Syllabus: Friendship as a Way of Life with Yongyu Chen and R Morris Levine

April 11–May 9, 2023

Friendship as a Way of Life departs from an eponymous, April 1981 interview with Michel Foucault. Speaking about queer intimacies to the French magazine Le Gai Pied, the historian called for a new political ethics born of friendship’s potential to reinvent relation, to formulate “new alliances and the tying together of unforeseen lines of force” that disrupt the “readymade” intimacies of the couple, family, corporation, and army. “We must think,” impels Foucault, “that what exists is far from filling all possible spaces.”

Resisting the impulse to typologize friendship—an urge betrayed by nursery rhymes (“Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, the other is gold.”), DJ Khaled (“No new friends, no new friends, no, no new.”), the friendzone, BFF, and frenemy alike—we studied some of friendship’s possibilities as enacted in writing between artists across the twentieth-century, from Foucault to Hervé Guibert, Sophie Calle, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Clara Westhoff, Rainer Maria Rilke, Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan, Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Félix González-Torres, Ross Laycock, Maurice Blanchot, Roland Barthes, and Larry Mitchell.

Our study of friendship departed from two propositions. First, to remove friendship from a relational teleology that, starting with the stranger, proceeds to the acquaintance, then to the friend, then, finally, to the lover. Disabusing the friend of such an overdetermined relation (of subordination) to the lover allowed us to consider friendship’s possibilities without reference—or in-difference, as Avery Gordon would say—to the possibilities of the romantic. Second, our fantasy of researching friendship together entailed, with urgency, a detachment of friendship from the couple-form, the binary geometry of I-and-thou and its tendency to restrict what is thinkable in friendship to the relational terrain of the straight family. We proceeded, instead, through acts of triangulation and quadrangulation—the plural mesh of friendships as a more capacious opening for thought.


1: Michel Foucault, Hervé Guibert, Sophie Calle

     → Michel Foucault, “Friendship as a Way of Life,” trans. John Johnston, in The Essential Works of Foucault 1954–1984: Ethics, ed. Paul Rabinow (New York: The New Press, 1997), 135–40. Originally published as “De l’amitié comme mode de vie: Un Entretien avec un lecteur quinquagénaire,” interview by René de Ceccaty, Jean Danet, and Jean Le Bitoux, Le Gai Pied 25 (April 1981): 38–39.
     → Michel Foucault, letter to Hervé Guibert, July 28, 1983, reprinted in Tom Roach, Friendship as a Way of Life: Foucault, AIDS, and the Politics of Shared Estrangement (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2012), 17–19.
     → Hervé Guibert, “A Man’s Secrets,” Written in Invisible Ink: Selected Stories, trans. Jeffrey Zuckerman (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2020).    
     → Yve-Alain Bois, “Paper Tigress,” October 116 (Spring 2006): 35–54.    
     → Sophie Calle, Anatoli, 1984, set of 265 color and b/w photographs, one text.

2: Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, Paul Celan

If friends, as Michel Foucault says, “face each other without terms or convenient words…[t]hey have to invent, from A to Z, a relationship that is still formless,” Fleur Jaeggy, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Paul Celan, introduce silence to the language of friendship. This silence has many tones. Jaeggy and Bachmann rejoice in being silent together—leaving crowded parties at Italo Calvino’s house, letting the phone ring unanswered, piling up letters they refuse to open—prizing themselves from the world (“It’s all horrible, I’d tell her. With a kind of glee.”). For Bachmann and Celan, silence speaks of longing (“I am thinking of your voice”), the inadequacy of language (the two, despite, or because, they are writers, “pray that we will find the words”), the pain they have brought one another (“Each of us has inflicted so many wounds on each other. But I cannot, I must not speak of that”), and ultimate estrangement (“You cannot spare a word for me, not even a syllable, but go to literary conferences”). To keep her special friend (amie particulière) alive, Jaeggy reconjures their last days together in the burn unit at Sant’Eugenio Hospital, where Bachmann, already, could no longer speak. Jaeggy attempts to petrify Bachmann—so that, as in an aseptic room, she will not suffer putrefaction—all in language that itself approaches the aseptic. It is this petrification, though, that so terrifies the narrator of Bachmann’s “The Thirtieth Year,” where it is directed at him as he encounters bygone friends who force his previous “shapes” “onto him like a straitjacket.” Their asepsis, their remembrance, halts his askēsis.

What is it, exactly—what is operative in the friend’s silent lulls, ghosting, and ultimate death that, for these writers, is (if not simply exciting or enjoyable) at least richly productive for living and thinking friendship? Does absence fulfill friendship’s “until”—or, does the friend’s absence allow, finally, for a perfected version of asepsis where one can come into contact with the friend, touch them over and over through the modality of memory, without risk of contamination—or, sinisterly, is it that when the friend dies they lose, while hardening into flesh and shell, what was terrifying about them, their ability to change, to betray, to leave, to decide, is the friend finally possessable? As the departed friend petrifies in one’s own memory, does one, in the friend’s absence, face an obligation to keep their image, somehow, moving?

     → Fleur Jaeggy, “The Aseptic Room,” I Am the Brother of XX, trans. Gini Alhadeff (New York: New Directions, 2017).
     → Ingeborg Bachmann, “The Thirtieth Year,” The Thirtieth Year: Stories, trans. Michael Bullock (New York: Knopf, 1964), 18–61.
     → Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, Correspondence: Ingeborg Bachmann and Paul Celan, trans. Wieland Hoban (London: Seagull Books, 2010).
     → Peter Szondi, “Eden,” Celan Studies, trans. Susan Bernofsky, with Harvey Mendelsohn (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003).         
     → Paul Celan, “Corona,” Memory Rose into Threshold Speech: The Collected Earlier Poetry, trans. Pierre Joris (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020).

3: Peter Hujar, David Wojnarowicz, Félix González-Torres, Ross Laycock

“Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” declares that “The world imagined is the ultimate good.” Wallace Stevens’s poem describes how it is “in that thought that we collect ourselves”—to meet in this thought, its complete utopianism is “the intensest rendezvous.” The lovers, in the poem, are wrapped tightly together within “a single shawl” and yet, in this most material closeness, “[here], now, we forget each other and ourselves. / We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole, / A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.” They glimpse—very obscurely—another order of knowledge, relation, another world’s logic.

Laycock, sending the poem to González-Torres, catches a glimpse of that logic, as does Wojnarowicz, writing in the wake of Hujar’s death, and upon his sense of his own coming mortality. “Wonderful things,” he notes, “tended to happen or reveal themselves in the days before departure,” as if he “had let go of something that was keeping it hidden.” The revelation, for Wojnarowicz, arises, in flashes, when his body comes out of alignment with the “preinvented world,” its grids of management (We think here of Sara Ahmed who writes beautifully of lines, obliques, and queerness as literal orientations in space and time in Queer Phenomenology)—there comes “a transient position of the body in relation to the Other World.” To hold on to this sensory illumination requires giving up “one’s environment,” giving up “biography,” and “all the encoded daily movements: those false reassurances of the railing outside the door.”

What is being described here, with Laycock, Stevens, Wojnarowicz, is—very concretely and so intensely lodged in the senses—an enfleshed enactment of Foucault’s call to build, out of that nexus of friendship/queerness (radical for how it always evades full definition, always holds a reserve of indeterminacy), a new “relational system,” which is perhaps a more austere way of saying, simply, a world.

This relational system, this different order of knowledge, this Other World, is out of time. Out of time like Hujar is out of time, and Wojnarowicz soon after him, and Laycock just four years after he meets Gonzaléz-Torres, and Gonzaléz-Torres himself a few years thereafter. Out of time, too, in the contraction, suspension, and extension of linear, laminar temporality. For Hujar, the kink is patience: he waits, silently, for his subjects to arrive at their image so that he can gift it back to them, issuing no instructions (this in contrast to the domineering stylization and capture of his contemporary Robert Mapplethorpe); he parks the car on the highway to talk a nearby cow for several hours. He follows—his oeuvre manifests—Georgia O’Keefe’s injunction, in a catalog for her 1939 Exhibition of Oils and Pastels, that “to see takes time like to have a friend takes time.” Hujar’s final silence left Wojnarowicz mute, capable not even of the whispers, the “hushed tones,” in which his “brother…father…emotional link to the world” wanted to be discussed. With time, this silence gave way to “a perfect rage,” an impatience against patience, not Hujar’s, but the state’s murderous complacency. Wojnarowicz comes to feel that “time is now compressed.” He can “see the edge of mortality”—”the edge of death and dying is around everything”—against which he takes out another “six-month lease on this body of mine.” Laycock had hardly known González-Torres for six months when he was notified that his lease would expire. Just as soon as they had begun, their end was in view; this is, perhaps, always friendship’s fate, as Blanchot will soon say, but “AIDS friendships” (returning to Tom Roach) such as theirs made this betrayal urgent. And yet, “time has been generous to us,” González-Torres writes Laycock. “We imprinted time with the sweet taste of victory.” He insists that their synchrony, the rub of their stellar orbits of their star friendship (pace Nietzsche), is, despite its brevity, “forever.” Should he also “happen to go maybe too soon,” González-Torres asks a friend, “Tell them how we watched the beavers, hours with no end…Tell them how this love lasted despite…the time.”

Time is neither straight nor empty, as much as the regime of “classical time” (the scientific organization of time into discrete and regular interval such as “week,” “year,” “hour,” and “season,” upon which Michel Serres observes capitalism rests) may stubbornly insist. Time is plastic. Capital itself knows this and tries to harness it to its own ends—for instance, the twisted temporal logic of the financial derivative. Friendship, queerness, as they come to sense the fluctuations in time, its sparks of contingency, its loopings, can channel this to other ends.

     → Peter Hujar, Portraits in Life and Death (Boston: Da Capo Press, 1976).
     → Moyra Davey, “Two Hot Horses,” Supplement 06 (Vancouver: Fillip, 2022).
     → David Wojnarowicz, “Living Close to the Knives,” Close to the Knives: A Memoir of Disintegration (New York: Random House, 1991), 99–110.
     → Félix González-Torres, Letter to Ross Laycock: Lovers (1988).
     → Ross Laycock, Letter to Félix González-Torres: “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (1988).
     → Félix González-Torres, Letter to George Carl (May 12, 1988).

4: Paula Modersohn-Becker, Clara Westhoff, Rainer Maria Rilke

1906, Paris. Paula’s apartment. Rilke arrives, they share a few words, just a few, and she directs him to the corner by the easel. “They stand opposite each other, looking at each other, speaking or silent, in the mutual generosity of a shared gift. They forge this painting the way you forge friendship. A portrait that is the vestige of long hours together.” Otto arrives to snatch Paula back to Worpswede, and Rilke’s portrait is left unfinished, “the eyes, so preternaturally black.” Leonid Pasternak sees the painting in a journal and is certain it is not his friend. “I found no resemblance whatsoever,” he tells Rilke. “Is such an alteration possible?” He assumes “it’s a misunderstanding or a mistaken attribution, perhaps.” The same year, Paula paints herself naked, pregnant. It is the first time that a woman has painted herself naked. Bare, too, of the masculine gaze. Darrieussecq: “In Paula’s work there are real women…Women who are not posing in front of a man, who are not seen through the lens of men’s desire, frustration, possessiveness, domination, aggravation.” Paula “shows what she sees.” How then is Rilke unrecognizable to Pasternak? If Paula shows what she sees, she must see Rilke differently, the way only she can see him after long hours together, speaking or silent. But it isn’t Paula who has forged this painting; it is Paula and Rilke—“they forge,” Darrieussecq is careful to ascribe. What they recognize in each other is unrecognizable—a forgery, even—for others. Their friendship has an optic. Might every friendship have its gaze? Its touch? Its scent? Its sensorium? Its language, yes, we know that much—a dialect, as Foucault says, invented from “A to Z,” including, as Jaeggy, Bachmann, and Celan remind us, shhhh.

Foucault also tells us that friendship demands truth, or parrhesia: the fearless speech that makes me tell you that thing it pains you to hear despite the risk that I might lose you. Between Rilke, Becker, Darrieussecq, and Rich, the truth is difficult to locate. What we know of Paula’s life comes largely from what others have to say about it. Rilke, writing in 1908 on the anniversary of Paula’s death, speaks to her (“Are you still here? Are you standing in some corner?”) before speaking for her (“You had just one desire: a years-long-work— / which was not finished, in spite of all your efforts.”). Darrieussecq speaks about Paula against her absence from the archive (“I have written this little biography…because I miss this woman I never knew. Because I would have liked her to live. I want to show her paintings, speak about her life.”). About slips occasionally into as—the third-person into the first: “She tries to convince [Otto] that their separation is inevitable. And could he go to her studio and send her six of her better nudes?…And also, she has no more money. Is it all right if he sends her some? Thank you very much. All the buds are ready to blossom in Paris. Thank you to Elsbeth for her pretty embroidery. Fond wishes.” Rich, negating Rilke, writes as, but in a sense through, Paula to Clara (“Rainer had written my requiem— / a long, beautiful poem, and calling me his friend. / I was your friend.”). Rilke, Darrieussecq, Rich—each has their claim on Paula’s life. We return to prepositions: until, behind, between, to, for, about, against, as, through. Trinh T. Minh-ha offers another: “nearby.” To speak nearby is “speaking that does not objectify, does not point to an object as if it is distant from the speaking subject or absent from the speaking place. A speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it. A speaking in brief, whose closures are only moments of transition opening up to other possible moments of transition.”

Possible moments. Darrieussecq, writing a century after Paula, says that Being Here is Everything. Laycock, talking through Stevens, tells González-Torres that “being there together is enough.” Here, there, everything, enough. Then there is José Esteban Muñoz, for whom queerness renders sensible that the “here and now” is “not enough,” asking us to make a “then and there” replete with everything.

Speaking of time, next week is our last. We’ll follow Muñoz’s call by turning to other utopian visions of what friendship can be (through Larry Mitchell’s The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions), how friends can live together in space and in time (Barthes), and also how to write, ethically, about friends and their works (Blanchot).

In closing with Barthes we will turn to a thinker who, throughout his life, took the tools of philosophy and used them, as if against their own tendency and harshness, to think about tact, nuance, sweetness. If Camera Lucida details, so famously, Barthes’s theory of photography, it is also completely animated by Barthes’s love, in his mother Henriette, his closest friend, of the “assertion of a gentleness.” Henriette Barthes would not, certainly, in Barthes’s eyes, speak of, nor for, nor through, nor as; she would, maybe, not even speak with inasmuch as “her kindness was specifically out-of-play, it belonged to no system,” atopic if not already utopic.

Barthes is a thinker so painfully attuned to the undercurrents of feeling in both friendships and writing; he notes, in his autobiography, his fear “each time he writes something, that he will hurt one of his friends—never the same one: it changes” and who, as a result, reminded himself “it is language which is assertive, not he. An absurd remedy, everyone would surely agree, to add to each sentence some little phrase of uncertainty, as if anything that came out of language could make language tremble.” . Barthes too—in his late work, of which How to Live Together is a key component—is a thinker not only of friendship’s qualities but one who enacts those friendly qualities in and as his thought, Barthes’s intellectual output more and more centering not on finished works or definitive statements but on notes, preparations for works, the residues that form in and around knowledge, the pauses in thought. In this sense we will continue, too, our discussion, from Paula, Clara, Otto, Rilke, of friendship as a space for formless forms and a lack of finish.

     → Marie Darrieussecq, Being Here Is Everything: The Life of Paula Modersohn-Becker, trans. Penny Hueston (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2017), 67–83.
     → Adrienne Rich, “Paula Becker to Clara Westhoff,” The Dream of a Common Language: Poems 1974–1977 (New York: Norton, 1978).
     → Rainer Maria Rilke, “Requiem for a Friend,” trans. Stephen Mitchell, Paris Review 82 (Winter 1991).
     →  Paula Modersohn-Becker, Self-Portrait with Two Flowers in Her Raised Left Hand, 1907, Oil on canvas, 21 ¾ × 9 ¾  inches. Collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York.

5: Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, Roland Barthes, Larry Mitchell

On Pansy Path, amid the “glass-cutters and leather-feather collectors, corner poets and medicine fags” who live there—this daily “exquisite elaboration of types” of queer communities—“Lilac’s imagination will begin to vibrate from being so stretched.” Elsewhere, in the tribe of Angel Flesh, in their house of vines and crumbling porches, a group of queer people has “learned to heal each other by saying magic words over and over again…to bring loving vibrations to the body to make it strong again.” “All this,” Mitchell writes, “they share with all those around them who want to know.”

The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions features this desire—for a pedagogy capable of sculpting vibrating flesh, itself equipped with a mind that, too, vibrates. A collective, a utopia of so many shimmers. Let us not use the word “individuals” here, being unsure of its trustworthiness and acknowledging language’s ability to deceive; the existence of a word does not prove the existence of its referent (Think here of Hortense Spillers, her rigorous use of quotation marks in “Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe,” her critique of the “American grammar book”).

This kind of utopian pedagogy, as much as it is described within Mitchell’s text, is also enacted in the relation between the text and the reader; reading of these possible ways of life + queerness + friendship stretches our imaginations; we too vibrate. If Sara Ahmed writes, in Queer Phenomenology, that what we do do changes what we can do—that any action, repeated, opens onto an orientation to the world—then the reverse, Mitchell reminds us, is also true: what we can do changes what we do do. Maybe this is a quality specific to utopia—that to describe it in its virtuality is already to be influenced, sculpted, changed by it, actually. To invoke, once more, our perennial counterpart during the past weeks, José Esteban Muñoz—what utopia allows, first of all, in his words, is an ability to critique the present, its limits, its barriers by occupying the speculative position of an elsewhere. This “ability” is not purely intellectual—it is also a bodily alteration which utopia-as-pedagogy sets in motion. “If the eye is sensitized in a certain way, if it can catch other visual frequencies that render specific distillations of lived experience and ground-level history accessible,” as Muñoz writes in “Ghosts of Public Sex: Utopian Longings, Queer Memories,” then “it can potentially see the ghostly presence of a certain structure of feeling.”

What does it mean though—to return to Mitchell’s motif of the vibratory, which finds its correlate in the idiorrhythmy of Barthes’s How to Live Together—to insist on the conjunction of utopia and vibration + rhythm + oscillation?

What, to us, has always been so compelling, and moving, in Barthes’s account of rhythm is how he traces rhythm back, etymologically, to rhuthmos—rhythm, in Ancient Greek, was not always linked to the regularization of meter. If Plato sets rhuthmos to metron, before Plato, rhuthmos entails simply “a distinctive form, a proportioned figure, an arrangement.” Rhuthmos is “the pattern of a fluid element,” it is a form “the instant it’s assumed by something moving, mobile, fluid,” the drape of a robe. Rhuthmos, in this sense, is opposed to schema’s “fixed, fully developed form that’s set down like an object”—if schema is the form of a solid thing, rhuthmos is the form of the liquid. Rhuthmos’s proposal, its force, for us, is, first of all, this delinking of form from stability—to link it instead to the contingent, the plastic, the ever-altering and escaping. What will vision become, what will become of the sensorium, the imagination, mind, when it operates on the basis of this other assumption of fluidity—or, to use another word, fugitivity?

Rhuthmos and idiorrhythmy, Barthes goes to write, are forces of the interstitial, the fugitive; Mitchell, as well, writes of a “vast network of fugitives from the men”; Blanchot, in turn, dwells on the “mobility of life,” the “unpredictability” of the other that is a friend that prevents the friend from ever being known, or grasped, with any kind of completeness. The vibratory—the self as vibratory, the friend as vibratory, as indexing the force of rhuthmos—the collective as a grouping of oscillations; what we think of, in the midst of all of this, this final week’s texts, is the closeness of the friend and the fugitive; how the two must converge for something like a social, queer utopia to be possible. The one we love and the one that slips away—not just from us who loves them but any kind of (en)closure; this, maybe, is the only possible basis for Barthes’s desire for “the aporia of bringing distances together—the utopia of a socialism of distance” which would allow for the pleasures both of togetherness and aloneness, an eccentric median.

This all brings us to another text we adore, Marquis Bey’s “The Trans*-ness of Blackness and the Blackness of Trans*-ness,” in which they propose that what blackness and trans*-ness share is a force of fugitivity—“that lawless anoriginality that refuses to be captured or ontologically limited,” that undercommon force drawn upon when enacting “constant refusitive escape” from any of the many orders of purity. To Bey’s grouping of blackness and trans*-ness, we bring a third term, which may fit there perfectly: friendship. “Simmering beneath the killing rhythm of hegemony” which “seeks structure, fixity,” writes Bey, drawing from Fred Moten and Stefano Harney, there is “blackness’s, and trans*-ness’s musicality,” “the undercommon track that remains fugitive from the emerging logistics of this deadly rhythm and will exhaust it.” Let the friend who is the fugitive be that part of this.

     → Maurice Blanchot, “Friendship,” Friendship, trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).
     → Roland Barthes, How to Live Together: Novelistic Simulations of Some Everyday Spaces, trans. Kate Briggs (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012), 4–9.
     → Larry Mitchell, The Faggots & Their Friends Between Revolutions (Ithaca: Calamus Books, 1977).

About the instructors

Yongyu Chen is a writer and PhD student in Film and Visual Studies at Harvard. Their work appears in Chicago Review, Cleveland Review of Books, Lana Turner, and Poetry.

R Morris Levine is mostly a writer. He is a PhD student in Literature at Duke and the editor of Zolo, a publisher of books by artists like B. Wurtz, Beatriz Gonzaléz, Gabriel Orozco, Hadi Fallahpisheh, Julia Rommel, Marie Hazard, Otis Houston Jr., as well as Sven Lukin, among others.

The two are friends.

Note from the facilitators

We give our most sincere thanks to our participants, dear friends in thinking friendship: Charlie, Stephanie, Sheenie, Luke, Naman, Leigh, Gabrielle, Claudia, Zoey, Jess, Manal, Ren, Perry, Zoe, Eli, Claire, Amanda, Mounir, Irene, Isalina, Zelda, Nana, Marian, Flo.

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