Overall Rating: 7/10
This year has been a wonderful time for (English speaking) Michel Henry Fans. Already we received Words of Christ and have now been blessed with Barbarism, a recent translation of Henry’s 1987 La Barbarie. Situated in the middle of his career, Barbarism predates his later explicitly religious/theological publications. This work reads similarly to other contributions of the period, notably Seeing the Invisible: On Kandinsky, avoiding the extensive technical vocabulary of his earlier work (The Essence of Manifestation, etc.). That is not to say that this work is fully lacking in Henry’s typical idiosyncratic concepts, “self-affectivity” and the like. In this way, while familiarity with Henry’s corpus may be helpful for uncovering the nuances of his argument, the overarching moves are within the grasp of anyone who possesses basic philosophical training and rough knowledge of major 19th and 20th century figures (e.g. Heidegger).
Barbarism is primarily intended as a critique of scientism. Concerning this, it must be emphasized, a critique of scientism is not a critique of science. Simply put, Henry’s concern is the expansion of “scientific” thinking beyond the natural sciences and into realms of thought once occupied by psychology, religion, ethics, and art. Nonetheless, as critics have often noted, this work does have a tendency to venture into the polemical, often posing terms in unnecessarily divisive categories. One must therefore tread lightly, recognizing Henry’s most lucid presentations of his thesis, and sidelining his overly excited science-bashing. For, even Henry often mistakes the critique of scientism for a critique of science.
Throughout Barbarism, Henry seeks to unify many diverse critiques of 20th century culture; critiques of technology, of capitalism, and of the modern university (to name a few). What sets Henry’s analysis apart from similar accounts (e.g. Heidegger’s critique of technology), and forms the most noteworthy contribution of this work, is Henry’s conception of a “Galilean reduction.” By this term, Henry intends the reduction of the subjective features of reality, those features which affect the human individual. Let us take color as an example. For the subjective individual, colors are always presented with an affective tonality: a deep blue might resonate with sorrow, a yellow with ecstatic energy or motion. Yet, for the Newtonian physicist, such tonalities are secondary epiphenomena, if they are are considered at all. Within physics (the natural science par excellence) light is simply the vibration of photons. In this way, color is stripped of its affective tonality, its meaning, and its value, and instead rendered as a quantifiable object. Such an analysis is not intrinsically problematic, quite on the contrary, it is a necessary component of the natural science’s work. The question put forward by Henry is, what are the consequences of this devaluation of reality once it is moved beyond the lab or the classroom, when science posits itself as the only valid form of knowledge? As he writes:
“This is not in science in itself, which is entirely positive in the knowledge of nature that it defines through its procedures. But, as we have sufficiently insisted, it is the belief that the Galilean science of nature is the only possible knowledge and the only real truth, such that there is no other reality, as true reality, besides the objects of this science. As a result, the human being would only be real under these terms and all knowledge of the human being would only be a mode or a form of this single science. Here an ideology–scientism and positivism–replaces science, but it is through this ideology that the world comes to be grasped as a scientific world.”
Such an analysis remains invaluable in the 21st century, as positivism continues to gain influence in public consciousness, technology develops at an astounding rate, capitalism continues to establish itself as the principal human reality, and the university increasingly devalues the human sciences. While certainly these may not be intrinsically negative events, it is imperative that they are critically engaged and that their consequences are seriously considered. In this way, Barbarism is a text as comfortably situated in the 21st century as it was in the 20th.