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  • Strange Emotions in Contemporary Theory
  • Alphonso Lingis (bio)

In the Gobi Desert, the Bolivian Altiplano, the Colca Canyon, in Antarctica, in a stretch of wasteland come upon when we were driving to a distant city, we have found ourselves in uninhabited and uninhabitable landscapes that open us to eons of geological time. The evolution and endurance of the human species with its capacities and ambitions to understand appear to us to be a brief moment in an inhuman cosmos that will go on long after the end of the human species and human understanding. As we have contemplated a stone, a park bench, or an appliance in our home, the concepts and meanings that are assigned to it and that we have assigned to it thinned out, leaving its brute reality before us, closed in itself, indifferent and alien to our existence. There are times when the rushing crowds in the streets, the industry, markets, and institutions of the city appear to us as devoid of intrinsic or external significance as termite hills of African wastelands or masses of crabgrass spreading blindly along the sidewalk. There have been moments when the identity we give ourselves vacillates, the significance and urgency of the duties and tasks we have assumed appear contrived and arbitrary, the everyday things we think we have to do to attend to our needs and that occupy so much of our time appear forced upon the chance and unlikelihood of our existence here. It is not simply that we doubt the substantiality of our aspirations and our goals and recognize a need to search for another identity, other aspirations and goals, in order to continue to conduct our lives in the practicable world. The ceaseless activity of the mind to fix concepts and meanings on things appears as an anxious compulsion to staunch this leakage of strangeness. The sense of strangeness is not a cognitive recognition; it is the experience of the collapse of cognition, of vertigo, throbbing in raw emotional intensity. This emotional state has a different tone and force from the emotions that focus attention on attractions, objectives, and obstacles—appetite, craving, ambition, repugnance, rage, fear—and from the emotions that simmer within us and draw our attention back to ourselves—exuberance, pride, sense of loss, shame, resentment, weariness, boredom, anxiety. But this existential emotion stirs beneath them and enters into their composition. [End Page 7]

The natural sciences exclude emotions from the observed and from the observer. The genetic and neurological advances in biology and evolutionary biology have displaced attention from subjectivity and emotions. The symbolic turn in anthropology relinquished the effort to gain access to the other’s mind and emotions; Claude Lévi-Strauss and Clifford Geertz instead turned to linguistic and symbolic systems as fields accessible to objective investigation.1 Cultural studies concentrated on observation and analysis of media representations. The linguistic and structuralist turn in philosophy rejected introspection and phenomenological reflection as unreliable methods and indeed vacated the subject from their fields of theoretical work.

“Subjects are…constructed by culturally specific discursive regimes (marked by race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on), and subjectivity itself is more properly viewed as the consequence of actions, behavior, or ‘performativity’ than as their source…. Selves are multiple and fractured rather than unitary, mobile rather than stable, porous rather than enclosed, externally constituted rather than internal or ‘inner’ natural essences.”

(Keller qtd. in Biehl, Good, and Kleinman 2007, 353)

Where emotions are studied in the philosophy of mind, the cognitive interpretation of emotions has become dominant. Emotions (e-motions) are taken to be intentional; they are aroused by and focused on objects, objective or obstacles, in order to generate recognition of them and envision ways of dealing with them or eluding them.

Yet in recent decades, certain experiential and theoretical works in medical practice, anthropology, and aesthetics have confronted emotions for which the thin concepts of the philosophy of mind are inadequate. They have had to confront the most intense and intractable emotions. These experiences and theoretical elaborations have not yet been integrated in the dominant trends in these disciplines and in the philosophy of mind.

Medical anthropologists have been studying the ways ethnic social...


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pp. 7-14
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