Recently, it occurred to me that, to the (very limited*) extent that I believe in human goodness, I have encountered it most when I am traveling, especially when I am traveling abroad. Whether in the form of serendipitous connections with other visitors who are following similar itineraries or the helpful local who comes to my aid as I am puzzling over a public transit map, most of my trips have been animated-and occasionally saved from ruin-by the kindness of strangers. Of course, it hasn’t all been roses (thinking here of the guy in the Old City of Jerusalem who tried, in the span of about seven minutes, both to steal my wallet and persuade me to marry him in exchange for a whole heap of shekels). And I’m sure I’ve given offense innumerable times through bumbling ignorance.
But in reflecting on my best experiences, and struggling to categorize the wash of feelings they elicit (relief, gratitude, even joy), I’m beginning to wonder if they provide a tiny peek into what it feels like to receive hospitality, which I’ve been thinking about more intently for the last few months, particularly because it figures in this paper I’m hashing out.
Drawing extensively from Judeo-Christian traditions of kindness to strangers and the imperative to share one’s home and resources with them, as well as a Kantian approach to cosmopolitanism rooted in the finite roundness of the earth, hospitality is an openness to others that forms the core of any ethics of responsiveness to them. (Derrida contends that the notion of an ‘ethic of hospitality’ is redundant to the point of being “tautologous.”[i]) Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou argue that “The ethics and politics of hospitality … require, dispossession: the dispossession of the home … and the dispossession of the owner’s identity as master of the home.”[ii] Hospitality is, in short, a radical willingness to share my stuff with strangers.
On the other side, a need for hospitality is a vulnerability rooted in placelessness: a need for somewhere to sleep, something to eat, someone to be kind when I am displaced from my usual circuits for accessing those things. Of course, I have only encountered these needs in small, temporary, and privileged ways as a volitional traveler. I don’t / can’t know how desperation would change the experience of receiving hospitality, whether it would amplify or subsume the positive feelings that such shows of generosity or compassion elicit. And despite hospitality’s fundamental orientation toward otherness, we don’t hear much in the scholarship from the others at whom hospitality is directed. Even in the original parable of the Good Samaritan, which provides a fundamental template for hospitality, we don’t hear anything at all from the man who receives his help.
Of course, I’m not sure what value or effect such knowledge would have. And it’s possible that the pleasure that we might derive from the knowledge that our hospitality made someone else feel better, profoundly and elementally, might incentivize (and thus undermine) hospitality by making its exercise self-interested. On the other hand, perhaps a lack of curiosity about how hospitality feels to its beneficiaries evinces a lack of concern with them, or an expectation that they will be happy for whatever they get.
For my part, my micro-experiences of hospitality have heightened my appreciation of its stakes, the outsized impact that even a small expression of generosity can have. I find it bewildering when someone, particularly a stranger, is kinder to me than they have to be. And maybe that astonishment is a merciful wage of the precariousness of finding oneself far from home.
*With apologies to my yoga teachers for my recalcitrance on this front … it’s not you, it’s me.
[i] Jacques Derrida, On Cosmopolitanism and Forgiveness, trans. Mark Dooley and Michael Hughes (New York: Routledge, 2002), 16.
[ii] Judith Butler and Athena Athanasiou, “Dispossession: The Performative in the Political (Cambridge: Polity, 2013), 161.
Thanks so much to the kind people at AIGA Baltimore for inviting me to be part of their series on “The Art of Oppression.” I had a great time Tuesday night with a room full of artists and designers who provided whipsmart contributions in response to my talk, “‘Keep Mum, She’s Not So Dumb’: Representing Women’s Experiences of Militarized Violence.” We covered everything from children’s toys to the politics of military uniforms to anti-venereal disease campaigns during World War II, and I feel so fortunate to have been part of the conversation.
Other than their usual correlation to snow, and end to the semester, and more baked goods, I don’t have much affinity for the holidays. My objections are mostly personal, veering toward the curmudgeonly. I can get behind the assertion that it’s deplorable to threaten employees into working on Thanksgiving – particularly if those employees do have an affinity for the holidays. I’m less sympathetic to complaints about consumerism that focus on how it harms the consumers themselves, much more so to those that question how those consumption patterns harm the workers who actually make them possible. Personally, I resent (and so tend to respond churlishly, contrarily to) events accompanied by affective mandates, most especially those festooned in expectations that I should be happy. My family is delightful (really) and seeing them is pretty much the highlight of any such occasion (really), but other than that, I don’t really see the appeal (really), or share in the anxiety about these traditions being eroded.
Still, I get the idea of Thanksgiving, and I understand it well enough to understand that the commercials promoting the actual holiday – not Black Friday – as an ideal time to buy stuff represent an effort to modify our understanding of how, and why, the holiday ought to be celebrated. During three hours of football yesterday, I watched approximately 10,000 commercials, so I feel like I know something about this phenomenon.
Of course, there are lots of economic and market-share reasons why companies would want to transform Thanksgiving into an impetus to consume objects (metaphorically) in addition to food (literally). But to the extent that this strategy works, I think it might reflect an instability at the core of notion of thanksgiving, institutionalized in Thanksgiving, more generally.
Jacques Derrida, in Given Time, categorized the true gift as an aporia. To be a true gift, it cannot be understood as such, lest it get pulled into an economy of exchange and obligation. In his “Villanova Conversations,” he says:
The gift is precisely … something which cannot be reappropriated; a gift is something which never appears as such and is never equal to gratitude, to commerce, to compensation, to reward. When a gift is given … no gratitude can be proportionate to it. A gift is something that you cannot thank for. As soon as I say ‘thank you’ for a gift I start cancelling the gift, I start destroying the gift …
Consequently, a day organized around the profession of gratitude entails its own dilemma, precisely to the extent that we experience our own gratitude as authentic and meaningful. If the “thanks” brings with it a freight of indebtedness, of mandatory reciprocity, it can devolve quickly into resentment, quantification, and guilt. On the other hand, to eschew thankfulness risks presuming one’s own entitlement, and a practical disconnection from networks of sociality and hospitality. Also, everyone will think you’re an ass.
This dilemma gets exponentially more complicated in those instances where people are giving their thanks not only to those who are feeding them in the moment but also, and ultimately, to a divine or supernatural being who they believe provided the food before them.
And so, insofar as dwelling in an aporia is discomfiting and our lives are contingent on the lives, deaths, and behaviors other beings in innumerable ways, the turn to consumerism instead makes a kind of sense. Buying a present for oneself circumvents the dilemma. Buying one for someone else, and thus looping them into an economy of exchange, short-circuits it.
The alternative, I suppose, is a form of gratitude that is not articulated (perhaps not even internally) but experienced, silent, wordless, transformative.