The Politics of Friendship

308 pages,
ISBN: 1859840337

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A Foreword to Friendship Deconstructed
by J Owen

Politics of Friendship (Politiques d'Amité), the first major work of political theory by the French deconstructionist, Jacques Derrida, explores a topic that has been sorely neglected by political theorists in recent years. Typically unconcerned with things political, deconstruction focuses on the inherent ambiguity of any use of language, particularly in philosophical and literary texts. Deconstruction, it is true, has carried with it the spirit of a moral or political movement. Yet explaining clearly what, if any, its political implications might be has proven very difficult, despite numerous attempts on the part of the movement's secondary and tertiary figures. This fact alone is enough to make Derrida's foray into political theory in Politics of Friendship of interest to anyone concerned with the state of contemporary political thought.

Let the uninitiated reader be forewarned, however. Deconstructionist writing has a deserved reputation for being unduly obscure, and this book is no departure in that respect. There are, to be sure, some theoretical reasons for this obscurity. Clarity, or apparent clarity, of expression and thought is what deconstruction sets out to deconstruct. But while difficult prose is not objectionable in itself (so long as the subject-matter calls for it), Derrida very often indulges a coyness that leaves the reader merely guessing at what he might be driving at and whether apparently difficult passages are really worth puzzling over.

Be that as it may, Derrida has begun to bring deconstruction down to earth, so to speak, by way of a topic of inherent interest and undeniable human significance: friendship. In Politics of Friendship, he explores and questions what he calls the "canonical" interpretation of friendship which was instigated by Aristotle, and allegedly carried on through such radically different thinkers as Cicero, Montaigne, Kant, Nietzsche, and Carl Schmitt. Derrida is most concerned with the political aspects and implications of friendship, especially with democratic fraternity as the deeply problematic model of political friendship. This book is inspired by a deep distress over the present state and future of democratic society. Democracy has failed to realize the justice it promised, and Derrida contends that the inner contradictions of the "canonical" interpretation of friendship (what he hopes is a misinterpretation) are largely to blame.

To be sure, not all of the philosophers Derrida discusses were friends of democracy; and still fewer philosophers, if any, ever dreamt that complete friendship could be extended beyond a very few excellent individuals. Nevertheless, he believes that he has identified a fundamental tension at the heart of "canonical" friendship that was inherited by the founders of the modern democratic project and embedded in their declaration of the "brotherhood of man". He hopes to uncover and deconstruct the assumptions concerning the nature of friendship that inform that declaration, paving the way for a radically new democratic friendship of the future.

"Canonical" friendship, Derrida argues, is radically unstable because it pulls in opposite directions. One side-the side Derrida clearly believes the more morally suspect-is inherently exclusionary and stresses what friends have, are, or do in common. Friends are intimate, share goods, and come to think of themselves as a unity. The friend, as Aristotle states, is another self. This is the source of referring to friends as brothers-those who are bound by blood or by nature. Derrida speaks in this context of the "fraternization" and "naturalization" of friendship.

Yet at the same time one is concerned for one's friend and desires his or her own good, and not simply as a means to or extension of one's own private good. The good of even the closest of friends may diverge. This is why trust is so important. Trust is a virtue of friendship and depends on the fact that friends can never form a perfect union. Owing to this difficulty, Aristotle was forced to place a severe limitation on "complete friendship" since, as he says in his Ethics, "each wishes the good things most of all for himself." Derrida gives the problem a distinctly modern interpretation by ascribing to the other-considering side of friendship the desire to respect the friend as a unique "other".

The self-directed side of friendship, according to Derrida, is not merely selfish; it is egoistic, or narcissistic. It threatens to make friendship ultimately about one's mere self, turning to the friend only for the "narcissistic projection of...one's own ideal image." Such is the ugly heart of mere "fraternity" as the model of friendship based narrowly on attachment to "one's own". Derrida assumes that when Aristotle and Cicero spoke of the necessary limitation of complete friendship to a very few, they spoke of a purified fraternity, which only exacerbated the difficulties inherent in fraternity as such.

Derrida thus views the modern democratic universalization of friendship-the "brotherhood of man"-as a tremendously significant break with and progression beyond the friendship spoken of by Aristotle and Cicero. The French revolutionaries' appeal to universal fraternity signalled "an elevation, a sublimation". Derrida not only implicitly places this book within the modern project of universalization, he also agrees that friendship, if not fraternity, is somehow "exemplary" of "the profound height...of the moral law." He contends, however, that even modern democratic fraternity was infected from the outset with a narcissistic and exclusionary strand that we have yet to overcome. What, he asks, about sisters? What about sexual difference, as well as the myriad other differences that Derrida takes as characteristic of "humanity"? "Canonical" friendship is male homosexual, although not, or not principally, erotic. As such it is exclusive and homogenizing, ungenerous and, therefore, unfriendly.

Today the modern democratic project is in grave danger owing to the fact that we now lack the confidence had by earlier revolutionaries in just what that project means. We continue, says Derrida, to feel that there must indeed be "crimes against humanity". But we can no longer take for granted that we know what this "humanity" is. He quotes at length Victor Hugo's effusive praise of Paris as the new Jerusalem, the new capital of humanity, "a people which will be France sublimated." Derrida does not need to note that words such as Hugo's are unimaginable today. Today the old self-confidence, however well-intentioned, risks seeming blind to its imposition on the world of a seemingly endless number of merely Franco-centric or Anglo-centric or, at any rate, Western values.

What apparently transcends these merely ethnocentric values, to Derrida's mind, is the democratic ideal itself, even if we cannot now discern the precise essence of that ideal. We need then, according to Derrida, to radically rethink the most basic concepts of democracy, if not the goodness of democracy itself. It is to this project of rethinking that deconstruction is necessary: "[A] rigorous, critical, non-dogmatic definition of what is called today humanitarian...demands a conceptual and practical reformulation. But this cannot be done without a systematic, and deconstructive, coming to terms with the tradition."

A theoretical task is called for. Yet deconstruction is not primarily theoretical, but moral. It is animated by "the demand of a democracy to come". Indeed, "[t]his demand is deconstruction at work". This demand is not itself to be deconstructed. On the contrary, as Derrida has put it elsewhere, "the condition of possibility of deconstruction is a call for justice." Deconstruction, notorious for its acid skepticism, presumes to know what justice is.

Derrida seems to reason that if the goal of a truly democratic friendship is possible, it must be on the basis of a frankly still ill-defined friendship. But he feels confident about the direction we must go. Of the two directions in which friendship pulls-towards oneself and towards the "other"-Derrida looks for a new interpretation of friendship radically oriented toward the "other"-the other human being, the friend. He seems willing to go quite far. As he presents it, such a friendship would not demand that the friend be like me or possessed by me; it would not demand reciprocity or even equality.

One could object that this appears the more problematic and less stable of these two sides. How far can friendship be pulled in this direction? Derrida fails to address some obvious questions: Would such a friendship no longer expect trustworthiness because it eschewed reciprocity? Would the friends Derrida envisions be utterly self-abnegating? If so, do we expect or want our friends to be utterly self-abnegating? Would such friends have no desire even to share time together? Does not the very project of Derrida's book spring from a desire for the reality, the presence, the possession of true friendship-of a true friend? Desire, need, and utility seem to have no place whatsoever in the friendship he seeks. But surely friends are among the greatest goods one can possess. Derrida does not even speak of friends as pleasant. It seems impossible, on Derrida's account, to explain why we want friends at all.

It is more difficult still, given the extraordinary abstraction of Derrida's discussion, to explain why we want the sort of friends we do. An honest friend's "other" may be deceitful, but this is surely not what Derrida has in mind. Must we not then say what sort of "other" is worth loving? He dimly alludes to this difficulty when he asks of this friendship of the "other": "If...this friendship is borne beyond all being in common, ... then why...am I not the friend of just anyone?"

This difficulty is related to another one. How is Derridean friendship, which abstracts from the question of human character, morally superior to the narcissism Derrida abhors in mere fraternity? How does flipping the locus of friendship from my mere self to my friend's mere self-not as good or admirable but merely as "other"-amount to anything more than an inverse narcissism? And does it not ask the friend to respect me, regardless of whether or not I deserve his or her respect or admiration?

Derrida asserts that the question "why am I not the friend of just anyone?" is unanswerable. Perhaps he does so because it necessarily leads us to speak of character, admirable and unadmirable traits, virtues and vices-such as wit, generosity, honesty, justice, and their opposites. But this is to speak as Derrida would forbid, in terms of "common appurtenances": Generosity is a characteristic good friends have in common. The question of character is also the most obvious link between friendship and politics. The link Derrida has in mind, on the contrary, never quite manages to make itself explicit.

Although Derrida's attempt to purify friendship of all manner of ownership and sharing is implausible to say the least, he does nevertheless recognize that "one's own" is not good enough as a basis for friendship. He also recognizes that the dissatisfaction with mere "fraternity" is inherent in our experience of friendship. This dissatisfaction might be said to be the starting point of his reflections on friendship.

What he forgets, however, is that this dissatisfaction may also be the starting point for the reflections on his greatest philosophical predecessors. In his deconstructive efforts, Derrida forgets or neglects that most basic distinction, nearly as old as philosophy itself, between "one's own" and the good. We are all born into some chance bonds of friendship-into some better or worse family, neighbourhood, and country. It is not sufficient to say simply that our friends are our own. We also want our friends to be good, whether that means deluding ourselves about the goodness of our friends, seeking to make our friends better, or seeking out better friends. This means that complete friendship cannot be simply about me and my friend, but must be about some third thing which elevates the friendship above mere kinship. For Aristotle, that "other" is philosophy, the shareable life of the mind. Derrida completely misses the classic critique of fraternal friendship.

Be that as it may, Derrida's express purpose in this book is to raise questions we cannot assume have been decisively settled, not to settle them himself. "This essay," Derrida explains, "...would rather be the foreword to a book I would one day wish to write." Derrida's better readers should also feel the need to explore the matter further. Read in conjunction with the works discussed in it, Politics of Friendship could prove a valuable gateway to the more thorough consideration this topic deserves.

J. Judd Owen is the Earhart Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Political Science at the University of Toronto.


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