Impossible Ideals: Addressing the IPW and Aporetic Tensions in the Rhetorical Imperative

It might not be immediately apparent how the “International Parliament of Writers” (IPW) could clarify a theoretical understanding of hospitality as rhetoric. However, Diane Davis, in her book Inessential Solidarity: Rhetoric and Foreigner Relations points to the organization to illustrate how hospitality is not only informed by Derrida’s “law,” but also how the concept of the “rhetorical imperative” plays out meaningfully in the real world. She defines this imperative as “the infinite obligation [of the “I”] to receive and respond [to the “other”]” (119). For Davis, the IPW extending hospitality to disadvantaged writers is an example of the “rhetorical imperative” applied to a political context, and therefore it could serve as an effective response to the charge that “there is no legitimate place in the public sphere for appeals to ‘infinite responsibility’” (118).

According to Davis, “everything begins with rhetoric,” including hospitality (115). Rhetoric undergirds every facet of human experience, as the consciousness of the Cartesian “I” does not merely derive from the “infinite welcome” of the other, but “consciousness is this infinite welcome.” (129). That everything begins with rhetoric highlights the centrality of the concept of the rhetorical imperative. The “I” is infinitely obligated to “respond” to the other (as well as the interrupting “third party”), as the “I” depends on the other for its own existence (115). When Davis refers to the relationship between the host and guest in Derrida’s law of hospitality, and the ethical obligations that they might have towards one another, she does so through a rhetorical framework. The host and guest are not only a “self” and “other,” but each is an “I” which “is responsible to and for the other, infinitely” (115). Derrida’s law and Davis’ imperative therefore appear to be somewhat interchangeable in her argument.

The IPW as an example of the rhetorical imperative – wherein cities and writers ideally act as hosts and guests, and wherein both parties are infinitely responsible to and for the other – further clarifies what I take to be Davis’ thesis. She claims, “it is thanks to an experience of this rhetorical imperative … that both moral and political fields can be and remain open. An inessential and thoroughly rhetorical solidarity, which is not in itself limited or limitable, is the condition for any ‘truth process’ as well as any political instantiation of social structure” (119). Davis makes this statement in response to critics who argue that the infinite responsibility of the rhetorical imperative finds no place in the public sphere (118). If Davis can prove that the IPW is an instance of the rhetorical imperative at play, then Derrida’s law of hospitality and the appeal to “infinite responsibility” are justified as politically applicable concepts (118).

Because Davis argues that there is an inherent “aporetic” tension between the law and the laws of hospitality, it is questionable whether the law is meaningfully defended within her own argument (127). Davis acknowledges that, “When the infinite obligation to the Other is not checked by the infinite obligation to the ‘third party,’ … it becomes the alibi for a sacrificial exchange in which all the other others are substitutable: daughters for angels, a concubine for a pilgrim, Isaac for Abraham …” (134). Unchecked, the law of hospitality will become inhospitable, as the host must sacrifice even the life of the third party for the sake of the guest, and thereby violate justice. Consequently, according to Davis, there is “no hospitality in the ‘classic’ or conditional sense … without transgressing the law of unconditional hospitality” (130). Her admission here might not be problematic if she simply wants to indicate that that the contradiction exists. However, Davis’ treatment of Derrida’s critics and her use of the IPW as an illustrative example of the rhetorical imperative suggests that she wants to respond to the criticism on some level. Habermas and Laclau argue that the “infinite responsibility” of Derrida’s law is illegitimate in the public sphere (118). Davis, however, indicates that she wants to answer the question “how [can] we engage a rhetorical practice that embraces and affirms the rhetorical imperative?” (135). Merely acknowledging the contradiction does not seem to satisfy the relevant question she poses.

Davis frames the example of the IPW as one of the rhetorical imperative in practice, but she also heavily emphasizes the contradictions which make the imperative seem impossible to implement. It is just after addressing the “aporetic” tensions between the law and laws of hospitality that Davis transitions to her section on the IPW, saying that the organization will “allow us to contemplate the place of infinite responsibility in concrete agitations for social justice” (135). However, Davis also refers to aporetic tension when she describes Derrida’s formative work in the IPW’s second charter. She writes, “Occupying this space of strategy and decision, Derrida negotiates between the conditional hospitality that the network has successfully established and the unconditional hospitality that must remain its aim and inspiration” (141). Here, conditional hospitality contending with restrictions like national law and limited resources must contend with the ideal of the law of hospitality that is unconditional and infinite. The practical situation that Derrida and his fellow writers face illustrates the divide between the concrete “laws” of hospitality and the “law” that remains solely within the ideal realm. Despite all of this, Davis wants to suggest that the organization and Derrida’s “approach to advocacy were successful” in so far as they represent “countless” others in hiding (142). This conclusion seems inadequate if Davis wants to counter the claim that “infinite responsibility is useless, even a hindrance, when it comes to concrete agitation for social justice” (142). If it is impossible to implement or achieve Derrida’s law, how is it meaningful and why is it worth contemplating? Yet, as a Christian, I suppose I must consider how this objection could also apply to that other seemingly impossible law delivered on Mt. Sinai.

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