Darkening Life/Notes on Henry


Michel Henry’s construction of a purely affective process phenomenology holds wonderful fodder for non-anthropic darkening and spatio-temporal softening.  Whereas Henry seems to see the world as pure affectivity with distinc layers and hiearchies (which, unfortuneatly is somehow anchored in divinity) what is philosophically troubling is his assumption of positivity, his attacks on science and his denial of anything worldly or non-affective.  That is, Henry’s philosophy is appealing if it is configured as a way of thinking the sensorially engaged human subject (maybe any subject) without, from such a phenomenologically engaged point, deciding ontological worth.

The biggest sign of this is Henry’s conceptualization of Life as a pure sensorium, as a kind of lived invisibility, traversed with the help of the power of subjectivity.  In this sense, nature becomes a distant caricature and the epistemlogical seems worn down to mere perception.  Furthermore, Henry’s phenomenological life seems rooted in an unjustified positivity and all occult (non-sensed or felt) thinking (if it is still thinking) becomes dark and horrible, the failures of too much weight placed on intentionality and on other externalities.  As Henry writes:

“The dereliction of existence surrendered to the world, the dehiscence of the present of the present worn away by a nothingness, the ‘I am not what I am,’ all this pseudo-pathos would not have been prematurely aged if it expressed something other than the old reign of exteriority, if it knew how to find the path which leads to life” (What is Mean by the Word Life?, p. 6).

Yet instead of complexifying the interior/exterior relation Henry seems to spread the interior over the exterior, laughing at the scientist who would ask a microbe about life as if we did not live.  The exterior becomes the visible world, all time and space is affectively integrated, thinking and feeling are actualized as the death of all actuality as such – “nothing will be found in exteriority (What is Meant, p. 11).

Furthermore, what is the justification of Henry’s positivity and his attacks upon science and the importance of meaning?  Henry writes: “The great malaise suffusing the world will not be dissipated by a progress of scientific knowledge.”  If we assert a force (in a Schellingian sense) or an X (in the Laruelleian sense) outside of the affective cloud we are trapped in (as the immersion in the living force, in the ceasless happening) then the horizon of sense and affect becomes troubling.

In the same vein, and following Henry’s treatment of Condillac, the body becomes a site of impressions without throughly knowable sources.  With the X creeping outside the border of quotidian epistemlogical limits – the body becomes the possibility of horrors, monstrousities or other torsions.  As Ligotti writes in My Work is Not Yet Done:

“I could feel how intimately that body – in both its physical and metaphysical aspects  – was connected to that now familiar darkness, that sinister presence…a presence that might well have been named The Great Black Swine – a grunting, bestial foce that animated, used our bodiees to frolic in whatever mucky thing came its way, lasciviously agitating itselt in that black river in which the human species only bobbed about like hunks of excrement.”

8 Responses to “Darkening Life/Notes on Henry”

  1. 1 michaeloneillburns

    This is interesting. A couple thoughts/comments though.

    I think you’re claim that Henry ‘attacks’ sciences needs to be qualified a bit. If you look at the lot of his writings on science, it’s clear, at least in the manner i which I’ve tended to read him, that he’s attacking a form of perverted science, the sort of science Badiou would call ‘technology’. In this way, there is an underlying political critique which leads to these seeming ‘attacks’ on science. This can be seen in Material Phenomenology on p. 121-

    “The situation in which the lowering of the individual occurs is not only a current even and politics; it is also theoretical and thus claims to be universal. It occurs everywhere in one way or another. For example, in the world of modern technology, objectivity is given as the site of every conceivable truth, while life and the individual, which are consubstantial, are eliminated.”

    And on the next page he equates this theoretical project with the political slogan “Long live death!”.

    So it seems that his problem is not only the linking of science to military industrial complexes (he says this overtly at some point, but don’t have the book in front of me), but the way in which this project also attempts to account for everything, or, make all truth visible. In this sense, I don’t think Life is necessarily a category marked by positivity as much as negativity, as the point is that Life is that which remains invisible, which can’t be accounted for by this sort of discourse.

    That said, at times his critique of contemporary science and politics verges on making him seem like a ‘grumpy old man’, but there is something to be said for his theorization of the interior/invisible nature of life. I’m just not sure how useful Henry would be to a explicitly ‘dark’ or non-anthropocentric project. But, on that note, he makes an odd comment about affectivity allowing the “object oriented layer of reality to be seen on p.15 of material phenomenology.

    Hopefully that makes a bit of sense, but wanted to respond before bed. Look forward to seeing you develop this more.

    • 2 Ben Woodard


      You are right in that he is attacking a perverted science – it seems he is attacking science as it would serve government bodies in a negative way – such as the Manhattan project. I am mostly familiar with Henry’s shorter works and need to read more of him – but I feel, at least in pieces such as ‘what does science know?’ Henry is assuming science on the whole is populated by mad scientists! Or in other words I dont think he makes a clear enough distinction between state science and science on the whole.

      I think what is interesting for me about Henry is that his attempt at a pure affectivity grasps at the phenomenological cloud that humans live in, without intentionality.

  2. Isn’t your description of these things as “dark x” and “dark y” undercut your attempt to de-humanize it all?

    • 4 Ben Woodard

      I dont think so – by dark I mean de-humanizing, Obscure or not completely knowable (as in Laruelle’s X) and in aesthetic terms. It is dark because thought is from the point of view of humans not ontologically dark – it is dark given the fact that metaphysics is, in my view, ‘too cheery’ in its valorization of the human. That is, the cosmological cascade is dark because we are looking at it from earth not because it is dark in and of itself.

  3. My point is that you’re still tied to an affective framework when you call something dark and thus largely within a human paradigm. It seems that performatively you are undercutting your argument by still bringing attention to the human and that brings up a whole host of questions. One might be why choose the dark attitude rather than the cherry one?

  4. 6 Ben Woodard

    I’m suggesting that the dark attitude is more realistic given what we know about the future of ourselves (as organisms) and the planet and the universe. I never set out to dismiss the human all together, my concern is that there is a difference between seeing things from our point of view and assuming that our point of view/existence has ontological weight such as correlationism argues. Affect matters because we have senses and brains this does not mean that experiences of affect however should have philosophical weight in non-human realms.

  5. I suppose this is where we disagree. It seems we largely agree about the future of humanity (solar catastrophe, a number of competing and possible ends to the universe itself [though Kaku’s Parallel Worlds challenges even this idea]) but am really unconvinced that the attitude (in a perverse phenomenological sense that I take you to put forward in an interesting way) we then undertake our thought is more or less realistically “dark”. It is committed to a kind of a cultured notion of “the meaning of life” to an extent. You may be interested in Peter Steeves pessimistic vision of life as entropy’s way of dealing with gradients in the universe that he still finds a largely convincing way of celebrating in a way I don’t think one can call “dark” as such. Anyway, thanks for the clarifications! Good luck on the project.

  1. 1 Transcendental Dynamism/Dark Vitalism « Naught Thought

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