Traversing the Levels with Alphonso Lingis

O-14, designed by Reiser + Umemoto

O-14, designed by Reiser + Umemoto

In Guerrilla Metaphysics, Graham Harman mentions Alphonso Lingis, whom he respectfully refers to as a “carnal phenomenologist.” Since reading this praise, I had been meaning to look into Lingis’s work, and I was happy to have found an interview with Lingis.

The reason I was interested in the interview has mostly to do with Harman’s reading of Lingis’s phenomenology, specifically Lingis’s ideas about inanimate objects—a subject barely discussed in the talk. About his book The Imperative, Lingis states, “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.” One basic understanding of this point is that material conditions have a consequent on our actions. It seems that Lingis means more than this, however. Lingis continues, “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.”

Harman is interested in Lingis’s “levels” of the world, particularly the essences of the world that are not anthropocentric, and where the unseen world resides when we’re not around to witness it. Harman writes in Guerrilla Metaphysics, “What is most characteristic of Lingis’s levels is that they are not a feature of human perception that follows us around wherever we go, but a feature of reality itself. The human being merely explores them, without being responsible for generating them” (67). This emphasis on the ontology of inanimate objects not being tied to human perception is made because it is a linchpin of Harman’s metaphysics. Harman continues with an example:

The glaciers of the South Pole and the currents of water jetting from and toward the glaciers are themselves fleshly to one another, ‘visible in general,’ even in the absence of all humans. They encounter one another not as stupid inanimate bulks working with mechanical torpor, but as topographical bulges in the world, as imperative objects never fully manifest to each other but communicating with one another through the levels that bring their qualities into communion (68).

It seems that Harman’s main point here is that individual entities do not always interact with each other completely through a single medium or level, and thus that there must be many levels of the world of experience.

The image above of a project by architects Reiser and Umemoto was chosen because I like the way they illustrate and emphasize the varying layers of materials in their designs. Those different material layers contain their own internal interactions, and yet also act as objects themselves, interacting with other material layers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *