Monthly Archives: February 2013
While the lectures had been mythic among Foucault scholars, only a partial, poorly transcribed account had survived. Recently rediscovered, details of the lectures have been published in a new book co-edited by Prof. Bernard E. Harcourt.
“These 1981 lectures form a crucial link between Foucault’s earlier work on surveillance in society, the prison and neoliberal governmentality during the 1970s, and his later work on subjectivity and the care of the self in the 1980s,” said Harcourt, co-editor of Mal faire, dire vrai: La fonction de l’aveu en justice [Wrong-Doing, Truth-Telling: The Function of Avowal in Justice], which Louvain and the University of Chicago Press recently released in French.
Ok, so here’s the deal. If you don’t know me personally, or haven’t been around my blog much, you might not know that I fuckin love Michel Henry. Ever since my MTS advisor introduced me to his thought, I’ve felt the need to stick him into arguments where he doesn’t belong, bring him up in unrelated conversations, all to spread the word that he is the bomb. So, needless to say, when I received this request, I was pumped.
“I have just come across Henry’s intriguing notion of “clandestine subjectivity”. Do you know of anything in English that goes into this? (Or maybe you could post on it?)”
So here we go.
Ok, to “get” Henry, you really have to recognize his historical location (and yes, I know that’s true of everyone, but whatever). Specifically, you need to recognize that he not only lived through WWII, but more importantly, that he served in the French Resistance (side note, he was codenamed “Kant” because they told him to come with a backpack and everything he’d need for four years, and he showed up solely with a copy of the Critique of Pure Reason). This covert experience was likely the most formative experience of his entire life. As Scott Davidson writes:
“There he had the experience of having to conceal his true identity along with everything that he truly thought and did. From this experience, he came to the conclude that it applies to the entirety of one’s existence. One’s true identity withdraws from the visibility of the public realm and resides in the secrecy of a clandestine, underground life.”
From this context, Henry’s sharp critiques of visibility become intelligible.
For Henry, the major problem of (pretty much all) philosophy(excluding perhaps: Eckhart, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, and Marx), is “Ontological monism.” By this, he simply means the reduction of all reality to a single “mode-of-being,” the assumption that there is only one way for things to exist. Although he finds this trend everywhere, he marks its clearest Western genesis in the German mystic/theosophist Jacob Boehme, most famous for being “that guy Hegel liked.” For Boehme, and the major trends of Western thought following him (thanks a lot Hegel!), all reality is understood as oppositional. Call it dialectic, subject/object, or Différance, the name matters little, what is important is that multiplicity reigns, that all being is tension and struggle.
Against this, Henry draws upon his WWII experience, as well as a heavy dose of German mystic Meister Eckhart (these dudes rip off mystics like it’s their job), in order to craft a “phenomenology of Life.” Rather than following the “ontological monism” trend, Henry posits that every phenomenon is experienced in two manifestations. This is most likely best explained by an example, so I’ll use one of his favorites: the body. Henry argues that the body manifests as both subject and object, as a physical object in the world, and alternatively, as the site from which one experiences the world. A quote from Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of Perception might help:
“I touch my left hand with my right hand and my body is both touching and touched, subject and object, a union of the two.”
Henry will describe this duality of appearing under a variety of terms: interiority vs exteriority, affectivity vs intentionality, life vs death, the list goes on… but, perhaps the most important for our conversation is the name: subjectivity vs objectivity. Not only does Henry describe these two manifestations, but he also prioritizes the first, arguing that subjectivity (affectivity) is a necessary precondition for objectivity (intentionality). Or, in a phrase that I like to use to describe his thought: you have to first feel yourself, before you can see the world.
But why does Henry correlate “feeling” or “affectivity” with subjectivity? The answer, for Henry, is that the affections (e.g. anxiety or joy) are not experienced as distinct from the experiencing subject, but rather, as modalities of ones very life. When I suffer, for example, there is not an external being that I could identify as suffering, a “suffering out there,” but rather, it is my very self or life which suffers. Furthermore, such a suffering can not be translated into the language of external being or the world (how inadequate does any attempt to articulate an existentially meaningful feeling seem?), rather, ones direct experience of oneself as an experiencing subject is always a personal experience, a covert experience that cannot be directly recognized from the outside. We can merely, argues Henry, attempt to articulate this internality through abstract means, for instance art (hence his man-crush on the master of abstract art, Kandinsky). It is for this reason that Henry fears the extermination of culture, the only means we have of expressing our clandestine subjectivity, by an overly technologized (read: scientism) culture. Thus he ends his Barbarism, writing:
“What does culture become in this state? Its voice is never entirely silenced; it remains in the continual arrival of life within oneself. It remains in a sort of incognito. The exchange that it seeks no longer happens in the light of the City, through its monuments, paintings, music, education, and media. It has entered the clandestine. There are brief words, quick instructions, a few references that isolated individuals communicate to one another when, in chance meetings, they recognize themselves to be marked by the same sign. They would like to transmit this culture, to enable one to become what one is, and to escape the unbearable boredom of the techno-media world with its drugs, monstrous growth, and anonymous transcendence.”
For Henry, clandestine subjectivity(i.e. Life) need not remain clandestine, it may be expressed in the greatest achievements of human culture–art, religion, ethics–but these means must be protected, lest Life permanently retreat into itself.
English Primary Sources:
- Essence of Manifestation (dense, long, expensive.)
- Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body (also expensive, a little less dense.)
- Marx: a Philosophy of Human Reality (spoiler alert, he loves Marx, hates Marxists.)
- Genealogy of Psychoanalysis (also expensive and hard to find)
- Material Phenomenology (dense, if you are a philosopher [particularly a phenomenologist], read this one.)
- Barbarism (bashing scientism and technology-for-its-own-sake)
- Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky (Henry’s man-crush on Kandinsky)
- I am the truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity (“Theological turn”, basically Eckhart in phenomenological language)
- Words of Christ (Kinda lame, doesn’t say much that isn’t in I am the Truth, though way easier to read)
- Probably missed something
English Secondary Sources:
- Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”
- Words of Life
- Testing the Limits: Derrida, Henry, Levinas and the Phenomenological Tradition
- Michel Henry: Incarnation, Barbarism, and Belief
- Postmodern Apologetics
- Michel Henry: Affects of Thought
Some Conference acceptances started coming in, and it’s going to be a busy semester! Looks like I’m presenting:
(Anti-) Foundations, Duquesne University
“The Non-Foundation of Christian Theology: Non-Being in Jacques Derrida and Michel Henry”
Subverting the Norm II, Drury University
“Living Faith as Embodied Faith: Religious Practice After Merleau-Ponty’s Phenomenology of the Body”
College Theology Society, Creighton University
“The Ambiguous “Core” of Christianity: The Deconstruction and Phenomenality of Tradition”
Wish me luck!
A recent debate held at Cambridge University, has been making headlines, at least within the religion community. Set upon determining the motion “religion has no place in the 21st Century,” the debate drove to the heart of many of the modern concerns regarding religion and secularism. On the one side stood Andrew Copson and Arif Ahmed, led by the prominent new-atheist Richard Dawkins. On the other, Tariq Ramadan and Douglas Murray, led by Rowan Williams, who recently stepped down as Archbishop of Canterbury. Many news outlets have taken to calling this a defeat, if not rout, of Dawkins by Williams, as the vote proceeding the debate was 324 to 136 in Williams’ favor. Such a clear margin does beg the question, if Dawkins’ position appears to have great favor in much of the West, and his book sales surely seem to indicate so, why such a failure? The answer, I argue, stems from the very ambiguity of the debate motion itself. What exactly is meant by the claim that “religion has no place in the 21st Century”?
In it’s strongest form, this assertion may call for the total abandonment or deconstruction of all religious organization (both sides of the debate were explicit that they were concerned solely with “organized” religion). At many points, this appeared to be precisely what Dawkins and crew were calling for, at one point simply asserting that, were religions to disappear completely, and everything else to stay the same, “the world would be a better place.” Yet, this approach has a troubling flaw in the face of realism. Religions are here. Many of them are growing. This is simply not something that can be avoided. One might build arguments that this should not be so, but this argumentation relies upon a strong idealism and an unprovable hypothesis (that the world minus religion would be better; what possible empirical evidence could be brought to defend such a claim if no such world (in recorded history) has existed?). A weaker approach might simply argue that religion should have no place in public policy, that it should be a matter of individual conviction outside of the public sphere. But Williams and his crew were particularly resistant to this argument. In fact, they were most clearly positioned against this weaker form of the argument, insisting that religions, as aspects of the real world, must be included as members in public debate. Simply, that a religion-less public debate is an incomplete debate.
Dawkins and his side were therefore left with little option. Either they must take the weaker approach, essentially arguing that a massive portion of the human population should be excluded from debates of policy and ethics (a totalitarian position to be sure), or they must make an argument based entirely upon the unverifiable hypothesis that a religion-free world would be a better world. Neither offers a particularly strong position, and their eventual choice to dabble in both resulted in a strong victory for Williams, Ramadan, and Murray.
What are your thoughts?