On Sensation, Plasticity, & Cliches

While reading Tom Sparrow’s article “Bodies in Transit: The Plastic Subject of Alphonso Lingis”, I was struck by a particular line and the truth it held in the narrative of Foreign Correspondent. Early in the article, Sparrow describes Lingis as “the literal embodiment of a synthetic brand of American continental philosophy” (99). It was the word choice that intrigued me the most – the notion that an idea can be synthetic, and that a living, tangible person might be capable of inhabiting it.

An explanation for the meaning behind this statement begins to emerge in the discussion of sensation, put quite simply “to be sensitive to something, to feel a contact with it, to be affected by it” (104). Here, I drew an immediate parallel to Johnnie and Scooter’s relationship, for although the two are never in physical contact, Johnnie is certainly affected by the simulation of Scooter’s presence, the projection of his thoughts and ideas from countless miles away. In this way, she demonstrates the notion of plasticity, our vulnerability and capacity for change in the face of some external force. Johnny herself admits at one point, after their correspondence has been ended, that she has demonstrated herself to be multi-faceted in her letters: a starry-eyed fan, a hopeless romantic, etc., and while none of these facets are necessarily falsified, to call attention to them is acknowledgement that they may have been exaggerated at times, dependent on her mood, the effects that thoughts of Scooter may have had on her at the time. Though we do not see or hear from Scooter following the reading of these letters, we can easily infer that he is not so malleable, that, while he remains polite in his replies, he has little or no desire to demonstrate his own vulnerabilities to her. To Johnnie, Scooter is a cliche which keeps her “at an ideal distance…always meditating, and reducing [her] sensuous experience to the familiar, the comfortable, the safe and sound”. (Sparrow 117) Although “ideal” may not be the right word in this case, the word “distance” says more than enough about the problematic dynamic of their relationship; though she can be said to be affected by Scooter, she is so infatuated by her cliche idea of him that she injects an essence of familiarity into their relationship that does not exist, and Scooter, having no such reciprocal image, recoils.

Sparrow quotes from Lingis that “we are a community that ultimately ‘has nothing in common’…[that] is not to say that we cannot respond to the unexpected sensation, but rather…we cannot hope to assimilate it before it makes claims upon our being”. (119) Johnnie, while able to assimilate Scooter’s potential reactions to her letters, has already been “claimed” by the sensations he provides; though she recognizes that her letters may not be as appreciated as she hopes, she makes no effort to tone down her emotional intensity, continuing instead to mold her idea of Scooter by the minimal information about him that she is given.

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