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A Philosophy of Living Labor: Michel Henry and Simone Weil on Marx

Attached to Paper Session

What insights does Marx still offer Philosophy of Religion and Political Theology? I suggest that if we follow the work of two French philosophers, Simone Weil and Michel Henry, we find a surprising and unexpected contribution: a consideration of the spiritual capacity of living labor.[1]

I will begin my paper by discussing this key similarity in Weil and Henry and arguing that their heterodox interpretations emphasize the possibility of thinking subjectivity differently. Then, I explain why both thinkers submit that western philosophy, politics and religion have ignored this kind of subjectivity. My paper finishes with a discussion of how Weil and Henry’s affirmation of Marx’s subjectivity and its respective positioning of spirituality contributes to rethinking the role of the person in Philosophy of Religion and Political Theology.

  1. Living Labor

In the First Thesis on Feuerbach, Marx announces that philosophy has been unable to consider “sensuous human activity, practice [Praxis], . . . subjectively.”[2] Henry and Weil both attend to this subjectivity through their respective interpretations of living labor. For both, the fundamental human activity is laboring—the way any given individual senses their life, their affectivity. This labor is creative production and should never be confused with wage labor. Henry explains that living labor “…it is the necessarily singular and individual actualization of the force of life in a living body.”[3] He calls this activity life. Weil designates it labor. And for both, the critical contribution Marx offers philosophy is a reconsideration of subjectivity in terms of laboring.

Somewhat surprisingly, they both offer the example of a runner. Weil explains: “Philosophy (including problems of cognition, etc.) is exclusively an affair of action and practice. That is why it is so difficult to write about it. Difficult in the same way as a treatise on tennis or running, but much more so.”[4] Observing a runner is different from running. When observing, one objectifies the runner and describes what is seen. Weil and Henry, however, affirm that Marx would have us consider the runner in their subjectivity. What does it feel like to run? Both thinkers criticize philosophy, politics and theology as disciplines that ignore what is most fundamental to an individual—their affective life, their laboring activity. Both discuss this problem in terms of the displacement of the subject in favor of an object: a dynamic Marx labeled dead labor. Much like Marx’s Capital erases living labor by deadening it, Henry and Weil suggest that philosophy, politics and religion, neutralize the most spiritual of activities, living.

II. The Displacement of Subjectivity

In Marx, Capital depends upon the abstraction of labor: individual workers become things, or cogs, in the industrial machine. A person’s subjectivity—their living labor—is deadened as they become one object among many. Just as Capital deadens labor, Henry and Weil’s interpretations identify a corresponding deadening of the individual in philosophy, politics and theology (and, in fact, in most theoretical endeavors). In philosophy, the subject is often reduced to a being in the world that can thought, intended, or theorized. In politics, individuals are abstracted from their subjectivity and relegated to be “citizens,” or “humans with rights.” Abstractions about the human essence replace concrete living subjectivities. What occurs in this process is a forgetting of living, a kind of deadening of life.

III. Contribution to Philosophy of Religion and Political Theology

What to do about this deadening phenomenon? Weil and Henry redirect our thoughts away from a clear program or quick fix. Instead, they ask us to consider keeping subjectivity subjective.  What this involves first and foremost is an attention to the singularity that is any life. Both thinkers suggest that individuals do not live to serve society. Rather, social life should foster lived subjectivity. Notably, this does not entail a negation of social life, nor a celebration of an autonomous, or self-sufficient, individual. For Weil and Henry, living labor fosters cultures in their richest forms. The question they ask is the following: How might a community foster each individual’s laboring and creative capacities? Here, life together begins by considering what any given individual might “need.” Weil is clear that social life must begin with a consideration of the “dignity” of each individual worker.

 

Attending to subjectivity is also where Henry and Weil locate spirituality. This spirituality lacks any form of transcendence, or separation into sacred/secular spheres. It cannot be relegated to a distinct domain—whether church, temple, doctrine, liturgy, or prayer. Neither does it involve any kind of higher Being. Living laboring itself takes precedence over any logos, theory or divinity. It is thus much more mundane. This could be the student sensing their studying, the chef their baking, the musician their composing, or the carpenter, their building. Spirituality is alive in these spaces. One might consider this a radically immanent theology. Ultimately, my interest in this final section is to explore the contribution that considering subjectivity as a location for spirituality could have for philosophy of religion and political theology. How might the disciplines be reshaped by attending to Weil and Henry’s emphasis on Marx’s subjectivity.

 

[1] Much of my this discussion comes from the following works: (1) Michel Henry, Marx. A Philosophy of Human Reality. Translated by Kathleen McLaughlin (Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 1983). Partial translation of vol. 1: Une philosophie de la réalité and vol. 2: Une philosophie de l’économie (Paris: Gallimard, 1976); (2) Simone Weil, Oppression and Liberty. Translated by Arthur Wills and John Petrie (Amherst, MA:  University of Massachusetts Press, 1973) and (3) Simone Weil, Need for Roots. Translated by Arthur Wills (London: Routldege, 2002).

[2] Karl Marx, Selected Writings. Edited by Edited by Lawrence H. Simon (Indianapolis: Hackett, 1994), 99.

[3] Michel Henry, From Communism to Capitalism. Theory of a Catastrophe. Translated by Scott Davidson (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), 66.

[4] Simone Weil, First and Last Notebooks. Translated by Richard Rees (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970), 362.

Abstract for Online Program Book (maximum 150 words)

This paper considers two heterodox interpretations of Marx’s living labor: that of Simone Weil and Michel Henry. Both reject traditional Marxism in favor of an approach that emphasizes what they will call the spiritual aspect of Marx—his notion of living labor. For both thinkers, living labor provides a way of rethinking the philosophical category of subjectivity. This kind of labor has nothing to do with wage labor, or what Marx designates dead labor. Weil and Henry reject dead labor and argue that it has infiltrated all forms of thinking, whether philosophical, political or religious. In place of dead labor, they draw out the possibility of a subjectivity rooted in living labor: a uniquely singular and creative capacity. Henry calls this capacity life, or living subjectivity. Weil simply labels it labor. Both contend that social, political and religious life have ignored this subjectivity. My paper argues that reconsidering subjectivity along Weilian and Henryian lines situates spirituality in an unsuspecting place—laboring. It is thus a very “mundane” activity: the chef baking, the student studying, the runner running. I conclude by discussing what Weil and Henry’s version of spirituality offers to the disciplines of philosophy of religion and political theology.

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