Byung-Chul Han and the Subversive Power of Contemplation

Avita contemplativa without acting is blind, a vita activa without contemplation is empty,” writes the rising star of the German philosophical scene in his book The Scent of Time. Byung-Chul Han draws a nuanced account of “lingering with God in loving attentiveness” as a spur to action from the writings of Gregory the Great, Thomas Aquinas, and Meister Eckhart. He then defends the mystical tradition from his own spiritual master, Martin Heidegger.[1] The late Heidegger began to turn his philosophical attention to the path of contemplation, but it is at the heart of Han’s project from the start. He shows us how contemplation creates the time and space for meaningful action in a breathless, frantic, and networked modern society. Han’s next book, The Burnout Society, was a smash hit in Germany and his native South Korea that will soon be translated into 13 other languages.

Unexpectedly, a meditation on the importance of contemplation, including prayerful contemplation, now animates debates about the future of the global Left,[2] the legacy of Foucault, and the direction of contemporary critical theory. Han’s recent popularity, then, is what Deleuze would call “an event”: a perspective that is congenial to the Catholic tradition is making an unlikely appearance in continental philosophy. In a nutshell, Han makes the pessimistic argument that power operates in late modernity in a way that eludes other theorists, allowing for the “violence of positivity.” Hyperactive late moderns are not Foucault’s subjects of disciplinary repression; instead, we are “achievement subjects” encouraged to see our lives as “projects,” presented with myriad opportunities for self-improvement, and emotionally stimulated towards achievement. We worship our personal projects on the smartphone “rosaries” that keep track of our step-counts, likes, and retweets.[3] Capital profits from this, of course. But no enemy Other oppresses or infects this modern society from the outside. Overachievers and “top dogs” suffer as much as underachievers and underdogs, if not more, from burnout and its characteristic symptom: depression.[4] Without contemplation to create time for meaningful action, the modern “burnout society” destroys itself from within, fatigued by overexerting its own frantic energy.

In order to explain why achievement-subject commits to his inner “hamster wheel,”[5] Han returns to the original question of continental political thought. My old teacher Stephen White helpfully describes this intellectual tradition as an attempt to diagnose some original “malignancy” in Western rationality.[6] Han’s attempt to diagnose the “neuronal disease” that afflicts the burnout society places him squarely within the tradition of continental political thought.[7] The traditional continental explanations why the modern bourgeois is compelled to chatter, scurry, and sweat revolve around some status-oriented passion or another: amour propre in Rousseau (the original of this tradition), envy in Kierkegaard, ressentiment in Nietzsche, mimetic desire in Rene Girard.[8] While Han shares the orientation of these authors towards recovering contemplation, he claims that the late modern person is not in competition with others; rather she is in “absolute competition” to always, endlessly outdo herself.[9] We are “burning out” on our own myriad self-improvement projects. The Internet displays, exacerbates, and facilitates this burnout.

Han positions himself as the heir to Frankfurt School critical theory for the Internet age.[10] The Internet is not creating a more democratic world of communication, Han thinks; rather “transparency” is a byword for a violence that is hollowing out various dimensions of common life. For Han the Internet is basically an emotional medium. Hooking into our desire for self-expression, it stimulates us to exploit ourselves, surveil one another, and expose ourselves to Big Data.[11] On the Internet, shut-in and isolated individuals “swarm,” seized by identical emotional responses for which social media serve as conduits.[12] In this way, the Internet does violence to politics. Citizens are reduced to spectators, and deliberation is transformed into outrage: tremendous amounts of short-lived emotional energy.[13] Transparency means the disappearance of any private life that is not in public view: society fetishizes what Han calls a “pornographic” transparency where everything is obscenely exposed and for sale, an accelerating process that can only burn out in information fatigue.[14] Han considers the content, for instance, of the targeted social media advertisements in the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. These emotionally charged ads reduce the public sphere to the politics of personality.[15] Transparency also means the disappearance of any leisure time. Achievement-subjects “take work home” to send e-mails on their couches, show their Instagram followers the private meals that they cook, drain their emotions into screentime, and go to the beach of the gym for that perfect selfie. Even leisure eventually burns them out.

Capital has discovered this new “neoliberal” power regime, though no “capitalists” sit entirely outside of the system. “Friendly power” that permits and stimulates is more effective than repressing workers, so social media and the “emotional management” divisions of large corporations like HP and Chrysler encourage their users and employees to share the same positive emotions.[16] The modern achievement-subject whose life is a project, and who understands the freedom to unlimited emotional expression as the prospect of unbridled subjectivity, is duped into the violence of positive thinking and exhausting economic hyperactivity.

Contemplation is Han’s strategy for resistance to the violence of positivity that consumes the burnout society. Han takes up the late, contemplative Heidegger’s interest in Gelassenheit (“releasement”), a term he borrows from the Christian mystical tradition that means “letting things be as they are.”[17] Han also draws upon Zen, and sometimes echoes the therapeutic language of the “mindfulness” movement, but also points to resources that are specifically (if not uniquely) Christian. Most notably, he discusses the Sabbath[18] and the narrative time of the medieval calendar.[19] These are not simply days of rest or relaxation. They mark time by bringing us into close proximity to something Other (in this case God) that cannot be reduced to some consumable difference and used for our own projects. Feast days are days of Gelassenheit, an occasion for contemplation that lets God’s world be God’s. Only when we “linger” in contemplation can we find something outside of ourselves to commit ourselves to. Han argues this is an expression of love, as opposed to pornification, that is, to let Others be as they are.[20]

Beauty is particularly lovable. All beauty is poignant, Han thinks, a “relational event” that stings us, only partially discloses itself, and is memorable.[21] The beautiful can call forth a kind of commitment and gratitude, although Han does not use the word faith.[22] In this way, contemplating beauty can make time that spurs us to meaningful action. Preserving a space of contemplation, saving beauty, and saving otherness are three ways of describing Han’s strategy of resistance to the modern crisis of hyperactivity.[23]

Han’s message about the importance of recovering contemplation amidst the clamor of hyperactive modernity has been addressed specifically (but not exclusively) to Catholics in Cardinal Sarah’s The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise. Certainly, reading Byung-Chul Han can help Catholics think about our own resources for resisting the “violence of positivity” emanating from the hyperactivity of modern life. From Han’s perspective, we can see Catholic faith and practice not as an anachronism or a liability, but as a way of surviving the burnout of the late modern world. Han’s survey of our digital malaise is more detailed and pointed, but Cardinal Sarah adds a dire warning from a theistic perspective to it. Because we are compelled to speak constantly, our world no longer hears God. The danger is not only burning ourselves out, but shutting God out of our lives. In one disturbing image of how far digital life has penetrated into our world, Cardinal Sarah describes “a horrible forest” of cell phones brandished during the liturgy.[24] Bent upon “talking through” all of our problems, modern human beings seldom if ever stand in awestruck silence.

Han sees a new ersatz church replacing the old: “The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church—the global synagogue (literally, assembly) of the Digital.”[25] We deprive ourselves of the chance to listen for God, or even to look for wonder in the world. The 19th-century Christian philosopher Søren Kierkegaard was first to describe this modern malaise, so it is appropriate that Cardinal Sarah cites his solution: “create silence.”[26]

Kierkegaard is worth re-exploring on the subject of modernity and contemplation, since he belongs equally to the pastoral concerns of Cardinal Sarah and to Han’s tradition of continental political thought. Such a re-exploration will allow us to trace deeply Christian concerns present in Han’s critiques. Han’s philosophical concepts develop more than a few Kierkegaardian themes for a digital age: transparency that annuls the distinction between public and private; the violence of positivity when communication or chatter sweeps us along meeting no negative resistance; burnout that comes from the stimulation to hyper-active “chimerical exertions” of participants-cum-spectators.[27]

Kierkegaard describes the present age as one of “chatter.” In fact, chatter is such an interesting phenomenon to Kierkegaard that it inspires a unique foray into social and political theory: a fifty-page excrescence that grows out of an appreciative book review of Thomasine Gyllembourg’s 1845 novel Two Ages. (It is now available under the title The Present Age.)[28] It is from Kierkegaard’s text on the chattering public sphere that Heidegger finds the phenomenon of “leveling” into “das Man” or “the They.” Han gives no attention to Kierkegaard. But he is nonetheless linked to Kierkegaard’s reflections via Heidegger. It is Heidegger’s temporally uprooted and emotionally coordinated “They” that marks a Kierkegaardian starting point for Han’s reflections on late-modern hyperactivity.

Chatter is language on autopilot, like Han’s “smooth communication” of digitally mediated sympathy, that encounters no negativity.[29] Nothing gets in the way of chatter. Peter Fenves puts it well: “chatter is the medium in which everything makes sense.”[30] Chatter is never stunned to silence. It does not stop to puzzle over contradictions. Chatter cannot hear the “still small voice,” because it turns even God—the Wholly Other—into “god-talk.” Not only does God disappear amidst chatter, but so do human beings. When language speaks itself, the human zoon logon echon is no longer differentiated from the other animals except as chatter.[31] As a result, nobody speaks when there is chatter. Kierkegaard warns, “eventually human speech will become just like the public: pure abstraction—there will no longer be someone who speaks, but an objective reflection will gradually deposit a kind of atmosphere.”[32]

In addition to God and the human subject, Kierkegaard is lastly concerned—perhaps most surprisingly—that politics disappears in chatter. Han echoes Kierkegaard’s concerns but never cites him: “If everything becomes public right away, politics invariably grows short of breath; it becomes short term and thins out into mere chatter.”[33] When speech loses its power to reveal real differences between the advantageous and the harmful, and the just and the unjust, then the debates that animate politics fade away.

Character, culture, morality, and revolution: these require some passionate attachment to ideals. Kierkegaard thinks that the line between good and evil was still drawn in the “age of revolution,” while the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars still raged, but has disappeared in the age of newspapers. Chatter prevents all but short-lived “flaring” enthusiasms. Kierkegaard predicts the depoliticized late-modern situation that Han describes, where committed feeling yields to transient emotions, and the public/private distinction collapses in a demand for transparency and a totalizing concern with personality.[34] Instead of being united by some ideal, individuals are united into an abstract public sphere only by their amorphous envy of one another.

Han develops Kierkegaardian insights about exhausting chatter in his critical theory of digital neoliberalism, but he swerves away from two important Christian aspects of Kierkegaard’s thought. First, Kierkegaard argues that it is because human beings are envious that they remain fixated upon the chattering public sphere and cannot encounter with God or the Other lovingly (and simply let them be), but Han is more reluctant to indict human beings for some fault, failing or sin. Han’s argument that we late-moderns are in “absolute competition” with ourselves is probably overstated: Kierkegaard would urge us to confront how much relational passions like vanity, contempt, and especially envy explain why Facebook is making us depressed.

Second, Kierkegaard wants to recover prayer as what Catholic philosopher William Desmond calls a “primal porosity” of our being to God and Otherness,[35] but despite his appreciation for the Christian mystical tradition and liturgical year, Han is wary of “nostalgically” invoking a metaphysics prior to Cartesian doubt, and a “world where existence originally felt at home.”[36] Kierkegaard, however, specifically invokes pre-modern philosophies of wonder, arguing that modern philosophical skepticism is in fact an expression of our envious desire not to admit Otherness into the world.[37]

Han’s philosophical reflections are a gift for Christians. Han suggests how we might refine a long Christian tradition of critical reflection on the public sphere, from Kierkegaard to Cardinal Sarah, and update it for the digital age. Though Han may ultimately challenge Christian perspectives, he also can teach us to appreciate Christian aesthetics, liturgy, mysticism, and philosophy as critical resources for our modern predicament. The attention Han’s work has received offers an opportunity to reawaken and rethink Christian concerns with the hyperactivity of the connected late modern world, and to find spaces for prayerful contemplation within it. Reading Han, we may remember that our smartphones make our true rosaries more valuable than ever.

[1] Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge: Polity, 2017), 110-112.

[2] Byung-Chul Han, “Why Revolution is No Longer Possible,” trans. Erik Butler. openDemocracy. 23 October 2015.

[3] Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 22. See also Topology of Violence, trans. Amanda Demarco (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 12.

[4] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 46 and 49; Topology of Violence, 81; Psychopolitics, trans. Erik Butler (London: Verso, 2017), 7.

[5] Byung-Chul Han, Topology of Violence, 31.

[6] Stephen K. White, “Contemporary Continental Political Thought,” 480-500, in The Oxford Handbook to Political Philosophy, ed. George Klosko (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011).

[7] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, 1-7.

[8] Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Discourses and other early political writings, ed. Victor Gourevitch (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 187; Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age: A Literary Review, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978), 81; Friedrich Nietzsche,

[9] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, 46.

[10] Byung Chul-Han, Topology of Violence, 59.

[11] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, trans. Erik Butler (London: Verso, 2017), 60.

[12] Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 11, 34, and 65.

[13] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 10.

[14] Byung Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, 61.

[15] Byung-Chul Han, Topology of Violence, 62-3.

[16] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 42-46.

[17] Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, 83.

[18] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, 33.

[19] Byung-Chul Han, The Scent of Time, 88.

[20] Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Eros, trans. Erik Butler (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2017), 18.

[21] Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, trans. Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, Polity, 2018), 75.

[22] Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, 80-81.

[23] Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, 68.

[24] Robert Cardinal Sarah with Nicolas Diat, The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise (San Francisco: Ignatius, 2017), 141.

[25] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics, 12.

[26] Robert Cardinal Sarah, The Power of Silence, 86.

[27] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 69 and 73.

[28] The German popularizer of Kierkegaard and Newman, Theodor Haecker—later a Catholic convert and an inspiration to the anti-Nazi resistance—excised the politically relevant third section of the book review under the title Kritik der Gegenwart in 1914. This accounts for the outsized influence of Kierkegaard as a political theorist upon German intellectual life of the 1920s.

[29] Byung-Chul Han, Saving Beauty, 10.

[30] Peter Fenves, Chatter: Language and History in Kierkegaard (Stanford CA: Stanford UP, 1993), 138.

[31] Søren Kierkegaard, Without Authority, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1997), 11 and 13.

[32] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages: The Age of Revolution and the Present Age: A Literary Review, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1978), 104.

[33] Byung-Chul Han, The Transparency Society, trans. Erik Butler (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), vii.

[34] Søren Kierkegaard, Two Ages, 100.

[35] William Desmond, The William Desmond Reader, ed. Christopher Ben Simpson (Albany, NY: SUNY, 2012), 102.

[36] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, 14.

[37] See, for example, Søren Kierkegaard, The Concept of Anxiety, trans. Reidar Thomte (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1980), 146n; Philosophical Fragments and Johannes Climacus, trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1985), 145 and 155.

Featured Image: Chase William Merritt, Portrait of Miss Dora Wheeler, 1883; Source: Wikimedia Commons, PD-Old-100.


Robert Wyllie

Robert Wyllie is a Ph.D. candidate in political theory at the University of Notre Dame. His research focuses on modern theories of envy in democratic life, especially in the political psychology of Benedict Spinoza.

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