Hospitality towards the future
Law as Absolute Hospitality has attempted to show something of the complexity of Derrida’s thinking whilst at the same time seeking to open certain texts to a different reading than they have predominantly been subjected to in the legal context. Whereas the methodical, the postmodern, the ethical-liberal, and the cosmopolitan readings analysed in Chapter 1, arguably inscribe Derrida’s texts and the legal theory which is derived from his texts within the metaphysics of presence, the reading contended for here seeks to leave open Derrida’s texts to the future.1 The sense of the ‘future’ employed here has to be understood in a specific sense, as was made clear especially in Chapters 1, 2 and 7, which touched upon the concept of time. The metaphysical concept of time, as we saw there, is of time as a sequence of ‘now’ moments, with its anchor in the ‘living present’ (‘PTF’ xix). At stake in the deconstruction of the concept of time is not the future present, a future that is foreseeable, predictable or anticipated.2 The ‘futuristic’ reading of Derrida in Law as Absolute Hospitality as well as his own invocation of the future (l’avenir) involves something very different. According to Derrida, the future as such, if it exists, is the condition of possibility of history and overflows history and the present (‘PTF’ xiii; TS 19–21). At the same time, the future in this sense would stand no chance if there was not also a historical link, tradition, memory and synthesis (‘PTF’ xiii). As appears from a number of Derrida’s texts,3 the notion of the future as employed here is to be understood in a similar way as the ‘to come’, the event, the promise and the impossible, and furthermore does not involve a utopian ideal as is sometimes thought. As Derrida puts it in a 1998 interview in response to a question on the notion of ‘monstrosity’ in his texts:
At the end of the foreword to Of Grammatology I say that ‘monstrosity’ is the only word that we can use to describe the future … I describe monstrosity simply as the future, that is, that which has no recognizable form. The future, if there is such a thing, is monstrous. I use the word rhetorically to refer to an event that has no recognizable form. The future is the non-identifiable … Monstrosity should … be viewed as that which overtakes us. It does not approach us head on. That which approaches from ahead, which is in front of me, can be seen. It constitutes a horizon of expectation. I see it coming … The future often comes from the back. The future comes back.
The ‘monstrosity’ of the future again comes to the fore in Derrida’s discussion with Borradori in Philosophy in a Time of Terror. Here he argues that the trauma of September 11, 2001 does not lie simply in the events or the memory thereof as they unfolded in the past or present. What is more traumatic is the ‘irresistible foreboding’ of the return of a terror ‘worse than anything that has ever taken place’ (PTT 97). The traumatism thus comes from ‘the unpresentable future, from the open threat of an aggression capable one day of striking’, which our unconscious is already aware of (PTT 98, 102). Derrida is with this discussion of an auto-immunitary suicide clearly alluding to his own earlier readings of Freud’s death drive. The (monstrous) future that comes back, the past that is more ancient than memory, refers to a ‘desire’ for death, or to what we have elsewhere in this book referred to as the promise/threat of madness, auto-immunity, the democracy to come, the law before the law, the perfect gift, unconditional justice and absolute hospitality.4
There is a necessary (differantial) relation between this ‘future’ and law as we experience it in time. However, for as long as the concept of subjectivity remains firmly in place, this ‘future’ has almost no chance of coming. According to Derrida, the future in this radical sense stands a chance only through the affirmation of the absolute threat/promise, which translates into a deconstruction of the conceptuality that we take for granted in law. Without such an affirmation, coupled with a rethinking of conceptuality (including of the concepts of time and of the subject), there will only be the implementation of a calculable and foreseeable programme. The advantage of ‘coming to grips’ with Derrida’s thinking, through a close reading of his texts that relate to law, is that it enables the radical opening of law, not only towards what is possible, but towards the impossible.
We saw in the first seven chapters of Law as Absolute Hospitality, how Derrida seeks in a sense to ‘implode’ or ‘dissolve’ philosophical concepts, or perhaps rather to point to their self-implosion or dissolution.5 Conceptuality is etymologically related to seizing and grasping. To know, to understand or to comprehend is ‘to grasp’, from Latin comprehendere, ‘to take together, to unite; include; seize’; also ‘to comprehend, perceive’ (to seize or take in the mind), from com- ‘completely’ + prehendere ‘to catch hold of, seize’ (Online Etymology Dictionary). The German Begriff (concept), begreifen (to understand), greifen (to grasp, to seize) gives expression to the same idea (AR 362). Derrida’s rethinking of conceptuality which resists such (conscious) grasping is of course not done in order to return to some form of empiricism, pragmatism or realism (PTT 88). It is by way of the ‘new concepts’, which he in a sense invents, that we are required to and enabled to rethink the future. The focus in Chapters 1 to 7 was mainly on the concept of law/justice, but also touched on the concepts of sovereignty, the subject, the decision, responsibility, democracy, the gift and hospitality. In Chapter 2 we saw how Derrida’s thinking on subjectivity and the relation to language subverts the notion of the people as constituent power. In this way, the concept of sovereignty is shown to be inhabited by a certain auto-immunity. In Chapter 3, the origin of law is enquired into via Freud’s Totem and Taboo, Kafka’s Before the Law, and Lévi-Strauss’s reflections on totemism and incest. In all these readings we find a ‘desire’ for absolute pleasure which is suppressed in the constitution of an origin in the metaphysical sense. The concept of law is in other words inhabited by a ‘desire’ for its own destruction. In Chapter 4