Music: This Mortal Coil: Filigree & Shadow (1986)
[T]he great canonical meditations on friendship . . . are linked to the experience of mourning, to the moment of loss.
—Jacques Derrida, The Politics of Friendship
This past weekend was a social one. Strangely, in many moments, surrounded by the friendly, I felt estranged—or at least a certain kind of distance. This was not a continuous sense of apartness, just the fleeting sort of alienation in which one thinks to oneself, after eating a brain-bud of cauliflower dipped in something fattening, ” I don’t think there is but one or two people here I could call if I were in jail.”
I don’t regularly have such thought experiments in a crowded room, but for some reason my mind went there. Well, y’all know I do know the reasons, but I’m not about to be that disclosive on a public blog. Even so, think about it: finding yourself in jail is embarrassing, whether it is for the right reasons (civil disobedience) or the wrong ones (DWI). Whom would you feel comfortable calling? For most of us, I suspect, we could count the friends we trust with that sort of embarrassment on one hand.
Different scene, same weekend: I happened to be in a crowded living room—a space of intimacy, the space of friendship—and I noticed the virtual’s sporadic colonization of the meat: instead of looking at and speaking with others present, three guests were staring down at their laps into the liquid crystal portal of an iPhone, connecting to the absent other (or rather, presencing them, as if to expand the living room to ghosts of [an]otherwhere).
I have been in intimate conversations when someone suddenly attended their mobile “networking” device. This is increasingly common.
I realize that in our now “networked” culture, the norms of public intimacy are changing—few would question this. But as unique as our smart-phoned socialization is, I tend to recoil to my (post)structural habits: such feelings of alienation (however minor) amplify already rooted modes of intimacy. Last year, in preparation to a visit with a friend’s class at another university, I read Derrida’s The Politics of Friendship, and it’s been murmuring in the background of my mind all of this time. In preparation for an essay revision this weekend, I’ve been reading Joshua Meyrowitz’s No Sense of Place, a classic and incredibly prescient rumination on the ways in which electronic media are reconfiguring our understanding of intimacy, public and private. My social experiences this weekend somehow made these two books have a conversation with each other in my head.
Many years ago I ruminated on the topic of friendship, by way of Aristotle. Thousands of years ago “The Brain” characterized friends into three camps, which really reduce to two: there are the friends for whom you wish the best, and then, friends of “utility.” The lingo of social networking has really brought such distinctions into naked relief: on Facebook, you have “friends” in your social network. The majority of them are friends of utility. These are friends who you would never dream of calling when you are in jail. A very small minority of one’s Facebook friends are real friends—those whom you would call and detail things that reveal an innermost (human) flaw.
I got to thinking: what are the ethics of networked friendship? Friendship implies a complicated apparatus of logics over a plane of intimacy. All of us know that “friending” someone on Facebook is, at some remove, a routine gesture: “Oh, yes, I know this person. Why not?” But the word “friend” itself carries with it a certain meaning that is not evacuated by the superficial gesture. For example, about a year ago I went through my “friends” on Facebook and deleted those people whom I rarely spoke to in “real,” meat space. One of them emailed me immediately, professing hurt. This was not a person I would ever dream of asking to bail me out of jail. Yet, she protested that I had violated some sort of tacit bond. And so I “re-friended” her. (Case in point: I would not expect her to read this blog.)
This networked dynamic of intimacy is unquestionably yoked to the conception of “friend.” The word itself carries a certain force, an intimate force that afflicts us with a profound unconscious gravity that the electronic interface encourages us to ignore. I’m just not sure how to make sense of it. In some ways, I suppose I am privileged (as are many of you) by having grown up in a non-Internet era—I can feel, in my body, in my bones, the difference between interpersonal or perhaps “vocal” intimacy and that of the digital kind. Perhaps there is a distinction to be made between “analog” and “digital” forms of intimacy, and the ways in which either mode configures friendship. For example, “friend or no friend” versus degree of likeness might be a way in which we could differentiate the two. Understanding friendship in terms of degree, seems to me, the meat-space norm, contrasts starkly with the “yes” or “no” province of the digital.
That said, there is something about the character of friendship (for me, at least), which resists the binarist view. Friendship is (and should be) messy. For those of you unfamiliar with Derrida’s book on friendship, a large portion of it is dedicated to examining the political theories of Carl Schmitt, a German thinker whose most famous essay, “The Concept of the Political,” defines politics as an essential discernment between “friend and enemy.” Derrida upends such as distinction, as you might imagine, in The Politics of Friendship. But his point is not to dismiss Schimitt. Rather (at least as I understand it), his point is to show how Schmitt lays bare the way in which the political depends on such a binary—how the friend is conceived of the Aristotelian sense of “utility,” how “friend” is coded as a “like me” that evacuates difference. That the notion of “friend” entails a certain kind of contractarian thinking that abhors the degree.
Or as George W. Bush made famous, “you are either with us, or against us.”
Such a logic seems to be underwriting the Facebook “friend” mentality. If I neglect to add you as a “friend,” then I am in some sense your enemy. With Facebook and similar social networking interfaces, we are witnessing the emergence of a new form of blackmail. Although I would readily ascent to the objections of my more Foucauldian/Deleuzian, Tornoto-school media ecologist colleagues that new technologies open new possibilities for friendship (few of us would deny, for example, that Facebook has only made it easier to keep in touch with those friends we would call from jail), still, new intimacies trend toward new alienations.
And this brings me back to the notion of intimacy and interface: to what degree is social networking pushing us into a Schmittian understanding of friendship? To what extent has our rapid connectivity rendered our connection as such a valued mode of intimacy? Or worse, as the authentic signature of depth? To what extent does engaging at the level of “status statements” come to replace the laughter of two friends having lunch?
I don’t know. I’m just thinking aloud.
One of the fundaments of Derrida’s essay is that friendship is “cultural cannibalism” (to borow a term from Penelope Deutscher) When we have a friend, that friend is “appropriated” as part of ourselves. This is why Derrida suggests that to think about friendship entails a certain mourning: when we lose a friend to death, we experience the loss as a loss of self. We “consume” or “eat” our friends—they become a part of us. This is inevitable. The ethical reckoning is the realization that the incorporated friend “is not me,” that he or she is different, a discrete or unique being that we cannot say is “one” with our being. And yet, when I look to my Facebook homepage, I see I have incorporated hundreds of “friends,” many if not most of whom I could only mourn in their sameness or continuity with myself—that is, that I “know” them, that they are part of who “I know” and therefore part of self. In my accumulation of “friends” on Facebook, because of the term itself, I confront a strange guilt.
I think Aristotle was wise. For him, a true friend is one for whom you wish the best—sometimes at the expense of your own happiness. That is a respect for uniqueness. Social networking blurs the distinction that we must necessarily make between levels of friendship to be ethical persons, the distinction we must make between friends with whom we share a life—our sadness especially—and those with whom we are commingled for utility or circumstance. The irony of the binarist logic of friendship is that it forces an enemy when there need not be one. “Friending” on Facebook participates in an underlying logic of discrimination that, I’m coming to realize, is more alienating than I first supposed; it is premised on the possibility of an enemy, a zero. And publicizes it.