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Diacritics 31.4 (2001) 11-21
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Alphonso Lingis's We—A Collage, not a Collective
Alexander E. Hooke
Alphonso Lingis. Abuses. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994. [AB]
________. The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. [COMM]
________. Dangerous Emotions. Berkeley: U of California P, 2000. [DE]
________. Foreign Bodies.New York: Routledge, 1994. [FB]
________. The Imperative Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1998. [IMP]
Alphonso Lingis is unabashed in his uses of we. He does not speak about a privileged we, an exemplary or hegemonic we, or "we." According to this American philosopher, the various ways critics qualify their references to first person plural (we, us, our) are unnecessary, if not unjustifiable. Their caution and skepticism about any direct use of we invariably lead one to focus on this important pronoun as if it were a rhetorical sleight of hand, an ironic twist, a sign of embarrassment or elitism. Worse, their gradual cynicism diminishes or derides the reality of those whose contact with others can only be articulated in terms of we or our. Thus readers, and students subject to these theoretical reservations, are tempted to circumvent any substantive meaning to first-person plural in their own reflections and research. Given the persuasive charms of these reservations, to admit a genuine or lived we involves the risk of being charged with superficiality, a lack of sophistication, nostalgia, or political naiveté. 1
In the face of this risk, Lingis writes in first-person plural without apology. Seemingly oblivious to the ongoing controversies over any legitimate use of we—as if it connoted self-indulgence or self-delusion, Lingis depicts experiences and contacts that embody a substance to first-person plural. These contacts are presented directly and with little hesitation, as they often move one to awaken to daring, brazen, or unfamiliar individuals in their contexts and surroundings. To present them requires an air of innocence to the extent that the contacts appear as new to the writer as they are to the reader. [End Page 11]
They encompass more than surprise and spectacle. They also initiate beliefs and emotions that embrace other truths: unfamiliar expressions of gods, strange forms of human commitments, eccentric relations humans have with the past and future, but also with animals, trees, and unseen spirits. These truths evoke the kinds of genuine goods and values that are better conceived not as potential instantiations or counterexamples to our generalizations and conventions, but rather as compelling additions to our own senses of reality and truth.
In writing about we or us, however, Lingis also raises some critical stakes. While conversant with most of the influential figures and themes discussed under the postmodern rubric, Lingis extends their central ideas to new levels and fields of inquiry. Instead of scrutinizing the uses of first-person plural or maintaining a respectable distance from them, his philosophical endeavors are distinct insofar as they address: How do we, he and his audience, respond to the many kinds of contact that are readily dismissed insofar as they overlooked in our scholarly and philosophical endeavors? What might these other uses and realities of the first-person plural say that affirm, question, or contest us? Can his own work, lucidly presented in five recent books, contribute to contemporary discussions about the possibilities and pitfalls of human relations, cultural and political entities, social and biological communities, and the theoretical or critical reflections on them?
Lingis's answers are guided by looking at we more as a collage and less as a collective. A collage, unlike a collection, emphasizes or highlights the unpredictable ways that humans and other life forms come together. The use of we as a collective—whether the result of unconscious drives, chosen ideologies, an intersubjective ethic, or rational communication acts—emphasizes certain values, particularly those that help us to distinguish whether the experiences of we can be understood or appreciated in terms of true or false, good or bad, genuine or superficial, beautiful or ugly, familiar and significant terms for making judgments about moral, social, and...