This is a small piece I contributed to Friend/Ships, an evening around the idea of friendship as a means of transmission. This event was held in the Centre Culturel Suisse in Paris on 20 March 2019. The event was a continuation of a prior event, Body of Us, the contribution for the Swiss Pavilion in the London Design Biennale of 2018. Both events were curated by Rebekka Kiesewetter and the collective Continent.
The text version of this audio file is below.
I thought I’d start by admitting to a certain skepticism I’ve had around the notion of friendship. I’ve grown doubtful about thinking this notion as a lens through which to conceive of a contemporary politics, a praxis, an ethics or poetics of the otherwise, at least in its broad understanding; I worry that friendship, especially when foisted onto the political, echos and gestures toward scenes of the universal, familiar nodes of centrality, the smooth hopefulness of some common belonging to something politically legible; or, more broadly, the idea of friendship to me seems to prefigure narratives by which a ‘we’ can be constituted (here we might recall Robert Talisse’s idea of ‘civic friendship’ as a basis of democracy).
It was on the question of the ‘we’ of friendship that, in our initial conversation, I sought to think about what this notion might mean via Houria Bouteldja’s recent book, Whites, Jews, and Us: Toward a Politics of Revolutionary Love (2016, semiotext(e)). Of course, the possibility of this ‘we’ of revolutionary love that Bouteldja demands rests on an unapologetic departure from the world of European liberalism and its centuries of constructing and empowering a different ‘we’—one predicated on the systematic destruction, displacement, subjugation and enslavement of non-white, non-European peoples; one presupposed on its universality while at the very same time excluding the female half of its population from this calculus. Boutldja’s ‘we’ is the refusal of the foundational language and lexicon by which this universal, enlightened ‘we’ has learned to recognize itself precisely insofar as it makes invisible the worlds it extinguished and enslaved to found and maintain itself as a naturally endowed horizon of ‘we’. I worry that friendship as a way toward an otherwise might not escape the gravity of such a horizon: that in thinking in terms of the ‘we’ of friendship, we are not at the same time able to see the ‘other’ of un-friendship—those who matter in their not-mattering.
So where to start? What other kinds of friendship might possibly take hold in the worlds that are emerging in the ruins of western liberalism? Which is to also ask: what kinds of friendship have existed for centuries of the ruins that modernity has produced a thousand times?
I have recently been quite taken by Kathryn Yusoff’s beautifully unsettling book, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (2018, University of Minnesota). It’s a text that attends to the category of the inhuman that’s at once produced and rendered invisible in the long process of making the human—a category that Sylvia Wynter reminds us is always already occupied. For Yusoff, the Anthropocene is the contemporary name for a centuries-old project of simultaneously reproducing and obfuscating this divide between the human and inhuman—a project that invented slavery, extraction and colonialism as the underbelly of European humanism and enlightenment—the name, in short, for the erasure of the unending violence that making modernity and freedom continues to exact today.
Thinking along with black feminist scholars, Yusoff charts an anthropocene not known by any particular ‘event’ or origin, but rather one that names the unspoken, unthought grammar and program of this world-ending process invented in the innocence of geology—what she calls a ‘White Geology’—that, centuries ago, unleashed a form of violence that is only now broadly acknowledged in the ecological violence of world-ending that we see today in the destitution of the planet. Yusoff writes: “The Antrhopocene is a project initiated and executed through anti-Blackness and inhuman subjective modes, from 1492 to the present, and it cannot have any resolution through individuated liberal modes of subjectivity and subjugation. In short, that world must end for another relation to the earth to begin.” (63)
And this is my challenge to the notion of friendship in the context of this event: how is it possible to unsettle friendship, thought in the abstract, from this gravity of modernity; from the grammars of western humanism and the infinite violence they require?
Yusoff opens the book (1) with an incredible passage by Saidiya Hartman from her book Lose Your Mother: A Journey along the Atlantic Slave Route (2007) that captures the scope and stakes of Yusoff’s text as a whole:
“Every generation confronts the task of choosing its past. Inheritances are chosen as much as they are passed on. The past depends less on “what happened then” than on the desires and discontents of the present. Strivings and failures shape the stories we tell. What we recall has as much to do with the terrible things we hope to avoid as with the good life for which we yearn. But when does one decide to to stop looking to the past and instead conceive of a new order? When is it time to dream of another country or to embrace other strangers as allies or to make an opening, an overture, where there is none? When is it clear that the old life is over, a new one has begun, and there is no looking back? From the holding cell was it possible to see beyond the end of the world and to imagine living and breathing again?”
Here I think we can return to the question of friendship in the horizon of A Billion Black Anthropocenes: If modernity is a program of world-ending, how might friendship name a relation of militancy in refusing the lure of hope and the moralism of improvement, and in occupying the temporality of the end? What alliances and praxes may form in the cracks and fissures of the world’s ending, and that may usher in a new world? If we refuse liberal modes of subjectivity, how might we think of friendship as a friendship-in-ending: a friendship that, as Yusoff writes on Dione Brand’s poetry, ‘insists that you must stay with and in the displacement’ (xi)?
Ross Exo Adams
17 March 2019