the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

A House Divided

Who has the authority to invite a stranger into one’s home? What if there are co-occupants who are at odds on whether on not to invite the stranger in?

These are the questions at the heart of the recent Supreme Court decision, Georgia v Randolph. The case revolves around questions of hospitality and exclusion, and appropriately enough comes at a time that the Court is itself in the process of welcoming and integrating two new members (neither of whom, needless to say, did the Court play any role in inviting in the first place). As the Times recently observed, Georgia v Randolph was one of the first decisions in which a certain testiness could be detected beneath the “surface placidity and collegiality of the young Roberts court.”

The case concerns the question of whether evidence is admissible in court if it has been seized by police over the objections of one or more co-occupants of a residence (in this case, the cocaine-using husband has objected to his battered wife’s invitation that the police search the premises). The 5-3 majority opinion written by Souter appeals to a “customary expectation of courtesy or deference” in its conclusion that a guest would not reasonably be expected to accept an invitation of entry over the manifest objection of another of the inhabitants of the residence:
To begin with, it is fair to say that a caller standing at the door of shared premises would have no confidence that one occupant’s invitation was a sufficiently good reason to enter when a fellow tenant stood there saying, “stay out.” Without some very good reason, no sensible person would go inside under those conditions.
In his minority dissent (his first authored dissent on the Court), meanwhile, Roberts suggests that the possibility of having one’s sovereignty over a residence overruled is a necessary consequence of sharing one’s residence with another, and sketches several scenarios in which he believes it would be perfectly appropriate to enter someone’s home over the objections of one or more of the inhabitants:
The fact is that a wide variety of differing social situations can readily be imagined, giving rise to quite different social expectations. A relative or good friend of one of two feuding roommates might well enter the apartment over the objection of the other roommate. The reason the invitee appeared at the door also affects expectations: A guest who came to celebrate an occupant’s birthday, or one who had traveled some distance for a particular reason, might not readily turn away simply because of a roommate’s objection….
Roberts then concludes, however, that intuition about how potential guests might choose to reconcile these sorts of competing injunctions is, ultimately, “not a promising foundation on which to ground a constitutional rule,” and instead sides with the plaintiffs that permission from at least occupant should be sufficient.

Issues of “constitutional rule” aside, these questions of fractured sovereignty illustrate one of the central paradoxes at the heart of the concept of hospitality itself. As Derrida has argued in Of Hospitality, a practical notion of hospitality is necessarily caught bound up in an irreducible “dilemma between, on the one hand, unconditional hospitality that dispenses with law, duty, or even politics, and, on the other, hospitality circumscribed by law and duty.” In other words, hospitality is premised on the possibility of mastery of one’s own domain—and that very mastery is itself predicated on the existence of a system of laws, rules, and processes of exclusions.

Beyond the specific Fourth Amendment questions considered in the Georgia decision, these debates over the nature of hospitality have considerable relevance to a cluster of key hot-button issues with which the Court (and the nation) is currently grappling: namely, those of immigration, border control, and naturalization. Who has the authority to invite a stranger/foreigner into our country? What if there are co-occupants who are at odds on whether on not to invite the stranger/foreigner in?

The predicament for millions of undocumented immigrants lies precisely in this double-bind of contradictory messages from two different “hosts.” On the one hand, many areas of the US economy are predicated on the availability of cheap, immigrant labor. On the other hand, xenophobic discourses and immigration policies essentially function as a curmudgeonly roommate standing at the door saying, “stay out.”

Faced with these contradictory messages, many potential immigrants undoubtedly will accordingly heed a Souterian logic and decide to “stay out.” Others (currently more than 12 million of them, and counting), many of whom have indeed “traveled some distance for a particular reason,” are not quite so ready to “turn away simply because of a roommate’s objection.” What is more, once invited in, these immigrants (either individually or collectively) are then (like the proverbial vampire) very difficult to “un-invite” (indeed, on the very same day the Georgia v Randolph decision was released, the Court heard oral arguments for the case of Fernandez-Vargas v Gonzales, which concerns the question of repeated deportations of undocumented immigrants who continue to reenter the country).

But, one must ask, is it fair here to compare undocumented immigrants to vampires? True, vampires have long been associated with ethnic or religious minorities, functioning as Dragan Kujundzic has observed, as figures “of the reaction of society against itself, or the 'other' and itself… Vampires stand as a negative, like a film, that a society doesn't want to recognize.” On the other hand, Hardt and Negri follow Marx in associating the figure of the vampire, not with the abject Other, but rather with the disembodied cannibalizing force of empire itself: “Empire is a mere apparatus of capture that lives only off the vitality of the multitude—as Marx would say, a vampire regime of accumulated dead labor that survives only by sucking off the blood of the living.”

This circular, recursive vampirism (in which both the undocumented immigrant and the American empire are perceived as parasitically feeding on each other), in turn, returns us to one of Derrida’s conclusions about the nature of hospitality. Following his reading of Oedipus at Colonus, Derrida concludes that
it is indeed the master, the one who invites, the inviting host, who becomes the hostage—and who really always has been. And the guest, the invited hostage, becomes the one who invites the one who invites, the master of the host. The guest becomes the host’s host. The guest (hôte) becomes the host (hôte) of the host (hôte).
Therefore, even as the presumptive unity of the “host” is fractured (with competing co-occupants giving guests contradictory messages), the presumptive gap between host and guest is itself fractured (insofar as both guests and hosts contribute equally to the structural possibility of the invitation itself).

More specifically, even as the GOP is currently deeply split on the question of immigration, and as potential low-wage immigrants receive starkly contradictory messages about whether or not they are welcome, it is essential to realize that both sides (both hosts and guests/strangers) are ineluctable elements in this elaborate dance of hospitality and rejection.

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