Location – Translation – Movement: Alphonso Lingis

Trust Alphonso Lingis, University of Minnesota Press, 2004

“The body is inserted in the materialist field of the eternal,
it leads the eternal itself…in the form of a praxis of time. In the first place, the corporeal reflection is thus an ontological immersion that activates the eternal through its opening on the edge of being, on the point of the to-come.”

–Antonio Negri, Time For Revolution

Trust is the third title in a series from Alphonso Lingis (including Abuses and Dangerous Emotions) that approaches a philosophy of travel and the experiences surrounding movement, translation and place with a genuinely unique perceptiveness and energy. Throughout the texts runs a thread of rigor and confrontational sensuality that engages travel in all its complexity and arduousness, reminding us that pursuing it to the fullest requires boldly embracing its thought processes, physicalities and human interactions. The collection of 20 essays in Trust walks an unusual path between theory, history and poetic narrative; and though philosophies of travel are nothing new in themselves, Lingis goes further than most in addressing how a thinking traveler’s courage and receptivity enrich the experience as he engages both the issues and people encountered along the way.

Some would like to credit Lingis with creating an entirely new genre of art and writing. He is also criticized as being stuck within the colonialist mind-set and failing in his efforts to diminish its operation within his own movements. The contentions on either side show up that a (western) philosophy of travel is not so much a point of departure in itself as a tripping backwards into the bottomless quagmire of its own thrown-ness in colonialism as cultural context. Few are untouched by its consequences, and one either embraces it, chooses to ignore it, or attempts to resist its destructive impulses as a reactionary move from within its paradigm.   Conventional travel writing tends sidestep the issue, but philosophy and theories of location and movement, in broad terms, claim that the historical layering of sovereignty on contested ground interrupts conceiving of it in simple terms, that the attempt to do so would be denialistic, or merely ignorant. Changing concepts of “nation”, shifting population, and ethnic or cultural identity are not being problematized by philosophy as an exercise then, but rather, philosophy is reacting to already complicated situations. Thus, the `why’ of a philosophy of travel is largely, now a responsible move to address the consequences of movement.

Needless to say, travel is often an exercise of privilege. Especially for those whose `point of origin’ is colonial, it is very difficult to move around without perpetuating some of its damaging tendencies, even with the best of intentions (sometimes even because of them). A case in point would be that the Mexican Government is currently using eco-tourism and the creation of bio-diversity reserves in Southern Mexico as an excuse and cover for repressive counter-insurgency actions against Zapatista communities. This becomes an easy thing for tourist-activists and conservation organizations to play into even with the best of intentions. Uncovering situations like this is what makes travel writing especially worthwhile, though much of it shies away from politics, as it is upsetting and less readable. There is a tendency among even those writers who bring contemplative elements into their work to gloss over many of the realities of life in the countries that they write about. As writers they need to sell articles, and the confrontational has a smaller niche. It is easier to do what travel writing has always done, which is to offer up the foreign and exotic for the entertainment of the bourgeois. To describe poverty as simple (“original”), happily squatting on sun drenched roadsides “free” of our material attachments. Or to valorize those who suffer pain and indignity so that those in comfort feel less tension in keeping the knowledge of other’s situations at arm’s length.

Lingis doesn’t strictly avoid exoticizing, rather his work covers the entire conventional travel spectrum from the romantic to the raw and then goes beyond it, through an openness to a broader interpretation of what travel can be than is commonly found. His uniqueness is in his breadth, and in a playfulness, with a mortal undercurrent, that carries us along through the pieces in Trust. “Trust is a break, a cut made in the extending map of certainties and probabilities. The force that breaks with the cohesion of doubts and deliberations is an upsurge, a birth, a commencement.” From there we are lead off to Araouane, Ethiopia, Peru, An Australian penitentiary, the Japanese Ambassador’s residence in Lima during the Tupac Amaru siege, and into the company of Che Guevara (as a reason to speak of manhood in shamelessly romantic terms). But the work’s romanticism reads as a celebration rather than a Pollyanna denial, and though they can be the same thing, obviously, that doesn’t seem to be his intention. Che’s virility and undeniable bravery were given as part of the driving force behind his fierceness towards injustice, his surrender into death for the cause, whereas his violence and cruelty are not mentioned. One either sees that as excusable or not, but with Lingis, the “romantic” is usually an edgier and more complicated affair than warrants being discounted out of hand.

At one point in reading the book though, there was a moment when the voice of the bored, weary traveler with the means to leave showed through and I put it down to make time for a trip. I took a cue from Alexander Von Humboldt, who sailed between Spain to South America between 1799 and 1804, measuring and cataloguing everything he could get his hands on along the way, impacting many of the scientific disciplines, and inspired one biographer to title his work All that can be learned in a lifetime. I decide to see how much I could learn in one day while traveling. It’s often lamented that most everything is known of our surroundings, that few corners of the world remain unexplored. Though this isn’t strictly the case, there is certainly more information amassed about the world than one person could know. But the mass of information now means that the realm of exploration is the imagination – what is done with what we know (how far can a tangent lead).

The next day I walked fifteen miles from my neighborhood to the next town along a semi-rural highway, measuring, cataloguing and taking surface temperatures of everything in my path. I stopped at all the businesses I passed and asked questions, made phone calls etc., relying on human contact rather than libraries or a computer. Within three blocks I discovered that impossible as it is to break out of cultural conditioning, it is shockingly easy to step out of normal, prescribed patterns of behavior. I wasn’t pushing a shopping cart (being-pushed into invisibility), I may not have appeared to be the accustomed migrant worker, why was I measuring that stop sign or holding a thermometer against a cactus? Something wasn’t quite right and it was readable in the faces of everyone who drove past. Normality is being-in-the-car, driving to places. The reaction of the drivers changed the climate of the experience, it became uncomfortable and uncertain, de-centered and imbued with the resonance of change – it was travel. However, because I was “home” there was also a resistance that translated into a somewhat angry meditation on suburban insularity and the culturally impoverished Lemming’s march of Hummers into the twilight of petroleum. And as fatigue and the 90-degree sun took effect, I imagined I had found a temporally external point from which to view it.

At the height of this reverie I was shocked back out of it when someone drove past and threw an empty coke can at me; probably the appropriate response to
thoughts at the time which had become s
elf-righteous and unproductive. However, I went back to Lingis the next day with a greater appreciation of what he is doing. Travel is in found moments, in creativity, a (potentially) perpetual state of the body and mind. The philosophy within and of its translational movements can equally be in the momentary and random. One of the pieces in Trust tells the story of Lingis returning to an old residence and finding it vacant except for the debris of a move. Among the litter was a series of letters that weave through a sad, ended relationship between another former occupant and an incarcerated partner. The piece reveals an extraordinary form of travel in its own right – a reminder that “travel” can be opening a forgotten box in the attic, that the “foreign” can be found in altered patterns of movement in familiar locations, potentially in any interaction with others – where a de-centering, or corporeal challenge leads away from the accustomed.   

Lingis offers a broadened view of movement that doesn’t attempt a self-containment. In dealing with some of these shifting concepts the social sciences and some cultural theorists have a tendency to want to arrest different modes and reasons behind movement into categorical definitions that fit the structure of an inquiry. Definitions of Diaspora are argued, demarcations between immigration and refuge are posited and refuted, sometimes productively, but as often with a militancy that reads as much like mere infighting.

Lingis touches on many of the issues of movement but doesn’t feel compelled to package his conclusions into the systematic. What emerges instead is a loose claim, following the lead of Merleau-Ponty, for the body as the seat of movement’s critical potency. Corporeal experience, the rubbing-against the world and plunging into it motivate the intellectual discoveries that result, and it is through the surrendering-over into trust that one arrives at the ability, the courage, to give one’s self to a place and its experiences. Through this receptivity then flows the location’s power of presence.

    Trust arises outside of, or even beyond, knowledge, outside of reasons to trust. “The act of trust is a leap into the unknown.” “The one who finds himself trusted.knows that there is much he does not know; he trusts himself to deal with the unknown when it shows itself. He then counts on his trust of himself more than on his knowledge. The force of the trust one puts in him makes his trust in himself the dominant force in him, dissipating his anxieties and vacillations.” Merleau-Ponty’s claim for perception as expression here describes the reflexive process imbedded in travel – an inter-cognitive movement between thrown-ness (a priori) and conscious thinking, which also describes the opening move of translation as it braids into travail (from a determined perception to interpretive effort). The act of trust returns courage, and the self-guided tour internalizes the same process of trusting a stranger, “not an assured dependency but a surge within ourselves.”            
The power of the body extends beyond the immediate. The body is that which we know above all else and is also the seat of our deepest mystery. Through it, Lingis places the issues and subjects that much of contemporary theory has excised from its vocabulary. Truth, heroism, compassion, beauty, virtue – not as “universal” formal principles but as they are felt, (projected in cultural determinacy) whether in fleeting moments of body whose brevity calls up the “eternal” or as the eternal-perceived, braced in the heartbeat’s “timeless” resolve. Its cessation alters the temporal but doesn’t extinguish the body’s place in it. Lingis unapologetically re-presents these impulses in all their horror, beauty and contrivance as inseparable from physicality – as motivational, spiritual, bestial, sexualized currents within life’s fecundity.

Death too is travel. Like other forms, its movement is a simultaneous gathering of surrender and projection – a moment of indeterminate beginning – emanating from movement in and through the world, and the intersections of decisions and consequences. The Buddha is said to have asked to be buried at a crossroads, an auspicious place loaded with the resonance of choices made and opportunities lost. Even the “transcendental” calls on the physical, and the rhetoric of physical movement stands in for every sense of a journey. The existence of relics in religious tradition, both portable and fixed, western and non-western reinforce the power of the body. After death, physical remainders become the attachments of memory, the corps the “smoldering”, unspoken, un-thought return journey to the soil. Its thermal energy disburses, and the ultimate mystery travels with it. The body, in death, becomes the very crossroads (point of departure) to which the Buddha referred – travel’s resonance eternally within it, which Lingis reminds us to embrace with gusto while we still have a pulse.

Linus Lancaster is a working artist and full time teacher in Sonoma County, CA. He is currently finishing an MA in philosophy and art at Sonoma State and is the founder of Proyecto Internacional de Teirra-Boya, a traveling sculptural/performance project dedicated to counter-status quo insurgency.

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