That the principle of hospitality should find its way into current political discourse would seem to stem— depending on one’s point of view— from facts or confusion. A fact: the sense of outrage aroused by the treatment immigrants receive today has turned the demands of hospitality into one of the major politicising forces of our time, one of the only ones to regularly unlock the barrier separating what is public from what is personal. From the time of the 1997 petition raised by a group of filmmakers against the Debré laws, asserting their determination to provide shelter to illegal immigrants, through to the mobilisation of the RESF (Education Without Borders Network), passing by way of the solidarity of residents in the Sangatte region, in recent years hospitality has moved people to offset territorial closure by opening their own space, paradoxically pitting the sovereignty of the notion that “every man’s home is his castle” against political sovereignty itself. Thus incited, opponents of these mobilisations usually object to the heterogeneity of such principles compared to the order of politics; they either dismiss the invocation of the duty to be hospitable as a moral or religious imperative that fails to take into account the constraints and limitations that are essential to the reasoned management of territory, or they reject it for concentrating attention on subpolitical means of welcoming and receiving, attention that is right-minded, but scarcely transposable from the private relationship that each can develop with a single guest, to public action that is, in principle, removed from consideration for people. In short, invoking the need to offer hospitality, or becoming indignant over brutal transgressions against it, would amount to neglecting the appropriate politics, the former by overlooking the contingencies to which it must accommodate, the latter by compromising the distance that is called for.

The dossier presented here will attempt to chip away at these facts of hospitality and the objections raised against them. For one thing, that hospitality belongs to the universal principles of progressive politics is, in itself, not at all obvious. This makes its sudden appearance all the more interesting, for at least four reasons, which we’ll come across in the pages that follow.

1. First, this move to the foreground is completely dependent upon a unique situation— a divergence between the commerce of things and “commerce” between people, a more widespread circulation of merchandise that increases neither freedom of movement nor reciprocal contact between societies.

2. Next, this new situation brings a political feeling to the surface that turns affronts to immigrants into rebuffs against the poor, and links the struggle against injustice to that against the ‘between-oneself’, not to downplay the singularity of the latter. Placing the two struggles under the aegis of hospitality constitutes perhaps not so much an anthropological rule as an occidental particularity. This certainly does not relativise its impact, nor glorify its superiority, but forces us to take stock of it in the context of an encounter, one in which meeting other people makes us aware of how our connection to ourselves passes entirely through them.

3. Further, we will not downplay the extent to which those who risk accepting the call for hospitality are forced to employ an impure register, where the same argument can swing from one side to the other, where contrary positions are supported by the same comparisons between country and home, where internationalism has to make use of a rhetoric that distinguishes the native from the immigrant he receives.

4. Finally, in this ambiguity we will observe an echo of the kind of unrest, danger and uncertainty that seize whoever practices hospitality. The only way it can constitute an inhabitable world is by forcing each person to take a step outside, by surrounding the intimacy of the hearth with an obscure zone where, literally, one is not at home, but a zone without which the hearth itself would lose all meaning. This is the hazardous space that traditional rituals develop, manifest, and conjure; it is this same space that must be crossed to foster a link in other people’s language, and to welcome them in one’s own: it’s the very opposite of a certainty, or a comfortable thought.

Nothing obvious, then, but a threshold. In a sense, it’s here that the objections mentioned above fall of themselves. By rejecting demands of hospitality that fall on the side of grand principles or superficial niceties, in thus seeking to expel these two forms of concern from the sphere of public action, the objections deny the mediatory dimension of politics. Between the laws of hospitality and political reason there is a profound homology. For one as much as the other, it’s all about capitalising on the necessarily exorbitant imperatives with little ways of doing things, with conventions, and with exchanges of gestures. To try to ignore this, to dream of a politics without thresholds, not only demonstrates barbarism or boorish behaviour; it’s to deny politics itself.