Matthew Barker on Alfonso Lingis: ‘The bodies that touch us’

This reflection is a part of a series of online essays celebrating 40 years of Thesis Eleven: The Top 40

by Matthew Barker

Ohne Titel, (1930) Hannah Höch, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, Hamburg

Alfonso Lingis asks the reader in the opening paragraph of Bodies That Touch Us: “are the bodies we touch really the bodies described by phenomenology?” (p.159). His question probes the limits of the possibilities of description vis a vis the actual body described. To answer the question, Lingis wanders through selected phenomenological texts and writers, pulling attention to moments of significance. His approach is meditative rather than calculative (see Heidegger, 1966) and his overture to Maurice Merleau-Ponty is as noticeable as his silence on Emmanuel Levinas. As a translator of major works by Merleau-Ponty and Levinas, it could be expected that Lingis shares an uncommon proximity to these authors through the reconstruction of their bodies through language. Yet, in Bodies That Touch Us, it is the flesh of Merleau-Ponty that animates the phenomenology Lingis questions and, as I will argue, it is the absent voice of Levinas that does the answering.

The position of language in Lingis’ text initiates an opening up of the phenomenological body where “the body is wholly pervaded with language” (p.159). This pervasiveness is followed through by inspecting how the saturated language-body becomes political in the dispersal of social signification. Lingis suggests that “the body can belong to the community only by being itself meaningful” (p.160). Legitimation of this kind brings the language-body of phenomenology into focus and reveals the gentle fraying at the edges of its ability to describe the bodies we touch. The problem here is that my body is knowable as a body only through its recognition in language by other bodies. How is it possible for phenomenological reduction to bracket my body from the bodies that constitute it in language as it is distributed by communal sensibilities?  

Rather than seeking this kind of epoché (Husserl), Lingis leaps over towards Merleau-Ponty where my body is less a linguistic structure and more of a spontaneous experiential Gestalt. As language is temporarily suspended, Lingis elicits from Merleau-Ponty “the body is shown to be postured by an intentional arc which orientates itself towards objectives and positions objects meaningful before itself” (p.160). My body winces in response to its perception of what is outside of itself. It gathers what is there in the moment and assembles meaning for itself as my body’s Gestalt. This is a motor body, of movement and response “where I discern the way things are presented” (p.161). For Lingis, this postural schema seems to exist parallel to the schematisation of the body in language. It is not pre-schematic nor natural. Instead, it is intertextural as the rendering of my body orientates and exchanges itself with the texture of its situatedness.

Lingis returns to Merleau-Ponty to inspect this texture drawing attention to how the senses contribute to its orientation. He says, based on Merleau-Ponty, that “my body is simultaneously a sense of a possible layout of supports and implements, and my sense of possible layout of paths and obstacles is simultaneously a sense of a possible stance and movement” (p.161).  The intentionality of my body is replaced by the sensorial body that feels out its own possibilities. And, in the context of language and communal sensibilities, it is a body that feels out to other bodies; “what the hand feels is the stirrings of feeling rising up in the hand it touches” (p.162). So, not only is Lingis’ phenomenological body pervaded by language, it is also dispersed and commingled with other bodies as it reaches out to touch. This body is not just my body but is co-dependent on your body reacting to the sensorial phenomena of our existence.  It is in the intertextural being-with-your-body rather than the being-in-my-body that constitutes my body.

Drawing again from Merleau-Ponty’s (1968) The Visible and the Invisible, Lingis is interested in his description of the body as a fold in the flesh of the world. Using this definition Lingis continues to say, “my body is a thing that reveals other things, and can do so only because it is of the same fabric as they” (p.163). This statement deepens the commitment of Bodies That Touch Us to an understanding of the body that lingers around a corporal understanding that is dispersed, co-dependent and interrelational. Lingis extends this idea beyond the touching of my body and your body suggesting “under the tissue of the world, a text made of significant contrasts and correlations, and the fold in that tissue which is the body made of cross-references, is the flesh of the world touched by a body of flesh” (p.166). The flesh of the body and the flesh of the world embrace. There is no background to define the body against (in the Husserlian sense) or a body in the foreground that can distance or cut itself off from the world. Lingis’ body is instead experienced intertexturally through touching flesh responding simultaneously within a multiplicity of interlaced senses and reflexes that tingle and buzz with synaptic excitement.

When Lingis concludes Bodies That Touch Us he brings the reader close to an answer to his original question: “are the bodies we touch really the bodies described by phenomenology?” His answer is somewhat evasive: “To recognize another is not to identify a sensible essence or even a style in a succession of significant dealings with the other; it is to be touched by a body” (p.167). Tracing his usages of Merleau-Ponty to bring an intertextual and relational body in focus, it seems at least that he is challenging a certain phenomenological tradition of reduction and separation. On the surface, Bodies That Touch Us does not explicate that phenomenology which Lingis questions. An avid reading of Lingis’ book and prefaces to some of his translations will reveal evidence of an abundant engagement and commentary on phenomenological traditions. However, his style is gentle, poetic and sensitive. He tells stories first and then embellishes them slowly with his academic acumen when it is sometimes least expected. Lingis’ phenomenological method is more about touching and connecting bodies rather than cutting them open and displaying them as artifacts in Euclidean space.

In The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common (1994), Lingis ponders a community where langauge and culture are precded by the shared experince of death and my body is accessed through the finitude of the Other. Lingis’ sense of the Other seems to be inhereted from Levinas’ (1987) definition “the Other is what I myself am not” (p.83). In The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common, Lingis seems to reflect Levinas’ relational alterity commenting that “I find the shape of my own destiny in the outline of enterprises that the others traced in the world but did not have the time or the power to realize” (p.171). The connection with Levinas is even more clear considering Lingis’ (1998) translators preface to Otherwise Than Being where he observes that in that text for Levinas “subjectivity is opened from the outside, by the contact with alterity” (p.XXVII). And though a more thorough exposition of Levinasian thought filtering through Lingis is beyond the scope of this response, the absence of Levinas in Bodies That Touch Us is notable.

Lingis’ reading of Merleau-Ponty in Bodies That Touch Us irritates the bodies described by phenomenology but it is the ghost of Levinas that points to Lingis’ phenomenological future. Perhaps, the ocular centric screen of past phenomenologies render bodies beyond touch and it is Merleau-Ponty’s fleshy haptics which draw them again near for Lingis? Yet, it is Levinas’ latent concern for the body of the other that can show an intertextural phenomenology of our existence that develops in Lingis’ oeuvre. Lingis’ proximity to Merleau-Ponty and Levinas through his translations suggests a special kind of touching. A patient finger that moves across a page and lips that pronounce the redeployment of the other’s mind, the other’s voice, the other’s phenomenology. Such an intimate responsibility; to touch the body of phenomenology.

Alfonso Lingis’ article, ‘The Bodies that touch us‘ is free to download from the Sage website for a limited time as a part of the Thesis Eleven ‘Top 40’ special.


Heidegger, M. (1966). Discourse on Thinking. New York: Harper Perennial.

Husserl, E. (2012). Ideas. Abingdon: Routledge.

Levinas, E. (1998). Otherwise Than Being. (A. Lingis, Trans.) Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Levinas, E. (2001). Existence & Existents. Pittsburgh: Duquesne University Press.

Lingis, A. (1993). Bodies That Touch Us. Thesis Eleven, 159-167.

Lingis, A. (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common. Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

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