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Michel Henry’s Clandestine Subjectivity

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.

FYI, he’s also a total hottie.

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