© Alphonso Lingis and Figure/Ground Communication
Dr. Lingis was interviewed by Edyta Niemyjska on November 23rd, 2012
Alphonso Lingis is an American philosopher, writer and translator, currently Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Pennsylvania State University. He specializes in phenomenology, existentialism, and ethics. Lingis attended Loyola University in Chicago, then pursued graduate study at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium. His doctoral dissertation, written under scholar Alphonse de Waelhens, was a discussion of the French phenomenologists Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Jean-Paul Sartre. Returning to the United States, Lingis joined the faculty at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, quickly gaining a reputation as the preeminent English translator of Merleau-Ponty and Emmanuel Levinas. In the mid-1960s he moved to Penn State University, where he worked diligently at his translation projects and published numerous scholarly articles on the history of philosophy. During this period, he also began the habit of wide-ranging world travel that leaves a deep stamp on all of his work. His latest books are The First Person Singular (2007), Violence and Splendor (2010) and Contact (2011).
How did you decide to become a university professor? Was it a conscious choice?
When I finished my studies, I didn’t think I would be a professor. I thought I would get a job working in a restaurant from time to time and then go somewhere and study and read. But I had no money so I got a teaching job in Pittsburgh. Then I discovered I liked it.
Who were some of your mentors in graduate school and what were some of the most important lessons you learned from them?
My graduate years were spent in Louvain, Belgium. I came into philosophy during graduate school; I thought my undergraduate studies had been poor. In graduate school I had a historical education and admired all my teachers. I wanted to do contemporary philosophy, I’m not sure why. I did my dissertation with Alphonse de Waelhens.
What advice would you give to graduate students who are aspiring to become professors today?
One appreciates students for the promise of what they will become, more for what is actually there; you wager that this student will become a thinker. Over the years students would come to me and ask, “I’m very interested in Philosophy, do you think I’m good enough?” I thought that the most important thing is to believe in yourself.
I remember a woman student. She came from a poor family: she worked as a waitress to pay for her education. She majored in special education, to teach children with special needs. It’s a fine, generous work, and because of the need for special education one will always get a job. She also loved to dance and was a dancer for the University dance company.
One year when I came back at the end of the summer I ran into her on campus. I asked “What does your semester look like?” She said, “I dropped my major; I’m taking five courses of dance!” It was her senior year, so she would have to do yet another year of course work to finish. She was shining. She realised that she belonged on the dance floor; her body belonged there, her sensibility, her soul. Of course she realised how difficult it would be. She’s not yet a dancer. She knows how to dance but she’s not dancing her own dance. Maybe it won’t happen; dance is very demanding physically. In fact her boyfriend who was also a dancer had a serious injury while practising, so severe that he could never dance again. She will have no security for the future. When you join a dance company, you dance for a couple of months and then you have to start all over again. But I understood that she said inwardly, “I’m a dancer, that’s what I am, what my body is.” It’s a promise, a commitment. Unless you say now, “I am a dancer,” you will never become a dancer.
I think it’s the same in philosophy. When you are a student, you love this kind of thinking and you want to be able to contribute something of your own; you hope that you will think something that no one ever thought before. It’s difficult to believe in yourself; you don’t know how good you are, you don’t know if you will have the strength and the courage and the interest to continue. You really can’t get any help. You can’t ask your professors or anybody else because their knowledge of you is limited and they also don’t know the future. But you have to believe in yourself. It’s the most important thing.
How do you manage to balance your personal life with your work? Does your personal experience influence your work?
For me, being a university professor is not even work. All you do is go to the campus maybe 6 or 8 hours a week and talk about books that you chose and that you love. I was never interested in administration or professional arguments and quarrels. I found that if you do your job, people leave you alone.
I went to other countries every year in the summer simply because I was interested in the world, and I still am. I don’t plan where I go and I don’t want to know anything about the country before I go. I prize that first impression. When I get there, I go to a book store and I buy all the books in languages I can read–guidebooks, history books and so on. But I don’t want to know anything before I go.
In your experience, has the role of a university professor evolved since you were a student?
Very much so, most certainly in America. In the 60’s, philosophy was popular. I would go in the first day and just start talking about some philosophical idea. Now there is this whole corporate model. Courses are like a contract. If you want to learn computer programming in a trade school and pay the money, they will tell you how to program computers. If you finish and weren’t taught, you want your money back. Now it’s the same attitude in the university. I didn’t use textbooks. I chose 3, sometimes 4 or 5 books by philosophers to study. Sometimes I spent a lot of time on 3 books and never get to the fourth book. The students would go to the dean and complain, “He told us we were going to learn 4 books and he only taught 3″. I don’t think it’s so much the fault of the students; it’s the attitude coming from the administration. They want what they call “accountability”. They want empirical, quantitative ways to judge.
In 1964, Marshall McLuhan declared that, “departmental sovereignties have melted away as rapidly as national sovereignties under conditions of electric speed.” This claim can be viewed as an endorsement of interdisciplinary studies, but it could also be regarded as a statement about the changing nature of academia. Do you think the university as an institution is in crisis or at least under threat in this age of information and digital interactive media?
I never thought much about the institution, and now that I’m out of it I don’t know what to say about it. I think I had an old-fashioned European attitude. I admired my professors in graduate school. I was in Belgium where I studied in French. The French have a strong tradition of speaking eloquently and with rational composition. Merleau-Ponty was a wonderful speaker; he was eloquent and very prepared.
I believed in the experience of learning from a teacher, from a human being. I never talked about it because it seems self-serving. Some years into teaching I discovered Scuba diving and took the course in Scuba diving in the athletic department. My instructor was very good. When I finished, I thought it was a very special experience to learn something directly from a human being. As a professor, one is always learning by reading more and more, but to learn from a person is a special human relation and a special pleasure.
I think that if somebody is going to get his or her whole university education online, it’s a poorer experience.
Of course there are professors that are not very good. When I was an undergraduate I had a professor who day after day would take the textbook and read a sentence and maybe would read it a second time and then would paraphrase it and then read the next sentence. He took role so you had to be there every day. I bought earplugs and would sit there and read the book by myself.
I don’t do much technology; I don’t have a cell phone, I’m not on Facebook. No doubt there are two sides to the matter: sometimes you can have very immediate contact by telephone or through film. But I don’t really like the telephone; if I’m talking to my friend for a half hour, I get restless, I feel I want to see the person, see the movements, the gestures, the grins. Yet sometimes on the telephone you will be more intimate than you would be face-to-face; you call somebody late at night and speak more with your heart than you would if you were speaking in person.
It’s also true about letters. I used to love to write letters and to receive letters. But now everybody sends email messages. Before, there was the friendly letter. Every month or so you would write a letter to a friend. You kept in contact with your friend, you told your news, you tried to amuse your friend so that your friend would enjoy reading your letter. It was a very special kind of writing: you tried to write well for just one person. Often I would prefer to write a letter rather than make a telephone call; when you write a letter you take time to say exactly what you want to say. You try to write well. Over the telephone you keep talking and often don’t say what you really want to say. I think sometimes one had a more intimate, more genuine, more truthful contact by letter than by telephone. The great virtue of email is that contact is much more frequent; usually you answer an email immediately (or else, like me, you have 15 pages of email to answer). With a letter you don’t answer immediately; you wait till you devote an hour to it, you sit down one evening and think about your friend, and write. I think it was very beautiful. I am sorry that now there is only one person who writes letters to me.
Your lectures and public appearances are often done in a very different style than the traditional method. Instead of standing in front of a lectern and teaching, your lectures are often done as performance art, incorporating theatrical elements and multimedia. How did this style develop and what is its effect on the philosophical content? What is its effect on the process of learning?
It started when I played a little music before a talk and a little music at the end. At the end of the lecture, usually there’s silence; you have to wait some minutes until somebody raises a hand. So I thought to play a little music. Later I played music continually through the lecture, but low. For me it’s difficult to judge whether the music is too loud or too distracting; so I don’t know how it works.
The most elaborate talk I prepared began the last night I was in Sydney. Two guys I had met invited me to dinner. We went to a restaurant and after a while a woman joined us whom I didn’t know. I asked her who she was and what she did. She said she was an artist; I started asking her about her work. At a certain moment she said she was volunteering teaching art at a maximum-security prison. I was fascinated and asked her about that. She told me about two prisoners.
They were heroin addicts, and had been in and out of prison for twenty years, for dealing, stealing. They have been lovers for more than 10 years. Cheryl was transsexual. But from the point of view of the prison she was male, so she was the only woman in an all-male maximum-security prison. They had been in and out of prison so long that they knew how to manipulate the system, so that they shared a cell. Wayne was in for armed robbery. Then Cheryl’s term was over and she was released. When they release you from prison they give you a little money. It wasn’t enough to buy a real gun. The next day she took a perfume bottle covered with a scarf to make it look like a gun and went the McDonald’s and gave the clerk a paper with: “This is a hold up, give me $300, and she had written her name and her prison number and, “Don’t call before 7 o’clock; I won’t be ready”. She performed this false robbery in order to be arrested and returned to prison to die with her lover.
When I heard this story I thought I had never heard of anybody who loved someone that much. To perform a false crime in order to die in a cement cell with her HIV-positive lover. I left Australia the next day, but I kept thinking about them. I had the address of one of the men who had invited me to the restaurant; after a month or so I wrote him and asked if there was any news about the two prisoners. He gave my letter to the artist and we started corresponding. I thought these two people whose love was greater than any I had ever heard of were among the most important people on the planet. I had the idea that I would like to meet them. The artist said they would be happy to meet me but it wouldn’t be easy because it was a maximum-security prison. I went three times to Australia after that, each time trying to get permission. Finally, the third time, people managed to get permission for me and I was able to visit them for an hour three days in a row. Wayne already had full-blown AIDS and was dying. I was very impressed with them; they were very intelligent and were very much in love.
Then I was invited to one of these interdisciplinary meetings in Texas where I could talk about anything; I decided to try to tell their story. Some friends worked on a video. I had recently returned from Indonesia and had the idea of the shadow play. These two people on the other side of the planet dying in a maximum-security prison would be seen as shadows. A friend from Japan was visiting me who I knew was a good dancer. We called a woman who had just been dancing for a year. We hung a sheet and put lights behind it; they disrobed and began to dance together. Their coordination was stunning. But I didn’t want the video to be just a dance performance, so we put in images another friend took of prisons—barred prison windows, gates, walls. And then a friend who’s a filmmaker visited from Canada; I asked him to send me some images of water, thinking water images would make the film distant and abstract. About that time a friend who was teaching in Egypt wrote me that he had gotten tenure and was going back to composing music. I had not known that he composed music; I asked him to send some of his music for the video. What he sent was edgy junkie music, perfect. So you see it developed piece by piece and was an international collaboration. When I presented at the meeting, we projected the video and I painted my body white and dressed in black rags (I had a vague idea of outside–outside of history, outside of civilization) and read the text, composed mostly of Wayne and Sheryl’s words, while moving here and there in the audience.
I presented it several times and finally was able to present it in Sydney. I was very happy to tell their story in Sydney, the city where they had been imprisoned and where they died.
In addition to your performance art, you are also an avid photographer and traveler. These travels and photographs have woven their way over the years into your academic publications. Many of your philosophical work features photographs and travel narratives. This suggests a unifying theme of world and world not just as a concept of investigation but actual people, experiences, cultures and nature that act as both the subject of inquiry and teachers. What does travel and world teach us about philosophy and how would you respond to the criticism that such an approach is the domain of anthropology or journalism and not philosophy?
When I started, I had the idea that if you teach a graduate course you should come up with some ideas of your own about the issues. I would teach a course on Husserl and get a few ideas of my own and then publish an article. Then at a certain point, I wrote something about the temples of Khajuraho in India that I had visited. After that, I decided I needed to write about the things that moved me most deeply. When I would go to a country, I would often read everything that had been published by anthropologists about that country. When I wrote, I didn’t worry about what genre of writing this is; I just tried understand broadly and write appropriately and well.
In your 1998 work The Imperative, you argued that ethical imperatives come not only from humans but from animals, plants and even inanimate objects. Can you describe your conception of this imperative in a nutshell and how such and imperative would play out in the social and political sphere?
The concept of imperative in that book came from Merleau-Ponty and from Levinas. Merleau-Ponty wrote that subjectivity is destined for objects. There’s a teleological orientation toward objects in a coherent world. So somehow the world orders us. I started with that idea. In Levinas the experience of obligation is an empirical encounter; it’s not an experience of grasping a principle but of perceiving wants and needs. Levinas wants to talk only about the wants and needs of another human being. But I understood that every animal we see, and also the plants and rivers we see, we see their wants and needs also; they affect us, weigh on us, and order us. It’s the same kind of experience.
When I went to other countries, I was always interested in political problems and solutions. I studied in Europe when French intellectuals were very leftist with a very strong influence from Marx. I think I have a kind of left wing Marxist sensibility. But I never was really able to elaborate it in the way of social and political theory.
Sometimes I did write about particular situations I had come to study. Certain countries fascinated me. Nicaragua–I went there several times during the Sandinista Revolution. To a lesser extent Cuba. I have a strong personal need to admire; I’m always looking for people to admire and places and cultures and political systems I admire. When I was a student I was fascinated by Gandhi. Then Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. But I didn’t really come up with much in the way of extended contributions to sociology or political theory.
What are you currently working on?
Whenever somebody asks me to do something I say yes. Right now I have several papers I’m working on. In the last couple of weeks, I have a little project that I don’t know if I can finish. This summer in Indonesia, in Tana Toraja on the island of Sulawesi, many aspects of their very distinctive culture fascinated me. Funerals last 4 to 10 days, with hundreds of pigs and buffalos sacrificed. The community recognizes the trauma it has suffered with the death, and other communities affirm their multiple ties with the community that has suffered a death. At the end of my stay I discovered they take stillborn babies and babies who die before they get their first tooth, and put them in trees. They bore a hole in the trunk of huge tree and put the dead baby in the tree. The tree that they choose has a white sap, which they see as a kind of milk. The tree will give milk to the baby that the mother was not able to give. The tree grows and covers the hole and so the baby is growing in the tree. I saw three of these places, each time at the end of the day. They are isolated, very quiet, very beautiful places in tropical jungle. This practice of putting the baby in the tree I found stunning and couldn’t stop thinking about it.
When I came back, I wanted to write a little piece about it. I began to think of what it means to lose your child. I bought all the books I could find about parents who have lost their baby and have been reading them the last couple of weeks. I don’t know if I can write about it because it’s not my experience and I don’t even have close friends who have lost a child.
There was one experience that affected me deeply. Pierre Trudeau, former Prime Minister of Canada, had advanced prostate cancer and was preparing to die. He had been divorced long ago and had three sons whom he had raised. Then his youngest son, 23 years old, was killed in an avalanche in the Rocky Mountains.
I was not there and in fact knew them only slightly; but I did spend black days. How terrible when you are preparing to die your youngest son dies before you do! Abruptly, in an avalanche, no time to prepare.
I’m not sure if I could write something about these things that have been occupying me these past weeks. I did feel that this practice of putting the baby to survive inside the living tree involved so many things–a conception of death, of grief, of nature, of life in nature. A practice and conceptions different from ours, and important to try to understand. And feel.
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