Long ago and far away it seemed that academia served as a way station for inventive figures whose nonconformism, demonstrated in their work and lifestyles, was welcomed with graceful suspicion by their colleagues. Philosophy has had its share: one thinks of Wittgenstein and C. S. Peirce, but many lesser Wittgensteins and Peirces somehow adapted and became tenured. In regard to such figures “eccentric” meant outside the circle or off center; “radical” meant surprising, original, sincere. Today radical has a murky political sense. Most radicality takes place in a discourse, or as a discourse—in the title of a university press book—which when invoked aligns the writer with the orthodoxy of a speech community. No surprise; only a dull echo as membership is [End Page 516] confirmed and the circle remains unbroken. Contrary to almost everyone’s intentions, never has so much “identity politics” been melded with the writing act in a metaphysical proof. We write about pragmatism, therefore we are new pragmatists. We write eco-feminism, therefore we are radical eco-feminists.
Yet the nonconformist self-image of many philosophers is belied less by the uniformity of their discourse than of their lives, constrained as they are by professional protocol. This situation has become especially painful for phenomenologists whose credos “to the things themselves” and “towards the concrete” mandate a method of worldbound description confirmed by first-person evidence. It is a longstanding embarrassment that most phenomenological studies are either studies about phenomenology, or phenomenologies of books. In this regard even before Of Grammatology it was obvious that there was nothing outside the text.
The rare exception is Alphonso Lingis, author of Excesses (1983), Libido: The French Existential Theories (1985), and The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (1994). So much is obvious to anyone who leafs through his Abuses. The vistas and catastrophes we access through this book cannot be easily disengaged from the personality that guides us to Tenochtitlan, Matagalpa, Kuta, Bali, the Sambodromo in Rio de Janeiro, Khlong Toei, and Chichicastenango. From these places and others Lingis reports the sometimes macabre longings and vulnerabilities of those who have nothing in common except violent changes in heritage and landscape. He speaks to their wounds and of his own ailments he acquires by exposing himself to forsaken circumstances: it is all material for his philosophy. In this work speech is primary, as it was for phenomenologists before Derrida.
Merleau-Ponty’s writing remains unsurpassed as an eloquent transcript of perceptual life as expression and bodily engagement. Lingis, who translated The Visible and the Invisible, has from the start of his career been the most interesting and outlandish promulgator of this style of phenomenology. But his focus was decisively turned by Emmanuel Lévinas (whom Lingis has also translated) towards alterity relations, intimate events in which persons defer to and ennoble strangers by taking responsibility for them. Speech and physical contact are precious components of these relations, allowing persons to disburden themselves, to exchange pain and betrayal for tenderness and trust.
Lingis shows how alterity relations suffer abuses at the face-to-face level and in the global network of electronic media. We enter his work breathlessly, as into a deep valley where there is gunfire and tropical birds. Spy satellites pass overhead. The human beings are strangely quiet. Women and children are being herded into canvas-covered trucks by youthful militia with oversized weapons. The volatile prose lifts up the voices of the damned just before they vanish around the bend in the jungle. Lingis speaks for them. This is the mandate of his research: “One has to speak for the silenced” (p. 36).
How does highly educated thought speak for the tortured and dispossessed [End Page 517] without looking absurd or merely pretentious? Here it won’t do to speak of the world as a text. In this regard the kind of work we find in Abuses is at a vast remove from something like Susan Suleiman’s recently published Risking Who One Is: Encounters With Contemporary Art and Literature. There is nothing peculiar in...