Far from simply defending and illustrating his own alternative lifestyle, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie questions the pre-eminence of the couple and family within our societies.

* Lire en français. The English translation is provided by the editorial staff, who are solely responsible for any inaccuracies.

You can be heterosexual, live in a couple with children in a detached house, be keen to celebrate Christmas with your family and... be genuinely challenged by this essay by sociologist-philosopher Geoffroy de Lagasnerie. We can try to reassure ourselves by seeing in it a remnant of adolescent revolt against gentrification, or even a desire to challenge the social order that the profession of sociologist and the academic world have never been able to correct. But it's probably stronger than that.

Just as the analysis of the logic of domination developed by his companion Didier Éribon is by no means limited to the gay condition, Geoffroy de Lagasnerie's reflections on friendship are just as general in scope. This book is based on the trio of friends he forms with Didier Éribon and Edouard Louis. Using discreet photographs of their daily lives to illustrate their '3' lifestyle, the book develops a sociological and political analysis of the familialist structuring of our societies, while suggesting ways of escaping it through a reasoned and assiduous practice of friendship.

Changing life, in society

While the cult of friendship is often associated with youth, de Lagasnerie's book sees it as a way of life that is not limited to that age and, above all, draws from it a way of questioning the organisation of society arising from the gay condition without limiting itself to it. Although he draws his main examples from his personal life, the author opens up this reflection to the existential choices that we can all be confronted with in the course of our lives.

Is it possible to choose one's life — following a path sometimes envisioned, dreamt or imagined, particularly during the transition from adolescence to adulthood? The author explores this vast question, which is at once philosophical, sociological and, ultimately, highly political, noting that it extends his writings on "the systems of power that impose themselves on us and limit the various aspects of our lives" (p. 11). Without assuming that all young people are necessarily in revolt against their family, the author emphasises the role of this institution:

"The family structure represents the main incubation site for the ideological atmosphere of conservatism: there is a relationship between family order and the stability of repressive logics — so that there can be no revolutionary political project that does not involve a critique of the family and the family order." (p. 21)

While the author draws on the thinking of the controversial psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich   , it is alongside Barthes, Foucault and, often, Bourdieu that he takes his place in answering these questions. Following in the footsteps of Barthes in his seminar "Comment vivre ensemble (1976-1977)", published in 2002, the philosopher-sociologist examines the limits of the search for another life, "an idiorythmic life" torn between two models, that of the hermit "who cuts himself off from everything, who lives at his own pace, but alone" and that of the monastery where "several people cut themselves off from the world and aspire to a life regulated differently, but nevertheless find themselves prisoners of a total institution" (p. 51). Whether solitary or communal, these organisations are not satisfactory when it is not a question of "cutting oneself off, of making the fabric of relationships even rarer", but rather, as the author claims, of "producing another, more intense culture and another, more complex practice of relationality", of fostering "another, more autonomous relationship to oneself and to others", in a process aimed at "constructing another orientation of existence", at "inventing other types of relationship to others, to politics and [...] to writing" (p. 54).

Barthes's research does not provide the solution to the problem. But the semiologist was not the only intellectual in search of another form of life or "relationality". Foucault, a critic of representative and political systems, nonetheless wrote "Mon père" (My Father) to Georges Dumézil, as Éribon recounts. Éribon himself admits to being referred to as Bourdieu's "fourth son" by the sociologist's wife (p. 128). According to Lagasnerie, Éribon sees it as impossible to think about intergenerational relations without grasping them in this "family vocabulary", which makes them fit into the only "institutionalised forms" that are tenable if not morally authorised (ibid.).

To avoid this vision, the sociologist-philosopher draws inspiration from Durkheim, the founder of modern sociology, but also a specialist in education, who sees the school as a provisional space for liberating individual consciences from the rules of social life   . Following on from these principles, Lagasnerie invites us to include friendship in this process:

"Could friendship as a culture, as a meeting place between individuals who bring each other knowledge, projects, stories, etc., not be a kind of space for mutual education?" (p. 112).

Thus recognised and almost institutionalised, friendship could help change life in society. It is to such a programme that the book sets out "to function as a kind of manual of existence  a manual of anti-institutional life" (p. 22), a new treatise on how to live for the younger generation, to use Raoul Vaneigem's expression   . But to achieve this, he needs to reconsider friendship, so that it becomes part of the long term, and is no longer seen as a utopia or a parenthesis...

An anti-institutional lifestyle manual

If friendship is often seen as a passing utopia, a transitory moment, a matter for the young, a youth destined to pass away, "because at some point you will have to enter 'real life', married and family life" (p. 80), the daily and intellectual lives of Geoffroy, Didier and Édouard serve to demonstrate that it can be extended in a resolutely intergenerational way. It's a revolutionary attitude that calls into question the choices made by Patti Smith, the punk singer-poet who abandoned Robert Mapplethorpe, her friend and photographer, to settle down "with her husband far from New York to have children and bring them up in peace" (p. 81):

"This story illustrates the extent to which even an intense friendship can still be experienced (by her, and it is not insignificant that she is a heterosexual woman and he a gay man) with the certainty that it is only a moment, a parenthesis (Just Kids), and therefore how the separate and invented relationships only seem able to last as long as family destiny and the arrival of children do not produce their break-up." (ibid.)

The rebel eventually falls into line, leaving behind this pure moment of childhood in favour of a husband and... children. This break with the bohemian spirit of youth also implies a new rhythm of life, a new temporality, which the author denounces. He denounces "matinalisme", presented as "the other name for familialism", a principle that leads to favouring "morning appointments, to thinking of the morning as an obvious moment and even a privileged moment because those who have children are up early anyway and try to impose their rhythm on others" (p. 49).

Entering serious life also means a change of scenery, a far cry from the Chelsea Hotel. As Bourdieu clearly showed in his study of the house market   , "the purchase of a house here is strictly for the entry into parental life"   . Lagasnerie takes up the sociologist's analysis here, for whom "the detached house actually functions as a 'trap'", reinforcing a political ideology "centred on the 'education of children' and the 'cult of domestic life'"   .

The cult of children also has its rituals, like Christmas, which traditionally brings the family together. It's a ritual that the "3" friends have been quick to hijack by spending these festivities with each other and sharing it with all their acquaintances, who regularly tell them how envious they are of them. These remarks prompt the author to question this obligation, which can only reinforce his own friendly ritual, which constitutes "a kind of conquest over the ordinary logic of the social world" (p. 75). That said, he acknowledges that it is much more difficult to change the rules or laws governing social life (union, succession, visiting rights at Covid time) in the name of and for the benefit of the family, spouses or children, rather than for the benefit of freely chosen friends.

Creative friendship

As the author points out, the family institution does not facilitate intellectual or literary creativity. In this, too, it differs from friendship as a cultural space-time.

Geoffroy, Didier and Édouard are three friends seeking to write, in the knowledge that to write and become a writer takes time, but also permission to do so. Borrowing from Bourdieu's idea that "technical competence is a consequence of social competence" (p. 145), the author sees friendship as the best way of overturning the rules generally in force in "the social world, and particularly in the cultural world, [where] the boundaries between classes of individuals and above all differential access to different positions reproduce themselves all the better because they function on the basis of intimidation" (p. 147). Friendship makes it possible to avoid "the inculcation of shame", the "feeling of illegitimacy" and "behaviours of self-exclusion" (ibid.).

Inspired by Foucault's theses on the "rarefaction of speech" and by analysing the academic careers of his friends, Lagasnerie sees friendship as a means of resisting the "anti-intellectual values" prevalent in society. It's a state of mind that can be found at the heart of the university, which delegitimises "the figure of the author who would like to attempt to write his work in his own name" in favour of "the figure of the researcher inscribed in his discipline who must only carry out his work in collective structures that have already been established, and who disappears behind a whole set of writing, publication and discussion mechanisms that have already been validated, recognised and instituted" (p. 150-151).

The criticism may seem (too) harsh, and it is up to each academic to judge it on the basis of his own experience. Nonetheless, the author takes as his model Éribon's defence of "another conception of writing", more committed and turned towards other audiences, as a way of forgetting academic constraints (p. 158). For these authors, it is about countering "spaces of competition where the logics of power and confrontation [which] influence the formation of reciprocal opinions and skew the sincerity of opinions"; spaces which also function as "places of connivance, where the reciprocal needs of one another, the lack of time or interest, the fear of getting angry can lead to behaviour that amounts to flattery or hypocrisy" (pp. 168-169). This situation led Lagasnerie to place all his hopes in a relationship of friendship capable of structuring a kind of writing workshop consubstantially linked to their committed lives:

"Friendship as a way of life is linked to writing as a way of life. Our whole existence revolves around these two activities. There is no strict division between our daily lives and our work as writers  no split between emotional relationships on the one hand and work on the other. When we are together, when we have dinner or sit in a café, when we go for a walk, we are always talking non-stop about what we are writing or commenting on what we have read. And because we are constantly discussing what we have read, each of us, through daily conversation, logically comes to incorporate knowledge and perceptions even about authors he has not read, so that the mental horizon of one is made up of bits of the mental horizon of the other two." (p. 165)

Strongly inspired by Bourdieu, the philosopher-sociologist thinks he can go further than this master, who failed to authorise himself to become an author, rather than a researcher, when he wrote his Esquisse pour une auto-analyse (2002) — an autobiography in which the sociologist hides behind screens "that allow him never to talk about what he should talk about: his first experiences, his affects, his feelings, his encounters..." (p. 179).

Friends for life, in society

Beyond its criticism of social or academic conformism, this treatise, addressed to anyone who wants to read it, attempts to understand what prevents us from changing, from choosing other ways of living that are freer, more autonomous, more inventive — if not idiorythmic?

According to Lagasnerie, it is Bourdieu who seems to be able to help us see things more clearly. The sociologist of domination "considered that sociology had to start from a major anthropological fact, [...] the theme of man as an absurd, contingent, arbitrary being  a finite being, a being-toward-death, who knows he is mortal and for whom this finitude is intolerable" (p. 193). It is to fill this void that society, institutions, rules and rituals — not forgetting, of course, the family, which enables biological continuation and reproduction — come into play to "guarantee a social identity" (p. 194).

The master thinker of the three friends thus provides them with an interpretation and a remedy against the "obsession with recognition", the "gaze of the Other", and "state categorisations and definitions" (p. 198), while at the same time confirming Geoffroy de Lagasnerie's claim to a friendship that "carries with it the idea of a life beyond recognition", which constitutes "a practice of the self that takes the form of a politics of affirmation" (p. 201).