Friends, But Not Really

Oh my God. I finally get it! It is starting to make sense.

As I mentioned in posts in my earlier blogs (here and here), in September of 2011 I went to a conference at Harvard on meta-philosophy. By that time I had been out of academia for a few months. One thing that stayed with me from that conference was that people at the conference who I thought were my friends, who insisted that we were friends, who were my former colleagues and teachers turned away from me when I told them that I left academia.

When I told a few of them at the conference that I had left academia, they didn’t ask, as one imagines friends would, why I left, what the matter was, what might help me to stay in academia. What I got instead were blank stares and pleasant smiles, as if by leaving academia and yet coming to the conference I was doing something rude. As if I were betraying them as friends. And that their smiling pleasantly at me was a sign of their magnanimity, that they were willing to overlook my rudeness and still show their friendliness.

The same thing happened at Bryn Mawr when I told my colleagues that I was leaving academia. They didn’t ask me why I was leaving or what the problem was. They were friendly, cordial. They seemed to think that if I wasn’t going to play by the rules, then it is best if I left. They seemed sorry I was leaving, as in sorry that I decided not to play by the rules. They seemed to wish that I would play by the rules, because I seemed like a nice enough guy and we got along. But, like the people at the conference, they seemed to sense that I wasn’t going to play by those rules anymore – and that left a gap in our mode of interacting. It was no longer clear what bound us together. Hence the silence and the cordial smiles. Like a couple meeting at divorce court, it seemed like there was nothing left to say.

This has puzzled me for the last four years. The question gnawed at me: if my colleagues and former teachers were my friends, then why didn’t they fight with me, fight for me to stay in academia? Why did they seem to accept so easily that I left? When I told them I left academia, why did they just smile at me, as if it was perfectly fine with them?

The answer became clear to me reading Stanley’ How Propaganda Works. In Stanley’s book, what is the relation between Stanley the author and his readers?

Is it that Stanley is the expert and the readers just novices who learn from the expert? Not explictly. For the relation of an expert to a novice suggests that the relation between Stanley as the author and the readers is of a power differential. That Stanley is an epistemic superior to the readers. But if this is made too explicit, then it seems strange to say that the mode of critical thinking that Stanley is exhibiting is the kind which is essential to a democracy. For how can a mode of thinking which presupposes that the public – because they are not experts in philosophy – can only really by novices be, at the same time, committed to democratic reflection?

No. If the book is about how to engender democratic reflection, then the tone of the book has to be one which suggests that the author is the expert, but which nowhere actually says this. Which in fact says, and reenforces the impression, that the author and the readers are on the same level. That whatever knowledge the author is privy to, and is communicating in the book, is simply information that is being passed between equals. The way a friend might tell another friend where a certain restaurant they will be meeting at is located.

This sense of equals only lasts as long as the reader is committed to reading the book. If a reader halts and says, “no, I think this book is seriously confused,” then, if the author could talk to the reader, the author could say why the reader is not in an epistemic position to be able to question the author that way. But even then the author doesn’t have to make this argument. If the reader stops reading, then it can be assumed that it is the reader who is backing out of the joint venture of friends to create a better democracy. Then the author could merely smile benevolently at the reader, as if to say, “Well, reader, that is your choice.”

The same thing happens in academic philosophy. One doesn’t affirm the sense of hierarchy in academia for fear it would seem authoritarian. So instead what is fostered is the sense that everyone in academic philosophy are simply friends. It is through the sense of being friends that a feeling of community and camaraderie is created, and the sense that there are strict hierarchies is disavowed.

But this feeling of friendship is as much a feature of institutional necessity as obeying your supervisors is a institutional necessity in the military. Only, whereas in the military, as in a dictatorship, the hierarchy is explicit, in academic philosophy now (as opposed to even 30 years ago) it is through the vaneer of friendship that the institutional relations are mediated. The assumption of friendship is the mode of the double-talk in academia.

When I went to the conference in 2011, I assumed that because I was friends with the people at that conference we would be able to talk as friends about my leaving academia. When that didn’t happen, my immediate reaction was guilt and shame. I assumed that my friends were mad at me, that I had betrayed them, that I did something wrong by first leaving academia, and then did something wrong again by showing up at the conference. I felt that underneath their smiles, they were angry, hurt, upset. Or I worried, because what I did in leaving academia was so wrong, that underneath their smiles they didn’t care about me anymore, and that maybe they were right not to.

I see now that I was confused. When I assumed that my colleagues at Bryn Mawr or the people at the conference were my friends, I assumed that the friendship was something that was more fundamental than our institutional relationship. I assumed that the friendship was picking out something important about each of us as people such that it could, and would, exist even if I were no longer in academia. It was a friendship in that sense which I was hoping to experience at that conference. When I didn’t, I was thrown for a loop. At the time of the conference I was ok with not being in academia. I assumed that whether one was in academia or not was a merely an issue of one’s day job. But what I was not ready for was to leave the friendships which I felt I had in academia, because I presumed those were more basic than institutional relationships.

But I was wrong. The ideas of friends as it functions in academic philosophy right now is not something more fundamental than an institutional relation, but it is the mode in which those institutional relations are defined. Friendship talk is the way that academics reconcile the ideal of all academics being equal interlocutors in a rational conversation with the reality of the unremitting, hierarchical structure of academia. It renders the cover of a bond between all academic philosophers, as if no matter what the hierarchical differences between two academic philosophers (one might be making $200,000 a year while teaching two courses a year and another might be making $30,000 a year teaching eight courses a year), they are all nonetheless friends, bound together, in spite of their material and power differences, by their common love of wisdom.

This is the fundamentally conservative function of the talk of friendship in academic philosophy. It holds off the sense that something is wrong. It suggests that things are not that bad because really we are all friends.

I am not here denying that there are friends in a robust sense in academic philosophy. Of course there are. These are friends who share deep interests, keep in touch, are there for each other, who devote time and energy to each other’s lives. But that is not what I am talking about. I am talking about the vaneer of friendship which is assumed to go along with simply being a colleague, and which thereby functions as a way of covering over the power differentials between colleagues. I am talking about assumptions of friendship which enables double-talk.

When I went to the conference, I assumed that the friendship I had with most of my colleagues was real and something more robust than just an institutional necessity for keeping order and avoiding tough questions. To some extent, this was self-delusion on my part. How can the friendship be substantial when I didn’t reach out to them before I decided to leave academia? When I felt that I couldn’t talk to them? Still, some part of me hoped in going to the conference that the underlying friendship we had would enable us to talk. But it didn’t.

It didn’t because the friendships I had with my colleagues was predicated on our interactions within academia. That is the main reason I was met at the conference with blank stares and pleasant smiles. Because they, as much as me, were confused on what mode of interaction we were now supposed to have. The friendship we had as colleagues never actually moved beyond the surface to form deep bonds which could survive us being on different sides of the institutional divide. What felt like a friendship of colleagues within academia evaporated as soon as I stepped outside academia and our bonds as colleagues was cut.

This means that to get beyond the double-talk in academic philosophy one has to find ways to be critical of, and move beyond, the surface and easy talk of being friends just in virtue of being colleagues. Being a colleague is a relation defined through the obvious power differentials implicit in an institutional structure. Being friends is a relation which suggests that the friends are engaging fundamentally as people and not primarily through their position in institutional structures. The idea that people are friends just in virtue of being colleagues is double-talk which reenforces the power relations even as it covers over them.

4 thoughts on “Friends, But Not Really

  1. Gautam

    You may be holding academia to too high a standard here — the phenomenon of context-bound friendship shows up in lots of other settings as well, and I’m not sure that it indicates any kind of double-talk in the academic setting. For example:

    * Work friendships — people can eat lunch together every day at a workplace, and when one person leaves that job, they may not meet to talk again.
    * college friendships — e.g., being part of a group of friends in college; after college, the group drifts apart as people pursue their separate interests).
    * Group of single friends — one person in the group gets married, and so interacts less with the single group.
    * Group of young couples without kids — one couple in the group has kids, and they drift away, as their life starts revolving around children-specific needs and issues.

    The group of single friends may be a good analogy to the “leaving academia” case. One of the friends says, “I found the love of my life … I’m getting married!”. He can’t continue to participate in all the group activities, so inevitably he would drift from the group.
    * Should the other friends “fight” with him to prevent him from getting married? (this is a hardy trope in movies, not so much in real life)
    * A couple of years later, the now-married friend encounters one of his old buddies at a bar. Inevitably, they would reminisce about their days together (& maybe catch up on news, “so-and-so got a new job”), but it is hard to continue to build on that earlier friendship.

    Arguably, most friendships seem context-bound in the above manner. There certainly are friendships that can transcend context, but these may be exceptions


  2. Bharath Vallabha Post author

    Certainly friendships are context-bound. I doubt there are any friendships that transcend contexts altogether. Totally agree about change in context and how people might not remain friends, or keep in touch. This is, as you highlight in your examples, perfectly normal.

    But my point isn’t that by leaving academia my friendship with some people in academia broke down. Rather, it is that I was never friends in the normal sense of sharing a context with them to begin with. In particular, I wasn’t friends in that normal sense with most of my professors. This is worth highlighting because some (though certainly not all) professors and senior colleagues acted as if we were friends in the normal sense just in virtue of my having taken some classes with them or my being in the same department as them. Call this “the veneer of friendship.”

    The examples you give highlight how people who were friends lose touch when their contexts change. What I am talking about is how people who are not friends, even though they share the same context of being academics, are made to seem like friends under the veneer of friendship. And how that veneer ends up covering over the institutional power differentials between them. This is double-talk: where talk of friendship is used, often unconsciously, to re-enforce power dynamics in the institutional setting.


    1. Gautam

      > colleagues acted as if we were friends in the normal sense just in virtue of my having taken some classes with them or my being in the same department as them

      But isn’t this just “collegiality” (cf. “college”)? “Veneer of friendship” makes it seem a kind of bad faith, but academics do prize the idea of a community of people bound by a common intellectual interest (very clubby — you can see it in terms like “faculty lounge”). It is true that this ideal is stretched very thin when a department has graduate students, postdocs, adjunct faculty, teaching fellows, untenured profs, tenured profs with endowed chairs, etc ., so that the power differentials are difficulty to mask, but perhaps the intent is still there.


      1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

        The point about the ideal being stretched thin is exactly the issue. Academics do have intellectual, and even social, interests in common. But they are also part of structures which are deeply hierarchical, where the gap between the haves and the have nots (in a purely material sense of making a living and institutional power) is striking.

        By the vaneer of friendship, I mean treating the shared intellectual interests as reflecting a similarity of shared situation such that a tenured professor might say to an adjunct professor, “we are in this together”; or act as if that were true. Here what is at issue is not whether the two are friends, as in whether they spend time together. It is using the sense of collegiality as friends to emphasize the feeling of “being in it together” even while explicitly ignoring the obvious differences in situation of the two people.



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