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Where Gentleness Lodges Itself

New paper: Where Gentleness Lodges Itself

On International Women’s Day Naomi Waltham-Smith is giving a paper at the American Comparative Literature Association annual conference in Washington DC on Anne Dufourmantelle’s notion of gentle listening and hospitality to women’s voices in the thought of Jacques Derrida.

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Power of gentleness


Language is never safely in my possession but is always the language of the other, always at risk of its becoming unheimlich, at risk of descending into madness. Such is Derrida’s thinking of the oikos and of the oikonomia of hospitality, which is no less threatened by perversion. Derrida’s thought of hospitality demands a respect for singularity—for the kind of singularity that distinguishes, for example, “the promise of an as yet unheard language” of the other, “inaudible yesterday” from the language of the other as colonizing master. And yet that unconditional hospitality—the categorical imperative to respect the otherness of the other—is in danger of becoming appropriative, colonizing, exploitative. For refugees and migrants, the possibility of making a new home has perhaps never been more urgent or more in jeopardy as hospitality, weaponized, teeters towards “a gateway to barbarism” in Dufourmantelle’s phrase. But it is not Derrida’s appeal for “cities of refuge” that detains me here, rather Dufourmantelle’s “invitation” and its offer to shelter his thought within. In particular, I examine the weight she gives in her reading to listening to spoken words, connecting this with her reflections elsewhere on listening and gentleness. I focus on the constellation into which she inserts listening alongside the nocturnal, exiled side of speech and the maternal madness that inhabits language, threatening the promise of homeliness.