Embrace Negativity or Risk Never Being Happy

Today I opened my inbox to an exciting offer from an American mega-corporation. The body of this digital communique announced its magical power loud and clear: “Making Your Inbox Happy.” The content of this happiness? I might be able to save up to 25% on future furniture purchases from their online store. My joy—or more correctly the joy of my digital inbox—is supposed to be savings offered by a corporate behemoth, rewarding me for a recent purchase of off-gray sheets for a twin-size bed. Happiness is not even a click away; it is already here.

Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues that such an offer of happiness is depression in disguise. He ties our constant and overriding desire for positivity to our increased instances of ADHD and our ever-increasing diagnoses of anxiety and depression. In 2015’s The Burnout Society, Han writes that “The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates, it does not exclude, it exhausts.” (7). Everything tells us to enjoy, to just keep looking on the bright side. If we keep believing, if we just keep purchasing and spending, we will feel whole. We are taught to discipline ourselves: stay positive, forget about it, keep smiling. The most terrifying part, Han warns, is that the command has been internalized. It requires no outside monitoring, only the will to keep believing the sloganeering: “In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. This labor camp is defined by the fact that one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator. One exploits oneself. It means that exploitation is possible even without domination” (19).

In other words, we freely promote happy versions of ourselves at the expense of our actual happiness. Our projected digital euphoria passes data on to corporations, who then market us back to ourselves. And yet we cannot outrun our tiredness. Our self-discipline becomes inadequate and we burn out. Positivity transforms into its opposite; our enforced happiness becomes dogged sadness. Describing this phenomenon, Han indicates that “As its flipside, the society of achievement and activeness is generating excessive tiredness and exhaustion. These psychic conditions characterize a world that is poor in negativity and in turn dominated by excess positivity” (31). Embrace negativity, Han seems to say, or risk never being happy.

Ironic as it may seem, this warning is precisely what makes Han a useful philosopher of joy for Christians today. An excellent recent essay, “Byung-Chul Han and the Subversive Power of Contemplation,” argues that “Han’s philosophical reflections are a gift for Christians.” They teach us to stop and smells the roses; they counsel us to understand the beauty of contemplation and liturgy. But most of all Han’s philosophy invites us to consider the importance of negativity to happiness—a path long-honored by the Christian tradition and made all the more important in our vigorously-anemic society.

Be Mindful!

Stopping and contemplating in general are not enough to counteract this current. In fact, very often the prescription to stop, pause, and reflect comes from precisely the same culture of positivity that Han indicts. Mindfulness is popular with Silicon Valley, precisely because the system recognizes that its mandatory positivity burns people out. Downtime, then, must become the site for cultivating an even more chipper attitude. The corporation offers transparency. It claims to make clear how it works. It gives its employees yoga mats and pool tables; it allows them to wear jeans to work. It is friendly and positive. In return, it expects its employees and clients to do the same—to remain smiling and transparent to themselves, that is, to be mindful of who they are and all that they want to achieve. This, for Han, is the essential kernel of our society:

No buzzword dominates contemporary public discourse so much as “transparency.” Above all, it is emphatically invoked in connection with the freedom of information. The omnipresent demand for transparency, which has reached the point of fetishism and totalization, goes back to a paradigm shift that cannot be restricted to the realm of politics and economics. Today the society of negativity is yielding to a society that progressively dismantles negativity in favor of positivity. Accordingly, the society of transparency manifests itself first and foremost as a society of positivity (The Transparency Society 1).

In other words, contemplation and stoppage that are merely conceived of as ways to be transparent to oneself, to become happier, are traps. They betoken only further enmeshment in the cult of positivity we have created and in which we participate. As long as achievement and self-improvement are our goals, stopping and thinking will remain nothing more than steps on our paths to burnout and depression.

Why is this? Shouldn’t we just be able to pause and contemplate if we feel like it? The question, for Han, is one of ends—is the goal merely optimization and further achievement? Does contemplation count as contemplation if it is a means to self-transparency? Pausing geared toward positivity stands as another form of self-policing. It is part and parcel of the commandment to enjoy. In a passage worthy of Han and geared toward the sort of pop contemplation ubiquitous in our time, Slovenian philosopher Slavoj Žižek cuts right to the chase:

[This is] the point in which permitted enjoyment turns into ordained enjoyment. […T]he New Age wisdom of recovering the spontaneity of your true self seems to offer a way out of this . . . predicament. However, what do we get effectively? . . . [You] must do your duty of achieving full self–realization and self–fulfillment because you can. This is the reason why we feel, at least I do, a kind of terrorist pressure beneath the compliant tolerance of New Age preachers. They seem to preach peace and letting go and so on but there is an implicit terrorist dimension in it (“The Superego and the Act”).

Happiness and contemplation are not simply connected. Rest to the end of pure self-regeneration is no escape from what Han calls “the Burnout Society.”

Be Negative!

The path to happiness in our age is paradoxically the path of negativity. According to Han, we must be willing to say “no” to the world; we must accept our power to reject the command to be positive. Drawing on Hegel, he clarifies that negativity is a constituent part of a balanced, happy life. Imbalance—forced positivity—is the gateway to depressive torpor. A hard week of work, smiling, helping, clicking, sharing, and Instagraming quickly becomes a restful, Netflix-filled weekend. This turns into lethargy and anxiety, pure unmitigated, unmoving positivity. The society of positivity destroys our very ability to handle stress and sadness; it deprives us of the language necessary to form, understand, and bear these weights. It makes us forget, as Han puts it, that “Negativity nourishes the ‘life of the mind’” (The Transparency Society 5).

While this all may sound very depressing it is a wisdom buried in the Christian tradition that Han enjoins us to reclaim. In particular, his critique recovers a mystical tradition of negativity that seeks to bring the Christian to true knowledge of God, one that removes him or her from the clamoring and diluting world into a kind of contemplation that breeds joy. Specifically, Han’s thought calls to mind the work of Meister Eckhart, who emphasized negativity in two ways. First, as an antidote to becoming dissipated in the world (we might say “burned out”) and second as a path to knowledge (we might say “true contemplation”). Where Han lights the way of negativity, a return to the tradition may fortify us for the journey.

In one of his sermons, Eckhart seems to speak to our digital age. He rails against the mind’s being pulled in many directions at once; he castigates people for making their lives aimless precisely by being obsessed with knowing more and achieving more: “If your eye wanted to see all things, and your ear to hear all things, and your heart to remember all things, then indeed your soul would be dissipated in all these things” (“Sermon Two,” Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Vol 1, 20). For Eckhart, to desire to do all and be all not only means to lose God but also to lose oneself. The positive desire to grasp things, to mind things, and to improve oneself is the surest route to self-destruction. The light of understanding and motivation becomes the darkness of failure and depression.

As an antidote, Eckhart does not merely offer contemplation as withdrawal from the world, as a regenerative measure geared toward positivity and happiness. Instead, he points to the value of negativity as such, as the path to union with God (and thus, to happiness). We are called to approach the world with an attitude of negation, to cultivate a passive ability to linger. Paradoxically, for Eckhart, it is our desire to be active that destroys us. But God, he reminds us, is a giver of gifts, the Lord of All Graces. Our task as his creatures is to prepare ourselves to receive and nurture the graces that he chooses to share. This requires an ability to negate what the world asks of us. It calls for a willingness to reject the commandment to keep going, keep working, and keep sharing. To seek and grasp after happiness is to allow it to elude us. Patient waiting, by contrast, clears away the barrage of mundane things and creates space for joy.

Negativity and passivity, however, do not rule out all activity. They do not require us to be Carthusians; rather, they are the grounds on which we can act in Christian love. In another sermon, to make this point, Eckhart turns to the Apostles:

Again, some people hope to reach a point where they are free of works. I say this cannot be. After the disciples had received the Holy Ghost, they began to do good works. And so, when Mary sat at the feet of our Lord, she was learning, for she had just gone to school to learn how to live. But later on, when Christ had gone to heaven and she received the Holy Ghost, she began to serve: she traveled overseas and preached and taught, acting as a servant and a washerwoman to the disciples. (“Sermon Nine,” Meister Eckhart: Sermons and Treatises, Vol 1, 88).

Sitting, waiting, and lingering—turning off the world—are not done to the end of happiness or positivity. Instead, they shirk forced smiles—premature good works, in Eckhart’s language—and opt for negativity and passivity. Patience, a willingness to negate false positivity, makes room for grace. From here, good works arise, not because one is self-transparent or because one must constantly share their beneficence with others, but because one loves God and neighbor, not falsely, but in all the world’s suffering and pain. Life’s perils and burdens may once again be embraced rather than imagined away.

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

Eckhart is only one example from the tradition, but Han’s work opens up many possibilities, perhaps allowing us to revisit a treasure trove of patient, even grumpy saints—Jerome, in particular, comes to mind. It invites us to look to the past, placing Han in a line of thinkers that (some might say) culminates with Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, whose encyclical Spe Salvi connects hope and negativity:

A world which has to create its own justice is a world without hope. No one and nothing can answer for centuries of suffering. No one and nothing can guarantee that the cynicism of power—whatever beguiling ideological mask it adopts—will cease to dominate the world. This is why the great thinkers of the Frankfurt School, Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno, were equally critical of atheism and theism. Horkheimer radically excluded the possibility of ever finding a this-worldly substitute for God, while at the same time he rejected the image of a good and just God. In an extreme radicalization of the Old Testament prohibition of images, he speaks of a “longing for the totally Other” that remains inaccessible—a cry of yearning directed at world history. Adorno also firmly upheld this total rejection of images, which naturally meant the exclusion of any “image” of a loving God. On the other hand, he also constantly emphasized this “negative” dialectic and asserted that justice —true justice—would require a world “where not only present suffering would be wiped out, but also that which is irrevocably past would be undone.” This, would mean, however—to express it with positive and hence, for him, inadequate symbols—that there can be no justice without a resurrection of the dead. Yet this would have to involve “the resurrection of the flesh, something that is totally foreign to idealism and the realm of Absolute spirit” (§42).

For Benedict, the Frankfurt School theorists are inadequate because they cannot imagine the Resurrection of the Dead (the prerequisite for the transformation of past and present suffering). He pauses, however, to emphasize that negativity is a central aspect of hope. Suffering is eschatologically sublated, but it is does not disappear from this life. As he writes elsewhere in Spe Salvi, “Theodor W. Adorno formulated the problem of faith in progress quite drastically: he said that progress, seen accurately, is progress from the sling to the atom bomb. Now this is certainly an aspect of progress that must not be concealed” (§22). Here we see a perspective not dissimilar from Han’s linked to creating right and fitting Christian hope. Cheap expectation of joy is hollow and fails to take seriously the pain and degradation of this life. Negativity—true contemplation—stays with such sorrow.

This does not merely sound like Han; his musings are, by his own admission, the legacy of Adorno and Horkheimer, and Meister Eckhart himself. Eckhart’s work on negativity was influential for Hegel, whose speculations about negation would go on to shape the theorists of the Frankfurt School. In their view, “progress” understood rightly is progress understood negatively, not as an exponential curve, but as hope dogged by suffering. Further, the medieval mystic’s theology of detachment (including the thoughtful negation of modern dissipation in a world of distractions) shaped the thought of Martin Heidegger, about whom Han has written an entire book not yet translated into English.

All of this is to say that, per Benedict, there is room for Han within the Christian tradition. Even more than room, we might say that it is necessary that we turn to Han in order to retrieve a vigorous understanding of hope and joy for an age insidiously tasked with constant (and thus cheap and simple) happiness. To theorize the eschaton, to foreground the redemptive power of Christ for a pious, longsuffering life, we can do no better than to think alongside Byung-Chul Han.

This renewal of hope through negativity is thus a sort of “traditional” road to happiness. Admittedly, Han himself speaks fairly little of happiness. In one interview, when asked if he was a happy person, he responded “I don’t ask that question . . . It is actually a meaningless question. Happiness is not a state I aim for.”

As dour as this might sound, I would lay stress on his use of the word “aim.” Our society constantly wants us to aim at any number of things. Corporations e-mail us with offers of happiness so that we will “aim” to buy more things. Our bosses encourage happy work environments, transparent ones, so that we will work harder and faster than ever. To avoid aiming, to stand squarely and negatively against such a world, is Han’s wisdom, one that invites us to a deeper reflection on our traditions of patience and passivity. That way, according to Pope Benedict XVI and Meister Eckhart anyway, lies true joy and happiness.

And there is, of course, that bit about the lilies of the field, or, more aptly, about bringing not peace, but the sword.


Featured Image: Caspar David Friedrich, Two Men Contemplating the MoonGalerie Neue Meister, 1819; Source: Wikimedia, PD-Old-100.


Chase Padusniak

Chase Padusniak is a PhD candidate in Princeton University's Department of English, where he specializes in medieval literature. In addition to his academic pursuits, Chase spends time working on creative projects such as films, poetry, and cultivating negativity.

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