Michel Foucault (Friendship as a Way of Life)

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“Friendship as a way of life.” The Essential Works of Foucault 1954-1984, Volume One - Ethics: Subjectivity and Truth. Ed. Paul Rabinow. Trans. Robert Hurley. New York: The New Press, 1997. 135-140.


In this interview, Michel Foucault works toward discovering new fields of relationships between people, specifically through exploring the idea of friendship as a paradigm within homosexual relationships. According to him, societal norms deny the element of “friendship” to homosexual relationships, stressing only the gay sexual act in discourse. Foucault argues that this is because societies and systems of power do not fear the sexual act between men; rather they fear the relationships between men—relationships that are characterized by the friendship paradigm—and the effect these relationships can have on the diversification of norms within the society.

As a theorist of power, Foucault is very concerned with the individual's relationship to the systems of power that make up society, and the interview is colored by his theoretical background. He starts off by refuting the implicit association of homosexual relationship with “young” love—that which implies that homosexuality is not on the same level as the “mature” love between a man and a woman. This rebuttal frames his discourse as a question of relative power among different kinds of interpersonal relationships. This brings him to the idea of friendship. Love between a man and a woman is seen, normatively, as a multi-faceted relationship, involving not only sex, but friendship. Foucault essentially argues that, if society perceived the friendship aspect of homosexual relationships in the same way, instead of focusing solely on the sex, that whole new categories of relationships would be discovered.

However, as a theorist of power, he sees the friendship/love relationship between two people not only as a personal matter, but also as a weight that tilts and changes the established plane of norms. Therefore, his argument does not stop after positing friendship in homosexual relationships, but rather leads to the necessity of gays establishing a “way of life.” He finds this important because “a way of life can yield a culture and ethics” (138), and can therefore broaden and diversify the scope of societal norms. Thus, the creation of a “way of life” is the way for gays show the friendship in their relationships to society and, therefore, to empower themselves.

Foucault discusses the greater potentiality for love between two women to be accepted than for that between two men, citing Lilian Faderman in Surpassing the Love of Men (New York: Morrow, 1980). Why is the friendship/love relationship so much more accepted between women? To explain this, he shows the historicist in himself and contends that men only began to physically and emotionally contact each other on a regular basis in the nineteenth century, and only then because it was necessitated by large-scale warfare. He takes the development of emotional contact between men in war as an example of how emotionality can affect men, too, and further pushes for the acceptance of the friendship/love relationship between men.

This last point leads to a critique, specifically that to take away the physical and emotional distance between men is to desconstruct one of the key facets of the way our culture understands masculinity, causing a radical restructuring of norms in the society. But what is the norm of masculinity replaced with when it collapses? Foucault advocates the idea that gays should construct a “way of life” for themselves, but who is to say if this is possible in the absence of a norm to construct it against? Indeed, Foucault's idea of the homosexual's insight into the fabric of culture comes from existing “slantwise”—counter to norms. Is it, then, a self-defeating prophecy that the homosexual should gain insight into the society and construct his own way of life by setting in motion processes that preclude his ability to gain said insight?


See Also:

  • Audre Lorde on the uses of the "erotic" or sexuality for achieving personal, interpersonal, and political forms of agency.
  • Nancy Cott on female friendship, particularly in the 18th century, as a constrictive social sphere that produced the consciousness which later informed feminist social movements.