Philosophy on the Edge

I’ll attend the Pacific division meeting of the American Philosophical Association later this week in San Francisco. Even though it’s only a division meeting (not national), it’s a massive event nonetheless. There are a few panels I’m very excited about, including one with Al Lingis and Tony Steinbock, focusing on Steinbock’s recent book, Moral Emotions, which is something like a sequel to his Phenomenology and Mysticism.

I’ll be presenting Friday evening in a panel about philosophy on the edge. Preview: I’ll say something about how coexistence in the Anthropocene is without center or edge. With the ongoing and inevitable erosion of anthropocentric subjectivity, countless beings are crowding into center stage. Everything is a center, being centered amidst multiplicities of centers with a circumference that is nowhere; but this could also be formulated by saying that everything is not a center, being on edge in a world whose center is nowhere and circumference everywhere. In some sense everything is both a center and an edge, but in another sense, everything is neither a center nor an edge. What this means it that coexistence in the planetary era is fundamentally ironic, ambiguous, and uncertain. My main point will be that this situation does not just call for humans to give up anthropocentrism. It calls for philosophers to give up philosophy, to give up the power of philosophy so that philosophy might become possible again, and still for the first time. Giving up power is about becoming vulnerable to intimate encounters outside of philosophy and outside of the occidental context of philosophy.

I’m thinking with Foucault here, specifically this remark he made in an interview during a stay at a Zen temple in Japan in 1978. “The crisis of Western thought is identical to the end of imperialism,” which is also “the end of the era of Western philoso­phy. Thus, if philosophy of the future exists, it must be born outside of Europe or equally born in consequence of meetings and impacts be­tween Europe and non-Europe.” Adding some specificity to his comments, I want to make a couple of small incisions to open up some possibilities for a philosophy of the future. The incisions use the cutting edges of deconstruction and Buddhism, that is, the blades of the mohel and manjushri. There are a few different lines of thought to bring together here, at least three, including Keiji Nishitani’s work on the encounter between nihilism and emptiness (shunyata), the work of Robert Magliola, Jin Park, and others facilitating an encounter between Derrida and Nagarjuna, and Tim Morton’s invocations of Derrida and Nagarjuna in his dark ecology. The point is not to help solve any problems with some Buddhodeconstructive tag team. The point is to become vulnerable, weak and powerless. The point of the blades of the mohel and manjushri is this: surrender.

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Making Love with Lingis…Again.

To find oneself in love is to find oneself not free but captivated.

 Eroticism is suspect to the ethical mind.  Orgasm is pleasure in the breakdown of laws, action, responsibility, conscientiousness, and consciousness.  Sensuality is transgressive.  In the bodies denuded, sexual excitement surges in the meltdown of built-up structures.  As our bodies become orgasmic, the posture collapses, the manipulative diagrams of the limbs soften, legs and thighs roll about, fingers and hands move in aimless, unendingly repetitive caresses, allowing themselves to be stroked and crushed.  Our lips loosen, soften, glisten with saliva, lose the train of sentences; our throats issue babble, giggling, moans, and sighs.  Our sense of ourselves, our self-respect shaped in fulfilling a function in the machinic and social environment, our dignity maintained in multiple confrontations, collaborations, and demands dissolve; the ego loses its focus as center of evaluations, decisions, and initiatives.  The psychic structures with which we screen, filter out, and channel the superabundance of outside stimuli that flood our senses at all times are shattered and the stimuli flood us pell-mell.  The structures by which we fix an inner ego identity and censor out a whole underworld of unconscious drives and cravings buckle and crack; in sexual excitement the gates of the lower dungeons are opened and feral drives and cravings bound up and overwhelm our conscious intentions and purposes.  Our impulses, our passions, are returned to animal irresponsibility.  The pleasure and torment in contact with the nonprehensile surfaces of our bodies, our cheeks, our bellies, our thighs, irradiate across the substance of our sensitive and vulnerable nakedness.      

Alphonso Lingis, “The Immoralist,” in The Ethical, ed. Edith Wyschogrod and Gerald P. McKenny (Blackwell Publishing, 2003), pp. 205, 211-212.

Making Love with Lingis

When we, in our so pregnant expression, make love with someone of our own species, we also make love with the horse and the dolphin, the kitten and the macaw, the powdery moths and the lustful crickets.

A thinker who comprehends with the hands, hands made for blessing, sees swallows and owls, wetlands and tundra pullulate with grace.  Blessing is the beginning and the end of all ecological awareness.  […] Laughter and tears, blessing and cursing break through the packaging and labeling of things that make our environment something only scanned and skimmed over.  They are forces with which we impact on nature, which we had perused only as the text of the world.  They are forces that seek out and engage reality.

Lust in not content with respectful and considerate caresses and release of tension; it wants another, wilder orgasm, it wants orgasms on jet airplanes and in tropical swamps, it wants bondage and whips.

Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions (University of California Press, 2000), pp. 37, 71, 78, 79.

…and more to come…

 

Joy and laughter, or Why I am So Happy

Nietzsche’s practical teaching is that difference is happy; that multiplicity, becoming and chance are adequate objects of joy by themselves and that only joy returns.  […]  The death of God needs time finally to find its essence and become a joyful event.  Time to expel the negative, to exorcise the reactive—the time of a becoming-active.  This time is the cycle of the eternal return.
The negative expires at the gates of being.  Opposition ceases its labour and difference begins its play.

Gilles Deleuze, Nietzsche and Philosophy (Columbia UP, 2002), p. 190.

 

Drag queens flaunt their perversions and incite our laughter at them. [….] In the moment of laughter, there is transparency among individuals, as if the outburst of laughter gave rise to a single torrent surging within them.
Thus drag queens are the paragons and forgers of public morality.
Laughter freezes when someone who brings death to our friend or to a whole people gets away with it.  Yet Nature does get away with it: the wind sputters through the eyes and jaw of a skeleton.  We understand that we can laugh in the face of death.  We catch sight of the possibility of seeing our death as a joke.  We understand that we can die laughing.
[…]
You see our planet set in the orbit of the Sun, which is burning out as fast as it can.  You see our Sun swirling in the cosmic maelstrom of the Milky Way galaxy.  You see innumerable galaxies exploding toward immensities and distances that telescopes are not yet able to track.  New telescopes and spaceship journeys into outer space will extend your vision of the universe ever further beyond the radius of our managed environment.  It will direct our minds with material entities—stars, novae, and black holes—more alien and more forceful than any gods that we had imagined.

Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (Routledge, 2005), pp. 98, 123.

Lingis on 6 Problems in Levinas

There is a new issue of the journal PhaenEx: Journal of Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture.  It’s a free online journal that’s been around for roughly six years, with two issues per year.  I highly recommend checking it out.  The current issue has an article by Alphonso Lingis, “Six Problems in Levinas’s Philosophy.”  I’ll give a tiny overview here.

The first problem is Levinas’s constitutive phenomenology, which Lingis claims is too idealist (i.e., “The sense of things is constituted by the subject that appropriates them”).  In contrast, Lingis promotes a more realist vision:

Our existence as conscious organisms appears to us to depend on the prior and independent existence of the earth and its geological composition, climate, and ecosystems. A sequoia, an Oryx, a starfish appear to exist with their own internal and external forms prior to and independent of my consciousness of them. We see that other species perceive what we perceive, that our sensibility and perception are similar to the sensibility and perception of other species, who perceive the things of their environments as exterior, independent of them, and as real as they are.

The second problem is that, for Levinas, recognizing the demands of the Other happens by recognizing the Other’s “vulnerability and mortality” instead recognizing “the positive plentitude of an organism.” 

When someone faces us, we see someone in whom nature has achieved something: we see hale and hearty physical heath and vigor, vibrant sensibility, beauty. We see someone who has done something with his or her life, protected and nourished, built, repaired, restored, rescued. We see someone who has cared for a sick relative, maintained a farm, been a devoted teacher, is a loyal friend. We see someone who has not achieved anything materially, but who knows that he or she is a good person, steadfast, open-minded, with a good head and a good heart, has dared to break the rules and make mistakes, has a sense of his or her worth. We see facing us someone who has suffered the worst oppressions of the social system and the worst destructions wrought by disease or nature and who has been able to endure suffering and awaits death with lucidity and courage. We see someone who has the vitality to laugh over absurdities and his or her own failures, has the strength to weep over the loss of a lover and over the death of a child in another land.

The third problem has to do with the unendingness or infinition of human needs and wants.  “Levinas had acknowledged that the needs of a living organism are finite; they end in terrestrial goods and nourishments.”  But Levinas thought humans were different from other species, such that humans have a relationship of perpetual dependency on me (the ethical subject).  Lingis disagrees, “we think that a human organism, like that of other species, is a locus of production of excess energies. Human needs and wants are intermittent and superficial (not the core reality), and satisfiable.”

The fourth problem is Levinas’s appeal to God as the alterity constitutive of the otherness of every Other.  A practical response to the Other enlists determinate resources in me and my environment, but Lingis claims that, with Levinas’s God, the demand that the Other puts on me “loses its location in the midst of the common world and its determinateness.”

The fifth problem is that Levinas considers his ethics of responding to alterity is primarily Jewish.  However, anthropological research suggests that it pervades every human community…and it’s not limited to humans.

Indeed practical response to the needs of others of one’s species is widespread across nature. Spiders, birds, and mammals risk their own lives to protect their young from predators. Bees, penguins, vultures, and antelopes share food found with others of their species. Numerous cases of individuals giving sustenance and assistance to members of other species have been documented.

The sixth problem is the political implications of Levinas’s ethics.  Lingis is concerned that, when in power, proponents of an “unrealizable ethics of absolute responsibility” end up producing “irresponsible and disproportionate state violence, and the ethics of absolute responsibility functions as ideology.”

Be afriad: an uncanny thing, a good deed, a joyful leap into the abyss

A massive and sudden emergence of uncanniness, which, familiar as it might have been in an opaque and forgotten life, now harries me as radically separate, loathsome.  Not me.  Not that.  But not nothing, either.  A “something” that I do not recognize as a thing.  A weight of meaninglessness, about which there is nothing insignificant, and which crushes me.  On the edge of non-existence and hallucination, or a reality that, if I acknowledge it, annihilates me.  There, abject and abjection are my safeguards.  The primers of my culture. 

Julia Kristeva, Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (New York: Columbia University Press, 1982), p. 2.

 

Being there when the situation needed you, some third eye finds the right thing to do somehow; then, like coming up with an idea when thinking, it sticks to the bones like a paradigm.  The hard thing is to be ignorant and concerned and afraid the next time.  Out of that ignorance and concern and fear alone the good deed, the brave deed, could come. 

Alphonso Lingis, Body Transformations: Evolutions and Atavisms in Culture (New York and London: Routledge, 2005), p. 152.

 

In every exhilaration we sense the possibility that the final leap into the abyss will be experienced as joy.

Alphonso Lingis, Dangerous Emotions (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2000), p. 162.