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Byung-Chul Han—Philosophic Apps for the 21st Century?

Unread postPosted: November 17th, 2012, 10:03 am
by Frank Hoffmann
[Originally posted to the KoreanStudies Discussion List, archived at:]
Byung-Chul Han—Philosophic Apps for the 21st Century?

DISCLAIMER: These are a few observations I would like to share—not to be mistaken for an attempt to write a full book review. A fair review about philosophical texts will have to cover a lot more issues and that would divert attention away from those ones I like to focus on. You may not think that Korean Studies is an appropriate place to share these. Maybe so, maybe not. My thoughts are that a brief discussion of Byung-Chul Han’s texts does directly relate to the shifts of content and form in philological fields in general but also in Korean Studies and country study related research.

Byung-Chul Han. Hyperkulturalität: Kultur und Globalisierung. Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2005.
(ISBN 3-88396-212-0)

Byung-Chul Han. Shanzhai 山寨: Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch. Berlin: Merve Verlag, 2011.
(ISBN 978-3-88396-294-8)

Byung-Chul Han. Transparenzgesellschaft. Berlin: Matthes & Seitz, 2012.
(ISBN 978-3-88221-595-3)

The Korean German philosopher Byung-Chul Han (Han Pyŏng-ch’ŏl) did his dissertation on Heidegger. To me Athens and Jerusalem always seemed at close proximity, philosophy always acting like theology’s little brother, in spite of being the older one. For Byung-Chul Han—he presently teaches philosophy and media theory at the University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe—the experience of such a conflict is one that is locally defined and seen only in the West. To me, walking through my city of birth, once an important and beautiful medieval center, but since spring 1945 one of the ugliest places in the country, I feel much deceived—deceived of beauty and opportunity, and still very angry at an entire generation—with some deep disappointment about scholars like Heidegger, especially him with his politically appropriated, thickening projections of Heimat vs. modernity and technology, with his rural innocence jabbering. Philosophy faculties at German universities still had that particular Heidegger flair when I last visited in the 1980s, a scent of obscene power relations, logic and order Angstschweiß, and Holocaust. It took me decades to get a better understanding just how barbaric these smart and cultured men really where, how much damage Heidegger and his generation did, continuously, also after 1945—damage to me and my generation, because that is what counts.

Just two hundred meters from the hotel we stayed in downtown Hamburg is a wonderful large book store specialized on art history and architecture. It is close to the Erste Liebe café, with further small shops around and a used book store that even carries some colonial period Korean books. In the summer this is an area with street festivals and markets active into the late night. We were very relieved to get away from the crowds of tourists here in Venice, not to be part the tourist crowd ourselves, and to relax listening to open air music with actual local residents, people of almost all ages. Such experiences are becoming rare these days: “locality” and “identity”—in the 90s still stylish terms used from Kassel to Venice to Kwangju in catalog essays for international art shows—have now been reworked into advertising slogans by the tourism industry, attracting masses of young Chinese entrepreneurs and Mexican housemaids to experience Murano glass made in some People’s Republic, to download Swiss Alps cow bell sounds to their imitation iPhones, or to visit live St. Pauli sex shows with Latvian girls and Estonian boys. And we all know that none of that really exists in real life anymore. Once we know that, we cannot even anymore keep it as an history, as a memory of what once existed, as its current representation is also being taken care of for us. “Locality” and “identity” are now industrial products that you buy and experience in customized portions, online and off-line, and 24/7. Of course, you yourself with your locality and identity are then also a tradable product, part of numerous service packages that anyone else can buy—that starts the moment you turn on your smartphone, do a Google search, or log in to your Gmail account; that makes you a customer and a product at the same time. Even the digital “location,” the actual storage of our digitized knowledge and entertainment collections, both permanent (fixed, because historical) and relational (to use a database term), is now widely being moved from our computer’s hard drives to the cloud—in interesting ways the outsourcing of location, if you want. The tradable and replaceable “locality” we talk about now is no more the “locality” of the 1990s.

One of the Byung-Chul Han books I got in that wonderful art book store, maybe we better call them booklets (each one is only around 90 pages long and printed in small format), begins with a quote of ethnologist Nigel Barley who thinks we are nowadays all happy, Hawaiian-shirted tourists in an increasingly portable world, and that basic terms and concepts such as “culture” or “Herkunft” (descent) have simply extended their product life cycle. And it indeed is the world as product, marketable product, that we need to investigate and explain, and Han does his fair share of that. Sure, Han is not the one who invented the wheel in discussing these themes, but he summarizes many of the major points and comes up with interesting cross-connections, and he also tries to connect these topics to traditional philosophy (this last attempt not all too successful, in my view). Some of the academic German reviewers of his 15 or so books and booklets criticize his generous quoting techniques—the fact that he freely jumps in time and locality and between schools of thought, that he tends to quote Hegel or Deleuze or Confucius to develop and explain his own insights and views, rather than just adding another interpretative footnote to some pre-1945 master thinker or to write up a corrective post-historical extension to French American thought (that never fully entered the German-speaking intellectual market anyway). In short, he is not a commentator of a glorified intellectual past but tries to explain our poisoned present. But the smugly virtuous Habermasian republicanism that sets the tune in Germany, for decades now, stifles such attempts, can hardly be called an inviting environment for what he tries to do. In addition, there are indeed major inconsistencies with the author’s references, examples, and logic, some of which I will try to address briefly.

Han is certainly not a traditional philosopher, one that would insist to subscribe to or even to develop a globally valid philosophical model; his writings rather seem to cancel out (at least I read him this way) any such holistic theory of knowledge. Even Anglo-Saxon philosophy, although in good part already a reaction against the schools of Hegelian Idealism, still had adapted the holistic approach Hegel had brought to German philosophy; neither Hume nor later G.E. Moore did challenge the basis of this. I think this was only done much later by postmodernists. In our age of globalization, seeing what thinkers Byung-Chul Han mostly quotes in his works—that is, mostly Hegelian philosophers—one may mistake him for a scholar who stands with his two feet in the Hegelian tradition, and his formal education would suggest so also. All that globalization does here then seems to be that a Korean name is now appearing in the philosophical faculty of a German university. But then we follow his arguments and see he throws that holistic approach over board. Athens, Baghdad, Beijing, all were in the center of the world, in the center of their own worlds. Han critically points that out in numerous passages and in various ways, quotes Hegel, for example, who attests the Chinese to be consummate liars living in a country of great immorality—thus demonstrating how that German philosopher’s “world” was actually just an imaginative picture, defined and limited by the thinker’s own locality, by the narrow geographical and cultural experiences a man had in his times. Many of Han’s short essays come dangerously close, that at least is my impression, to look like copy-and-paste thoughts, small pieces taken here and there from world philosophy, mostly from German and post-war French thinkers, but also from good and valid pieces that art historians and especially curators of contemporary art shows have provided in their essays over the past twenty or twenty-five years. He is in the trend doing this. Historically, we seem to go from full-fledged, holistic, closed philosophical and political thought models (Kant, Hegel, Marx, etc.) to books that provide a kind of collection of scattered aphorisms, from capitalist or communist systems to hardly definable, because ideologically blank, economic patchwork systems (see China), from authoritative scholars or authors or artists to nameless blogging, from a few major software programs to many thousands of small smartphone ‘apps.’

The author still has some major parts from Kant, Hegel, and Heidegger ... e.g. that negativity-as-critical-thinking idea as a necessary and positive concept for the basis of critical thinking, which he says Internet culture destroys. He does freely apply and further develop (or at least implement) these parts into present times. Maybe we can say he freely copies and pastes to create his very own explanation of the world in philosophical collage technique: identifying applicable patterns and constructs that are then pasted together and further developed. Now, what confuses the footnoters among his critics is mostly the simplifications and the reductionism that Han applies in his explanations to immediately employ these in dealing with e.g. Internet culture, often discussing very major themes in just a few sentences. Although done in an ‘app’ style, or maybe exactly because of this, his texts are quite fascinating to read. The author actually manages to address most of the important issues of our times, discusses all the key- and catchwords that we all really should address. To get an understanding of history we also need to understand the major cultural shifts under way right now—is that not common sense? How can I then trust someone to explain Koryŏ culture and society or the French Revolution to me if that person does not even know what Java is or how to change the time zone settings on his laptop? (Please do not get hung up on my examples.) Han does try pretty successfully to make all the important links, to at least ask the right questions that allow us to develop a perspective and explanatory models.

At times Byung-Chul Han’s lecture-like essays remind me of the software manuals by Apple (nowadays there seem to be no such user guides anymore): short, clearly structured, very well crafted sentences that give clear step-by-step explanations—all very atypical for German and French academic texts with their circular hermeneutic structures that typically leave me in the dark as to what their authors are really after. With all the best intentions and appreciation, but I cannot even anymore bring up the patience to fight myself through Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s multi-clause sentences (and that’s really not alone because of their length). Years ago I was sitting down with a friend and one of the Chomsky daughters who wanted to quote a Horkheimer sentence in her Cuba chapter I was helping to edit, and it ended up being the funniest day in a long time. We got stuck, could not get this one, this single, monstrous sentence translated into English, in spite of juggling around with it for hours. I do not recall if we left it at that 1940s translation we thought was rather unacceptable in style or just left it out all together. Not enough: I should mention that this quote was even from a letter he had written while residing in his Pacific Palisades home. The locality he was carrying around with him, with all the holistic certitudes and set standards on culture and art (and here education), was unaltered German, or Jewish German, if you want, which was pretty much the same at the time. That could just not be “translated” into American culture, on which Horkheimer himself was sitting for so many years like a stoic Acropolis statue. Han’s texts, on the other hand, and in spite of his attempted rooting (another smartphone term) in Hegelian schools, come across like smooth, custom designed products with rounded corners on white surfaces. He writes a wonderful German, concise and pared down, absolutely outstanding! But actually it is American English, just in German, in the same sense that a poet like Kim Kwang-gyu writes in German, only that it is in Korean language. Reading about very complex themes in such clearly written prose, that alone makes it a pleasurable experience. To avoid possible misunderstandings, these texts are not populistic. Yet, at the same time his books do inevitably have something of “World for Dummies” manuals for the new post-political, ideology- and dust-free, noncommittal, smarter smartphone user generation that is free of any disturbing political or cultural ambitions but all there for nicely designed apps. Many European academics who still suffer the final loss of their green monochrome IBM monitors must find such texts over-designed and under-footnoted; that at least is how some of the “academic” reviews of Han’s works read, while the ones in the more hip publications are far more welcoming, even enthusiastic.

Many of Han’s essays deal with the major changes that Internet and globalization have brought us—for example his “transparent society” debate (you will remember that this key term was mentioned on this list when talking about copyrights and the ‘Pirates’ earlier this year) about the disappearance of cult and ceremony and their replacement by an Ausstellungszwang (exhibition pressure) towards the inevitable development of a “pornographic society.” The philosopher argues that a transparent society actually is a pornographic society. This discussion in the middle part of his latest book, Transparenzgesellschaft (2012), is also the only time I neither could nor really wanted to follow Han’s line of argumentation. He suddenly leaves his sound nexus of sharp observations, historical examples, and logical constructs and takes a bath in a religious, rather narcissistic and preachy monologue that reminds me of a Sunday morning sermon. Real-life observations and logic linking are suddenly replaced by moralistic rhetoric and unproven assumptions, still presented in the guise of valid argument forms. Well, yes, Han also studied Catholic Theology, and that shines through in parts of this last book. The old, all-damaging relationship between philosophy and theology again sinks any convincing and logical construct with a single stroke. He seriously tries to construct something like good lust and bad lust and sells that as philosophical essay while it is at that point nothing but religious moralizing that does not do anything to explain current post-cultural shifts (or, if you prefer, the shifts from culture to post-culture). Could ignoring anything between Kinsey and Kinsky not be taken for comedy? He certainly tests us out there. Does it make me a frivolous and lascivious person to enjoy viewing a music video of Leningrad’s lead singer Yuliya Kogan singing Sladkiy son on my cell phone? Is that a voice for the new generation asking dad to turn down the volume? As noted earlier, I cannot detect anything but a bizarre, logical breach here, where he allows religion to suddenly take over and replace the essential tasks of philosophy. As a side note, in northern Germany, where the Lutherans govern, such ideas were never receiving much attention anyway. Luther himself is known to have had a very “biological” and practical concept of sexuality and lust in which neither moral nor romantic concerns had any place: “If the wife does not want sex, then let the maid come.” (Luther) Not that I would want to outsmart fossilized Catholic ideologies with archaic Lutheran ones ... either one can certainly be hilariously entertaining—or, to put it differently: historic, obsolete, and crappy. It is this kind of European fascination with the past, also when it comes to who Han is quoting, that he puts an obstacle in his own way of thinking, into his otherwise most insightful analyses. Referencing the always better and purer good old days, whatever ideas and ideologies each of those pasts and locations in those pasts subscribed to, will not get us the explanations we need today. If that were so, then we would be back to universally and globally valid answers, aesthetics, etc., and that is exactly what Han elsewhere argues against. To summarize, Han maneuvers himself in parts of his last book into a locality trap, made of knowledge limitations by cultural, religious (particularly Catholic), and geographic locality, exactly the workings he is describing and analyzing elsewhere in such very eloquent, fresh, insightful, and often convincing ways.

Finally, let us look at Byung-Chul Han’s 2011 Shanzhai 山寨 volume. The booklet can well be understood as an art historical essay, one dealing with the theory of East Asian art production and aesthetics. At least are almost all of Han’s examples from the field of East Asian art history. But as the title already indicates, the author then connects these to the current modes of Chinese industrial production, creativity, and originality vs. plagiarism issues. Shanzhai, you can look it up in the Wikipedia, is a neologism referring “to Chinese imitation and pirated brands and goods, particularly electronics.” Looking into such connections between art history and modes of production in traditional art with industry (and thereby international politics, nationalism, history ... you name it) is a highly interesting and important task, one that East Asian art history as a field at Western universities with its colonialist roots, mostly serving exclusive museum collections and upper-class connoisseurs, has shown little to no interest in. Lothar Ledderose, one of the pre-eminent European scholars on traditional Chinese art, spent a good part of the 1990s on the theme of modular and mass production in traditional Chinese arts—published under the title Ten Thousand Things (Princeton UP, 2000). In many ways that research, covering the essentials of Chinese production modes in the arts, must have been the base which then allowed Han to extend his discussion to the issues mentioned above. Highly interesting to note: Ledderose’s lecture series of the late 1990s—let me call it theory of serialized and module-based art manufacturing, later published in mentioned study—was held at the exact time that contemporary Chinese art celebrated its biggest international successes. As far as I can tell that worked somewhat against him, made his study, however solid and scholastic, appear politically incorrect or at least against the trend. 1990s Chinese avant-garde artists were so amazingly successful, because of—among several other reasons that can easily be explained—their demonstrated explosion of creativity that made them to produce the most stunning works: metaphor-rich, often politically and socially engaging, and highly original in form and content. Han’s interesting attempt to compare the essential Western concept of originality with the artistic production modes of China, where, so he argues, this concept would not play any major role, then obviously clashes with contemporary Chinese art. (But, to remind us, his concern is the contemporary world.) This is not to say that his hackneyed examples (art historians will already be familiar with every single one of the copy/paste mini analyses collected here) are “wrong”—to the opposite, he makes valid points and creates again very insightful cross-connections, and it is worth to follow up on his leads. Han seems to finish the puzzle just fine, a cute philosophical game app that circles around itself. My concern is that the structure of the game is not like that of a jigsaw puzzle but looks more like Rubik’s Cube, all parts are on the table, just that there is one more dimension to it. And employing these painting-by-number strategies (the West is white, the East is yellow), and stating that Euramerica follows its originality concept while the East has a completely different modular concept based on copying and repetition, while being interesting starting points, these just may not lead us to plausible answers. There is some irreducible complexity in this interdisciplinary monolog he creates there, and then he immediately rolls over and flattens it all, as if a small 88 page book would need to give the reader all the answers. I am already happy with the cross-connections the author offers. Maybe we should propose to add the fourth dimension to Han’s equation: time. I know it kind of destroys that beautiful storyline of the native Chinese negro sitting in his teepee, being just too pure and innocent to comprehend what an “originality” concept is. Yet, if the Chinese managed to learn how to construct cars, flat screens, nuclear power plants, and send astronauts to outer space, then possibly they were also able to understand and introduce a concept such as originality, and that may well have been done a hundred years ago?

A last observation: it certainly is the author’s freedom and decision to concentrate on China, to have only one example from Japan (Ise Shrine), and nothing but a single short reference to Korea. Given Han’s intimate knowledge of Korea, however, I wonder if adding less bromidic examples from North and South Korea and a deeper familiarity with the country’s visual canon he discusses would help his arguments to some degree. The single reference he makes to Korea is extremely confusing to me. Han mentions Hwang Woo-suk (Hwang U-sŏk), the stem cell researcher, in positive, even admiring terms as an example for the Buddhist view on life (vs. the Western Christian understanding), expressing that life itself is not unique, not original ... “cloning restarts the circle of life.” (Hwang, quoted by Han, p.70). Is Han aware how double and triple macabre this specific example is? Hwang, I suppose, must be one of the biggest embarrassments to Korea and Koreans. His case kept comedians in 2005 busy for weeks when it became clear that his human stem cell cloning was all fabricated. And exactly Hwang now serves as an example for the East Asian absence of the originality concept according to Buddhist thinking? In many of his other examples, all from the Chinese art world, Han also leaves out facts that do not foster his argument: The Hamburg Museum of Ethnology in 2007 closed an ongoing exhibition of Chinese Terracotta warriors because it had figured out that the Chinese had sent them brand new copies instead of the more than 2,000 years old original artefacts (p. 62). Han then, in order to make his point, tactfully but clearly indicates that the museum’s director and the board decided to close the show because of their failure to understand that for the Chinese there is no such concept as original or originality (as there is in the West) and that (see Ledderose’s book) exactly these Terracotta figures from Xi’an are wonderful examples for modular production. A detail that Han decisively forgets to mention here, widely published and impossible to overlook, is that it was a German company, the CCAC in Leipzig, that functioned as the exhibition organizer for the museum in Hamburg. Exhibition organizers like CCAC basically provide ways for museums to outsource much of the practical work that such loans bring with them (negotiating contracts with the loaning collectors, transport, insurance, etc.). There are also newer, advanced outsourcing practices now in that sector of the culture industry that I have no space to discuss here, that practically turn the museums into some sort of resellers. What is essential in this case is that CCAC was perfectly well aware the warriors were all copies while the Chinese government-run organization in Xi’an was seemingly not involved. In simple terms, as I understand from various news articles (see FAZ, 12/12/2007, and elsewhere), the museum in northern Germany that outsourced some unpleasant work to a contractor in eastern Germany in order to get a trouble-free all-inclusive package deal was fooled and deceived by its own German contractor. Really no need to put some Hegelian “consummate liars” spell on the Chinese here, nor to come up with complex explanations about originality concepts—fraud we still can do without any loans from China. In the end all this has hardly any relation to the kind of differences Han claims exist, to the concept or a supposedly missing concept of originality in contemporary East Asia. Another side note that one could make is that the mentioned modular production modus has for a growing number of academics and artists long been one of the favorized techniques in Europe also, even before the World Wide Web, but far more so since it exists. See, for example, the detailed examples for Germany at the VroniPlag Wiki, showing exactly how “original” academic theses by German scientists and politicians are (e.g. by the minister in charge of universities and sciences). As we are all aware of, this is a truly global “post-culture” now; similar platforms and scandals also exist in Korea and many other countries.

All over though, and without any irony, Han’s collections of short essays are most thrilling and his observations and the connections he makes are mostly sensible and important for the understanding of current society—I would otherwise not bother introducing him here. I sure hope someone will translate his best pieces into English (hopefully with some critical revisions and edits). Han’s texts are different, in the sense of Apple’s old “think different!” slogan (for the parts that he does not interrupt his own thoughts, see above). These are not anymore the holistic ‘old’ theories by German scholars, those pre-1945 ones that explain the world but actually just explain north-western Europe, and also not like the French import ones from the 1970s to 90s. Han’s texts serve well as easily digestible brain food and come in well-proportioned small units. It’s smartphone apps-style philosophy. His texts are not just dealing with all the current issues and shifts, with technology and the changes that it brings; in all formal aspects the texts themselves are already embedded within these very changes. When we, at least for once, take the freedom to cut out those logically inconsistent and redundant quotes and the references to the German school philosophers (yes, he did his homework, it’s proven) and even his isolated religious outbreaks (yes, a degree in Catholic Theology, also proven), what we then get is still quite interesting and a good start for discussions.

Frank Hoffmann
(Venice, 11/17/2012)

Re: Byung-Chul Han—Philosophic Apps for the 21st Century?

Unread postPosted: June 14th, 2013, 10:35 am
by Frank Hoffmann
Here is a very nice short TV portrait of Byung-Chul Han -- from December 2012, only saw that today. Someone has uploaded a copy to the tube.