Towards a Critique of Phenomenological Normativity
Emmanuel Falque’s latest book, Hors phénomène, implicitly opens up a tantalising new possibility by way of an alternative philosophical anthropology: namely, a critique of phenomenological normativity (i.e., of what phenomenology traditionally considers to be ‘the norm’ for its analysis), one that is moreover itself phenomenological in nature (i.e., demonstrates how these ‘norms’ belong to the natural attitude and therefore require reduction). It is, as he puts it, “the norm of all phenomenality” that is at issue here, for that norm does not appear to have been phenomenologically secured itself but entails—precisely—an “a priori of phenomenality” (9):
Are there not, to say the least, certain things taken to be self-evident that would rightly be scrutinised today? For nothing guarantees that health should a priori be the norm rather than illness, the event rather than the brute fact, the given rather than resistance, or indeed the other rather than solitude. (13)
Everything phenomenologists tend to think of as ‘normal’, Falque questions on phenomenological grounds: there are experiences, notably those he considers ‘traumatic’, that fall outside phenomenological ‘normality’ and thereby render it inadequate as a comprehensive framework for the analysis of the whole breadth of human experience. By focussing on these traumatic experiences that remain outside the norm of phenomenality, that are extra-phenomenal (hors phénomène), Falque hopes to reinvigorate phenomenology: specifically, Hors phénomène reconstructs the anthropological vision implicit in the phenomenological tradition around these experiences, which define the human being not according to their presupposed opening to the event of appearing but rather as existing in the transformation wrought by the traumatic events that befall them.
However, one wonders whether, in opening up this new and unexplored field of experience, in his correction of phenomenology’s naïve anthropological vision, Falque’s tendency to return immediately to the frameworks just declared inadequate might mean that he ultimately only scratches the surface of his important discovery: what he finds to be outside phenomenality is almost immediately brought back inside of it (albeit under the guise of modification) in the name of maintaining the phenomenological status of the investigation. Indeed, at times, we can even observe this tendency, not just in the progression of the argument, but in the cadence of a single sentence: “Having (…) dismantled the distinction between the normal and the pathological, I am now taking the additional step of asking whether there is not some kind of ‘privilege’ of the pathological over the normal” (309). Yet, what use is it to dismantle—indeed, to deconstruct—a distinction, only to re-establish and maintain it (albeit in the inverse) in a second instance? What Falque describes as taking a step further is only a very hesitant advance, one that perhaps appears all the more insufficient in light of the position from which it rightly retreats after the eloquent diagnosis the book provides. This, I would suggest, is the tension that haunts Falque’s admirable critique, one that perhaps necessarily plagues the phenomenological project as such (as Derrida might insist). With this book, Falque therefore cements his position as one of the most significant phenomenologists working today, whilst also illustrating the inherent difficulty of using phenomenology as an all-encompassing philosophical method.
Let us first, however, examine Falque’s interesting proposal. This is Falque’s first book of ‘pure philosophy’, without reference to the Christian theological tradition, yet the aim of his investigation remains as ever primarily anthropological in nature. Specifically, Hors phénomène articulates a phenomenological understanding of the human condition as transformation by rather than openness to experience: confronted with the experience of trauma, as “defeat of my categories, or rather ‘extra-categorial’, I can only reinvent myself differently—not just in the expectation of eventiality or the so-called salvation of alterity, but also in the confidence of a ‘power of the self’, having no other reason to exist than always being already ‘ahead of itself’ or as if ‘metamorphosed’” (8).
After rooting its starting point in the experience of trauma, the book’s first chapter sets out its titular notion of the extra-phenomenal in a programmatic way:
There is the infra-phenomenal (propaedeutic to phenomenality), there is the supra-phenomenal (excessive to phenomenality); and then there is the extra-phenomenal (outside all phenomenality). The first prepares phenomenalisation, the second overflows phenomenalisation (…), and the third is outside phenomenalisation. The ‘extra-phenomenal’ (…) is thus not itself a phenomenon in the ordinary sense, for it destroys (…) all capacity for phenomenalisation (the phenomenalising subject) and any phenomenalised object (the horizon of appearing). In this sense, speaking of the extra-phenomenal, is (…) to open up a ‘new field’—that of what is (now) without ‘field’ or ‘horizon’. (89-90).
The extra-phenomenal, understood as a traumatic experience that is neither infra- nor supra-phenomenal, is thus meant to counter what Falque calls the “a priori of manifestation” (93): namely, the normal course of phenomenological analysis in which anything that is non-phenomenal is immediately understood as either preparing or exceeding phenomenality, instead of being conceived of as properly outside of phenomenality. This diagnosis is indeed eminently correct and the perspective on the phenomenological method it opens extremely valuable: Falque seeks to give an account of the extra-phenomenal in its extra-phenomenality, namely in its deviation from the phenomenological norm of manifestation. On this account, the extra-phenomenal not only falls outside conditions of possible experience, but in being experienced also destroys these conditions and thus the very possibility of subsequent experiences being lived as phenomena. It accomplishes, as Falque puts it, the “annihilation of any transcendental focus of appearing” (63). Nevertheless, he insists, this account of what remains outside phenomenalisation is nevertheless itself a phenomenological one: a “(phenomenological) essay at the confines of phenomenality,” namely the exercise of “phenomenological scrutiny at the limits of phenomenology itself” (18). Yet, one can be forgiven for thinking that this is a contradiction in terms: at no point does Falque explain in what sense an extra-phenomenal experience can still be addressed by an intra-phenomenological discourse, which constitutes the necessary tension that haunts both this book in particular and phenomenology in general.
In that regard, we can perhaps immediately ask the perfectly reasonable question: why should infra and supra not simply be understood as two different ways of being extra? Falque gives a very eloquent descriptions of the various kinds of infra- and supra-phenomenality known to the phenomenological tradition (§§12-13), but never really explains quite how they differ from the negatively defined regime of extra-phenomenality. To his credit, Falque does provide examples of extra-phenomenal experiences that would constitute a trauma: illness (§1), separation (§2), death of a child (§3), natural disaster (§4), and the pandemic (§5). Here, too, we can ask: the death of a child is undoubtedly a traumatic experience that leaves its mark on whomever undergoes it (thus making it extra-phenomenal), but does it not equally and at the same time exceed any objective representation (thus being supra-phenomenal) and determine how other children appear subsequently (thus being infra-phenomenal)? The book never becomes specific enough to provide us with the material to verify or falsify its presupposition: that phenomenology can consider the extra-phenomenal as such without relating it to phenomenality as either infra- or supra-phenomenal.
It is therefore an abstract phenomenological framework that the book offers us, yet one that is undeniably ground-breaking. Having defined the extra-phenomenal programmatically in the first chapter, the subsequent two provide a detailed account of what Falque understands to be its mode of phenomenality—or, rather, extra-phenomenality. The second chapter, over and against the phenomenological norm of signification or givenness, conceives of it in terms of resistance: the “phenomenon” is “no longer what manifests itself or appears as such, but what resists, opposes, holds back, or simply ‘exists’, or even better ‘insists’” (123). Falque explains:
We no longer have to do here with phenomenalisation (phainesthai), quite the contrary. Rather, we stand at the limits or at the confines of phenomenology, as soon as the very idea of appearing does not or no longer appear. The discourse on the conditions of appearing finds itself disqualified here, as soon as the ‘resisting presence’ opposes itself to it in every way and even destroys the very conditions of its possibility. (122)
Here, Falque indeed identifies a radically new field of phenomenality and rightly insists that it is deserving of its own account. Moreover, he provides that account in the third chapter, which deals with the way in which the extra-phenomenal destroys the conditions of possible experience, notably in reference to a curious remark by Kant in the first edition of the Critique of Pure Reason about cinnabar (the main mineral ore of mercury): if cinnabar were sometimes red and sometimes black, sometimes heavy and sometimes light—i.e., if nature were not subject to the same normative rules as the association of ideas by human reason—, then the phenomenalising imagination would stumble before the sensational manifold that it offers. In thus in contemplating the possibility of the breakdown of the transcendental imagination, of its act of synthesis being rendered impossible by the very experience whose empirical manifold is subject to it, that Kant adumbrates the extra-phenomenal according to Falque: “Cinnabar not only contests the confrontation of opposites within the object (red and black, light and heavy), but glimpses this possible and ‘unimaginable’ decomposition of the object, even of the subject itself, in an experience where it loses even its identity” (209). In other words, the extra-phenomenal denotes the breakdown of the transcendental schematism: an experience that deviates from the norm, whose empirical manifold escapes the reach of the rule according to which it is associated with pure concepts—and thus, ultimately, resists constitution into an object or phenomenon.
The final three chapters develop the consequences of the extra-phenomenal thus conceived for the broader phenomenological method. Chapter 4 deals with the subject as self: far from being given to the subject by another as one would normally expect, ipseity exists in a constant process of modification or transformation by the traumatic experiences that befall me. Chapter 5 considers this transformation on the existential level: crisis, whose experience is the extra-phenomenal trauma, constitutes being-there ontologically, because it is the experience whose experiencing accomplishes transformation. Here, Falque therefore formulates a new principle of phenomenality according to which “so much exception, so much modification” (299): the experience that is experienced outside—and not just below or beyond—the conditions of possible experience (the trauma of crisis), accomplishes a modification or transformation of possibility itself (the being of Dasein). As Falque puts it: “The exception (within the phenomenalised horizon) and modification (of the phenomenalising subject) have in common that they go hand in hand in an all the more transformed being-oneself in one’s trauma, to the point that one loses any idea of what was once one’s identity” (302). Chapter 6 then frames the extra-phenomenal according to its most fundamental phenomenological contribution: consciousness is not originally characterised by intersubjectivity, but by a solitude that the phenomenological tradition considers to be abnormal—precisely because trauma does not let itself be shared (e.g., despite all the care I may receive, no one can suffer illness on my behalf). “Trauma,” Falque insists, “first of all and always returns me to this original solitude” (393).
The book is perhaps best understood as the first step in a bold and ambitious new programme in which the human condition as redefined phenomenologically as transformation rather than opening. It poses a radical challenge to the field in an attempt to disrupt the normal procedure of phenomenology by asking a crucial question with which every phenomenologist should reckon: how do we account phenomenologically for what remains persistently outside phenomenalisation? Falque’s answer is provided by his anthropological account of the transformation accomplished by the extra-phenomenal: “an experience becomes such that it simultaneously ruins the phenomenalising subject and the phenomenalised horizon. In light of the trauma, life is no longer the same” (12). The book’s main and impressive achievement is thus the opening up of this field of extra-phenomenality.
Yet, in achieving this result, perhaps the main question Falque leaves unanswered is that of the status of his investigation: in what sense are these “meditations” still truly phenomenological? When challenged on this front, Falque is inclined to respond that, ultimately, this question of jargon matters little. However, this response confirms and highlights a certain curious irony present throughout the book: in abandoning the Christian theological tradition as philosophical point of reference, Falque nevertheless for the first time becomes fundamentally complicit with phenomenology’s theological turn. I do not mean that Falque thereby abandons phenomenology in favour of theology, but rather that he nevertheless—and with good reason—leaves phenomenology proper behind in his attempt to articulate an “extra-horizontal” phenomenology (302). In a way, this book reverses the patricide Falque so eloquently committed against Jean-Luc Marion (his onetime doctoral supervisor): whereas Falque once defended the existential conditions within which givenness is received as forming the horizon for its phenomenalisation, precisely against Marion for whom these only come into view to the extent that they are exceeded by givenness; we now find Falque suggesting that the extra-phenomenal destroys the horizon against which phenomenalisation takes place along with the subject who projects it. To better understand the unexpected turn Falque takes here, we may perhaps refer to the famous debate Marion had with his own teacher:
Marion. I do not recognise the ‘as such’ as mine. What I have said, precisely in that horizon, is that the question of the claim to the ‘as such’ has no right to be made.
Derrida. Then would you disassociate what you call phenomenology from the authority of the as such? If you do that, it would be the first heresy in phenomenology. Phenomenology without as such!
Marion. Not my first, no! I said to Levinas some years ago that in fact the last step for a real phenomenology would be to give up the concept of horizon. Levinas answered my immediately: ‘Without horizon there is no phenomenology.’ And I boldly assume he was wrong.
Derrida. I am also for the suspension of the horizon, but, for that very reason, by saying so, I am not a phenomenologist anymore. I am very true to phenomenology, but when I agree on the necessity of suspending the horizon, then I am no longer a phenomenologists. So the problem remains if you give up the as such, what is the use that you can make of the word phenomenology.
Marion. (…) As to the question of whether what I am doing, or what Derrida is doing, is within phenomenology or beyond, it does not seem to me very important. (…) Whether Étant donné is still phenomenology we shall see ten years later. But now it is not very important. I claim that I am still faithful to phenomenology (…). But this will be an issue, if any, for our successors.
The debate around Étant donné, which could perhaps be repeated with Hors phénomène, is wrapped up in this brief exchange. Derrida is eminently correct, not only in his insistence that there is no phenomenology without a horizon (i.e., for then there would be no more phenomenon understood as the appearing of things as what they are to intentional consciousness), but also that it is out of a decidedly phenomenology exigency that he sees himself necessitated to go outside phenomenology proper. For now, however, it suffices to note that at this instance, suddenly, we could replace Marion in this conversation with his student Falque. Indeed, the critique that was once levelled against Marion, can perhaps now also be levelled against Falque: in their respective attempts at somehow cancelling out the horizon (whether by going beyond or outside of it), and their joint lack of interest in actually considering the question of the phenomenological nature of their proposal, they both end producing a discourse that is non-phenomenological or even extra-phenomenological—but, as Derrida insist, therefore no less true to phenomenology. Having dealt with Falque’s attempt at cancelling out the horizon higher up, let us now consider his lack of interest in the question of whether his discourse is phenomenological in nature or not, and what it may be instead if not phenomenological.
Revisiting Falque’s treatment of Kant’s reference to cinnabar—a highly sophisticated discussion that constitutes one of the book’s highlights—, we can directly observe his reluctance to properly engage with the question of the nature of his investigation into the extra-phenomenal. With much fanfare, Falque notes that Kant omits the reference to cinnabar from the second edition of the Critique of Pure Reason: “Kant is frightened by the ‘conceptual monster’ he has created, in that the mere hypothesis of ‘cinnabar’ is enough to ‘take out’, even ‘blow up’, any principle of unification” (210). On Falque’s reading, Kant realised he had hit upon a notion that threatened the entire edifice of the critique and therefore quickly swept it under the rug. Yet, one wonders whether it is not just as likely that Kant—the first to articulate a transcendental theory of objective experience and therefore perhaps the original phenomenologist—omitted the reference to cinnabar, not because he worried that it risked undoing the very framework he had set out, but rather because he realised that there is nothing that can responsibly be said about this matter from within said framework? In other words, perhaps the first Critique—rightly—avoids further discussion of cinnabar, understood as the experience that destroys the transcendental schematism, precisely because its discussion of experience takes places on the basis of that transcendental schematism. An altogether different discourse would therefore be needed to address the experience Falque focusses on: if Kant says nothing more about cinnabar, perhaps that is because there is nothing more to say within the confines of transcendental-phenomenological investigation. This does not mean that there is nothing further left to say at all, but simply that it cannot be said within the register of phenomenology, that a different discourse is needed.
This is, ultimately, the paradox on which Derrida hits in his own critique of phenomenology and highlights again in his conversation with Marion: the questions that are most fundamental to phenomenology—whether that of presence (Derrida), givenness (Marion), or the confines of phenomenality (Falque)—, require us to leave phenomenological discourse behind in order to consider phenomenology itself from a position and in an investigation that is itself extra-phenomenological. In other words, if Falque wants to submit “the norm of all phenomenality” (13) to scrutiny by way of the valuable notion of the extra-phenomenal; he must also make good on his promise by facing up to the fact that, insofar as it succeeds in moving outside phenomenality (i.e., phenomenological normativity), this scrutiny necessarily takes place outside the phenomenological method. If this were not the case, if the account of the extra-phenomenal were itself an intra-phenomenological enterprise, then the critique of phenomenological normativity would in turn itself be subject to that normativity—leading to precisely the tension that Derrida thematises by way of deconstruction. Falque’s continual attempt at returning to the framework of phenomenology (its normativity) hampers his excellent account of the extra-phenomenal as destroying that very framework (its existence outside-the-norm). At times, we can literally see him struggling with this tension:
So much exception, so much modification: Kant’s hapax (cinnabar) thus becomes the rule here (…); what had thus been the ‘exception’ in a well-ordered phenomenality (…), becomes the norm for what precisely has no norm—the ‘extra-categorial’ of what has no or no longer categories, or the impossibility of all possibility. (302)
Falque’s advance thus proceeds with a certain amount of hesitation: he discovers that there are experiences that remain outside phenomenality, due to the fact that phenomenology operates certain norms that are themselves phenomenologically illegitimate (insofar as this normativity cannot be reduced to actual experience); but then immediately brings those experiences inside of phenomenality, and thus within the bounds of normativity, by turning the exception into the new phenomenological norm. Falque therefore perhaps also finds himself in the position he ascribes to Kant, namely a reluctance to fully exploit his valuable discovery of the extra-phenomenal since it would necessitate abandoning phenomenological discourse altogether—as Derrida already adumbrated: every possible “principle of phenomenology” requires deconstruction insofar as it excludes those experiences that make exception to it, that do not conform to the phenomenological norm, because these principles constitute a priori restrictions of the field of experience that are themselves phenomenologically illegitimate. In other words, what drove Derrida outside phenomenology was precisely what he learned on the inside: the phenomenological ambition is descriptive, not normative; but as scientific description, actual phenomenological analysis exists in bringing experience within a particular normative framework of transcendental rules that govern the intentional constitution of objects (i.e., the “principle of phenomenality”). However, Falque apparently refuses to abandon the discursive style of phenomenology, i.e. the description of experience in its essence by subjecting it to transcendental rules or normative principles; even though his book—rightly—proposes a critique of that normativity in response to a distinctly phenomenological exigency. This is therefore the true result of Hors phénomène (as of Étant donné, though in a very different way): there are experiences that persistently remain extra-phenomenal and therefore also require an analysis that is itself extra-phenomenological; phenomenology may be a perfectly valid way of analysing experience, but it is not exhaustive. Indeed, how else are we to understand what Falque calls the “night of phenomenology” and describes as “not the givenness of the phenomenon of givenness or non-givenness (the phenomenology of the night), but the non-givenness of givenness itself—not by privation, nor by excess, but only by negation” (89)—the negation of what if not phenomenology itself?
If Derrida moves outside phenomenology from within it so as to consider the infra-phenomenal (the deconstruction of presence), and Marion moves outside phenomenology from within it in order to consider the supra-phenomenal (the theology of revelation); then Falque’s book nevertheless sketches a similar way out of phenomenology for him: the psychoanalysis of trauma. After all, what is an investigation that operates “following Freud” (23) and is “built upon the basis of the traumatic” (127), if not psychoanalysis? Indeed, a psychoanalytic lens allows us to better appreciate what Falque means by the extra-phenomenal as exemplified by the experience of trauma:
A nothing that is not nothing, this is what makes up the ‘resistance of presence’—(…) not in that the Id takes refuge in invisibility (a kind of negative theology (…)), but in that its obscurity or thickness is such that it demonstrates impenetrability. (117)
In this sense, “so much exception, so much modification” (299) is perhaps best understood, not as a principle of phenomenality (for nothing appears in the exception), but rather as a principle of psychoanalysis (or, perhaps, of ‘traumaticity’): the traumatic experience is precisely the experience that is not phenomenalised, that is not lived-through in experience; but rather the experience that denotes “any excitations from outside which are powerful enough to break through the protective shield” of consciousness (exception) and thereby can “provoke a disturbance on a large scale in the functioning of the organism’s energy” (modification), ultimately resulting in “the problem of mastering the amounts of stimulus which have broken in and of binding them (…) so that they can be disposed of” (destruction).
Curiously, this path is arguably already forged by Falque’s book, but he appears reluctant to actually walk it by confessing his ultimately psychoanalytical perspective. This perspective, nevertheless, provides him with precisely what he needs in order to execute his critique of phenomenological normativity: a discourse that does not operate according to norms, or at least not according to the same norms as those of phenomenology, and is thus able to provide a critique of phenomenological normativity from outside the norm of phenomenality. Yet, such is the necessary tension that haunts Falque’s book in particular and all phenomenology in general, this critique of normativity from outside of it is an inherently phenomenological gesture: it goes by the name of reduction and extends to principles or norms as it does to judgments. We should therefore understand the present book alongside those other unorthodox yet major works of phenomenology that forge a path outside phenomenology from within in order to remain true to phenomenology, as Derrida put it, by justice to the full range of possible experience: Derrida’s Le toucher provides an extra-phenomenology of touch (deconstruction), Marion’s Étant donné provides an extra-phenomenology of revelation (theology), Falque’s Hors phénomène provides an extra-phenomenology of trauma (psychoanalysis)—each time showing how phenomenology can only be actual when confronted with and transformed by non-phenomenology.
 John D. Caputo and Michael J. Scanlon (Eds.). 1999. God, the Gift, and Postmodernism. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 66-68.
 Sigmund Freud. 1961. Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Translated by James Strachey. London: W.W. Norton & Company, 23-24.