From Exile to Hospitality: A Key to the Philosophy of Emmanuel Levinas

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The question of hospitality and of the welcoming of otherness is central to the thought of Emmanuel Levinas. In his Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida highlights the primordial role of the concept of hospitality in the philosophy of Levinas and goes as far as to call Levinas's Totality and Infinity "an immense treatise of hospitality.1 And indeed, numerous commentators have discussed this dimension of hospitality in the thought of Levinas.2 Few, however, have explored the exilic structure particular to that hospitality and that welcoming. And although many commentators have explored dimensions of exile in Levinas' philosophy-pertaining to his biography,3 his style,4 his vocabulary5-none has, to my knowledge, attempted to show the centrality of the concept of exile in the totality of Levinas's work, as well as the fundamental role this concept plays in articulating the structure of the hospitality of otherness. It is my thesis, however, that the philosophy of hospitality worked out in Levinas' thought is intimately connected to exile. While the theme of hospitality permeates the work of Levinas, it is articulated, at every step, in relation to the concept of exile. My goal in this essay will be to show this centrality of the concept of exile in Levinas, as well as how this concept illuminates the Levinassian thematic of hospitality.

We can distinguish two main trends in Levinas' treatment of exile. The first deals with the exile of the face with regard to the world of objects constituted by the self. According to Levinas, the face of the other is not another object in the world which the self can comprehend and dispose of at will. On the contrary, the face escapes all attempts by the self to grasp or objectify it, thus remaining exiled from its world. But this exile raises a number of questions. Must not the face be at some point be grasped as an object if a relationship with it is to be possible? If the face escapes all attempts on the part of the self to constitute it into an object of the world, if the face refuses to be encountered within the world of the self, how is an approach of the face to ever take place? An approach to the face is possible, according to Levinas, only at the price of a profound transformation of the structures of the self. The self must itself experience exile - a de-centering, a de-positing of itself as center of the universe-if an encounter with the exilic dimension of the other is to be possible. The approach to the face is thus itself structured as an exile, as a movement of the self outside of itself, outside of its situation as origin and foundation, into the realm of otherness. This is the second sense of exile in Levinas's work. But this exile also raises a number of questions. How can one account for this sudden shift in the structures of the self-of a self understood as the origin of the world to a self exiled, torn from its own world towards the other? What provokes this exile? And what's more, how can such an exile lead to hospitality? It is difficult to see how an exiled self, torn from its world, could become a source of hospitality.

It is these two problems that I want to address in this article: How is a hospitality of the exiled face possible and how can an exiled self offer such a hospitality? In both cases, the condition of exile seems to be the very antithesis of hospitality. It is difficult to see how the face which resolutely remains exiled with regards the structures of the self could ever lend itself to hospitality. It is also difficult to see how a self, itself exiled, could ever be capable of hospitality. In this essay I shall first deal with the problem posed by the exile of the face and after that with the problem posed by the exile of the self in an attempt to show how, ultimately, exile constitutes the very structure of hospitality of the face.

The Exile of the Face

The exile of the face is described by Levinas in a key passage in Totality and Infinity which reads as follows:

The epiphany of the face qua face opens humanity. …