 167.

[43] Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics,” p. 103.

[44] Jacques Derrida, “Eating Well, or the Calculation of the Subject,” in Points…Interviews, 1974-1994, ed. Elisabeth Weber, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1995), 279.

[45] On this point see Derrida, The Animal that Therefore I am, pp. 104-118.

[46] Derrida, Of Hospitality, p. 125.

[47] In Philosophy in a Time of Terror Derrida defines an autoimmunitary process as “…that strange behaviour where a living being, in quasi-suicidal fashion, “itself” works to destroy its own protection, to immunize itself against its “own” immunity”, at p. 94.

[48]Immanuel Kant, Critique of Pure Reason, trans. Norman Kemp Smith, (London: Macmillan, 1976), 43.

[49] Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 17.

[50] Immanuel Kant, Metaphysics of Morals, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 20.

[51] Immanuel Kant, Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 31.

[52] Kant states, “act as if the maxim of your action were to become by your will a universal law of nature” (Kant’s emphasis). See Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals, p. 31.

[53] Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace,” in Political Writings, ed. H.S. Reiss (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), 105.

[54] Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism, p. 20.

[55] Derrida, “Force of Law: The 'Mystical Foundation of Authority.”

[56] Jacques Derrida, "A Word of Welcome," in Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999), 48-49.

[57] Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, p. 23.

[58] Jacques Derrida, “Psyche: Invention of the Other” in Psyche: Inventions of the Other, Volume 1, (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2007), at p. 15.

[59] Rodolphe Gasché, Inventions of Difference: On Jacques Derrida, (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994), 104.

[60] Ibid., p. 105.

[61] Ibid., p.  86.

[62] On this point and its Levinasian influence see Richard Beardsworth, Derrida and the Political (London: Routledge, 1996),134.

[63] Jacques Derrida, “Violence and Metaphysics” in Writing and Difference. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 152.

[64] Derrida, Philosophy in a Time of Terror, p. 130.

[65] For example, Derrida’s critique of the UN resonates with cosmopolitan democracy projects: “This would mean that an institution such as the UN (once modified in its structure and charter  - and I’m thinking here particularly of the Security Council) would have at its disposal an effective intervening force and thus no longer have to depend in order to carry out its decisions on rich and powerful, actually or virtually hegemonic, nation-states, which bend the law in accordance with their force and according to their interests.”  Ibid., pp. 114-115.

[66] Jacques Rancière, “Should Democracy Come? Ethics and Politics in Derrida,” in Derrida and the Time of the Political, ed. Pheng Cheah and Suzanne Gerlac (Durham: Duke University Press 2009), 274-288.

[67] Ibid., p. 277.

[68] Ibid., p. 278.

[69] Ibid., p. 278.

[70] Ibid., p. 284.