Philosopher Alphonso Lingis Brings the Real World to the Ivory Tower
Love is awakened only by chance. It flares up at the merest coincidence. . . . Nothing is more contrary to love than to exercise the reckoning mind so as to exclude adverse chances.
Wearing black pants and a turtleneck, his face covered with white grease paint, Alphonso Lingis, a professor of philosophy at Penn State University, paced up and down the aisle of Smith Hall at Towson University on Nov. 24, 1998, reading from his latest work, Love Junkies.
Lingis, a spectral presence, posed as an otherworldly griot, his voice phasing in and out of sync with peppery Brazilian music that boomed from a pair of formidable speakers. Silhouettes of dancers moved behind an opaque screen, writhing with a shadowed eroticism, as Lingis read a page, then tossed it in air.
The piece told the story of an extended love affair between two inmates, one named Wayne, the other Cheryl, incarcerated at Long Bay, a maximum security men’s prison 30 miles north of Sidney, Australia. Cheryl, a transsexual, had lived in the same cell with Wayne for more than 10 years. They were ex-heroin addicts, both dying of AIDS, and inseparable, so much so, that when Cheryl earned early release for good behavior, she staged a robbery, left a note with her address at the scene of crime, and waited to be arrested and reunited with Wayne. It was, to Lingis, a example of the primal power of love in a world of “extremes.”
As the audience sat somewhat stunned, it was clear that Love Junkies was what Mark Cyzack, a former student and philosophy major at Towson University, recalls now as “a new type of cross between poetry and philosophy.” He adds, “I was in awe.”
Love Junkies was the clarion call of a philosopher who was just beginning to make waves in the world of academia and beyond. With a wide body of work that included other nonacademic but philosophically original works like Dangerous Emotions (2000), Abuses (1995), and The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (1994), Lingis had developed in less than a decade what University of California E-Library , the digital arm of the California state university library system, matter of factly called “a new approach to philosophy.”
Now Lingis has a new book titled Trust, published in May by the University of Minnesota Press. Some of the best minds in the field of philosophy contributed essays on his ideas to a recently released anthology titled Encounters With Alphonso Lingis. This past spring semester saw the first upper-level college class on Lingis, taught at Towson University by longtime TU professor Wolfgang “Walt” Fuchs. There appears to be growing consensus, among a small but expanding group of academics and nonacademics, that Lingis might be the most relevant and original contemporary philosopher working.
He relocated to Baltimore County a few years ago after retiring from Penn State University in 2001. Now, Lingis is becoming famous—for a contemporary philosopher—his work earning attention that Veena Daf, a professor of anthropology at Johns Hopkins University, calls “interdisciplinary and widely known.” And with strong support at places like Towson, due to a long-term scholarly relationship with Fuchs, a former student, Lingis seems to be teetering on the verge of intellectual prominence. But is he the next big thing, or an eccentric academic with what Fuchs describes as a “beautiful facility for language”?
Those who find ecstasy do so not by visiting the shrines of civilization but by trudging in the swamps of human destitution and misery. Our literature of ecstasy recounts the dark nights of the soul and encounters with mystics in the slums and in the refugee camps of genocidal wars.
Philosophy is not a topic subject to rankings or handicapping in cultural hot sheets. Most philosophers toil in obscurity in a purely academic world, rarely entering the realm of public discussion. Thus it’s not easy to put Lingis into a context that indicates he’s the biggest thing since Socrates; it takes time for philosophical ideas to take hold, and even more time to enter popular discourse. But Lingis’ philosophy is far removed, in both thought and action, from the usual postmodern academic closeted in a collegiate ivory tower.
Take Jacques Derrida, probably the most highly visible philosopher today. (In January 1994 he appeared on the cover of The New York Times Magazine, which is probably as close to the cover of People as a contemporary philosopher is likely to get.) Derrida is best known for espousing philosophical concepts like Deconstructionism, the literal declawing of text to expose its underlying political agenda; his work is abstract and aloof, based in a postmodern landscape that is highly esoteric and insular. Cultural academia, including philosophy, specializes in the type of rarefied quasi-science that finds expression in articles with titles like “The Direct Contextual Realism of Theory and Perception,” which appeared in a recent issue of The Journal of Speculative Philosophy.
Enter Lingis, who is literally traveling in the opposite direction from the rest of his peers. He ducks book-lined offices and academic conferences to develop his ideas via travel and research in Third World cities and ancient civilizations. His first-person writing leaves aside multisyllabic cultural dissections to explore love, trust, death, and lust. In Dangerous Emotions, he inverts Socrates’ invocation that the unexamined life is not worth living into a new credo: “the unlived life is not worth examining.” Lingis is determined to find connections between thought and physicality, the world and personal action, and he explores his ideas in the laboratory of extreme situations—impoverished back alleys, prisons—often using his own person and psyche as experimental subjects.
It is this inner drive of an explorer mixed with the repertoire of a philosopher that makes his work resonate. Love Junkies, a soliloquy on unbreakable passion, is the result of three separate trips to Australia to interview convicts in Long Bay Correctional Institute. In Abuses, the tale of trip to Thailand and an affair with a cross-dressing prostitute ends in a shoddy hotel room and ruminations of doubt. Having been to “more countries than I can count,” Lingis seems to flesh out ideas best in unfamiliar environments, sometimes hostile ones, but always through the portal of the body in action.
Randy Wheeler, an adjunct professor of philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University in Emmitsburg, argues that to understand Lingis’ work, you have to go beyond academic criteria and venture into the world of the popular—or, as Wheeler terms it, “the paperback crowd.”
“Certainly, Al is aiming for more than the academics—that’s obvious in his methodology,” Wheeler says. “He starts with the particular or the example, rather than the abstract, which is the opposite of the traditional philosophical approach. For the general reader this makes Lingis’ work more concrete.”
Of course, philosophy, both as a discipline and in practice, tends to be on the low end of the mass accessibility scale. The density of the language, the serpentine logic, and, most importantly, the abstraction of thought make sitting down with the philosophical classics a stultifying excursion far removed from the particulars of the way most people live. And that has traditionally been part of the idea.
It’s been a longstanding conceit of modern philosophy that consciousness is a standalone proposition, that inside each of our own heads we operate on an absolute level of independence, what 20th-century French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre called “radical free will.” In essence, the thinking goes, we are intellectual free agents, unencumbered to choose to do what we want. This was an important and heavily touted premise of Sartre’s work and Existentialism in general—to break with our inextricable ties to gods and myths, to dismiss biological drives, to be free to think and act without any deterministic interference.
Lingis, though, has begun to reconsider this assumption, drawing humanity back into the mix of a world that, he argues, has more influence over our actions than we are wholly aware. By venturing literally from the First World to the Third World, leaving behind the self-referential Western-centric track, and using experience to make his case, Lingis has tried to reconnect human consciousness to its external reality, in his view a necessity for understanding who we are and why we do what we do. “The philosophy of the mind has failed to recognize the way perception responds to directive . . . obeying directives it finds in the environment,” he writes in his 1998 book The Imperative. In other words, the world acts on us as much as we act on it.
Not since 19th-century intellectual icon Friedrich Nietzsche demanded that we “live dangerously” has a philosopher been so oriented toward life. And not since Nietzsche has a philosopher had such a disarming voice and sense of style to make the point. Lingis, like Nietzsche, asks us to live in the world and, seductively, points out how the world in which we live directs us to act. Given the degradation of the natural environment, poverty, and terrorism, it is a timely quest to reconnect us with the world in which we live, hopefully for the better. For Lingis, French social theorist Jean Baudrillard’s often-cited concept of “the desert of the real” exists only as a testament to our lack of will to find the alternative.
Most of what anyone says is daft: most of what humanity has written is fudge. Whence it is such pleasure to be with people and talk, whence cultures spread their enchantments over the ages.
—from Dangerous Emotions
In the upper reaches of Baltimore County, nestled on a small parcel of land, Alphonso Lingis’ house is understated and modern, a compact single-level structure. An old Toyota hatchback sits in the driveway sporting a bumper sticker reading i brake for porn stars.
Lingis looks younger than his 70 years. With striking oceanic blue eyes, a full head of brown hair, and a fluorescent smile, he hardly fits the mold of aging, hermitic academic. He speaks with a soft voice that intimates his Lithuania heritage. He was born to parents who immigrated to the United States in 1910, only after his father hid in the bowels of a hay cart to avoid the Czarist draft, which, Lingis relates, “ enlisted every firstborn son in the Russian army for 25 years.”
Lingis grew up on a 100-acre farm some 30 miles outside Chicago in a small town called St. Charles. As Lingis recalls, his parents made a living selling “cheese and vegetables” to “Chicagoans who liked to drive out of the city to get their food.” His parents were “old country,” Lingis relates, so the farm was a family affair, unmechanized and more European in practice than contemporary industrialized superfarms.
Upon graduating from high school in 1950, Lingis went on to Chicago’s Loyola University, supporting himself and his studies by working in a series of factories. “I really dug factory jobs,” he says, “real work that required me to use my hands and offered a little bit of camaraderie.” In particular, he recalls with good humor a job in a cheese factory that was so pungent that he says months passed after he quit before he stopped smelling like it.
After receiving his bachelor degree in philosophy, Lingis worked toward and received his doctorate in philosophy at the Catholic University of Louvain, a 675-year-old Belgian institution originally founded by Pope Mark V as a medical college, and later transformed into a full-service university. Just a three-hour drive from Paris, it afforded Lingis the opportunity to meet—or at least bump into—some of the greatest thinkers of the era, including Sartre.
“I came upon Sartre in the back of the Louvre after a lecture,” Lingis recalls. The great man spoke, but “since he was walleyed, I realized that he asked someone else to help him find a cab, and all I’d really gotten was his eye.”
Nevertheless, Lingis found the study time in Europe “stimulating,” and upon receiving his doctorate in philosophy he took an assistant professorship at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 1960, where he began to teach—or rather what he calls “talking about a book you like, as opposed to a real job, like plumbing, cleaning up shit.”
From 1960 until the mid-’80s, Lingis worked primarily on translations of philosophical works and became well-known for wrestling bilingual clarity from difficult works by famous French philosophers, such as Merleau Ponty’s The Visible and the Invisible and Emmanuel Levinas’ Totality and Infinity: An Essay on Exteriority.
“His ability to translate established his academic reputation,” says Walter Brogan, a professor of philosophy at Villanova University and co-director of the American Phenomenological Society. “I remember picking up Ponty’s The Visible and Invisible, and just being astounded by the elegance of the translation. This was, at least initially, how the academic community became aware of him.”
But Lingis was beginning to formulate a few ideas of his own. As he puts it: “I soon came to realize that I had always thought that our lives are not just determined by free acts of decision, but are invited on by, guided by, led by events and encounters of our environment, which put demands on us.”
In 1994 came what Walt Fuchs terms the year Lingis became “unignorable.” That year he published three books in quick succession—Foreign Bodies, Abuses, and The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common—a body of work that commenced an exploration of Lingis’ own encounters with a variety of environments.
What stimulated this change from translator to writer, Lingis says, was a trip to India to visit the temples of Khajuraho, 26 structures filled with “erotic art” in Madhya Prodesh.
“They were constructed 1,000 years ago in a fairly fertile area that had since become desert,” Lingis recalls. “The city disappeared, too, but as the temples were made of granite they remained.” Spending weeks studying the temples, he realized that practically “nothing had been written” about them in English, and their wild erotic art was still of a somewhat mysterious origin.
“I realized I was probably the first Western academic to study them, and that in a sense I had the opportunity to write about something that really mattered,” he says. “That is another culture, a lost history, of people that no longer lived but still existed.
“As a son of Lithuanian immigrants, I was just amazed that I was able to see these temples,” he continues. “I decided at that point to simply write about something which provoked passion.”
The result was at first a paper he presented on the Khajuraho temples at Penn State in 1991. He was so “gratified” by the result that he used it as a schematic for Abuses, the first installment in the series of discursive texts that brought him notoriety.
“I had to write about things that moved me most deeply, something that would lead to original insights,” he says. “I was happy that my first book was not academic. I think that writing about encounters with things that moved me most deeply is a sort of gratitude, and one form of gratitude is to do it with respect and care.”
Today, Lingis’ home seems to exist as a physical companion to the nature of his written work over the past decade—a collection of odd objects, religious artifacts, and exotic animals, gathered together to the point of provoking overstimulation. The living room is centered around a giant glass menagerie featuring a collection of insects: phosphorescent blue butterflies, a stick bug that by virtue of its size belies the word “stick” in favor of “branch,” and an ornery-looking rhinoceros bug, a black horned invertebrate that would unnerve the most jaded entomologist.
Buddhist tapestries painted by Mongolian monks and depicting gods even Lingis can’t name hang on the walls of his bedroom. Fixed to the left of the fireplace is a human skull, part of the remains of what Lingis speculates is a Japanese soldier, a reminder of a trip to the Philippines. “Perhaps that shouldn’t be here,” he remarks.
In the aviary, directly off the bedroom, is Lingis’ extensive bird collection, full of pink cockatoos and green parrots. He smiles as a frenetic cockatoo named Simone flies onto his arm. The room is filled with ear-piercing avian racket. Simone continues to chatter as Lingis speaks, so he moves into the bedroom, lays Simone down under his arm, and massages her into a restive nap.
In the study, towering walls of books surround a large oblong aquarium. Loitering near the top of the tank is an electric eel named Zen. “I find the eel relaxing to watch, which is why I call him Zen,” he explains. “His movements have the physicality of simple thought.” Affixed to the tank is small hand-written sign reading do not pet, may cause electrical shock. Lingis looks up and smiles. “Oh, yes,” he says, anticipating the next question. “He puts out nearly 100 volts.”
The sensuous elements are not there as a multiplicity that has to be collected or as data that have to be identified, but as depths without surfaces or boundaries . . .
—from The Imperative
Walt Fuchs, a professor at Towson University for more than 30 years, and creator and teacher of the first course taught solely on Lingis, thinks that his subject’s unique gift as a writer is a result of nerve and will. “He’s fearless and uncompromising,” Fuchs says. “He’s willing to take the chance that his writing will be rejected completely.”
That didn’t seem to be the case when Fuchs taught a class on Lingis, as he did each Thursday night at Towson’s scuff-tiled Linthicum Building last spring. With his Sedona-styled leather vest and shock of white hair, Fuchs could just as easily be a prescriptive shaman as the chairman of Towson’s philosophy department. Fuchs’ passion for Lingis’ work was evident in a pedagogical style that includes conjuring 20-some students’ rapt attention with swooping arm gestures and vocal dynamics that modulated from pianissimo to forte in a matter of seconds. Using the occasional mashed metaphor or expletive to make a point, one night Fuchs tried to breach the subject of sex by using the phrase “on the make,” to which one student responded, “What does that mean?”
Fuchs’ intense style of teaching may be an homage to Lingis, whom Fuchs first had as a teacher during his graduate studies at Penn State in the 1960s. “He wasn’t there to shoot the shit,” he says. “I was always impressed by how much he worked.” Still, Fuchs admits that his subject is “not easy to teach,” in part because Lingis teaches “by better example. He demonstrates his ideas in the text better than perhaps I can.” Still, the first class of potential Lingis disciples at Towson seemed relatively earnest for a group barely out of their teens. “For the first time I can remember, students that don’t understand his work look for fault in their own thinking, not in the text itself,” Fuchs says.
Mount St. Mary’s professor Randy Wheeler argues that Lingis is already “a major figure” to academics in the know, but adds that philosophical fame is often posthumous. Even Nietzsche, perhaps the philosopher best-known to the average person on the street, met with much indifference during his career. “The first run of Thus Spoke Zarathustra was only 200 copies—a book that now is read by every student of philosophy,” Wheeler notes. “Al’s work will survive and thrive, too.”
If controversy is a measure of eminent fame, then Lingis has generated some of that, too. Beyond the theatrics of performance pieces like Love Junkies (he once read a paper on “Deathbound Subjectivity” from a coffin), Lingis’ methodology has provoked strong criticism from academics who see his hands-on style as both culturally offensive and intellectually superficial
Peter A. Jackson, a fellow in Thai history at Australian National University, is among the most outspoken Lingis critics. Jackson published a paper in the gender-studies electronic journal Intersections with the inflammatory title “Spurning Alphonso Lingis’s Thai Lust: The Perils of the Philosopher at Large.” The piece labels Lingis’ analysis of Thai katheoy, or transvestites, in Abuses as “shoddy scholarship” and “insensitive to cross-cultural issues.” Jackson concludes that “Lingis’ is work is not taken seriously” and dismisses him as “just another angst-ridden colonizer feeling guilty about his power rather than a liberator.” (Jackson’s aggrieved tone might result in part from his accusation that Lingis cribbed a couple of sentences from his work without attribution; Lingis later acknowledged that he referenced Jackson’s work and contends the lack of a footnote was sheer oversight.)
Ironically, Jackson admits that the paper was written in response to Lingis’ growing popularity. “I realized that . . . he is relatively widely read and his work is taken as serious scholarship rather than as a travelogue or journalistic approach to pop philosophy,” Jackson e-mails. “I got quite a shock attending conferences to hear academic presentations on his work as if his reports of non-Western societies could be taken as accurate.”
Wheeler argues that Jackson is missing the whole point. “Peter Jackson is talking about gathering data, or empiricism, and empiricism is way of breaking things down, not living them,” he says, pointing out that Lingis is not just gathering facts. “Al simply takes that idea of life to its logical conclusion, by living the situation first and thinking about it second.”
Even Jackson acknowledges, when pressed, that Lingis is on to something. “I think the intention behind Lingis’s work is admirable—to take Western philosophy out of its claustrophobic ivory tower and try to do philosophy out in the world.” Admitting in his critique that “I am far from alone in experiencing academic speak as a disturbing and often imprisoning form of expression,” Jackson says, “I have not yet succeeded in talking about myself and the people I study in both human and theoretical terms.”
Fuchs is both aware of and nonplussed by Jackson’s criticism, adding that Jackson is not alone. “There are others that dismiss Al’s work,” he says. “Although they do it in silence—they just don’t invite him to conferences.”
Fuchs says he understands why his colleagues in U.S academia might be wary of Lingis’ work. “American philosophy in general tends toward the rationalist school, logic, and ethics,” Fuchs says. Still, he notes, adverse reactions such as Jackson’s highlight Lingis’ ultimate strength as a thinker: “He’s a bit of an outsider, which is probably why he’ll actually be relevant in the future.”
In taking our ambitions, our values, and our achievements seriously we turn ourselves into idols, which we cannot help fearing will soon be covered with graffiti and pigeon shit . . . what else can we do, do we do, but laugh . . . ?
Ask Lingis about his work and he launches anecdotes, and what answers do arrive are elliptical at best. His work is every bit as mercurial as his conversational style. Perhaps this is the result of Lingis literally living his work, seeking stories, not answers, concrete examples, not textual citation.
Looking over Lingis’ backyard on the eve of a recent full moon, the ground is noticeably barren, large mounds of dirt interspersed with gaping holes—a work in progress. And despite his age, the same seems to be applicable to Lingis, as if his inimitable style is still being played out. “Someday,” he says, looking out over the yard, “this will be a series of wading pools, although only one is done now. It’s just a matter of digging the holes.
“The truth is I hate grass,” he continues. “When I moved here, I hacked it away and planted all sorts of flowers. But during the drought of 2001 everything died, and all that was left was dirt.”
Lingis smiles, an elongated, slashing grin full of teeth and glimmer. “Of course, one thing did grow,” he says. Turns out he had brought some seeds back from a trip to Polynesia, but nothing he planted survived except for one wild, healthy marijuana plant. Pausing to laugh, Lingis says, “I just kept replaying this picture in my mind of a police helicopter hovering over my one plant, yelling at me from the sky to come out of my house and surrender.”
The final stop on the tour of his home is the outdoor aviary, a large fenced-in swathe of grass directly adjacent to the kitchen that hosts Lingis’ collection of rare pheasants and wild turkeys. The pheasants are multicolored, glamorous birds with kaleidoscope tails that dangle like decorative talismans. The turkeys are striking, fiery-looking creatures that move with agitated, head-bobbing intensity, lording over the aviary. Lingis seems particularly proud of the turkeys, beaming with paternal pride as one moves cautiously in his direction, shaking its head to an indelible turkey rhythm of forceful jabs.
Later that evening, Lingis hosts a full-moon party, a low-key celebration that gathers a good deal of the philosophy community of Baltimore, including Fuchs, students from Fuchs’ Lingis class, Alexander Hooke, the co-editor of Lingis’ Encounters book and a professor at Villa Julie College, and other assorted academics. As Lingis works in the kitchen, preparing shots of bourbon that are to be set ablaze before drinking, the gathering seems quiet and restrained, not the pagan revel that a full-moon party suggests. As the guests mingle, a student dressed fully in black engages Lingis in what sounds like a philosophical conversation, asking him a question about Levi Nuass. Politely, Lingis neutralizes the conversation by quickly shuffling between pots and pans, using concrete tasks to resist the lure of the abstract.
As the party progresses, Lingis works the crowd a little but rarely is drawn into a conversation that is more than an anecdote, a story from foreign lands and ancient cultures. “I think telling other people’s stories is about the most important thing anyone can do,” he says at one point. “I think of my mother when she was dying, always telling me to check in on one of her friends, as if her own suffering was unimportant, and others’ was more interesting. The unselfish act always amazes me.”
Observing Lingis at the party, he seems to have embodied every bit of that ethos, of telling other people’s stories rather than his own, or excavating his own psyche to refill it with empathy for others. Repeating a mantra that he pronounced more than once during the course of the evening, he says to a young philosophy major from Goucher College, “You must share your work with me”—an ironic request given that most of the people at the party would rather hear about his. But Lingis sticks to it, seeking outward almost pathologically, looking for new grist for future stories, laughing and talking, not debating and speculating.
But then, if anything typifies Lingis’ philosophy, it is the forsaking of the traditional philosophical obsession on the singular mind and its workings for the physical world and the people that fill it. Whether Lingis’ inquiries ultimately result in a new branch of contemporary thinking or a colorful footnote, his take is dazzlingly, confoundingly original. As he wrote in his response to the aforementioned critical article, “I really reveled in the wicked pleasure of reading, as much, I think, as Peter Jackson of writing, the portrait of Alphonso Lingis—this individual that neither of us have met.
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