Unlike other social systems that derive their power from definition and structure, friendship derives its power from unstable elements. Its participants continually negotiate and regulate its shape, rules, and scope, while being able to enter or leave the field of friendship at any moment. Entrance, of course, is always consensual; exit, rarely so. But this short text is not about the termination and dissolution of friendship. It is about the denial of an ideal form in favour of relation, interdependency and sacrifice.
Amidst its many moving parts (some redundant, others typically overworked), friendship will always emerge as a sacrificial economy. Participants may engage in private forms, such as working, sleeping, eating, drinking, and the acquiring of personal belongings, to name only a few of society’s most essential and fixed forms. These activities seemingly occur beyond the purview of friendship, but they are never really beyond its scope; rather, they are its offerings.
Indeed, friendship gains its symbolic value – its comfort and its privilege – from the sacrifice of such things. Sleepless nights are absorbed into the body for the benefit of late-night conversations; food and drink is split, shared and jointly consumed; work is interrupted and put on hold for the benefit of another to whom one feels close; treasured objects are given, borrowed or else accidentally destroyed, breakages are forgiven. In its pursuit of the symbolic, friendship thrives on the destruction of material things of personal worth. The destruction of value is pleasantness shared. Friendship must continue to revel in destruction to prevent stasis and atrophy.
This collapse of normal value and judgment systems is perhaps what makes friendship so prized within social systems. Forged on personal or material exhaustion, friendship necessarily sidesteps like-for-like forms of exchange. Also key is its vagueness: the benefits or rewards of friendship cannot really demand anything specific, much in the same way that a ‘gift’ must necessarily be given freely and without expectation in order to acquire the term ‘gift’ at all. But unlike the act of gifting, friendship is not a devotional form. Comprehension of personal surrender is key to the expansion and recognition of friendship; sacrifices must be acknowledged as well as offered. The give with the take produces equality between participants, and it is the witnessing and affirmation of this dynamic that makes friendship a human quality, as opposed to something that can be produced by animals.
“Between friends” is a phrase, for example, that indicates the dynamism of such dialogue. It makes and delineates space by temporarily cordoning off emotional territory that is private, conspiratorial, and mutual. The limit of the body and the individual mind are linguistically bridged in favour of a unified space. This intimate zone also indicates a transparency or frankness that the space outside of friendship will not permit. Sharing thoughts is not simply broadcast; it is the process of opening oneself up to challenge and rejection. Friendship, then, is the safest space to embark upon such a perilous activity.
The perception of another person is the first step of friendship; it represents the willingness to receive a human transmission, and perhaps more. The human eye – one that meets a human gaze – has the capacity to acknowledge the other, to witness and share a context. The matching of a look between to people is the soft simulation of porous body contact. I see you, I feel you. Of course, looking is never enough, but it is an acknowledgment of intersubjectivity, where intersubjectivity is the promise of friendship. Solitude is temporarily abated.
By contrast, the animal eye does not offer affirmation of the other. Its language of perception cannot be shared. Unyielding, it absorbs the indiscretions of false affinity, empathy and projection, but it is also baldly presents as pure impasse; it solidifies and mirrors the unshared elements of the secret self. I see you, but what do you see? Its gaze reduces us to beasts. The sacrifice required for its equality is more than we are willing to offer.
A version of this text was commissioned and published by Dena Yago.