I’ve got some explaining to do: Why letters? Why now? Regarding what? To what effect? Why you? And who is exactly are these letters addressed to?
But first, I’d like to send you my warmest regards from Taipei. I’ve been here for a year now and I am finding that I yearn, perhaps more now than before, for our continued connection and conversation. It’s not just that I feel like I have been neglecting a part of myself this past year in the midst of language learning and all of the various community building projects I have been busying myself with, it’s also that I still sense the kernel of possibility that lays dormant in our relationship and refuse to leave these possibilities uncultivated. Given that you consented to my text message earlier this month about writing and publishing these letters, I can’t help but wonder if you still feel it too: that throbbing fissure between the partially foreclosed actuality of our relationship and what remains to be performed in potentiality. At times, late at night, in the middle of the day, I feel it thump, announcing the pulse of nascent possibilities and demanding my care and attention. Hence these letters, my warmest regards, anything and everything I can do to pass through this sliver of something yet to come and reach you through the ruse of our imagined dialogue.
Which brings us back to the question of who exactly these letters are addressed to. I’m certainly writing to “you,” that singular and inimitable person with whom regular contact has been rocky (to say the least), the “you” to whom I once gave a special gift, from which your pseudonym—Amity—is partly derived. These letters are an attempt to maintain good relations with this singular “you,” to extend our conversation beyond the impasse of conflicting desires and impossible co-presence. At the same time, “you” are also a fiction, a composite character, a literary experiment, my meager attempt to fill in the sign to which these letters are addressed, to participate in the construction of a particular understanding and practice of amity that I am developing through the course of our dialogue and inviting, as always, the singular actual “you” to participate in. I’m writing to you under the sign of amity because that’s really what I’m after, what I want to perform anew through my writing, amity as an ontological condition for the multiple-loving relations that I am interested in cultivating. In this sense, “you” far exceed your(singular actual)self and will include multiple singular actual selves as I engage in relations with other significant others who, as you have, further expand my sense and practice of amity.
You might be wondering now why I chose to write to you under the sign of amity and not, say, “friend” or “friendship.” These terms feel too fraught, freighted with too much underestimating baggage as they circulate within an amatonormative system of relationship hierarchy. Furthermore, I’m less interested in exfoliating a particular category of relationship—i.e. friendship—than I am in discursively developing a way to talk about a broader ontological condition for good relations that transcends categorization. Amity is helping me to do that theoretical work for the time being, and I admit that amity and friendship may not be as easily distinguished as I have been presupposing. Nevertheless, perhaps we can tentatively say that the relationship between friendship and amity is that friendship, as a particular kind of relationship, has a special proximity to the broader ontological condition of amity, which surely conditions other forms of relations such as those with lovers and kin, but is obscured and overshadowed by their entrapment in discourses of romance and the family. Why, for instance, is the state of being filled with such good-will towards another person that your heart could just burst primarily legible through the frame of romance over and against the category of friendship? Amity, I want to suggest, can help us to undercut this unfortunate distinction.
Nevertheless, there have been numerous works in and around friendship that I find useful for exploring amity. Do you remember the introduction to David Scott’s 2017 book, Stuart Hall’s Voice: Intimations of an Ethics of Receptive Generosity, which I had sent you a few months ago when we were still doing phone calls? I forget exactly what we talked about, but you were wondering why I was so intent on us reading this part of Scott’s book together. We never finished that conversation—let me try, albeit in an unsatisfactory way, to finish it now.
Scott wrote Stuart Hall’s Voice in the wake of Hall’s passing on February 10th, 2014. Pained by this loss, Scott extends his conversation with Stuart Hall through a series of letters which make up the book, Scott’s attempt to continue savoring and maintaining his relationship with a beloved deceased friend. As the title suggests, Scott’s project in this book is to put into words the particular style of ethics that Hall practiced, “an ethics of receptive generosity” that grounded Hall’s subject formation as what Scott calls a “listening self.” The reason why I wanted us to read the introductory letter together was because that’s where Scott describes a particular mode of friendship he calls “intellectual friendship,” or “the dimension of friendship that offers a dialogical context for thinking” (p. 12). Such a dialogical context is secured by a mutual attunement and attentive receptivity between interlocutors, “a readiness to appreciatively hear where the other is coming from” (p. 14) in a shared attempt to clarify what each party is attempting to say. I thought that Scott’s description of intellectual friendship, attentive receptivity, and clarification helped to describe some of the best parts of our relationship: how we constantly acknowledge our frustrations with language in our attempts to communicate with one another (“X is not quite the right word but…”), how we constantly check in with how well we are receiving what the other puts forward (“What I hear you saying is…”), the kindness with which we treat one another in our humbled and failed attempts at mutual understanding (“That’s not quite it but I can see how you got there based on what I said. Let me try saying it a different way…”), the way in which the emergence of something more refined but forever marked for further dialogical revision positively correlates with the increasing generosity we offer to one another.
But I’m not primarily talking about ideas, and I don’t think that Scott is either, though he seems to say this more implicitly than explicitly throughout the book. The object of clarification—for instance, “Stuart Hall’s voice” and what his voice says about the particular ethics he practiced—is less important than the subject of clarification, that is, the interlocutors themselves in their equally provisional and perpetual unfolding. What the book Stuart Hall’s Voice offers is less the sanitized finality of an argument on how best to interpret and commemorate Stuart Hall than a medium through which the author performs his own becoming in relation to Hall. Hence why the book is saturated with longing, admiration, and the sense that Scott is opening himself further to listen still to the voice of his dear friend. I think that Scott, and you too, would agree that thinking, being, and becoming are mutually implicated movements for which we have the unfortunate burden of serializing into words. That is to say, the dialogical context for thinking that friendship provides is not primarily about intellectual refinement (although it certainly includes that), but rather ethical transformation. Dialogue as a form of co-becoming—that’s what I wanted to get at in our unfinished conversation, to suggest that our friendship has been and has the potential to continue being a space in which such process fruitfully occurs.
Yet there is more that I want to draw your attention to now in Scott’s letter to Stuart Hall. Part of what drew me into this book is the way that Scott discusses the epistolary form: its delayed temporality, its mimesis of voice, even the private-public-paradox of writing letters for publication (see p. 18). What I want to focus on here is the way that Scott writes about the relationship between the epistolary form and friendship. He suggests that
the letter is potentially the literary embodiment of a quality of relationship that might be called, simply, friendship. As a way of keeping company with special others, the letter seems to me uniquely able to disclose, or, less passively, to enact, some of the relational sentiments and virtues we commonly think of as internal to friendship: among them (and in no particular order), affection, loyalty, indulgence, sympathy, complementarity, tolerance, equality, stability, candor, respect, truthfulness, liberality, trustworthiness. In this sense, more than any other literary form, I believe, the letter has the capacity to honor friendship—to give friendship its measure and its due. (pp. 7-8)
While I’m less keen on framing my thoughts exclusively around friendship as Scott does, and I certainly still have reservations about the concept of virtue and its entanglement in Western philosophies of friendship (more in a later letter), I nevertheless agree with Scott that there is indeed something about the letter form that allows for the enactment of relational sentiments germane to friendship, something about this literary genre that facilitates the practice of “keeping company with special others” and honoring these relations. Letters, after all, incarnate relations into words. The reason why I have chosen to explore and exfoliate the ontological condition of amity through the practice of epistolary writing is because letters are the genre par excellence of relationality. To the movements of thinking, being, and becoming, we must add relating, perhaps the closest word we have to describe the dance as a whole. And so it is on this higher level resonance between the epistolary and the relational that I write to you.
At least those are the theoretical justifications for my choice of literary genre. More practically, epistolary writing feels easier and more organic to me as it does not require the writer to spontaneously produce themselves through monological voice and the tyranny of self-narration. Instead, epistolary voice—the voice with which I write to you now—bears less the authorial imprint of the letter writer than the traces of our specific relationship, the context from which my particular way of speaking and writing with you effortlessly emerges. In this sense, it’s not that I have a pre-existing epistolary voice, but rather our specific relationship sounds itself out through an epistolary voice for which we both share the burden of vocalizing, a burden lightened by the lift of our coming together. That feels like magic, especially for someone like myself who continues to struggle with enunciating my “self” through speech.
Lastly, I’ve become increasingly convinced that the letter form, in conjunction with its capacity to honor the relations it manifests, is also the most intellectually honest form of writing for the occasion of thinking. What I mean by this is that the letter lays bare the relations that allow for thinking, being, and becoming in the first place. Other forms of writing—be it academic prose, memoir, the essay, etcetera—may nod to the specific relationships that make them possible, but they don’t foreground this constitutive relationality as a central feature of form. The letter is perhaps unique in this regard. As I have been exploring a suitable medium to continue my various lines of inquiry, I have been increasingly draw to the letter, intrigued by its capacity to undo the ruse of authorship and the conceits of philosophizing. Or at least that’s the kind of intellectualism I most want to practice, one that disavows the lone author-philosopher in favor of a more genuine presentation of thinking as it occurs in relationship, conversation, contention, and dialogue with others.
So what exactly am I hoping to be in dialogue with you about? There’s a particular project that I want to explore with you, but I’m still having trouble defining its scope. It is somewhere in the vicinity of the following keywords: self, relation, process; friendship, amity, love; eroticism, ecstasy; ethics, becoming, transformation; possibility; and those two fraught terms that I’ve been engaging more earnestly with as of late—asexuality and aromanticism. There’s something about how these keywords are mashed together in both my lived experience and our relationship in a way that resembles the messy shape of something urgent and exhilarating. And I also have the sense that others beyond our dialogue might find these explorations helpful. But we’ll see. Do let me know if this inchoate project is something you’re willing to indulge. More soon.