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Byung-Chul Han: “The coronavirus has ended the rituals. It is not even allowed to shake hands ”


The Korean philosopher, who in his latest essay affirms that the conversion of production and yield into absolute values ​​is increasingly de-ritualizing society, believes that the violence that human beings exert against nature is turning against him with more force

The most widely read living German philosopher in the world is Korean. Byung-Chul Han (Seoul, 1959), a professor at the Berlin University of the Arts, made himself known around the world 10 years ago with  The Fatigue Society. Since then he has published more than a dozen formally similar essays - very brief and with a clear and direct writing - in which he develops a peculiar communitarian criticism of different aspects of contemporary capitalism. His latest work is The disappearance of rituals (Herder, 2020).

QUESTION. In his book he defines rituals as symbolic actions that generate a community without the need for communication. Instead, as he puts it, in today's societies communication without community would abound. How do you imagine that lost "community-without-communication"? The examples that you give belong to the past or to small peasant villages and you insist that the cause of this community destruction is neoliberalism. Have there been other times of capitalism more open to rituals? Is modernity and community incompatible or is the incompatibility exclusively between capitalism and community?

ANSWER. The disappearance of the rituals indicates above all that, at present, the community is disappearing. Hypercommunication as a consequence of digitization allows us to be more and more interconnected, but interconnection does not bring about more connection or closerness. Social networks also end the social dimension by putting the ego at the center. Despite digital hypercommunication, loneliness and isolation increase in our society. Today we are continually invited to communicate our opinions, needs, desires or preferences, including to tell our lives. Each one produces and represents itself. Everyone practices worship, self-worship. That is why I say that rituals produce a community without communication. Instead, communication without community prevails today. Every time we celebrate less community parties. Each celebrates only himself. We should free ourselves from the idea that the origin of all pleasure is a satisfied desire. Only the consumer society is oriented to the satisfaction of desires. Parties are not about individual desire. In the collective game one does not try to satisfy his own desire. Rather, he indulges in a passion for rules. I'm not saying we have to go back to the past. Unlike. I argue that we have to invent new forms of action and collective play that take place beyond ego, desire and consumption, and create community. My book is aimed at the next society. We have forgotten that community is a source of happiness. Freedom is also defined from an individual point of view. Freiheit , the German word for "freedom", originally means "to be with friends". "Freedom" and "friend" have a common etymology. Freedom is the manifestation of a full relationship. Therefore, we should also redefine freedom from the community.

Q. Your description of our world as increasingly removed from ritual is opposed to those who see capitalism as a hyper-ritualized society. From that point of view, which you criticize, consumption would have a strong ritual and even religious dimension: supermarkets or stadiums would be our temples. Why do you think it is wrong to interpret capitalist or bureaucratic practices as secularized forms of religious ritual?

R. I reject the thesis that capitalism is a religion. Shopping malls are the complete opposite of a temple. In shopping malls, and in capitalism in general, particular attention dominates. Everything revolves around the ego. According to Malebranche, attention is the soul's natural prayer. In temples we find a totally different way of care. Attention is paid to things that cannot be achieved with the ego. The rituals take me away from my ego. Consumption reinforces the obsession with it. I am not a believer, but I like to attend religious celebrations, Catholic of course. When I get drunk on the songs, the organ music and the aroma of the incense I forget myself, my ego, and I experience a beautiful sense of community. In my book I quote a note by Peter Handke: “With the help of the mass, the priests learn to treat things well: the delicate way of holding the chalice and the hosts, the calm cleaning of the glasses, the way the pages turn from the book; and the result of that beautiful way of treating things: a joy that gives wings to the heart ”. Today we use things very differently. We exhaust them, consume them and destroy them. In rituals we treat them in a totally different way, with care, as if they were friends. Ritualized things can also create community.

Rituals have a repetition factor, but it is a lively and life-giving repetition. It has nothing to do with bureaucratic-automatic repetition. Today we are constantly on the hunt for new stimuli, emotions and experiences, and we forget the art of repetition. The new is trivialized quickly and becomes routine. It is a commodity that is consumed and inflames the desire for something new. To escape from routine, from emptiness, we consume even more new stimuli, new emotions and experiences. The feeling of emptiness is precisely what activates communication and consumption. The "intense life" that acts as a claim of neoliberalism is nothing but intense consumption. There are repetition forms that create authentic intensity. I love Bach. I have played the arias of the Goldberg Variations more than 10,000 times , and each time I experience happiness. Personally, I don't need anything new. I love repetitions, the rituals of repetition.

Q. A very suggestive thesis of your book is that rituals allow the values ​​of a community to be assimilated bodily. It seems to me an idea close to what Pascal said: "If you don't believe, kneel down, act as if you believed and the belief will come by itself." You argue that, instead, we live in a society of passions marked by the narcissistic cult of authenticity, where the only thing that counts is the sincerity of our emotions.

A. Rituals anchor community in the body. We physically feel the community. Precisely in the coronavirus crisis, in which everything is developed through digital means, we greatly miss the physical closeness. We are all more or less digitally connected, but the physical closeness, the physically palpable community, is missing. The body that we train alone in the gym does not have that dimension of community. Also in sexuality, where performance is the only thing that matters, the body is somewhat lonely. In rituals, the body is a setting where secrets, divinities and dreams are inscribed. Neoliberalism produces a culture of authenticity that puts the ego at the center. The culture of authenticity goes hand in hand with distrust of ritualized forms of interaction. Only spontaneous emotions, that is, subjective states, are authentic. Formalized behavior is rejected as lacking authenticity or as external. An example is courtesy. In my book I make an argument against the culture of authenticity, which leads to the brutalization of society, and in favor of beautiful forms.

Q. Do you think that the supporters of the new radical right could feel identified with their demand for rituals and community? What differentiates your own communitarianism from that of the emerging extreme right?

A. The community is not necessarily defined by the exclusion of the other. It can also be very hospitable. The community to which the rights are attached is empty of content. For this reason it finds its meaning in the negation of the other, of the foreigner. It is dominated by fear and resentment.

enlarge photo The priest of Arroy de la Luz (Cáceres) blesses the town from the roof of the church.

Q. In the preface he says very explicitly that this is not a nostalgic book, but he often makes comparisons with the past that are very unfavorable to our present. In the chapter devoted to war, for example, he defends the ancient warrior values ​​against modern automated warfare, which would be a slaughter without rules. Aren't you idealizing ancient warfare? After all, throughout history we find a wide series of genocides. The indiscriminate killing is not exactly a capitalist invention.

A. I just wanted to point out that human culture is becoming more and more de-ritualized, that the conversion of production and yield to absolute values ​​is killing rituals. For example, pornography annihilates seduction rituals. In the European cavalry orders the main objective was not to kill the adversary. Honor and courage were also important. In drone warfare, on the other hand, the fundamental thing is to kill the enemy, who is treated like a criminal. After the mission, drone pilots are solemnly presented with a "scorecard" certifying how many people have been killed. Also when it comes to killing, performance counts the most. In my opinion, this is perverse and obscene. He did not mean to say that the wars of the past were better than the present. On the contrary, what I wanted to point out is that today everything has become a matter of performance and production. Not only in war, but also in love and sexuality.

Q. In your essay you relate the rise of big data to a shift in our conception of knowledge, which we increasingly understand as something mechanically produced. He even speaks of a "dataist turn" analogous to the "anthropological turn" of the Enlightenment. Is dataism the conclusion of an irreversible path that was already anticipated in the origins of modernity?

A. Dataism is a pornographic form of knowledge that nullifies thought. There is no data-based thinking. The only thing that is based on the data is the calculation. Thought is erotic. Heidegger compares it to eros. The flapping of the wings of the god Eros caressed him every time he took a significant step in thought and dared to venture into uncharted terrain. Transparency is also pornographic. Peter Handke says in one of his notes: "Who says the world is already discovered?" The world is deeper than we think.

Q. The covid-19 pandemic is having a huge impact not only in health or economic terms, but also in our shared subjectivity. In just a few days, the notion of "biopolitics" has become very intuitive. To what extent do you think the communication-without-community that you diagnose in our societies is affecting the way we are living the epidemic?

A. The coronavirus crisis has completely ended the rituals. It is not even allowed to shake hands. Social distance destroys any physical proximity. The pandemic has given rise to a quarantine society in which all community experience is lost. Because we are digitally interconnected, we continue to communicate, but without any community experience that makes us happy. The virus isolates people. It aggravates the loneliness and isolation that, in any case, dominate our society. Koreans call depression blues a consequence of the pandemic. The virus consumes the disappearance of the rituals. It is hard for me to imagine that, after the pandemic, we would rediscover them.

Q. Do you think that the pandemic constitutes a historical milestone similar to the 2008 crisis, which will translate into far-reaching political transformations? What kind of social changes do you think we will experience as a result of the coronavirus?

A. As a result of the pandemic we are moving towards a biopolitical surveillance regime. The virus has exposed a very vulnerable point of capitalism. Perhaps the idea prevails that digital biopolitics, which makes the individual and their body the object of surveillance, is enough to make capitalism invulnerable to the virus. However, the biopolitical surveillance regime means the end of liberalism. In that case, liberalism will have been only a brief episode. But I don't think biopolitical surveillance is going to defeat the virus. The pathogen will be stronger. According to paleontologist Andrew Knoll, the human being is only the cherry on top of evolution. The real cake is made up of bacteria and viruses that threaten to break through any fragile surface, and even reconquer it, at any time. The pandemic is the consequence of the brutal intervention of the human being in a delicate ecosystem. The effects of climate change will be more devastating than the pandemic. The violence that the human being exercises against nature is turning against him with more force. This is the dialectic of the Anthropocene: in the so-called Age of the Human Being, the human being is more threatened than ever.

News Clips translation.


Author: Byung-Chul Han.

Translation: Alberto Ciria.

Publisher: Herder, 2020.

Format: 128 pages (12.70 euros).

Find this title in your nearest bookstore

Source: elparis

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