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Bodies in Transit: The Plastic Subject of Alphonso Lingis

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Alphonso Lingis is the author of many books and renowned for his translations of Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and Klossowski. By combining a rich philosophical training with an extensive travel itinerary, Lingis has developed a distinctive brand of
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   Janus Head   99 Bodies in Transit: e Plastic Subject of Alphonso Lingis Tom Sparrow  Duquesne University   Alphonso Lingis is the author of many books and renowned for his translations of Levinas, Merleau-Ponty, and Klossowski. By combining a rich philosophical training with an ex-tensive travel itinerary, Lingis has developed a distinctive brand of phenomenology that is only now beginning to gain critical attention. Lingis inhabits a ready-made language and conceptuality, but cultivates a style of thinking which disrupts and transforms the work of his predecessors, setting him apart from the rest of his field. is essay sketches Lingis’  phenomenology of sensation in order to give expression to some dimensions of Lingisiantravel. As we see, Lingis deploys a theory of the subject which features the plasticity of  the body, the materiality of affect, and the alimentary nature of sensation. One is born with forces that one did not contrive. One lives by giving form to these forces. e forms one gets from the others.— Alphonso Lingis, “We Mortals”  A Synthetic Phenomenologist   Alphonso Lingis is well-known in the Anglophone world for his transla-tions. We continental philosophers have all read his renderings of Levinas’ Totality and Infinity  and Merleau-Ponty’s e Visible and the Invisible  . Hehas also gained an admirable following with his philosophical travelogues,books like Excesses, Abuses, and Trust  . In a way, even these texts offer ustranslations: of unfamiliar customs and peoples, of technical concepts andslippery philosophical jargon. In the travelogues, readers witness phenom-enological descriptions of individuals and cultures which are laced with thethinking of alterity familiar to Levinas’ readers, and the phenomenology of the lived body that Merleau-Ponty has handed down to the continentaltradition. Set either between or beyond these two notions—alterity andthe lived body—is Lingis himself, a philosopher who not only builds a bridge between American and continental thought, but who is the literalembodiment of a synthetic brand of American continental philosophy. Asif William James and Emmanuel Levinas were co-opted to author all  of theguide books in the Lonely Planet  series, 1 many of Lingis’ hybrid books readlike reports from the field. His missives from Latin and North America, the  Janus Head, 10(1), 99-122. Copyright © 2007 by Trivium Publications, Amherst, NY  All rights reserved.Printed in the United States of America   100 JanusHead Far East, Antarctica, Africa, and Europe set Lingis apart from the rest of the American philosophers working in Husserl’s wake. His (inter)continentalapproach spans the globe and reaches beyond the technical skirmishes of academic philosophy. Diane Ackerman gives us a splendidly caricature of Lingis’ modus operandi  : Alphonso Lingis—whose unusual books, Excesses  and Libido , considerthe realms of human sensuality and kinkiness—travels the worldsampling its exotic erotica. Often he primes the pump by writing let-ters to friends. I possess some extraordinary letters, half poetry, half anthropology, he sent me from a ai jail (where he took time out frompicking vermin to write), a convent in Ecuador, Africa (where he wasscuba-diving along the coast with filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl), andBali (where he was taking part in fertility rituals). 2 e time is ripe for Lingisian studies to be extended and considered moreclosely. 3 By examining the subjectivity of Alphonso Lingis as it is accounted forin his phenomenological writings, we can catch a glimpse of his philosophicalperspective on embodied subjectivity and it relation to the sensible world. Onthe move, Lingis sets philosophy in motion—his travel is phenomenology at work. is essay is an attempt to articulate a few important dimensionsof Lingisian travel.Lingis is a wanderer and a cosmopolitan philosopher par excellence,perpetually in search of sensations and constantly giving expression, orthe closest thing to it, to the sensualities he encounters. is sensuality isnot only sought out in each of Lingis’ travels, it operates as a condition of possibility in his philosophy. Speaking boldly, we might call him a tran-scendental phenomenologist of sensuality. A permanent itinerant, perhapsLingis is one of the nomads that Deleuze and Guattari speak so fondly about. It is rumored that Deleuze was a secret admirer of Lingis, and it isnot difficult to see why, whether true or not. 4 He is a phenomenologist of the sensitive body, the materiality of subjectivity, and the disarming effectsof travel. Focusing on a few of Lingis’ properly philosophical texts, we willhere examine the constitutive roles of sensation, affect, and sensuality  5 inthe Lingisian conception of embodiment.Lingis has always operated from within the phenomenological move-ment, tarrying with Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, and Levinas especially. Kant,    Tom Sparrow 101 Nietzsche, Freud, Bataille, and Deleuze are likewise familiar company. Heis very close to each one of these thinkers and his writing often moves intoa region of indiscernibility when he is explicating their thought. But he isno mere commentator. Woven into his strictly philosophical fabric are thefaces, desires, lusts, fetishes, drives, and emotions of the innumerable othersin which he has immersed himself. Photographs of these others inauguratehis chapters, capturing in a glance what takes pages to describe. His srcinal work flows from his affective immersions, and in this way we might alsocall him a radical empiricist, if we mean by this that his philosophy takesseriously the plurality constitutive of sensibility and refuses to sacrifice theinfinity of sensuous relations embedded in the world of experience. If Lingisbreaks with his phenomenological predecessors through a re-assertion of theindelible impact of sensation on our subjectivity, it is at the same time thathe is energized by a labyrinth of unknown bodies and intelligences, and theclaims they have made on his body’s own intelligibility. His philosophy isinvested with a kind of non-philosophy, and these two modes of thoughtcirculate through one another, creating a feedback loop of theoretical andsensuous exploitation. In short, Lingis’ travel testifies to the irreducibility andimmanence of the sensuous, and its role in constituting and reconstituting ourselves. A system of sensation, sensuality, and sensibility abounds in histexts and mobilizes to contest the dominance of our rationality, the fluency of our affects, and our mastery over the carnal world. Sensation and Perception: Some Phenomenological Explanations   What is a sensation? Some might classify sensation as a legend, a fabulous non-event or a dissimulation. Sensation is nothing more than a deficient mode of knowing, and thus encountered only negatively, as inDescartes. Sensation is said to be always already worked up through theperceptual or cognitive apparatus, as in Kant. Before we know it, the idealistrevolution tells us, the data of sensation have already been commandeeredby our unifying faculties. We have perceptions, but can lay no real claimto sensations: they are the noumenal and the unthinkable, merely inferred.e philosophy which begins with perception or, more precisely, whichchampions perception’s primacy, seems to have already forsaken the reality of sensation. Must phenomenology abandon sensation? Lingis believes thatthis is precisely what is missing from phenomenology, and thus what alignsit with idealism. In Sensation , Lingis declares: “Phenomenology argues that  102 JanusHead our sensations themselves are intentional; they are givens of sense, or givesense—orientation and meaning.” 6 But a sensation can also be an interrup-tion, a shift, an instigation and a disorientation. Sensations can announcethe absence of sense or the onset of senselessness. A sensation can functionas a kind of short-circuit of our habitual affects, our perceptual routines,our calculated taming of the environment.For Lingis, neither sensibility nor sensuality can flaunt the confidentdirectedness of intentionality. ese ambiguous passivities are basic modesof human being and enable a flexibility within the subject. Our bodies aredisplaced by sensations. Lingis theorizes the interruptive mode of sensation,sensation as immanently  directive  , yet without apparent meaning. By drawing a division between the representational and the affective dimensions of sen-sation, he allows us to distinguish between sensation as sense and sensationas affect. 7 His phenomenology of sensation unfolds into an ontology of thesensible. is is accomplished through a subtle analysis of our sensibility,one that creates a tension within the phenomenological tradition and which we will have to define.Sensation intervenes in our practice and lets slip our hold on things andon ourselves. To deny its interruptive power is to deny the subordination of consciousness to the world of corporeal experience, to assert the primacy of human access to the sensuous world which we live from. It is to pretend thatthe phenomenal world has never once collapsed its appearance and assertedits fantastic weight upon our bodies. Lingis’ phenomenology of sensationdisrupts the flattening of the world which is achieved in Husserl’s eideticreduction, the reduction of real objects to their phenomenal facades. It istrue that the senses can be deceptive…but only to an epistemology benton certainty. Sensation is not first and foremost an epistemological theme.From a phenomenological standpoint which has bracketed knowledgeclaims, can sensation as such really be doubted or reduced? Can we live   without sensation? Against the grain of the phenomenological tradition, Lingis maintainsthat we cannot fully recognize our being-in-the-world in descriptions of subjectivity that place nothingness or a hollowed-out ego at the center of our consciousness; or when the lived body is considered the vessel of anintentional consciousness that opens onto the world and moves about it withan undisturbed practical savvy (S ix). e lived body is not merely a diagram-matic entity; embodied perception is not reducible to a unified grip on the world, as though embodiment could guarantee that the world will always    Tom Sparrow 103 be encountered as an intelligible whole as long as it maintains its familiarspatiotemporal coordinates. For Lingis, the notion of embodiment describesfirst and foremost a sensual event replete with amorous and deadly—in a  word, impractical—drives. We are born with forces that strive to exceedour being, and we die when we are finally overcome by such forces. eseare what Lingis calls the excesses  of life. As we will see, these excesses can getcaught up into circuits, or take on forms that keep them in check.Lingis is constantly in dialogue with Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenology of perception, diverging ever-so-slightly from it to make room for sensa-tion. Merleau-Ponty goes to great lengths to exclude raw sensation fromhis account of perceptual experience. Perception, as intentional, is alwaysperception-of, always the apprehension of a transcendent figure against a meaningful background. Phenomenologically, this feature of perception is,in a technical sense,  given . is background is projected by some humanperceiver and ensures that the unity of things always precedes the multiplicity of their qualities. Perception structures sense-experience and wards off theimmediacy of sensation with Gestalten . e “prejudice of sensation” gives way,in Merleau-Ponty’s description, to the immediacy of the meaningful whole:“henceforth the immediate is no longer the impression, the object which isone with the subject, but the meaning, the structure, the spontaneous ar-rangement of parts.” 8 e Phenomenology of Perception is a work that tracesthe minutiae of perception, and above all champions the object/horizonstructure of our intentional experience. In it, an always intelligible formstages our interaction with the world.e critique of what William James would call atomistic sensationalismis carried out by Merleau-Ponty in his defense of a desubstantialized subject,a subject fundamentally “conceived as an intentionality, a self-transcend-ing movement of  ex  -istence, and no longer as the place of inscription of impressions.” 9 Our most elementary experiences are always already mean-ing-laden, figural, given to us as a thing that we can get our hands around.Merleau-Ponty insists on the continuous, ordered, and horizonal structureof the stream of consciousness. What Merleau-Ponty calls the “horizon” of consciousness, James refers to as “fringe.” e fringe is comprised of the setsof physical and phenomenal relations that surround any particular act of consciousness, any specific conscious state. 10 It accompanies, but does notconstitute, the form of sensory experience. For James, these relations arederived from the physiology of the body-brain schema; they constitute, inaddition to the objects they involve, what Lingis would call one “level” of 
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