May 12, 2011

Jacques Derrida places us – as being in the present – within a timeframe where cities of refuge are virtually inexistent amongst society or within the state. We live in a world where the issues such as the right of asylum and the right of hospitality are merely topics of discussion. They only present themselves as that which we discuss trivially as aspects that are removed and unable to be incorporated into society as we know it today.

Derrida seems to therefore place this notion of the “city of refuge” in two places in reference to our timeline of the present. He first describes it first as a notion of the past. He states that, in reviving the traditional meaning of an expression, we have been eager to propose simultaneously, beyond the old word, an original concept of hospitality, of the duty of hospitality, and of the right to hospitality (Derrida 2002). He describes this notion of the invitation to those in need of refuge as an essential extension of the city and an essential part of its beginnings. This therefore beckons the notion of violence that a city would reject from entering its gates, while providing a way out for those who are trying to escape the very violence that pursues them. There is therefore a notion of sanctuary and shelter that cities were meant to essentially provide, not just to those that the state deems as citizens by place, but citizens by bios. It is expounded as an unconditional law therefore that borders are to be open to each and every one, to every other, to all who might come, without question or without their even having to identify who they are or whence they came (Derrida 2002). One would and should be treated as a guest based on the Hebraic tradition of old where people, and all people were viewed as fellow citizens with God’s people, members of God’s household (Ephesians 2:19-20). The transition from the society depicted in biblical times however seems foreign however to that of the present – or so Derrida argues.

Is this notion of the existence of cities of refuge therefore a utopian notion? One that will only be realised in the distant future, or worse, will and can never be realised? Derrida quotes Arendt in the statement that this idea is one that transcends the present sphere of international law which still operates in terms of reciprocal agreements and treaties between sovereign states and, for the time being, a sphere that is above the nations does not exist. It places the ability for violence to be arrested on the level in terms of cities opposing it as a whole as a distant notion. The extent in which society needs to be transformed to create a greater sovereignty involves an establishment of new right or a form of utopia, created in the context of a new politic structure and outlook. Derrida (2002) however sheds a positive light on this possibility in insisting that in doing so we will open up new horizons of possibility previously undreamt of by our international state law.

A lost hope or an unattainable vision, are cities of refuge able to exist in the present?

Joel Lee


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