I. Brief Introduction and Overview
Michel Henry (1922-2002) was a phenomenologist, novelist and member of the French Resistance during WWII (code name: Kant!). He is known for his material phenomenology, rethinking of immanence and affect, and the development of a “philosophy of life,” as well as novel readings of both Marx and Christianity. What distinguishes Henry’s work—and what I suggest is of relevance for political theology—is his emphasis on life and lived subjectivity. It is this life and this living subjectivity that the modern world, and politics more specifically, denies. Whereas politics is usually understood to foster social life, Henry argues for its destructive nature. Much like Capital for Marx erases living labor by deadening it, Henry’s oeuvre suggests that politics neutralizes the most spiritual of activities, living. This negation of life concerns a dynamic he labels barbarism. In order to introduce Henry, I position his contribution to political theology in terms of these two critical modalities—life and barbarism. In what follows, my focus will be on three of Henry’s more political works: Marx: A Philosophy of Human Reality, Barbarism, and From Communism to Capitalism. As his thinking often depends upon very specific definitions of seemingly familiar terms (life, subjectivity, culture, barbarism, objectivity), I will include a number of direct quotations from these books.
II. Henry’s Philosophy of Life
Life is inescapable and inexpungable. It is the alpha and the omega of every organization and every human development, because it defines transcendental humanity—feeling, understanding, imagining, acting, and also the suffering and enjoyment without which there is not humanity or human beingB120.
Life and Lived Subjectivity
Henry’s material phenomenology is characterized by Life, and in particular, life as lived by any single individual. “(T)he a priori of all a prioris—is the absolute Life in which we are alive” (B 102). Considering life prompts him to reconfigure the philosophical category of subjectivity: “what we mean by I, or me” (EM 1). Henry argues that in the West, subjectivity has been erased by various systems that claim to foster it, whether philosophical, theological, political, or scientific. I am suggesting that his contribution to political theology lies in considering subjectivity subjectively. The key to his thinking lies in the effort to avoid making the subject an object—a thing to be thought, perceived, theorized, used, measured or valued.
To do this, he employs the phrased lived—or at times living—subjectivity, the unique and singular capacity of any individual to be alive. Various terms are used for this subjectivity: ipseity, living, and auto-affection, by which he means sensing oneself. It is, he asserts, the “actualization of the force of life in a living body” (CC 66). He asks us to consider the runner as they run, the chef as they cook, or the parent as they hold a child. That these mundane practices are significant and not trivial will be made clear in his critique of politics explained in the section that follows. Lived subjectivity is, very simply, the way any individual senses living. “It is life’s capacity to experience itself immediately, in the embrace of pathos which lets it coincide with itself” (CC 47). This immediate experiencing is a “transcendental” auto-affection that he designates “knowledge of life,” (B 10-14) a knowledge that is irreducible to objectivity. Although all persons share in the capacity to sense life, the knowing Henry emphasizes is unique to each individual. And it is this uniqueness, the singularity of lived subjectivity, that distinguishes his thinking and offers a reimagining of what constitutes life together, or the political.
Lived Subjectivity and Living Labor
What marks Henry’s works are tangible examples of lived subjectivity: tasting an apple, hammering a nail, feeling a kiss, or baking bread. “Each action of daily life, each effort of labor, and each urge of need is marked by the indelible stamp of individuality” (CC 94). Crucial to this lived subjectivity is the “effort of labor.” Living is, fundamentally, active, creative and productive.
Life, in turn, cannot be disconnected from what constantly holds it in its grasp: from the air that it breathes, from the ground that it treads, from the tool that it uses, or from the object that is sees. The original co-belonging of the living individual and the Earth is essentially practical. It is located in life and based on it. The force of life is the force through which the Individual and the Earth cohere in this ageless origin. Living labor is the implementation of this force (CC 70).
Henry appropriates Marx’s concept of living labor to explain how life is activity. This implies that living—at its best—is laboring. But one must be careful here because Henry’s labor is not to be equated with work or any form of Capitalist production. Rather, it is a creative capacity of attending to life and engaging the world. “This hold is living labor; it is the necessarily singular and individual actualization of the force of life in a living body” (CC 66). Labor is the activation of the force of life and is thus not to be confused with wage-labor. What characterizes Henry’s lived subjectivity is the capacity to freely sense and engage reality—creatively, attentively and productively.
Living Labor and Cultural Production
What distinguishes lived subjectivity—and what makes it absolutely different from Capitalist modes of production—is its aesthetic quality. Living labor involves creative production: there is a primary need of the self that “predisposes it to culture” (B 101). Not surprisingly, what Henry means by culture is very specific: “(b)ecause culture is the self-fulfillment of life, it is essentially practical” (B 125). That culture is practical appears an odd sentiment. But Henry asks us to consider culture in very basic terms: taking care of life’s necessities, whether providing food, shelter, or clothing. In living and addressing our needs, we create—cuisine, architecture, and design. It is in these types of cultural creations that life is found. Markedly, there are “cultures of food, shelter, work, erotic relations or relations to the dead —such relations provide an initial definition of the human” (B XV). What Henry values, and what determines life is the ability of lived subjectivities to produce culture together.
Notably, lived subjectivity does not imply an isolated, or self-sufficient, individual (something for which he has been criticized). The Life in which we are alive is both unique to each individual and always shared. “In a society understood as a community of the living within life, culture is thus everywhere. Everything has a value because everything is done by and for life” (B XV). The living that each person does brings them together with others in sharing various communal/cultural productions—of food, shelter, work, erotic relations and relations to the dead. In other words, where living labor and life can flourish, culture lives. Consequently, culture cannot be limited to its “high” forms, or to “individual” genius, whether the paintings in museums or music in opera houses (although it is also there). Culture is cooking, building, loving, writing; it is inherently practical!
First Insight for Political Theology: Spirituality
Henry’s culture is also, I suggest, the location of spirituality. As such, it offers a key insight for political theology by proposing a radically immanent theology. This spirituality lacks any form of transcendence, or separation into sacred/secular spheres. It cannot be relegated to a separate domain—whether church, temple, doctrine, liturgy, or prayer. Neither does it involve any kind of higher Being. Living itself takes precedence over any logos, theory or divinity. It is thus much more mundane. For Henry, when producing and participating in culture, one is most human, most alive, and thereby spiritual (B XV, 117, 126). Consider, again, the way the student senses their studying, the chef their baking, the musician their composing, or the carpenter, their building. Spirituality is alive in these spaces—the places where culture thrives. The problem for Henry is that these kinds of cultures are diminished and deadened by global capital and its various political figurations, where the economy and buying, selling and financial valuing come to determine society. The critical piece in Henry’s work, to which I now turn, provides a description of how a simulacrum of life—barbarism—comes to displace culture and lived subjectivities.
III. Barbarism: Objectivity Over Subjectivity (and, Politics Over Culture)
The decisive feature of the modern world is that life has ceased to be the foundation of societyB120.
Henry’s main criticism is that modern Western existence minimizes and deadens life, lived subjectivity and the very spiritual need for cultural production. This occurs as life is displaced by a dynamic he labels barbarism, which is constituted by a particularly problematic epistemology—the Galilean presupposition (B XVI).
With Galileo, . . . the encounter with the world is stripped of its essential subjectivity. The task of understanding the world in its true being is no longer assigned to bodily sensible knowledge nor to the subjective force that inhabits the body (CC 82).
Galilean science has three characteristics: the demand for a neutral observer, a reliance on experts and most notably, an emphasis on objective knowledge. Henry’s concern is that the scientific method and its call for objectivity has come to determine all forms of knowledge. When this occurs, subjective knowledge of the world is “replaced by a set of objective processes” (CC 83). The critical question raised by his work is the following: when all knowing is reduced to this Galilean presupposition, what happens to lived subjectivity and its knowledge of life?
Knowledge of Life and Objective Knowledge
In order to understand the distinction between subjective and objective modes of knowing, he offers the example of a biology student sitting in a library, reading about the genetic code. The contrast he draws is between the student’s knowledge of life and her objective knowledge. The genetic code is an object the student is reading about. It is presented to her in the book as a theory to understand. However, “it is not scientific knowledge that allows her to acquire the scientific knowledge contained in the book. It is not in virtue of this knowledge that she moves her hands or eyes or focuses her thought. Scientific knowledge is abstract” (B 11). The word abstract is critical for Henry because it points to a distance between the knower and what is known. This kind of knowing pervades the world in the form of theories, hypotheses, or concepts. The genetic code is a theory, or idea—an object—that one studies. (As such there is nothing wrong with science. It is only when it encroaches on subjectivity that it becomes problematic.)
In contrast, Henry notes that lived subjectivity cannot be abstracted. It cannot be made into a theory, a theory of the subject, for example. Moving her eyes to read, or her hands to turn the page, or her body to get up and get a drink of water—these are subjective actions that offer “knowledge of life”(B11). And it is this kind of subjective knowledge—of living—that barbarism, and its exclusive emphasis on objectivity, deadens.Not only is subjective knowledge replaced by objective knowledge, but the subject itself is taken as an object to be known, like the genetic code. This call for objectivity is problematic because it “puts something which is not alive in place of what is alive: it hangs a mortal threat over life” (CC 106). With the Galilean presupposition, individual life becomes an object to be known, studied, measured, quantified, and even bought and sold. The call for quantifiable outcomes in academia that requires measuring students and their performance is just one recent example of this dynamic. It actually ignores the very real and differing subjective needs that individual students might have.
The Barbarism of Capital: Dead Labor
There is here another correspondence between Henry and Marx: the transformation of living labor (subjectivity) into dead labor (objectification).In Marx, Capital depends upon the abstraction of labor: individual workers become things, or cogs, in the industrial machine. When workers are objectified they can be purchased, exchanged, valued and almost always, exploited. (There are numerous examples of the deadening of labor throughout the globe including, most recently, the plight of many essential workers during the pandemic). A person’s subjectivity—their living labor—is deadened as they become one object among many. What is scathing in Henry’s critique is that this objectification occurs not just with Capital but with any abstraction and thus any theorizing, be it philosophical, theological, or political. Just as Capital deadens labor, Henry’s interpretation of politics identifies a corresponding deadening of the individual (CC 105). The two are related in the West, he affirms, because politics in our day and age is nothing other than a form of Capital.
Second Insight for Political Theology: Barbarism and Politics
This brings us to the second insight Henry’s work provides political theology. If the first was identifying lived subjectivity in mundane practices as the locus of life, the second is characterizing the dynamic that displaces life—it is politics. Although politics is typically understood as a force to promote the public good, Henry’s work suggests the opposite. In the West, he asserts, politics “deals with public affairs that are supposed to be the affairs of those who it claims to serve, but in reality they are only the affairs of the capitalists” (CC 97). Just as Capital abstracts laborers, politics deadens individuals by reducing them to objects, or parts, in the advancement of an ideological program. Hismost complete description of the deadening that occurs with politics is found in From Communism to Capitalism: a Theory of Catastrophe. The “catastrophe” he identifies, not surprisingly, is the objectification of subjectivity. It manifests differently in Communism than in Capitalism, but Henry is clear that all political systems, including democracy and socialism, fall prey to it. His analysis of the limitations of both Communism—which subverts living labor—and Capitalism, which manipulates it—are prescient and worth engaging.
Just as Marx observed that the factory should have made life better for individual workers, Henry notes that politics should enhance life for individuals. Instead, workers remain enslaved by Capital and its factories and individuals are ignored by politics. How does this catastrophe occur? First and foremost, it depends upon the reduction of any subject to an object. Politics “transforms all of these lives into empirical individuals who are seen from the outside and cut off from their acting and suffering interiority” (CC 102). These “empirical” individuals are abstracted from their subjectivity and incorporated into any number of groupings, whether the “idea” of society or the “concept” of the people. They become units, or numbers, that can be represented by elected officials and counted as data by political experts. The second aspect of his “catastrophe” is that objectification becomes the only source for organizing social life. In the West, society is arranged technologically by disinterested knowing: algorithms parse behavioral data to “optimize” existence and determine “the peoples” needs and wants.Lived subjectivity and culture are ignored in favor of a kind of political-technological regime that everyone is expected to support. When this occurs, politics functions just like the factory in Marx’s Capital: we serve it, rather than it serving us.
Conclusion: How to Keep Subjectivity Subjective
What are we to make of political theology if one begins, as Henry does, with the premise that the modern world, and its political configurations, negates life and individuals? Although he criticizes politics as we know it—whether democratic, socialist or communist—Henry affirms the spiritual capacity of living and the cultures that proceed from life. He is adamant that it is not the political that sustains life. Rather, life and living subjectivities produce communities. His affinity to Marx on this point is clear: “Just like the concept of society, the concept of the people has never been noticed in the process of laboring or of performing a surgical procedure. To do those things, as Marx said, human beings are necessary” (CC 104). What politics excludes is the reality of this human surgeon—singular, and unique, living subjectively. Because Henry questions the objectifying tendencies that permeate modern existence, his work will not offer a program or traditional solution to “fix” the problem (to do so would be to give into barbarism). Instead, what his oeuvre offers political theology is a reimagining of what constitutes life together—an attention to Life and thereby, spirituality.
The first aspect of this affirmation of Life is the need to keep subjectivity subjective. Henry’s radical subjectivity and Marx’s idea of living labor are two sides of the same coin: both suggest that social life should foster lived subjectivity. Individuals do not live to serve society. Rather, society should foster life and thereby, spirituality. Notably, this does not entail a negation of social life, nor a celebration of an autonomous, or self-sufficient, individual (Henry has been criticized for both). It asks, instead, about the possibility of the community fostering each person’s creative capacities. The second aspect of Henry’s affirmation of Life is an emphasis on culture. For him, culture is the opposite of barbarism: it alone can attend to living subjectivities. The critical point is that culture differs exponentially from economic and political production. Culture does not arise from competition, nor does it have “winners.” It cannot be measured or valued according to profits. It is unconcerned with having, owning, buying, financial valuing, monetization or objective standards of calculation. Henry refuses understanding life together in terms of these kinds of abstractions, whether political, economic or theoretical.
His work challenges traditional notions, both popular and academic, about politics by imagining a different way of situating life together—in culture. This is nothing novel if we understand culture in his terms, as the very practical cultures of “food, shelter, work, erotic relations and relations to the dead.” By living, each of us is inevitably involved in this kind of practical production. Considering this kind of culture allows for the possibility of a life together that keeps subjectivity subjective and fosters spirituality by attending to creative production.
(B) Barbarism. Translated by Scott Davidson, Continuum, 2012. Translation of La barbarie. Presses Universitaires de France, 1987, 2004.
This work summarizes Henry’s notion of barbarism and argues for understanding Life in terms of culture.
(CC) From Communism to Capitalism. Theory of a Catastrophe. Translated by Scott Davidson, Bloomsbury Academic, 2014. Translation of Du communisme au capitalisme. Théorie d’une catastrophe, Odile Jacob, 1990.
This work is an analysis of the fall of Communism in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. It criticizes both Communism and Capitalism for excluding subjectivity.
(EM) The Essence of Manifestation. Translated by Girard Etzkorn, Nijhoff, 1973; second edition, 2004. Translation of L’essence de la manifestation, Presses Universitaires de France, 1963; second edition, 1990.
This was Henry’s first work. It offers his critique of traditional phenomenology and lays the groundwork for his thinking about Life and affectivity.
(Marx) Marx. A Philosophy of Human Reality. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin, Indiana University Press, 1983. Partial translation of vol. 1: Une philosophie de la réalité (vol. 2: Une philosophie de l’économie). Paris: Gallimard, 1976.
This work offers Henry’s heterodox interpretation of Marx. He rejects Marxism in favor of a Marx that he interprets as both a philosopher of reality and a philosopher of life.