SPEP has released the program for this years conference. Check out page 31 for me (presenting under the SPHS, which meets in conjunction with SPEP) My paper is entitled “The Eckhartian Genesis of Michel Henry’s Philosophy of Praxis” (or, if you are SPEP, “… Michael…” since, of course, a conference program once again spelled Michel Henry’s name wrong…) and continues my ongoing investigation of Michel Henry’s reliance upon the German mystic Meister Eckhart.
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
“There exists only the present instant… a Now which always and without end is itself new. There is no yesterday nor any tomorrow, but only Now, as it was a thousand years ago and as it will be a thousand years hence.”
Overall Rating: 5/10
Michel Henry’s final work Words of Christ, posthumously released in 2002 and recently published in English translation by Christina M. Gshwandtner, provides the final piece of Henry’s Christianity trilogy, begun in I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity and Incarnation: a Philosophy of Flesh. Significantly more problematic than his previous work, this short text finds itself precariously located. On the one hand, this work is markedly more accessible than his earlier publications (notably, The Essence of Manifestation and Material Phenomenology); it seldom expects prior philosophical or theological knowledge and is written colloquially, making heavy use of examples and scriptural citation. Overall, it might be said that this work is written as “pop” theology, designed for general theological consumption. On the other hand, this work heavily relies upon Henry’s prior work (particularly, I am the Truth) in order to justify its many counter-intuitive claims. The result of this conflict is twofold. First, among those who are unfamiliar with Henry’s prior oeuvre, this work’s arguments will likely appear flimsy and ungrounded. Yet, for those who are substantially familiar with his argumentation, this work provides little substance, seemingly reiterating many of the claims found in the early chapters of I am the Truth. It is for these reasons that Words of Christ may be experienced as a letdown among both readers and newcomers to Henry’s thought.
That being said, this work is by no means entirely faulty. Drawing upon his standard distinction between the exteriority of the “world” and the interiority of subjective “life,” Henry attempts to decode the words of Christ and reveal within them the Word [parole] of God. As correlate with the world, Henry develops his conception of the “word of the world.” By this, Henry is simply identifying the historical object of linguistics—the representative words of traditional language. These words, Henry argues, are defined by their exteriority to the reality which they signify: the word “tree” is not a tree, the word “book” is not a book. Against this system, Henry identifies a more originary (i.e. primordial) word, the “word of life.” For the words of life, there exists no distance between the saying and the existing. Henry’s clearest example of this “speech” is his analysis of suffering. He writes,
“Suffering proves itself. That is the reason why, so we say, only suffering permits us to know suffering. It is only in this way that suffering speaks to us; it speaks to us in its suffering. And what it says to us, by speaking to us in this way, is that it suffers, that it is suffering.” (p.74)
For Henry, therefore, the word of life is simply the affectivity, the pathos, of everyday life: joy, sorrow, suffering, pleasure, hunger, need, and desire are all modalities of life by which humans experience themselves as living, they are the words of life-itself. Henry identifies the “human word” (language/communication as commonly experienced) as the point of convergence between these two “words.” Although the human word, he argues, participates in both the word of life and that of the world, it often forgets this location, forgetting that it is only through its grounding within the prior that the latter holds any power: it is only because we first affectively experience reality that we can later speak “of” this reality.
The theological turn of this work relies upon the simple identity: Life=God. For Henry, drawing heavily upon the German mystic Meister Eckhart, God cannot be conceived as a radically transcendent reality. On the contrary, God is the most immanent human reality, that which grants life (i.e. itself) to living-beings [vivants]. Through this identity, Henry argues for an identity between the “word of life” and the “word of God.”
Substantially complicating this issue, Henry, drawing upon traditional religious terminology, further identifies Christ with the “word of God.” He describes Christ as the point of relation between humanity and God, as the first-born of God, and as a duality: both God and man. These affirmations, left significantly under-clarified, leave a distinct tension in Henry’s work between the Christ, as philosophical/theological principle of relation and Jesus, the first-century historical figure. Certainly, Henry attempts to belittle this tension through his ambivalence (if not open hostility) towards biblical historical-criticism, but the questions of this relation persist nonetheless. Like Eckhart, his model, Henry’s system appears to thoroughly emphasize Christs divinity over his humanity, to the point that the latter appears substantively lost.
Lastly, it must be noted that, even within philosophical terrain well tread by Henry, there appears to be a certain “sloppiness” of concept. He writes, “At the interior of the invisible itself where we reside, the words of Christ trace a new line of separation which identifies its most profound dimension within the same life.” (p.30) This passage is hugely problematic for the simple reason that Henry’s entire analysis rests upon the refusal of distance, distinction, or separation of any kind within immanent life. The very possibility of such a separation, such a “new line,” would upset the principle concepts by which Henry sought to overturn Heidegger, Husserl, and the Western philosophical tradition in general. Within the immanence of subjective life there can be no distance, no transcendence.
Although this critique may appear wholly negative, it must be reiterated that this work is not without its bright points. For the theologically minded it may function as a helpful (though by no means rigorous) introduction to Henry’s thought. Also, its small size makes it a great quick read for those who are interested in phenomenology of religion, or the relationship between recent continental thought and religion.