friendship (2): friendships precarious or false

friendship in tamen’s sense also might suggest why “culture” is often what my taiwanese friends call a “twilight object,” something constantly in diminishment: associations of friends tend to situate their objects this way. think of the friends of the environment near you. as for culture and its various subsets and stand-ins, these nearly always appear in conditions of endangerment, too; and so, we might begin to ask ourselves whether our interpretive work powerfully connects us to other associations (friends of shellfish, sowalo no ‘amis, or indigenous media to name some to which i belong) who were befriending these objects all along, generally aware of their precarious quality. that does not mean that the type of precarity that these friends see–and that might explain their motives for working with us–is the same as our stance on the befriended.

again, take the environment as an example.

since i’m going in this direction, what about friendship as a type of advocacy, a value that some ethnographers fiercely hold and others just as fiercely question? one of the best statements on friendship in this regard comes from the work of the contemporary ‘amis songwriter, suming rupi. recently, many would-be friends of suming’s hometown have come to stay, all professing their love for the landscape, particularly the view of the pacific ocean. on the whole these would-be friends are well meaning and participate in a type of consumer environmentalism known on taiwan as LOHAS, or lifestyles of health and sustainability. in response, suming has written a song which rejects this love

suming, “don’t say you love me” video 4:50 taiwan ©2012 wonder music

don’t too lightly say that you love me on the land of a’tolan
this sentiment is too murky, i cannot yet bear it
don’t too lightly say that you fell in love with me on the land of the ocean
until the time of destruction, don’t say it yet

lyrically, the song indexes features of a dominant imagination of ‘amis people throughout the island, but thwarts the pristine and simple image of a’tolan through its description of troubles and the singer’s claim that he will remain to maintain, or hold onto, the place. the melodic form of the song highlights the last phrase of the song, “zai pohuai zhi qian / ni xian / bie shuo chu kou [before it’s been destroyed, don’t say it (that you love me)],” with a marked emphasis on xian, here meaning “yet.” in the melody, xian sits on an extended level tone, at once consistent with the tonal value of the syllable phonetically but inconsistent with normal speech rhythms, which would give xian a much shorter duration. moreover, xian appears as the melody reaches the dominant (the furthest consonant interval with the tonic or key of the song), a point of particular tension in a melody. all of these musical features highlight the phrase “Don’t say it, yet.”

suming is an accomplished songwriter, which suggests that the choice of emphasis is not accidental. what might the emphasis on xian mean? the song tells the would be lover that professions of love are too soon and too lightly offered. this rejection, i would add, is the rejection of a real suitor. the song doesn’t doubt the sincerity of the would be lover. rather, the song acts against the performative statement, “i love you” or “i love a’tolan” by disputing the warrant of the suitor to speak love into existence yet. the would be lover will have to undergo the destruction of what s/he loves before s/he has a warrant to speak friendship into being (in the video, in case we don’t get it, captions give a bit of the context of what otherwise seems a love song).

in performances suming has recounted the love of visitors toward a’tolan and the tendency of these visitors not to realize that their love, ironically, exacerbates the reconfiguration of a’tolan as a tourist site, where land prices have made it nearly impossible for a’tolan ‘amis to maintain their relationship to the town and their different friendship with the ocean. so it is interesting that as a protester, he has chosen to reject the would be love of environmentalists, even while collaborating with them. part of the form of the song derives from an amis ethics of lightheartedness and play (see work by futuru tsai); however, we should take suming’s rejection of love seriously. “don’t say you love me” defers the love of environmentalists and other visitors to suggest that these would be friends have not done the work of perceiving the land of a’tolan as “despoiled,” as its ‘amis residents do. asking that we perceive a’tolan within this framework of dispossession and deindustrialization before we say “i love you,” the song suggests an ecocritical discourse at odds with the easy loves of consumer environmentalism.

that we can befriend the same objects while maintaining different stances on them–think here of the distinction between environmentalist love for the ocean and those of ‘amis men–means that friendship as an ethnographic value might shy away from far too easy professions of friendship. for example, my friendship for an endangered language provides ready relationships with advocates and educators; deepening this friendship, however, has lead me not into the bosom of those would-be friends but more often to parents who out of concern for their children’s future speak to them only in the dominant language. and no wonder: they are most aware of the cost of this difficult choice. as an ethnographic value, friendship might lead us into places counterintuitive and at times uncomfortable, but always transformative

suming, john suming video 3:34 taiwan © 2012 wonder music


deej / caraw is an ethnographer and sound installation artist currently working in ‘atolan, taiwan. his research interests include indigenous labour histories, gender, and the ethics of locality

3 thoughts on “friendship (2): friendships precarious or false

  1. DJ, really nice description. Could you say a bit more about the people you are friends with in the field? Are the older, younger, about your age? Men? Or men and women? I ask because when I was working with my Daoist master in Puli, he was the master, I was the apprentice, we had a very nice working relationship, but I’m not sure I would call it friendship in the Western sense that implies an assumed equality. There are also questions to be considered about the limits of friendship. Once, when Larry Crissman, who worked in Changhua county was asked about culture shock, he replied, “Culture shock is discovering that your best friend and informant has just sold his daughter into prostitution to buy a motorcycle.” He was speaking from personal experience.

  2. @john ‘amis society is organized around age grades, so i have a set of friends who are in my age set, all men, but have joking relationships with some of their wives. a shift occurred in my friendships when i joined the age grade organization. until then, most of my friends in a’tolan were younger men. suddenly, they had to call me older brother and our relationships were a bit constrained formally. an example that is interesting is the relationship between my ‘amis mother’s younger brother and me. he is much younger than his elder sister and only five or so years older than me. i must call him “faki” (uncle) in contexts that are connected to his family, but he is in an adjacent age set. so he insists when we are drinking that i call him “kaka” (elder sibling). i don’t think that equality is necessary for friendship–but then again, the cryptotext in much of my work is foucault’s “friendship as a way of life.” as for larry crissman’s experience, part of my argument here is that different stances, which might be on situations outside of the shared practice, actually produces anthropological knowledge–hence the anecdote about capital punishment in quanzhou. here, i’m riffing on hastrup’s work

  3. DJ, thanks for the information about the Amis. Utter ignorance has been alleviated. I’m fascinated now by the question how friendship works in societies with age grades or other ranking systems, in cases where the friends belong to different grades or ranks. Would, for example, the sworn brothers in The Romance of the Three Kingdoms consider themselves friends? Any thoughts?

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