The rites of play

“Play, not work, is the end of life. To participate in the rites of play is to dwell in the Kingdom of Ends. To participate in work, career, and the making of history is to labor the Kingdom of Means.” – Michael Novak, The Joy of Sports (1976)

Byung-Chul Han is a Korean-born professor of philosophy and cultural studies at the University of the Arts in Berlin as well as a popular contemporary social analyst. During the last two decades, he has published numerous book-length essays dissecting contemporary society. Han uses several catchy terms to define contemporary society, including  burnout, tired, positive, pornographic, intimate, transparent, control and information society to name a few.

His essays draw a dualistic map, that is good vs. bad, and the distinction can, at times, have an either–or character, for example, seduction versus porn, knowledge versus information, negative versus positive, consumers versus users, etc. In his newest book, titled The Disappearance of Rituals, Han turns to rituals to overcome the erosion of community. As symbolic acts, Han suggests that rituals can bring closure. Han also looks to rituals to “stabilize life” and make “life last.”

According to Han, closure and stability are needed because everything has been “colonized by the economic.” He observes that “in consuming emotions we do not relate to things but to ourselves. What we seek is emotional authenticity. Thus, the consumption of emotions strengthens the narcissistic relationship with ourselves.” Thus, the corrosion of community is related to narcissism. 

Han illustrates the ever-present narcissism that can be found even in so-called positive movements or slogans that focus on change: change yourself by doing this, change the world by buying or consuming this product. The problem is two-sided: to walk around in a vegan t-shirt or shoes requires money, and second, all that matters is the symbolic value. However, having a Buddha statue in your garden does not really bring people together or bring you any closer to having true insight. The problem is that some symbols have become shallow. They don’t “establish relations, only connections.” 

Han doesn’t use the concept of authenticity in an existential way but sees it as a neoliberal concept of production. “You exploit yourself voluntarily in the belief that you are realizing yourself.” Or, when everyone “is producing him- or herself in order to garner more attention … the compulsion of self-production leads to a crisis of community.” The crisis is characterized by “echo chambers,” where people mainly hear the voices of those who share their beliefs and opinions.

Thus, communication without community is compulsive and narcissistic, whereas rituals consist of narrative processes.” Another way of describing the corrosion of communities is that contemporary rituals have become “as-if-rituals,” in other words, shallow. 

The rituals that Han refers to aim to stabilize identity, to make one “at home in the world.” He refers to the Hungarian writer Péter Nádas who describes a village with an ancient pear tree at the centre, which for Han is an example of “a ritually closed place”. Under the pear tree the villagers gather and contemplate silently. In his work, Nádas unfolds a collective consciousness that “creates a community without communication.”  

Han is aware that his ideas are closely related to modern-day nationalism, but with the help of Hegel, he claims that the “spirit is a closure, an enclosing power which, however, incorporates the other” but without changing the culture that Han sees as something original, fixed and even sacred. For the same reason, he postulates that societies seek closure, or a clear identity, which for him is a “society of rules,” where such “rules rest on agreement.” Yet he doesn’t explore the difficulties in establishing rules in societies inhabited by narcissistic cultural, racial, gender, and other group identities. He paints his critique with broad strokes and, equally vaguely, states: “We must defend an ethics of beautiful forms.” 

The kind of rituals that Han proposes are rituals of closure, for example, religious festivals. For the same reason, he claims that culture unfortunately has been made profane. For Han, “culture is a form of closure, and so founds an identity.” 

I would disagree with him and claim that a closed cultural identity is a fiction. Cultures change, yet Han is persistent, for instance, when he sees danger in Deleuze’s and Guattaris’s concepts of becoming and rhizome. Unlike the two French philosophers, Han operates with a metaphysics of being. Again, I would disagree with Han by suggesting that the problem of today is related to an idealized or normative notion of being, and the result is that most people seek the same thing and do the same thing to gain attention, prestige and status or to gain followers and likes (cf. the echo chambers). There is a lack of critical thinking because people would rather feel protected and at home, that is, identified. Finally, when Deleuze and Guattari speak about becoming, it is never about the point from which something originates (e.g., cultural identity) or the point at which it arrives. Their concept of becoming is closer to “play,” which Han leans toward at the end of his book, perhaps to overcome the risk of appearing too nostalgic in his urge for rituals.

In Homo Ludens (1955), Johan Huizinga summarizes play as “free activity … an activity connected with no material interest … a voluntary activity.” Play is intrinsically valued. Later, with the Enlightenment, play was contrasted with work. Work was serious, play was unserious—a waste of time. Still, some philosophers suggest otherwise—and here Han could have improved his book by consulting more recent literature about sport and philosophy. 

Yet, to gain closure in Han’s argument, readers might be curious about what play can offer. “Thinking has the character of play” because there is no thinking without eros—or joy and freedom, I would add. 

Play is related to seduction, and with this concept, Han succeeds in tying play to rituals as something exterior, something that is repeated as when Kierkegaard’s seducer turns up at the same place every day in Cordelia’s life. Seduction also requires dwelling or time as duration because it requires a secret—a transparent person is never seductive—because all narratives are fed by a secret story. That secret might even be related to why so many people play, or watch other people play which, according to Novak (see epigraph), might have something to do with play being real, honest, and true.

Thus, what is the secret that brings people together? Play, rituals, seduction. 

After reading a few of Han’s books, you know what to expect: more of the same. To his credit, he adds a little extra each time to stimulate new readers. In this book, it is rituals and play, although he could have spent more time exploring these concepts, especially the latter. 

Still, Han’s books can awaken an appetite for a more critical approach to society—for both students and critically orientated citizens. 

Finn Janning, PhD, philosopher and writer – review first published in Metapsychology