Robot Seals as Counter-Insurgency: Friendship and Power from Aristotle to Tiqqun

” I am for you what you want me to be at the moment you look at me in a way you’ve never seen me before: at every instant. When I write, it’s everything that we don’t know we can be that is written out of me, without exclusions, without stipulation, and everything we will be calls us to the unflagging, intoxicating, unappeasable search for love. In one another we will never be lacking. “

-Helene Cixous

I was listening to the radio the other day and heard a story about robots and friendship. The narrator, an expert in computer programming and artificial intelligence research, described her visit to a nursing home with a group of students and a friendly robot seal named PARO. PARO is fuzzy, cuddly automaton of a harp seal. It responds to touch, speech, and basic emotional cues; it trills, purrs, and acts like a friendly, cuddly pet. The narrator described seeing an elderly dementia patient interact delightedly with the seal. Her face brightened, she smiled and laughed, and the students were excited at the possibility of providing cheap emotional care to thousands of lonely nursing home residents across the country. The narrator was horrified. She saw it as a cheap replacement for human connection, and as yet another way to obscure the social needs of the elderly.

I was likewise horrified, listening to the radio, but my mind immediately went elsewhere. I think there is a lesson in this story, and in this trend of affective robots and internet relationships and emotional needs fulfilled by machines, that touches on deeper themes of friendship, politics, and the possibility of becoming dangerous and powerful. What is at stake in this accelerating replacement of real relationships with robotic proxies is not a loss of some authentic human need, but the eradication of any alternative to individual neoliberalism. Robotic pets and social networking represent the logical end of a society bent on crafting an ideology of individual development, self-entrepreneurship, and attenuated relationships.

Philosophers rarely tire of speaking about friendship, but I would like to trace a common strain that casts friendship as subversive and powerful, beginning with Aristotle and running through Spinoza, Nietzsche, Cixous, Agamben, and Tiqqun. The trail is a little crooked, but ultimately it reaches the same conclusion as that of contemporary insurrectionaries, be they inspired by Politics is Not a Banana or Bonanno: friendship is political, and affinity is a more powerful foundation for revolt than identity.

Agamben reaches back across two millennia to Aristotle in order to understand friendship as a desubjectifying process. By its nature, close friendship destabilizes subjectivities and makes singularities non-equivalent. Just as citizens in a liberal democracy must be considered equivalent, so does friendship eradicate equivalencies; it is impossible to understand a friend as part of a set, but only as another whose existence changes one’s own. Friendship is based on a proximity too near to perceive one’s friend as anything but another self. That is: “friendship is the instance of this concurrent perception of the friend’s existence in the awareness of one’s own existence….The friend is not another I, but an otherness immanent in self-ness, a becoming other of the self” (Agamben 2009, 33).

So Agamben uses friendship to envision a communion of singularities without predicates; he argues explicitly that ‘friend’ cannot be a category in the same sense as ‘white’ or ‘italian’ or ‘hot’, but that it rests on an impossibility of representation. Cixous echoes this Aristotelian linkage of friendship and perception in “The Laugh of the Medusa”: “I am for you what you want me to be at the moment you look at me in a way you’ve never seen me before: at every instant” Cixous 1976, 893). There is no category “friend”, just as there is no “community”; there is only the experience of becoming friends, and of finding power in one another. And power, the element that is missing in Agamben’s discussion of friendship, is where I turn to Spinoza, through the lens of Tiqqun and Deleuze.

Tiqqun draws heavily on these concepts of friendship, of communion, of a rejection of predicates, but the weight of their politics comes from Spinoza’s concept of power and relation. For Tiqqun, the alternative to a subjectivity defined by its predicates and therefore governable by Empire is the form-of-life, an ethical way of relating to the world that is defined by a how rather than a what. The form-of-life is a linkage of thought, and penchants, and power; not the having of opinions, but the exploration of what we are capable of. This concept of power and the characteristics of singularities is cribbed directly from Spinoza. Deleuze tells us that for Spinoza “what counts among animals is not at all the genera or species; genera and species are absolutely confused notions, abstract ideas. What counts is the question, of what is a body capable?” (Deleuze 1978, 8). Once again we have a rejection of predicates in favor of power and potential: it is useless to distinguish between things based on their predicates, when we should be asking what a thing is capable of, and by what can it be affected. So following a form-of-life is the experience of exploring what one is capable of at any given time, what one can affect and what one might be affected by, an ongoing experiment in power and intensity that might end at any time. And, at stake in exploring one’s power is the question of what one is affected by. Everything is affected and affective; some substances or people might affect me joyfully, and increase my power, while others affect me sadly, decrease my power.

He never mentions the word friendship, but in his lecture on Spinoza Deleuze addresses the same concept as Agamben and Cixous above, but in the context of power: “[i]n an affect of joy, therefore, the body which affects you is indicated as combining its relation with your own and not as its relation decomposing your own. At that point, something induces you to form a notion of what is common to the body which affects you and to your own body, to the soul which affects you and to your own soul” (Deleuze 1978, 23).The experience of encountering the friend affects one joyfully, makes one powerful, forms a commonality between the self and the friend; as Agamben says, the friend is “a becoming other of the self.” But in order to experience this friendship, in order to experience the growth of power that comes with being joyfully affected by another, one must be open to being affected. One cannot be closed off but most remain vulnerable. To experience friendship is to take a risk, but one that pays off powerfully, even if negatively. If one risks being affected by another, and discovers that they are affected sadly, that another’s power grows at their own expense, then they have learned something about themselves, and about what they are capable of. They have discovered an enemy, which is as powerful as discovering a friend. This is what Tiqqun means when they define civil war as the free play of forms-of-life, and when they remind us that we are bound to both our friends and our enemies: the former because our power grows together, the latter because “in order for my power to grow, implies that I confront him, that I undermine his forces.” This is also why Nietzsche tells us that “[i]f one would have a friend, then must one also be willing to wage war for him: and in order to wage war, one must be capable of being an enemy” (Nietzsche 1909, 63) Friendship requires a putting-at-stake of oneself, an intensity that corrodes identity and predicates and grants power, that breeds communion but also conflict. Friendship becomes a way of erasing the myth of the individual, a method for finding power and intensity, and the framework for a communist politics with teeth,

If we see friendship as dangerous, as a technique for undoing the processes of subjectification that make us legible to Empire, then we can begin to understand the tactics that Empire uses to keep us powerless. There is a global counter-insurgency being waged by apparatuses of control concerned by the way that we decadents and lost souls respond with anger and riots to our circumstances. The worst nightmare of Empire is interiority; just as we are concerned that the citizen next to us could transform into a cop at any moment, so is Empire concerned that any citizen might, at any moment, reveal himself to be a terrorist, a hacker, or a looter. It is the desperation of existing in a world in which we are told we can be anything and must re-shape ourselves constantly to the needs of the market. Is is the uncertainty of existence blended with the inevitability of debt and isolation that drives the terrorist in her moral certitude, the school shooter in his generalized anger, or more dangerously, the rioting excluded that begin to find power together in their collective looting of jewelry shops and Foot Lockers.

The causes are linked, of course. Anti-social violence, depression, the human strike; these are the methods by which the disaffected wage war on the world that makes them so; they greet the nihilism of the market and identity with the nihilism of rage and despair. It is exactly these attenuated relationships, this individual responsibility, the exhaustion with which we re-craft our identities online, that renders us destabilizing as individuals. And Empire responds with new techniques and new apparatuses. If affect has become so important now, in the academy, in robotics, in computing, it is because that is what we are so desperately missing. And so, if affective care is what the businessman is missing, then he is granted the local sex-worker, or the outsourced web-cam girl or phone-sex operator from across the world: not for sex, but for a sensation of care and connection. If the marginalized youth insist on demonstrating their disaffection through rioting and burglary, then they are granted meaning through Facebook relations and Twitter feeds; if they insist anyway, then at least their Facebook accounts can be used to track them down and imprison them. If the entrepreneurs that drive our markets feel guilty, at times, that their parents are rotting away in isolation in a nursing home, then give them robotic seals to assuage their guilt. The market will provide.

For if we do need to be affected, if a world of constantly shifting identities leaves us feeling alone and depressed, then the worst outcome for Empire would be for us to find one another in our sadness. To become what we need to each other, and to find power in friendship, is to become dangerous. So we are provided with a variety of placebos that give us the sensation of friendship and care without putting anything at stake. This is the insidious nature of social networking, of robot seals, of the market solution to our needs: it is an expansion of attenuated relations into the most intimate parts of our lives, granting us the illusion of friendship while robbing it of its potency. If friendship is a destabilizing, empowering, desubjectifying process, it is bitterly ironic that its substitutes rest ever more firmly on our identities and predicates: the analysis of our tastes and our performance allows Facebook to suggest ever more specified products and activities that further entrench us in identity. The refinement of social networking algorithms matches us effortlessly with others “like us” on OkCupid; robbed of anything to work on, we work on ourselves, and we can find new sets of friends or lovers as quickly as we can change our profile. Calls for civil discourse and celebrations of the marketplace of ideas rob ideas of their vitality and make us mere commentators on our own lives. The re-imagining of friendship as an always-revocable status experienced through shared opinions and internet trends is the perfect mirror of democracy: a collection of commensurate individuals without vitality, whose affinities can change as easily as their politics, and as equally without weight.

The world tells us that we are responsible for ourselves, that we must make ourselves marketable. We must develop our abilities to find employment, groom ourselves to outshine the competition, invest in our human capital so that our future returns might grant us comfort and wealth. We are told that our care is in our own hands–not only the care for our health, which becomes an individual responsibility through private health insurance and gym memberships and fitness regimes–but the care of our minds, our souls, our emotions, through yoga and meditation and Prozac and therapy. Self-care is the necessary corollary to self-entrepreneurship: is is individual, expensive, and renders us toothless. And self-care, in its attenuated radical mirror, becomes non-hierarchical therapy sessions and alternative medicine. When an imprisoned anarchist cited mental health challenges as an excuse for shamelessly snitching on her former comrades and friends, far too many supposed comrades rushed to her defense. Snitching is never acceptable, her apologists cry, but she had past mental trauma! let us seek to understand and forgive her. Who are we to judge? This is once again the neoliberal imperative for self-care and responsibility slightly inverted.

If there is hope, it lies in reinterpreting the concept of the self and of friendship. In this way, the common anarchist refrain seen on posters across the U.S.–“Be careful with each other, so we can be dangerous together”–is understood in a new light. Rather than a call for fragility and respect, or for ‘safe spaces’, we can understand it as a call for an intense exchange of care and friendship that makes us dangerous. When a friend is sent to prison or beaten by the police, it is likewise an affront to our very core, an assault on our other selves–our heteros autos–and we can only respond by waging war. In a world that makes self-care an individual responsibility and a tactic of control, we must repurpose it by redefining the self: not as some singular entity, but as that which is co-created through the process of friendship. Self-care becomes a call for intensity, then, a binding together of our futures, resting on a willingness to be vulnerable and open to being affected. This is what is at stake with robot seals, and the true danger of such affective technology. The only response is to become that much more firm in our commitment to friendship. In one another we will never be lacking.

Agamben, Giorgio. 2009. What is an Apparatus? And Other Essays. Stanford University Press.

Cixous, Helene. 1976. “The Laugh of the Medusa.” Signs,  Vol. 1, No. 4 (Summer, 1976), pp. 875-893

Deleuze, Gilles. 1978. Lecture on Spinoza. accessed at

Nietzsche, Friedrich. 1909. Thus Spake Zarathustra.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s