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The Politics of Friendship

Until relatively recently, Jacques Derrida was seen by many as nothing more than the high priest of Deconstruction, by turns stimulating and fascinating, yet always somewhat disengaged from the central political questions of our time. Or so it seemed. Derrida's “political turn,” marked especially by the appearance of Specters of Marx, has surprised some and delighted others.

Jacques Derrida20 October 2020

The Politics of Friendship

In The Politics of Friendship Derrida renews and enriches this orientation through an examination of the political history of the idea of friendship pursued down the ages. Derrida’s thoughts are haunted throughout the book by the strange and provocative address attributed to Aristotle, “my friends, there is no friend” and its inversions by later philosophers such as Montaigne, Kant, Nietzsche, Schmitt and Blanchot. The exploration allows Derrida to recall and restage the ways in which all the oppositional couples of Western philosophy and political thought—friendship and enmity, private and public life—have become madly and dangerously unstable.

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'O my friends, there is no friend’: wisdom and last will. The tone of the address is at first uncertain, no doubt, and we shall try here only one variation among so many other possibilities.

But on a first hearing, one that lets itself be ingenuously guided by what some call ordinary language and everyday words, by an interpretation very close to some common sense (and that is quite a story already!), the sentence seems to be murmured. Mimicking at least the eloquent sigh, this interpretation takes on the sententious and melancholy gravity of a testament. Someone sighs; a wise man, perhaps, has uttered his last breath. Perhaps. Perhaps he is talking to his sons or his brothers gathered together momentarily around a deathbed: ‘Oh my friends, there is no friend’.

The testament thereby reaches us who also inherit it, beyond its natural and legitimate heirs, through an unindicated channel and with the meaning of the inheritance remaining to be deciphered. We are first of all ordered to understand it correctly. Nothing can justify once and for all my starting off, as I am in fact doing, from the place of the language and the tradition in which I myself inherited it – that is to say, the French of Montaigne. It so happens that we worry over this love of language when, in the place of the other, it becomes a national or popular cause. Without denying this limit, which is also a chance (for one must indeed receive the address of the other at a particular address and in a singular language; otherwise we would not receive it), I would like to recognize here the locus of a problem – the political problem of friendship.

The apostrophe ‘O my friends, there is no friend’ states the death of friends. It says it. In its ‘performative contradiction’ (one should not be able to address friends, calling them friends while telling them that there are no friends, etc.) this saying hesitates between the established fact – it has the grammatical form of such a fact – and the judgement of the sentence: so be it, since it is so; and keep it intact in memory, and never forget it. The address is addressed to memory but also comes to us from memory – and quoted from memory, for ‘the saying that Aristotle often repeated’, is quoted by Montaigne, as others had quoted it before him; he recites it by heart, where such an event is not attested by any literal document.

The death of friends, as we were saying above: both the memory and the testament. Let us recall, to begin with, that the chain of this quoted quotation (‘O my friends, there is no friend’) displays the heritage of an immense rumour throughout an imposing corpus of Western philosophical literature: from Aristotle to Kant, then to Blanchot; but also from Montaigne to Nietzsche who – for the first time, so it would seem – parodies the quotation by reversing it. In order, precisely, with the upheaval, to upset its assurance.

There is indeed something of an upheaval here, and we would like to perceive, as it were, its seismic waves, the geological figure of a political revolution which is more discreet – but no less disruptive – than the revolutions known under that name; it is, perhaps, a revolution of the political. A seismic revolution in the political concept of friendship which we have inherited.

Let us try to hear the ancestral wisdom of the address from within this place of reversal. What is there that is so stunning [renversant] here, and what has thereby been reversed? Here we have, for the first time, someone – another witness – coming forward to contest. He refuses even the accepted propriety of its paradox, as if the stakes were, then, to make it avow its other truth. In the history of the quoted quotation, in the incessant working? of its unfurling, Nietzsche’s upheaval would arrive as an interruption. It would inscribe in that history the scansion of an unprecedented event; but – hence the upsetting structure of the event – it would interrupt less than recall (and call again for) a rupture already inscribed in the speech it interrupts.

By starting with at least a clue to this event, at the other end of the chain, we would, once again, wish to throw up the question of friendship as the question of the political. The question of the political, for this question is not necessarily, nor in advance, political. It is perhaps not yet or no longer thoroughly political, once the political is defined with the features of a dominant tradition.

This counter-testimony occurs, as it rightly must, in Human All Too Human, when the excess of the beyond itself folds back into immanence, when what is human in man folds into the hem of the ‘all too’ of Nietzsche’s title, in the hollow of its vague [vague] modality, trembling and inscrutable but all the more forceful [déferlante, as in ‘une vague déferlante’ (breaking wave)]. The irresistible wave of the all too, a wave rolling up into itself, the enveloped violence of a wave welling up and falling back on itself. In this turn of the ‘all too’, around the ‘all too’ in its very revolution, another sentence begins in fact with a ‘perhaps’: there will come, perhaps; there will occur, perhaps, the event of that which arrives (und vielleicht kommt), and this will be the hour of joy, an hour of birth but also of resurrection; in any case, the passage from the dying to the living. Let us prick up our ears, for the moment, towards this perhaps, even if it prevents us from hearing the rest:

Perhaps to each of us there will come the more joyful hour when we exclaim:

‘Friends, there are no friends!’ thus said the dying sage;
‘Foes, there are no foes!’ say I, the living fool.

Why madness? And why should thought, the thought of friendship to come, lend itself inevitably, maddeningly, to madness? This long sentence should be quoted again, and in its original language. But let us observe in advance: such an event presents itself, certainly; it is, thus in the present, the event of a saying that speaks in the present. In the living present. It is the living fool that I am who is presently speaking to you. I say to you. Shouting, calling out (ruf ich…). An I is speaking to you. I am saying to you. You. I am speaking to you. To you, here and now, me: to remind or to announce, certainly; thus to tell you what is not yet, or what is no longer (the wisdom of the dying sage), but speaking to you in a perfectly present way.

If it reaches us none the less with something of a delay – that of a quotation already – this saying of the living fool speaks in the present. It spoke to you, it was in the present speaking to you in order to make a promise. This is not, this was not, just any promise. The promise promises in that fundamental mode of ‘perhaps’, and even the ‘dangerous perhaps’ which will open, as Beyond Good and Evil prophesies, the speech of philosophers to come.

What is going to come, perhaps, is not only this or that; it is at last the thought of the perhaps, the perhaps itself. The arrivant will arrive perhaps, for one must never be sure when it comes to arrivance; but the arrivant could also be the perhaps itself, the unheard-of, totally new experience of the perhaps. Unheard-of, totally new, that very experience which no metaphysician might yet have dared to think.

Now, the thought of the ‘perhaps’ perhaps engages the only possible thought of the event – of friendship to come and friendship for the future. For to love friendship, it is not enough to know how to bear the other in mourning; one must love the future. And there is no more just category for the future than that of the ‘perhaps’. Such a thought conjoins friendship, the future, and the perhaps to open on to the coming of what comes – that is to say, necessarily in the regime of a possible whose possibilization must prevail over the impossible. For a possible that would only be possible (non-impossible), a possible surely and certainly possible, accessible in advance, would be a poor possible, a futureless possible, a possible already set aside, so to speak, life-assured. This would be a programme or a causality, a development, a process without an event.

The possibilization of the impossible possible must remain at one and the same time as undecidable – and therefore as decisive – as the future itself. What would a future be if the decision were able to be programmed, and if the risk [l’aléa], the uncertainty, the unstable certainty, the inassurance of the ‘perhaps’, were not suspended on it at the opening of what comes, flush with the event, within it and with an open heart? What would remain to come should the inassurance, the limited assurance of the perhaps, not hold its breath in an ‘epoch’, to allow what is to come to appear or come – in order to open up, precisely, a concatenation of causes and effects, by necessarily disjoining a certain necessity of order, by interrupting it and inscribing therein simply its possible interruption? This suspension, the imminence of an interruption, can be called the other, the revolution, or chaos; it is, in any case, the risk of an instability. The unstable or the unreliable is what Plato and Aristotle spoke of as that which is not bébaios (not firm, constant, sure and certain, reliable, credible, faithful). Whether in its ultimate or minimal form, the instability of the unreliable always consists in not consisting, in eluding consistency and constancy, presence, permanence or substance, essence or existence, as well as any concept of truth which might be associated with them. This inconsistency and/or inconstancy is not an indetermination, but supposes a certain type of resolution and a singular exposition at the crossroads of chance and necessity. The unstable is as required here as its opposite, the stable or the reliable of constancy (bébaios), and is indispensable to the Platonic or Aristotelian philosophy of friendship. To think friendship with an open heart – that is, to think it as close as possible to its opposite – one must perhaps be able to think the perhaps, which is to say that one must be able to say it and to make of it, in saying it, an event: perhaps, vielleicht, perhaps – the English word refers more directly to chance (hap, perchance) and to the event of what may happen.

Now we know that this thought of the perhaps – this one and not any other – does not occur anywhere or anyhow. Far from being a simple indetermination, the very sign of irresolution, it just so happens that it occurs to Nietzsche in the upheaval of a reversing catastrophe: not so as to settle the contradiction or to suspend the oppositions, but at the end of a case pressed against ‘the metaphysicians of all ages’, precisely at the point where they stop in their ‘typical prejudice’ and their ‘fundamental faith’ (Grundglaube) – the ‘faith in antithetical values’ (Glaube an the Gegensätze der Werthe)6 – at that point where they are unable to think their reversal or inversion: that is, the non-dialectical passage from one to the other. This they cannot think, it frightens them; they are not able to endure the contamination coming from what is beyond both antithetical values. Despite the value that must be accorded to the ‘true’ and to the ‘veracious’, it is altogether ‘possible’, ‘it might even be possible (es ware)’ that the very thing constitutive of the ‘value of good and honoured things’ – and virtue (areté) is one of them – is related, knotted, entangled (verwandt, verknupft, verhakelt) – perhaps (vielleicht) identical in its essence – (wesengleich) to its antithesis, to wicked things. ‘Perhaps!’ (Vielleicht!)

Before we even reach this exclamation, to this one-word phrase (Vielleicht!), a great number of perhapses have rained down. They have multiplied themselves in the writing of Nietzsche before becoming a theme, almost a name, perhaps a category. First of all in defining the ‘frog perspective’ to which Nietzsche compares metaphysics:

For it may be doubted, firstly whether there exist any antitheses at all, and secondly whether these popular evaluations and value-antitheses, on which the metaphysicians have set their seal, are not perhaps (vielleicht) merely foreground valuations, merely provisional perspectives, perhaps (vielleicht) moreover the perspectives of a hole-and-corner, perhaps from below, as it were ‘frog-perspectives’ (Frosch-Perpecktiven gleichsam), to borrow an expression employed by painters.

The transmutation to which Nietzsche submits the concept of virtue – sometimes, as has often been remarked,8 also in the Machiavellian sense of virtù – shudders in the tremor of this perhaps. In other words, in what is still to come, perhaps. This is something other than a reversal. The famous passage on ‘Our virtues’ (para. 214) from the same book turns resolutely towards us, towards ourselves, towards the ‘Europeans of the day after tomorrow’ that we are, and, first of all, towards the ‘first-born of the twentieth century’. It invites us, we the ‘last Europeans’, to be done with the pigtail and the wig of ‘good conscience’, the ‘belief in one’s own virtue (an seine eigne Tugend glauben)’. And here again, the shudder of the sentence, the shudder of an arrow of which it is still not known where and how far it will go, the vibration of a shaft of writing which, alone, promises and calls for a reading, a preponderance to come of the interpretative decision. We do not know exactly what is quivering here, but we perceive, in flight, at least a figure of the vibration. The prediction: ‘Alas! if only you knew how soon things will be – different! –’ (– Ach! Wenn ihr wuβtet, wie es bald, so bald schon – anders kommt!).

What a sentence! Is it a sentence? Do we know that – that things will be different; and how very soon thing? will be different? Do we not already know that? Can that be measured by knowledge? If we knew that, things would no longer be different. We must not totally know this in order for a change to occur again. So, in order for this knowledge to be true, to know what it knows, a certain non-knowledge is necessary. But the non-knowledge of the one who says he knows that we do not know (‘Ah if you only knew’, a ploy or a figure which is neither a question nor an affirmation, not even a hypothesis, since you are going to know very soon, starting at the end of the sentence, that which you would know if you knew, and that therefore you already know: ‘Ah if you only knew!’) – to wit, what the person signing the said sentence (which is not a full sentence, but only an incomplete subordinate) cannot state without attributing to himself knowledge concerning what the other does not yet know, but already knows, having learned it in this instant – that is, instantaneously and so soon (so bald) that it will not wait until the end of the sentence. 

The acceleration in the change or the alteration which the sentence in suspension speaks (wie es bald, so bald schon – anders kommt!) is in truth only its very rapidity. An incomplete sentence rushes to its conclusion at the infinite speed of an arrow. The sentence speaks of itself, it gets carried away, precipitates and precedes itself, as if its end arrived before the end. Instantaneous teledromatics: the race is finished in advance, and this is future-producing. The circle is perhaps future-producing – this is what will have to be assumed, however impossible it may seem. As with what happens at every instant, the end begins, the sentence begins at the end. Infinite or nil speed, absolute economy, for the arrow carries its address along and implies in advance, in its very readability, the signature of the addressee. This is tantamount to saying that it withdraws from space by penetrating it. You have only to listen. It advances backwards; it outruns itself by reversing itself. It outstrips itself [elle se gagne de vitesse]. Here is an arrow whose flight would consist in a return to the bow: fast enough, in sum, never to have left it; and what the sentence says – its arrow – is withdrawn. It will nevertheless have reached us, struck home; it will have taken some time – it will, perhaps, have changed the order of the world even before we are able to awake to the realization that, in sum, nothing will have been said, nothing that will not already have been blindly endorsed in advance. And again, like a testament: for the natural miracle lies in the fact that such sentences outlive each author, and each specific reader, him, you and me, all of us, all the living, all the living presents.

By way of economy – and in order, in a single word, to formalize this absolute economy of the feint, this generation by joint and simultaneous grafting of the performative and the reportive, without a body of its own – let us call the event of such sentences, the ‘logic’ of this chance occurrence, its ‘genetics’, its ‘rhetoric’, its ‘historical record’, its ‘polities’, etc., teleiopoetic. Teleiopoiós qualifies, in a great number of contexts and semantic orders, that which renders absolute, perfect, completed, accomplished, finished, that which brings to an end. But permit us to play too with the other tele, the one that speaks to distance and the far-removed, for what is indeed in question here is a poetics of distance at one remove, and of an absolute acceleration in the spanning of space by the very structure of the sentence (it begins at the end, it is initiated with the signature of the other). Rendering, making, transforming, producing, creating – this is what counts; but, given that this happens only in the auto-tele-affection of the said sentence, in so far as it implies or incorporates its reader, one would – precisely to be complete – have to speak of auto-teleiopoetics. We shall say teleiopoetics for short, but not without immediately suggesting that friendship is implied in advance therein: friendship for oneself, for the friend and for the enemy. We all the more easily authorize ourselves to leave the self of the autos in the wings, since it appears here as the split effect rather than as the simple origin of teleiopoesis [téléiopoièse]. The inversion of repulsion into attraction is, in a way, engaged, analytically included, in the movement of phileîn. This is a logic that will have to be questioned: if there is no friend elsewhere than where the enemy can be, the ‘necessity of the enemy’ or the ‘one must love one’s enemies’ (seine Feinde lieben) straight away transforms enmity into friendship, etc. The enemies I love are my friends. So are the enemies of my friends. As soon as one needs or desires one’s enemies, only friends can be counted – this includes the enemies, and vice versa – and here madness looms. At each step, on the occasion of every teleiopoetic event. (No) more sense [Plus de sens]. That which is empty and that which overflows resemble one another, a desert mirage effect and the ineluctability of the event.


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The Politics of Friendship

The Politics of Friendship

Jacques Derrida was one of most influential philosophers of the 20th century. In The Politics of Friendship he explores the idea of friendship and its political consequences, past and future in ord...

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