6 Oct 2012

Friendship as a Condition for Thought: Blanchot, Deleuze and the Discourse of Philosophy, by Van der Wielen and Shores

by Corry Shores
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The following is Julie Van der Wielen's and my presentation at the Second Annual Student Graduate Conference at Philosophy faculty of the University of Leuven, Belgium in March of 2012. Thank you Adèle Jourdan, Emilia Brodencova and all other organizers and presenters of this excellent conference.

[This presentation is a variation on one we gave in London. Julie's text might need to be updated, and Corry's is much more heavily dependent on the recent release of Deleuze's video interviews with Stivale's English translation.]

Julie Van der Wielen 
Corry Shores

Friendship as a Condition for Thought:
Blanchot, Deleuze and the Discourse of Philosophy

[Corry Shores reads:]

We would like now to explain Deleuze’s appreciation for Blanchot’s idea that friendship is the condition for thought, and as well, how for both of them, friendship is as well philosophy’s path to transdisciplinarity.

[Julie Van Der Wielen reads:]


When you have a friend who tries to get to close to you, or you try to get to close to a friend, either by trying to be the same or by trying to know his deepest thoughts, it will get uncomfortable. Also, we are all aware of the fact that it’s wrong to dispose of knowledge we have from a friend and to talk about the friend when this one is absent. Distance is needed, even between the closest friends. In his reflections about friendship, Blanchot takes the distance between friends as a necessary condition for their relation.

Because the other is irreducibly other and I am inevitably separated from him, a kind of collision takes place between me and the other wherein I’m confronted to a limit: I’m radically different from the other, I can’t posses him and even the possibility of really understanding the other person is questionable. This distance between me and the other, our being radically separated from each other is the precondition for a relation between us. The distance as an interval, an interruption of being or as a no man’s land, is where friendship takes place. In this openness of the interval the other is present and nearby, but this proximity hides and affirms the other as very far-off and belonging to no one. What I see of my friend when I talk to him, when I decipher his gestures or silence is an openness to his thought, nevertheless I will never really access this distant thought. Even in the closest moments, the infinite distance between friends remains.

This is why, in the last chapter of l’Amitie, Blanchot writes on the impossibility to write about his friend Georges Bataille. He doesn’t accept to write on Bataille’s character or on his thoughts because with his death, their relation as separation disappeared and all that is left are memories of that of Bataille which was close to people, not the distant reality where this proximity was the affirmation of. Without the presence of the friend, there is no possible openness to him and his thought. My relation with my friend preserves the openness to his thought. As the presence of my friend and our relation are a condition for me to find a possible openness to him, any grasp on him is out of the question, if without a relation or dialogue with him. Our relation follows an unpredictable course, where presence and dialogue are necessary to openness. For this reason I cannot know univocally who my friend is, and he will always be infinitely far from me. I can only find openness to his thought when we are present to each other, in an unpredictable movement of understanding which makes it impossible for me to get hold on him.

Another name Blanchot gives to the interval between friends, rising from the unpredictability of the other and his absolute strangeness, is discretion. This is not just the outright refusal to make assertions about the friend, or to dispose of knowledge I have of him, it is the pure interval as everything that is between us. The discretion doesn’t prevent communication, it links us up in difference, making communication possible through speech or silence. The interval or discretion is a necessary condition to communication. Real communication implies the acknowledgement of its limit, the distance between two parties. This limit shows it is impossible to talk about my friend but only to talk to him. It is an impossibility which opens up infinite possibility: impossibility of understanding by which we are driven to create new meaning, radical difference that pulls together.

We can see the interval operate in speech: talking together is never actually talking at the same time. Speech goes from one to the other, the talkers take turns. The impossibility to talk together opens up to the possibility of a dialogue. This dialogue follows an unpredictable course since there is always the possibility of contradiction, development or affirmation of my thought by the friend. The impossibility to predict the course of the conversation is a necessary condition to communication.

In a dialogue with a friend I should never claim comprehension of my friend or of fixed meaning. Communication and the relation with my friend is an unpredictable movement rising from the impossibility to get hold on the other. When Blanchot claims friendship is a necessary condition to thought, we should look at it this way: thought should be openness without pretension of fixed meaning, as in friendship communication should be a dialogue with the other as an unpredictable movement. In the Abecedaire, Deleuze paraphrases Blanchot saying friendship is a condition for thought, not because we need friends to think but because the category of friendship is a condition for the exercise of thought.

[Corry Shores reads:]

Specifically, Deleuze says


"Friendship is a category or a condition of the exercise of thought. Hence Blanchot's declarations about friendship."
Yet, why does Deleuze offer the example of comic friends Laurel and Hardy to characterize the friendship involved in philosophical thinking?

"Great friends, [...] they're Laurel and Hardy, even if they had a fight and broke up, that makes no difference. Obviously, in the question of friendship, there is a kind of mystery... I mean that it's closely connected to philosophy."

Their cartoonish contrasts suggests they would regard one another as though from a great distance. One is fat, the other skinny; one more extroverted, the other more introverted. Yet, they always seem to be in communion with one another, as if constantly in communication. But, what about when they seem to miscommunicate, like when Hardy says he is waiting for a streetcar, as if charmed rather than enraged by Laurel’s feigned innocence?

"For charm, there are insignificant statements that possess such a charm, that demonstrate such a delicacy, that you say immediately, 'That person, he's mine.' From there, friendship is born. So there is […] something that suits you or that teaches you something, that opens you, that reveals something to you."
And would we really be surprised if Laurel and Hardy spent a whole day together without ever saying even one word, while the whole time, still conducting a sort of unspoken dialogue that unfolds without any need for conventional signs? Thus friends are

"Parnet: Always deciphering signs. Deleuze: Yes, that's it. That's all there is, someone who emits signs, we receive them or we don't. All friendships are on this basis. To become sensitive to the signs emitted by a person. So in this way, one can spend hours with someone without saying a word, or preferably, saying things that are completely meaningless"
Yet although friends read each other’s charming signs, this does not mean they merely echo each other.

"You understand each other without needing to explain yourselves. It's not talking on the basis of ideas in common, but you have a language in common, or a pre-language in common."
So explicit messages can be misunderstood.

"There are people, I cannot understand a thing they say, even if they say things quite simple, even if they say, 'Pass me the salt,' I still have to ask myself, 'What are they saying?'"
However, other messages, then, can be communicated below the surface of explicit meaning.

"On the other hand, there are others who may speak to me about an extremely abstract subject, I understand everything they say... Ok, that means that I have something to say to them and they have something to say to me, and it is not at all the community of ideas"
Now, to understand why Deleuze appreciates Blanchot’s point that friendship is the condition for thought, we will turn to Deleuze’s discussion of neurophysiology coming much later in the interviews.

The brain’s production of ideas, he explains, is a bit like the activities in a pinball machine. [The following three videos should be played simultaneously.]


This is because


"Two neural extremities in the brain can very well establish contact. That's what we call electrical processes in the synapses. it's discontinuous and there's a gap that must be jumped. It seems to me that the brain is full of fissures, and that jumping occurs, which happens in a probabilistic regime"
To further illustrate, Deleuze gives the example of

"The 'baker's transformation:' taking a segment of dough in order to knead it, stretching it out into a rectangle, stretching it out into a rectangle, folding it back over, stretching it out again, etc. etc. after transformation"
Here is dough kneading and the geometrical rendition of the transformation.

bakers transformation animation
(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

For Deleuze, thinking happens when distant parts of the brain communicate by being kneaded together like dough.
bakers transformation deleuze intensity depth animation
(Animation above is my own, made with OpenOffice Draw and Unfreeze)

Likewise, Laurel and Hardy, despite their seeming incompatibilities, are continually folded together through the events of their friendship.

Deleuze further explains how he was able to connect ideas between disciplines that he had no training or background in. These illustrations might remind us of how friends communicate without knowing explicitly each other’s meanings. He offers as an example the way he came to understand Riemann space. He needed to grasp how each point is like a joint that varies the space in a non-predetermined way. He obtained this concept by juxtaposing the mathematical expression of this concept with these scenes in Bresson’s Pickpocket.


"It's the hand that moves. Indeed, in The Pickpocket, to the other that determines the connections of little spaces. [...] an encounter can occur between a philosophical concept, a scientific notion, and an aesthetic percept." 

Deleuze further accounts how mathematicians tell him after reading the details of his mathematical writings that it fits together within what they know in their more specialized way, even though they and Deleuze would probably misunderstand each other in an intellectual conversation. He as well had such resonances with artists. In fact, Deleuze explains the importance also for philosophers to have a non-specialized reading of other philosophers, as if a philosopher for example would read Spinoza the way a store keeper would. For philosophical concepts to form, Deleuze explains, we need as well to have a non-philosophical reading of philosophical texts. So in this way, philosophers should also in a sense befriend other philosophers, as well as other non-philosophers, by dwelling below one other’s specialized terminology to instead produce inexplicit concepts through non-representational communication. 

[Julie Van der Wielen reads:]

Philosophy as friendship

Like Deleuze, Blanchot thinks friendship is a condition for thought. Philosophy should proceed in dialogue with the other, otherwise it strangles itself. Nothing is left then but thought thinking itself, scraping concepts until they’re empty. Blanchot himself oscillates between philosophy and literature, saying they’re both open to one another. He believes philosophy needs to be talked to from the outside, staying at her side we have to talk to her from outside, making a dialogue possible. As thought, philosophy needs to be in dialogue with a distant other in order to continue her unpredictable discourse.

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