A Burned-Out Society

Want to read some modern philosophy?  Of course you don’t.

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But if you feel compelled to, try some Byung-Chul Han.  If you want to read someone who is arguably the “hottest” thing in philosophy today AND writes simply (for a philosopher) AND writes really, really short bite-sized books, he’s the only game in town.

The downside is that Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born philosopher who writes philosophy in his second language, German, which is then translated into English.  To me, this makes his pithy style rather robotic, disembodied and humorless.  Trust me, this is a good thing; it makes him far more readable than philosophers who are pressing to impress.

To do the impossible, I’m going to try to summarize his books in the most concise possible way.  This does not do them justice.  But it sure makes my life – and yours – easier.

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THE BURNOUT SOCIETY is about how “achievement society creates depressives and losers”.  “In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside”.  Contemplation fades; multitasking is the norm.  We are reduced to bare survival amidst riches too vast to chose among.

THE TRANSPARENT SOCIETY says that in our voluntary vomiting-forth of private data, information, and photos on social media we have lost all hope of finding the trail through the useless muck.  We leave our personal breadcrumbs scattered behind us, but they have gotten intermingled with the crumbs of other digital wanderers.  What is important?  What is the point?  The forest has been trampled beyond recognition.

THE AGONY OF EROS is Byung-Chul Han’s call to arms against the impersonal forces of what he calls “pornography” – far more than what we usually think the word means – and how “higher expectations . . . are responsible for the mounting disappointment experienced in contemporary society”.

We expect our lovers to be brain-dead perform-all-night porn stars at the same time we expect them to be world-class fantasists capable of touching our deepest nerves.  Can’t be done.  Can’t have both.  But porn isn’t just sex.

Porn is sport utility vehicles, information, strip highways, the internet, fast food, and if our burger is too dry, we are . . . depressed.  The objects and experiences are sold as erotic, sensual goods.  We soon discover that they are cold, dead steel, meat, and data.  And we have forgotten how to inject our love into them to make them come back to the life they had when we were younger.

Byung-Chul Han’s PSYCHO-POLITICS:  Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power

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attempts to convince us that we are self-Panopticons, achievement machines that patrol ourselves looking for any misdeeds – eating or drinking too much, failing to run five miles a day, not reading enough, not progressing in a career.  Henry Fords used to stand over us, as Foucault pointed out.  Ford’s thugs physically beat us if we showed up to work late.  Now we beat ourselves up if we don’t meet our personal goals or if we don’t achieve.  And not just in work, but in love and leisure.  Leisure and love ARE work now.

This is the Protestant work ethic on steroids.

We can’t just open one restaurant, we have to open a second, then a third, and so on.  We can’t just get a high school degree and flip burgers, we have to get a college degree and flip burgers, or a doctorate and tell people how to flip burgers.  If we get up at 5 am to meditate, we have to move on to the greater achievement of getting up at 4 am and running before we meditate.

And if we fail at constant acceleration, at constant achievement of new goals, we get anxious and depressed.

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Philosophers are never good at giving helpful hints.  None of Byung-Chul Han’s books end with a list of Top Ten Things To Do To Be Happy.

But his books are bestsellers – honest to God – in Germany, and are being internationally translated, because he helps us to see that it is not us.

It is not our fault.  It is society’s fault.

And the old truism that “we help to create the society that we live in” is no longer true.  Technology has gotten away from us.

According to Byung-Chul Han, being an “idiot” is the best we can do, and the most powerful we can be.  Idiots are outsiders, the politically unallied, the heretical, figures who resist by virtue of being surprisingly uninformed news-bite-wise, and mostly silent.

The idiot is like J. D. Salinger in his last decades:  silent and brimming with life, despite the death camps he witnessed.  An antenna beyond trifling Big Data.

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I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream For . . .

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THE SCREAM, Edvard Munch 1892, via Popular Science

. . . THE SCREAM!

This painting was revolutionary.  Munch, a Norwegian, went to Paris and got the spirit of a nascent modernism.  He became the father of Expressionism.

Influenced by Nietzsche, early Freud, and a society sopping wet with the thought of Darwin, THE SCREAM was the result:  the first major artistic expression of the sheer terror we all experience every morning when we wake up.

Why terror?  Why Valium and Xanax and Prozac and wine?

Freud took away certainty of mind and made our live-in devil, the unconscious, our master.  Darwin proved that we are elevated and self-important toads and monkeys, thereby killing God.  Nietzsche did the burial by telling us, the toads, that we were each gods, even though we did not know our own minds.

It didn’t help that Munch’s sister and mother died before his very eyes when he was a young child.  It didn’t help that his father was a religious zealot.  It didn’t help that Munch himself was very often seriously ill both mentally and physically.

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AT THE DEATHBED, Edvard Munch 1895, via San Francisco Museum of Modern Art

It is unfortunate that someone obsessed with anxiety and death lived to a ripe old 80.  He died in 1944.

A similar artist, the Belgian James Ensor, made it to over 90 years of age, and he lived when Munch did.  Ensor was just as obsessed with death as Munch, but there is a sense in his work that he enjoyed the subject rather than dreaded it.  Witness:

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SKELETONS FIGHTING OVER A PICKLED HERRING, James Ensor 1891, via The Royal Academy of Arts

Skeletons, masks, emaciated and diseased figures, pockmarked faces, distorted features – Ensor painted a carnival of the grotesque.  Like “Twin Peaks”, he believed that evil is fully embedded in this life.  The grotesque faces us every day.  Sometimes that can be humorous.

You have to realize how progressive and out-of-place these paintings by Ensor and Munch were.  Not just when they were completed (and I mean completed for the first time, because both Ensor and Munch fiddled with completed works and made many versions of many works), but until well after the men passed into what most intrigued and horrified them.