Over the past year, we’ve seen many major political changes, including an increase in support for the far-right, the ongoing refugee crisis and a rise in anti-immigration rhetoric in political discourse and the media. What does an ethical life – or indeed a critical life – mean for you in this context? What do you see as being the central challenges for readers – and writers – of literature in the contemporary moment?
One way of approaching this question is through the idea of hospitality, an idea very much at stake in the shifts you mention. In a chapter in The Work of Literature I examine Derrida’s many engagements with this idea, which I see as central to his ethical thought. As in his writing on other topics such as the gift, forgiveness, and justice, Derrida posits two versions of hospitality that he calls unconditional and conditional. We’re back to the question of the impossibility of ethics and the necessity of ethical action. Unconditional ethics is openness to the other without any strings attached: if it could be put into practice in state policies it would mean welcoming all refugees and immigrants without question. But such complete openness is impossible; in the real world, there are always conditions.
So the challenge today is to find a way to meet the obligations of hospitality in a practical way while at the same time honouring the idea of unconditional hospitality. This is not just a matter of being as hospitable as possible under the circumstances (though that’s a good thing to do); I see it as undertaking one’s hospitable actions in the spirit of unconditional hospitality, and of therefore treating the limitations one might have to impose as damaging and, if possible, as temporary.