An Interview with Alphonso Lingis - Believer Magazine
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An Interview with Alphonso Lingis

Philosopher

“What can writers do? Celebrate abundance.”

by Jeremy Butman
Illustration by Samar Haddad
header-image

An Interview with Alphonso Lingis

Philosopher

“What can writers do? Celebrate abundance.”

by Jeremy Butman
Illustration by Samar Haddad

An Interview with Alphonso Lingis

Jeremy Butman
154 Snaps

Alphonso Lingis writes philosophy the way a non-philosopher might envision it: as a transference of wisdom. More narrating than arguing his philosophical ideas, he avoids the trappings of academic writing without slipping into naïveté or paternalism. Books like The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (1994), The Imperative (1998), and Violence and Splendor (2011) examine encounters with foreignness and with otherness, and the ways we become alienated from ourselves. They also investigate language, the drives of individuality, and the ways we are possessed by our environment. Stylized, personal, and singular, they take as their subject the whole spectrum of existence, from interpersonal dramas to the sweep of geopolitical history. 

The philosopher Simon Critchley called Lingis “one of the only original voices in US continental philosophy.” In a collection of essays dedicated to Lingis’s thought, David Farrell Krell wrote that the only appropriate criticism of Lingis would be akin to D. H. Lawrence’s concern about Walt Whitman: that he “has let his soul bleed into every corner of the natural and cultural world, his body leak into every nook and cranny of the universe.” 

Despite his refusal of an academic style, as professor emeritus of philosophy at Penn State University, Lingis is also firmly a part of academia. In the late 1960s, his translations of Emmanuel Levinas and Maurice Merleau-Ponty introduced the English-speaking world to developments in phenomenology, the branch of philosophy dealing with the nature of experience. His translations of Levinas’s Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority and Otherwise than Being or Beyond Essence, as well as of Merleau-Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible, are still the definitive English editions, and staples of graduate work in philosophy.

In the 1980s, he departed from conventional academic labor and began publishing a series of books that developed the themes of Levinas and Merleau-Ponty through winding, memoiristic reflections. Throughout his life, he has been a prolific and adventurous traveler, and many of his books take place in transit, following him on his journeys through Asia, Africa, and South and Central America, allowing him to explore his questions in concrete terms, away from the armchair.

His books do not lend themselves easily to summary, but every passage includes the flavors of the whole. He writes in Dangerous Emotions (2000):

The ceremonies and etiquette with which courtship was elaborated at the palace of the Sun King were not more ritualized than the courtship of Emperor penguins in Antarctica, the codes of chivalry in medieval Provence not more idealized than the spring rituals of impalas in the East African savannah… Today, in our Internet world where everything is reduced to digitally coded messages, images, and simulacra instantaneously transmitted from one human to another, it is in our passion for the other animals that we learn all the rites and sorceries, the torrid and teasing presence, and the ceremonious delays, of eroticism. 

At eighty-seven, Lingis has seen his work begin to generate wider attention. In the past five years, at least three books have been published about him, including, in 2018, The Alphonso Lingis Reader. He no longer teaches, but, true to his affirmational form, it is still his policy to agree to take on any project proposed to him—like this interview, which was conducted by email in November 2018. 

—Jeremy Butman

I. UNENDINGLY NEEDY

THE BELIEVER: Your books combine elements of memoir, epistemological analysis, ontological meditation, anthropological observation, and plenty of other genres. They are usually written in the first person (singular or plural), and sometimes in the second person. How did you decide to adopt this freedom of style, and what do you hope to accomplish with it?

ALPHONSO LINGIS: Our thought arises in so many different events and [on so many] levels, and our discourse offers so many ways to formulate and communicate an insight. Ideally, the encounter and insight one seeks to share should induce the appropriate vocabulary, rhetoric, and explanation by means of narrative, exposition, or argument. I do not reflect about these and determine them separately. Often several versions are worked on until the right one becomes clear. It is important to me not to reflect much on why and how a given essay worked; it is important that it not become a template for subsequent essays. Hopefully the topic of the next essay will induce the right way to write to share the insight.

BLVR: In a story that recurs in your work, philosophy begins with the attempt to find a transcultural value. When the merchants of ancient Greece began to trade with people of different cultures, they discovered the need to explain their practices and beliefs using reason, rather than with an appeal to the authority of their own ancestors. In what way, do you think, is philosophy, in this broadest sense, inextricably linked to the formation of a global community?

AL: The original philosophical practice was to formulate statements that do not depend on the authority figures, tradition, ancestors, or gods of a particular community. The philosophical practice submits statements to the contestation and judgment of anyone endowed with insight. It is a discourse that invokes and addresses the community of all those endowed with insight. (Immanuel Kant envisioned also beings on other planets who may be endowed with rational insight.) This discursive practice entails practical and political projects that oppose silencing groups of people, manufacturing consent, oppression, and exploitation.

Economic and political globalization makes possible communication across humanity without submitting the thought of the advantaged to the judgment of others. Multinational corporations seek to maximize profits with little regulation from national governments or labor unions and little concern for environmental protection. The concentration of wealth in a small number of individuals gives them immense political power. In 2018 just forty-two multibillionaires had amassed wealth equivalent to all the wealth owned by the poorest half (3.5 billion people) of the world’s total population of 7 billion. The great expansion of communication technology potentially puts humans in contact across the planet. But the distribution of information and the decisions on practical projects are primarily reserved for the boards of multinational corporations.

BLVR: You are a prominent translator of Levinas, and his influence on your own work is readily apparent. Levinas’s idea of the “irreducible otherness of the other” has a kind of mystical opacity to it, which has deterred some people from taking it wholly seriously, and led others to disproportionately fixate on it. In your own work, the idea of otherness is also operative, but has a worldlier sense. How do you understand the encounter with the other? 

AL: Emmanuel Levinas’s original and essential move was to locate an imperative in the empirical event of being faced by someone. This experience he explicated in two directions. The nakedness of the eyes, the wrinkles and scars of the skin, the empty-handedness of expressive gestures exhibit and address to me the neediness and vulnerability of the one who faces me. For someone to turn and face me is not simply to expose his or her neediness and vulnerability to my observation but to address them to my powers. To perceive someone stumbling and falling is to sense inwardly my power to hold him or her. As to face me is to expose needs and vulnerability, an other is unendingly needy, unendingly puts demands on me.

And in taking a stand apart, appealing to me and ordering me, someone exhibits otherness, Levinas says, other than me and other than the world. Exhibiting the unendingness of his or her needs and requisitions, he or she is unendingly, absolutely other, situated in a dimension of infinition [the infinite action of creating infinity] that Levinas names God.

I prize and also expand Levinas’s account of the phenomenal experience of appeal and demand [the imperative the other person places upon me to respond to her]. To perceive the identity of another human, but also someone of another species, and, indeed, of trees and rivers, is to perceive what they need to exist and to endure. I encounter appeal and demand not only in humans but also in seabirds trapped in oil, starving deer, sewage-choked rivers. To perceive need is at the same time to sense what powers and resources I have to supply what they need. What is needed becomes what I have to do when the need is urgent and I am the one who is there and who has the resources (pulling a child out of oncoming traffic, stomping on a smoldering cigarette butt in the forest).

Is another human who faces me distinctive in that, as Levinas says, his or her needs and demands put on me are unending, such that the fundamental relation between us is dependency? I counter that a human, a mammal, bird, fish, or tree is not a bundle of needs but instead a locus of excess energies and powers. They may need outside assistance when young or in intermittent situations, but when I am called upon to supply for their needs, it is so that they can acquire strength or recover their health and become able to act on their own.

II. “VEILED-EROTIC, FIXED-EXPLOSIVE, AND MAGIC-CIRCUMSTANTIAL”

BLVR: More than once, you comment that the self is grounded in the exclamation “How good it is to be alive!” You’ve also written that our bodies are “embedded in the axes of the world,” and in your descriptions of the human condition you integrate biological, psychological, spiritual, and cultural phenomena, without imposing any hierarchy. Who is the “I” that declares the goodness of life, and to what extent does this “I” have power over the world?

AL: There is a goodness and exultation in the inner sense of life, the sense of excess energies surging. And the sight of flourishing fields and forests, of newborn lambs and birds, joins the happiness in us.

The strong sense of being “I” arises in commitment. “I will work and get the grades I need to get into medical school.” “I will meet you at the airport.” “I am your brother and I will take care of you.” Here “I” arises as a force and an exhilaration that leaps ahead to fix the future, leaps over the stretch of contingencies and obstacles that may lie ahead. 

The plight of being unable to foresee and fix one’s future generates a sense of being anyone or no one. Oppression and incarceration aim to produce this. Illness can bring this about. The sense of the goodness of life is lost in depression and the temptation to suicide.

BLVR: The idea of “enjoyment” in your work reminds me of something James Baldwin writes at the end of The Fire Next Time: that Americans, particularly white Americans, have lost touch with the sensual world, and with the ability to “renew themselves at the fountain of their own lives.” The world of your books is a sensual world, an erotic and sacralized world. Do you agree with Baldwin about America, or the Western world at large? Is there an intervention of some kind in your work? What might ignite sensuality and sacralization at a cultural level, and what would need to change?

AL: In an economy where each industry has to produce more and best the competition, every industry enlists human engineering to persuade consumers that they need more and more commodities. Human engineering makes us believe we are full of lacks, deprived, and empty. 

Andy Couturier (A Different Kind of Luxury: Japanese Lessons in Simple Living and Inner Abundance [2010]) went to visit eleven Japanese men and women who lived with minimal money. They had found places on mountain terrains to live; they grew their own food and grew some food to sell; they made and sold pottery to earn what they needed. All the hours of the day they spent doing what they wanted to do—reading, writing, making music, growing things, making meals, meditating. They did not spend forty hours a week doing what they were ordered to do. Couturier found they reported they were living luxurious lives. 

What can writers do? Celebrate abundance. [German philosopher] Karim Benammar writes to show us that we live in an abundance beyond all our needs. The abundance of plant, insect, and bird life in our back garden, supplying beauty and marvels and enigmas. The abundance of energies we have to be astonished, delighted, entranced. The abundance of sensibilities and energies we have to entertain people about us, to support and empower them, to accompany them when their paths become painful.

So many commodities make us feel we are needy only in ways we did not recognize, but some products do open upon abundance. Today’s communication technologies make available the immense richness of books and films, the works of the greatest thinkers and discoverers and of the most hilarious adventurers, the most exultant dreamers.

BLVR: In your book Dangerous Emotions, you write that time first becomes visible through a catastrophic event: when the past is closed, the future remains uncertain, the world of work is upended, and we lose all our purposes. There are many reasons, global warming high among them, to speculate that catastrophes will increase in frequency in the coming century. Can a world exist in a state of perpetual catastrophe, and how would time function if catastrophes became mundane?

AL: I shall have to study a lot more to be able to speak to this question. We now see that the ecological and climate catastrophe is upon us, produced by global capitalist industries and ensuring catastrophe for them. In his 2014 lecture “Who Is Afraid of the Ontological Wolf?,” anthropologist Eduardo Viveiros de Castro wrote:

I am convinced that in the somber decades to come, the end of the world ‘as we know it’ is a distinct possibility. And when this time comes (it has already come, in my opinion) we will have a lot to learn from people whose world has already ended a long time ago—think of the Amerindians, whose world ended five centuries ago, their population having dropped to something like 5% of the pre-Columbian one in 150 years, the Amerindians who, nonetheless, have managed to abide, and learned to live in a world which is no longer their world ‘as they knew it.’ We soon will be all Amerindians. Let’s see what they can teach us in matters apocalyptic.

BLVR: You’ve written, in your most recent work, about the beauty that attends to violence and the way violence reveals human fragility. What is the human impulse to violence, how does it connect to enjoyment, and, if it seems to be a constitutional aspect of our being, to what extent can we hope to contain or channel that impulse?

AL: It does not seem to me that attempts to explain violence in humans by evolutionary psychology have yet been fruitful. We observe that there is a dominant inclination in every species, including predator species, to get along with one’s own kind. 

Recent research into sociopathology estimates that 3 percent of men and 1 percent of women are affected by antisocial personality disorder (ASPD). Researchers have identified a genetic factor and also hormonal and neurotransmitter abnormalities. The family and social environment contribute to the development of antisocial behavior. 

Research has to be directed into the structured situations and institutions in which violence is elicited and erupts. A complex investigation is required into the extent that violence is integral to the norms, paradigms, ideals, and idolized personages in these situations. Some studies identify 21 percent of CEOs as afflicted with ASPD. There are kinds of family economies and relations among family members that result in adults and also children becoming violent and even murderous. Michel Foucault identified schools, factories, armies, prisons, hospitals, and retirement homes as constituting a disciplinary archipelago; they also provoke the violence they discipline and oppress. Foucault showed that prisons do not reform criminals but produce a delinquent population that is identified, kept under surveillance, and used to control sectors of the population. Norman Mailer wrote:

It is that not only the worst of the young are sent to prison, but the best—that is, the proudest, the bravest, the most daring, the most enterprising, and the most undefeated of the poor…. Somewhere between the French Foreign Legion and some prodigious extension of Outward Bound may lie the answer, at least for all those juvenile delinquents who are drawn to crime as a positive experience—because it is more exciting, more meaningful, more mysterious, more transcendental, more religious than any other experience they have known. [From Mailer’s introduction to Jack Abbott’s In the Belly of the Beast.]

Calamitous violence has always attracted triumphal pomp, artists, and religions to glorify it, but I was interested in a few studies to show how the greed, hatreds, and slaughter of war also sink into darkness and the glory migrates to new collective celebrations (Carnaval in Rio de Janeiro, the Mount Hagen Festival). “Convulsive beauty will be veiled-erotic, fixed-explosive, magic-circumstantial, or will not be,” André Breton proclaimed. 

III. “TO NOT GO IS TO SKIM OVER REALITY.”

BLVR: Certain philosophers have come to fetishize “place,” and particularly the need to cultivate, through dwelling and building, the ontological and ethical integrity of places as places, rather than as points on a spatial grid. Your books draw heavily on your extensive travels, bouncing from one location to another—India, Thailand, Nicaragua, Peru—and you’ve written that travel reveals a deeper reality than the one we find at home. How does the space of the traveler stand with respect to that of the autochthonous home or homogenous mathematical space? How, if possible, can the reality found in travel inform our manners of dwelling?

AL: Metaphysicians, from Socrates through Thomas Aquinas, promoted the conviction that this world is not our true home. In the nineteenth century, the concept of alienation functioned to diagnose psychological and social distress. Martin Heidegger set out to describe positively what it is to not be alienated, to have our home in the world; to be in the world, he declared, is to inhabit the world. He later developed this idea, explaining that to inhabit the world is to build a home and build up the land, to care for mortals and immortals. Emmanuel Levinas explained that the space we inhabit has a home base, about which the practical field opens in paths, resources, implements, and obstacles. The home base is a zone of tranquility, where implements and resources become furnishings, their substance sustaining our pleasure. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari describe the home base as a zone of intensive forces and the outlying territory as laid out in rhythmic refrains; they also see movements as going beyond one’s territory, nomadic movements. 

Deleuze and Guattari speak of departures that return with photographs, art and craft works, souvenirs, memories that are stocked in one’s home. We could invoke itineraries selected out of guidebooks, hotels selected from the internet, such that what one will see is known in advance. These practices extend the home territory, the autochthonous space, without changing its nature.

On the other hand, there are departures for the sake of departing, as Baudelaire said. They occur when one encounters or undergoes something that one could not have anticipated and that could have occurred only where it did, in the far-off. In Walt Whitman’s words, one greets everything “with passionate kisses of parting.” There is a wild exhilaration in leaving appropriations and attachments and in anxiety and ecstasy, emptying oneself before the unpossessed, the enigmatic and the sublime, events that will never recur. 

BLVR: Adventurous travel can seem to be an indulgence of the ego, a disavowal of the world, or a privilege that is essentially connected to imperialism and colonization. In your work, it appears instead as a path to human connection and a revelation of the world’s richness. Travel is, of course, a metaphor for life, and this tenuous line between celebration and exploitation seems to fit that schema. With this in mind, what do you see as the responsibilities of the traveler?

AL: In 1971, during the Bangladesh liberation war with West Pakistan, I was in Calcutta. There were tens of thousands of refugees from the war in the city; one saw them everywhere. I stayed in Calcutta for two months. The night before leaving, I went out for a last walk in the city. It was raining lightly. All along the street about my hotel, refugees, whole families, were huddled against the buildings, covered with clothing, paper, cardboard boxes, trying to sleep. After twenty minutes, I returned to my hotel, shaken, on the verge of tears. I imagined taking in the small children. But it was a hotel. That night I did sleep in a bed, knowing that on the other side of the wall there were people sleeping on the ground. I returned to my country and the university; the memory fades. I never knew what to say about that. I could not feel right about sleeping in that bed in the hotel, but once I know they are there, on the street outside, nothing changes if I now sleep in a bed thirteen thousand miles away.

Why go to Calcutta, to Haiti, to Niger? Because to not go is to skim over reality. One has to struggle against the rationalizations that make one able to think one is innocent.

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