Derrida and the refugee: Dr Suzie Gibson's 'take' on Derrida and Australia' border protection policies

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The concept of home, of having a home, and of not having a home preoccupied the thought of Jacques Derrida. Home is representative of many things: it could be a place, a language, a culture, a house, a nation-state, or even a state of mind. Ultimately, the question of home is also about one’s sense of self and the place one occupies in the field of existence. The importance of home in locating, and, to a degree in defining one’s self, becomes urgent once jeopardized. The kind of trauma involved in losing one’s home and self-hood can be so profound that it has the capacity to shake the very foundations of our existence. The desire to protect one’s self and home from harm, threat, or invasion is instinctual, even primeval but is sadly too often done at the cost of others. In a present-day age where there are countless refugees because their homes have been destroyed by war, climate change, or other disastrous events, sovereign nation-states are too ready to ignore their need for asylum. In fact we are living in a world where a first world media demonizes foreigners as potential terrorists who threaten the safety of citizens and nation-states. We are living in a dangerous world made all-the more dangerous where difference is demonized. By closing our selves, homes, and countries off to the call of others what we are in fact doing is eroding the important space of difference that makes our identity complex and alive. The dream of sameness or self-identity is a narcissistic fantasy that erases both self and other in its encircling gaze.

Difference is an extremely important concept to Derrida because it mediates relationships, including our relationships to justice, hospitality, and democracy—principles that again should not be made self-identical, self-same, or self-present in that their efficacy lies in their fluidity and lack of place. Although Derrida’s thinking is critical of desires that pursue self-presence, his own thinking is not exempt from desire as his insistent hope for a generous democracy to come conjures a future full of promise. The illumination of Derrida’s call for an unprecedented democracy to come asks us venture to a no-place (oú tópos) that is yet to be charted. The tantalizing promise of “to come” lingers on the threshold of idealism as we wait for the advent of an unconditional democracy that might just arrive.

This essay does a number of things. First it examines Derrida’s experience of displacement as an Algerian Jew at a time when France’s sovereignty over Algeria was powerful enough to disrupt his sense of home and identity. Secondly it addresses the urgent issue of homelessness in a present-day where refugees are vulnerable to the laws and powers of sovereign nation-states, including modern democracies. Thirdly it considers an extreme example of injustice where asylum-seekers are imprisoned in detention centres despite the fact that they have not broken any laws. And finally, the essay questions if Derrida’s desire for a more open and liberal democracy to come is possible in a contemporary world where the rights of individuals are constantly violated.
Original languageEnglish
Number of pages18
Publication statusPublished - 16 Jun 2013


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