All Ages Have Their Signature Afflictions

Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s latest book to be translated into English, The Disappearance of Rituals, was published at nearly the same time as American writer Don DeLillo’s most recent novel, The Silence. A coincidence, but not merely so. Both books resonate within the same frequency. Both are written in the same key. Han begins his signature book, The Burnout Society, by arguing that “Every age has its signature affliction.” With their two latest works, Han and DeLillo are both responding to the same disease, to the same symptoms: a reduction of the human experience to empty frenetic activity by a socioeconomic regime centered on self-exploitation and the tautological notion of endless self-production.

It is not simply that everything becomes monetized under such a regime as we have seen dominate Western culture and globalism since the 1980s. It is that human experience itself is degraded. As Han titled certain chapters in The Disappearance of Rituals, things devolve from “Myth to Dataism,” from “Dueling to Drone Wars,” and from “Seduction to Porn.” Play becomes work. Silence becomes noise. And ritual, of course, decays into routine. Death, shorn of significance and meaning, becomes just another data point added to an already endless accumulation.

Or, as DeLillo characterizes this dénouement in White Noise, “That’s why people take vacations. Not to relax or find excitement or see new places. To escape the death that exists in routine things.” Even time away from work is itself an extension of work. Vacation is a momentary escape from the terror of routine, but only so much so that we are recharged once again for work. Vacation is something which exists to make us more efficient. And besides, DeLillo wrote those lines long before people had cell phones, neurologically addictive and tethering us to emptiness.

Han picks up in The Disappearance of Rituals where he left off in many of his other books, by describing how our culture of self-exploitation leads to what he terms “the bare life.” As Han surmises from Nietzsche, the cultural death of God results in the deification of human physical health. Such a flimsy deity is a dubious counterpoint to the whole weight of the human soul. It leaves our deepest longings unarticulated while convincing us that one more click, one more purchase, one more run will fulfill us. What’s worse, it gives us the technological, cultural, and psychological tools to exploit ourselves much more efficiently than a boss or overlord can. As Han explains in The Agony of Eros,

Today’s society is no longer Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories. 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 [Leistungsgesellschaft]. Also, its inhabitants are no longer “obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves.

In order to most efficiently exploit ourselves, our daily experiences must be “smooth” and “frictionless.” Communication, capital, data, bodies, identities—everything must not only always flow, but always produce more. Identities create money which generate communication which can all be transformed into data. And so Han focuses on the things which hang us up and give us pause. Experiences in which we can “tarry,” to use a favorite word of Han’s. In these still moments, Han assures us, we find the things which humans were most made for: thought, symbols, the erotic, and ritual.

DeLillo also understands all of this. He is also sensitive to that profound desire which stands in their absence—that restless Augustinian beat of the human heart. As he writes in Underworld,

And what do you remember, finally, when everyone has gone home and the streets are empty of devotion and hope, swept by river wind? Is the memory thin and bitter and does it shame you with its fundamental untruth—all nuance and wishful silhouette? Or does the power of transcendence linger, the sense of an event that violates natural forces, something holy that throbs on the hot horizon, the vision you crave because you need a sign to stand against your doubt?

Han asks us to linger alongside DeLillo’s transcendence, to crave signs and symbols, to tarry beyond the appetites of our consumption.

“Rituals,” Han tells us in The Disappearance of Rituals, “are symbolic acts. They represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based. They bring forth a community without communication; today, however, communication without community prevails.” At a glance, Han’s definition, as clever as it is, almost seems to suggest that rituals are merely instrumental. That they are just the connective tissue within a larger tautological structure and have no independent value of their own. But he goes on to explain that “We can define rituals as symbolic techniques of making oneself at home in the world . . . They are to time what a home is to space: they render time habitable.”

Rituals are the process by which we fully inhabit time in the way that humans are meant to. Do we experience time in clicks? In bandwidth? In quantifiable streams of data, raw and mindlessly accumulating? “Today,” explains Han, “time lacks a solid structure. It is not a house but an erratic stream. It disintegrates into a mere sequence of point-like presences; it rushes off. There is nothing to provide time with any hold [Halt]. Time that rushes off is not habitable.”

This ritualistic meandering within time belongs to the symbolic order. “Rituals are constituted by symbolic perception,” Han reminds us. And the symbol is a sign of recognition and repetition. Its historical meaning was a recognition of the relationship between guest and host, sealed with the promise of recurrence. In truer sense, Han’s sense, symbols are perceptions of “the permanent: the world is shorn of its contingency and acquires durability.” Han quotes Antoine de Saint-Exupéry writing in his novel Citadel to provide an example of such ritualistic durability:

And our immemorial rights are in Time what the dwelling is in Space. For it is well that the years seem to wear us away and disperse us like a handful of sand; rather they should fulfill us. It is meeting that Time should be a building-up. Thus I go from one feast day to another, from anniversary to anniversary, from harvestide to harvestide as, when a child, I made my way from the Hall of Council to the rest room within my father’s palace, where ever footstep had a meaning.

It would be easy to say that we no longer live in a world where every fooststep has meaning. But we do. Every footstep does. We just also happen to live under an economic and political regime which devalues symbolic logic. For the purposes of production and efficiency, our current social dispensation instead silos us into autonomous experiences, financializes communication, and urges us towards auto-exploitation. “The disappearance of symbols points towards the increasing atomization of society,” writes Han, “While at the same time society is increasingly becoming narcissistic.” Form is anathema to narcissism. Narcissism devalues form as just another barricade hedging in a restless self. Subjective states are preferred to objective form. But most importantly, symbols disrupt the suzerainty of the narcissistic ego. “Those who devote themselves to rituals must ignore themselves,” Han writes. “Rituals produce a distance from the self, a self-transcendence. They de-psychologize and de-internalize those enacting them.”

In DeLillo’s books, rituals are like punctums. They are tiny fissures or wounds through which the enigmatic can speak. Characters instinctively engage in ritualistic behavior while at the same time they long for the kind of symbolic vision which would give the ritual life. Rituals devolve into cargo cults, their value diluted by a culture without recourse to symbolic logic. Mao II begins with a mass cult-wedding in a baseball stadium. In White Noise marriages dissolve and recur with the same ease as changing a television station. Pilgrimages decay into tourism. Deaths are either too easy or impossible.

Conversely, banal routine struggles yet fails to carry symbolic significance. The Friday night family television routine in White Noise is performed like a ritual, but it cannot do what rituals do. Instead of emptying the characters of their subjective interiorities, instead of giving them a respite from their personalities, routine media consumption blurs the boundaries between the world and their egos. It reinforces the narcissistic tendencies of the larger culture. As the critic Tom Junod writes,

DeLillo's characters often do things for no other reason than they ‘have to’—for no other reason that when a ritual presents itself, they attach themselves to it. In DeLillo's world, human rituals are the primary means by which humans try to connect, and also the primary reason they don't.

The Silence is no different. It is a Russian nesting doll of failed rituals. The plot is simple. As in many of DeLillo’s novels, the story begins on a plane, mid-flight. It is 2022, the night of the Super Bowl, America’s most expensive attempt at collective secular ritual. Jim Kripps and his wife Tessa Berens are on their way home to New Jersey from Paris, with a plan to stop off at their friends’ apartment on the Upper West Side where they will watch the big game. After a crash landing they learn that there has been some sort of mysterious event which has rendered all electronics useless. The televisions are dark, nothing works, unease crackles softly throughout the book before dissipating without either crescendo or resolution. Appropriately, The Silence begins and ends in media res.

Much has been made of DeLillo’s late style. His books have gotten quieter, more minimalist, and the settings more familiar. But he has consistently maintained throughout his career a vivid awareness of how our culture has traded symbolic awareness for accumulation. This accounts for his preoccupation with ritual. The Silence begins on a plane, the experience of air travel being a familiar pseudo-ritual. DeLillo is worth quoting at length here:

Here, in the air, much of what the couple said to each other seemed to be a function of some automated process, remarks generated by the nature of airline travel itself. None of the ramblings of people in rooms, in restaurants, where major motion is stilled by gravity, talk free-floating. All these hours over oceans or vast landmasses, sentences trimmed, sort of self-encased, passengers, pilots, cabin attendants, every word forgotten the moment the plane sets down on the tarmac and begins to taxi endlessly toward an unoccupied jetway.

But for DeLillo’s characters, pseudo-ritual begets pseudo-ritual. Kripps spends most of the flight repeating numbers that he sees, another small offering to the false god of accumulation: “He began to recite the words and numbers aloud because it made no sense, it had no effect, if he simply noted the changing details only to lose each one instantly in the twin drones of mind and aircraft.”

But the pseudo-ritual fails. The flight crashes. The Superbowl, a kind of meta-ritual composed of countless others—the anthem, military flyover, chants, announcements, halftime shows, etc.—disappears behind the inscrutable void of the blank television. In the Manhattan apartment, Max Stenner continues to shout at the screen as if the game were still on:

“Ground game, ground game, crowd chanting, stadium rocking.”

Half-sentences, bare words, repetitions. Diane wanted to think of it as a kind of plainsong, monophonic, ritualistic, but then told herself that this is pretentious nonsense.

Only it really is not. Diane, Max’s wife, is sensitive to the deeper significance of her husband’s erratic behavior. The Silence is a condensed account of what happens when every pseudo-ritual fails. The flight crashes. The Super Bowl is not broadcasted. Phones and cars do not work. Marriages are transgressed. Things revert to Han’s bare life. Sex, food, and sleep become simultaneously rote and all-encompassing. And a blank television screen becomes a Rothko canvass when left in its own silence. Only the existence of language itself hints at the existence of a deeper symbolic order. “Somewhere within all those syllables, something secret, covert, intimate.”

So what is this eponymous silence? In a literal sense it is the hum of electronics going quiet. But it is also the muted absence of ritualized transcendence. Accumulation does not speak. Data does not speak. Only Logos speaks, and all speech is ritualized. As Han writes in The Disappearance of Rituals, the absence of thresholds are:

Making us poorer in space and time. We lose them. They lose their language and become mute. Thresholds speak. Thresholds transform. Beyond a threshold, there is what is other, what is foreign. In the absence of the imagination of the threshold, the magic of the threshold, all that exists is the hell of the same.

”The hell of the same” is a useful description of binary code, or money, or pornography. In a move rare for Han, he incorporates Jewish theology into The Disappearance of Rituals. Invoking Franz Rosenzweig, he writes that,

The Sabbath demands silence; the mouth must be closed. Silent listening unites a people and creates a community without communication . . . The divine commands silence . . . Todays’ compulsion of communication means that we can close neither our eyes nor our mouths. It desecrates life.

DeLillo, on the other hand, has a character in The Silence mention “Drones above us now. Flinging warnings at each other. Their weapon being a form of the language isolate. A language known only to drones.” These two kinds of silence are opposite poles of the same spectrum. On one hand we have the silence required by the Divine. On the other, the inscrutable secret language of Artificial Intelligence. The silence of accumulation. The silence of the bare life. Han and DeLillo do much more than compliment one another’s work. They unwittingly carry on a dialogue about the meaning of ritual, the decay of the symbolic, and the desire for transcendence. Each of their works echo a silence deeper than the words from which they are built.

Featured Image: Detail of photo by Marcio Chagas on Unsplash.


Scott Beauchamp

Scott Beauchamp’s writing has appeared in The Paris Review, American Affairs, and Bookforum, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books.

Read more by Scott Beauchamp