Byung-Chul Han: “I Practise Philosophy as Art”

The philosopher on how we might respond to a world of digital alienation

Courtesy Byung-Chul Han

Byung-Chul Han is a philosopher with a broad following in the artworld, where his writings, originally in German, on such perennial modern conditions as alienation, loneliness, the fragmentation and disintegration of reality, and the role of technology in fostering so many ills have found traction as well scepticism. The South Korean-born, Berlin-based thinker’s latest book, Undinge (Nonobjects), was published earlier this year.

ArtReview Undinge revolves around our loss of connection to things in favour of digital information. What do objects have that new technologies don’t?

Byung-Chul Han Undinge proposes that the age of objects is over. The terrane order, the order of the Earth, consists of objects that take on a permanent form and provide a stable environment for human habitation. Today the terrane order has been replaced by the digital order. The digital order makes the world less tangible by informatising it. Nonobjects are currently entering our environment from all sides and displacing objects.

I call nonobjects information. Today we are in the transition from the age of objects to the age of nonobjects. Information, not objects, now defines our environment. We no longer occupy earth and sky but Google Earth and the Cloud. The world is becoming progressively less tangible, cloudier and ghostlier. Nothing is substantial. It makes me think of the novel The Memory Police [1994], by the Japanese writer Yoko Ogawa. The novel tells of a nameless island where objects – hair ties, hats, stamps, even roses and birds – disappear irretrievably. Together with the objects, memories also disappear. People live in an eternal winter of forgetting and loss. Everything is seized by a progressive disintegration. Even body parts disappear. In the end it’s just disembodied voices, floating around in the air.

In some respects, this island of lost memories resembles our present. Information dissolves reality, which is just as ghostly as those disembodied voices. Digitalisation dematerialises, disembodies and eventually strips away the substantiality of our world. It also eliminates memories. Rather than keeping track of memories, we amass data and information. We have all become infomaniacs. This infomania makes objects disappear. What happens to objects when they are permeated by information? The informatisation of our world turns objects into ‘infomat’, namely information-processing actors. The smartphone is not an object but an infomat, or even an informant, monitoring and influencing us.

Objects don’t spy on us. That’s why we trust them, in a way that we don’t trust the smartphone. Every apparatus, any domination technique, spawns its own devotional objects, which are used to promote submission. They stabilise dominion. The smartphone is the devotional object of the digital-information regime. As a tool of repression it acts like a rosary, which in its handiness the mobile device represents. To ‘like’ is to pray digitally. We continue to go to confession. We expose ourselves voluntarily, yet we’re no longer asking for forgiveness, but rather for attention.

AR Undinge emphasises the ideas, found in many of your books, that in the place of building relationships with others – or the other – humans are increasingly mirroring themselves. Nevertheless people do live in relationships and even today remain attached to objects that they don’t want to throw away. What’s the difference between then and now, then being the time before globalisation and digitalisation?

BCH I don’t know if people who spend all their time looking at smartphones still have or need objects that are close to their heart. Objects are receding into the background of our attention. The current hyperinflation of objects, which has led to their explosive proliferation, only highlights our increasing indifference towards them. They are almost stillborn.

Our obsession is no longer for objects, but for information and data. Today we produce and consume more information than objects. We actually get high on communication. Libidinal energies have been redirected from objects to nonobjects. The consequence is infomania. We are all infomaniacs now. Object fetishism is probably over. We are becoming information- and data-fetishists. Now there is even talk of datasexuals. Tapping and swiping a smartphone is almost a liturgical gesture, and it has a massive effect on our relationship to the world. Information that doesn’t interest us gets swiped away. Content we like, on the other hand, gets zoomed in, using the pincer movement of our fingers. We literally have a grip on the world. It’s entirely up to us.

That’s how the smartphone amplifies our ego. We subjugate the world to our needs with a few swipes. The world appears to us in the digital light of complete availability. Unavailability is precisely what makes the other other, and so it disappears. Robbed of its otherness, it is now merely consumable. Tinder turns the other into a sexual object. Using the smartphone, we withdraw into a narcissistic sphere, one free of the unknowns of the other. It makes the other obtainable by objectifying it. It turns a you into an it. This disappearance of the other is precisely why the smartphone makes us lonely.

AR You write, ‘Objects are resting places for life’, meaning that they are charged with significance. You cite your jukebox as an example, which holds an almost magical power for you. What do you reply when someone accuses you of nostalgia?

BCH Under no circumstances do I want to praise old, beautiful objects. That would be very unphilosophical. I refer to objects as resting places for life because they stabilise human life. The same chair and the same table, in their sameness, lend the fickle human life some stability and continuity. We can linger with objects. With information, however, we cannot.

If we want to understand what kind of society we live in, we have to comprehend what information is. Information has very little currency. It lacks temporal stability, since it lives off the excitement of surprise. Due to its temporal instability, it fragments perception. It throws us into a continuous frenzy of topicality. Hence it’s impossible to linger on information. That’s how it differs from objects. Information puts the cognitive system itself into a state of anxiety. We encounter information with the suspicion that it could just as easily be something else. It is accompanied by basic distrust. It strengthens the contingency experience.

Fake news embodies a heightened form of the contingency that is inherent in information. And information, due to its ephemerality, makes time-consuming cognitive practices such as experience, memory or perception disappear. So my analyses have nothing to do with nostalgia.

AR In your work you repeatedly circle around digitalisation for how it makes the other disappear and lets narcissism blossom, as well as facilitating voluntary self-exploitation in the age of neoliberalism. How did you initially conceive of these subjects? Is there a personal angle to it?

BCH At the core of my books The Burnout Society [2010] and Psychopolitics [2017] lies the understanding that Foucault’s analysis of the disciplinary society can no longer explain our present. I distinguish between the disciplinary regime and the neoliberal regime. The disciplinary regime works with commands and restraints. It is oppressive. It suppresses freedom. The neoliberal regime on the other hand is not oppressive, but seductive and permissive. It exploits freedom instead of suppressing it. We voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves believing that we fulfil ourselves.

So we don’t live in a disciplinary society but in a meritocracy. Foucault did not see that. The subjects of neoliberal meritocracy, believing themselves to be free, are in reality servants. They are absolute servants, exploiting themselves without a master. Self-exploitation is more efficient than exploitation by others, because it goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom. Kafka expressed this paradoxical freedom of the servant very fittingly in an aphorism: ‘The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master’.

This constant self-flagellation is tiring and depressing. The work itself, no matter how hard it may be, does not lead to profound tiredness. Even though we can be tired after work, it is not the same as a destructive tiredness. Work at some point comes to an end. The pressure to perform that we apply to ourselves, on the other hand, outlasts the working hours. It torments us in our sleep and frequently leads to sleepless nights. It is possible to recover from work. But it is impossible to recover from the pressure to perform.

It is especially this internal pressure, this pressure to perform and optimise, that makes us tired and depressed. So it is not oppression but depression that is the pathological sign of our times. Only an oppressive regime provokes resistance. The neoliberal regime, which does not suppress but exploits freedom, does not encounter resistance. Authority is complete when it masquerades as freedom. These are insights that lie at the heart of my sociocritical essays. They can be summarised as: the other disappears.

AR You don’t shy away from terms like magic and mystery. Would you classify yourself as a romantic?

BCH To me, everything that is is magical and mysterious. Our retina is completely covered by the cornea, even overgrown, so that we no longer perceive it. I would say that I am not a romantic, but a realist who perceives the world the way it is. It simply consists of magic and mystery.

Over three years I established a winter-flowering garden. I also wrote a book about it with the title Praise to the Earth [2018]. My understanding from being a gardener is: Earth is magic. Whoever claims otherwise is blind. Earth is not a resource, not a mere means to achieve human ends. Our relationship to nature today is not determined by astonished observation, but solely by instrumental action. The Anthropocene is precisely the result of total subjugation of Earth/nature to the laws of human action. It is reduced to a component of human action. Man acts beyond the interpersonal sphere into nature by subjecting it entirely to his will. He thereby unleashes processes that would not come about without his intervention, and lead to a total loss of control.

It is not enough that we now have to be more careful with Earth as a resource. Rather, we need a completely different relationship with Earth. We should give it back its magic, its dignity. We should learn to marvel at it again. Natural disasters are the consequences of absolute human action. Action is the verb for history. Walter Benjamin’s angel of history is confronted with the catastrophic consequences of human action. In front of him, the heap of debris of history grows towards the sky. But he cannot remove it, because the storm from the future called progress carries him away. His wide eyes and open mouth reflect his powerlessness. Only an angel of inaction would be able to defend himself against the storm.

We should rediscover the capacity for inaction, the capacity that does not act. So my new book, which I am working on at the moment, has the title Vita contemplativa or of inactivity. It is a counterpart or antidote to Hannah Arendt’s book Vita activa or of the active life (Vita activa oder vom tätigen Leben, 1958), which glorifies human action.

AR In Undinge you write, ‘We save masses of data, yet never return to the memories. We accumulate friends and followers, without encountering an other.’ Similar incantations were heard at the time of the invention of the letterpress and later newspaper and television… Could it be that you are catastrophising the situation?

BCH My aim is not to catastrophise the world, but to illuminate it. My task as a philosopher is to explain what kind of society we live in. When I say that the neoliberal regime exploits freedom instead of suppressing it, or that the smartphone is the devotional object of the digital-information regime, it has nothing to do with doom-mongering. Philosophy is truth-speaking.

In recent years I have worked on a phenomenology of information in order to make today’s world comprehensible. In Undinge I have made the proposition that nowadays we perceive reality primarily in terms of information. As a consequence, there is rarely a tangible contact with reality. Reality is robbed of its presence. We no longer perceive its physical vibrations. The layer of information, which covers objects like a membrane, shields the perception of intensities. Perception, reduced to information, numbs us to moods and atmospheres. Rooms lose their poetics. They give way to roomless networks along which information spreads. Digital time, with its focus on the present, on the moment, disperses the fragrance of time. Time is atomised into a sequence of isolated presents. Atoms are not fragrant.

Only a narrative practice of time brings forth fragrant molecules of time. The informatisation of reality thus leads to a loss of space and time. This has nothing to do with doom-mongering. This is phenomenology.

AR You are currently in Rome, the epitome of a place of patina and history, where life happens on the streets, food with friends and family is important, and the Vatican is omnipresent. Do you not have the feeling that your grievances about the isolation of man and digital substitute-satisfactions only concern certain groups or situations?

BCH What is the point when people meet and mostly just look at their smartphones? Despite interconnectedness and total communication, people today feel lonelier than ever. We turn you into an available, consumable it. The world is running short of you. This makes us lonely.

In that respect there is no difference between Rome, New York or Seoul. Rome impressed me in a different sense. For happiness we need a towering, superior other. Digitalisation gets rid of any counterpart, any resistance, any other. It smoothes everything over. The smartphone is smart because it makes everything available and removes all resistance. Rome is especially abundant in towering others.

Today I again cycled around the whole of the city and visited countless churches. I discovered a beautiful church that bestowed a now very rare experience of presence on me. The church is rather small. Once you enter, you find yourself immediately under a dome. The dome is decorated in patterns formed by octagons. These decrease in size towards the centre of the dome, so that the dome creates a strong optical upwards pull. Light bursts in through windows arranged around the peak of the dome, where the depiction of a golden dove floats. The whole forms a sublime other with a vertical pull that effectively made me float in space. I was lifted up. That’s when I understood what the holy spirit is. It is nothing other than the other. It was an exhilarating experience, the experience of presence, right inside a holy object.

Dome of San Bernardo alle Terme
Dome of San Bernardo alle Terme, Rome. Photo: Architas / Wikimedia Commons

AR In your opinion, what has to happen for the world to once again concern itself with real objects, charged with life – and most of all with other people? How can we learn to deal with the dilemmas of our time?

BCH Every book of mine ends in a utopian counternarrative. In The Burnout Society I countered I-fatigue, which leads to depression, with Us-fatigue, which brings about community. In The Expulsion of the Other [2016] I contrasted increasing narcissism with the art of listening. Psychopolitics proposes idiotism as a utopian figure against complete interconnectedness and complete surveillance. An idiot is someone who is not networked. In The Agony of Eros [2012] I propose that only Eros is capable of defeating depression. The Scent of Time [2014] articulates an art of lingering. My books analyse the malaises of our society and propose concepts to overcome them. Yes, we must work on new ways of life and new narratives.

AR Another book of yours is called The Disappearance of Rituals [2020]. How do rituals, people and objects help to root us in our lives? Can we not manage by ourselves?

BCH Rituals are architectures of time, structuring and stabilising life, and they are on the wane. The pandemic has accelerated the disappearance of rituals. Work also has ritual aspects. We go to work at set times. Work takes place in a community. In the home office, the ritual of work is completely lost. The day loses its rhythm and structure. This somehow makes us tired and depressed.

In The Little Prince [1943], by [Antoine de] Saint-Exupéry, the little prince asks the fox to always visit at the exact same time, so that the visit becomes a ritual. The little prince explains to the fox what a ritual is. Rituals are to time as rooms are to an apartment. They make time accessible like a house. They organise time, arrange it. In this way you make time appear meaningful.

Time today lacks a solid structure. It is not a house, but a capricious river. The disappearance of rituals does not simply mean that we have more freedom. The total flexibilisation of life brings loss, too. Rituals may restrict freedom, but they structure and stabilise life. They anchor values and symbolic systems in the body, reinforcing community. In rituals we experience community, communal closeness, physically.

Digitalisation strips away the physicality of the world. Then comes the pandemic. It aggravates the loss of the physical experience of community. You’re asking: can’t we do this by ourselves? Today we reject all rituals as something external, formal and therefore inauthentic. Neoliberalism produces a culture of authenticity, which places the ego at its centre. The culture of authenticity develops a suspicion of ritualised forms of interaction. Only spontaneous emotions, subjective states, are authentic. Modelled behaviour, for example courtesy, is written off as inauthentic or superficial. The narcissistic cult of authenticity is partly responsible for the increasing brutality of society.

In my book I argue the case against the cult of authenticity, for an ethic of beautiful forms. Gestures of courtesy are not just superficial. The French philosopher Alain says that gestures of courtesy hold a great power on our thoughts. That if you mime kindness, goodwill and joy, and go through motions such as bowing, they help against foul moods as well as stomach ache. Often the external has a stronger hold than the internal.

Blaise Pascal once said that instead of despairing over a loss of faith, one should simply go to mass and join in rituals such as prayer and song, in other words mime, since it is precisely this that will bring back faith. The external transforms the internal, brings about new conditions. Therein lies the power of rituals. And our consciousness today is no longer rooted in objects. These external things can be very effective in stabilising consciousness. It is very difficult with information, since it is really volatile and holds a very narrow range of relevance.

AR You enjoy the German language in an almost dissective way and celebrate a paratactical writing style, which gives you a unique voice in contemporary cultural critique. It is like a mixture of Martin Heidegger and Zen. What is your connection to them?

BCH A journalist from the German weekly newspaper Die Zeit once said that I can bring down thought constructs that hold up our everyday life in just a few sentences. Why do you write a 1,000-page book if you can enlighten the world in a few words? A 1,000-page book, which has to explain what the world is about, perhaps cannot express as much as a single haiku can: ‘The first snow – even the daffodil leaves bend’ or ‘Temple bells die out. The fragrant blossoms remain. A perfect evening!’ (Basho)

In my writings I do indeed make use of this haiku effect. I say: It-is-so. This creates an evidence effect, which then makes sense to everyone. A journalist once wrote that my books are getting progressively thinner, that they will at some point completely disappear. I would add that my thoughts will then permeate the air. Everyone can breathe them in.

AR At the end of Undinge, where you quote The Little Prince, you refer to values like trust, commitment and responsibility as being at risk. But aren’t these core human values that outlast any era – even during dictatorships and wars?

BCH Today, all time-consuming practices, such as trust, loyalty, commitment and responsibility, are disappearing. Everything is shortlived. We tell ourselves that we will have more freedom. But this short-term nature destabilises our life. We can bond with objects, but not with information. We only briefly make note of information. Afterwards it’s like a listened-to message on the answering machine. It’s headed towards oblivion.

I think trust is a social practice, and today it is being replaced by transparency and information. Trust enables us to build positive relationships with others, despite lacking knowledge. In a transparency society, one immediately asks for information from others. Trust as a social practice becomes superfluous. The transparency and information society fosters a society of distrust.

AR Your books are more widely read in the arts than in philosophy. How do you explain that?

BCH Effectively more artists than philosophers read my books. Philosophers are no longer interested in the present. Foucault once said that the philosopher is a journalist who captures the now with ideas. That’s what I do. Moreover my essays are on their way to another life, to a different narrative. Artists feel addressed by that. I would entrust art with the task of developing a new way of life, a new awareness, a new narrative against the prevailing doctrine. As such, the saviour is not philosophy but art. Or I practise philosophy as art.

Gesine Borcherdt is a writer, editor and curator based in Berlin

Translated from the German by Liam Tickner

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