Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Corina Stan reviews La fin de l’hospitalit√©

Guillaume Le Blanc and Fabienne Brugère. La fin de l’hospitalité: Lampedusa, Lesbos, Calais . . . jusqu’où irons-nous? Paris: Flammarion, 2017. 240pp.

Review by Corina Stan

Ravaged by Molotov cocktails, but “miraculously preserved, like an improbable Pompeii,” a little makeshift school remains standing after the dismantling of the Calais Jungle in October 2016. A young Eritrean on a bike, with just three dictionaries for luggage, is retreating into the woods, confiding that he still plans to cross the Channel somehow under the cover of the night. With the sketch of this furtive encounter, Guillaume Le Blanc and Fabienne Brugère conclude their philosophical-ethnographic enterprise, which they call a philosophie de terrain. “It is here,” they write, having toured European refugee camps in Tempelhof, Grande-Synthe, Calais, and other places unmarked on maps, “that hospitality comes to an end” (p. 236). They argue that Europe’s response to the refugee crisis was limited to a biopolitics of rescue and that hospitality mostly took the form of ethical gestures made by individuals or associations of volunteers. This response has raised questions about the identity of Europe, its values, its capacity and willingness to welcome foreigners; the two philosophers argue that it has also made necessary a rethinking of hospitality as a political category. The current climate around refugees, however, makes such a rethinking difficult. Brugère and Le Blanc speak of a “politics of fear” and Achille Mbembe of a politique de l’inimitié, while Judith Butler has suggested that a “national melancholia” suffuses the contemporary affective landscape.[1] With such inauspicious premises, what might a realistic notion of hospitality look like?

La fin de l’hospitalité was a prompt response to the mismanagement of the refugee crisis in 2015–2016 in Europe: the surveillance of the Mediterranean, the reinforcement of frontiers, the building of walls, camps, and centers where refugees were categorized, their life projects changed, their immigration plans directed elsewhere. These measures, Le Blanc and Brugère note, have made relevant again Hannah Arendt’s analysis of the denationalization of refugees in World War II; they also support Giorgio Agamben’s analyses of the camp as “the new biopolitical nomos of the planet” (p. 120). And the transformation of “hot spots” for migrants into centers of detention—places where the distinction between economic migrant and political refugee is operated—gives renewed significance, the authors show, to Michel Foucault’s hypothesis of the “carceral archipelago” in Discipline and Punish.[2] Europe no longer appears to heed old norms of hospitality that ensured that the foreigner from afar was received as the guest of an entire community; today he is turned away as a stranger who must be made invisible behind walls. Ironically, the authors note, nothing signals more explicitly the failure of the nation-state than the building of walls. “The migrant’s body becomes the expulsed threshold of the nation,” Brugère and Le Blanc write (p. 142), echoing psychoanalyst André Green’s reflection that “one can be a citizen or a stateless person, but it is very difficult to imagine oneself as a frontier.”[3]

This argument is the logical expansion of previous work by Le Blanc and Brugère.[4] In Que faire de notre vulnérabilité?, Guillaume Le Blanc’s analysis of citizenship highlights its constitutive exclusion of precarious lives. “What happens,” he asks, to “subjects who are apparently from nowhere, who are, so to speak, dubious subjects, not fully confirmed, subjects in search of humanity?”[5] Mobilizing Adorno’s analyses of the “included excluded” (workers employed or laid off following the fluctuations of economic cycles) and Zygmunt Bauman’s critical reflection on the production of disposable lives, Le Blanc argues for the recognition of vulnerability as a shared condition. People solidly anchored in their professional, social, affective lives might not ponder vulnerability very often; but, the author suggests, the possibility of ill health is always there, hence the specter of a loss of employment, insurance, family, and so on—precisely what might have happened to the homeless person sitting on the sidewalk. The realization that these people were not always without a home, that they used to make plans for the future and see themselves as protagonists of a fully human life, makes vulnerability a most palpable reality, one that we ought to reckon with.[6] In La politique de l’individu, Fabienne Brugère insists on the importance of support both for fully able individuals whose lives need fulfillment frameworks (such as education and healthcare), and for differently abled individuals, or for people in life situations that diverge from conventional social scripts. A “decent society” is one that does not humiliate its citizens, actively supporting them by creating conditions for self-fulfillment.[7] An age of value pluralism has to be, Brugère argues, a modernity of support (une modernité du soutien).

Similarly, the book about hospitality examines the production of inexistence as a social category: if one is not from here, one is from nowhere. This mode of thinking suggests that the sovereign individuals of nation-states assert their existence by way of marginalizing and making migrants invisible. The earlier question about “dubious subjects” is reformulated in La fin de l’hospitalité in the same impersonal, perplexing, yet interpellative mode of the French infinitive: Que faire des vies indésirables? (What to do with undesirable lives?) Today, Le Blanc and Brugère point out, such lives are simply managed: controlled, surveilled, identified, restrained in camps. Instead of creating conditions for a decent life, the new biopolitical economy simply tolerates people alive or even lets them die. But a life, the two philosophers insist, is not simply a biological reality; the fullness of its humanity is measured in all the ties, rituals, activities that make it meaningful, hence the need for space and “anchors”—personal, professional, legal, cultural, among others. Understood in a political sense then, hospitality is about the creation of spaces in which all of these aspects of life are made possible in the most concrete ways.[8]  

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of the argument developed by Brugère and Le Blanc is their insistence on a realism of hospitality, which drives their critique of Derrida’s heroic model. Premised on an unconditional and indeterminate opening of one’s home, in keeping with the lack of distinction between the host and the guest harbored in the French hôte, the ideal of pure hospitality must begin, says Derrida, from nothing. Nothing familiar or predictable must be presupposed, no contract imposed. And if the hospitality should turn into hostility, and the guest should usurp the place of the host, one ought to remember to turn inwards and ponder one’s own possible relationship of enmity with inner others. Derrida recognizes that he is unsure whether the experience of pure hospitality exists, but he needs it as a pole of reference; Brugère and Le Blanc point out that he gambles on the meaning of a relationship that tries to turn the stranger into a human being undiminished by any social or historical determination.[9] “In this sense, hospitality resembles an encounter outside of time, a severing from our everyday life [which] relies on the radical acceptance of an alterity existing outside of legal, historical, or social frameworks” (pp. 205–6). This dream of pure hospitality, they point out, is in stark contrast to the codified hospitality of the ancients, or even to the norms of hospitality outlined by Kant.[10] The question presents itself whether modernity might have signed off on the end of hospitality by de-realizing it following Derrida’s model.

The ethical frame of La fin de l’hospitalité is Baruch Spinoza’s Ethics (1677), most notably Spinoza’s imperative to accept the real as it is without truncating it; in other words, without ignoring the global reality of large-scale migrations. Today, Le Blanc and Brugère insist, “we need to rethink and practice hospitality in the age of camps, of the fear of foreigners and of the suspicion of neighbors who can turn out to be enemies from within. It is impossible, in this already saturated universe, to find counsel in Derrida’s thought” (p. 206). The scene of hospitality does not, and cannot begin, “from nothing.”[11] It starts with the recognition of an appeal that exceeds the caller and that interpellates a community: “the unbearable has emerged in the world, and one must react in order to prevent inhumanity from prospering” (p. 206). While hospitality is conditioned by a pre-comprehension of the vulnerability of all lives, it can only take place if there are other conditions of possibility as well. A solution cannot follow a model of charity and dependence related to the private home; rather, it must be a collective one, impersonal, grounded in human rights, reliant on structures (centres d’accueil), and made possible through political will. Not truncating the real in political decision-making means that hospitality is part of a “conversation on the plurality of worlds,” an attempt to articulate the logic of the nation and that of migrancy: not idealist luxury or sentimental daydreaming about the beauty of others, but a dispositif of rescue, care, and welcome that acknowledges the insufficiency of a partial politics.[12]

Rather than the Latin etymology of hostis, or the semantic confusion of the French hôte, Brugère and Le Blanc find most useful the reminder that the first documented use of hospitalité in 1206 was already tied to the institution of the “hospital”: a well-established space that offered free accommodation to travelers and to the poor.[13] It is by following the political imperative of the hospital as an asylum or place of refuge that nation-states should practice hospitality: “To the solitary magnificence of the hospitality of the home, understood as a lost golden age, we must prefer an impersonal hospitality, made possible by the creation of hospitable reception centers” (p. 206); to the idealistic notion of unconditional and indeterminate hospitality, a humane welcome that stops short of promising integration. (The latter, Le Blanc and Brugère argue, would require a public debate about the willingness, possibilities, and conditions of integrating foreigners into a given society.) The stakes of understanding hospitality as a median value between rescue and belonging bear both on a cosmopolitism of globality (in light of Kant’s defense of hospitality as a condition of international peace), and on a cosmopolitism of locality. Brugère’s work on the politics of care, in which she builds on Joan Tronto’s Caring Democracy (2013), has important reverberations here: because the collective, state-sponsored centers of welcome (centres d’accueil) are “official,” they would be recognized as centers of care; and as Tronto argues, care is democratic because it signals a political will of inclusion that redefines the norms of social justice. Conversely, the deficit of care and the deficit of democracy are two faces of the same coin.

In spite of its rich bibliography, La fin de l’hospitalité is in many ways a French book. As a reaction to the European response to the refugee crisis, it has a certain urgency of appeal, felt especially in the reiteration of questions such as “how far . . . ?” (see the subtitle) or “until when . . . ?” are we going to pursue a politics of enmity, of fear, of dehumanization—of others, of ourselves? It is a French book written by two philosophers whose engagement is worn on their sleeves, who take seriously their role as public intellectuals convinced that philosophy is, in keeping with the legacy of the 1960s, a counterculture—hence the unapologetically interpolative we. In other words, its tone is consistent with (what Lionel Trilling used to call) a sincerity paradigm, nowhere more obvious than in the last chapter, which outlines in detail the steps towards building une république bienveillante (a benevolent republic).[14] The inextricable relationship between a local and a global cosmopolitism that the book defends calls for the translation of this book into English. It is an important intervention in a growing body of literature on global migration that includes, among others, first-person and fictional accounts of the experience of refuge (Abbas Khider, Viet Thanh Nguyen, Elfriede Jelinek, Gillian Cross, Yuri Herrera), economic and sociological analyses such as those of Saskia Sassen and Paul Collier, provocative essays like Slavoj Zizek’s Against the Double Blackmail (2016), interventions by human rights activists (The Refugee Trauma Initiative), committed anthropologists (Didier Fassin), and political theorists (see, for example, the edited collection Africa and Fortress Europe [New York, 2008], ed. Belachew Gebrewold). The book by Brugère and Le Blanc is most useful for the unsparing precision with which it articulates the stakes of hospitality for democracy, as well as for our self-understanding as global citizens in the twenty-first century. Whether happily embraced or disavowed, global citizenship is part of a realism—in the full sense taught by Spinoza—that should make us uncomfortable with the kind of hospitality practiced in various places today, the dubious hospitality of walls.


Unless otherwise noted, all translations are my own.

[1] Judith Butler, Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (New York, 2004), p. xiv. And see Achille Mbembe, Politiques de l’inimitié (Paris, 2016).

[2] Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York, 1995), p. 297.

[3] André Green, La folie privée: Psychanalyse des cas-limites (Paris, 1990), quoted in La fin de l’hospitalité, p. 142.

[4] Guillaume Le Blanc’s philosophical career started under the auspices of Georges Canguilhem and Michel Foucault (Les maladies de l’homme normal [The Maladies of the Normal]), and continued as a systematic exploration of precariousness, vulnerability, social invisibility and inaudibility, as well as the blurry line between inclusion and exclusion (Vies précaires, vies ordinaires [Precarious lives, ordinary lives], L’invisibilité sociale [Social Invisibility], Que faire de notre vulnerabilité? [What Shall We Do with Our Vulnerability?]). His work typically straddles several bodies of work: continental philosophy from René Descartes and Immanuel Kant to the Frankfurt school and French poststructuralism, American critical theory, and moral philosophy. He is also the author of a novel, Sans Domicile Fixe [Homeless], and of a study of Charlie Chaplin (L’Insurrection des vies minuscules [The Insurection of Minuscule Lives]); like the novelist Haruki Murakami, he also wrote about long-distance running (Courir: Méditations physiques [Running: Physical Meditations]). Fabienne Brugère is an accomplished academic and public figure who has written broadly on the philosophy of art (Théorie de l'art et philosophie de la sociabilité selon Shaftesbury [Theory of Art and the Philosophy of Sociability after Shaftesbury], Le goût : art, passions et société [Taste: Art, Passions, and Society], L'expérience de la beauté [The Experience of Beauty], among others) and on feminism and the ethics of care (Le sexe de la sollicitude [The Gender of Solicitude], L'éthique du « care » [The Ethics of Care], and La politique de l’individu [Politics of the Individual]). They have also coauthored Le nouvel esprit du libéralisme [The New Spirit of Liberalism] and Dictionnaire politique à l'usage des gouvernés [Political Dictionary for the Use of the Governed]. None of these books have appeared in English translation.

[5] Le Blanc, Que faire de notre vulnérabilité? (Paris, 2011), p. 119.

[6] An artistic response to Le Blanc’s moral position is Abdalla Al Omari’s Vulnerability Series, paintings and a film in which he includes portraits of world leaders – from Angela Merkel and Barack Obama to Bashar al Assad and Vladimir Putin – among the faces of refugees that overflow from his large canvasses. <>, last access on 10 April 2018.

[7] See Avishai Margalit, The Decent Society, trans. Naomi Goldblum (Cambridge, Mass., 1998).

[8] Le Blanc and Brugère cite the unofficial camp of what used to be the Calais “jungle” and the Grande-Synthe camp outside of Dunkirk as the two places where the lives of migrants are bearable, if difficult, because there is a sense of community. La fin de l’hospitalité was completed at the end of 2016 and published a year later. While the book was in production, the Grande-Synthe camp burnt to ashes—on 10 April 2017—as a result of violence among some of the migrants, not the first clash on record. The incident might be brought up to invalidate the book’s claim that decent living conditions would enable people to create a life and establish a community; indeed, in France it was used by right-wing groups to oppose state support for refugees. However, it bears reminding that the camp had more than doubled its population after the dismantling of the Calais camp; initially designed for 700, it had come to shelter, now in insalubrious conditions, between 1400 and 1700 migrants. See, for example, the report in Libération by Stéphanie Maurice, “Le camp de Grande-Synthe dévasté, le maire en appelle à la solidarité,” 11 April 2017, That situation actually gives more weight to Le Blanc’s and Brugère’s argument about the importance of creating such centers.

[9] For a thought-provoking exploration of a version of this model of hospitality, see the film Eastern Boys (2013), dir. Robin Campillo.

[10] Le Blanc and Brugère revisit practices of welcoming strangers in ancient Greece, noting the heavily codified norms that preside over the recognition of the guest as a foreigner coming from afar, the protection extended to him and the guarantee of avoidance of conflict, and the temporary character of the welcome. Kant’s 1795 “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch” offers bearings in the notion of a planet shared by all, where everyone must enjoy the right to visit, but where the sovereign maintains the privilege of deciding on the length of welcome for distant foreigners.

[11] Jacques Derrida, De l'hospitalité (Genouilleux, 2001), p. 132.

[12] See Bernard le Bovier de Fontenelle, Entretiens sur la pluralité des mondes (Paris, 1686).

[13] See the Emmaus centers in France.

[14] See Lionel Trilling, Sincerity and Authenticity (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1973).