Saturday, October 31, 2015

Is late-modern Western society the realm of the undead?

In his short book The Burnout Society, Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han makes his case that late-modern, or "post-modern," Western society suffers from a surfeit of both sameness (homongenization) and positivity. "The violence of positivity," Han observes, "does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts, which is why it proves inaccessible to unmediated perception" (7).

In his chapter on the "Vita Activa," in which he seeks to show that, like Foucault's disciplinary society and the immunological paradigm, late modern Western society has gone beyond Arendt's attempt, made in her book The Human Condition, to rehabilitate and expand the vita activa (the active life). Before even beginning his own critique, he notes that to prioritize the vita activa over the vita contemplativa (the contemplative life) is to start off down a dead end path, just as dead an end as if one tried it the other way around.

In an endnote to this chapter the Han notes: "Counter to what Arendt claims, the Christian tradition does not attach importance exclusively to vita contemplativa." He then cites Pope St Gregory the Great:
One must know, if a good course of life requires that one pass from the active to the contemplative life, then it is often useful when the soul returns from the contemplative to the active life in such a way that the flame of contemplation lighted in the heart confers its entire perfection on activity. Thus, the active life must lead to contemplation, but contemplation must proceed from what we have observed within and calls us back to activity
I do not have the citation from the works of Pope St Gregory for this passage because Han cites Alois M. Haas' chapter "Die Beurteilung der Vita contemplativa und activa in der Dominikanermystik des 14. Jaharhundrets," from the 1985 book Arbeit Muße Meditations as his source.

According to Han, Arendt insisted that modern work, which, when she wrote, was still largely industrial, turns people into animal laborans. On Arendt's terms, becoming such meant a loss of individuality. But Han doesn't buy this: "If one abandoned one's individuality and dissolved into the life process of the species entirely one would at least have the serenity of an animal" (18). But far from having "the serenity of an animal," the late-modern person, Han notes, "is hyperactive and hyperneurotic" (18). He asks, Why does such "hectic nervousness" prevail?

Image credit: ISTOCK

It seems to me that the direct answer to the question as to why hectic nervousness characterizes people in Western societies today, an answer that Han circles around but never arrives at directly, at least not in this chapter, is a loss of a sense of transcendence: "The modern loss of faith does not concern just God or the hereafter. It involves reality itself and makes human life radically fleeting. Life has never been [I think a better word- it is a translation from German- would be "seemed"] as fleeting as it is today... Nothing promises duration or substance" (18).

While there are certainly historical dynamics in play in the Christian Tradition that prevent us from drawing exclusively with straight lines, the handing on through time of what is substantial (made substantial, that is, embodied/incarnated, by the Church through time, thus making the Church a single subject, recognizable in every age), which Catholics identify as the deposit of the faith, which, I think, can be said to be at one and the same time the Church's memory, will, and understanding, seeks to orient us to what is ultimate, or, in the words of Don Giussani, "to free us from the fascination with appearances, with the ephemeral." It seems to many (myself included) that the ecclesial crisis of our day is making Christian doctrine as fleeting as everything else. In my view, the effect of this, should it succeed, will be to make religion in general and Christianity in particular even less relevant than it is now.

"Given this lack of Being," Han observes, "nervousness and unease arise" (18). For human beings, he continues, it is not enough to belong to a species and work "for the sake of its kind" to achieve temporal aims and perpetuate itself. As a result, "the late-modern I [Ich is translated as "ego] stands utterly alone" (18).

"Even religions, as thanatotechnics [great word] that would remove the fear of death and produce a feeling of duration," Han opines, "have run their course" (18). Reading this made me consider more carefully Roger Rediger's proselytizing of Houellebecq's François in Submission. What appealed to François were the this-worldly aspects of Islam. Reflecting on René Guénon's conversion to Islam, François reasons-
why had Guénon, for example, converted to Islam? he was above all a man of science, and he had chosen Islam on scientific grounds, both for its conceptual economy and to avoid certain marginal, irrational doctrines such as the real presence of Christ in the eucharist (225)
To suggest either than Christ's real presence in the Eucharist is either marginal or irrational is just plain wrong. It is central and, while, being authentically a theological mystery, it cannot be known by the unaided light of natural reason, but is not at odds with reason.

It seems that Western societies today at least remain, to borrow from Flannery O'Connor, "God-haunted." But I think Han is quite right to note, "The denarrativization," what the late Fr Richard John Neuhaus, borrowing from certain post-modern theorists, might call the loss of our meta-narrative, "of the world is reinforcing the feeling of fleetingness. It makes life bare" (18). The net effect of this, according to Han, is that it renders every person expendable, but not entirely expendable, that is, people who can be killed absolutely, but renders us "undead, so to speak" (19).

While Han never writes in this chapter about the need for a transcendent turn, he does end it by pointing out our very human need for contemplation. I don't think that regaining an ability to contemplate can have any effect except to restore our sense of transcendence, the religious sense. Our religious sense is not simply "part" of being human, but precisely what constitutes us human beings made in the imago Dei.

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