Networks of civic friendship

It is remarkable to see affective bonds and civic practices of friendship invoked in several discussions of resistance to globalization, colonialism, and normativity.

Reflecting on possible lessons from recent democratic failures in Greece, Britain, and the U.S., classicist Johanna Hanink notes:  “The more puzzling lesson is that, despite these countries’ connected failings, the international Left still seems to lack the kind of genuine solidarity that would unite its members in common cause against power’s drift away from the people” (“Maybe we weren’t all Greeks after all,” ThePressProject, 8/16/2018).  How can such a lasting solidarity be built?  Hanink stresses that Leftists “still stand in need of transnational networks strong enough to stand up to oppressive global structures—from the financial system to the increasingly united far right. … In her 2006 book Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin-de-Siècle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship, postcolonial theorist Leela Gandhi showed how, in the late nineteenth century, a ‘politics of friendship’ transcended the distinction of colonizer and colonized in Britain and India. Affective bonds between members of marginalized groups, from socialists to ‘sexual misfits’ to mystics to vegetarians, collapsed simplistic distinctions between East and West and proved critical for anti-imperial and anti-colonial struggles”.

In an original exploration of anticolonial thought in late Victorian intellectual subcultures, Gandhi tells the stories of a number of well-known South Asian and European friendships that flourished between 1878 and 1914 to show how “weaving together the disparate energies of Marxism, utopian experimentation, and continental anarchism, these individuals and movements facilitated the mutation of ‘internationalism’ into a series of countercultural revolutionary practices for which I claim the name ‘politics of friendship’ [and] argue that this politics rendered metropolitan anticolonialism, albeit briefly, into an existentially urgent and ethically inventive enterprise” (Affective Communities, p. 9).

Gandhi’s use of “politics of friendship” as a term “privileges, after Derrida, the trope of friendship as the most comprehensive philosophical signifier for all those invisible affective gestures that refuse alignment along the secure axis of filiation to seek expression outside, if not against, possessive communities of belonging” (10).  Her postcolonial use of the term cited by Hanink also appeals to queer theorist Tom Roach who finds that “Gandhi’s understanding of friendship’s inherent homelessness, its uncanniness, mirrors my earlier articulation of the emergence of the concept of friendship as shared estrangement. … The idea and the relation are generated in common and regenerate the common.  The friend is neither possessive nor possessed, neither owner nor owned. … The friend is the fleeting placeholder of an asubjective affectivity moving through ontologically variegated singularities; it is the figure that intuits and enacts the common, that which seethes beneath and is excessive of relations and communities founded in identitarian difference” (Friendship as a Way of Life:  Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement, 2012, p. 15).

Gandhi’s application of Derrida’s “politics of friendship” to collaborations between anti-colonial India and anti-imperial fin de siècle is comparable to uses of friendship in another colonial territory described by Jon Soske (History & Classical Studies) and Shannon Walsh (Theater & Film):  “As a discourse and idea, friendship between colonizer and colonized played a number of different, if sometimes overlapping, roles in South Africa during the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  It provided a flexible language for the articulation and development of social solidarity across multiple sites. … In this sense, the term ‘friend’ possessed an ambiguity that historians have noted in other contexts:  it could refer both to a privileged, intimate relationship and to a broader range of social acquaintance. … Overlapping with a Christian discourse of universal friendship, this language circulated alongside similar terms such a brotherhood, … cooperation, … and … solidarity” (“Thinking about Race and Friendship in South Africa,” in Walsh and Soske, eds., Ties that Bind:  Race and the Politics of Friendship in South Africa, 2016, pp. 18-19).

All these political reflections on friendship as alternative civic solidarity resisting various regimes of subjugation and subjectification resonate with certain earlier theories.  For example, French scholar Marc Bizer’s discussion of Cicero’s De amicitia (45 B.C.), La Boétie’s On Voluntary Servitude, and Montaigne’s “On Friendship” (1580) shows that all three authors emphasized “the goodness of friendship as the antithesis of tyranny” (“Whose Mistake?  The Errors of Friendship in Cicero, La Boétie, and Montaigne” in Basil Dufallo’s superb collection of original essays Roman Error:  Classical Reception and the Problem of Rome’s Flaws, 2018, p. 40) while looking into the proper place of friendship in political life.  While Montaigne, writing under the influence of the French Wars of Religion, offered an idealistic description of friendship, situating it “outside of the sphere of politics” (49), it is Cicero who saw “friendship as a conscious, willful decision to enter a socially and personally constructive relationship based on the pursuit of virtue” (47) and inquired into the relation between loyalties of friendship and interests of the state.

Civic friendship as training in dwelling, care, recognition, and solidarity has been a central focus of my blog.  As I have argued, this political training takes place between exceptional friends making music together.  That is why this blog does not reflect on the abstract meaning of friendship but draws on the exercises of a comprehensive collaboration that has made Dr. Pantelis Polychronidis my “other self.”  By promising “each other to a shared future,” radical friends may become comrades who join forces in local commons and in transnational networks of collaborative civic friendship.

September 1, 2018

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