Ethical Encounters – Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality

s200_myriam.fotouThis guest post, by Myriam Fotou, is the first in a series of posts reflecting on contemporary global ethics that was originally organised as the Ethical Encounters in a Changing World panel for the 2015 ISA convention in New Orleans. Myriam is a PhD candidate in the Department of International Relations at LSE, she is also a visiting lecturer at Royal Holloway and City University London. Joe’s post can be found here, Elke’s is here, Jillian’s here and Diego’s here. Kim’s discussion post is here.

Let us consider this negative sentence: “death has no border”
J. Derrida, Aporias

Framing the problem

In mid-January 2014, approximately five nautical miles off the coast of Turkey and near the Greek islet of Farmakonisi, eleven non-Europeans, including babies and children, were drowned. Amid adverse weather conditions, their boat had capsized during an attempt by the Greek coastguard to tow the old smuggling boat. Accounts of what happened are contradictory: survivors argue that they were being pushed back to Turkey, shouted at and threatened, and that the drowned were not inadvertently killed; Greek authorities, on the other hand, argue that they were towing the boat to Greek waters and safety, that the conditions did not allow for the people on the old, adrift vessel to be taken aboard the coastguard’s vessel, that the “illegal” immigrants coming from Asia did not know anything about the sea and navigating, how to swim or orient themselves. By gathering on one side of the boat after one of them fell overboard, they caused the vessel to capsize themselves. These contradictory stories, which although might not make much of a difference in the end result (almost half of the people on board were drowned), in essence symbolise the contradiction between the law and its application, the inherent violence in both, and in European states’ backpedalling on their hospitality obligations.


As an incident, Farmakonisi and its dead were far from exceptional: it followed on a series of tragic incidents in the Mediterranean (the incidents in Lampedusa counting drownings in the hundreds feature prominently in the news). In the last decade alone, there have been 17,500 recorded deaths in the Mediterranean of people trying to reach the European continent, a figure that excludes missing persons. What makes cases like Farmakonisi stand out, though, is the clear implication that the deaths were caused by a sustained, albeit unofficial, push-back policy that seems to have become common practice in southern Europe and the western world in general. Similar deaths occur because of the externalisation of borders and detention centres located in third countries, where lack of transparency in procedures and of respect for human rights, combined often with unstable or transitional local politics, allows violence against moving people to go unnoticed. In this context, Farmakonisi is an exemplar of a “new” hospitality landscape: while states profess to abide to general hospitality-related treaties, of which the principle of non-refoulement is the main pillar, the practice of push-backs and other borderline illegal actions resulting in deaths are common, as observed by NGOs and proved by occasional court rulings not only in Europe but on the US–Mexican border and elsewhere.

I want to suggest that traditional ethical approaches are insufficient to substantively address the Other as the possible “object of the law” in the cases of Farmakonisi, Lampedusa, detention camps, etc., since in such cases the Other is in essence abject, considered and treated as human refuse, allowed to be missing, drowned, uncountable, vanished. While biopolitical approaches, such as the one by Esposito briefly explored below, provide useful tools with which to read the militarisation of border management and treatment of the Other, they fail, nonetheless, to distance themselves from a hierarchical Self/Other relationality. This Self/Other relationality takes the existence of violence as a given and leaves it unchallenged on the one hand, while depriving the Other of any subjectivity and confining it to a circle of constant resistance and flight, on the other. Hospitality, in the Derridean and Levinasian understanding, is the main theoretical approach that can effectively address the aforementioned shortcomings. In this context, I explore here the Derridean concept of autoimmunity: usually seen in IR as as an inherent characteristic of democracies, especially with regards to homegrown terrorism or along the affirmative biopolitical terms of Esposito’s conceptualisation, I apply it here in the context of hospitality in an attempt to challenge the tendency towards an immunity of shutting down borders, stricter acceptance policies, etc., and to see whether an autoimmunitary understanding of hospitality may be conducive to the ethical encounter, an exposure to the other, to what and who comes.

Autoimmunity as affirmative biopolitics

Theorisations in the biopolitical vein beyond the Agambenian kind (which has traditionally dominated issues of hospitality through his work on bare life and the camp), such as autonomy of migration scholarship, but also Esposito, tend to focus on resistance and flight, agonism, the creation of networks and diversity. Theirs is a (self-professed) affirmative reading of biopolitics, which argues for a politics of connectivity (Amin, 2004:38) and resistance, envisaging recurrent migrant flows, juxtaposition, porosity of borders, and relational connectivity as essential antidotes to Agambenian exclusion and passivity. These approaches argue that they provide a positive alternative for a biopolitical order that can escape domination, power and violence.

In this schematic juxtaposition of a “negative” reading of biopolitics by Agamben, where sovereignty is all encompassing and resistance is futile, with a “positive” one by Negri, where power can be subverted by the multitude through resistance, Esposito (2008) finds that neither of the two escape the thanatocentrism or politics of death. For him, both “positive” and “negative” understandings of biopolitics are anchored in death, either by overcoming it through violent struggle (the positive take on the biopolitical order) or by resigning to a bare life plagued by it, a bare life which will only disappear in a non-statal, messianic future (the “negative” Agambenian kind of biopolitcs). As such, the biopolitical becomes thanatopolitical: “this is the enigma of biopolitics” (2008:13–43) for Esposito. For that reason, he suggests his own affirmative biopolitics; While he is not able to convincingly explain, at least to my understanding, how this distinction between the two versions of biopolitics came to exist in modern times, he pinpoints immunity as being the link between biopolitics and thanatopolitics. With immunity being coterminous with community (Campbell, 2008:4), Esposito understands it as taking two forms: either community’s “militaristic defence against the foreign or as a hospitable relation to the [O]ther” (Lewis, 2014). The former, i.e., immunity as a community’s excessive effort to self-protect in the form of defence measures against the stranger and the foreign, can lead to autoimmunity and self-destruction.

Thousands of deaths at the gates of Europe

An excessive enclosing against the Other, thus, the immunising feature of sovereignty par excellence according to Esposito, can bring a community’s own downfall. The same goes for immunity towards the opposite direction: allowing foreign antigens into the body as it happens with vaccination, i.e., by being “overhospitable” and allowing everyone and everything in may also be destructive by undoing community in its totality. As such, autoimmunity is the inward movement of sovereignty against itself. Either by sealing off a state’s borders or allowing them to be “too open”, autoimmunity is when a community attacks itself.

Hospitality: an autoimmunitary concept?

I could (…) inscribe the category of the autoimmune into a series of both older and more recent discourses on the double bind and the aporia. Although aporia, double bind, and autoimmune processes are not exactly synonyms, what they have in common, what they are all, precisely, charged with, is, more than an internal contradiction, an [un]decidability, that is, an internal-external, nondialectizable antinomy that risks paralyzing and thus calls for the event of the interruptive decision. (Derrida, 2005b:35)

“Inscribed (…) into a veritable ‘best of collection’ of Derrideo-phemes or deconstructo-nyms” (sic) of other aporias, Naas argues that autoimmunity “breathes a new life” into these earlier aporetic terms, in one way at least: that of addressing practices or actualisations of concepts (of democracy, at least in his discussions in 2003, 2005b) rather than focusing solely on the concepts per se and their discourses as is done with the earlier terms of justice, gift, hospitality (Naas, 2008a:135). I find myself disagreeing with Naas, not only because I find the terms “Derrideo-phemes” and “deconstructo-nyms” inane and feeding into a negative representation of Derrida’s oeuvre in the Chomskyan or Searlian vein but mainly because a contradiction soon follows: while he finds autoimmunity to breathe a “new life” into earlier Derridean concepts and aporias, he subsequently accepts that it relates to différance – a concept elaborated as early as the 1960s – and its real political nature contra its critics.

Despite my disagreement on this point and Naas’ chronological contradiction, I think he is right to relate autoimmunity with Derrida’s early work. Contrary to the common belief that it is a later development, autoimmunity should be considered as an ever-present Derridean concept. Not only because autoimmunity as a term appears earlier than “Faith and Knowledge”, both in Spectres of Marx and the Politics of Friendship but because, I would like to argue, it is already in “Plato’s Pharmacy” and is related to pharmakon: “this ‘medicine’, this philter, which acts as both remedy and poison, already introduces itself into the body of the discourse with all its ambivalence” (1981:70).¹ While the two terms are not synonymous, autoimmunity, just as pharmakon, is constituted by a very specific ambivalence. Both function in ambivalent ways, when they can be remedying and simultaneously poisoning a body: the physical body, a body politic, a community or system. This should not be seen as simply a case of a double meaning, ambiguity or even polysemy, “but of a word with no self-identical meaning” (De Ville, 2010:6; n 13).

Immunity (as the rapport between an exogenous antibody generator/a threat/a foreigner and the body/organism/state/community) and auto-immunity (as the system’s own defence resulting both in self-protection but also self-harm) are not and cannot be seen as clearly defined and absolute opposites, but two processes defining each other. The image of an immune system functioning as an absolute and safe boundary towards the outside is false. Autoimmunity, being a proof of this, constitutes the limen where inside and outside linger, being in essence inseparable. Derrida agrees: “[b]etween the immune and that which threatens it or runs counter to it (…), the relation is neither one of exteriority nor one of simple opposition or contradiction. I would say the same about the relationship between immunity and autoimmunity.” (2005b:114)

Understood in these terms, can autoimmunity be applied to hospitality? I argue that it can and should. If, when approached deconstructively, pharmakon points to the binary of the stable categories of the Self and Other, inside and outside in Plato and, by implication, in the Greek/Western rational thinking and philosophy in general, so too does autoimmunity. Derrida reiterates this point in one of his earlier (than “Faith and Knowledge”) references to auto-immunity while being interviewed about drugs and the addiction to them. In the following extract, he refers more specifically to Aids:

The various forms of this deadly contagion, its spatial and temporal dimensions will from now on deprive us of everything that desire and a rapport to the other could invent to protect the integrity, and thus the inalienable identity of anything like a subject: in its ‘body’, of course, but also even in its entire symbolic organization, the ego and the unconscious, the subject in its separateness and in its absolute secrecy. The virus (which belongs neither to life nor to death) may always already have broken into any ‘intersubjective’ space. (1995:241)

Autoimmunity, thus, serves to deconstruct the concept of the self. (Johnson, 2010).

Jacques Derrida

Accepting therefore that the concept of autoimmunity befuddles the traditional hierarchical opposition between self and Other and as a process, breaks down boundaries and divisions and the need to sustain them through preventative measures (and, in the case of hospitality, militarized and violent techniques), I argue that it cannot but be considered as an essential part of hospitality. Hospitality is autoimmunitary. Hospitality cannot be considered as such if it is not plagued by the dangers of autoimmunity; “would a hospitality without risk, a hospitality backed by certain assurances, a hospitality protected by an immune system against the wholly [O]ther, be true hospitality?” asks Derrida (2003:129). Hospitality is autoimmunitary in its inherent contradiction between unconditional openness and calculatory management of borders. This autoimmunitary logic in a skewed understanding of border, community and organism protection leads to tragedies such as the ones experienced in Farmakonisi, Lampedusa and elsewhere. This is not the only form autoimmunitary may take, however; a more positive and affirmative understanding is possible.

To understand hospitality as autoimmunitary, one should be prepared to look at autoimmunity in a different light than it has usually been seen (and rightly so) in British IR scholarship: i.e., linked to a great extent with discussions of terrorism post-9/11,² focusing mainly on the inherent self-destructive dynamics of democracies and less on state or institutional subjectivity. Albeit a helpful analytic instrument to this effect, autoimmunity, as I have just argued, can be also read in a different way: I think the time has come for the opening up the concept’s purview and logic to include hospitality and its ethics and practices, keeping in mind that Derrida indeed “granted this autoimmune schema a range without limits” (2005b:124). This, I argue, would parallel Derrida’s own move from a negative to a positive understanding of auto-immunity.

Such a positive understanding involves the opening up to the stranger as the opening to the incalculable, to ce qui arrive et l’arrivant, i.e., to what may happen, i.e., the event and to the one who arrives, whoever this is, despite fears of any deleterious consequences.

We must be cautious to not easily discount autoimmunity as a mere poison threatening to destroy our defences, but as a possible medicine that opens up chances and hope. The threat is perfectly apparent; however, what is the optimistic chance of autoimmunity? Quite simply, hospitality. In this regard, autoimmunity is not an absolute ill or evil. It enables an exposure to the other, to what and who comes – which means that it must remain incalculable. Without autoimmunity, with absolute immunity, nothing would ever happen or arrive; we would no longer wait, await, or expect, no longer expect another, or expect any event. (Derrida, 2005b:152)

The presence of the Other, who by “intruding” addresses me, calls me into an ethical relation and provokes a consideration of my responsibility, where sameness and the hierarchy between Self and Other can be significantly undermined. The core of this intersubjectivity, as advocated by Levinas and sustained throughout the work of Derrida, is the essence of the positive understanding of autoimmunity and of the ethics of hospitality considered and advocated here. Seizing the opportunity in an open and nonhierarchical manner lies at the heart of the ethics of hospitality as I understand it as well as keeping in mind the autoimmunitary nature of this opportunity, in other words, that it can be seized and handled in different and contrasting ways, remaining nonetheless open to every eventuality. The opportunity given by the presence of the Other is an “opportunity or chance and threat, threat as chance: autoimmune”, while hospitality is “already a question of autoimmunity, of a double bind of threat and chance” (2005b: 82, 52, respectively) beyond a clearly delineated subject-object relationality. Bulley refers to this when discussing the autoimmunitary subject, refuting a common criticism, namely that the deconstructive understanding of the subject is an absent subject:³

The subject is neither object nor non-subject; rather, it never fully is. It is never fully either present or absent, subject or object (…); yet it is both at the same time. It is always a becoming object of the subject and a becoming subject of the object, or, as Williams more elegantly puts it, [s]ubjectivity undergoes a perpetual play of (de)constitution or “constitutive loss of self”. (Williams, 2001:133, cited in Bulley, 2009:34)

Ethics of hospitality is pregnant with this affirmative move: an interruptive decision, is needed. Addressing the hiatus of the inherent undecidability of hospitality, such a decision is necessary so as to call the bluff of the autoimmunitary aspects of hospitality.


Pharmakon, auto-immunity, hospitality: if it were not for the tragedy involved, Derrida would perhaps smile at the coincidence that Farmakonisi, the island of pharmakon (or should it be best related to pharmakos?), a potential place of salvation and safe haven, due to a lack of hospitality ethically considered and a failure to uphold the law and laws of hospitality, proved to be a place of sacrifice and an anonymous, cold tomb. The Syrians, Libyans and Others of different nationalities or still unidentified provenance “call for a change in the socio- and geo-political space – a juridico-political mutation, though, before this, assuming that this limit still has any pertinence, an ethical conversion” (Derrida, 1999a:71). Ethics of hospitality, as an opening to the Other, stranger and foreigner, is in the background of hearing this call and addressing it. This ethics provides the framework to challenge and underline the importance of these crimes against hospitality, such as the ones taking place in the Mediterranean today, at the gates of the European Union, in detention camps and “hospitality centres”, pitting them against the lesser crime of hospitality, what states and international law call the illegal crossings of borders, illegal stays, etc4

1. Among other things, which refer to the relation between speech and writing and Platonism, and as such, cannot be discussed in here in full length, Derrida points out that while Plato in the text of his dialogues refers to a series/family of words such as pharmakeia-pharmakon-pharmakeus, any reference to pharmakos, a family term and “an experience present in Greek culture even in Plato’s day” is conspicuously absent. The experience understood here is a sacrifice ritual in the context of a catharsis for the polis: pharmakos “has been compared to a scapegoat” whose expulsion from the city or death outside the city walls was deemed necessary at a time of disaster, invasion, famine or plague to placate the gods and purify the city’s interior. “The evil and the outside, the expulsion of the evil, its exclusion out of the body (and out) of the city – these [were] the two major senses of the character and of the ritual [of pharmakos]” (Derrida, 1981:129-30). One cannot fail to notice here the striking similarity between pharmakos with the later, Roman law figure of homo sacer. Diken and Lautsen consider pharmakos to be the concept/ritual predecessor of homo sacer (2005:109) without, however, providing any attestation to that.

2. Namely, Nick Vaughn Williams’ 2007 article “The Shooting of Jean Charles de Menezes: New Border Politics?” and Dan Bulley’s Ethics as Foreign Policy (2009).

3. Bulley here refers to Christina Howells’ criticisms that the deconstructed subject resembles more the non-subject of structuralism (i.e., part of the system, which makes the subject, as a relational entity, existent) than a subject in its own, deconstructive, right (Howells, 1998). His tackling of the said criticisms address equally successfully, I think, her later suggestion (2007) that the deconstructive subject owes more to the Sartrean one than Derrida was willing to admit.

4. The expression crime of hospitality, or délit d’ hospitalité, (re)appeared in French politics and the discussions around immigration during the protests against the infamous Debré law in 1997, which, following the Pasqua laws of 1993-94, renders criminal the provision of accommodation and shelter to “illegal” immigrants. Derrida denounced the said crime in late 1996 at a speech in the Théâtre des Amandiers in Nanterre during a solidarity evening with sans papiers (1997). In his “A word of welcome”, he suggests that crimes of hospitality should be distinguished “from an ‘offense of hospitality [délit d’ hospitalité]’, as today it is once again being called in French law, in the spirit of the decrees and ordinances of 1938 and 1945 that would punish – and even imprison – anyone taking in a foreigner in an illegal situation”. (1999a:71)


8 thoughts on “Ethical Encounters – Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality

  1. Greece–nor any other country–has an obligation of hospitality to illegal aliens storming its borders.Donate YOUR income to illegals if you wish, but do NOT try to make me feel guilty about decidingwhom to share MY hard-earned income with. Marnie SweetAkron, OH


    • Why you should have the power to decide who you share your life and resources with and not others? Those people you term “illegal” are trying to exercise a similar kind of control by escaping bad situations, is it right that those of us who are somewhat safer and better off should have an absolute right to deny them? Do we not have any obligation of hospitality in the face of another human being?


      • In general, the best judge of an entity’s responsibility is that entity. Sometimes it can be so obviously wrong that an authority needs to step in, but ample leeway must be given for judgment calls.

        All of Europe is straining under the burden of immigrants lately. That Greece has earned a right to refuse hospitality seems obvious to me. But, even if I disagreed with them, I wouldn’t support intervention unless they were being particularly horrible.


  2. Before I begin, I just want to say that I love that this is being discussed. I am, very much so, interested in Derrida’s articulation of autoimmunity and its nuanced differences with Esposito’s affirmative biopolitics.

    To get right to the point here––I think the author has done too quick of a job with Esposito. What is discussed in this article with regards to Esposito isn’t the entire story, at least as I understand it, and quite possibly, one VERY IMPORTANT aspect has been left out. My Bios book is buried under other books, so I hope you’ll forgive my lack of direct references––if anyone finds themselves wanting of those references I can take on my stack of books and procure them.

    My main point of contention happens here, with this paragraph:

    An excessive enclosing against the Other, thus, the immunising feature of sovereignty par excellence according to Esposito, can bring a community’s own downfall. The same goes for immunity towards the opposite direction: allowing foreign antigens into the body as it happens with vaccination, i.e., by being “overhospitable” and allowing everyone and everything in may also be destructive by undoing community in its totality. As such, autoimmunity is the inward movement of sovereignty against itself. Either by sealing off a state’s borders or allowing them to be “too open”, autoimmunity is when a community attacks itself.

    Esposito, as far as my understanding goes, tries to hammer back against the understanding of immunity taken up as vaccination, and his reasoning is this: vaccinations are mostly safe, they are an attenuated form of the thing that can disrupt, a token, the dead form of that which can alter. What he offers, and I think uniquely, is an attempt to become open to the other, not the attenuated other, the other in their otherness and the disruptions and unsettling that comes from that encounter, the radical alteration of the self being contaminated and whatever it needs to become through that contamination. Esposito is pointing out that, traditionally, in the modern-immuno paradigm, negating the negation has been the ultimate thrust––this can obviously lead to autoimmunity––and then the other version is sacrifice or taking an attenuated form of the otherness. Esposito asks us to AFFIRM the negation, and through affirming the negation (pace: Deleuze who he relies heavily on here, beautifully) we become generative and creative––open to destruction, sure, but also open to the productive potentiality the other brings.

    Thanks for reading!


  3. Pingback: Ethical Encounters – The Special Ambiguity of Humanity | The Disorder Of Things

  4. Pingback: Border Ethics: Autoimmunity as Ethics of Hospitality | Public Philosophy Journal

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