30 October 2010

friendship is in the water

Last Tuesday night, I went over to Wellsville to hear philosopher Timothy Madigan give his talk "Aristotle's Email: Friendship in the Cyber Age" at the David A. Howe Public Library. He started out with describing Aristotle's three types of friendship: utility, pleasure, good, and how they can help us achieve eudaimonia (literally "good spirit" and usually translated as happiness in the sense of fulfillment). This is described in Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics. After laying out the foundation, Madigan brought us up to date with how friendship plays out in an era of Facebook Friends, other social networks like Classmates.com, googling your long-lost friends (and finding them sometimes), and TV shows like "Seinfeld" and "Friends." He cited Robin Dunbar's writing in Wired which hypothesized that one's brain is capable of handling 150 friends. So what's that you say? You have 500 friends on Facebook. He and others have followed up and found that 150 is about the number of active friends one might have on Facebook (whatever active means). He said that nobody writes letters anymore but we know that isn't entirely true. On the other hand, one doesn't get much personal mail in the mailbox.

On Wednesday, Lenka Clayton gave a lecture as the visiting artist in the School of Art and Design at Alfred University. Wouldn't you know that one of her recent and ongoing projects is called "Mysterious Letters"? She and Michael Crowe both discovered that they had wanted to do a project to write a letter to everyone in the world. They realized that this was a daunting task but that if both of them had come up with the idea, there must be some reason to pursue it. They started with a residency in Cushendall, Northern Ireland, working out of a tower in the center of the village of 467 households. Lenka and Michael walked around town, taking pictures and then writing individual letters inspired by the houses and whatever. They mailed all of the letters on the same day and their story ended up on BBC News. Next up was Polish Hill in Pittsburgh where Lenka is now living. A couple more are in the planning but don't ask where because they won't tell you. Kind of kills the mystery. In Cushendall and Polish Hill, the letters evoked and provoked considerable comment and some concern among the residents. Folks in Polish Hill met neighbors that they'd seen around (perhaps acquaintances or Aristotelian friends of utility). This project, and much of Lenka's art work, reflects her origins in documentary filmmaking as well as her interest in history and place. Her other projects led to taking apart Bush's weapons of mass destruction speech and putting the words back together in alphabetical order; following the instructions for a trip in NYC found in a notebook bought in a thrift shop; putting people in order by age, finances, length of relationship, and stage of pregnancy; and writing consecutive numbers on 7000 stones in honor of the Steinheim Museum at Alfred University (part of residency in 2008).

Then, wouldn't you know? I get to church this morning and Pastor Pat Bancroft is going to talk about friendship in the cyber age. She didn't call it that. Pat hasn't leapt into the Facebook swamp yet but had read about someone who was bragging about their 4700+ Friends and she was just stunned. Not surprisingly, her take on the topic was more about spiritual friendship but, still, there was much to think about in light of Madigan and Clayton. Pat's husband, Tim, indirectly gave me another assignment in talking about how Aristotle plays out in Boethius and on to Aquinas and then on to later philosophers and thinkers. Yikes, and I just wanted to continue with my reading of Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel.


bklynbiblio said...

Speaking of friendship then, Sherman, you must see the new adult animated film "Mary and Max." It opened here in the UK this week, but I suspect it should be opening in the US soon, if not already. It's the story of random penpals in NY and Australia from the 1970s to the 1990s. It's hilarious and sad, but it makes the point that God gives us our relatives, but fortunately we get to choose our friends.

Sherman Clarke said...

Thoughts on friendship keep swirling around in my brain, not quite keeping me awake but I was churning as I woke up this morning. When I had posted this entry last night, I went to Facebook and found that a friend, Ross Day, was pruning his Friends list and had established the criteria for keeping: neighbors, colleagues, people with something to say. Not quite Aristotelian but solid criteria. And I didn't mention that Pat had divided her "layers" of friendship into acquaintance, companionship, and true friendship; again, not really Aristotelian but similar deepening of the relationship (a word that Pat stressed). It shouldn't be too surprising that Ross is almost Aristotelian since his forename is almost the second syllable of Aristotle. And playing with names takes me back to Wolf Hall and its character Wriothesley who says you can "Call me Risley" which then becomes his nickname. Ris-Ross. This may have all been brought on by walking through my front door which has a "Friends for Peace" sign.

Sherman Clarke said...

Roberto, I had read your post about "Mary and Max" but too quickly. Now I'll put the film higher up the list! I'll be in NYC next weekend for the NY Art Book Fair so maybe I can fit in the film which MUST be showing somewhere there.