By Mario Wenning
Have we become Zombies?
We are unable to listen. We ignore what escapes our knowledge and control. The other is dead to us and we might be dead as well. Instead of listening to and being irritated by what resists immediate grasp, late modern subjects enjoy what can be easily affirmed and consumed. Experiences of negativity that characterize life are absent. Clicking the “like” button defines contemporary existence. Humans increasingly resemble puppets, clones and zombies in their repetitive and lifeless routines of affirmation. According to Byung-Chul Han, a Korean-born philosopher and cultural critic based in Berlin, the other has become expelled from the neoliberal world that is dominated by narcissistic selves. Enigmatic encounters vanish when everything and everyone has become an exchangeable consumer in a self-affirming economy that eliminates eroticism and makes everything easily available. In his recent book, the author, who has become an acclaimed cultural critic since his The Burnout Society, blames the increase of communication and the endless circulation of information in the “transparency society” for the loss of auratic encounters. Social media addiction creates a sense of universally interconnected isolation. In an age of globalized communication, the pressure to conform to and consume what is transparent eradicates the possibility of the secret and the mysterious. The “terror,” “hell,” “desert,” and “spell” of sameness is inherently violent. It sacrifices the quiet virtues of patience, listening, and tactful distance, which allow for meaningful encounters. Easy affirmation and consumption have made it both unnecessary and impossible to cross the painful thresholds between people and the capacity to listen to and engage one’s close and distant neighbours. The task of working on relationships is being neglected, because it would require valuable time, a scarce resource that agents in a blindly functioning economy lack.
Following the author’s bleak diagnosis of the present, the other has not only disappeared but has been expelled from our zombie afterlives. The biblical allusion of the essay’s title confirms the quasi-religious undertone of Han’s hyperbolic prose. A hybrid of a history of the fall and a nostalgia for the prelapsarian time of the other, this essay is intended to be provocative. Han’s darkest book to date, The Expulsion of the Other is a manifesto for those who feel angry about the neoliberal drive to level differences and for those who require a wake-up call from the all too predictable life of being isolated zombies. Han yearns for the nostalgic lost time when it was still possible to encounter mysteries, while also calling for a “temporal revolution that ushers in a completely different time.” Hidden utopian gestures are a crucial complement of radical pessimism at its best. Han’s dystopia also includes a taste of utopian longing: for a different time, for the time of difference, for the time of the other. Yet, the author leaves open what messages the envisioned society of listeners should listen to or how the temporal revolution that would interrupt the racing standstill of the present could come about. Why is the expulsion of the other a loss? How do we cultivate an appreciation for alterity? As a consequence of his totalizing critique of the terror of the same, Han neglects these questions. Conflating sameness and equality, Han’s cultural criticism is surprisingly blind to the new forms of inequality that have accompanied the global expansion of neoliberal economies. His homage to the Eros of the other against the terror of the same threatens to neglect the achievements of equality as one of the normative pillars and unredeemed promises of modernity. In his previous interpretations of the spiritual condition of our times in The Burnout Society, Han emphasized the rise of fatigue as symptomatic of an age in which subjects have been transformed into managers of their existence. At the same time, a profound weariness and boredom could be the antidote to fatigue. Similarly, in his Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, Han exposed the rise of the culture of fakes as both a pathology of our age while also, drawing on the Chinese tradition, pointing to potentially subversive acts of copying. With regard to the problem of sameness and otherness addressed in The Expulsion of the Other, we might ask why the current spell of sameness could not also be broken by employing a more radical notion of equality and experience rather than a return to radical otherness?
Exclusively highlighting the argumentative gaps in Han’s one-sidedly bleak and often repetitive diagnosis would be too simple. To do this would mean to fail to do justice to the daring and honest tone of Han’s dissection of contemporary zombie existence, especially in its most exaggerated interventions. Hyperbolic re-description of familiar practices and the analogy of the unexpected have accompanied cultural critique at its best. Han approaches a variety of alienating cultural phenomena, which range from cell phone use to the consumption of smoothies. The book enables unexpected shifts of perspective to bring about a productive estrangement or, to stick to the zombie metaphor, a reanimating invitation to realize that what seems different is indeed quite similar. To take one example of such an unexpected juxtaposition that exposes the unity of opposites, terrorism and the recent forms of populist nationalism in Europe are, for Han, not radically opposing political movements. They follow the same logic that aims to expel what is different and foreign from an imagined conception of a pure (religious or cultural) identity. Han’s original approach relates the seemingly unrelated. The self-inflicted violence of people suffering from borderline syndrome seems surprisingly similar to the terrorist acts of Islamic suicide bombers. The borderline subject and the terrorist scream for love by engaging in acts of violence. Drawing on critical concepts from Adorno, Heidegger and Levinas as well as modernist poets including Büchner, Celan and Handke, The Expulsion of the Other is rich in allusions. It is eye opening in exposing otherwise invisible and yet widely spread and effective pathologies. Han conjures up a sense of a failed social totality. This audacity has often been missing in recent attempts at social criticism. The erotic charm of Han’s diagnosis consists in his refusal to accept the present world for what it is. He thereby reminds the reader of what it could be. The condemnation of our zombie life is occasionally naïve, sometimes mysterious and often surprisingly revitalizing.
Byung Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today. Trans. by Wieland Hoban. Cambridge: Polity, 2018.
Mario Wenning (PhD, New School for Social Research 2007) is an Associate Professor in the Philosophy and Religious Studies Programme at the University of Macau. His work focuses primarily on social and political philosophy as well as aesthetics from an intercultural perspective. Apart from his scholarship, Wenning has translated modern German philosophers and has been awarded fellowships from the Humboldt Foundation, the Mercator Foundation and the Cusanuswerk.