Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS and the Politics of Shared Estrangement

By politicalmediareview
July 16th, 2012

From Friendship and Worldmaking: A Brief Review Essay on Tom Roach’s Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS and the Politics of Shared Estrangement
SUNY Press, 2012
Reviewed by Benjamin Shepard

 

Friendship as a Way of Life is a pulsing and intriguing volume.  While some of the early chapters stumble through cumbersome academic prose and well rehearsed critiques of identity based social movements, the work eventually finds its stride as a conversation about friendship, queer activism, and Michel Foucault.  The theme takes shape through a number of late interviews and lectures with the philosopher.  The work’s title refers to a 1981 interview of Michel Foucault in the gay magazine Le Gay Pied.  Early in the interview Foucault addresses the readers of the magazine:

Of course. The more it is written by young people the more it concerns young people. But the problem is not to make room for one age group alongside another but to find out what can be done in relation to the quasi identification between homosexuality and the love among young people. Another thing to distrust is the tendency to relate the question of homosexuality to the problem of “Who am I?” and “What is the secret of my desire?” Perhaps it would be better to ask oneself, “What relations, through homosexuality, can be established, invented, multiplied, and modulated?” The problem is not to discover in oneself the truth of one’s sex, but, rather, to use one’s sexuality henceforth to arrive at a multiplicity of relationships. And, no doubt, that’s the real reason why homosexuality is not a form of desire but something desirable. Therefore, we have to work at becoming homosexuals and not be obstinate in recognizing that we are. The development toward which the problem of homosexuality tends is the one of friendship.

My favorite line of Foucault’s musings is his calling for us to experience a “multiplicity of relationships.”  A tall order, this is what living well is about.

Tom Roach considers Foucault’s short but suggestive writings on friendship, emphasizing their ethical implications and advancing the concept of friendship as shared estrangement. He explores the potential of this model for understanding not only social movements such as ACT UP and the AIDS buddy system, but the engaged praxis of AIDS activist and writer David Wojnarowicz, who called for activists to rage rather than mourn for each friend lost to the epidemic.  This is an important message.  My first two demonstrations with ACT UP, in Sacramento and Washington DC involved watching the ashes of dead friends strewn on the front of spaces of political power. It is difficult to describe the visceral quality of these actions. Many AIDS activists recall the AIDS political funeral as a poignant and powerful means for exposing the injustices, bringing the steaks of the AIDS crisis into full public view.  The point of course was that friendship extends beyond sex, illness, pleasure, loss, memory, movement practices, and life itself.  Entwined within the AIDS crisis, it was a practice involving all these things.  Such approaches to engagement “transform[ed] friendship and shared estrangement into a mode of biopolitical resistance that breaches the boundaries of gender, race, class, and generation and that encourages radically democratic forms of citizenship and civic participation,” notes Roach (p. 12).  “The politicization of friendship… in AIDS care giving and activism offers a powerful model for biopolitical formations unwedded to the dialectic of identity and difference – precisely the model to combat the social movement life in the age of empire,” (P. 12).

Of course, many writers have made similar arguments about the capacities of friendship to transform social relations.  “Democracy has seldom represented itself without the possibility  of at least that which always resembles – if one is able to nudge the accent of this word – the possibility of a fraternization,” notes Jacques  Derrida (1997, 2005 viii). “Here, women and men, sisters and brothers, friends appeal… from fact to law, from law to justice” (p. xi).  The point, of course is that friendship is a vital source of connection, a means of staving off alienated social relations.  In this way, friendship opens space for resistance to social mores. Here, social movements attempt to fight institutional organization of our everyday, of our social world, favoring “the creation of unconventional forms of union and community” (Roach, p. 14).  In this way, friendship opens a space for alternatives to institutionalized forms of world making, marriage, and social bonds.  Rather than private pleasure, friendship leaves open a blurry space between different forms of desire, experience and expression, allowing a communal relation between self and other, individual and community.  Here, “affective gestures…refuse alignment” along any one significant social or cultural axes, notes Leela Gandi in Affective Communities (p. 10).  This practice involves experimenting with new forms of social organizing, ideas, and conversations, blurring lines between space, sexuality, ways of being, and remembering. It is a way of building a new world out of an uneasy, in between space.

This luminal space is only enhanced by the very real recognition that loss of friends to the AIDS, overdose, cancer or any other crisis is neither escapable or avoidable.  Certainly all that is solid melts into the air.  Everything is temporary.  AIDS helped us witness the specter of death and loss in raw visceral way, creating a new way of creating a connection between self and other, friend and community experience a foxhole comradery in a shared loss exercise of the everyday, a “shared estrangement” which helps living feel immediate and often delicious (Roach, 2012, p. 41).

Researching my first book two decades ago, I interviewed San Franciscans about their experience with Gay Liberation and HIV/AIDS.  Of all the losses people endured, it was the fabric of friendship disappearing which wore at those I interviewed.  It was opening a book of photos and seeing that most of the images of friends from pride parades throughout the years from Harvey Milk to the mid-1990’s, hundreds of those friends are gone. “All gone,” one interviewee recalled.  Hundreds of acquaintances, tricks, friends and organizing comrades were lost to those years.  Hank Wilson is an activist who bridged the years of activism from the Harvey Milk era of the early 1970’s through the ebb and flow of AIDS activism in the mid-2000’s.  He recalled friends he used to trust when he entered a community meeting.

I see some incredibly strong people who aren’t here.  I have a lot of sadness.  I have people that I used to call up at night and we would bullshit and talk.  I don’t have people like that now.  That was fun and I still remember that.  I still value that.  They are a strength.  I think we were very lucky.  I’ve been very lucky.  I’ve worked with some incredible people.  I think at one time we magnetized a lot of people who came here who had a lot of vision and we fed on each other’s energy.  I remember a group of people who moved this community forward who didn’t have personal agendas, who asked the hard questions when they needed to be asked, who were not career people.  They weren’t career politicians or career in the industry.  That really helped.  It helped.  It used to be that I would go to a community meeting and I would look around and I would see two or three honest ethical people in there.  It didn’t matter, you knew if they were present.  I still think of them when I go to a meeting and I want to be powerful or do what’s right even if it’s not popular.  They’re my role models.   We gave each other support and not before the meeting.  We’re at the right place at the right time to make history and we have been since the ’70s and we still are.  This is what’s been very special about San Francisco….  Where’s the collective memory?  Where does what we did help the next generation?  Right now, on that particular issue, I feel really sad.  I also want people to know, like on the teacher victory, we knocked doors down!  Nobody opened the doors. We knocked them down. Institutionally, we really need to teach people our history.  I really want people to know that history.  We’ve been lucky because we’ve done it here and whatever we do here gets credit for gay people.  If we can make a model city, we benefit (Shepard, 1997).

In Wilson’s narrative, loss extended from friendships to collective memory and activist practices.

Foucault, was of course, a part of the social movements of the same period in which Wilson refers.  His writings on power informed ACT UP, while this support for groups GIP (Groupe d’Information sur les Prisons) took shape through his advocacy for those in the movement to find their own voices, needs, desires, and give them expression.  The point of much of his thinking and activism was to lay out questions rather than directives; power could be found in multiple voices of the body of the group, not from the analysis of one charismatic leader.  This disposition, was of course, part of how he supported friendship as a way transforming social relations.  Foucault rarely tells what readers what friendship means or how to make sense of it.  Rather than dictate the implications of friendships for queer activism, he asks readers of an interview with him in French gay magazine Gai Pied to think about what it means to them.  Here friendship is delinked from sexuality as well as connected to it.  Such friendships could be “the sum of everything that moves between one and the other, everything that gives them pleasure” if even “without form” (P. 44-5).  In other words, his descriptions of such friendships were completely amorphous; his definition vague. For Foucault, friendship was a vital element of queer politics; while sex and friendship are not opposed, the ties that bond might be best described in terms of communities of friends.  Most certainly friendship finds its way into movements including civil rights and women’s rights, yet gay liberation – a movement born of a denial of access to legal forms of social bonds – had a unique claim to this disposition.  While marriage is not an option for queers in most of the world, friendship, however imperfect, always has been.  Without defining what this friendship could mean, he implies this practice entails the formation of new models of ethics (p. 44-5).

Most certainly, these new ways of living take shape in the webs of organizing, activism, cruising, hanging out, friendships extending through queer New York City.  For many years in New York, I used to meet a group of friends from harm reduction, AIDS, sexual civil liberties, anarchist, and reproductive rights circles at a bar in the East Village of New York called Dicks. We’d meet at Dicks at six.  It was an exquisitely tacky gay bar with a great juke box of 1980’s dance hall hits, some punk and even a few Velvet Underground tunes, a pool table, and bath rooms where all sorts of things used to go on.  Between whisky and vodka cranberries, we shared conversations about the intricacies of syringe exchange, the loss of friendships, sexuality, cocaine, Gay Liberation, ascending and descending movements, the limitations of queer politics and recollections of demonstrations.  Many of those conversations started for me after the Matthew Shepard political funeral of 1998 when thousands of queer activists overflowed into the streets of New York City, only to be thwarted, arrested and even beaten by the police.  One friend had had his hand stepped on by a horse from the NYPD and later won a significant legal settlement from the city.  For years we put together the details of the night. In jail, I met trans icons Leslie Feinberg and Sylvia Rivera, AIDS activists Charles King and Keith Cylar and so many more.  For years, we shared stories about who went to jail and who stayed in outside.  Different participants hashed through the details of the night for months. Throughout these stories, we were creating our own collective memory. My friend Ranolfe Wicker stayed outside.  “Oh, it was incredible,” Wicker mused in a typical recollection of the evening.

There was the march over the avenue and at one point they said Times Square.  It was very interesting.  The police had picked off the leadership.  And so we were marching towards Times Square.  People were mad and if they had done that someone would have died.  So, instead they listened to what was left of the leaders and went back down to Fifth Ave.  They even grabbed one of the MCC Ministers that was in a wheel chair, took her into custody and parishners surrounded the truck and made them release her.  And I was carrying this sign and wearing my American flag shirt.  When I got down to the park, it was unbelievable.  We took over the avenue.  And there was thirty police trucks.  What did they think we were going to do – burn down the city?  They had six hundred cops.  What was really frightening, we were blocked on 45th street and they wouldn’t let us go on 6th Avenue and that was when the police horses rushed into the crowd.  And it was this incredible feeling that you were in a canyon.  And you were fenced in in the front and the back.  And all I could think of were the Jews going into Auschwitz.  We were totally blocked, like captives.  No one was going anywhere (Wicker, 2006).

Over and over, we listened to these stories and others from the era from ACT UP to the Seattle WTO meetings of the following fall.  Through the teller and listener, of course, new worlds take shape (Plummer, 1995).  As we told stories, shared experiences, commiserated, and hung out, we reveled in the “desire –in-uneasiness” of friendship (p. 45), not that most of any of us were talking much about Foucault.  But some of us did, ever more aware of the panopticon forming around us in Giuliani’s New York.  Instead of defining anything, it was up to us to help design, experiment, and create new arenas for resistance, pleasure, expression, eros, and even an ethics of care which reduced harm and allowed for the safe expression of desire.  It was up to us to establish and push the limits of the conditions and possibilities of friendship.  Rather than follow traditional models, it was up to us to establish new moral codes.  “

“Recent liberation movements suffer from the fact that they cannot find any principle on which to base the elaboration of a new ethics” argued Foucault in On the Genealogy of Morals. “They need a new ethics, but they cannot find any other ethics than an ethics founded in a so-called scientific knowledge of what the self is…” (p.48). The point of social movements is of course to do just this.  “People over profits,” AIDS activists have declared for a quarter century of fighting drug company greed.  “Human bonds are worth more than treasury bonds,” Occupy Wall Street supporter Austin Guest declared on a sign he carried in April 2012.  And the queer activists from my Friday night meetings at Dicks at Six, they helped create a new ethical framework linking HIV prevention with reproductive autonomy, suggesting both had to do with self determination of bodies.  Prohibition was dangerous, we acknowledged.  Yet, so were unwanted pregnancies, HIV and drug overdose.  So, we aimed to celebrate sexual self determination and autonomy, as well as safe, less risky forms of expression.  The implicit links between the ethics of the women’s health movement, HIV prevention, harm reduction and queer theory are many.  The frameworks for action took took shape through networks of bodies, affinity groups, projects and collectives of the era.  Throughout these constellations, relational boundaries blurred, as sexuality was delinked from friendship.

Foucault’s recognition of a delinking and subsequent blurring of sexuality is a theme dating back to Homer’s Illiad.

And the games broke up, and the people scattered to go away, each man
to his fast-running ship, and the rest of them took thought of their dinner
and of sweet sleep and its enjoyment; only Achilleus wept still as he remembered his beloved companion, nor did sleep who subdues all come over him, but he tossed from one side to the other in longing for Patroklos, for his manhood and his great strength
and all the actions he had seen to the end with him, and the hardships he had suffered; the wars of men; hard crossing of the big waters. (Homer /Latimore, 24.1-8).

It is hard not to think feelings are blurring between friendship and eros in Achilleus’ longing.  Yet, these musings open a new set up opportunities for new social relations within a theme of friendship runs through the narrative. Throughout the epic narrative, friendship transforms relationships and conflict itself.  “Guest friendship” inspired enemies to exchange armor rather than rage against each other. “Let us avoid each other’s spears, even in the close fighting” (Homer/ Latimore, 24. 229).  Hector emphasized the same point to Aias. “Come then, let us give each other glorious presents, so that any of the Achaians or Trojans may say of us: “These two fought each other in heart-consuming hate, then joined with each other in close friendship, before they were parted.”‘ (Homer / Latimore, 7.299-302).  War is seen as inevitable, yet the loss of friendships must not be.  Yet it often is.  Life could be beautiful it rarely is.

In a 2002 interview, Sarah Schulman suggested that the losses as result of the AIDS epidemic would consume the most innovative minds of our generation.  The brightest, most creative minds were lost first.  Over time, one gets the sense that these losses are going to be part of an exercise in modern living. Many find themselves isolated from communities, sitting looking at computer screens, and isolated from their own labor. Friends come and disappear. In this way, modern living is an ongoing loss exercise.   This is an exercise in which all that is solid melts into the air. People are forced to move away from communities of origin and belonging to find work or less violent communities in which to build their lives.  This was the dream of the migrants I knew to San Francisco.  Yet, even there violence was everywhere.  “I’ve seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked.”  These are some of the most famous lines from Allan Ginsberg’s Howl.  In them, Ginsberg highlights the intersection of friendship, poetry and interconnections between personal ties and social networks. Struggling against isolation, people build new friendships and networks which provide sustenance.  These are spaces for experimentation and innovations in practice of self in relation to other, where Foucault suggests, friendship is a way of life.  Tom Roach has done an inspiring job of reminding us how there is to consider within the elliptical references Foucault made to friendship in his lectures and interviews.  His reading of the politics and practice of friendship is apt and important.  It is a practice which helped ACT UP thrive in its best days, as it does for OWS and other thriving movements today.  Here the intersection of friendship, harm reduction, and support make participation in social movements a vital.  Through the intersection between individual and community, we hope they can find full expression for new ideas and innovations.  Yet, we also worry about our friends, the inevitable risks and the losses which follow.  Over the years, these friendships take on any number of different meanings, particularly as many are lost.  Sometimes they fade; in others those we care about fade away, sometimes in front of our ideas.  Here, supporting friends and protecting friendship becomes a way of life.  Loss exercises are a way of life.

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Additional References

Derrida, J. 1997. The Politics of Friendship.  New York: Verso

Foucault, M. 1981.  Friendship as a Way of Life.  Interview for Le Gai Pied conducted by R. de Ceccaty, J. Danet, and J. Le Bitoux Trans J. Johnson. Accessed from http://caringlabor.wordpress.com/2010/11/18/michel-foucault-friendship-as-a-way-of-life/

Gandi, L. 2006. Affective Communities: Anticolonial Thought, Fin De Siecle Radicalism, and the Politics of Friendship.  Duke: North Carolina.

Homer. 1951.  The Illiad of Homer.  Trans Richard Latimore. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Plummer, Ken. 1995.  Telling Sexual Stories. New York: Routledge.

Shepard, B. 2002.  The Reproductive Rights Movement, ACT UP, and the Lesbian Avengers: An Interview with Sarah Schulman.  In Eds. Shepard, Benjamin and Hayduk, Ron.  From ACT UP to the WTO: Urban Protest and Community Building in the Era of Globalization.  New York: Verso.

Shepard,B. 1997 White Nights and Ascending Shadows: An Oral History of the San Francisco AIDS Epidemic.  Cassell: London.

Wicker, Randy. 2006.  Oral history interview with the author.

 

 

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