Real friends

by Rob Horning

18 July 2006


More on the precarious state of friendship. In this NYT Magazine article Ann Hulbert argues that recent data showing Americans have fewer close friends than before doesn’t necessary mean that we’re experiencing greater social isolation. Instead, she suggests that in response to the communications technology that puts us more in touch than ever with others, we may have “defined intimacy up” In one of many rhetorical questions she poses in the piece, she asks, “Could it be precisely because we’re more plugged in to a disparate array of people who supply us with information when we need it, offer advice and keep us intermittent company, that our standard of genuine closeness has become more exacting?” I don’t think I’m entirely sure about what she’s getting at here. Perhaps it is this: Since we have a broader base from which to draw friends and better filtering tools for selecting them, our chances are better of selecting friends who are like soul mates, and therefore we don’t need more than a few close friends to fulfill all our needs. If this sounds a lot like that modern invention, the companionate marriage, that’s not accidental. Hulbert hints at the end of the piece that our spouses may be all the friends we need.

When one-dimensional, functional relationships are ever more accessible, the desire to be known and to know another from all sides and from inside out may be lodged even deeper—and may thrive closer to home. A century ago, another philosopher surveying a modernizing world, George Santayana, had already concluded that “the tie that in contemporary society most nearly resembles the ancient ideal of friendship is a well-assorted marriage.”

Another of her rhetorical questions investigates reasons for friendship. “Is friendship a matter of spontaneous sincerity, heartfelt reciprocity, mutual understanding, deep loyalty, moral obligation or shared passion — and can it last?” It seems to me that all of these things may or may not be part of friendship, and what’s more, who cares? Perhaps the essence of real friendships, despite the social networking tools that help define the various degrees of closeness and usefulness of our acquaintances, is that no sustained analysis is required for them to persist. Our commitment to our friends is typically self-justifying, habitual. Friendships are often these wholly unique relations that appear in midst of our decisions and choices as inevitable, given. Most friendships probably can’t bear the brunt of too much analysis; many might start to fall apart if we tried to find justifications for them, and that may be their whole point. The beauty of friendship is that it’s perfectly gratuitous.

So perhaps the crisis in friendship has been created by the way in which communications technology is constantly inviting us to classify and categorize and instrumentalize our friends. In being forced to compartmentalize people, we become alienated from them. When the rampant mechanico-technical rationality that drives Internet efficiency and productivity begins to invade on the few personal, intimate spaces protected from it, we notice.

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