Words and Worlds: Lingis on the Ecology of Knowledge
by Adam Robbert
The further I explore the work of Alphonso Lingis, the more profoundly touched I become by the depth of his insight. Take the following quotations from his work in The First Person Singular. The first situates the relation between the human use of words in relation to world, the second expands this line of thinking to consider the perspective of other species, slowly eating away at our notions of inside and outside; individuals and collectives; representations and perception:
Words order our action: they organize our environment by segmenting it and demarcating paths and instrumental connections and by invoking possibilities and predicting consequences. They signal what has to be safeguarded, nurtured, repaired or built, and they sort out resources and urgencies. Our words are not only indicative or informative but also imperative: they launch and command our action or inaction (p. 28).
Extensive biological research has now shown that other species from pigeons to primates recognize what they perceive with a categorical intelligence…Coral fish, butterflies and wasps, birds of paradise and hummingbirds, zebras and foxes bear surface colors and patterns and utter distinctive cries with which they both recognize one another and are drawn to one another (p. 67).
In the first quotation Lingis draws our attention to the categorical intelligence which humans, as wielders of language, use to re-arrange the rubrik’s cube of phenomenal experience. In the second, we are invited to consider that this is not an exclusively human capacity, but is a categorical intelligence possessed by numerous other species. Lingis in this way forwards what one could call a biosemiotic framework that situates the human activity of categorical intelligence and symbol making amidst a wild and vast kaleidoscope of interacting semiotic activities performed by other species.
Lingis lifts the rock of first-person subjectivity from its dark, damp soil to reveal that what lurks beneath is not a solid and fixed unity, nor merely a socially constructed historical nomad, but rather the scurrying of thousands of microorganisms, organelles, and cells activated amidst a universe filled with other living beings. Indeed, first-person subjectivity is itself an ecological complex, filled with the mesh of what Tim Morton calls “strange strangers” — each intimately interwoven with our own being, each irreducibly alien to our own identity.
Thus we find ourselves in the staging grounds of not just a renewed conception of the first-person perspective, but also of the character and being of knowledge and its relationship to the world. “When we speak about things” Lingis writes “they become clearer; they break apart or connect up differently; words may well make things and situations first appear” (p. 37). And he continues:
Words, just because they fragment things and grasp them with their outlines or skeletons only or focus our attention on some unnoticed detail or some relationship with remote things, can cast over things strange auras and spells…With words we move lightly over things. And words, with their streaming and their syncopation, their soft or hard, warm or cold tonalities, their beat and their micromelodies, their rumble and their hisses, their harmonies and their dissonances, pick up and amplify the sonorities loud and latent in things. In doing so, they consecrate things and events (p. 62).
Note the attention Lingis pays to the tactility of words — the way they, in his prose, seem to leap from beyond the cranium and actually come into contact with various features of the world around them. In this light, I think, one might say that words act as objects in the world and the manner by which they act is ecological.
Words transform not just the environments which they disclose, but also feedback upon the one who uses them, transforming the subjectivity of the speaker in an ongoing and recursive way. How can we see this? Lingis highlights the important role paradigms play in scientific research, and their impact on research workers in a passage that could have come straight out of Kuhn:
The rational community subdivides into various scientific and technological communities. Communication within a scientific discipline or among workers in a technological field is based on the determinations of what could count as observations, what standards of accuracy in determination are possible, how the words of common language are restricted and refined for formulating observations in various scientific disciplines and practical and technological uses (p. 86).
And this one which could have come straight out of Latour:
[Paradigmatic observations and generalizations] function with collectives, connected by sympathies and antipathies, alliances and jealousies, devoted to enrichment through the exploitation of resources, labour sources, and markets; to collective defense; or to colonial, imperial, or corporate expansion. They direct movements of people seeking attachments and alliances with families, clans, other cultures, destitute people, with historical achievements and with landscapes and ecosystems. They animate gatherings and schisms within “society” and launch milieus, gangs, packs into adventures and follies (p. 89).
I have previously referred to a similar state of affairs through what one might call “The Ecology of Paradigms” the basic lesson of which I would now frame — following my encounter with object-oriented ontology — as the simple statement: paradigms are objects that shift relations amongst material systems, social power structures, and human psychologies. In other words, paradigms, like any other object, act in ways that are irreducible to both their emergence in defined relations (e.g., through the specific scientific practices which engender them) and to their originally defined purpose (e.g., their instrumental or utilitarian aims).
Thus we have so far seen that words, knowledge, and, in particular, paradigms, play a part in reconfiguring the larger ecologies of actuality they come in to contact with in a concrete, physical way. But paradigms also play a role in constituting the human research worker as she deploys a specific paradigm. On this point, Lingis writes:
The established rational discourse of the sciences and technologies not only organizes the regions of observed nature, implements, societies, and histories with its empirical laws supplying reasons for observations and its theories supplying reasons for empirical laws, but it also orders the discourse of individuals. The rational discourse of the sciences and technologies depends on speakers whose utterances formulate insights that can only be the insights of real individuals, who undertake to answer for what they say, to supply evidence for its truth (p. 90).
Words and worlds are indeed linked as independently existing, interactive actualities. The ontology which describes this relation is object-oriented. The ethics which organize the goals of such an inquiry are cosmopolitical. The way forward is ecological.