Maria Markus’ ‘Lovers and Friends’: In lieu of a conversation

This reflection is a part of a series of online essays celebrating 40 years of Thesis Eleven: The Top 40

by Harry Blatterer

Magnolias (1945), Frida Kahlo, Balbina Azcárraga Collection, Mexico City, Mexico

I encountered Maria’s paper on friendship for the first time as an undergraduate student, so quite some time before it was finally published in Thesis Eleven as part of a Festschrift collection in celebration of Maria’s work. I remember that first encounter vividly. In a seminar, Maria read nearly all of it, word for word, slowly yet with an emphatic urgency, looking up now and then to check whether our cogs might have begun to turn (you felt the expectation!). Later too the topic of friendship periodically emerged in our many conversations, especially from the time when, together with Pauline Johnson, we put together an edited collection on privacy. But it took on an entirely different meaning once preparations for the Festschrift were set in train, since that precipitated my own foray down the not particularly well trodden path into the small, but puzzling social–theoretical labyrinth that is friendship. Maria’s paper became my compass. All the more so because her advancing illness meant that our conversations no longer focused on our research interests the way they once did. Personal matters moved to the centre; the teacher–student relationship also became a friendship. And so I found myself in an unusual situation: I communicated about friendship with the work of my mentor–friend, this unusually gifted sociologist, but we barely if ever got to talk about it face to face.

Acknowledging that bracketing personal experiences––especially when that author is a friend, and the work on friendship––is an impossibility, I am still hard pressed to think of another piece of sociological writing on the topic that highlights more clearly the great complexities of friendship viewed as a form of love with public significance. My earlier reading was perhaps too focused on definitional issues to grasp the heart of the argument. Sweeping in scope and condensed in form, the complexities are laid out before us by way of an account of friendship’s historical transformation from an institutionalised to a non-institutionalised relationship, its relocation into the sphere of intimacy. Especially the literature on political or civic friendship which tends to view this development as detrimental to solidarity writ large. Maria, while critical of the kind of intimisation of friendship that not only threatens to overload the sphere of family and erotic love, has a more nuanced view.

Friendship, unlike conventional love, is mediated by friends’ common concerns; they allow ‘the world’ into the relationship, need it in fact as mediator, are nurtured by it. At the same time, friendship as a non-hierarchical relationship is a model for intimate life. From this perspective, friendship as a private and personal relationship, is an instantiation of mutually constituted self-determination in personal life, while functioning as a window out from the potentially claustrophobic confines of the intimate sphere. The conceptual problem, then, is not to reflect on how friendship might be rescued from the intimate sphere and reconstituted as political friendship (the way de-historicising interpretations of Aristotle’s concept sometimes seem to suggest), but how to harness the fact of friendship’s personalisation and privatisation to social integration. That a generalisation of friendship to a ‘friendly society’ will not do hardly needs articulation. As a private and personal relationship friendship is always partial, and as such threatens to transgress public norms of impartiality. The public significance of friendship lies elsewhere, for Maria. She proposes that the potentials already displayed by the friendship model––world-openness as an exemplary instance of intimacy, a kind of unity of openness and closedness––could serve as a utopian yardstick, as Heller says guiding ‘the radicalization of democratic arrangements in the systemic structure as well’.

I find something new in Maria’s ‘Lovers and Friends’ every time I read it, and it is no different this time around. That reading is likely prejudiced some engagement with critiques of friendship by political theorists who devalue the development of modern friendship as solidarity dissolving individualism. Maria too sees the potential of a shared narcissism in friendship due to its historical repositioning as an intimate relationship. But then, she was always keenly sensitive to potentialities, and it is no different here. And how could it be any different? World-open and generous to her friends, she could not but see what others often fail to see: that while the boundaries between the private and the public deserve to be defended, social integration and self-determination in the small worlds of our private lives need not be envisaged as a zero-sum game.

Maria Mákus’ paper, ‘Lovers and Friends: ‘Radical Utopias’ of Intimacy?‘ is free to download from the Sage website for a limited time as a part of the Thesis Eleven ‘Top 40’ special.

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