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About borderlands VOLUME 6 NUMBER 3, 2007


Dialogue Across Différance: Hospitality Between Kant and Derrida

Ida Nursoo
Australian National University


This paper sets out to critique the appeal of liberal 'dialogue across difference' and offers as an alternative 'dialogue across différance'. It questions whether the imperialistic associations of the historical invention of 'cultural difference' occur in the idea of a 'dialogue across difference', and argues that structurally, they do. It develops this argument in two parts. The first examines the nature of the relationships in a 'dialogue across difference' by drawing an analogy with the deceptive generosity of Kantian hospitality. The second part explores further the deception of Kant's hospitality, to develop an understanding of the character of difference in this dialogue. It develops Derrida's critique of Kantian hospitality to explain the alternative of a 'dialogue across différance'.



1. In recent years anxieties over 'difference' and the promotion of 'dialogue' as the means to appease them, have proliferated in so-called Western democratic polities. Two recent Australian examples illustrate this trend. The first, a political theory conference entitled Dialogue Across Difference: Governance in a Multicultural Era held at the Australian National University in December 2006 demonstrates an academic interest in these issues. This conference aimed to discuss the grounds and models for different cultures to 'talk' and 'listen' to each other. The second example is a 'deliberative poll' on the topic Australia Deliberates: Muslims and Non-Muslims in Australia conducted, in Canberra, by the think tank Issues Deliberation Australia/America in March 2007. The organization's website described the event as a 'focused deliberation' by a 'representative sample of Australian citizens' on 'various aspects of the cultural, social and political differences in Australia, including what it means to be Australian, how Muslim and Non-Muslim peoples within Australia might harmoniously live together, and the role of the Government in facilitating racial and cultural harmony' (Issues Deliberation Australia/America 2007).

2. Both examples represent a resurgence and continuation of a familiar theme in the liberal-communitarian tradition of debate: that it is the domain of political thought to discuss and prescribe the means of dialogical negotiation of 'difference'. Yet they also reflect an innovation within the same tradition. Recently, the theme 'dialogue across difference' has been addressed within the parameters of 'multiculturalism' (Taylor 1992; Benhabib 1997) or as an appeal to 'postcoloniality' (Taylor 1994; Tully 1995; Ivison 2002). Both approaches have utilized the concept of 'culture' to attempt a critique of the Eurocentric limits of the liberal-democratic tradition. However, there are two general, though deeply rooted, problems with this turn to 'culture' and 'dialogue' that undermine the attempts of contemporary liberal political thought to overcome its monoculturally-universalistic tendencies by a simple appeal to 'talking' and 'listening'.

3. The first problem concerns the use of the concept of 'culture' in ways that lack awareness of its political history. 'Culture' has, in much contemporary political theory, been treated as something that different people 'have' that should be protected and respected in an effort to appreciate human diversity (Kukathas 1992a, 1992b; Kymlicka 1992, 1995). However, this discourse overlooks the political relationship between 'culture' and 'difference'. By surveying the history of the 'conceivability' - rather than the 'existence' - of culture, Bernard MacGrane argues that in the Nineteenth Century, 'cultural difference' and 'cultural diversity' became a way to create and explain the difference of the 'alien Other' (1989: 113). Culture's dual role was made possible, put into effect and validated, by the invention of practices of knowledge, such as the academic disciplines of anthropology and ethnology (McGrane 1989; Clifford 1988). Culture's invention, Edward Said (1993) has elegantly argued, was related to Western imperialism. First, culture, and the practices of 'knowing' it, supported the myth of the supremacy of European civilization by constructing the very possibility of Europe's Others that the myth relied upon. Second, culture provided the context through which that myth could be empirically experienced (Said 1978, 1993). In other words culture was a European 'invention' for the production, demarcation and distancing of people as 'different' or as 'Other' and was, at the same time, the means through which their difference and Otherness could be explained and maintained.

4. The ahistorical appropriation of the 'culture' concept by political theory, David Scott (2003: 96) has argued, demonstrates that many of its practitioners are more interested in identifying with an idea of culture that best supports liberal-democratic theory, than they are interested in culture per se . However, inattention to the political rationalities behind the invention of the culture concept risks reproducing its imperialistic legacy in the very use of that concept. For example, the liberal appeal to 'recognition' of and 'respect' for 'cultural difference' (Taylor 1994) is predicated upon a concept of culture that produced the cultural Other in the first place. Furthermore, this liberal appeal serves to entrench the production of that Other in its very recognition of culture. The point, in short, is that culture's complicity in the production of the difference with which contemporary liberal political theory struggles, has been overlooked by liberal discourses around culture. By unquestioningly appropriating the same concept of culture, liberal political theory maintains the Othering that is an inherent problem of the tensions of cultural difference that it seeks to remedy. Culture's history, calls into question the conceivability or conceptualization of the 'difference' before which the culture concept has been appropriated, as a descriptor, in the recent promotion of dialogical negotiation of 'cultural difference'.

5. The concept of 'difference' is central to the second problem with liberal political theory's appeal to 'dialogue across difference'. This appeal, and the liberal-communitarian tradition of debate more generally, rests on the presumption that 'difference' is a problem that is to be resolved, albeit through 'dialogue'. Dialogue involves at least two participants, so it always supposes difference. Yet a 'dialogue across difference' appears to offer something more: if it is to occur, 'dialogue' occurs 'across' difference, rather than simply being a conversation between the different parties to it. Here 'difference' is a condition of the dialogue. In other words, this kind of dialogue both invokes difference and is predicated upon difference. It puts difference into discursive effect in a way that does more than recognize its existence, for difference makes possible, the idea and practice of this dialogue. This dialogue's use of difference, it appears, works in a similar way to imperialism's use of culture outlined above: just as culture had been invented by Western imperialism to make possible its Others and explain their difference; difference is discursively invented by a 'dialogue across difference' in order to make possible the event of such dialogue. This article surveys the invention of liberal dialogue's difference against the background of McGrane's and Said's theses on the conceivability of 'cultural difference'. The question, raised by this comparison, is whether the imperialistic associations of the historical invention of 'cultural difference' occur in the idea of a 'dialogue across difference'. After exploring the relationship between 'dialogue' and 'difference' in the idea of a 'dialogue across difference' and by analyzing the character of 'difference' inherent in such dialogue, this article argues that, structurally, they do.

6. This argument is developed in two parts. The first addresses the relationship between 'dialogue' and 'difference' through an exposition of the nature of the relationship between the parties to a 'dialogue across difference'. It does this by drawing an analogy with the deceptive generosity of Immanuel Kant's widely admired right of hospitality to highlight the deception of the generosity to 'difference' in the formulation 'dialogue across difference'. The second part of the article explores the deception of Kant's hospitality further, to develop an understanding of the character of 'difference' at the heart of this dialogue. It develops Jacques Derrida's critique of Kantian hospitality to explain the alternative of a 'dialogue across différance '. Différance is a relationship of deferral, differing and Othering, which, I argue, is the condition of such dialogue. By substituting the 'difference' in a 'dialogue across difference' with différance, this dialogue's similarities with the imperialist attitudes underlying the historical invention of culture are brought to attention.

7. In the first part, the article stages an imaginary and satirical dialogue on hospitality between Immanuel Kant and a character from Franz Kafka's novel The Castle. Jacques Derrida enters into this imaginary conversation in the second part of the article. I use this device to aid my argument that the attraction of 'dialogue' and 'hospitality' as they have been invoked by liberal multiculturalism and liberal postcolonialism, are predicated upon a conception of 'difference' derived from a monological production and violation of the cultural Other as its subject. The style of these dialogues is reminiscent of a literary device called antitheta used by sixteenth century rhetoricians. Francis Bacon explained them as 'theses argued pro et contra' (Bacon [1605] 1977: 149) wherein the different voices of a political argument were paired as oppositions conveying an antithesis. In this article it has a playfully ironic and performative role as an allegory for the antithetical character of a 'dialogue across difference'. By positing such a dialogue, I replicate, for dramatic effect, the same violence that I identify in liberal 'dialogues across difference': the inherently monological character of such dialogue.

'Difference' and the Hospitality of Dialogue

Kant: '... Hospitality means the right of a stranger not to be treated with hostility when he arrives on someone else's territory' (Kant [1795] 1991: 105).

Kafka's Castle peasant: '... but hospitality is not our custom here, we have no use for visitors' (Kafka [1930] 1965: 25).

8. This imaginary dialogue is between Immanuel Kant and a character in Franz Kafka's novel The Castle. Kant's statement is taken from his 'Third Definitive Article for a Perpetual Peace' in which he proclaimed that 'cosmopolitan right shall be limited to universal hospitality' (Kant [1795] 1991: 105-108). Kant's cosmopolitanism has been widely celebrated amongst contemporary political theorists because of its apparent generosity to foreigners, 'respect for persons' and its seeming critique of European imperialism (see Bohmann and Lutz-Bachmann 1997; Nussbaum 1997; Muthu 2003). Kafka's Castle peasant's statement is extracted from his first encounter with the novel's main character 'K'. K presents himself as the Land Surveyor hired by the Castle, but he is only recognized as an (often uninvited and unwelcomed) stranger, by the Castle peasants.

9. This dialogue appears to present different understandings of hospitality and also two different sides to this dialogue. For Kant, hospitality is an expression of legality. It is a 'right' of the stranger or guest and therefore may be endowed with the force of law. It relates also to the law governing territoriality, where territoriality is understood in terms of the exclusive possession, ownership or property in land by one party. It prescribes the ways in which strangers should treat each other in relation to their first encounter. The stranger or arrivant should not be treated with hostility by the possessory party. Otherwise, the rest of Kant's essay suggests, the stranger may use force in retaliation. For Kafka's Castle peasant by contrast, hospitality is not understood in terms of 'right' but as a custom or practice in terms of the needs of the host, determined by the host. While Kant's hospitality presents as a law decided by an external authority, universally applicable regardless of context or will of the host; Kafka's hospitality, by contrast, is offered at the will of the host based on his/her/their need.

10. The juxtaposition of these two positions on hospitality within the structure of dialogue suggests that both hospitality and dialogue are relationships of difference. Each is dependant upon difference in the form of strangeness or Otherness. They present a kind of 'dialogue across difference': a conversation between two different people or cultures or positions, perhaps a potential foreigner and immigration department or a potential colonizer and the colonizer's intended subjects. The political point of this dialogue can be made through the use of two further examples.

11. Notice, first, that the hospitality of Kafka's character is not unlike the hospitality offered to the Tampa refugees in 2001 by the Australian Prime Minister John Howard:

Our position, my position is very simply that we and we alone will decide who comes to this country and the circumstances in which they come. That is a fundamental and absolute right of any government (Howard 2002).

Or, to quote a more recent expression of this hospitality:

... there is a section, a small section of the Islamic population, and I say a small section ... which is very resistant to integration ... Fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can, the English language if you don't already speak it ... (Howard 2006).

While both these responses to refugees and immigrants represent the expression of hospitality found in Kafka's Castle in so far as hospitality is expressed in terms of the needs of the host, not in terms of the duty to the visitor, stranger or arrivant, John Howard's utterances also sound rather like Kant's hospitality. Expressed as the principle for 'Cosmopolitan Right', Kant's hospitality is 'universal' but 'conditional': first it is restricted to the right of visitation; it is not a right of resort and, second, hospitality is negotiated by treaty; it is determined by law. The hospitality to the Tampa refugees and Muslim immigrants expressed above is also conditional: the Australian government has already identified its strangers and its guests; it has already set up its spheres of difference and conditionality in terms of race, religion, language, economic position, citizenship and culture. These are the conditions that make the hospitality of the Australian state possible.

12. Imagine second, that this dialogue across hospitality occurred in Australia in 1788 or thereabouts, just a few years before Kant's Perpetual Peace was published, in a white encounter with Aboriginals. Imagine also that the Kantian utterance was performed by white/British 'settlers', while that of Kafka's character was performed by Aboriginals. In fact, Kant's line could be uttered in the course of any explorational, imperial or colonial endeavor such as the kind to which this example relates. Territoriality is a central feature of all three endeavors. At a general level, all these ventures involve entry into, or further, the appropriation, possession, accumulation of, and control over, territory inhabited by someone else (Said 1993: 9). In this 1788 rendition of the dialogue, the hospitality of the first utterance turned into the hospitality of the second, that is, hospitality was expressed in terms of the needs of the host, where the host is the one that speaks and speaks with the capacity to legislate the terms of the dialogue. Here 'speaking' is symbolic of the exercise of authority, domination or the power to set the tone and the terms of the encounter.

13. This point becomes clearer in light of the majority judgment in one of the primary Australian cases on Native Title, Mabo v Queensland (No 2) (1992). In that case, Justice Brennan, representing the majority of the High Court, demonstrates the Court's struggle with the colonial foundations of Australian law when confronted with the question of indigenous claims to land and property rights. Pressured by developments in notions of justice and international human rights law but unable to 'fracture the skeleton of principle which gives the body of our law its shape and internal consistency' (Brennan 1992: 29), the Court could only recognize 'Native Title' by constructing it as recognizable by the colonial law. Acknowledging the denigrating and discriminatory foundations of this law with respect to the Aboriginal dispossession of land, Brennan identified two options for permitting the recognition of Aboriginal possession of land within this framework of law:

This Court can either apply the existing authorities and proceed to inquire whether the Meriam people are higher 'in the scale of social organization' than the Australian Aborigines whose claims were 'utterly disregarded' by the existing authorities or the Court can overrule the existing authorities, discarding the distinction between inhabited colonies that were terra nullius and those which were not (Brennan 1992: 40).

14. The Court opted for the second choice. Terra nullius is a European retrospective legal construct meaning 'land belonging to no one', invented by colonial law to deny indigenous peoples' property in land. The identification of land as terra nullius, gave European powers legal force and moral legitimacy to their theft, appropriation, possession, accumulation of and control over the land in someone else's custody. These acts were supported by ideological formations of difference, such as those of a racist anthropology that included notions of 'other' peoples in terms of 'backwardness', 'inferiority', 'subject races' and 'dependency' (Said 1993: 9). These ideas underpinned such legal fictions as the doctrine of terra nullius established in the course of the colonial history of international law since the Spanish Conquest of the New World (see Anghie 2004 and Fitzmaurice 2003: 140).

15. The colonial encounter, to which Mabo refers, exemplifies a similarity between the hospitality of Kant and the hospitality of Kafka's peasant, in my imaginary dialogue. In that encounter, in 1788 or thereabouts, the force of law turned hospitality into the doctrine of terra nullius, rendering the land as belonging to no one, so no one could be heard to utter 'hospitality is not our custom here' (as might be expected from transposing one story onto the other). Rather, the speaker of the second utterance is silenced, and already spoken for, by the colonizer's law. Here law constructs people as 'different' and as though they are 'before the law' in two senses. First law assigns Aboriginals to a fictional condition constructed by the European imagination, by insisting, in effect, that they lived in a state prior to a state of sociality ordered by law. Versions of this idea can be found in the seventeenth century idea of the 'state of nature' (see the discussion of John Locke in Hindess 2007: 7-13). This fiction materialized in the legal doctrine of terra nullius. It legitimated the European, here British, acquisition of foreign lands, through British standards and systems of law. The second sense in which Aboriginals are constituted as subjects 'before the law', follows the scenario sketched in Kafka's essay 'Before the Law' (Kafka [1914] 2005). Here a man approaches the gate of the law and is subjected to waiting outside until the doorkeeper grants him admittance. The man waits for many years and, just as he is about to die, the doorkeeper shuts the gate to the law. The gate was made only for him, the doorkeeper tells him. But its hospitality was such that he was never able to enter it. In a similar way, the colonizer's law, like the man's gate, offered a hospitality that was limited to the construction of a group of people as Aboriginal subjects before its authority. Here the host, in his capacity to legislate the terms of hospitality, performs the hospitality of Kafka's Castle. This host is the colonizer whose actions have been permitted by the right of hospitality outlined in the Kantian expression of hospitality.

16. In light of the Tampa and Mabo examples, the political implications of the imaginary dialogue between Kant and Kafka suggest that the hospitality of the first utterance is merely a different version of the second. This imaginary dialogue and its political expressions point to an ambiguity, or more strongly, an antithesis, in hospitality. In the hospitality expressed by Prime Minister John Howard, we find both Kant's and Kafka's hospitalities: hospitality is conditional and sometimes there is no custom of hospitality. What might have seemed like two different and seemingly oppositional sides to hospitality are actually not that different at all, for we can find the Kafka position in Kant insofar as the conditionality of hospitality means that it is not always offered. Here one understanding of hospitality collapses into the other. A similar result occurs in light of the context raised by Mabo. In Kafka's statement, hospitality is expressed in terms of the needs of the host, for the host can speak and does so in the name of the Castle. Kafka's peasant, in effect, has the capacity to legislate the terms of the dialogue. Kant's hospitality takes on this form through its expression in terms of legality and territoriality. In the context raised by Mabo, when assumed by the colonizer, Kant's understanding of hospitality turns into Kafka's character's understanding of hospitality, as it is the colonizer who speaks with the capacity to legislate the terms of dialogue, and thereby assumes the position of host. The collapsing of the two seemingly different understandings of hospitality into each other, marks the antithetical point of my imaginary dialogue. It is also representative of the antithetical point of the ideas of 'hospitality' and 'dialogue'. Despite their appearances of plurality and reciprocity, there is only one side to hospitality and only one side to dialogue - they are, to put it another way, both monological forms of understanding.

17. A 'monological' understanding is one in which the interpreter has established the reality of the Other (Bakhtin 1984). Ethnocentrism is one such obvious example, or Orientalism, as discussed by Edward Said ([1978] 2003), offers another. It occurs in two forms. First, as Bakhtin (1984: 78-82) presents it, monologism occurs in the very consciousness or recognition of the Other. The second is offered by Christina Rojas (2002: xvii) in terms of the way the Other is discursively constructed as 'different' to legitimize the exercise of violence and domination, in, for example, Western civilizing missions of the Third World. 'Monologism', in Bakhtin's thought, also occurs in dialogue. In an analysis of Fyodor Dostoevsky's writings, Bakhtin describes the monological character of dialogue as follows:

It is fully understandable that at the center of Dostoevsky's artistic world must lie dialogue, and dialogue not as a means but as an end in itself. Dialogue here is not the threshold to action, it is the action itself. It is not a means for revealing, for bringing to the surface the already made character of a person; no, in dialogue a person not only shows himself outwardly, but he becomes for the first time that which he is - and, we repeat not only for others but for himself as well (Bakhtin 1984: 252).

18. Insofar as dialogue is the very constitution of a person as an Other person and not simply just the means to finding out about, or finding anything from, an already constituted person, dialogue performs the violence of monologism: the Other with whom it speaks was already spoken for by its initial identification as a subject of the dialogue. Following Bakhtin then, a 'dialogue across difference' would not only entail the same monological violence of 'dialogue', but performs the violence of monologism twice-over. Since the condition of possibility of a 'dialogue across difference' relies upon the very invocation of difference as the subject of the dialogue, a 'dialogue across difference' performs a second and similar kind of violence: it can never be dialogic but is always monologic. The very identification of the subject of difference of the dialogue is a monological act. As a dialogue owed to 'difference', at that moment of identification of 'difference', this dialogue would always entail violence and mastery of difference and over difference. Both hospitality and dialogue occur as a relationship of difference as a relationship of power; for each is ultimately at the discretion of the host to decide when and to whom it is offered. To put it another way, dialogue performs the violence of monologism through deceit, or the pretence of generosity to the Other.

Hospitality, Difference and Différance

Derrida: '... 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 ...)' (Derrida 2000a: 3).

19. Derrida's statement is extracted from his essay Hostipitality. Here Derrida draws our attention to a contradiction in the idea of hospitality and conveys it through the etymology of the term. The point is that 'hospitality' (Hospitalität) and 'host' (hospes) share their Latin roots with what may seem to be their opposites; 'hostility' (hostiliter) and 'enemy' (hostis). Furthermore, Derrida points out, '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"' (Derrida 2005: 7). 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 a compromised position (Naas 2003: 167). 'Hospitality' commits a kind of violence in its very subjectification 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.

20. The etymological paradox of hospitality, noted in Derrida's quote above, is also an ethical problem. Derrida outlines this problem in the Western history of the idea of hospitality (see Derrida 2000a; 2000b; 2001; 2002; and 2005 ). This is a history that follows a trajectory from a pre-Enlightenment hospitality in the cosmopolitanism of Greek Stoicism, Pauline Christianity and the Medieval sanctuary to an Enlightenment hospitality marked by Kant and the modern system of states. As Derrida presents this history in his essay On Cosmopolitanism, in the pre-Enlightenment hospitality of the Judaic and Christian parables of the cities of refuge, the city practiced a version of 'unconditional hospitality'. This was a version of hospitality as an 'ethic of hospitality'. It is idealistic in the sense of an 'absolute' or 'unlimited' hospitality, which, Derrida describes, 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 fulfillment of even the smallest condition' (Derrida 2000: 77).

21. Against this background, Derrida considers contemporary European asylum movements, such as the Network of Cities of Refuge. The Network is comprised of cities, which, as signatories to The European Charter of Cities of Asylum (CLRAE 1995), have undertaken to offer asylum to persecuted writers and intellectuals. The Cities of Refuge project is characterized by two main ethical premises. These are human rights and hospitality. Its commitment to the rights to asylum and freedom of expression draws upon the human rights traditions in post-Second World War international and European Union law. Its position on hospitality is less specifically defined. Hospitality is neither a right that asylum seekers may claim nor a duty by which cities are bound. The Charter alludes to it as a 'culture in need of creation' that specifically recognizes 'a close relationship between local authorities and citizens' (CLRAE 1995: 10). Derrida attributes to Kant, the uncertainty of this contemporary expression of hospitality.

22. The creation, or 'cultivation', of an ethic of hospitality that 'we' have inherited today, is paradoxical for Derrida. He questions how we can speak of 'cultivating' an ethic of hospitality when hospitality, in its pre-Enlightenment form, is ethics (Derrida 2001: 16). Derrida locates the paradoxical moment at the moment of Kant's (1794) proclamation that 'Cosmopolitan Right Shall be Limited to Conditions of Universal Hospitality'. Derrida condemns 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': first hospitality is restricted to the right of visitation and, second, hospitality, since it is negotiated by treaty, is determined by law. Kant's idea of hospitality is therefore dependent upon state sovereignty.

23. Derrida's argument is that, by imposing conditions, 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? Kant's hospitality demonstrates that within the hospitality of states, there is always the perversion of hospitality; for Kantian hospitality is a reception and inclusion of 'the Other' in which 'the Other' is appropriated and controlled by the sovereign's law and law, as argued elsewhere in Derrida's writings, is a force of violence (see Derrida 1992: 6). Kant's 'hospitality' is deceitful by its harbouring of a double-layer of violence: it is inherently violent in its very conception, as noted by Derrida's etymology of the word, and it performs violence upon its subject in its delivery through law and territoriality.

24. Noting the contradictions within both 'pure hospitality' and the 'conditional hospitality' of Kant, Derrida posits an alternative 'unconditional law of unlimited hospitality' within the space between them. He describes this as the 'double law of hospitality: to calculate the risks, yes, but without closing the door on the incalculable, that is, on the future and the foreigner' (Derrida 2005: 6). This is an attempt to maintain some of the ideals of 'pure hospitality' in a structure of state borders where such an ideal, in its pure form, cannot be possible. In the absence of any empirical application of this idea, Derrida's problematizations and criticisms of the idea of hospitality seem much more convincing than his attempt to offer a revisioning of it to fit an ethical and political stance against the hostile treatment of foreigners by states. Although Derrida attempts to overcome the monologism of hospitality by maintaining that hospitality be open to the future, to the Other and to difference, mere openness overlooks the violent character of difference, central to the dilemma of hospitality. Derrida's earlier concept of différance offers a much more useful way to think about this violence (Derrida 1973).

25. Différance (difference with an a), refers to a silent unnamed space, present by virtue of its absence, in which what becomes difference (with an e) gets played out. In this space of possibilities, the alternatives cannot be conceptualized simultaneously. When one is brought to mind, the other is not erased, but is overshadowed; it is still present by virtue of its absence. 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 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.

26. Though Johannes Fabian does not himself use the term différance, he nevertheless describes something similar to it in his analysis of anthropological study:

The Other's empirical presence turns into his theoretical absence, a conjuring trick which is worked with an array of devices that have the common intent and function to keep the Other outside the time of anthropology (Fabian 1983: xli).

Anthropology, Fabian argues, is marked by a contradiction: its ethnographic practice relies upon the anthropologists' location in the same time as his/her research object; yet in speaking and writing about them, anthropologists have often located them in a different time, usually the time of the past, by referring to them in such terms as 'savagery', 'primitive' and 'traditional' (Fabian 1983: 77). Fabian uses the term 'denial of coevalness' to explain this symptom of anthropology's treatment of the Other. By this he means that anthropology's objects of study have often been denied sharing the present time of its researchers (Fabian 1983: 32). What Fabian describes, however, is not restricted to anthropological discourse. It can be found in a quote by Prime Minister Howard cited earlier in this article: 'Fully integrating means accepting Australian values, it means learning as rapidly as you can, the English language if you don't already speak it ...' (Howard 2006). The implication here is that those persons that cannot already speak the English language are denied the presentism of full integration. Or to take another earlier example, we find the possibility of différance as the denial of coevalness in the first of the High Court's options for deciding Mabo , 'this Court can either apply the existing authorities and proceed to inquire whether the Meriam people are higher "in the scale of social organization" than the Australian Aborigines whose claims were "utterly disregarded" by the existing authorities ...' (Brennan 1992: 40). The reference to a hierarchical scale of social organization along which people can be situated is an instance of differentiating between people by locating them in different points of time. These instances demonstrate the political implications made possible by thinking of difference as différance , where difference is a hierarchical relationship used in the government of peoples.

Conclusion: Dialogue Across Difference Différance

27. Fabian's analysis, particularly in its use of anthropological discourses on Othering to illustrate the point, offers, for Derrida's différance, a useful way to think about the violence of difference as a relationship of power through the use of time. Fabian shows how time, in the form of deferral or locating to a different time, is a device through which an Other is both constructed as 'different' and is distanced as 'different'. The capacity to both construct and identify the Other as the embodiment of difference, and then to distance that same Other in the domain of difference as a form of relationality, signifies a dynamic of power quite similar to the monological violation of the Other by dialogue. Both produce the subjects upon which they depend and, subsequently, govern them through the relationality created by this process. This is an account of différance that conveys the relationship of power it operationalizes.

28. Substituting this account of différance for 'difference' in the liberal 'dialogue across difference', différance highlights the character of the relationships in such a dialogue. It is not only a relationship of power but it is also a relationship of a deceitful generosity. In their welcomes, both hospitality and the liberal 'dialogue across difference' depend upon the violation of the Other that they both proclaim to welcome. It is a violation similar to the monological positing of 'cultural difference' by imperialism. A 'dialogue across différance' addresses the violent moment of difference in a 'dialogue across difference'. 'Difference' is violence; its violence resides in its very demarcation, ascription and interpretation that produces the Other as its subject. In 'difference', Rojas has argued 'violence results from a tendency to interpret difference from a position of privilege, generally the position in which the interpreter is located' (Rojas 2002: xvi). As an alternative to the liberal 'dialogue across difference', 'dialogue across différance' is the expression in which the Other of dialogue may have some opportunity to speak of their initial having-been-spoken-for, by the interpreter of difference. The opportunity arises through the exposition of the Other's violation in the deceitful hospitality of dialogue.


Ida Nursoo is a PhD student in the School of Archaeology and Anthropology at the Australian National University. Her thesis is entitled 'In the Waiting Room of Humanity: A Study in Cosmopolitan Thought'. Her primary research interests address cosmopolitanism, hospitality, the later writings of Jacques Derrida and Immanuel Kant and the hierarchization of people through themes relating to temporalization and postcolonial thought. Email:


A version of this paper was presented at the Dialogue Across Difference: Governance in a Multicultural Era Conference, Australian National University, 4-5 December 2006. I am most grateful to Barry Hindess, Christine Helliwell and John Docker for their generous comments on earlier drafts of this article. I would also like to thank the two anonymous referees for their most helpful suggestions.


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