That pain is not something that should only be minimized as soon as possible, but rather can also offer a hidden potential, is also the starting point in the German-South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Hans' new book Palliative care society («The Palliative Society»). The book can be considered a sequel to his bestseller Fatigue society ("Fatigue Society", 2010), which contemporary diagnostically criticizes paradigmatic changes in the emergence of the neoliberal consumer society – where a former collective "negative" psychology with the goal of compensating for external abuses and shortcomings has been replaced by a more individual, "positive" psychology, with emphasis on optimism and self-optimization – and with fatigue syndromes and ADHD as societal pathological consequences.
In his new book, he expands the examination of the excluded negative pain by examining contemporary tendencies to avoid, repress, or medicate it in all its forms — personal as well as political. In the performance society, pain has become somewhat undesirable and disruptive. At the same time, in its various nuances, it is an inevitable part of life that is seemingly impossible to get rid of. "The pain does not go away," he writes, "it only changes appearance."
In addition to the virus' biopolitical consequences, the digital, in the form of infection control apps, will also turn further to total surveillance.
Where pain used to be a tool for disciplining docile, productive subjects or persons, it has in our time – according to Him – been virtually privatized. The neoliberal "happiness device"'s imperative about happiness considers pain to be a failure, a weakness that needs to be optimized away. Instead of interpreting pain as a symptom and expression of criticism of prevailing conditions, the privatized pain has been reduced to an almost narcissistic inwardness. Our time is therefore – as He puts it slogan-wise – marked by "motivational coaches rather than revolutionaries" and by "depression rather than revolution".
Modern biopolitical exercise of power
Furthermore, He notes our contemporary lack of overarching narratives that can give pain back its meaning – and thus initiate a healing process. When pain is left to medicine and in this way reduced exclusively to biological processes, beyond its literal meta-physical dimensions, it has, by falling out of the symbolic order, become dumb and consequently speechless and meaningless. When pain loses its existential, tragic dimension, "we are handed over to the meaningless, naked body." And if this is the case, He believes, it is closely connected with the fact that our lives can also be said to have been characterized by a feeling of meaninglessness.
The loss of overall meaningful narratives leads Him to postulate that we are living in a "post-narrative time." What could constitute such "healing stories", however, remains unclear. At times, it feels as if His distaste for the consumer society of neoliberalism causes him to move dangerously close to the political reactionary.
According to Han, it is not least also in today's political climate that the low pain threshold prevails, where potentially meaningful, constructive political discussions between dissidents give way to an implicit consensus. "Post-democracy" is becoming a "palliative democracy", he predicts, at the same time as the much-discussed "post-factual age" with its fake news contributes to an increasing apathy of reality and blunting, so that potentially revolutionary tendencies never reach the action plane.
However, His book becomes topical when the covid-19 pandemic's political ripple effects are drawn in. This is where it can be read in line with Giorgio Agamben's controversial critique of corona measures as a modern biopolitical exercise of power, in which the tendency to reduce life to purely biological processes, devoid of metaphysical dimensions, becomes apparent. In the pandemic, he predicts the beginning of the downfall of neoliberalism: In addition to the virus' biopolitical consequences, the digital, in the form of infection control apps, will also turn further to total surveillance, so that the neoliberal paradigm of freedom dissolves. What replaces this, admittedly, remains open – but the future scenarios He outlines give little reason for optimism.
Resignation and nihilistic tendencies
His book becomes most interesting, however, when he avoids dystopian social diagnostic predictions and examines the pain philosophically in dialogue with, among others, Heidegger and Hegel. He quotes the latter's understanding of the nature of consciousness to "unfold in and through contradictions, and consequently through pain", which is thus conditioned by necessary encounters with a complex, confusing and therefore painful reality. The dialectical paths of thought and cognition are – and must be – characterized by painful divisions, which can then be reunited to a higher power. In this way, pain acts as the incentive for development, to break with the no longer bearable. This is what can be called the creative, and revolutionary, potential of pain. Consequently, pain is not only understood as a sign of scarcity or discomfort, but rather also as a characteristic of a basic human existential openness to the world.
In this context, however, one may wonder where it has become precisely the revolutionary potential of pain in His thinking in both Fatigue society og Palliative care society. For while his new book opens up for interesting reflections and perspectives on the phenomenon of pain, its dystopian contemporary analyzes only fit into the long tradition of a history of the decay of modernity à la Oswald Spengler. With his "pain a priori" and his seemingly exclusive "sensitivity", he rejects all ambivalent remedies here, and thus only the same nihilistic tendencies that he actually criticizes are reinforced.
In contrast to thinkers such as Nietzsche – often also quoted by Han – who in all his fiery critiques of modernity always held an affirmative positive position, His language fails to live up to such poetic-philosophical prose as possibly the most central implicit requirement: that it must be the more convincing, sharper and nuanced the more vague its content is. Instead, He resorts too much to the declamatory and hides behind a flood of resigned (paratactic) "we-sentences" – sometimes on the edge of the tautological and banal: "We are too alive to die, and too dead to to live."
Meaningful, constructive political discussions give way to an implicit consensus.
Precisely this "devotion" is not just a stylistic or rhetorical problem with Him. By cutting everything over one comb, the gaze becomes blind to the ubiquitous, saving ways and pockets of ambivalence. The basic dialectical tension between the individual and the common goes under in the invocation of this "devotion". Possible "revolutionary impulses", which He implicitly seems to call for, also give way Palliative care society in favor of his philosophical Weltschmerz. Autonomy and freedom do not seem to be relevant ethical and political categories in relation to this form of determinism. Nuances such as that freedom does not mean neoliberal self-exploitation can not be expressed as strikingly in His almost solidly declamatory style, which apparently does not allow any dissent towards the spirit of the times.
Rather than make more nuanced analyzes, in order to carefully deduce from there potentially fruitful approaches to pressing issues of our time, He remains standing by the "disease history" without offering ways, escape lines or any other form of (treatment) plan. As contemporary obvious crises – in the original Greek medical sense of "crinein" – are defined precisely by the ambivalent (whether the patient will survive or die), it may seem that Byung-Chul Han has already declared the patient dead. And one may wonder whether such a dystopian critique of modernity, with its sometimes reactionary tendencies, has played its role today when a similar rhetoric has been used by right-wing populism? That it rather closes the spaces of opportunity it really wants to open?
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