On friendship

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on friendship

To define friendship is to define an absolute sense of mourning. In the presence of the friend we mourn subjective autonomy and come to realization of its inherent impossibility (Derrida, 1996). But this is, paradoxically, the anti-thesis of a common idea of friendship. With friendship we associate joy, love and a sense of togetherness- not loss. I would like to explore such a contrary notion in the following essay and attempt to gleam some hope from such a primal loss. How can a friendship based on impossibility have ramifications for contemporary art or political life? In recent times the manufacture of friendship appears to form a highly visible stratum of contemporary art production. Relational practices and a plethora of artist-run spaces make this quite apparent. To what extent is this a friendship that resists unity, making manifest the impossibility that simultaneously enables and thwarts its own functionality? If “there is no friend” is this utterance a useful avenue to navigate within contemporary art? Or would the assumption that there is a friend (i.e. consensus) be better serving the purposes of artistic production? These are big questions, and sadly ones I will only be able to touch on in the course of this essay.

I will firstly examine the theory of friendship as offered to us by various sources, most notably Derrida, Blanchot and Agamben. As Giorgio Agamben states, the friend lies at the very heart of philosophy; ‘philos’ (Greek), meaning ‘friend’ literally giving root to the discipline (2009, pg. 25). Implicitly it is not too much of a stretch to place the question of friendship alongside the question of philosophy itself. However, the consequences of this are two-fold; first we must define friendship, and to do this we must define philosophy - a classical catch twenty-two of enormous proportion. To begin to answer this question ‘what is friendship?’, then, we must admit the question ‘what is philosophy?’ is one which can only be broached between friends (Agamben, 2009, pg. 25). But what is a friend?

Agamben describes the word ‘friend’ as a ‘non-specific’ linguistic trope; to describe someone as a friend is to not describe him or her in a manner we would anything else. As he says, “to recognize someone as a friend means not being able to recognize him as “something”’ (2009, pg. 31) It is therefore a wholly unproductive descriptor; we gain no insight regarding their manner by naming them ‘friend’ (2009, pg. 29). In this way it can be said to function much like a proper noun. (2009 pg. 29) It is here that I would like to turn to ‘The Politics of Friendship’ by Jacques Derrida. A proper noun, which the friend itself typifies, resists subjective description but cannot withstand or evade the burden of responsibility. We respond to our names, and to respond is to be responsible (Derrida, 1988 pg. 638). Therefore, the friend is a non-specific construct who is bound and to whom we are bound through responsibility- the ethical relation. As Derrida says;

Before even having taken up responsibility for any given action, we are already caught up in a kind of asymmetrical and heteronomical curvature of the social space, more precisely, in relation to the Other prior to any organized socius, to any determined “government”, to any “law”. (1988, pg. 633-4)

Through signification (the proper name, for example) we are already embedded within a process of responsibility, which, through its specific generality (with regard to the Other) precedes both law and politics. Hence, we have established that a friend, through processes of non-specific signification, connotes a certain breed of responsibility. This is fixed in its ontological status as proper noun; through signification (no matter how abstract) comes responsibility. But what is friendship in relation to the friend?

In this essay Derrida deconstructs the phrase, cited by Montaigne following Aristotle; ‘Oh my friends, there is no friend.’ At first glance merely a paradox, Derrida elucidates its paradoxical character as fundamental to the notion of friendship itself. It functions much like an apostrophe, that is, suggesting absence (1988, pg. 634). However, to be able to utter such words sets in stone the actual presence of friends; presence in this case enables a sense of absence. One has friends, but through having friends one realizes there to be no friend- there are friends, indeed, but no ‘friend’. Who is this ‘friend’ of whom there are none? Derrida describes the above statement as acting much like a “prayer”, something neither true nor false and containing a performative element, resembling “at one and the same time an act of recalling and an appeal.” (1988, pg. 635) Therefore, it calls into question the viable presence of such a ‘friend’, whether that is in the past, present or future. All we can say is ‘there is no friend’. This does not mean to say there never will be, but, as Derrida affirms, its non-presence enables the lived possibility of friendship, and of friends; “what is more, how could I be your friend, and declare my friendship for you…if friendship did not remain something yet to happen, to be promised?” (1988, pg. 635) The ideal of friendship, therefore, the ‘friend’ to which Aristotle and Montaigne make reference, is founded on an impossibility. Just as I am not specifically signified by my ‘proper’ name, but rather signified onto, so too the ‘friend’; he remains abstract, in the future tense, intimately near and yet so remote. A gap exists between that which is signified linguistically and what actually is; between my name, and myself ‘friend’ and the person to whom I give that name. This gap, or lack, repudiates signification, its “strange violence” must cause me to conclude ‘there is no friend’. (1988, pg. 634) As the ‘friend’ cannot be signified ontologically through language, we cannot equate the word with his presence. There is, therefore, no friend.

Why, one might ask, would one want to affirm this lack at the heart of friendship? If, as Derrida affirms, this lack takes the form of a responsibility, then a form of responsibility that is interminably extended constitutes this lack. One can never do enough for the idea of friendship, for the distant and intimate essence of the friend; the ideal of friendship demands this actuality. Friendship itself stipulates this impossibility, which in itself negates the concept of friendship. This lack constitutes itself in an irreducible responsibility towards the Other, which “assigns us our freedom without leaving it with us,” (Derrida, 1988 pg. 634). Why would we not simply give up on the idea of friendship if it culminates in such a wholly infinite demand? If, as I have mentioned earlier, the friend lies at the heart of philosophy, then to consider philosophy without the friend is to give up the greatest enigma befitting it. It is also to give up any reference to the political. What, after all, does the political describe aside from the attempt to reconcile subjectivity with the infinite demand of the other? As Agamben says;

Friends do not share something…they are shared by the experience of friendship. Friendship is the con-division that precedes every division, since what has to be shared is the very fact of existence, life itself. And it is this sharing without an object, this original con-senting, which constitutes the political. (2009, pg. 36)

Therefore, existence is always a shared existence; ontological division enables the existence of the political. It is in acknowledging the lack that this division makes manifest, that we must negate friendship for its own sake.

At this point it is necessary to explore that ideal of friendship, which makes us affirm there is no friend. What does this ideal involve, and can it be attained? Derrida would have us think not, the “asymmetrical” relation between I and Other being the fundamental ontological condition preceding all inter-subjective relations. Deriving from the trauma inherent in realizing there to be no autonomous subjectivity, this trauma makes itself manifest in the ethical demand of the other, who is, after all, ‘an other self’. (Aristotle in Agamben, 2009 pg. 32) For Blanchot this distance is an ‘infinite’ one, “the fundamental separation on the basis of which separates becomes relation” (1997, pg 291). Therefore, the infinite, intimate distance between I and Other (‘friend’) actually gives rise to the relation itself. It is not an impediment to said relation, but rather the basis for it. How can this be? How can that which divides enable friendship? This is not, clearly, the “respectful separation” of which Kant describes. (In Derrida, 1988, pg. 640) This is an infinite distance. As Anne Orford asserts, friendship involves “a loss of faith in a whole autonomous self.” (2005, pg. 40) Therefore friendship, like seduction, inhabits a paradoxical locale somewhere between success and failure; to have a friend is essentially to divulge the hopelessness of autonomy. To reach out to the Other in the ‘friend’ is to accept a certain distance, which lies insurmountably at the base of all subjectivity. We cannot determine this distance, it is infinite, and in its infinity compels us towards the Other. The ideal of friendship is therefore one that resists attainment; to attain it would be to quantify the infinite relation between I and Other. A “lack of mastery”, therefore, actually forms the basis on which lived friendship is fashioned (Orford, 2005 pg. 34). Were this lack to be reconciled with an autonomous subjectivity in relation to the Other, then true (ideal) friendship could be attained. However, this is an impossible task, in its stead we have a friendship that is predicated on, and enabled by, this lack or infinite distance.

If the ideal of friendship is thus built on an impossibility, or failure, what makes this ideal a notion of concern in contemporary life? How can a construct that is built on impossibility have any repercussions for life, and for living? If, as Agamben affirms, the friend is the basis for politics, what would a politics based on impossibility resemble? Would this be a truer conception of contemporary politics and would it, in any shape or form, resemble the consensus-style politics so prevalent all around us? Agamben, following Aristotle, argues that to be one must sense being and in general to sense existence is to sense that it is good. However, and here is where the friend comes in, to sense is always to con-sense; it is irreducibly communal and thus ontologically and politically bound (2009, pg. 34). Con-sense leads to consensus, that much we can assume. However I would argue that such a description invariably leads only to a flattening of difference, an ironing out of the impossible, the ‘infinite’ distance that actually underscores all inter-subjective relations. If we are to understand collectivity as something founded on impossibility, then con-sensus is, in fact, impossible. Going back to the notion of the ‘friend’; as a non-specific linguistic trope he cannot be quantified or truly comprehended. Like the proper name, he resists signification but not responsibility. We are bound with without him. To do so means to be bound to his demand, a demand we can neither understand nor sate. Politics, therefore, should ideally found itself on “a experience such that we are put to the test of the absolutely other, of that which escapes unity.” (Blanchot, in Conley, 1997 pg. 1182) It should be based on an experience in which the Other, the ‘Friend’ is “my law, the law”, in his absolute alterity shaping my own thoughts and actions. (Derrida, 1996 pg. 188) Politics cannot base itself on striving towards unity, therefore, but only in mirroring that which resists unification- irreducible difference. Thus a case could certainly be made for the kind of antagonistic politics which Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe relate. It would seem to me that such a form would truly mirror the impossibility that underscores the notion of the ‘friend’ and implicitly, of politics.

I would now like to examine the figure of the friend within the schematic of contemporary art. In recent years he has come to play a role of absolutely crucial significance. From the incubation stage to the finished work of art a move towards an exchange akin to that of friends can be witnessed. This results in a form of art production that is increasingly dialogical or pedagogical, from its conception in artist-run spaces to the relational practices so evident all around us. However, if this dialogical art has, to paraphrase Bakhtin, answerability, to what extent does it articulate its own impossibility? (1919) To what extent does such a means of art production remain faithful to the paradoxical (and impossible) ideal of friendship offered to us by Aristotle and Derrida? And, furthermore, how is an art made between friends for friends singular from that which is experienced through an archetypal subject-object relation? If, in attempting to foster a community through art we engage in friend-like activities (for example, eating Thai food or negotiating through differences) to what extent do we celebrate a community that is interminably “abandoned to an immanence just as impossible”? (Madou, 1998 pg. 60) To what extent do such efforts remain true to the irreducible distance that lies at the heart of friendship, to the “venture into absolute risk, beyond knowledge and certainty” (Orford, 2005 pg. 35)? Do we merely impersonate proximity by means of such shared and consensus-orientated activities?

One of the key evidences of the vital role of the friend in contemporary art can be witnessed in the proliferation of artist-run spaces and it is here I would like to turn to at this point. To explore the rationale behind such spaces is to locate them in the jurisdiction of friendship. I would like to emphasize here that I do not believe all such places to propagate under the banner of friendship, but rather under the prospect of autonomy or self-determination, of an “ideological space, a temporary autonomous zone, setting some terms for discourse and practice”. (Dickinson, 1998 pg. 87) Nonetheless, a distinct choice is made to operate communally in a situation which typically involves like-minded individuals: in a word, friends. Here in Dublin I can think of two such sites that have opened in the last year alone: Exchange Gallery and Ormond Studios. Both offer diverse programs of art and socially inclusive activities that have visibility and sociality, arguably, as motivating factors. In this sense they can be said to manufacture friendship as well as art. But what kind of friendship is this? Is this a friendship that reiterates the distance between same and other or rather makes attempts at unity or synthesis? If Agamben affirms the notion of friendship as innately political, can the same be said of such sites of artistic production? And if, following Aristotle, the political is founded on con-sense, what kind of politics does it give rise to? Is this politics one of consensus? I would argue that any form of friendship built on con-sense (Aristotelian) negates difference, and thus the distance key to the Same-Other relation. The form of friendship to be founded on such artist-run spaces should not fetishize difference, but neither should it be built on a purely consensual relation. According to Kant:

Beautiful art is a mode of representation which is purposive for itself and which, although devoid of (definite) purpose, yet furthers the culture of the mental powers in reference to social communication. (In Lynch, 2002 pg. 98)

Therefore, art, like friendship, finds its purpose in and by its own activity; it does not rely on exterior sources for validation. A drive towards an artistic productivity, built on friendship, which utilizes con-sensus is thus one that adheres to a logic exterior to this relation. In staying loyal to the ideals of friendship we can only antagonistically refute ‘there is no friend!’: only in the desire for such a refutation can the political propagate. In denying friendship, for the sake of the ideal of friendship, such artist-run spaces might be able to create a space of artistic production that is built on irreducible difference, and impossibility. If a sense of such impossibility can be sensed in the work, political implications could follow. This could take the form of a kind of antagonistic refusal, a refusal that is simultaneously collective and singular. In the words of Blanchot;

Men who refuse and who are tied by the force of refusal know that they are not yet together. The time of joint affirmation is precisely that of which they have been deprived. What they are left with is the irreducible refusal, the friendship of this certain, unshakable, rigorous No that keeps them unified and bound by solidarity. (1997, pg. 111)

Such a refusal would be communal yet solitary, possible by virtue only of its continued impossibility. If communal artistic production was to follow from such a position, then the kind of friendship created could exist as one that remains faithful to its own ideals.

If modes of artistic production that manufacture friendship continue to dominate contemporary art then it stands to reason that we must determine the kind of friendship which is being created. If we affirm the inherent political capability of art then this task is a matter of great urgency. For, if being is predicated on being-with-another, the ontological form of the work of art should mirror this in a manner befitting this primary relation. This relation resists unity and cannot be appeased through consensus (Madou, 1998 pg. 60). Therefore, only in imagining a wholly singular collectivity (of which artist-run spaces could provide a model) can we imagine a politics apart from the notion of consensus, can we imagine “the outlines of a community whose advent is even more urgent, to the extent that its instauration reveals itself to be impossible” (Madou, 1998 pg. 60).

2, 958 words


  • Agamben, Giorgio What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (2009) Trans. David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California

  • Bakhtin, M. M. Art and Answerability (1919) in Art and Answerability: Early Philosophical Essays. (1990) Eds. Holquist, Michael and Vadim Liapunov, University of Texas Press, Austin

  • Blanchot, Maurice Friendship (1997) Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg, Stanford University Press, Stanford, California

  • Conley, Bridget Review: Friendship MLN Vol. 113, No. 5, Comparative Literature Issue (Dec. 1998) pp. 1180-1182

  • Derrida, Jacques The Politics of Friendship (1988) The Journal of Philosophy, Vol. 85, No. 11, Eighty-Fifth Annual Meeting American Philosophical Association, Eastern Division (Nov. 1988) pp. 632-644

  • Derrida, Jacques By Force of Mourning (1996) Critical Enquiry Vol. 22, No. 2 (Winter 1996) pp. 171-192

  • Dickinson, Malcolm Another Year of Alienation: On the Mythology of the Artist-Run Initiative in McCorquodale, D, Siderfin, N, and Julian Stallabrass eds Occupational Hazard: Critical Writing on Recent British Art Black Dog, London pp. 80-94

  • Lynch, Sandra Aristotle and Derrida on Friendship (2002) Contremps 3, July 2002 pp. 98-10

  • Madou, Jean-Pol The Law, the Heart: Blanchot and the Question of Community in Yale French Studies, Vol. 93, The Place of Maurice Blanchot (1998) pp. 60-65

  • Orford, Anne A Critical Intimacy: Jacques Derrida and the Politics of Friendship German Law Journal, Vol. 6, No. 1, 2005

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