Men are all brothers … ?!

Yesterday I read a bit about Oulipo. While reading I discovered this beautifully arranged picture of a part of the group, but couldn’t help noticing that there weren’t any women around … (I am, after all, on a quest  for literary foremothers).

In A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf writes: “we think back through our mothers if we are women. It is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure.”

Definitely the Opera hinted to this party of men not being a case of accident, but more of a cultural tendency, or – to be honest: a classic case of historical phallocentrism. A concept Derrida can tell us more about, as he also can about friendship.

The following text is snatched from a great paper by Joanne Winning

Derrida recounts the three models of friendship proposed by Aristotle:

  1. the higher friendship’ which is ‘based on virtue’ and which has ‘nothing to do with politics. It is a friendship between two virtuous men’;
  2. ‘friendship grounded on utility and usefulness, and this is political friendship’;
  3. ‘On the lower level, friendship grounded on pleasure’.

These different concepts of friendship, Derrida argues, move across different registers. Some are political and some are not. Derrida notes, as he works through the Aristotelian models, that ‘political friendship’ is fundamentally inflected by gender. It is, to quote from him directly, ‘a phallocentric, or phallogocentric, concept’. From an Aristolean construction onwards, the parameters of friendship and friendship bonds exclude women and the notion of female friendship.

Whilst Derrida himself doesn’t cite the example of the sixteenth-century essayist Michel de Montaigne, we might well use him as an example. In his essay ‘On Friendship’, Montaigne argues: ‘the normal capacity of women is, in fact, unequal to the demands of that communion and intercourse on which the sacred bond is fed; their souls do not seem firm enough to bear the strain of so hard and lasting a tie’.

Derrida argues that the canonical model of friendship is archetypally ‘a friendship between two young men’. Such a canonical model, Derrida notes immediately, excludes several possible permutations: ‘first of all friendship between a man and a woman, or between women, so women are totally excluded from this model of friendship: woman as the friend of a man or women as friends between themselves’. 

Derrida identifies the guiding principle that underlies the model of canonical friendship as ‘brotherhood’ or ‘fraternity’. Such a principle finds its roots in various dominant cultural discourses; Derrida identifies it in Greece, as well as Christian ideology in which ‘Men are all brothers because they are sons of God’.

“we think back through our mothers if we are women”!

13 Comments Add yours

  1. As far as I can remember, there’s lots of Montaigne in the book.

  2. Sigrun says:

    Raymond’s book is new to me, but I’m almost certain that Derrida’s Friendship is to be found in my library, still unread …

  3. Derrida and Montaigne…What twaddle, sigrun. Intelligence might as well be garbage if instead of seeking to go beyond, it advocates what has been and what simpy is. When intelligence lacks imagination this is what it amounts to. Thank God for Woolf. You take care.

  4. Derrida does advocate against that line of thinking, in fact.

    1. Oops. Apologies to Derrida then. Thanks for setting me straight.

      1. He was a great ally. Always interested in sexual difference, how it’s created and how it lives in the philosophical canon. Friend and supporter of Helene Cixous. Beloved by many English-speaking feminists like Drucilla Cornell, Peggy Kamuf, Richard Rorty. For me, the best of Derrida is the anglophone exegesis of Derrida.

  5. Harold Rhenisch says:

    Intelligence, friendship, literature … hmmm. The words come from different word hoards. No wonder the whole set of concepts is a mess. Poetry allows for a bit of parliamentary palaver between these various ancestral concepts, as well as moments of integration, but, still, ultimately, the concepts are splinters of different worlds. It might be possible to get further by choosing one particular word hoard and sticking with it. Friendship, for instance, comes from northern farmers and sea people. Intelligence comes from French castle builders. Literature from all over the place, but it’s certainly post-Anglo Saxon. There’s always desire to bring the levels together and speak of friendship as relating to intelligence, and so forth, but that only works if one thinks of words on a kind of atomic level, and that approach doesn’t seem to allow a way forward in this case. But, back to the Anglo Saxon .. freondscip was both friend and lover, as well as friend and love. Back at that point in the language, there were these incredible gestalt moments, kinds of oral amulets, that had great power to radiate in many directions, and if one goes further, into Old Norse, then verbs and nouns even come together. I think it’s at that root level where transformation into feminine concepts can best be made, not on a more abstract level, where the abstraction has already distanced the speaker from the moment, and one needs art to bring it back to life, which is usually missing. By the way, all men are certainly not brothers, or, if they are, then only in an abstract sense; that they can be enemies as well is also part of the point. 🙂

  6. Logical, if you accept the premise that women are not fully human. The Greeks also thought that women were biologically imperfect (and therefore ugly), their bodies being unfinished versions of the male body. Once these, or any ideas, get lodged in a culture it’s next to impossible to get them out. We have overturned the biological and social notions of women’s inferiority, but the prejudice remains, of course, and is still reinforced by, e.g., organized religions–the religions we know in the West, at least.

    1. Harold Rhenisch says:

      Now, who would accept such a stupid premise, hmm? Are such people really part of a ‘we’ for people who don’t accept the premise? Really?

      1. Plato, Aristotle…that crowd. They passed it on to so-called Western Civilization.

      2. Harold Rhenisch says:

        I think they’re dead, right? So, we’re good. But, Plato. A gay man, a military hero, put to death for leading the young men of Athens astray (the parties, whew), yet retained their loyalty to the end, who betrayed the trust of the priestesses of Eleusis, was a botched playwright, who invented philosophical dialogues in its place, rather fascist in his politics, didn’t believe in general brotherhood, a complex figure, right?

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