Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Politics of Friendship

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Michael Lujan Bevacqua
Social Theory b
Professor Da Silva
May 16, 2005

Politics of Friendship

Beautiful book, too much so, which is why its beautiful. The play so obvious in the ways that statements are made and then retracted, how threads of arguments are taken and then swiftly abandoned. What we can see in this book, as well as others such as Spectres of Marx is a political change in Derrida. Spivak calls this change a shift from the guarding of the question, to the experience of the impossible.

To what do we owe this shift in Derrida’s public writing? Part of it no doubt has to do with his conceptualizations of the I and the Other, which some describe as Abrahamic in character. The “I” before the wholly Other who is the God of the Bible, quantum physical fairy tales, The Fundamental Fantasy around which all our little fundamental fantasies are organized around. We relate to that wholly Other as Abraham related to his God, in particular when he was asked to sacrifice his son Isaac, for no other reason then to answer the call of the Other (which was completely unexpected). Relating to the wholly Other is this preparedness of unpreparedness for the Other who will arrive and request without any foreshadowing or forewarning.

What does this mean politically? From what I’ve read of Spectres of Marx, the wholly Other of today, to which we are all in some form or another responsibly answering its call, is the Market, is global capital. (it was listening to Ward Churchill on C-SPAN, when the attacks on him were starting, that helped me make this point. Although it was not what he was intending, in his description of how we all possess a lack of innocence with regards to globalization, I began to think about how we are all answering the call to an Other, for whom our responsibility seems to go beyond our ability to resist or articulate). It is important to remember that this public political turn for Derrida arrives after the Berlin Wall falls and Fukuyama has proclaimed the “end of history.” Capitalism and liberal democracies have won, all that remains is for the scattered pockets of local resistance to be submerged and incorporated.

But Derrida notes, that the liberal democracies or the ideals they are supposedly built upon have hardly won. Europe and the US are full of social and environmental problems, and continue to reek havoc across the world regardless of their victory.

It is only through conversation with a spectre can this particular relationship to this particular wholly Other be broken, transformed, irritated or just questioned. Thus Derrida in his text conjures up the spectre of Marx. He cannot commit himself to the Marx which has walked this earth in the Soviet Union and other places, which means he does not want to resurrect Marx, for this reason, and also because that would be a mistake since it would assume that Marx is already dead. Instead he must conjure up his spirit, because it is in this that Derrida sees both his debt to Marx (the radical critique) as well as a means by which the liberal democracies can be critiqued for their apparent failures to meet their own ideals, but also what those very ideals are anyways.

Therefore, if we are giving Derrida the benefit of the doubt, we should see his work as hauntological and not ontological. Hauntological of course like most of Derrida’s cool words holds a double meaning, it means the study of non-beings, ghosts, spirits, specters, the things of in-between, but it also in French means to frequent someplace, so that these ghosts are not one shot deals, but are always around us, visiting us. The conversations with them are what yields us our critical potential, are means of improvising, of discovering that other lost language.
This is a difficult text because Derrida resists continuously making what could be interpreted as political statements. He creates a history of politics and political community which reveals the importance of “friendship” and the “friend” when those who we now call political theorists were theorizing politically. Here we can see Derrida’s Freudian roots in his emphasis on the metaphor. In the movements around the concept of the friend, who is brother, who is enemy and so on, we can see the undeciability in the political, where the conscious desire is that of sameness of familiarity (the friend/brother), but the condition of the political is based on difference (the stranger/the enemy).

This is Derrida’s dilemma, in that concepts such as ethics, politics, justice, friendship are all experiences of the impossible. Caught between binary opposites which cannot do justice to the things they describe, we experience things only based on their (im)possibility. Such as “one can only forgive something which is unforgivable.” Friendship is only possible based on the undecidability between life and death, just as politics (as Derrida seems to hint) is based on the undeciability between friend and enemy.

As Heidegger’s ethics are built upon a conversation/confrontation with death (which leads to Care), Derrida’s ideas are similar in that politics, friendship, ethics, justice are confrontations with their own impossibility, which can be found in the trace. The trace is something which is always left behind in every moment, and hidden in that moment, suppressed by “metaphysics of presence” or whatever we inherited from the Greeks, is not just another past and another future (not mediated through the present/presence) but also our own death).

(The most mild form of this can be found in Derrida’s use of Freud’s mystic writing pad. However a much more lyrical version can be found in William Gibson’s Pattern Recognition. Where the trace is a literal trace of shrapnel from a mine which is embedded in a girl’s brain.) (The connection which Zizek refuses to acknowledge between Lacan and Derrida can be found in the potentially productive relationship between the trace and the Real. In recent years, as his work has become more political Zizek has posited the Real as important politically. What Zizek describes but doesn’t acknowledge is how the Real and the trace are connected, yes through disavowal, but more importantly as disavowed points of collapsed temporality. While it is easy for us to complain about the “linear,” what is or would be beyond it remains beyond us to describe of think about. In the Real and the trace we can find hints of it, as is evidenced in popular film culture. Such as in the film Brazil, where the intrusion of the Real comes in the form of a meal which is part excremental waste and mouth watering image (the interplay that Zizek misses is temporal) or Indian Jones and the Last Crusade, with the draught from the unholy grail, or Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence which features “tangles” of virtual memory, which can loop infinitely. Part of the trauma of the Real in addition to its disturbing of fantasy space and dream continuity is the upsetting of modernist understandings of linear time)
Friendship is predicated on this death, thus life and friendship are works of mourning, we are always already mourning, because this trace always haunts us. To illustrate this, Derrida makes the point that when people become friends, the trace which is most obvious is the fact that amongst two friends, one will die before the other, thus each friendship is haunted by this isolation, that one will be forced to speak of their friend, only through the friend that they have in them, because it will be impossible to speak to them anymore. In his collection of eulogies or letters written for those who passed away, we can see this tension in how Derrida will talk of those, without speaking for them in a vile way, how to speak to them in (through) (with) death, without just humanizing them, without turning them into another version of the self, through which we speak (our narcissism).

Politics deals with a similar tension over enemies, over sameness. Aristotle proposes that friendship is about relating to another self, which is probably impossible, so subsequent thinkers recuperate this through fraternity. But this is necessarily a violent organization whether it be men forming fraternity in order to kill the father, or excluding women from politics by excluding them from friendship.

But as Derrida notes in Archive Fever, this violent move, this jealous move never just disappears. As soon as there is the One, there is murder, wounding. Because the One guards the Self against the Other. But in this violence against the Other, the sealing off of the Self to create the One, self-difference is created. But this difference is forgotten, the archive of this injustice both to the Self and the Other is erased as the One becomes the very violence it does to itself. This fundamental violence carries into political relationships and is never done away with. The One must always guard against the Other, but ethics and political friendship in Derrida’s mind can never be based on pure narcissism, but instead a form of narcissism which will let the Other be Other, which means dealing with the fact that in every friend, there lies an possible enemy. (This can be seen in such films as 3:10 to Yuma and Ram Gopal Verma’s Company) (I use narcissism here because one possible reading of the phrase “O My friend, there is no friend,” leads to the fact that we believe desperately in friends and friendship in order to believe in ourselves.) The problem is of course, that this letting the Other be Other is yet another experience of the impossible. As we’ve seen throughout history (such as the Jacobins in the French Revolution) or today in bad infinity experiments such as Dick and George’s War on Terror (Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, etc.), the unconditional hospitality for the stranger or enemy that Derrida suggests will always conflict with the national impulse to destroy difference to force homogenization (The nation being built upon the desire for sameness of the familial). (It is of course for this reason (and countless others) that democracy is always to come, meaning an unfulfillable promise. All the desire for sameness in the universe can’t overcome the simple fact that the subject of democracy is the Cartesian cogito itself, abstracted of all its particularities (note that declarations of political community always begin with a phrase such as “all people regardless of …) and even the most fervent desire for homogeneity can never deal with the particular and pathological stains that democracy has when it comes into actual existence.)

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