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A palliative society, a bare survival

Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born philosopher, based in Germany. Training initially as a metallurgist, he moved west and switched disciplines, becoming now one of our chief public intellectuals.

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Steve Latham


He has examined the impact of social and technological change on the psyche of contemporary culture, concentrating on how we have become “transparent” with the development of the internet.

That is, we no longer possess any space where we can be private, to develop our own thoughts; because we willingly submit ourselves to constant online surveillance.

This constant need to be available leads to “burn-out”; not merely at individual level, but societally, producing a collective “internal depression”.

Moreover, neo-liberal techno-capitalism separates us on our screens, fragmenting society, so that control is both all-pervasive and invisible.

Paradoxically, although today’s ideology encourages so-called “diversity”, this loses significance, when each is considered unique, and all transgressions affirmed.

Our individualistic society, then, has lost the sense of the “other”.

Even with sex, without the necessary “self-negation”, we are unable to focus on our partner.

The ready-availability of pornography, for instance, produces a surface fascination, without any real depth in relationships.

The “smoothness” of pornographic images also coalesce with the smooth white finish of gadgets, and conceptual art products. All is gloss and exterior impression.

Thus the opportunity for “contemplation” disappears. Withdrawal for renewal is impossible, as we are bombarded by computer-generated imagery and messages.

The demise of traditions and rituals has also encouraged our total submission to the market and the media, leading to a loss of meaning endemic within western culture.

Lacking any wider frame of reference, Han writes, we have produced, during the pandemic, a “palliative society”, aimed at “bare survival”.

His emphasis on “contemplation”, “rituals”, and “traditions”, of course, references, in Europe, the decline of religion, which here means Christianity.

Strangely, Han has not drawn on any of his own cultural, Korean, resources. As an observant outsider, he has instead become skilled in deploying the western intellectual tradition.

And this is in its conservative forms: Hegel, Heidegger. Although, with his critique of capitalism, it is hard to discern whether he belongs to Left or Right.

For capitalism is pursuing, he writes, a perverse “death drive”, of necrological economic growth, and eventual ecological destruction of our human habitat.

Consequently, with his pessimism about political action, Antonio Negri has called him a “sceptical professor”.

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His point, however, is that we no longer possess any inner resources to resist the drift in culture, toward fracture; because the continent’s cultural heritage has been abandoned.

His own self-understanding is that of a spectator, who describes the transformations, but without offering any solutions, certainly not the revival of religion.

There is, therefore, a sense of inevitability in his predictions. He is the philosophical equivalent of the French novelist, Michel Houellebecq. Together, they express a contemporary version of Schopenhauer’s negativity about life, and its possibilities.

Like Samuel Beckett, but with with this century’s awareness of ecology and technological progress, Han appears to arrive at the position of “No Exit”.

(Photos: Pixabay)

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