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Vita hyperactive!

The Scent of Time
Forfatter: Byung-Chul Han
Forlag: Polity Press (Storbritannia)
When the belief in shared narratives fades, while the individual's life becomes more hectic, time itself loses direction and meaning, Byung-Chul Han believes.


The South Korean, German-based cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han has made his mark on a series of short, philosophical books. Each one is an intervention in today's societal state, where contemporary trends are explored against a philosophical backdrop. In the book The Scent of Time it is time itself that is examined: How does our own experience of time affect us as human beings and political creatures? He anchors the discussion in modern thinkers such as Nietzsche, Heidegger and Arendt, but also consultes postmodern philosophers such as Lyotard and Baudrillard. In this way, the author links the problem of time experience to the question of great stories and the myths of history.

Faster and faster

Time, traditionally understood, is like a river: it flows forward and takes us on a long journey, where the life of the individual moves with the collective of culture. Here, man alternately drives and navigates from the past to the future. This perception of time is, according to Han, about to shake: Not only do we all become busier, so that time becomes a "squeeze": It pushes us from behind without simultaneously opening up in front of us.

But the problem goes deeper than everyday psychology. Historically, it is obvious that things are going faster – communication, movements, calculations and the development of society itself. In the ecological and socially critical context, it has become customary to refer to the period after the Second World War as "the great acceleration" – an intensified modernization and linking of all the world's production processes. Time is borne by events that go faster than we are able to follow.

Posthistoric panic. He also refers to the sociologist Hartmunt Rosa, who talks about a "social acceleration", where a wealth of opportunities make the individual's life complex and diverse. Where life previously appeared as a sequence, it has now become an explosion: the movement takes place in several directions simultaneously, in a lavish and simultaneous unfolding of different life possibilities.

This sounds fantastic at first – being able to live ten lives in one – but Rosa also describes how this almost uncontrolled speed search leads to a form of stagnation: a "frenetic downturn". On a general level, this condition is described as Postal history. The sum of all the "historical" events of the present day covers only a deeper stagnation. But the diversity of small events and actions not only covering a stagnant state, He objects: er the stagnation of history itself. We move everywhere and nowhere. When the actions and events that shape our lives are not part of a larger movement that can hold them together and give them direction, the result is that nothing is done. No goals are achieved, no conclusions are drawn. As a result, time is fragmented into an endlessness of chores, which are alternately trivial or panic, expressive or averted. Nothing is rounded off as a real experience or leads to maturation or growth.

Hannah Arendt and Martin Heidegger

The shrinkage of the moment

Maturation and growth are among the slow phenomena that require a different type of time and rhythm. Rhythm and direction are what make time real time – what Bergson called "duration" (the duration). Memory creates a time consciousness that preserves the past in the present. Such a coherent biography – a life that is also a project – can orientate the individual, the collective narratives help us to orient ourselves in history. In contrast to Christianity, which seeks individual salvation and the coming of the Kingdom of God, and to the ideologies of modernity, which still believe in progress, postmodernism is characterized by the decline of the great narratives. The communities we call societies no longer share any overall narrative, and so time itself becomes fragmented. Everyone lives in their own time, and not as part of a larger time span or project. Without the long periods of time, the travel agency that would support the time, which allocates every thing its time and allows for breaks and intervals, also disappears. Byung-Chul He sees such disintegration of time everywhere: in the rapid flow of information, in the endless digital work of small operations.

Of course, His criticism is an affinity for Heidegger and his criticism of the instrumental relationship with the world. Like Heidegger, He seeks to play out the time problem in a philosophy of existence that is both poetic and critical. The distraction, bustle and technology are marked by an inauthentic way of being. The counterweight lies in a quiet acceptance of the slow moment. Here He allows Chinese poetry to meet Heidegger's doubts about the boredom and the time when nothing is happening. In a kind of Taoist emptiness, where the restless lust is set aside, time returns as pure contemplation.

The hyperactive life

What Hannah Arendt hailed as white assets – "The active, working life" – he says, has become something we could call one white hyperactive. In a slightly elaborate argument, Arendt is accused of failing to recognize the value of meditative states of mind. Here also comes the essay queue: Each of us must win back the lingering and slow times. The conclusion seems blatant – and particularly unsatisfactory will this poetic appeal be pointed out by the fact that Heidegger's existential analyzes just not are timeless and universal, that they are rather marked by a crisis of opinion in modernity. Initially, thus, the acceleration, the technical goal rationality and the failure of the big stories were central. Thus it becomes strange when He does not look towards the political, but rather to Proust and his On the trail of lost time to find a solution. His swirling of "the scent of time", the taste of madeleine cookies dipped in tea and the charm of the smell of old oak do not bring us to the root of the time crisis the author draws.

Dangerous deficiency

There is a lack of consideration of the question of direction and goals, of what stories can restructure time and bind culture together into a real community. The author strikingly problematizes a "post-historical" decorientering, but offers strikingly weak and apolitical solutions.

Heidegger's attempt to plunge into history during the Nazi regime is a notorious example of how the will to participate in a great story can be fatal. In the time of the global environmental crisis, it may prove dangerous to have a reluctance to collective narratives. The real opposite of a fragmented, accelerated and individualistic time should be a form of collective long-term – a common learning and maturing time.

Anders Dunk
Anders Dunker
Philosopher. Regular literary critic in Ny Tid. Translator.

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