The Gesturing Body Marked for Assimilation by Vanishment


The Gesturing Body Marked for Assimilation by Vanishment

Alphonso Lingis,
Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

The hand, the stomach, the breast, the knee give no sign and express nothing, are exposed to the clay and the rocks, to violence and violation… The skin you see is not a container, a hide or protection, but a surface of susceptibility…

Eyes without weeping, throats without sobs, eyes turning into scar tissue, hands turning into rheumatic stumps in the cold fog. Each wound, each scar, each laceration left by the storms, the brush, the stumblings, the falls, the infections, and the blows stiffens the flesh, making it more mute and inexpressive… They open up a body that is a lesion in the tissue of words and discourses and the network of powers.

Much has been written about the third world throttled and torn and plundered by the post-industrial powers and their far-reaching emmisaries, the multi-national corporations (or is it the state which is the emmissary of corporations now?). Nothing, however, at least in non-fiction, has been fleshed out so eloquently, poignantly, even lyrically as Abuses from which the above passage is taken as an exemplar of the author’s consistently driving, corporeal harangue, a pleading for the reader’s attention to the missing details on today’s front page. Lingis, a distinguished professor of philosophy at Penn State and careful student of both indigenous cultures and post-modern critiques of political power and social theory, understands here how the ravaged bodies of Quechua Indians in the High Andes of Peru (where they’ve been driven by advancing “civilization” and the forces of development, often military forces) function as an anti-discourse, a lesion in the fabric of constructs, diagrams, theories and texts – the languages of networked operational dominance by which information societies reduce everything in their paths to homogenized, readily palatable and potable matrixed data.

The bodies of the Indians, in the acts of their hard labors and their pain born of bare subsistence, are bodies without assimilable meaning, like unquarried rock or the sacred stones of their Inca ancestors which were meticulously worked so as to look as though no human hands had touched them. The stone cutters,

…knew themselves as laborious bodies, bodies devoted to effacing the rough traces of the quarrying, the signs of human intervention, form the surfaces of the stones, bodies becoming patient, impenetrable, indecipherable as the stones, adamantine bodies.

These bodies, these peoples, being unabsorbable by the monolithic, disk-driven global svengali, must be annihilated (as the Indians of the Amazon and the Bihari of Bangladesh), pushed into virtual invisibility (the Quechua people) or tortured into, in effect, admitting the “errors” of their ways in the face of received and operative truths in the discourse of power (the urban geurrillas of Brazil at the hands of the regime’s special counterinsurgency police).

Torture is particularly instrumental, in Lingis’ view, for the silencing of the “I”, that which cannot be co-opted, which is not received and sanctioned, that “monstrous” singularity which speaks what has always been silenced, the voice which is one’s own in communion with all other silent voices, both dead and future, a significant speech which cries out from muffled quarters of the heart. Even this speech is inadequate to revive the voices of those tormented to death:

Screams in the night are translated into images that circulate in electronic transmitters. They merge into the din of machines and the collisions of nature.

The words and images relayed die away into a silence heavy with muffled sobs and screams. One’s own words choke one’s voice; they postpone the day when one would lay down with the tortured, to wash their wounds, weep with them. Even then, one must speak on one’s own. The words that are one’s own are not certifications but responses that are questions and pledges, answering now for one’s silence and one’s death and for the time after one’s death.

Only in the discourses of decomposition, carnal lust and that of chance does Lingis find the spiritual revival sought by humankind in its hour of need.

…Everywhere humans move, we leave sweat, stains, urine, fecal matter… What we call construction and creation is the uprooting of living things, the massacre of millions of paradisal ecosystems, the mindless trampling of minute creatures whose hearts throb with life… The beat of our life is relentless drive to discharge our forces in things left behind;… Our blood shed, breast milk, menstrual blood, vaginal discharges and semen are what is sacred in us, surrounded from time immemorial with taboos and proscriptions. Bodies festering, ruins crumbling…extend the zone of the sacred across the mouldering hull of our planet.

A healer in Sarnath, India, where the Buddha first told of his enlightenment, tells Lingis that neither the philosophical doctrines of determinism (all events including human action are determined completely by preceding events) nor free will (humans have a choice in their actions) are adequate to prescribe or explain the really important events of our lives. Rather, one must divine luck and the path of destiny. Even an encounter with a spiritual guide or healer is a chance event, he notes.

Of course, the elements of chance, natural decay, and the unpackageable lusts of real bodies are just those attributes of life indigestible to interfaces determining clean and bland commodities. They are unconsummable because they themselves are consumed and consuming! They are holistic, non-biodegradeable, unrecyclable, singular processes, the most dangerous and recklessly “vile” kind of combustion for a culture built on sanitation, exclusion and modularization.

Where does all this lead us then? Are the journals and essays which make up this book, this bittersweet travelogue, merely beautiful requiems for a lost horizon, a world irreparably shattered in the gloom of computer screens and ultimately destroyed in a hail of independently-targetable cruise missiles? The book sounds a terribly distraught and oft-times sour (not to mention graphic) note against human inhumanity to a degree which may turn off many squeamish or conservative readers. However, the careful reader will see the nobility Lingis imputes to his long-suffering characters. Their integral involvement in communal life and culture at the tribal level enables them to bear their pain with a proud, circumspect and almost rakish humor and endurance. He likens them to the mammals whose “language” is based on relationships over and above things.

Is there any possibility, then, for a re-establishment of trust and communication between all the tribes, races and zones of this world? Lingis really does not have an answer to this question he raises. I’d venture to say he is not optimistic, except when it comes to that communication which is of the body and uncodeable, an exchange of energies Lingis plainly indulges with both sexes throughout his travels: the exchange of lust, passion. Lust is, for Lingis, a transsubstantiation, a transpersonal movement:

…Lust stirs… muddying the light of thought, vaporizing its constructions, petrifying its ideas into obsessions and idols, sinking all that is erect and erected back into primal slime, decreating all dwelling into the Deluge that rises… Lust of the sea, of the polyps liquefying the coral cliffs, of the rain dissolving the temples of Khajuraho, of the powdery gypsy moths disintegrating the oak forests, of the winter winds crystallizing the air across the windowpanes.

Abuses, though is not so much about solutions, but deep investigations. I found it profoundly moving, at times heart-stopping. It is a cerebral/visceral travail, employing an occasionally difficult contemporary, socio-philosophical vocabulary which will keep people on their toes. I recommend the stretch in this case, though. The effort will be rewarded by a fuller sense of why the evening news and news magazines may not be telling all of what should be known about the darker ramifications of techno-culture and its comforts we so thoughtlessly enjoy.

John Noto is a San Francisco poet of technoculture and the cyber abyss. He writes for the literary magazines Caliban and Talisman. His first book, Psycho-Motor Breathscapes will be published in the Fall of 1995 by Vatic Hum Press in Louisville, KY, and San Francisco, CA.