Friendship as a creative practice of vulnerability
by Arran James
In forming a friendship, settling a marriage, or composing a manuscript, our hope is to establish something durable that does not constantly fray or break down. – Graham Harman, Prince of network: Bruno Latour and metaphysics
I have been thinking about certain conversations I’ve been having about friendship, its meaning but also its character. The sense that friendship can be authentic or inauthentic, rich or poor, complex or simple…however we carve it, we’ve been talking as if there are two orders of being-together that both fall under the nomination “friendship”. It’s actually an old tradition, this way of thinking. It’s in the Stoics, for whom “friend” meant something particular. Epictetus has this to say on the image of playful animals (kittens with balls of wool, dogs with chew toys, whatever), “To see what friendship is, throw a piece of meat among them and you will learn”.
The point isn’t that friendship is ruthless, a deception both parties enter into with full awareness that it can be tossed aside when it looses its use-value (Max Stirner thinks of it this way). The point is that friendships in which “externalities” can destroy the bond reveals that the bond was never there. This is communist, up to a point. Property- or rather the reverence thereof and attachment there to- is inimical to friendship; we can’t genuinely call ourselves friends if claims to possession can tear us apart. For Epictetus, the question of friendship turns on the question of whether or not the one who calls herself my friend is turned towards externals or internals. In the end, this is simply to ask whether she is a subject of ownership or a subject of will. Epictetus goes on:
‘But if you hear that these men in very truth believe the good to lie only in the region of the will and in dealing rightly with impressions, you need trouble yourself no more as to whether a man is son or father, whether they are brothers, or have been familiar companions for years; I say, if you grasp this one fact and no more, you may pronounce with confidence that they are friends, as you may that they are faithful and just. For where else is friendship but where faith and honour are, where men give and take what is good, and nothing else?’
It may be declared that this is a rationalist’s view of friendship. It lacks the sensibility of friendship. It lacks the practice of the share; sharing in pleasure, in practices, in nonsense, in walking, in drinking, in consolation, and provocation. Is that fair though? After all, what is it that Epictetus is really saying here? He is saying that we can be friends with those with whom we share a common commitment to certain principles, namely to the value of living in accord with nature/reason; to live the examined life, and to spurn attachments to things that distract from such examination. We could phrase it differently from Epictetus’ often overly “cognitive” way of talking (and let us not forget that his concept of cognitive inspired the CBT sense and is not derivative of it), that in order to be a friend to anyone else one must first be a friend to oneself. An authentic friendship can only be a relation between two authentic beings. This is also Seneca’s definition, and it seems to me it is part of de Montaigne’s notion of solitude. Epictetus again, this time from the discourse “On Freedom”:
If he does that, then first he will never revile himself or be in conflict with himself, he will be free from change of mind, and self-torture; secondly he will be friendly to his neighbour, always and absolutely, if he be like himself, and if he be unlike, he will bear with him, be gentle and tender with him, considerate to him as one who is ignorant and in error about the highest matters; not hard upon any man
The person who frets about what is outside of his will, outside of his control and sphere of responsibility, is a masochist too steeped in a kind of martyr’s jouissance and confusion that he can’t really be any one else’s friend. His mind- indistinguishable to his “soul” or his ownmost being, for Epictetus- is not under his own possession, but is pulled hither and thither by the chaos of the world, is therefore only an eddy in that chaos. It has not become regularised, it produces no “refrain”. Actually, this apparent rationalism is simply the effect of the idea that friendship is an ‘intrinsic presence to thought” (D&G 1999, p.9). Plenty of people know one another, but a friendship is something that is a part of thinking. It is a part of thinking that is inseparable from that thinking. It is an inseparability that is present-in-thought.
Friendship, in other words, is immanent to thought. I am not willing to say that in encountering you I only ever encounter the idea of you- I find this ontologically intolerable- but epistemically, in what I know of our encounter, yes, perhaps, all I can have are is this set of impressions, these ideas, these sensations, and this concept-of-you that is not exactly live, but neither is it static; so what? That is how I encounter you in friendship, as a thought? And it is how you encounter me? Or is it more the thought that we codetermine, and the world that we co-enact? Friendship is a practice, it is something friends do, and what I’m saying here is that what we do is create a world that we both inhabit. We can call this “thought” if we like, but it is not thought. It is, however, immanent to thought. The friendship here is thus a kind of work of producing a world together. We may not occupy it perfectly- indeed, we mustn’t, if we do then we’re not friends but mimics of each other, a split-personality- and those he can’t enter into, is not “at work” with us in practically enacting that world, bear with him, be gentle and tender with him. Especially as there is no reason to presuppose exclusivity to friendship. Anyone might possibly enter a friendship. In the friendship, we don’t quite become anonymous (what kind of friendship would it be between strangers?) but we do give up something of the usual pretense of sovereignty. Let’s not think friendship only happens as thought, it is affective too; but then what kind of account of thought do we have if thinking is not already bound up with, a modification of and modified by, affect?
We’re getting towards something in this. I am thinking about the nature of our friendship, the way it might differ from this one or that. I would say that we are friends who can’t be defined in terms of consumption. Neither of us, I think, sees our friendship as a resource to make use of, to be bought or traded, to be “enjoyed” in the way that a diner enjoys a McBurger. Nor is it as strong as Epictetus or Aristotle- who defines friendship as between the already virtuous- but as a friendship of those on the way to virtue. Let me turn to Todd May, who has recently written a book on friendship as a form of political resistance to the neoliberal imposition of market reason to every aspect of our lives. Todd May says that
Friendships worthy of the name are different. Their rhythm lies not in what they bring to us, but rather in what we immerse ourselves in. To be a friend is to step into the stream of another’s life. It is, while not neglecting my own life, to take pleasure in another’s pleasure, and to share their pain as partly my own. The borders of my life, while not entirely erased, become less clear than they might be.
This sounds a lot like how I think about empathy and “visceral ethics“, but friendship’s are special places, they are relationship that not just anyone can enter into; although anyone could be doing friendship, those outside a friendship can’t enter into it with ease. This is probably quite banal, but it bears emphasizing. In the friendship there are refrains- perhaps linguistic ticks shared by the friends, verbal quirks, gestural postures adopted through mirroring, historical in-jokes, a style of thinking and laughing, all these things- and when someone from outside the friendship tries to decode the meaning of the friendship, attempts to step into it’s world, they find themselves jarring the friends, they show up as not-friend, or not this kind of friend, they “stick out like a sore thumb” as the element of a friendship that defines its territorial boundaries. Although friendships are absolutely about equality, they are also in this minor way about exclusivity. Without malicious intent, friends can cause pain in the other. Yet friendships also open us to intimacy and proximity with the other who is friend. It is to our friends that we confess without confessing, to our friends that we most readily or most accidentally display our wounds. To go back to Todd May,
They render us vulnerable, and in doing so they add dimensions of significance to our lives that can only arise from being, in each case, friends with this or that particular individual, a party to this or that particular life.
There is something here, right? Friendships do render us vulnerable because it is in friendships, authentic ones (ones not exclusively based on jibes, one-up-man-ship, and other concealed forms of contempt) that we let take our character armor off, let our shields down, and say to the other in confidence ‘I know I said it was this, but I can tell you and no other that really…’ and so the hurts, the fears, the hatreds flow. In friendship we share not only our pleasures, but also our horrors; we reveal our weaknesses to each other, our non-heroic frailty. I say that in friendship we confess without confessing, but really I should not say “confess” at all; we show our wounds to one another. For Foucault, ‘Western man has become a confessing animal’. Confession is at the heart of so many of our contemporary police operations; I don’t just mean that we confess our crimes to the police, we also confess our psyche-sickness to the psychotherapist, our sexual identity to the world at large, our criminality, we confess and await judgement and absolution (assessment, diagnosis, treatment).
For Foucault, confession is a technology of truth, it produces truths. Some have claimed this is a relativistic idea, but I would disagree…it’s an eminently pragmatic idea. In the pragmatism of William James, for example, ‘truth is something that happens to an idea’. So to with Foucault, you self-reflect, you are guided to self-reflect, to discover the inner essence, the inner core, your ownmost being. Foucault was man who liked to fuck men, but was he a homosexual? The form of his enjoyment was particular, could only be satisfied in particular ways, and would influence his friendships (sexual relationships are friendships too, if they are not conducted under the logic of consumption). The homosexual, in The history of sexuality, is one of Foucault’s examples of the production of truths. Look inward, identify your desire, name it as the truth of your being, your affliction. In Foucault’s words, ‘The sodomite had been a temporary aberration; the homosexual was now a species’. There was a time when “gays” didn’t exist; but now they do. Regimes of truth make particular truths, and just because these truths are made doesn’t mean they aren’t real; it is just that there reality is not necessary, their truth not eternal. What is the contemporary spectacle of culture if not confessional? If homosexuality were not a (produced) truth, Foucault would not have felt the need to respond to it. Under Foucault’s analysis, the problem isn’t that we lack Truth, its that we are drowning in truths.
The point of this digression is to say that if authentic friendships aren’t consumptive but enriching and productive, to say that the kind of confession that is undergone in friendship differs from this police confession. Foucault himself notes that the Stoic conception of ethics is a self-relation prior to being an other-relation, and in two senses. First, the Stoics lived by the Socratic creed to “Know Thyself” through letter writing to friends (Seneca epitomizes this), and by examining oneself, reviewing one’s actions and making preparations for the future actions (Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations). The point of these techniques was not that they would reveal the inner essence of the person, but that they were a practice of self-mastery, of gaining the autonomy that Epictetus talked about above. The truths produced in the Stoic concept of self-reflection, a “know thyself” that is also a “care of the self”- a taking care of the self, of finding how to live the good life, to attain virtue- are not fixed truths rendered up to some big Other for judgement. If I commit some crime, I do not examine that in order to produce myself as a Criminal, but as this man who has committed this crime and most endeavor not to do so again; crime reveals my distance from virtue, from autonomy. The confession shares in the mystical structure that I have previously written about as “the secret”. In Stoicism, and in friendships, we do not confess if we mean by that that we cry out that we’re guilty, always already guilty, in order to “be ourselves” but, and in opposition to this, in order to become other than the person we are “supposed” to be. In a sense, friendship is a way to practice other ways of being yourself. Isn’t this the meaning of authenticity? In a friendship, even between we two, there is a multiplicity; each of us, our own double, and the affectional concepts we have of each other.
There is another reason to talk about homosexuality. In an interview now titled ‘Friendship as a way of life’, Foucault links homosexuality to a practice of friendship. I want to stress one of the reasons for this; for Foucault, homosexuality presented a problem of how it was possible for men to be together “naked”, as he puts it, outside of institutional apparatus. One doesn’t need to be homosexual or to have sex with men or to even be curious about it to see the problem. Homosexuality, as much as it has become a truth, a lifestyle, and a cultural pose or gesture, is also a suspicion and an accusation. Two men together, in an intense relationship, run the risk of being called gay. Two women together out in a bar may be thought of as lesbians (indeed, sometimes this is even a play to be indulged in, confounding “the male” gaze). Foucault conceived of homosexual culture as an experimental culture that sought new ways of relating. The possibilities of how to practice friendship were suddenly up for grabs in the interstitial-liminal spaces in which homosexuality was being played with in the 70s and 80s. On this front, it is worth remembering that Foucault wasn’t talking from the ivory tower in these matters, but was embedded in an S/M culture; he was himself doing this field work. Foucault:
Between a man and a younger woman, the marriage institution makes it easier: she accepts it and makes it work. But two men of noticeably different ages – what code would allow them to communicate? They face each other without terms or convenient words, with nothing to assure them about the meaning of the movement that carries them toward each other. They have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless.
There is no readymade world and no environment with pre-established cues for the practice of relating to one another; of course, homosexual culture may have had its own codes at the time Foucault was writing but they would not have been so saturated as heteronormative culture that it was at the peripheries of. Not to digress too far, but there is a certain disappointment in the idea of gay marriage- and I think Foucault would agree with this- that is essentially an admission that the experimental quality of homosexuality has now firmly been capitulated in favour of a social conservatism that announces equality not in terms of the equality of all to anyone, but the equality of all through the Same. Foucault resists this reduction when he says that homosexuality is not a form of desire and that sexual relations are banal; the important thing about homosexuality is its affective and relational aspects. It is a formless relationship that must form itself; the creation of the homosexual world is then the co-enactment of a particular world. Here, we can see some of why Todd May thinks friendship is a form of resistance: friendship is exactly this collaboration in the production of a specific world that does not rely on, may depart from, may even disrupt the existing normative regulation of human-human relations. (Is it necessary to restrict ourselves? Can humans be friends with non-humans? Children can even have non-existent imaginary friends, after all). Friendships can thus even be instances of politics. A white person and black person being friends in America’s slave and segregation history? That would constitute a political act. This concept is also linked to the production of temporary/permanent autonomous zones (communes yes, but also afternoons).
In another interview, Foucault asks
Why shouldn’t I adopt a friend who’s ten years younger than I am? And even if he’s ten years older? Rather than arguing that rights are fundamental and natural to the individual, we should try to imagine and create a new relational right that permits all possible types of relations to exist and not be prevented, blocked, or annulled by impoverished relational institutions.
Here the idea of adoption is legal, linked to a juridical concept of transfering guardianship or the power of loco parentis to some non-biologically related other; I take responsibility for the adopted as the parent for the child. Here, Foucault’s question seems to me much more like a provocation: isn’t this, despite its nonrecognition by juridical power, by the state, precisely what I do when I make a friend? Foucault seems to be asserting, not just that I could assert such a right and thereby bring it into being (and denature rights discourse, denature the subject “man” on which they rest and take for a sovereign), but that in friendship I do adopt the friend. Adoption is an “action noun”, it is a name of something that can’t be conceived outside of its being done (belief, likewise…what is a belief in the abstract?). When I adopt, I select, I choose for myself, I desire. And, for a friendship to be a friendship, so to does the friend. We choose ourselves for the other and the other for ourselves; or, perhaps, we choose ourselves in the other, and the other in ourselves. In either case, to take the friend up as my own is never to assert myself over her but always to choose to be implicated in, enmeshed with, intimately engaged with her.
Friendship is a sharing. It is a sharing one another and in the making of a world. I don’t really have any friends, I make them; and in the practice of making friends, so to I fashion myself. This point can be made in a banal way by suggesting that without friends we wouldn’t have the interests that we do. Indeed, at some point in Reconsidering Difference, I’m sure Todd May makes exactly this point. Our interests and enjoyments, pleasures and desires, our ways of relating are, in no small part, determined by our friendships. It is because of the nature of friendship as this kind of practice of sharing oneself, that authentic friendships can’t be conceived of on consumer or confessional terms. When I show you my wounds, I don’t confess them to you, I share them with you.
Seneca remarks that ‘when one is busy and absorbed in one’s work [of making friends], the very absorption affords great delight’ (Philosophy and Friendship, in Letters of Seneca Kindle Location 737). How distant this sounds to the characterization of Stoics as cold and aloof, but also, and more importantly, it makes the point that friendship is ongoing. I could know you for years and still be making friends with you. Indeed, the term itself “to make friends” implies this labour that we are joined in, that we are making something other from the materials to hand, which is ourselves and our current practices of relating. Seneca is clear (Kindle Location 748) that I don’t make friends to gain something, or to win something, but
in order to have someone to die for, whom I may follow into exile, against whose death I may stake my own life, pay the pledge too…[the Sage] seeks [friendship] precisely as he seeks an object of great beauty, not attracted to it for by design for gain, nor frightened by the instability of Fortune…
A friendship has this quality, a true friendship. One does not fight and die for casual acquaintances, for those with whom one does not share a world. Its interesting that Derrida thinks of this as a transfer from oneself to the other, as Seneca didn’t think one could be one’s own friend. Yet a friendship is not a burden, not a hostage-taking situation. A friendship is something of great beauty. If it is a work, it is thus an aesthetic work. Returning to Todd May once again,
By that I mean that in liking a whole person, one cannot give an exhaustive account of what it is one likes in liking a friend. Telfer tells us that, “Liking is a difficult phenomenon to analyse … It seems rather to be a quasi-aesthetic attitude, roughly specifiable as ‘finding a person to one’s taste,’ and depends partly on such things as his physical appearance, mannerisms, voice and speech and style of life; partly on his traits of character, moral and other.” Telfer insists that liking a friend does not mean one takes an inventory of these things. Instead, they somehow meld into a person whom we are drawn.
Friendship is non-cognitive as much as it is anything else, it is embodied in profound ways. This is perhaps why we are (mistakenly, I think) immediately suspicious of online friendships, an online friendship may lack the qualities of an embodied face-to-face encounter but it can maintain the aesthetic dimension. Online, our friendships are like co-written novels, certainly they resemble dialogues. Yet the voice, the seductive voice or the passionate voice, does reach us in a very direct and visceral way, making contact with us, permeating us in a way that epistemic communication alone can’t, whilst at the same time, in the elusiveness of being able to sum up the person, to be located at its origin, reminding us of the withdrawn aspect of this particular object I call friend. We must also recall that while the voice is integral to our affection for the friend, it is the voice as such to which we respond- the voice prior to the sonic signifiers it articulates.
A friendship is a kind of relation, most importantly, that is not expressible in terms of mastery or submission, sovereignty or subjection. Authentic friendship can’t be what Derrida feared friendship would be, as one part of the binary that also identifies an enemy. The identification of friends and enemies in the political philosophy of Carl Schmitt is a matter of rear guard defense, of being tied to and protecting a pre-existent eidos, rather than being the entanglement of mutuality in an ethos such that I’ve been discussing. If Carl Schmitt uses the names friend and enemy, we don’t have to tremble and decide that friendship is contaminated or at risk of such contamination. It is not a work of semantics or a play of definitions to state that the identification of friends from without, either by the state or the media nominating my friends for me and telling me that I am in a friendship with these people and united in common cause against this enemy, is already to have conceded that I am not the friend of the friend. That Schmitt rejects from his account of friendship everything that we typically mean by friendship (the “psycho-individual” aspects of “emotion” I think he says), tells us that he is willfully misappropriating the name.
A thought of post-nihilist pragmatics, what I have also been calling catastrophia and/or “catastrophic thought“, is a thought that is about what work after nihilism. This is not just about what works after nihilism, what is efficacious but that takes the question of practices as fundamental. If meaning collapses, if it is always going to collapse, if it is tied to our finitude, then how do we have practices of significance? How do we have such practices in a manner that doesn’t revert to the kind of heroism that fascism founds itself on? The reason I speak of the catastrophic and of a love of the catastrophic is not out of morbidity or because I want to declare that the emperor has no clothes. I take the term catastrophe from Aristotle claim from the Poetics, that it is ‘an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed’ but also from the Beckett play of the same name. The catastrophe is the part of the play when things are revealed for what they are; the hopelessness of the situation is made visible, the wounds are shown. Vulnerability once meant having the capacity to be wounded and to wound. Vulnus meant the literal wounds of the body, the body that we are thrown back on as our after nihilism, that we rediscover we always already are. Our sense-making capacity is founded on our openness to the having a world, and to having a world together. When I was in Edinburgh last week, I went to an exhibition on embodiment title “From death to death and other small tales”. At this exhibition, I saw the Joseph Beuyers work, that insists that you Show Your Wound. In the work of friendship, a work of vulnerability, we show one another our wounds, we are amidst the catastrophe, we don’t turn away from it…we might even celebrate it. The new practices that we need to forge to move across nihilism will be practices undertaken in friendship.
When Carl Scmitt talks about the identification of friends, he is not talking about the identification of those with whom we are moved, from whose thought we can’t disentangle our own, those with whom we generate new worlds, experiment with new ways of relating, and approach, together, the good way of living: he does not, finally, mean that we these are people to whom we show our wounds, those to whom we share, fundamentally, our vulnerabilities with. Schmitt is talking about the people with whom we might share our desire for stable meaning achieved through the renunciation of vulnerability, through fidelity to some exception or through identification with an absolute sovereignty. Friendship, as I see it, is fundamentally anarchic, fundamentally about the affirmation of fragile openings, about improvisation, about embracing of the ongoing, always unfinished work of experimenting with the friend relation. There is no “friendship”, only this friendship that we (you and I) are making. In that making, who is to say where I end and you begin? My thought isn’t mine…this post is based on a conversation and is, in fact, a letter written to a friend intended to carry on that conversation with him, and now also with you. If Aristotle can sigh ‘Oh my friends, there are no friends’, this is only because they must constantly be created. Friendships are not without risk, they are about risk. The practice of friendship is like that of trapeze; one flings oneself from the rope and hopes to be caught, each time choosing to be truly vulnerable.
In the history of Marxism, a friend would be named “comrade”; in anarchism, friendship as an organisational principle is called “affinity”; in feminism, it is conceivably the case that there could be no “sisterhood” without a concept of friendship. Today, authentic friendship is hard to achieve but it is not impossible. Today, I find none of these names happy identifications. Strategically, I call myself anarchic but not anarchist. I call the approach I am hopefully helping to shape, post-nihilist pragmatics. The experience of nihilism is the experience of the collapse of all identifications, all transcendental structures, all sense-making that relies on a capital ‘N’ Name. Over the years I have read Simon Critchley- Very Little Almost Nothing is undoubtedly a book I loved reading, Infinitely Demanding less so- but it is not until today that I have agreed with him so powerfully. What is required, our task, the work that comes after nihilism is
the production of a fiction that we know to be a fiction and yet which we believe in nonetheless.
(Faith of the faithless, p.93).
That fiction must start from the nonfictional that nihilism reveals as conditioning our stark exposure: our being bodies. Friendship seems to me to be one line of pursuit of such a fiction. To start anywhere else than with our bodies and with each other is already to avoid the chance to live after nihilism, is instead to turn away and pretend nihilism never happened.