When life turns against Life

On Michel Henry's La Barbarie

Continuing from my previous post I will be tackling Michel Henry's Barbarie today. Published in 1987, this short book gives us one of the most uncompromising cultural critiques of the past century. It's thesis? Our culture, under the guidance of scientific reductionism, has turned against life, a condition that Henry designates as barbarism. Scientific reductionism is premised on the (temporary) discarding of all sensuous qualities of experience, so that what remains are theoretical idealities. In short, all that is living is discarded to practice the scientific method. This is of course no problem, the reduction is necessary for the practice of science. But barbarism ensues when this discarding of living qualities doesn't just stick to its proper domain, scientific method, but is taken as a model for all human activities. The result? A culture that turns against those qualities of experience that make life living. Such a culture is, for Henry, not a culture in the proper sense of the term, but nothing more than barbarism: life turning against life.

I Culture and Barbarism

"It is not a question of a crisis of culture, but of its destruction." (Henry, La Barbarie)

A critique of science is of course central to the phenomenological tradition. Husserl spoke of a 'crisis' of the sciences, and Heidegger reacted violently against science's overshadowing of true thinking. But none go as far as Michel Henry. For him, there is not just a crisis, or an overshadowing of other ways of thinking and living by science, but a veritable destruction of culture by the scientific ideology. A destruction of culture, which it might not be possible to stop. Barbarism or decay is always second, there has to be a culture first that succumbs to barbarism. But what is culture? For Henry, culture is nothing else than the expression of the self-transformation of Life itself. That is, the auto-affection of life and its immediate expressions. Every culture in the true sense is a culture of life. Whereby both the object and subject of culture are life: living beings create culture, and the goal of culture is the expression of life. Culture is the expression of Life carried out by life.

With modern science, something changes that is to the detriment of culture defined in this way. Modern, Galilean, science is built on the method of abstracting from everything sensible and subjective so that what remains are mathematical idealities. The ideology behind it says that the more one is able to abstract, the closer one gets to truth. And the more truth is detached from the sensible and subjective, the more it is to be valued. Of course, this scientific method can only be carried out by a subjectivity. It is a living person that has to carry out the abstraction. It is a living person that has to abstract from himself in order to gain scientific truth. Essential to the scientific enterprise is a forgetting and denial of the fact that all science is carried out by life. Modern science has to do this, for it is based on the (ideological) presupposition that what is discovered by its method is ontologically prior to the life carrying out the method. Life is explained by science, and not the other way around. This is the defining trait of Modernity for Henry: the separation of knowledge from life. And eventually the turning of knowledge against culture, the expression of life by life.

“Philosophy [nature] is written in that great book which ever is before our eyes -- I mean the universe -- but we cannot understand it if we do not first learn the language and grasp the symbols in which it is written. The book is written in mathematical language, and the symbols are triangles, circles and other geometrical figures, without whose help it is impossible to comprehend a single word of it; without which one wanders in vain through a dark labyrinth.” - (Galileo)

II The Galilean terror

In barbarism, the methodologically necessary denial of subjectivity by science is taken too serious. This purely methodological denial turns into an ideological and philosophical denial of subjectivity. This denial is of course carried out by a subjectivity, a subjectivity that through its thinking denies its own being. Henry speaks of a "solitude of science." The scientific ideology is lonely, because it is detached from its ground, from that which gives it being: living subjectivity. The apex of this solitude is modern science's offspring: technology. In pre-modern times, the goals of technology, based on science, were always set by life itself. It was to preserve and enrich life that humanity devised all sorts of technologies by the aid of science. But what is different today, is the underlying ideology: the denial of subjectivity. If subjectivity is denied, it is no longer consulted to give value to our technological pursuits, it is no longer consulted for the goals that we set. Who then sets the goals of technology? Techno-science itself. A certain scientific or technological development opens up the possibility of new developments, and these possibilities are actualized without any consideration whether or not these developments are even beneficial or valuable. Technology doesn't ask if living subjectivities can gain from new technological developments. And why would it? It is premised on the barbaric idea that subjectivity has less value than techno-scientific truth.

For Henry, this transformation of technology leads technology away from its essence as tekhnê. In essence, it is a "savoir-fair" (know-how), not concerning some specific object, but "savoir-fair" in general. That is, a knowledge whose knowledge consists in doing, a doing that carries in its doing its own knowledge. This is what Henry calls praxis, the subjective activity in which there is no separation between doing and knowing. To Henry, subjective life is in essence such a praxis. Life is the immediate affective consciousness of one's own immediate affective consciousness, in which the intended goal of this life is this life itself. In life, subject and object are the same: life. And culture is nothing else than the expansion and larger-scale expression of this process. Original tekhnê in this sense, is nothing else than the means to culture. That is, the ways of "savoir-faire" that lead to preservation and a greater expression of life itself. Opposed to this original tekhnê is theoretical knowledge, which is based on the separation between subject and object. In order to have theoretical knowledge of something, one has to first impose a distance between the one who is doing the knowing, and the object known. As such, modern technology no longer has its roots in tekhnê/praxis, but lends its essence from theoretical knowledge. Because it's denial of subjectivity presupposes the separation between a subject and object of knowledge.

Henry is not reacting against theoretical knowledge as such, but against the ideology that claims that this is the only way of knowing. This is based on what he calls ontological monism, the guiding presupposition of modern thought. This monism states that all knowledge is of what is in front of the subject, what is separate from it. All consciousness is consciousness of something else than this consciousness. For Henry however, there is also a different type of knowledge that makes possible the former type of knowledge. A knowledge in which there is no separation between subject and object, in which subjectivity is not conscious of some-thing other than this subjectivity. But in which subjectivity feels itself at every single moment of its being.

Henry places this knowledge proper to subjectivity in Affectivity. Affectivity is felt with such a nearness that there isn't the slightest possibility of placing it in front of us, it is us. In affectivity we find the proper knowledge of subjectivity, and this knowledge grounds all knowledge of things outside of us. Affectivity is to be differentiated from sensitivity, the latter presupposes a sense. I see the apple through my sight, I feel it through touch etc. Affectivity on the other hand is the precondition of such sensitivity, affectivity is auto-affection. Affectivity does not feel some-thing, it is rather the feeling of feeling itself. As such, when the scientific method of abstraction is carried out, this is only possible on the basis of a subjectivity that is carrying this out. A subjectivity that is first of all characterized by this affective and immediate knowledge of Life, before it is conscious of scientific idealities. This "knowledge of Life" is invisible, it can not be seen in the light of the world, but is the invisible ground on and in which every possible seeing takes place. Henry designates it as pure Night. Barbarism, the denial of Life by life, is based on the denial of this type of knowledge proper to subjectivity. It is a knowledge that turns against Life.

III The roots of barbarism

"It is called subjectivity, and the decision has been made not to consider it any longer." (Henry, La Barbarie)

How is it that knowledge can deny its own roots? How can knowledge deny life? One could say that what happened is a contingent theoretical error, one was simply not aware. But for Henry, this is bad thinking. For Henry, barbarism is rooted in a conscious choice to deny life. And this conscious choice is the scientific intentio itself. A choice not rooted in theoretical considerations, for example the belief that maybe value, happiness, and truth are truly to be found in objectivity. Because all theoretical choices are choices made by a subjectivity that is first and foremost conscious of itself in an affective manner, all theoretical choices have to be explained from this self-affection of subjectivity.

Characteristic of subjectivity is that there is no possible turning away from it. One cannot distance oneself from the affective immanence that one is. We can turn towards or turn away from an object, but we can not turn away from the feeling of living. There is a nearness characteristic of subjectivity that by essence excludes even the slightest distance. We are in a sense condemned to undergo life, to suffer its presence. This presence is at times joyous, at other times it is horrific. According to the tonalities of this primal suffering, one can love life, or one can condemn it. When one loves it, one can't get enough of it, and one wants to express it, to lead it to its highest intensity. This desire is at the origin of culture. When one condemns it, a resentment grows, and a will to break the bonds with life grows, one wants to separate oneself from its affective nearness. This is of course impossible without killing oneself. But the same instinct that can lead to suicide can also manifest itself in life itself, through barbarism. One can practice a life that is intent on turning against life, in separating oneself as far as possible from the suffering that is life. To kill Life while remaining alive, this is the secret goal of barbarism.

IV The sickness of life

Living is never neutral, devoid of value. It always comes with a quality of either being enjoyable, or not. It is when life feels like a pain to be suffered, that man turns away from it. Of course, it is impossible to turn away from life. So man devises all sorts of practices that make him forget about life, or at least gain a certain distance from it, to escape life within life. Henry gives many examples of such practices, of which I will explain one: modern universities.

No domain of modern societies escapes from the influence of the scientific intentio to deny life. And there is perhaps no place where this is more evident than in universities. In its original meaning, a University, universitas, was a place governed by its own set of rules that were different from the rules of society. A sort of micro-society, that because it had its own rules, didn't have to obey the demands of regular society. In our times however, we see a breakdown of this separation between universities and societies. Universities obey the rules of society, and have to have the same goals as society at large.

Why did universitas have different rules and goals, and what were they? In Henry's philosophy of life, culture is the result of the auto-affection of Life, life affects itself and this creates an overflowing of life, an excess of energy is created, that is then expressed in the cultural creations of mankind. Of course, man cannot invest all of his time into this auto-affection of life. He has to feed himself, work, raise his children, take part in politics etc. As such, he cannot obey the rule of life to the fullest. This rule being that life seeks its own intensification and expression. Living in the world as he does, there remains little time to attain to this rule. And this is, for Henry, why universities are created. To create ideal environments in which all of the participants' energies can be focused on Life. It's study, and its expression. The inhabitants of these ideal learning environments are (relatively) unconcerned with politics, with regular living, and only seek to learn about Life, and to pass this knowledge on to apprentices.

In modern times, under the guidance of the Galilean principle, something changes. Because of the forgetting of life through its denial, the universities lose their proper object. This can clearly be seen in the diminishment of funding to what we call the humanities, and the increase in funding to the sciences. What guides the universities now is not the rule of Life, but the way in which the universities can be useful to everyday life. As a result, what gets funded the most are those objects of study that yield the best prospects of work, and the best practical uses. The divide between the rule of the universitas, and the rule of society diminishes, and it might be only a question of time before it vanishes. All efforts are focused on getting the student as fast and as easy as possible through the course of study (which is made as short as possible), so that they can leave and offer a 'valuable contribution' to society. The original universitas were not focused on getting the student to leave and contribute to society. It was not their task to give the student the means to participate in society. Their only goal was the intensification of the student's knowledge and expression of Life. Wherever this process might lead. This focus on the outside world eventually dissolves the distinction between the rule of the university, and the rules of society. For why would the university know to follow the rule of Life, if men (guided by the barbaric scientific intentio), have lost all awareness of Life?

V Going underground

This is the tragic situation we find ourselves in. Man has lost touch with Life, and lives a contradictory existence as a living being whose existence is spent denying life. A barbaric creature, unable to bear the suffering that is Life, and thus unable to feel its grace. Man distracts himself through the drugs and toxins offered by techno-science's corrupt medicine men. He wastes his life staring at the ever so new but ever so insignificant the media feeds him. Intoxicated by his screen's blue light, he loses touch with the light that is in him. In this world devoid of Life, where even the universities whose sole purpose was the knowledge and expression of Life, have lost their essence, what is left to do? And what is left to save? Henry gives us a grim prospect, and since La Barbarie's publication in 1987, only the blind could claim that the situation hasn't gotten worse. Life is censored and defunded away from the universities and every other official institution, and as such, its knowledge and expression can only survive through individual people themselves, through these people and their occasional interactions, Life must live on underground. An underground so removed from the light of society, that it is barely distinguishable from the Night that is Life.