[-empyre-] The Temporality of Friendship

Michael Angelo Tata, PhD mtata at ipublishingllc.com
Thu Apr 16 18:37:39 EST 2009

You are lovely to respond so directly and poetically to our lively tête-à-tête about giftliness and its conditions of possibility/impossibility.  I am especially happy you have pulled The Politics of Friendship into the action: from a ludic perspective, it is the ideal move, since it supplements the general discussion of gifts and gifting in The Gift of Death and Given Time with an account of what provides the ground or occasion for the non-exchange exchange of the gift: le ménage.  For when we examine the very concrete problem of the recent Wall Street misappropriation of funds, the ethics of friendship—Derrida’s famous n+2—comes immediately into play.  For example, so many describe Bernie Madoff as “a friend,” and his infidelity to the rich and famous he courted before his fall infuses the debate surrounding his financial dishonesty with an anger not entirely rooted in money, capital, investment, or return.
The dissymetry of a Contretemps is particularly incisive, and for me calls to mind the radical ontological disproportion between an individual and an Other without which there would be no possibility of either a gift, a Gift-gift (the gift that discloses its poisonous content beneath the beautiful sensuous form), or, paramountly, that most extreme form of the cadeau, the gift of death.  Via Dissemination, the true gift does not return, as the giver does not expect remuneration, compensation or adequation, and the recipient immediately forgets that any gift was ever given, it never dawning on him or her to return anything: like meaning, the gift dissipates, physically as well as mnemonically, and the phallic function finds itself surprisingly dissipative, spreading its seeds without being able to harvest any growth, shoot or sprig that might result.  Is amitié similarly dissipative, since clearly it must depart from the simple exchangism that at best produces an economy, at worst a chrematistics (system of commerce)?  If friendship, or the relation between an autre and an autre, exists as historical liaison, it must transcend the simple quid-pro-quo of commercial enterprise.  As for le contretemps proper, to which time or “temps” does it run counter?  What exactly is the time of friendship?  How do we measure it, endure it, make use of it?  
Since ultimately the Gift manifests itself as waste and prodigality, paradigms of reception for that waste become imperative.  How do we receive this excrescence, this too-much-ness, this excess that is of a piece with the sublime: does it overwhelm us, do we feel the need to reciprocate, at the same time that we realize reciprocation is impossible and, in effect, undesirable?  What happens if, like God in the famous Abraham/Isaac fable central to Kierkegaard’s thought and Derrida’s appropriation of that thought, our gift-beyond-all-gifts is (shock!) refused?  Can the Gift, with all its metaphysical overindulgence, be accepted, or must it always fold back upon (rapporter) the giver through the magnanimous of refusal?  At some level, investment and the gift connect up, if we think of the capital which gets stored in stocks, bonds, mutual funds and hedge funds as some sort of gift-object: but are these gifts?  Or are they pre-gifts, the real gift being the unreal returns these investments are able, under ideal circumstances, to produce?  Or perhaps Wall Street is the antithesis of giftliness, since it is the gift which both sets economy in motion at the same time that it interrupts the circularity of exchangism, and hence cannot be something Wall Street produces.    
You also make me wonder about examples of contemporary potlatch.  Is a show like My Super Sweet Sixteen an exhibition of a potlatch economy?  Perhaps the US war in Iraq and Afghanistan is potlatch-y.  Clearly, American and, to some degree, European societies are wasteful, but does this waste involve that critical dimension of the potlatch, nobility?  Is the Green Revolution, with all its advertising machinery—everything from green bottles of Windex-like substances which in theory will not poison that new fetish, “the environment,” to Oprah-endorsed burlap grocery sacks which, although inconvenient from a cosmopolitan standpoint, keep plastic bags from accumulating in New Jersey landfills—an attempt to manage an ecological potlatch?  In and through the potlatch, we destroy the precious for many reasons: to demonstrate the fact that these objects are ours and ours alone to destroy, to lord our ownership of these objects over our peers, who presumably own comparable objects, and, finally, to specularize generosity.  I think of all those cathode ray beams shooting re-runs of I Love Lucy and Bullwinkle into space, where alien SETI cultures intercept our junk, presumably to marvel at our commitment to the trivial.
If friendship is an investment, it must involve all that Derrida means by a term like “credit.”  For Derrida, even literature is credit-based, in terms of our faith in the veracity of the narrator, the fidelity of the narrator’s narration with respect to the particular memory which both substantiates and supports it, and in terms of our own credence with respect to the ability of a porous and aporetic language to grab hold of the world and its multifarious objects with some degree of accuracy, one clear enough to ensure a praxis of living.  As for the credit without which there would be no friendship or acquaintanceship, and especially not a literature, a contemporary mutation within the sphere of human relations arises: how are we to invest in that new tabloid creature, the Frenemy (for example, Paris Hilton/Nicole Ritchie)?  In Baudelaire’s prose poem Counterfeit Money from the collection Paris Spleen, friendship borders many things: dissimulation, philanthropic display, social obligation and, most critically, the truthfulness of truth, which at all moments in time might slip into the masquerade of the counterfeit.  Here, the n+2, or, as Derrida terms it, the l’être-deux-à-parler, experiences the crisis of the simulacrum: in a sense, the two comprising the friendship pair in Baudelaire’s poem are frenemies from the get-go, their amity cemented by competition and conflict revealed through the politeness of sublimated pleasantries and the luxurious expenditure of tobacco (for anthropologists, a highly symbolic and meaningful gift not so much exchanged as exhausted through immolation).  
Generally speaking, aren’t we all “Captives of Capitalism?”  The problem of capital is that it expertly absorbs the critique of capital: in some sense, it even orchestrates that critique, setting up a false dichotomy so that we might feel some pleasure at resolving the pseudo-antinomy.  Unlike totalitarianism, which persecutes its opponents, capitalism invites antagonism, if only because the general agonistics at its core generates more capital; even in the wake of the current housing calamity, there is money to be made with the “Loan Mod” racket, for example.  For me, the vital question is: is there an exterior to capital?  True, there are parasitic responses to capital, like Freeganism, Voluntary Simplicitism, or squatting, but none of these achieve freedom from capital, their motivating force, express cause and raison d’être.  It seems like the only way to break through capital is via terror, but even this insidious tactic gives capital new terrain to dominate after the dead are counted, collected and interred: for example, the rebuilding of Baghdad after the US bombs it as a response to 9/11, or the capital invested in the new World Trade Center monument.  
Investing in difference, as you so elegantly phrase it, is a key strategy to the operation of capital, which astutely realizes that even similarity must be marketed as dissimilarity.  Truth be told, neither “difference” nor “différance” are inimical to capital: they are essential to its functioning, which is based almost entirely on variation, variegation and novelty.  To resurrect Debord: the essence of contemporary capital is diffusion, as opposed to that of totalitarianism, which is concentration (think: Warhol’s Mao series, versus the “official” images of Mao decorating Communist China).  Life may very well be a Benetton commercial.  I mean, look at us: a fab British New Media artist conversing with an equally fab American poet about the nature of difference and its role in sustaining and accumulating capital.  I think of the ad campaign for design house Moschino: “Consenting member of the fashion system.”  Becoming aware of our complicities and capitalizing upon them may be the highest form of rebellion: I say this without irony, sarcasm, or regret.
Ciao for now!  

Michael Angelo Tata, PhD  347.776.1931-USA


Date: Tue, 14 Apr 2009 00:50:50 +0100
From: cinziacremona at googlemail.com
To: empyre at lists.cofa.unsw.edu.au
Subject: Re: [-empyre-] Contretemps

Cinzia, your invocation of the Derridean concept of a Contretemps is intriguing, and I would love to hear more.  At the outset, it causes my consciousness to turn to Derrida?s idea about dissemination as the giving of that which can never come back to me: a squandering of the nom-de-p?re, a letting loose of the phallic function even more radical than occurs with respect to Judge Schreber?s psychosis.  How do you connect contretemps with potlatch, all those Trobriand Islanders smashing plates and burning whale oil candles in a spectacle of unreciprocatable generosity?  Also, since Derrida claims that, eccentrically, the gift sets the economic circle in motion (while it somehow also effractively breaks it apart), I wonder how you connect this account of an economic engine with contretemps, dissemination, waste and excess: the obscene underside of the gift, the squalor and effulgence we seek to manage and mask through economics and ethics.  PS?Love your vid!  Are you trapped inside the gift?  Perhaps you are the gift.
Thanks MA for such piercing questions. Of course I am the gift!
In the 'The Politics of Friendship', Derrida suggests contretemps as a radical and indispensable dissymetry between the offer and the return I can expect. And it is always I, as the relationship can only be mentioned from the point of view of the offerer. I shall call you friend in the hope that you will become, by my interpellation, my friend. My gift creates an obligation, but it does not ask for a direct return. Not sure how a letting loose of the phallic function applies here, although desire plays a big part.
Contretemps is based on difference (differance?) - not at the same time, not in the same place, not with the same person, etc.
Personally, I feel called to invest in a larger loop of exchange. It makes more sense to offer gifts to those who cannot return them. Similarly, I hope that I will be offered gifts that I cannot return by those who have resources I have no access to.
I am not sure how to think about potlatch in the 21st century ... As a process, it seems to me to stem from a sense of kinship, of US and THEM, which does not apply anymore. What are the marks of my friends and of my enemies? How would I know which 'other' is worth my investment? I'd rather make the pot fuller with what I have in abundance. At some point, someone else will do the same with different gifts.
Of course, this is naive, steeped in neo-liberalism and captive of capitalism! But perhaps it is not that far from an Open Source approach to production and self organization. 
And being kind to those who are not of the same kind seems to me a good investment.

Visions in the Nunnery
22 to 31 May 2009
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