3. The politics and ethics of interruption: Human rights, equality, and hospitality


In the final section of the dissertation, attention moves towards addressing the possibility of a politics which accounts for more than a non-hierarchical organisation of society based on radical equality. Indeed, international and domestic politics are still materially dependent on, and organised around, the sovereignty of the state which produces identities and laws, privileging presence over absence (Derrida 1977:7), and making the responsibility for the other less relevant. It is necessary then to consider the appeal to hospitality as one which is not conditioned by the metaphysics of presence, or by common histories. Derrida’s ethics of/as hospitality goes beyond this temporal and spatial conditionality and allows us to conduct the argument for the recognition of the foreigner as an equal being to be welcomed-and-recognised as part of the demos. As the state’s main raison d’être is to cater for its citizens, the ethical question of why asylum should be granted to an asylum seeker on the basis of unconditional hospitality requires an answer which dismisses technocratic management. Within the demos, the guest can be recognised as an always-already equal part of the political process of democracy. Throughout this process, human rights have the potential of becoming a tool not only for the verification of equality, but also for the possibility of hospitality and the dismantling of the state.


The presence of the newcomer

Although the foreigner ought not to be identified and categorised (Derrida 1999:70), their very existence interrupts the logic of utilitarianism, communitarianism, and political exceptionalism employed by the state. They are the embodiment of the interrupting agent who creates the possibility for hospitality and democracy of equals in the first place. Therefore, the foreigner is not merely one’s equal – they represent more than that.  It follows that although disidentification benefits from a reordering of society non-hierarchically and anarchically, it is still important for political names to be taken into account strategically, while bearing in mind that all humans are equal, but differently situated in relation to the state and the law. The task is then to propose a form of agonistic politics to defend the ‘foreigner as such’ (Derrida 2000a:22-3).


The identity of the foreigner

The reality of the situation of the asylum seeker needs to be revisited. The identity of the asylum seeker is the result of the nexus between international relations, democracy, hospitality, and the law. He/she is the ‘inter-’, the always unexpected guest, the guest who might be (1) recognised as a legal refugee, (2) kept in detention, or (3) sent back to their country of origin, leaving no trace of their inscription upon the host society. To be sure, this violence emerges as a by-product of the inhospitable, hostile state politics. For Derrida, the unforeseen guest is important to democracy and politics because they have nothing else to offer but themselves. Placed in a situation in which the host faces the guest, the foreigner creates an event of undecidability in which the host has to make a decision: that of acting according to conditional (legal) or unconditional hospitality. The question of the foreigner positions them as a being-in-question whose very presence puts the host in question (Derrida 2000a:3). Asking the foreigner to identify themselves amounts to violence (2005a:7), as it is a way of establishing old and new criteria for judgement, categorisation and labelling. The newcomer thus has to defend themselves in a language not their own, that is, the language of legal formalism, imposed upon them. Asylum seekers’ defence amounts to their use of human rights and the Law of hospitality as points of reference, alongside community support in some cases. This way they can show the wrongs done to them, once in their countries, and again in the country of asylum. Instead of being accepted as always-already equal, in liberal democracies the foreigner is placed in a state of limbo, coerced into dependency upon the asylum system which obstructs emancipation.


The UK’s Detained Fast-Track

This dependency does not only occur in the manner of slow decidability found in Kafka’s parable, but even within the realm of institutionalised speed. In other words, decisions regarding the legality of an asylum claim are taken in a short period of time, in the name of economic and bureaucratic ‘efficiency’, thus suspending the time needed for judicial review (Aradau 2004:392), substantive reflection, and consideration. In 2000 the UK adopted the ‘Detained Fast-Track’ (DFT) procedure which traces a politics of speed, to the detriment of democracy, representation, and politics. The decision of labelling a case as ‘fast-track’ is made by the Home Office before the interview with the claimant – more than 90% of the claims are refused (Liberty n.d.). This system is constructed as a measure to increase institutional efficiency, extending control by detaining refugees, reducing costs, and creating ‘security’ for the British population (Gibney 2004:254). The Home Office however contents that it carefully assesses every case (Sky News 2013), appealing to the laws of hospitality. However, as Derrida states, ‘just hospitality breaks with hospitality by right’ (2000a:25). The principle of absolute hospitality decreases its relevance in a neoliberal society which offers visibility to people for their economic ‘value’. Nationalism also plays an important role in domestic policies, in relation to immigration policies (Gibney 2004:204). Not surprisingly, the Home Office publicly announced that ‘those not prioritised for removal […] should be denied the benefits and privileges of life in the UK and experience an increasingly uncomfortable environment’ (2007:17).


The promise

The legal procedures of the asylum system in the UK amount to a promise to the asylum seeker in exchange of a set of conditions – it is a performative speech (Derrida 2007:446) which can or cannot be enacted. In the UK, asylum seekers are taken to detention centres on the day of their arrival. When one cannot prove their identity, the authenticity of their claim, their pain, their material and psychological conditions, the Home Office processes their cases through DFT. From the airport, they are sent to a high-security detention centre (most which are G4S and Serco profit-making centres), in order for them to be deported in the following days. This creates a situation in which asylum seekers do not have time and resources to make an appeal (and in some cases they do not even have the right to appeal, if their country of birth is not listed as ‘dangerous’); they cannot create ties with the British community, and are used as figures for government reports and electoral pride. In 2006, for example, Tony Blair announced his government’s ‘enormous’ progress: ‘the numbers of asylum seekers are down to a fraction of what it was a few years ago’ (The Guardian 2006). Nonetheless, he was not fully satisfied, and wished for fast-track deportations to continue, as ‘the essence of it is to make sure that we handle the applications quickly’ (ibid.). This conditioning of granting asylum frames the consideration of their rights as a secondary issue, the host country’s expectations and practices amounting to acts of violence. Even from a legal standpoint, an argument can be made in favour of unconditional hospitality. Seen as a negative right (the right not to be killed by an oppressive government), currently the right to asylum does not require the host to do more than not send the claimant back to their country of origin (Kelly 2010). On the other hand, the positive right to asylum asks the host to restore the refugee to the level of health and wellbeing where they had been previously, aspect which is undermined by governments’ norms (ibid.).  


Unconditional hospitality and its laws

Hospitality is conditional if it rests on law, duty, or rights. While hospitality can be traced within asylum systems, it is always accompanied by laws; on the other hand, absolute hospitality refutes the interplay of exchange and goes beyond ‘duty and right’ (Derrida 2000a:25; 1999:69). Derrida advocates for unconditional hospitality, but as any aporetic concept, he is aware of its (im)possibility as such (Deutscher 2001:94); in practice, this concept allows for a formulation of a critique which places the unconditional principle (or Law) of hospitality at odds with the laws which condition its provision. This distinction is similar to the one between ‘law’ and ‘justice’ (Derrida 2005b:84).

An emphasis on the economy of exchange can be easily seen in the neoliberal times as the status as a refugee can indeed be changed in a short time, provided that one has ‘sufficient’ financial means – given this, further differentiation and division between certain foreigners/asylum seekers is created. However, contemporary neoliberal sociologists make naively optimistic assertions, regarding identity as much more ‘fluid’ now than in modern times (Tucker 1998:142). To be more precise, it is only a minority which has the privilege of acquiring citizenship instantly. For instance, Malta employs the principle of exchange as a condition for hospitality in the literal sense. It grants citizenship to wealthy foreigners against the sum of £546,000 (Freeman 2013), creating a hierarchy of mobility. Derrida affirms that immigration does not correspond to unconditional principles, because unlimited hospitality reaches beyond spaces (be they political or civic) (Derrida 2005a:6). Hospitality is always an event ‘to come’; although hospitality is never present in itself, it informs decisions made in the present (Darling 2009:657). The tension between the two distinctive modes of hospitality determines one to make decisions; through every decision, the extent to which hospitality and democracy had been considered can be exposed.



Democracy is autoimmune as it displays suicidal tendencies (Derrida 2005b:18) through its creation of exclusionary communities which guarantee safety for their members, but it also leaves spaces open for disruption. The ‘to-come’ aspect should not be interpreted as a disbelief in democracy. Hospitality resembles democracy’s self-destructive attribute, as it welcomes anybody, even those who could destroy the host – this already happens at the international level, under the name of ‘humanitarianism’ and the ‘right to protect’. The Law of Hospitality is democracy’s vocation (Derrida 2005b:63); it is ‘self-contradictory’ because it can ‘self-destruct’ when put into practice (2000b:5). It is here, once again, that human rights can be used against the sovereignty and ordering of the state. They can be tools not only for the asylum seeker, but also for the host who greets the potentially invasive guest. 


Human rights as a verification of equality between the host and the guest

As an interruption of the self, hospitality asks for recognition of the other as equal. Subsequently, Rancière’s axiom of equality finds its relevance as a solution to Derrida’s threatening aspect of hospitality; that is, ‘hostipitality’ (Derrida 2000b). By welcoming the other without prior invitation or identification, the host recognises their simultaneous being as guest, and the illegitimacy of their own sovereignty. The host is a guest of the world, whose virtue is to offer dwelling. It is implied that when the guest comes to the host (both of them being guests of the land), the host should unconditionally greet the newcomer, without asking questions or imposing conditions. Interruption would be seen as necessary for the democracy of the demos, and the politically equal newcomer recognised and welcomed.


Repetitive acts of dissent to verify equality

Every decision of hospitality, then, becomes translated as a gesture of openness, of accepting the intervention of the other on the self. Every interruption is a staging of equality by the foreigner, validated by the host through the welcoming. Thus, unconditional hospitality cannot be established by jurisprudence; the laws are always established before the event, overlooking its singularity, and violence upon the foreigner is inherent within them. The human rights project needs to recognise hospitality as its ethics, and the axiom of equality as the reality of all beings. This way, the hostility of legal and political violence can be critiqued, for an emancipatory process of politics. Undecidability is required if we want to avoid a politics already programmed for us, because decisions exist only if undecidability is a possibility (Derrida 1999:66); it brings with itself responsibility, but also the possibility for an intervention through a politics of equals. Thus, the praxis of the politics of equality and the ethics of hospitality offer the chance for the newcomers not only to be welcomed by the host, but also for their equality to be verified.