Byung-Chul Han's Sinking Cargo Cult of Meaning

He’s the one who likes all our pretty songs.
—Nirvana, “In Bloom”

The young are easily devastated. When I was in high school my world ended twice a day. I remember once when, in response to some precocious and likely annoying sociological tidbit I quoted in an argument with an adult I love and respect, an offhand response completely destroyed me: “You know Scott, if all the sociologists in the world were to disappear tomorrow, no one would notice and it wouldn’t be a detriment to civilization one bit.” Obviously, not a winning argument, and just an expression of exasperation with an annoying kid. Yet, it cut deep and something began to unravel inside of me. I remember a few sleepless nights afterwards where the universe, beginning with the Andy Warhol prints on my bedroom wall, and extending into the furthest reaches of the cosmos, collapsed in a claustrophobic pit of meaninglessness.

An entire field of study disappearing and it having zero effect on the world? The prospect was terrifying. The glib assurance of the adult even more so. How could someone have so much faith in their own keyhole vision of reality that they believe entire modes of organized academic apprehension could, and by implication should, vanish? How could someone have so much confidence in their own identification of the essential? What is essential? If not sociologists, engineers? The bridges they build? Is life itself necessary? I understood the implication—only things necessary to physical survival are necessary. Of course, once started the parsing cannot possibly end there, and I could feel the tight solipsism of the reductionist logic. Eventually, a quote found at random in some book about Wittgenstein severed my hypnosis:

What do I know about God and the purpose of life?

I know that this world exists.

That I am placed in it like my eye in its visual field.

That something about it is problematic, which we call its meaning.

This meaning does not lie in it but outside of it.

That life is the world.

That my will penetrates the world.

That my will is good or evil.

Therefore that good and evil are somehow connected with the meaning of the world.

The meaning of life, i.e. the meaning of the world, we can call God.

And connect with this the comparison of God to a father.

To pray is to think about the meaning of life.”

Or, as the late David Berman sang so succinctly in the song “People”: “The meaning of the world lies outside the world.” Any argument for meaning, any meaning at all no matter how grand or anodyne, necessarily opens up into the mystery of transcendence. Otherwise, it reduces itself to absurdity in a kind of infinite refraction, and “the essential” gets picked apart strand by strand until you are left with less than zero.

Byung-Chul Han, the Korean-German philosopher of narrative and time, has one of the best descriptions of what this contemporary fit of unraveling meaning feels like. He has also coined a phrase that aptly names it: “the bare life.” In The Burnout Society, he writes:

Life has never been as fleeting as it is today. Not just human life, but the world in general is becoming radically fleeting. Nothing promises duration or substance [Bestand]. Given this lack of Being, nervousness and unease arise. Belonging to a species might benefit an animal that works for the sake of its kind to achieve brute Gelassenheit. However, the late-modern ego [Ich] stands utterly alone. Even religions, as thanototechnics that would remove the fear of death and produce a feeling of duration, have run their course. The general denarrativization of the world is reinforcing the feeling of fleetingness. It makes life bare. Work itself is a bare activity. The activity of bare laboring corresponds entirely to the bare life. Merely working and merely living define and condition each other.

Merely working and merely living. Two things meaningless on their own acting in coordination to, not necessarily create the illusion of meaning, but stop the downward definition of necessity at their level. No less. Certainly no more. Two mirrors facing each another create the illusion of an infinitely expansive horizon to move across. Han characterizes this self-referential illusion of expansive freedom that typifies the contemporary world as suffering from “an excess of positivity.” Unlike Foucalt’s Disciplinary Society, our “Achievement Society” does not ask us whether we should do something, but whether we can. Of course, the answer should always be yes, we can. Two things happen because of this. On one hand, exploitation becomes embedded in us. The questions of should, profound moral quandaries which require reflection and contemplation, are short-circuited and transformed into frenetic, constant, and quantifiable action. We exploit ourselves. And we do so because the space and time in which to tarry, contemplate, and dream, has been denuded of its sense of necessity.

The freneticism of the Achievement Society creates dramatic temporal disturbances in human experience. We often confuse it for acceleration. A rush from here to there. But that is not quite what the freneticism of the moment actually implies. Instead, Han tells us, it is more of a meaningless accumulation. He writes in The Scent of Time:

The cause of the shrinking present, or the disappearing of duration, is not acceleration, as many mistakenly believe. The relationship between the loss of duration and acceleration is far more complex than that. Time stumbles on . . . like an avalanche, precisely because it no longer contains anything to hold onto within itself. The tearing away of time, the directionless acceleration of processes (which, because of the lack of direction is no longer really an acceleration at all), is triggered by those point-like presences between which there is no longer any temporal attraction. Acceleration in the proper sense of the word presupposes a course which directs the flow.

One of the best examples we have of a cultural product actually forged in this furnace of denarrativized accumulation are those odd and often menacing children’s videos constructed by algorithmic artificial intelligence and playing on Youtube. Things happen in these videos, but there is not a story. Characters move through a surreal, computer-generated landscape. Their actions are inexplicable and incoherent. Spiderman turns into a baby and is abducted by the Incredible Hulk. Both begin dancing. They bury themselves up to their necks in sand. A Disney princess kicks down the door and begins to force-feed them cakes. All the while, a droning, terrifyingly chipper music plays above it all. In many ways, these videos are a synecdoche for the nihilistic contingency cultivated in contemporary life itself. If you want a vision of the future, to crib a phrase, imagine Venom force-feeding the Joker on a digital beach . . . forever.

Han is the great philosopher of narrative, of story. Time is bound up in narrative and our lost sense of meaning. “The medieval calendar,” he writes, “did not just serve the purpose of counting days. Rather, it was based on a story in which the festive days represent narrative resting points.” Of course, Han is not necessarily wrong about this. But, the more Han you read, the stronger your suspicions grow that he has built a cargo cult of meaning, reverse engineering it from its physical and psychological components while ignoring the actual transcendent mystery which makes meaning live within the world. Time and narrative are necessary to our apprehension of truth, but it is Truth which allows time and narrative to carry its banner in the first place.

Han sees with clarity, but his vision is static and two-dimensional. My first introduction to Han came by way of a typically precious Guardian article on the “new Romantic” movement in Germany. Like most trend pieces, it seems to be trying desperately to make more of something than it should, but these paragraphs stand out:

Germany’s new Romantics have found their intellectual lodestar in the Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han, whose series of talks on romanticism at Berlin’s University of the Arts last year saw prominent artists, architects and novelists jostling with undergraduates for floor space in packed lecture theatres.

Han has championed the Romantic cult of the broken heart as a symbol of resistance against what he sees as a modern cult of “smoothness,” spanning iPhone design via Brazilian waxing to the “Teflon chancellor” Merkel. “‘To me, the Romantic world of [German poet Friedrich] Hölderlin is the world of the future,’ said Han, whose lectures also featured lengthy playbacks of Schubert’s Winterreise cycle.”

True, Han is a kind of celebrity professor, known for the pyrotechnics of his lectures. And he does push back against the kind of “smoothness” described in the article, although “bareness” might be the more accurate word. Whether or not he champions the “Romantic cult of the broken heart” is anyone’s guess. But what truly makes Han a descendent of Romanticism is the bedrock assumption in all of his thought that we live in a completely immanentized world. In Transcendence and History: The Search for Ultimacy from Ancient Societies to Postmodernity, Glenn Hughes writes of Romanticism:

Romanticism did exalt experiences of the sacred and mysterious, but its explanation of those experiences pointed not to transcendence but to Nature: to the palpable, awe-inspiring world of natural beauty and grandeur that prompts in us mystic sentiment and inarticulate feelings of communion. For the Romantics, too, Nature was all in all. Their defense of the sublime and the holy rested on the beauty and majesty of the natural world and the value of the inner world of personal feeling, and so they too played their part in the absolutization of immanence. Indeed, the Romantic answer to the question of where we must turn to discover essential reality—the ultimate ground of consciousness, the source of meaning and beauty—was the same answer as that of the Enlightenment empiricists and materialists: to the “depths” of Nature.

Where are we going? Han advises us to slow down and refer to a map. But the map does not create the destination. I am reminded again of the cargo cult. The 1962 documentary film Mondo Cane ends with a scene of a cargo cult in Port Moresby, New Guinea carving their own non-flying plane from local trees. The myth of the cult says that the cargo planes, which bring the Westerners their power and material wealth, are actually sent to the natives from their ancestors, which the Westerners then trick and trap on the giant airstrips of Port Moresby. Build your own planes (carve wood into the shape of planes) and the cargo will be attracted back to its proper destination. “You build your plane too . . . ” says the dubbed English voice over, “. . . and wait with faith . . . ” Han seems to be doing something similar with his notions of meaning and narration. Reinstitute proper time, craft a narration, and then meaning will be attracted back to its proper place. As much as there might be to think with Han, this is the main point of contention to think against. And it is a problem that reaches an off-putting crescendo in his most recently translated book, Good Entertainment: A Deconstruction of the Western Passion Narrative.

“When Saint Matthew’s Passion was first played in the Saint Thomas Church in Leipzig on Good Friday in 1727, all present were driven, according to reports from the time, into a state of ‘utmost astonishment.’” So begins Good Entertainment, using a few cited examples of outrage over Bach’s decidedly untraditional (and what he considers more enjoyable) worship music as a springboard to the examination of, what Han considers, symbols of meaning denuded of their content. Or, perhaps more precisely and significantly, the liberation of man from a burdensome search for meaning. Of course, Han’s Romantic cards are tilted when he says that,

Friedrich Schleiermacher, who along with Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Heinrich Heine attended the Berlin revival of Saint Matthew’s Passion, must have embraced this aural reminiscence of the divine, which only discloses itself to feeling. As a concept, the religious content is eroded. The religion of art or of art music presupposes the decay of religion as such. What is left, when the signifier or the word “God” is vacated? Does passion not finally dovetail into recreation, the entertainment of the mind?

To engage with any of this, we have to take Han’s colloquial definition of “passion” or “Passion” at face value. What he means is a symbol that expresses something of an experience of the transcendent that grounds the meaning of meaning—not necessarily the Passion of Christ. The strange irony in this latest work is that he takes up company with the same denarrativizing forces he criticizes and pushes against in his previous books. What he argues for is the unburdening of man of his search for meaning. For instance, he lauds Offenbach’s music as “a peculiar redemption, then, a redemption from the incessant demand for redemption.” Or, praises Rossini’s music for being “rife with tones that long for nothing, that require nothing, that have no need of redemption.” What Han describes then is an art that embraces the unnecessary and calls the contingent its ground of being.

Imagine the creepy Youtube videos being celebrated for throwing off the shackles of the struggle for meaning, the search for life’s often hidden heft. In the sort of shift to meaning-free entertainment which Han describes, we are robbed of the chance to demand more. To question, to plumb the depths of an encounter, and, through its mediation, begin to engage with the question of how we should be in the world. In this sense, a certain kind of spiritual freedom is taken from us. As Lonergan wrote,

For it is in the field where meaning is constitutive that man's freedom reaches its highest point. There too his responsibility is greatest. There occurs the emergence of his existential subject, finding out for himself that he has to decide for himself what he is to make of himself.

It is not so much that narrative creates the conditions of freedom as it is that through narrative we mediate our encounter with the transcendent and experience the freedom and responsibility of choice.

It seems like Han gets the symbol of the transcendent a bit backwards as well. He sets up a hard dichotomy between entertainment and passion which probably does not actually exist (didn’t Bob Dylan say that even a hanging can be entertaining?) and faults the art that falls down on the side of passion for both trying too hard and not accomplishing anything. Whereas “The art of the everyday disengages from art as passion, as priesthood. Where the longing for transcendence is extinguished, immanence retains a peculiar brilliance. It is the entire world.” But, the world is never the entire world. And the symbol of transcendence in art does not necessarily serve to induce a similar experience, but is a record of that experience. They are not causes; they are consequences. As Karl Jaspers writes, these things simply exist to illuminate “the clarity [we] carry within [ourselves].”

There seems to be, in Han’s mind, an either/or choice between longing for eternity and graciously appreciating the immanent world. It would seem like an odd choice for anyone who feels that the immanent is grounded in and the fruit of the transcendent. But Han attempts to illustrate his point with the poetry of Li Po and Zen haiku:

. . . the floating life is but a dream,
so how much joy can we all have at all?
The ancients had good reasons to hold candles
and entertain themselves at night.

Han praises Li Po’s poetry for celebrating the transitory, but what is the value of transition without a transcendent ideal? It decays into simply accumulation in the void. “In contrast with Christianity,” he writes, “which is an expectation of promise, a religion of there and of the future, Zen Buddhism is a religion of the here and now. It is enough to tarry in the here and now.” Of course, that is not true at all. Zen practices seek their own sort of redemption of time, hoping for the ultimate release from the spinning meat wheel of Samsara and the end of all illusions: Nirvana. And anyone who thinks that Christianity rejects the world has never read St. Francis’s Canticle of the Sun. What is most disheartening about Han’s characterizations is the pinched, narrow feeling of life they have about them. That art is all didactic and conveys a clear and unambiguous meaning; That hard lines can be drawn between Western and Eastern art, or how they are experienced; That life is not gratuitously generous enough to move someone’s spirit in two directions at once, both more fully into the immanent world and closer towards the transcendent at once.

Anything can be meaningless entertainment. Anything can stand as an artifact of God. This is true because the transcendent grounding of reality makes it so. Whether we feel the necessity of all things or their emptiness depends on our existential orientation. As Pope Emeritus Joseph Ratzinger wrote in Behold the Pierced One, “By nature, knowledge depends on a certain similarity between the knower and the known.” But you have to want to know. Meaning is a choice we make, whether we are inclined to make it or not. Reading Good Entertainment, I was taken back to that same sense of disintegration I felt as a confused teenager, brought to the edge of meaning by an offhand comment. Images of a digital Spiderman playing on the beach ran through my head. How can anything simply be good entertainment? 

Featured Image: Tânia Rêgo (Agencia Brasil), Facade swimmers, Contemporary art: Street art in Rio de Janeiro at the 2016 Summer Olympics15 August 2016; Source: Agência Brasil website, Licença Creative Commons Atribuição 3.0 Brasil


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.

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