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The Gadfly

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The Gadfly

German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han offers surprising insights into our contemporary condition. January 7, 2022
The Social Order

Truth, justice, ethics, the nature of thought or existence: these are all considered worthy of philosophical analysis. But what about the stuff of our daily lives? Can Internet memes, birthday parties, shopping malls, sitcoms, gasoline, or microwavable dinners be relevant to philosophy? In his 2016 book The Philosopher: A History in Six Types, Justin E. H. Smith offers a typology of the thinkers whom we may (or may not) consider philosophers, observing that the job description of “philosopher” has long proved contentious. Among Smith’s types, the “gadfly”—someone, like Socrates, who questions prevailing social pressures—would be the most open to incorporating the mundane day-to-day experiences of life into philosophy. Done poorly, this kind of philosophy can become the half-formed gibberish of contemporary gender and race studies. But done well, it can help us understand the forces that shape our lives.

If anyone should be considered the preeminent gadfly of our age, it’s the German-Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han: a contemporary thinker acutely aware of the cultural forces that degrade our humanity and hinder our flourishing.

Han moved from South Korea to Germany as a young man to seek a life unavailable for him in his home country, “where the structures of social expectations and conventions would not have permitted me to live, or even to think, in a wholly different or radical way.” As he writes in Capitalism and the Death Drive, recently translated from German, he was sensitive to the prevailing attitudes of the social order from the start.

I was twenty-two at the time. After studying metallurgy in Korea, I wanted to study philosophy, literature, and theology in Germany. While on the campus of my university in Seoul, I would often look up at the sky and think that it was too beautiful for me to spend my whole life under it as a metallurgist. I was dreaming of a more beautiful life, a better life. I wanted to think about life philosophically.

This origin story forms a basis for all of his work. Han’s love of wisdom is sparked by the desire for a richer existence and the pain of living a banal life. With his move to Germany and foray into philosophy, Han embraced a role as the sensitive outsider, picking up the invisible frequencies that give tenor, shape, and mood to our lives. His thinking isn’t systematic. He doesn’t express some grand unifying theory. But take a step back, and his writing suggests a vision of what the human soul requires to bloom.

“Every age has its signature afflictions.” So begins Han’s The Burnout Society, his taut tract describing the psychological effects of our technological age. The signature affliction of our time isn’t viral or bacterial, he maintains. Instead, it’s neurological illnesses “such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD) and burnout syndrome,” which “mark the landscape of pathology at the beginning of the twenty-first century.” Today’s society “is no longer Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories,” Han explains. “It has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories. Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society.” The inhabitants of this society are instructed to be “entrepreneurs of themselves.”

Such self-ownership might sound appealing, but Han believes that our neurological afflictions are rooted in a ceaseless pressure to achieve. We conform to the artificial production of self that we see on social media. Facebook is, after all, a kind of addictive slot machine for reproducing self-images for mass consumption; the social media addict feels the need perpetually to be productive. And when technology helps blur the lines between home and work, we wind up internalizing the office. As Han writes in The Burnout Society: “The society of laboring and achievement is not a free society. It generates new constraints. . . . One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination.”

This self-exploitation shouldn’t be confused with healthy competition. “What proves problematic,” Hans argues, “is not individual competition per se, but rather its self-referentiality, which escalates into absolute competition. That is, the achievement-subject competes with itself; it succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own shadow.” Han’s “achievement-subject,” someone who counts steps with a smart watch and takes Zoom meetings during family dinners, “intentionally avoids achieving goals: closure yields an objectifiable form, which, inasmuch as it possesses independent substance, weakens the self.” Without closure, the subject falls into narcissistic self-repetition—and a stable character becomes impossible.

We’ve all met these people. Maybe we recognize the symptoms in ourselves: the strivers who can’t focus on their current job because they always have an eye on their next major professional move, the hurried and harried type-A folks “too busy” to read a book or sit contemplatively, the robotically clever yet strikingly shallow. These are the straight-A students described by William Deresiewicz in his book Excellent Sheep: “anxious, timid, and lost, with little intellectual curiosity and a stunted sense of purpose: trapped in a bubble of privilege, heading meekly in the same direction, great at what they’re doing but with no idea why they’re doing it.” These are the residents of Hans’s burnout society.

In a review article for Telos, Steven Knepper and Robert Wylie call The Burnout Society “a field report on these last men,” who “burn out” even in their leisure. “Time is emptied away,” they write, “as we endlessly surf the internet or succumb to autoplay binges on Netflix.” The era transforms the individual; in turn, the individual further changes the era.

In such an environment, things once held to be “conservative” or “traditional” become subversive. Slowness represents a quiet protest against the frenetic pace of modern life. Contemplation sets itself against conniving calculation. The occult complexity of the symbolic opposes the so-called transparency of data. The same beauty that distracted Han in the sky over Seoul beckons us to resist the aesthetic he calls “the smooth.”

You can see the smooth in the minimalism of typical millennial interior design or the art of Jeff Koons, which Han describes in Saving Beauty as having “no disaster, no injury, no ruptures, also no seams. Everything flows in soft and smooth transitions. Everything appears rounded, polished, smoothed out.” Another example: the ever-recognizable design of Apple products, which indulge our appetite for the clean and seamless. Macs aren’t ugly, but they’re not quite beautiful, either. As Knepper and Wylie write, “Beauty requires resistance, narrative, memory, a ‘relational event’ that discloses something that remains still somewhat hidden.”

The partial disclosure of something that remains “somewhat hidden” can be erotic. And besides The Burnout Society, Han’s most representative book might be The Agony of Eros, in which he explores the replacement of the hidden, irrational erotic by something he calls “bare life,” a term he borrows from Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben. Bare life is what we live when things no longer have a significance beyond themselves. When no overarching meaning connects our day-to-day activities or gives shape to our desires, we cling to mere existence. “Today,” Han observes, “the defense of bare life is intensifying into the absolutization and fetishization of health.” He continues:

[Modern man] prefers it to sovereignty and freedom. He or she resembles the ‘last human beings’ Nietzsche describes, for whom health per se represents an absolute value. It is exalted and made ‘the great goddess’: one honors health. ‘We invented happiness,’ say the last human beings, and they blink. Where bare life is hallowed, theology gives way to therapy. Or therapy becomes theological.

By the same token, the mere act of sex comes to replace seduction or procreation. “Porn is a matter of bare life on display,” Han writes. It stands in opposition to the erotic, which makes us slow down, engage, wait, and wonder. Porn is to sex what data are to wisdom. “The pornographic face says nothing,” writes Han. “It has no expressivity or mystery.” We see this, of course, in literal pornography—an industry that generates billions of dollars a year as it rewires viewers to become more susceptible to anxiety, depression, and other mental illnesses.

The triumph of pornography represents the death of the symbolic. “Symbol,” Han writes in The Disappearance of Rituals, “originally referred to the sign of recognition between guest-friends (tessera hospitalis). One guest-friend broke a clay tablet in two, kept one half for himself and gave the other half to another as a sign of guest-friendship. Thus, a symbol serves the purpose of recognition. This recognition is a particular form of repetition.” To be truly human, according to Han, is to think and exist symbolically, to tarry with erotic anticipation while cultivating an appetite for truths that sometimes can only be expressed metaphorically. As Han writes in The Scent of Time, a book that links the death of the erotic with the death of narrative:

The formation of metaphors is also a practice concerning truth to the extent that it creates a network of relationships, and lays open the connecting paths and channels of communication between things. The formation of metaphor counteracts the atomization of being. And it is a temporal practice to the extent that it opposes the quick succession of isolated events with the duration, even fidelity, of a relationship. Metaphors are the scent of things which they release when they befriend each other.

Without metaphor or duration, no narrative can exist. And without a narrative, life has no cohesion, no sense of progression—our experiences are just pixelated moments, like an endless series of TikTok videos. This, Han argues, is why the last men, dutifully worshipping their own bodies, fear death with such vehemence. For what, in the end, is death itself but the ultimate narrative tool for forcing coherence into our lives? It’s the unavoidable capstone that forces our existence to take on form, the ultimate reminder of the meaninglessness of the bare life.

There’s far more to Han, both good and bad, than my brief assessment might suggest. I’ve outlined some of his major themes, but he also writes about literature, opera, movies, and art. His book Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, for example, examines Western and Eastern notions of authenticity in art, while The Expulsion of the Other considers such topics as immigration and patriotism. Han’s breadth is exciting, though the excitement sometimes comes at the expense of consistency. Even where his work is consistent, he occasionally mistakes his own metaphors for settled reality. We might be living in the age of neurological disorders and ADHD, for instance, but prisons, schools, and other concrete institutions run by flesh-and-blood human beings still wield enormous power.

And the practical implications of Han’s philosophy aren’t always clear. Can his observations on the nuances of social dynamics be useful, or are they simply intellectual baubles? To his credit, Han does offer some practical suggestions. In Capitalism and the Death Drive, for example, he suggests possible improvements to the German worker/apprentice program and structural changes to the European Union to make it less “a department store” that treats citizenship and consumerism as analogous. But such practical suggestions are rare.

Perhaps that’s appropriate. As Han writes, “A secret is not a hidden signified. It consists of a surplus that escapes meaning.” This could stand as a motto for his entire project, but it also indicates why he avoids specific solutions: as gadfly, his job isn’t necessarily to tell us what to do but to show us how to articulate the experience of living in the contemporary world. “Conflict is the gadfly of thought,” John Dewey once wrote. “It stirs us to observation and memory. It instigates to invention. It shocks us out of sheeplike passivity, and sets us at noting and contriving.” To benefit from thinking both with and against a philosopher is a mark of the practicality of his work. Han gives us something better than direct and unsatisfying answers: he gives us the irritant, the grain of sand from which pearls of wisdom are formed.

Photo by Laurent Viteur/Getty Images

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