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The walls within: working with defenses against otherness

Online Conference 5-11 July 2021

Friendship The Human Capacity for Drawing Boundaries and Crossing Bridges

LETTER 1 Dear Peter, a while ago, I remember, you suggested I write about friendship as if writing to a friend. And I've decided to take you up on the idea. For the ISPSO Symposium, I shall experiment by writing to you rather than putting together the usual conference paper. It seems quite appropriate really, as the tradition of exploring and developing one's thought by writing to one's friend is a good deal older than that of the modern academic 'paper'! (I do also have a fair 'lump' of references and quotations in mind, but I'll put them separately at the end, so that you can just follow the argument itself if you want to. [1]) My anxiety is that there's so much to say, I'm afraid the point will get lost. But as I write that, I remember clearly the way you look as you ask (again!), 'What's the 'one idea' you want to communicate?'... The trouble is that it's both simple and difficult.What I'd like to get across is that our society - modern, late modern, post-modern, call it what you like! - has missed the point about friendship. We've cut it down to our size and can therefore only see it in terms of feelings or as an 'interpersonal relationship'. So what are we to make of the idea that friendship is a fundamental disposition towards self and other - and even the universe? Of course it is inter-personal, but it's also - maybe even primarily - systemic. And yet that's the 'simple' bit. We've got used to thinking systemically and being aware of the organizational implications of individual actions and emotions. But, as you put it the other day, friendship links the human and the divine. That's what I mean by 'difficult'. It pushes up against the certainties of our everday categories, the points at which we use models and theories to keep 'un-' at bay - un-certainty, un-pleasantness and un-knowing O! O! Stick with K! I was surprised to find, for example, that some philosophers have argued friendship may not even require another living person to relate to [2] - although in religious language the idea was more familiar, as in 'the communion of saints' or the words of the Wesleyian hymn 'He wants not friends that hath Thy love'. Anyway, the point I've reached so far is a particular definition of friendship - as a mature form of the capacity to contain. In the language of the Symposium (ISPSO, that is, not PLATO!), I have rephrased this as the human capacity for drawing boundaries and crossing bridges. As you know, I believe that this notion of 'capacities' is central to human development. In other words, development is not linear or step-by-step, but expansive, elastic, more and more inclusive of and able to contain experience and emotion, both one's own and that of others [3]. That's why I've used the word in my definition. Rather than being a feeling or a process or something like that, friendship is a capacity - a state of mind or disposition underpinning all relating, a whole way of orienting oneself to the world.What I want to do in these letters is to explore the psychoanalytic understanding of friendship, so that I can also look at the importance of friendship for the conference themes and for ISPSO practitioners. I know psychoanalysis [4] and the friendship tradition in Western Europe seem to belong to different worlds, but my own sense is that they both address the same level of human experience, possibility and need. In some ways, I've come to see psychoanalysis as an unconscious re-emergence of the friendship tradition, which got dropped from the official 'maps' around the 14th or 15th century [5].I do feel awkward though. In a way I feel ought not to draw attention to friendship like this. I rather agree with Ivan Illich's and Barry Sanders' description of it as 'the one silent space that remains open in our examined lives' [6]. But only a decade after they wrote that, it seems to me it's already too late. For example, my younger son's first job after leaving school last Summer was in a shop where the management had put up two large signs - which the customers, of course, could not see. The first read 'Treat the customer as a friend', the second - right on the boundary between back-of-shop and customer - 'You are now going on stage'. The sub-text was pretty straightforward. All goods were rated according to the % commission earned from each sale - from the highest 'mega' band, through 'AA' to the 'Z' band which was worth nothing to the salesmen. (Yes, they were all men.) So the sales staff were being 'disciplined' [7] to act friendship, not only so the customers were happy with the service and the goods they received, but also so the staff could earn as much as possible. Their basic salary was, of course, kept low as a stimulus. And the sub-sub-text was to produce maximum income for the company. Not quite the ancient view of friendship as 'the crown of life and the school of virtue' [8]!Ironically, this manipulative modern (mis-)use of friendship does parallel - though in a distorted form - the ancient view of it not just as a private, interpersonal 'relationship', but also as a social and political event. Look at the story of David and Jonathan [9]! I remember J.P. Stern [10] saying that the Nazis used to split up their SS units every three weeks or so. They certainly recognised that in the context of friendship people can dare to think different and unguarded - and therefore potentially subversive - thoughts [11]. The reality is that friendship is one of the hardest things for those in power to control - either to create or to prevent. That's why I believe friendship is an important theme for the Symposium and am worried about the way it's beginning to creep into the management literature, for example, as an alternative to military metaphors of leadership the leader as friend [12]! Some of our critical theorist colleagues would - I think quite rightly - see this too as a disguised attempt to relocate control within the individual [13]. After all, the military themselves have always known - at least from the Spartans onwards - that for the sake of a friend men will expose themselves to dangers they would not otherwise contemplate. 'Greater love...etc.' - the context may be different, but the idea's the same. More anon.Robert.'