Contact Zones and the Unlikely Host

In its constitutive autoimmunity, in its vocation for hospitality (with everything in the ipse that works over the etymology and experience of the hospes through the aporias of hospitality), democracy has always wanted by turns and at the same time two incompatible things: it has wanted on the one hand, to welcome only men, and on the condition that they be citizens, brothers, and compeers [semblables], excluding all the others, in particular bad citizens, rogues, noncitizens, and all sorts of unlike and unrecognizable others, and, on the other hand, at the same time or by turns, it has wanted to open itself up, to offer hospitality, to all those excluded.

—Jacques Derrida, Rogues

Judith Still has explained that since the inception of the French Revolution there was a political will to reinvent the revolutionary process as asylum from tyranny and oppression. In December 1791, Cordorcet, a member of the National Convention, wrote an address to be sent to foreign peoples assuring them that “‘the principle of hospitality’ would not be put in question by the war” (Still 2006, 706). However, security issues interfered with this open invitation to universalize the principles of the Revolution, and foreigners soon became assimilated into the category of spies or counterrevolutionaries. The generous and expansive state that wished to extend universal rights not dependent on birthplace became the nation-state that defined itself against others. By September 6, 1793, a decree expelled the foreigners born in the countries at war with France. Foreigners had to be policed so that the state could turn out the betrayers of the hospitable nation that protected them. Even longtime residents had to apply for a certificat d’hospitalite and give proof of loyalty (ibid., 707). This is just an instance of the double and contradictory impulse at the heart of the creation of the nation-state: to welcome the citizen, the one who looks like me, a compeer, “someone similar or semblable as a human being, a neighbor, a fellow citizen, a fellow creature, a fellow man” (Derrida 2005, 11), that is, different versions of ipse, metipse, or ipseity, with their attending references to possession, property, power, and authority of the lord or seignior, of the sovereign, “and most often the host (hospites), the master of the house or the husband” (ibid.). This inclusion implied the automatic exclusion of everything and everyone outside the circularity of the self. Who fits into this category of the Other, the non-brothers? Derrida questions. They are the excluded or wayward, the outcast or displaced, left to roam around the streets. The voyou and the roue “introduce disorder into the street; they are picked out, denounced, judged, and condemned, pointed out as actual or virtual delinquents, as those accused and pursued by the civilized citizen, by the state, or civil society, by decent, law abiding citizens, by their police” (ibid., 63-64). Not surprisingly, and as opposed to the brothers that have homes to return to, the word voyou, Derrida explains, “has an essential relation with the voie, the way, with the urban roadways [voirie], the roads of the city or the polis, and thus with the street [rue]” (ibid., 65).

In Welcome, the alleged voyous are the migrants who wander around the streets of Calais as they await an opportunity to cross, a contingent made up of Afghans, Kurds, and Pakistanis, among others. The city has turned into an uneasy contact zone where interaction between citizens and noncitizens has turned problematic, for the border is not only the liquid line on the horizon; it divides itself, as Apelles and Derrida illustrated, in multiple ways. The outer line refracts itself on the mainland and creates a multilinear society, striated across lines of nationality, religion, and culture. Seemingly unaware of these invisible lines, Bilal shows up at a public pool. The pool contains a manageable liquid line that communicates the homeless and those who are comfortably at home. A synechdochic equivalent of the channel, if in a contained and manageable fashion, the pool offers a microcosm of the world outside. The ropes separating the lanes offer visible illustrations of a striated society, as if further revising the endless divisibility of the line in the Apelles-Protogenes anecdote. The colors of the rope Bilal holds on to, white, blue, and red, remind the viewer of the national character of the liquid line he is traversing; it is a revealing preview of the wider line he will try to cross. A laconic instructor, Simon, agrees to give him two swimming lessons. Yet this interaction is not the norm. Outside the pool, a space code separates citizens and noncitizens, brothers and rogues. The movie shows one instance in which two young men are banned from entering a supermarket by a security guard. Their business is not wanted because, the manager claims, they upset the customers. The supermarket thus morphs into a checkpoint away from the geopolitical frontier, yet it replicates the same parameters of detention and selection. While Simon does not interfere, his by-now former wife confronts both the manager’s xenophobic attitude as well as Simon’s indifference, at the same time that she reminds the latter of what it means to ban certain groups of people from shops and how that played out in the history of the country.11 Contact, the implication runs, equals contamination, and this kind of interaction is not tolerated. The supermarket, like Calais at large, struggles to preserve a homogeneous space, an ideal isomorphism of race, culture, religion, and language, as it confines migrants to traverse different manifestations of non-places.

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