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Report from BABEL: Friendship as a Way of Life

Published onMar 08, 2020
Report from BABEL: Friendship as a Way of Life

[Originally Posted on September 26, 2012]

It is now 2 days since returning from the 2nd Biennial Meeting of the BABEL Working Group in Boston last week, and I am still trying to recover. Following this blog post I am going to share with everyone the notes of the first-ever “think tank” of BABEL, held the Sunday after the conference, in which a group of us engaged in some strategic planning for the future of our conference, but also for BABEL as an organization that is getting larger and larger in terms of its activities and membership. WE NEED HELP. To that end, in the next day or two, I will share what we discussed at our day-long retreat and also invite everyone here to please pitch in ideas regarding the next meeting, to be held in Autumn 2014 at UC-Santa Barbara.

In the meantime, I would like to share with everyone here the edited and slightly expanded version of the presentation that I and my partner Anna Klosowska delivered in Boston as part of Brantley and Sakina Bryant’s “Impure Collaborations” panel, which they described this way:

This panel explores collaborations that challenge the customary professional expectations of academic being-together. What kinds of shared work beckon beyond the sanitized templates for “objective” (“pure”) and “professional” academic collaboration? How can we best make visible the ways in which that affinity, friendship, eros, identity, political engagement, and other off-the-CV connections give us ways of working outside of often constrictive and normative academic hierarchies and working conditions?

Friendship, and also “work” motivated by personal intimacy and love, was the topic Anna and I chose, and we understand the mine-field in which we tread. It is hoped that it is understood that we do not take our project of friendship [which we believe is deeply political and radical] as some sort of monolith: “we are all friends now! isn’t that groovy?” As if that “group” or whatever it is would not be striated by all sorts of differences, internal dissension, mixed motives, lopsided attractions, asymmetrical power dynamics, and the like. The project of friendship, in relation to the academy, is, for us, very much a Derridean and even Foucauldian working through of what is to-come, to-arrive. It is a project of radical hope, not a *thing* that already exists. It is not one specific group that insists on a sort of membership or set of rituals or personality types for being “in” or “out.” It is not a collective that absorbs nor threatens to absorb otherness and difference; it is an activity of clearing ground so that anything might happen, so that specific persons can feel safe to be exactly who they are, even if what that is might embody the wish to be “left alone.” It requires courage, because you have to be willing to allow yourself to be changed through your encounters with others. And without further ado, here are our remarks:

These Are the Tiny Engines that Power the Sails of Our Adventure: Friendship As a Way of Life

by Eileen Joy and Anna Klosowska

The contemporary intellectual likes to think of himself as the successor of aristocracy. While aristocracy derived every possible competency from blood, intellectuals derive from the brain the right to speak of everything to everyone.1

for Michael O’Rourke, the bearer of the virtual, invisible raspberries, cupped in his palms, that brought Anna and Eileen together

I. Mothers and Sons, Sisters and Brothers

If, in Plato’s Phaedrus, the “flourishing of the lover and his beloved through narcissistic mutual recognition, through the cultivation of sameness”2 is a good thing, in practice we have found that such Platonic intimacies awaken in some bystanders a worry that the critical faculty will be missing, that we will go soft. This is not our worry, though — we both think that there is entirely too little softness in the work of the mind, not too much. Let’s examine some examples of extreme sweetness in a couple of historical collaborations, a sort of “Hello Kitty” tour of collaboration.

In Camera Lucida, Barthes meditates on a photograph of his mother, Henriette, whom he called “his inner Law” (“elle, si forte, était ma Loi intérieure”).3 They lived together for most of his life. Her death, two years before his own, induced in him a condition he called “Abandonitis.” What seems singular about Barthes’s mother is her sweetness: she was never exacting or critical: “Nullement inquiétante” (68). She never made him the vaguest reproach: “une seule observation” (109). This made us think of another Henriette, a century before, who had the same delicate sensibilities and a similarly maternal role, although she did, without any doubt, pester her brother quite a bit more than Henriette Barthes did her son.

Ernest Renan, 19th-century French historian of Ancient Middle Eastern languages, is notorious for his theories of religion, nation and race. Reviled during his lifetime for his anti-clericalism (beginning with the scandal of his Life of Jesus, 1863, the biography of an “exceptional man”) and philo-semitism, later his work became the favorite reference of right-wing nationalists, anti-semites and white supremacists. Franz Fanon denounced his racism and Edward Said, his Orientalism. Less known is Renan’s relation to his sister Henriette, twelve years his senior, who preceded him in the study of German,4 if not also inspired his interest in “Oriental” languages, and whose biography he published the year after her death as an homage to one who was only known to a small circle because of her “shyness, reserve, and her firm conviction that a woman must live privately” (Renan, Ma soeur Henriette, 1), a character condensed in a favorite saying she borrowed from Thomas A Kempis: in angello cum libello (‘in a nook with a book’; 26).5 A propos of Henriette, the critics evoke Sainte-Beuve’s mot that the sisters of great men are often superior to them.6 Renan says of himself: “I am the end point of a long and obscure lineage of farmers and sailors. I’m using up their reserves of thoughts.”7 The family had a tenuous foothold in the middle class and, after their father’s death, Henriette was unsuccessful in running a girls’ school in their hometown, Tréguier. She became a tutor in Paris, then in Poland. She published travelogues and historical mysteries, and died from malaria during Renan’s archaeological expedition to Syria (1861).

Renan speaks tenderly of his sister’s charms as a young woman, which procured her a rich suitor, rejected because his condition was separation from her family. He describes the misery of her life in Paris and Poland, a life she chose to pay off the debts left by their father, so that their mother may continue living in their home while the creditors, their neighbors, agreed to wait.8 In 1850, having settled the debts, she rejoined her brother in Paris at his prompting (her health was compromised). He promised to involve her in all of his work: “I will give you as much material as you wish, Greek, German, Latin, Hebrew, philosophy, philology, theology if you must; I give you the ownership of all my work; only, come back.”9 She contributed anonymously to the Journal des jeunes personnes (1833-68), run from 1847-57 by Sophie Ulliac-Trémadeure (1794-1862), a children’s book author, friend, and Breton compatriot of the Renans: “it was for her friend, old and infirm” that Henriette wrote (26-7). She researched, as well as copied and edited Ernest’s work, imparting to it a style different from his own, because less ironic: “I got used to writing counting in advance on her remarks . . . this thought procedure became, since she’s no more, the cruel feeling of an amputee, who constantly moves the limb he has lost. She became an organ of my intellectual life, and it’s truly a part of my being that went to the grave with her” (23). She disliked his irony and he “abandoned it little by little” (24). An anecdote from Renan’s biography of his sister provides some more insight into that:

At a pardon in Basse-Bretagne, in which we participated in a boat, our vessel was preceded by one filled with poor ladies who, wishing to make themselves beautiful for the festivities, embraced sartorial arrangements of little worth and in poor taste. Our companions made sport of them, and the poor ladies noticed. I saw her face dissolve in tears. To mock the good people who forgot their misfortunes for a moment to blossom [s’épanouir] and who, perhaps, ruined themselves out of deference for others — that seemed barbaric to her (27-8).

She was given to brooding; she was jealous; Renan gave up his marriage plans for her; the very next morning, she runs to his fiancée to set things right (33-4). During the mission to Syria, sponsored by the Emperor (1860), she served as the accountant and manager. Able horsewoman, she followed her younger brother to “the steepest peaks of Lebanon, in the deserts of Jordan” (37-8). She disliked Beirut and enjoyed living in tents. It is during that expedition, in August-September 1861, that she copied Renan’s Life of Jesus, which she greatly enjoyed. They both suffered from malaria, to which she succumbed in mid-September. As he said, a part of Renan followed her to the grave.

II. Friendship As a Way of Life

What would it mean to imagine one’s career, one’s writing, as a sort of devotion to another, to a beloved, whether mother, sister, lover, or friend? Or even to a set of friends, those already met and those still unmet, a kind of ceaseless love-as-talking? Or as Leo Bersani once put it, to “a life devoted to love as a lifelong devotion to philosophical discussion — or, to put it not quite so dryly, to spiritually liquefying speech.”10 Foucault once asked us to consider friendship as a “way of life,” and also queerness as an “historic occasion” that, through a special sort of ascesis that would not renounce pleasure as suchmight open us to “improbable manners of being.”11 We believe that one of the crises that faces us now, and not just in the university, is that we have not yet begun to take up or to really practice what we are going to call Foucault’s imperative. The import of Foucault’s thinking on this subject, bequeathed to us in an interview in 1981, seems to have gone missing among us.

One very important aspect of what we would call the politics of friendship is that friendship itself can not just be the actual amicable and “sweet” relationships that already inhere between those of us who prefer some bodies over others, some personalities over others, but rather, is a sort of space, or field, that one cultivates with the hope that others will arrive and join you in that cultivating: the production of friendly spaces in which new friendships are always taking root even while others might be withering away, or breaking apart rather more violently, shattering in our hands: our friendships, of necessity, are ephemeral and all the lovelier for that, more precious and more dear to us even as we are losing them, even through our own neglect. Friendship can be a positionality, a leaning-toward, a form of expectation, of a hospitality that tends, not toward just one body in particular, but toward the possibility of all bodies being together, and yes, talking to each other, and sometimes — this must be said — just to certain others. These are the sweetest hours and delights, when we are together like this. This is somewhat after the work, but is also the ground of all the work we do after we meet.

It has been mentioned more than once, and even in print, that the BABEL Working Group risks insularity because some of us appear to only be writing with and for each other, organizing conference sessions with the same persons over and over again, inviting the same speakers to multiple events, publishing each other’s papers, etc. The first time we heard that, Eileen bristled with anger and started formulating all sorts of arguments with which she could crush that criticism and blast it to pieces. “It isn’t true that it’s always the same people talking to the same people, and by god,” says Eileen, “I’m going to smack the next person who says that to my face.” Typical overreaction, especially for Eileen. Then she calmed down and realized: actually, that’s kind of true. Lesson number one: embrace your supposed insularity: it’s warm in there and the windows glow with the light of friendship. But remember, too, our walls are permeable, and permeability is the métier in which we hope and strive to work. As the anthropologist Tim Ingold reminds us, “life will not be confined within bounded forms but rather threads its way through the world along the myriad lines of its relations.”12 Or, as Aranye Fradenburg has argued, “It is difficult to understand other minds; but if it is difficult to understand the meanings of their transmissions, it is also a species of arrogance to think we could stop them from changing us.”13 We’re open to being changed; we’re willing to risk that, and that is also an important aspect of friendship. This will also require bravery.

This recalls us as well to the ways in which some of us also write for mentors, whom we might adore, whether in direct relation to their presence or distance from us, and with whom we might also have complex and even dark relationships: mentors, in other words, who, a bit like bad mothers, scold us too much, or maybe don’t really understand us, who insist we be something we are not, who neglect us, and whether through death or forgetfulness, leave us behind altogether. Relationships can be antagonistic, and even melancholically lopsided, and still be loving.

Where did we get this idea that there is work, and there is life, that there is “being serious” and there is having “having fun”? Either you want to do “real” scholarship or you’re just playing around. If we have to, we’ll embrace conviviality over this thing called “work” which is supposedly impersonal, and which supposedly outlasts us and points to what is outside of us: the not-us. If pushed, we’ll choose pleasure over work, friends over professionalization, silliness over seriousness, and Hello Kitty over Heidegger. But in all honesty, we never purchased the inside/outside stock options. We simply reject the notion altogether. And we might well ask: why can’t work and conviviality be conjoined: is one really at odds with the other? Con-viviality: con = with, viviality = the mode or mood or atmosphere of liveliness or aliveness, undertaking our work with liveliness and aliveness, enjoying being lively and alive with others while working together, working on liveliness and aliveness. Shouldn’t increasing the opportunities for “aliveness” be part of our work? Is this not a question of well-being? Isn’t part of our job, as teachers, to enhance our students’ awareness of the complex aliveness of this world, and maybe even to take pleasure in that aliveness, even when it’s scary?

Renan wrote, “The man who has time to keep a private diary has never understood the immensity of the universe.”14 Renan was in touch with the insistence of the world’s immensity pressing upon our attention, and he wanted to write about the languages and cultures of the distant past — this is to say, there was a sort of exteriority to the objects of his scholarship, a desire to know something about the not-just-us, and a gorgeous instinct for voyaging — but most of all, he wanted to know what his sister thought of all that, he wanted his sister to be his fellow-voyager. He needed her to always be beside him and he gave her “ownership” of all his work if she promised not to abandon him at the head of their migrating tents.

When Henriette died, he wasn’t sure how to even think or write, since he always wrote with her future possible remarks in mind. This is both selfish and unselfish simultaneously, isn’t it? Both intensely needy and personal, but also a giving up of one’s identity in the act of submitting it to another, to be ‘written over’ by them, or in Barthes’ case, of always carrying the beloved other inside of you as a miniature ‘rule,’ like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s epipsychidion: literally, ‘a little soul,’ enclosed by the materiality of a lover’s body — your little soul enclosed, wrapped around, by my body, by my materiality. This can only ever be partial, of course.

We are only ever partial, and no one is really ever captured in anyone else’s body, anyone else’s person. But our affects are conductible, like electricity, along the lines of our relations: we can “charge” each other, while also hurtling in different directions. This is the metaphysics, the co-mattering, which is also the co-poiesis of friendship, and of love. As one of the “couples” on this panel, we’re also asking, then, for an intensification of soft couplings, of soft triplings and quadruplings and even amorously playful and also melancholic splittings, bluings and purplings, which could also be intensifications of remaining attuned to, and trying to love, what remains permanently unsettled in all of us.

As quantum physics demonstrates, all bodies — of thought, of persons, of moods and atmospheres, of things, etc. — in the universe are simultaneously close to and distant from each other in a continual dance of entanglement. As we are already inextricable from one another,15 what is the point of retreating to our studies to produce work that is supposedly rigorous in that it is uncontaminated by the personal, which is to say, by the foibles of our loves? A scholarship that follows those foibles, wherever they may lead, might not last, and sometimes might not even be good. But it will be honest. It will follow Auden’s hope that we might be those figures who shine lights in the dark wherever we exchange our messages, who “show an affirming flame,” even when beleaguered by “negation and despair.”

What we’re trying to say here is: as it turns out, we simply can’t live, nor work, without our affections. We’re still writing even for those mentors who neglected us or left us behind, bereft of their company, for the friends who departed from us, and those still in view, for those just beside us, or far away, close but not known to us, or even imaginary. And what do you know? Our affections are always in and around our work, even necessary to it, even when partially hidden from view. These are the tiny engines that power the sails of our adventure.

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