Michel Henry: Radicalizing Phemenology? More Considerations


Continuing with my newfound interest in Michel Henry via Mullarkey’s Post-Continental Philosophy, I was able to dig up one of Henry’s translated books over the weekend, I am the Truth: Toward a Philosophy of Christianity. In fact, the text I was actually trying to find in translation, The Essence of Manifestation, retails for $307, an $88 savings on the cover price, the translation of Marx: un philosophie de l’economie is equally un-affordable (the French version published by Gallimard is a far more affordable falling in the $30 range), ack. Stanford University Press published a relatively affordable translation of Genealogie de la psychoanalyse: Le commencement perdu The Genealogy of Psychoanalysisin the 90s in which Henry argues (according to the blurb) “the Freudian unconscious, far from constituting a radical break with the philosophy of consciousness, is merely the latest exemplar in a heritage of philosophical misunderstanding of the Cartesian cogito that interprets “I think, therefore I am” as “I represent myself, therefore I am” (in the classic interpretation of Heidegger, one of the targets of the book).” To this end, I found an interesting conversation with Henry from 2001 in Psychomedia:

Following his phenomenological thinking, the author shows how Freudian theory of the unconscious is actually the point of arrival of a long process of European thinking that began with “Cartesian doubt” and with Descartes’ idea that one’s sense of the “I” is the only certainty. This process, which combines reflections on the subject and a philosophy of life, basically continues in Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche and in phenomenology. Starting from an analysis of Freud’s Project for a Scientific Psychology-to be considered a theory of subjectivity-the Author examines the role Freud gave to life drives: the foundations of the subject lie not in representations but in affects. He also underlines the “Schopenhauerian” limits of Freudian theory: Freud appears to have put too much emphasis on psychic representations instead of putting it on affect as the ultimate truth of the subject. The Author then concludes by examining the common ground between Freud and Marx, insofar as both insist on individuality and on the subjectivity of human life.

Finally, to continue all of this somewhat annoying but hopefully informative front matter/qualifications, Henry–as Mullarkey discusses for a couple of pages in Post-Continental Philosophy–apparently also published a book about Kandinsky as well. Anyway. this all seems very interesting. Onto more considerations of the “radical phenomenology” of Michel Henry…

While the broad concerns of I am the Truth are not of much interest to me at all (in fact, I find the theology rather distracting), I was interested in the how, that is, how his radicalized version of phenomenology may function “at work.” Or minimally, exhibit more about how Henry is thinking through the concept of “Life.” Here are a couple of passages:

But the central question of phenomenology…is knowing how manifestation makes manifest everything it manifests, or more essentially how it manifests itself. Before making manifest whatever it may be, and in order to be able to do so, manifestation must manifest itself in its purity, as such that it is. (33)

On the next page Henry writes:

Life designates a pure manifestation, always irreducible to that of the world, an original revelation that is not a revelation of another thing and does not depend on anything other, but is rather a revelation of that absolute self-revelation that is Life itself.

Ok, so we can never take a step back from the affective realm and observe or see what’s going on. In his discussion of how Henry departs from Heidegger (start with “Life” not “being”), Mullarkey quotes a passage from I am the Truth as well:

What we must steadfastly rule out of the analysis of life…at least if we want to grasp life as coming forth in life itself and, moreover, to understand the manner in which it does so…is the concept of being…Life “is” not. Rather, it occurs and does not cease occurring. This incessant coming of life is its eternal coming forth in itself, a process without end, a constant movement (55).

These are rather clear statements of what Henry is up to, and gestures nicely to his departure from Heidegger (and transcendence, ek-stasis, alterity etc), e.g. affects not about my being-in-the-world, but are rather only about themselves. Here’s Mullarkey summarizing Henry’s departure from Heidegger and how of phenomenalisation is to be described an an “ontological mannerism:”

What pluralizes Henry’s ontology, therefore, is its emphasis on affectivity. The abstract univocity of being is replaced by multiple singularities–of “what is likely to be.” The “how” of phenomenalisation as a process (how things appear) is central to this singularity of affects. It is vital for Henry throughout all his works: the how emphasizes context (tone, setting, and so on), of course, but even more so the inexhaustibility, ineliminability and irreducibility of affect. (emp mine-SO) We are always left with affect after every reduction as an inexhaustible remainder; the context is the “how” which is the affect…The eternal remainder of affect is akin to the Cartesian cogito–what cannot be reduced, by any skepticism, or any reductionism. But it is a cogito of effect, and not of concept (60).

The problem with Husserlian phenomenology as I pointed out in another post is the confusion between the seeing and its seen, or put differently in the form of a question, “how does intentionality show itself?” It’s places far too much emphasis on the noetic–the mental end of the phenomenon. As Mullarkey points out, for Henry giveness or matter is made up of embodied affect. The broad problem for both Heidegger and Husserl from Henry’s perspective? Too much world, not enough Life. The affectivity of affect is not um…worldly. I’m not sure what to make of this business of the irreducibility/ineliminability of affect. Since Henry has already determined that he isn’t going to have any recourse or relation to some type of transcendental element, the “multiple singularities” or plurality of affects are “kept absolute as the immanent becoming of affect at other levels: auto-affection, the feeling of Life feeling itself” (Mullarkey, 66). So, with regards to our “mental states” there is no cause that is non-affective, whether conceptual or chemical or whatnot. Rather, there are forms of affect on different planes that appear to us to be either exterior or virtual, but are in fact part of some sort of internal structure. Mullarkey describes this theory as “Pure Monadic Actualism.” Quite a mouthful, but rather interesting. There is no cause–whether the Unconscious, some virtual or transcendental element–that conditions our emotional states that is not itself affective. Very reminiscent of the Humean critique of inductive reasoning. Mullarkey (p67) quotes a passage from Henry’s Genealogy of Psychoanalysis:

For in repression, whereas the representation bound to affect is pushed back into the unconscious, the affect is not suppressed but qualitatively modified, becoming some other tonality…Repression, therefore, does not signify any disappearance of affect or its phenomenality, but only a modulation into another affect…

This can also be read as cohering with Henry’s critique of Husserl’s phenomenological method: it modifies the observed and changes its tone by introducing a new affect vis a vis the gaze. There is only some sort of “affective integration.” Again, a rather strange but very intriguing “phenomenology” of affectivity.

How does Henry fit or not fit into Mullarkey’s broader program deriving an immanent Actualism? On the one hand, Henry outlines a phenomenology of “Life affecting itself,” that concerns itself with the qualitative aspect of things (the body, incarnation, affect etc) which needs to be supplemented with Badiou, whose philosophy rejects “the finitude of our qualitative experience in favor of mathematical founded on pure quantity.” How well Henry and Badiou will supplement each other to offer something new remains to be seen.

7 thoughts on “Michel Henry: Radicalizing Phemenology? More Considerations

  1. I’d recommend Henry’s Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body if you can find it on interlibrary loan somehow. I imagine what would really interest us is his posthumous and as yet untranslated Phénoménologie de la vie.

  2. Thanks. Yes, I’m very interested in how Henry “naturalizes the aesthetic” in the book on Kandinsky. And yes again, Philosophy and Phenomenology of the Body looks interesting. I’m quite interested in Henry’s engagement with Merleau-Ponty, who seems to come closest to his preoccupation with immanence, self-reflexivity and affect. I just looked it up in the catalog and noticed its LOC subject is Maine de Biran, Pierre, 1766-1824 (of whom I know nothing) and Mind and body, interesting indeed! Mullarkey mentions this work in passing over a few pages, but the gist seems to be the idea that the body is activated/affectivated vis a vis the “subjective I can.” This, along with the conceptions of “the invisible” in other works (esp the posthumous) book on Kandinsky) seems to be fertile ground for an engagement with Merleau-Ponty.

  3. I knew of Maine de Biran because of Patočka’s phenomenology of the body. Henry devotes a good long chapter and then some to Maine de Biran. Because I haven’t read him I couldn’t say whether Henry’s interpretations of his philosophy hold water, but I found the discussion engaging.

    Sinthome (Levi) turned me on to Henry, btw. I might check out some of these other titles when I get a moment.

  4. Yes, a bit about effort and the awareness of movement.

    BTW I’ve become a skeptic with regard to transcendence. Mostly I don’t know what it means, which means I can’t rightly side with the immanentistas. Oh well.

  5. For those interested in Michel Henry there is a book by Michael O’Sullivan entitiled Michael Henry: Incarnation, Barbarism and Belief (Peter Lang, 2006).

    An essay on Kandinsky has been translated as “The Mystery of the Last Works’ ( sorry forget the journal, shouldn’t be too hare to find) and “Phenomenology of Life” in Angelaki 8/2 August 2003 are two of the more intesting things in English.

    Special issue 32/1999 of Continental Philsophy Review devoted to Henry

    Renaud Barbaras has written two very perceptive assays on Merleau-Ponty and Henry in his Le Tournant de L’experience.

  6. This is great, thanks Rupert. I had read the “Phenomenology of Life” article, but will have to dig up the “Mystery of the Last Works,” sounds interesting, it’s in an edited volume appropriately titled Kandinsky by Jelena Hahl-Koch.

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