Monthly Archives: May 2012

Micro-Reviews #2: Jacques Lacan’s “My Teaching”

Overall Rating: 7/10

A provocative, short, and delightful read, Jacques Lacan’s My Teaching provides an enlightening introduction to Lacanian psychoanalysis, particularly for those uninterested or unable to tackle his Écrits or Seminars. As a disclaimer, it should be noted that this work is anything but systematic; on the contrary, My Teachings—composed of three lectures (all 1967)—exemplifies Lacan’s lighthearted, playful, and often crass character. Gaiety aside, Lacan here succeeds in providing a concise examination of his psychoanalytic project within these three short lectures, engaging such key topics as the Subject, the Other, language, the unconscious, the essence of thought, and his complex relationship to Freud.

In his first lecture, The Place, Origin, and End of My Teaching, Lacan offers a direct challenge to his contemporary clinical psychoanalysts. Dismissing the attempted “legitimization”of psychoanalysis—the tendency to (mis-)identify sexuality in the psychoanalytic sense with the quite different sexuality of the biological sciences—as mere “sales patter” (p.11), Lacan proposes a psychoanalysis which might go beyond the mere creation of “good employees” (p.19), better consumers. Instead, drawing upon Derrida’s Grammatology and (to a lesser extent) Heidegger, Lacan underscores his Saussurian (i.e. linguistic/structuralist) reading of psychoanalysis which “is in fact quite simply language, and absolutely nothing else.” (p.26) For Lacan, Freud’s “unconscious” is nothing other than a linguistic “knot,” underlying all conscious thought and conscious language. This region of the unconscious, although seemingly illogical, nevertheless functions within its own distinct logic, the logic of the homonym. In this realm, word-play, pun, slips of the tongue, and the raw association of signifiers reign.

Closing the lecture, Lacan delves into the controversy surrounding his use of “subject” and “Other.” In language reminiscent of Fichte, or perhaps the earlier Boehme, Lacan posits the “subject” as a necessary product of desire, a desire which is always directed outward towards an Other. In this specific sense, Lacan understands his language of the subject to be, implicitly at least, prefigured in Freud’s analysis of desire.

His second essay, My Teachings, Its Nature and Its Ways, continues directly in this vein. Focused directly upon the “subject” of the previous discourse, Lacan explicitly identifies this concept with the unconscious. “If something gives us the feeling that there is a place where we can lay hands on it, where it’s the subject we are dealing with, then it’s at the level known as the unconscious.” (p.81) In this way, Lacan hopes to divest subject and substance, two concepts which have become fully identified in post-Aristotelian thought. This choice—to retain the language of the subject—is not therefore intended to invoke the subject of classic metaphysics, but quite to the contrary, to completely “invert” it.

In the final essay of this short volume, So, You Will Have Heard Lacan, Lacan engages the essence of “thinking.” Rejecting the epistemological axiom that thinking always knows itself as thinking, Lacan proposes an unrecognized and embodied thinking which does not know itself to be thinking, a thinking which “does not grasp itself” (p.103). It is this thinking that overwhelms the human at all times: one is constantly emerged in this thought, thought which is nothing other than the unconscious.

Micro-Reviews #1: Michel Henry’s “Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality”

Overall Rating: 9/10

In Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality, Michel Henry attempts a reorientation of “Marxist” thought through a return to the fundamental philosophical insights of Marx’s pre-economic period. This reorientation opens with the bold, and markedly controversial, claim that “marxism is the interrelated set of misinterpretations that have been given concerning Marx.” (p.1) Such a claim is noteworthy, not merely for its polemical character, but for the breadth of its targets. Not only does Henry identify this misinterpretation with the political manifestations of Marxism (viz. Stalinism, etc.), but in a sweeping gesture condemns nearly all Marxists including recent critical theory, the Frankfurt School, and one of the very foundations of Marxism itself: Friedrich Engels. The source of this misinterpretation is doubly posited as the blindness of Marxism to Marx’s philosophical novelty and the unavailability of certain key texts (i.e. The 1844 Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts and The German Ideology) which were not published until the middle of the 20th century.

Through a close reading of these key texts, the first half of Marx proposes that the true insight of Marx’s thought is a radical reinterpretation of reality in its concrete subjectivity—a subjective reality designated as praxis. Whereas traditional Marxist thought tends to emphasize the placement of the individual within a class as its defining feature, Henry’s reading of Marx construes reality as an inversion of this paradigm. Instead, the subjective conditions of practical life (hunger, need, work, etc.) form the true contents of reality which constitute the class structures as economic idealities. “What is real, therefore, is need, hunger, suffering, labor too—everything that consists in this inner and insurmountable experience of the self.” (p.160)

This opposition of reality and ideality arises out of Marx’s early turn from Hegel, whom he criticizes for the hypostatiztion (i.e. reification) of ideal entities such as history, the state, etc. To posit these purely ideal entities as though they possessed reality and the effectivity of reality, is to bury the individual, “the splintered, multiple, plural reality” (p.89), under the weight of this “metaphysical” totality. It is in response to this hypostatization that Marx turns from Hegel toward the anti-metaphysical materialism of Feuerbach. Although traditional Marxism recognizes this key split with Hegel, what it has consistently failed to recognize is the rejection of Feuerbachian materialism upon the same grounds. Whereas Hegel sought to reify history, Feuerbach similarly reifies “mankind.”

It was in light of his attempt to establish his though within (or out of) reality and to avoid this pervasive tendency towards reification that Marx chose to ground his philosophy within the labor of the individual human person. This labor, praxis, is nothing less than the activity of the human individual, their being in reality, their life.

In the second half of Marx, originally published separately as Marx Volume II: A Philosophy of Economy, Henry attempts a reading of Marx’s later work, particularly Capital, in light of these earlier philosophical concerns Building upon the reality:ideality distinction of The German Idealogy, Henry recognizes a consistent theme underlying Marx’s economic descriptions whereby labor-time—that is, the subjective labor of the individual human subject—is identified as the ground of economic (ir-)reality: as the “genesis of the economy.” Analogically, economic value, particularly within capitalism, is recognized as grounded at all times within use-value, the use of commodities for individual life. In this way, Marx’s later economic work is recognized not as a break with, but as a continuation of his philosophical work.

Written in Henry’s usual dense tone and particularly sub-clause-laden French, this work can be (at times) difficult to move through. Nonetheless, for those who are interested in Henry, Marx, French phenomenology, or lebens-philosophie, this is an exceptionally helpful work. Although, unpopular within Marxists circles (for the obvious reason) this work does provide a fundamentally unique vision of this influential figure. This emphasis upon subjectivity allows for interesting inroads (hinted at, but not explored) by which Marx’s thought could be synthesized or put in conversation with Heideggerian phenomenology, Nietzschean and French existentialism, or any number of other recent philosophic schools.

Perhaps more than for Marx, this text is key to a proper understanding of Henry’s Material Phenomenology. Henry writes, “to the radical immanence of this subjectivity, which now constitutes reality for him, Marx gave the name appropriate to it: life.” (p.160) This text may be direct towards Marx, but these terms: “radical immanence,” “experience of the self,” “Life” are the domain of Henry’s radical phenomenology. Whether this text is an accurate portrayal of Marx’s thought is unclear, but its direct correspondence to Henry’s phenomenology is indubitable. Yet, here, unlike his later I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity we find the reduction to subjectivity expressed in terms of praxis and activity. Against the gnostic undertones which haunt his religious work, Marx provides a “fleshed-out” subjectivity, one which finds a role for communal activity, labor, and inter-subjectivity. In this sense, this text is essential reading for anyone interested in Henry in particular, or French Phenomenology in general.