Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

Rough Thoughts on Friendship

Inspired by Spurious’ recent round of posts on W., Jodi Dean at I Cite has been discussing friendship. Jodi’s posts outline a contrast between a vision of friendship she attributes to Aristotle – an agonistic vision of friendship as a process of driving one another toward an exclusionary form of excellence – and the vision she identifies in Spurious’ relationship to W. – a vision of friendship as a process of playfully dragging one another down and delighting in a shared decline. She wonders:

What if the most complete friends are those drag each other down, slowly, playfully, with tenderness and wit? And they stick by one another, as they are dragged down, into childishness, into a condition where no other could stand them? This may be the most complete friendship, where one becomes for the other a complete friend, the one who can endure one’s insecurity, dampness, odd humor (and humours), silliness, and despair.

For what does it take to be a friend to the virtuous? Not much, I should think, not much at all. For the virtuous are generous and humble, lively and smart, never demanding, never needy, never insecure. And with the virtuous we try to act accordingly, expending all our energies in the labors of virtue.

But virtue is tiresome and the mean is boring. Complete friends drag each other down, as low as they can go, and stay around to laugh at the other as he hits bottom.

I speak to this discussion somewhat diffidently, as the concept of friendship is not something I’ve thought about in a theoretical or philosophical sense – and, to compound the situation, I’m also a very new reader of Spurious, with less knowledge of that blog or its author than many in the I Cite discussion. The opportunities to say profoundly ignorant things abound… I’d still like to use a reflection on the I Cite discussion to work my way a bit closer to a few nagging concepts, but I’ll tuck the content below the fold, with the usual below-the-fold caveat that what follows is rather ill-considered and underdone…

I’m always reluctant to write about Spurious – my style is a bit crude for such a text… I’ll make only the very brief observation that the style is gentle, loving – lingering fondly, as Jodi notes, on the shared infantilism that can burst forth from within the safety of close relationships. I read these posts as performances of what they also describe – they recount a number of examples of two close friends playfully and fondly irritating one another, as only intimate knowledge allows one to do – behaving incitefully, provocatively, teasingly – for the pure joy of seeing a dear friend be themselves in response to the provocation. In addition to recounting examples of such behaviour, these posts, I suspect, are such behaviour – the posts seem periodically to reach into the absurd, and I can’t help but wonder whether, in certain passages, they are presently teasing and provoking, even as they claim to be recounting past teases and provocations…

Jodi focusses on the narrative of decline through which the friendship with W. is articulated – and also on the ways in which shared infantilism can burst forth within the safety of a close relationship. I suspect these might be somewhat separable issues. I’m sympathetic to the claim that the capacity to express ourselves in our silliness, our despair, our depths, might in some way be definitive of close friendship – not in the sense of exhausting what a close friendship is, but in the sense of being possible only within a friendship that is close. I’m not sure I view the narrative of decline the same way – it seems more… individual to the story told about W. – the unique way the experience of this particular relationship has come to express itself. All close friendships might have such a narrative – I’m more unsure that it would need to be this exact narrative, or that this exact narrative represents an ideal for anything other than this particular relationship…

I don’t have the background to offer any kind of formal philosophical perspective on ideals of friendship, and am therefore thrown back on nothing more than questions… What I wonder is whether we are necessarily restricted to the Aristotelian concept of excellence – and therefore whether the dichotomy of Aristotelian virtue or mutual decline exhausts our possibilities for understanding friendship as an ideal? Is it perhaps possible to orient our friendships still to seek the best in one another, guided by a non-agonistic, non-exclusionary vision of virtue?

One of the things I suspect that teasing expresses – when it is the kind of loving, tender provocation recounted in the Spurious posts – is the potential to use one’s intimate knowledge of another to acknowledge and admire the fundamental differences that divide them from yourself – the possibility to enact a relationship precisely through the recognition – even the intensification – of difference. Playful teasing relies on intimate knowledge of what will irritate a particular person, anticipation of the form in which that irritation will express itself – it is a form of delight in the specific ways in which someone differs from yourself, even in the midst of intimacy. I’m curious whether it might be through its portrayal of teasing, rather than through its narrative of decline (which is, in a sense, an instance of teasing), that the Spurious posts might suggest an alternative ideal for friendship. Such an ideal, I would suggest, does involve driving one another toward excellence, but in the specific sense of a movement toward the recognition and perfection of our own divergent potentials. A non-competitive, non-exclusionary form of excellence – an immanent virtue related to the fuller realisation of the unique gifts of a particular person. Perhaps our closest friendships might be where we learn the most about our own distinctiveness, reflected in our friends’ recognition of some of the gifts we can uniquely express? The friendships in which we delight precisely in our recognition of our friends’ original and irreplaceable voices?

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4 responses to “Rough Thoughts on Friendship

  1. Joseph Kugelmass December 6, 2006 at 2:09 pm

    I like where you end up here; it is my guess that when people say that their friends “know” them, they are referring very specifically to the differences between themselves and other people; their friends know what makes them unique, and even where the lines of demarcation are between their commonplaces (which we all rely on) and their gifts, eccentricities, or both. A friend knows at what point in a dinner party we will stop asking small talk questions and become that thing which we are — nervous, or loquacious, or witty, or private.

    I think you do a very good job summarizing the best parts of these recent posts from Spurious: there is intimacy, pleasure, and struggle right alongside despair, annoyance, and infantilism. I believe that the infantile can be a gateway to the personal, and I also believe that Spurious is doing a good job portraying the whole of his relationship with W.

    At the same time, Spurious is clearly having a miserable time of it. W. is highly disappointed in him, a judgement he is inclined to accept, because W. feels that they should be a part of a famous circle of intellectuals but somehow are just ordinary academics. In the most recent post, W. is shoving the indie band Godspeed You Black Emperor down Spurious’s throat, and Spurious implies that W.’s perversity may be the thing driving him to play Godspeed to his students and to show them difficult, experimental films.

    I make no judgement of their happiness — who could insist, in this day and age, on someone being more positive without callousness — but the details of their story make me very hesitant to use it as the basis for an abstract theory of friendship.

    In fact, the majority of my friendships are neither directly, primarily concerned with “improving” me through opposition, nor with dragging me into the mud. My best friendships are really based on an exchange of stories and observations, combined with common interests, and leading to a sense of a common life. There is an unfortunate dialectical method that I’ve been dealing with in writing responses to my “ethics and melodrama” post in which an unattainable ideal of goodness is paired with a strangely wretched ideal of reality. Here I think you have the Aristotelian ideal being used as the unattainable, and the ideal of infantile depravity as the “real.” This owes something, doubtless, to Lacan and post-Lacanian thinkers (like Kristeva) on the abject, and the condition of enjoying one’s symptom…but on countless occasions my friends are actually the ones to save me from abjection, and every time that happens I feel my grasp on life, such as it can be at its most harmonious and assured, restored.

  2. N Pepperell December 6, 2006 at 9:08 pm

    Only the majority of your friendships? ;-P

    I’m not sure, though, that I interpret W. as harshly – Spurious seems too fond of their interaction for me to view their relationship as judgmental in such a coercive way… But as I said, I’m not intimately familiar with the blog…

    Regardless, I obviously agree with the point that we aren’t trapped in the dichotomy of Aristotelian ideal vs. abjection…

  3. Jodi December 10, 2006 at 2:59 pm

    good post. I think you are right in that I might overplay the ‘dragging down’ element, rather than seeing it in a more complex manner.

  4. N Pepperell December 10, 2006 at 6:35 pm

    I liked your reflection on the issue, though – and I was similarly struck by the elements that Spurious foregrounds, which are often not foregrounded when we talk publicly about what is sustaining in our relationships. I’m always a bit reluctant to write as though Spurious is trying to make any specific argument – I don’t know the blog well enough for that. But the posts are certainly evocative enough to inspire productive reflection, whether any of us is capturing what was intended…

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