friendship, Nick Aikens

narrator Nick Aikens
term friendship
published June 2016, Eindhoven, Holland
affiliated institution Van Abbemuseum

I would like to introduce the term “friendship” in relation to the referential field the commons. My reason for proposing the term is an → interest in understanding how the proposition of the commons might shift from being something abstracted – what the preamble on the glossary website rightly describes as a ‘discursive illusion’ – to something we could understand on a more human, subjective and emotional level. What does it mean to be in common? What types of relationships, or modes of being together, would that involve?


These are questions I hope to answer via the research and writing of Céline Condorelli, who I worked with at the Van Abbe in 2014, and her expanded investigation into the discourse on friendship – much of which was bought together in a small publication titled The Company She Keeps.[1] Drawing from the relatively brief but rich discourse on friendship – from classical philosophers like Aristotle to contemporary theorists such as Agamben – Condorelli explores, through a series of conversations with a philosopher, a sociologist and two curators, different genealogies, examples and propositions for friendship. In thinking about friendship in relation to the commons, I went back to this book and some of the references it maps. I was struck by how we might understand the role of friendship in relation to a project of the commons, how we might consider friendship as a form of → solidarity [→ solidarity, → solidarity], how friendships between the excluded have provided the grounds and means with which to resist systems of power and elites, and how the concept of the multitude – so closely aligned with that of the commons – might be thought of in terms of an infinite friendship.


I first proposed writing about friendship some months ago. Now, writing as 2016 draws to a close, considering friendship within the context of the ‘discursive illusion’ of the commons, has become more tangled, complicated and harder for me to articulate. In a year in which the world has become more divided and polarised than I have experienced in my lifetime – our ability to talk and write with genuine candour about the notion of friendship, of being in common, feels further away than ever before. My own sentiments are fuelled by the → residual shock and my personal sadness at Britain choosing to divorce itself from the European project, compounded by the realisation that the rise of right-wing populism (from the successful campaign in the US of Donald Trump on a platform of white, supremacist bigotry to the increased withdrawal of civil liberties by the Law and Justice Party in Poland) has severe consequences for our collective social, political and ecological futures. Within such a frightening conjuncture, what does something like the “discursive illusion” of the commons now mean? What traction, as critical theorist Gene Ray has poignantly asked, can such theoretical speculations hold when we are operating in what Ray terms “the end game”[2]. This is not to suggest that the European project, for example should somehow be equated with the notion of the commons. However, there seems to be significant impulses that straddle both. Britain’s vote to leave exposes itself as indicative of a worrying trend, building for some time but articulating itself with horrific veracity in 2016 as a rejection of a shared purpose, a shared set of values, rights and laws – or a more broader understanding of equality. This can be echoed in many parts of the world that appear increasingly divided through the politics that is pushed and peddled as the only answer to globalisation’s inequalities.


1. Friendship among elites (men, people in positions of power)

The commons, unlike previous referential fields in the glossary – subjectivisation, historicisation, geo-politics and constituencies – is propositional. It demarcates a potential political and ideological space. It is, as the glossary site notes, seen as a way out of the cul de sac of neoliberal hegemony. At the end of 2016 that potential space feels more illusory, more closed than before. It also feels harder, but that much more necessary, to contemplate its possibility. And within that, perhaps the attempt to bring it from a ‘discursive illusion’ to something that can be practiced and thought about in terms of relationships and modes of doing is ever more urgent.


I want to start by considering the history of the discourse on friendship and the type of precedents it would seem important to work against in any project of the commons. In The Company She Keeps, Condorelli’s conversation with the philosopher Johan Hartle begins by discussing friendship as something that takes place among men – and is subsequently written about by men. Derrida addresses this issue in the opening pages of Politics of Friendship, and as Condorelli writes: “the issue remains. No female philosophers have written about friendship.”[3] Friendship remains entirely patriarchal and fratriachal. “They are”, Condorelli writes, “closely linked to the notions of freedom and democracy stemming from the idea of a nation of brothers (and with the terrifying consequences that we can only live together because we are the same, share the same land, the same birth, the same blood, the same language).”[4]


What we see emerging in the classical discourse on friendship is that which takes place among propertied, male elites. It is a notion of friendship that is tied to a particular sense of belonging – to a land, a class, a hierarchy. In many senses such a classical understanding of friendship would seem to work against the notion of the common, or of being in common, as, by its very nature it excludes people.


It is in the domain of exclusion that the trend of isolationism and protectionism that has prevailed in 2016 finds itself. If I speak of Britain’s decision to leave the European Union, for example – it is decision to exclude itself from a shared political, cultural and ideological project. A decision – or desire – to exclude peoples who might not the share the same land, the same birth, the same blood, the same language, that became such a defining feature of the populist rhetoric that pervaded the EU referendum debate, and which was echoed across the Atlantic in Trump’s frightening election rallies. Yet there is also the very real sense of exclusion that the disenfranchised feel from patriarchal and fratriachal power that now bulldozes around the world through globalisation’s economic machinery, and which has pulled so many into the clutches of right-wing populism. Indeed, the friendships among male, propertied elites that Aristotle refers to, are something that is echoed in many different systems and structures of power operative today.


It is here worth picking up on Agamben’s understanding of friendship written in his short essay The Friend, which Condorelli and Hartle explore and which might serve as a link or trajectory towards the notion of the commons. Interestingly, Agamben returns to Aristotle and his notion of consent. Quoting Aristotle, Agamben writes: “One must also therefore consent that his friend exists, and this happens by sharing acts and thoughts in common”. This idea of friendship takes it away from the notion of sharing property, language, and blood, to an idea of sharing thoughts and acts, what Condorelli describes as “a process of co-existence through doing and thinking”.[5]


2. Friendship and alternative models

In a series of conversations, Condorelli and the socialist Avery Gordon attempt to chart a history of friendships among the excluded – among women and slaves. If the history of friendship has been treated by philosophers as something that not only takes place among male elites, but something that is abstracted – what is described in the book as “merely a cipher for the political, which makes it fundamentally exclusionary” – Condorelli and Gordon are interested in charting the modalities of friendship that are more pragmatic in terms of how the excluded implemented different forms of resistance.[6] Drawing on the examples of the early suffragette movement at the beginning of the 20th century, and later in the peace camps on Greenham Common in 1980s Britain, where women occupied the Common in protest against the decision to house cruise missiles there, friendship emerges as a modality for social change, a means to express and harness → solidarity [disambiguation: → solidarity, → solidarity] against a common cause.


Equally significant is Avery Gordon’s research into the history of friendship among slaves. Drawing on John Hope Franklin and Loren Scweninger’s book Runaway Slaves: Rebels on the Plantation, friendship emerges as a key tool among runaways. As slaves were prohibited from basic freedoms – prohibited from free association and from intellectual pursuits, such as reading and writing, runaways’ friendships provided a whole network and access to legal help, hideouts, food and drink. As Gordon writes: “Friendship, working well together, helping out, solidarity, keeping secrets, these were crucial aspects in African-American slave culture, because the absence of public recognition and support (worse, its criminalisation) meant that you had to create your systems of support within your own cultural milieu”.[7] What emerges in all of these different models of friendship is a structure of solidarity.


3. Befriending ideas

What is crucial to Condorelli and Avery’s understanding of friendship, and something that may be useful in relation to the notion of the commons, is her insistence on not only befriending people, but also ideas, systems, values – what she calls “elective affinities”. In relation to cultural practice, this can be considered in terms of the books one reads, the affinities one holds with certain ways of thinking, the associations that one draws into one’s work: what we surround ourselves with. Hannah Arendt, as Condorelli tells us and from whom the title of the book is borrowed, defines cultural practices as “the company one choses to keep in the present as well as in the past”.[8] This subsequently emerges in the book as a productive definition of what friendship could be. “Befriending issues”, Condorelli argues, “is also the point at which, whilst still being an elective affinity and working on a personal level, it also has consequences on a larger scale”.[9]


If 2016 has seen a politics of exclusion rise to the surface like never before in my lifetime, it seems an immediate task is to reflect on a model of friendship that can find common cause – such as the friendships that emerged from political movements like the suffragettes, the militant activists of Greenham Common or the slaves. In this regard it is important to reflect on Condorelli’s central question in the publication: What can friends do?


In the book, we are introduced to Spinoza’s understanding and definition of friendship: “for him”, Johan Hartle writes, “friendship is an affectionate relationship in and through which humans naturally increase their poentia agendi, their vital capacities”.[10] Linked very closely to Spinoza’s understanding of friendship is the notion of a common understanding and striving to achieve a common intellect. Unlike classical philosophy, Spinoza’s notion of friendship goes beyond abstractions: As Hartle tell us, he writes in Ethics “people bind themselves by those bonds most apt to make one people of them and, absolutely, to do those things which serve to strengthen friendships”.[11] It also means that we are taken into the concrete social existence of human beings. Far for being a mere social accord, friendship emerges as something that is also garnered through material → labour.


4. Institutional friendship

There remains, unresolvable for now, a disheartening disconnect between my own reflections on friendship, its relationship to the commons, and the social, political and ecological reality we inhabit today. If events like Britain’s EU referendum or Trump’s election have revealed one thing to me, is that our task in arguing for a certain vision of culture and its relationships to politics just became more urgent. But by the same token, they also revealed the chasm between the “discursive illusion” and the reality we now face. To bridge that chasm language needs to be more precise, our insistence on arguing for a more inclusive type of politics that much clearer. As Gene Ray writes: “It’s necessary to name what we are living through today – this new situation. The names we choose shape the frame, imply what is possible, favour some pathways over others”.[12]


In this sense, and on an institutional level, the model of friendship as the development of a common understanding between people seems cogent. Friendships exist without contracts, and by inference without obligations. In this sense, it is unspoken. As Condorelli writes “we however, can and do speak to our friends, which is already to act in friendship, as a practice, a process”.[13] What would that process engender in an institutional context – either across institutions, such as through a project like L’Internationale, or amongst its various constituents? What, in this current reality, is a practice of friendship? How might the politics of friendship – a politics that is premised on notions of solidarity, the common, of being in common, rather than the exclusionary, serve to move past our various discursive illusions?

[1] Céline Condorelli, The Company She Keeps, eds. Nick Aikens and Polly Staple (London: Book Works, Chisenhale Gallery and Van Abbemuseum, 2014). The publication was produced in conjunction with Condorelli’s exhibitions at Chisenhale Gallery (Céline Condorelli, 2 May – 22 June 2014) and the Van Abbemuseum (as part of Positions #1, 5 July – 12 October 2014). Condorelli’s conversations with the sociologist Avery Gordon, which comprise a major part of the publication, were commissioned as part of the How To Work Together think-tank, and can be read in full here: (accessed 17 June 2016).

[2] Gene Ray, “Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot: Indigenous Knowledge and Critical Theory in the Endgame”, South 8 [Documenta 14 #3] (May 2016), (accessed 17 June 2016).

[3] Condorelli, The Company She Keeps, 12.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid., 19.

[6] Ibid., 26.

[7] Ibid., 36.

[8] Ibid., 15.

[9] Ibid., 43.

[10] Ibid., 16.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ray, “Writing the Ecocide-Genocide Knot”.

[13] Condorelli, The Company She Keeps, 20.