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

Freedom is the element of love

Søren Kierkegaard, the Danish philosopher and the so-called “father of existentialism” was born today, May 5 in 1813. To celebrate, I drink a bottle of champagne and share this essay which, recently, was published in the Wild Roof Journal.

A man in his late fifties enters a tattoo shop in Barcelona. He shows up unannounced with his new girlfriend. They are both a little bit drunk.

“Can you write her name on my arm?” he asks the young female tattoo artist who was busy tattooing me. 

Before waiting for an answer, he rolls up the sleeves of his grayish sweatshirt. “Here,” he says, pointing to a vacant spot of bare skin close to his wrist. I notice that his arm already carries four other female names. Three of them are crossed out. 

“I need you to cross out the last one and add her name,” he says, as he points to his partner. Her. 

The tattooist looks at the man’s arm, looks at the lady, and says, “Lucky you!” 

Is she being ironic? 

She observes, “Before he didn’t have room for you; now he does.”

Love and Freedom Are Bound Together 

This episode makes me think of the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, who once wrote in a letter to his fiancée, Regine Olsen, “Freedom is the element of love.” This statement encapsulates the two most important features of a life worth living: freedom and love. 

You’re free to do almost whatever you want as long as you’re willing to take all the consequences. It goes without saying that you’re never free to violate or harm anyone, deliberately, which also has nothing to do with love. Love is edifying, as Kierkegaard writes wrote in Works of Love (1847). 

For Kierkegaard, love is the metaphysical foundation of life; it is what is. Yet, combined with freedom, love can take many forms: friendships, parents, lovers, etc. 

Regardless of one’s gender or sexual orientation, what is important when it comes to love is there; it exists. We are all free to experience the possibilities of love, but doing so in our own way. Looking at Kierkegaard through the recollection of this episode, I believe it illustrates—or at least encourages me to reflect on—something more general about society than whether a few people like ink or not. 

For example, many people in today’s achievement-oriented society who suffer from insecurity, anxiety, stress, or burnout do so because they feel alone. They basically lack the experience of real and honest contact with other people. Often even with themselves, as when Wittgenstein defines a philosophical problem with being lost. 

Isn’t showing a new acquaintance, a potential lover, that your arm already carries the names of four other women a way of showing honesty? A way of trying to facilitate real contact? Create a space where love can flourish, despite it all?

If I am right, then there was nothing sad about it for him or her. Quite the contrary, being unconnected with other lives leads to sadness. Unfortunately, many people live behind what resembles a firewall that falsely protects our vulnerability or fear of losing face while, at the same time, prevents us from connecting with other people. It’s like a veil between the world, you, and me. 

Are we being too  polite to be honest?

Many, would probably feel embarrassed if they had to cross out a name on their arm, especially if they hadn’t learned from their first, second, and third mistakes, but just kept on adding name after name. Still, they would only be embarrassed because they would look at themselves through the ideals or norms of others, especially those people with whom they might hope to be identified. This, I believe, illustrates how the existential and political tend to become indistinguishable. For instance, in today’s identity-political sphere, many tend to criticize or oppose other people, thoughts, or forms of life, not because of critical thinking but due to prejudices. Knowing how easy it is to fall outside in a society where people tend to shoot before they ask, or even think (if they think at all), firewalls eventually emerge. 

Freedom, therefore, also becomes a question of power. As Byung-Chul Han has shown in What Is Philosophy? (2019), “Violence and freedom are the two end points on the scale of power.” Although there is a tendency among philosophers to leave power to political scientists and organizational theorists, power addresses existential questions. 

For instance, whether those subjected to power follow their own desire while doing so, or whether they follow the desire of the powerful as if it were their own, or whether they even anticipate the desire of the other. Thus, regardless of how trite this may sound, I believe that many people lack the courage and creativity to live the life they want (again, I am thinking of any kind of life that doesn’t deliberately harm anyone). If we are afraid of losing our good standing among people who don’t actually tolerate any diversion from their own ideals, we are not free, and therefore—following Kierkegaard—not capable of loving. The kind of firewall that I refer to is mainly constituted by powerful norms and ideals of our current achievement-focused society that constantly forces us to live in a particular way. 

For example, many young people today feel a pressure to attain an unrealistic body image, often only achieved through plastic surgery or synthetic enhancement. Or how we may feel forced to develop certain competences or express warranted opinions (typically only those that already fit into or enhance our “human capital”). The result of this capitalization of life is that we drain ourselves emotionally, mentally, and physically. We not only fail to live up to all the ideals but also to forgive ourselves for not being able to do so. We have lost our direction in life playing the power-game of others.

To Become Free 

Returning to the opening episode, we must understand that instead of one true love, some people might experience several. Similarly, instead of claiming that there only exists one right way of living a life worth living, there are several. If Western philosophy teaches us anything, it is that we are always placed in the middle, trying to do our best, exploring and testing life. That is testing our freedom and desires, like asking whether our desire to do this or that really is our desire, or whether we’re just being seduced, forced, or manipulated.

According to Kierkegaard in his letter, love and freedom cannot be separated. Feeling loved and being capable of love make a person free. A simple example could be how most people feel free when they are together with their loved ones. Together with friends, we can turn off our protective firewall. 

The French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau opens The Social Contract (1762) with the claim: “Man was born free, and he is everywhere in chains.” Despite the power of this sentence I don’t believe we are born free; on the contrary, as a father of three, I have noticed that we are all born helpless and impotent. Still, to some extent, I agree with Rousseau. Instead of cultivating a capacity for critical thinking and compassion in our children, most future citizens are institutionalized in a way that chains them mentally. For the same reason, I agree with Rousseau when he goes on to say: “Those who think themselves masters of others are instead greater slaves than they.” They, the masters, maintain a self-constraining system, yet they do so because they seduce themselves into believing that the systematic status and prestige they have reflects how good they are at living a life worth living. But it doesn’t. 

To become free in an existential sense requires more than stripes on the shoulder, a high salary, or being born in a privileged part of the world. It requires first of all an acknowledgement and respect towards the world we are born into, its norms and ideals, but also an empathic yet critical capacity to question these norms and ideals, the structure behind them, perhaps even to change them. In my book A Philosophy of Mindfulness (2018), I defined freedom as a combination of having the courage to stand against all that which limits, controls, or even destroys our lives, combined with the imagination to create space for alternative lives. It’s a mixture of resistance and inventiveness. Or, to put it even more simply, a mixture of saying both “no” and “yes.” The reason why I don’t believe that we are born free is related to the fact that in order to know what is important, we will have to have tested, explored, or experimented with life. With age, most people know when to say “no”; however, they only know so because they become conscious of what to affirm or say “yes” to. 

Love All People as Equals 

Reflecting on the couple entering the tattoo parlor, I propose that we might see them as a couple that, despite their setbacks, imagines a world where love is still possible. They still know what is important, what to affirm: love.

Another way of confirming that freedom and love are the main ingredients of a life worth living could be by postulating that egocentrism is the exact opposite of freedom. I say so because I only believe we can become free together. Saying this, I am aware that some may suggest that the man entering the tattoo parlor is being egocentric in the act of getting a tattoo of each woman’s name. However, such an assumption would require that we see the tattoo as a symbol of more than it is, for example, a kind of ownership or possession which is a part of our habitual capitalist mindset. On the other hand, the tattoo might be nothing more than a faithful confirmation of the strength of love. Of course, the tattoo—-especially in this situation with so many names—-can make us think of the person as naive, romantic, or too spontaneous, and yet, it is also an affirmation that emphasizes what connects those names on his arm: love. 

Love is everywhere the same, although it always expresses itself differently. 

Kierkegaard illustrated this strength in Works of Love (1847)where he elaborated on the biblical sentence “Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself,” stressing that “thy neighbor” does not refer to your people, nation, gender or sexual orientation, but all people. We should love all people as equals.

Now this is something that very few of us are capable of, but even more sadly, loving everyone as equals (not equally) is something that many of us don’t even strive to accomplish. Capitalism has made us lazy in a comfortable way, either by avoiding any kind critical scrutinization of our own pre-existing biases, or by assuming that all problems can be overcome through consumption. On the contrary, love teaches us to become worthy of what happens. It’s hard work but nothing is more enriching and liberating. 

Kierkegaard, in my opinion, doesn’t present us with an abstract ideal of love; rather, he confronts our confusion and limitations, which can be extremely powerful in a time where many are so self-conscious of their own way of thinking (often anchored solely in their race, gender or sexuality) that they become resistant to alternative perspectives. 

Perhaps this more humble approach to life could lead to a more caring educational mission: How can we teach people today what makes them capable of loving all people tomorrow? 

Love is all inclusive

This reflection of love, freedom, and tattoos has become more political than intended. However, and perhaps I am being too romantic or naive as well, I do believe that love belongs in a political context as well. The power of love transforms not only our lives but also societies by overturning the cultures of domination and repression because they have nothing to do with love. For example, when we are dominated or dominate someone, we are never free. Violence and coercion are lifeless. In other words, those who misuse power (not those in power per se) do so because they are not free. A parent hitting his or her child might claim that he or she did so “out of love”, although it is just an act of violence. 

Love is all inclusive. Or as Kierkegaard said, we should love everyone as equals, not favoring our own gender or religion. Our human history is full of violence, discrimination and killing of women for being women, killing and discriminations of different races, religions or thoughts solely for being different. Human history is one where far too many only like the stranger as long as he or she thinks exactly like them. Thus, there are many reasons to be angry, and anger often comes with a clearer vision, just as there is a lot of needed fuel in it, and yet in order to build or construct a better future, only love can do the work. Love cares for everyone and everything. It was there before we were born, and it will be here once we are gone. Love is what links each name together, not just the one on the man’s arm, but all names in human history. 

Love is not hierarchical, nor does it moralize. The tattooist illustrated this. She didn’t moralize as if she represented a higher and more lucrative position of unquestionable “good”. Instead she was open, not just because they were potential paying customers, but due to her capacity to empathize with them. 

The couple in the tattoo parlor shared a belief in love. Not in the sense that life is without difficulties and suffering. It is; but rather that it’s love that helps us overcome these setbacks, never revenge or hate. 

Love, therefore, is not an abstract ideal but something we all experience and notice if we pay attention. It is like pointing out what all football fans share regardless of their favorite team, which is a love of the game; what all languages share, which is the ability to communicate, make connections, and dialogue; what all people share regardless of national origin, which is that they live on this planet; or what all of us share regardless of gender, race, and sexual preference, which is that we need sunlight to live and that we all breathe the same air. 

If we can love all people as equals, then we would also be capable of seeing why all people should be treated with the same respect, trust, care, and justice. There is no love without mutual respect and equality. However, and this is why I have been using this little episode about the man and women as my point of departure; if I cannot encounter two drunk people in a tattoo parlor without feeling better than them, pitying them or any other kind of sad behavior that would illustrate my embedded prejudices, how should I then make myself available for those who live lives far more different.

Is love bulletproof then? Without answering directly, I would claim that the mistakes we make in love can be crossed out. We can go on living because they initially emerged from a free, honest, and nondiscriminating relationship to and with life. It’s an honest mistake. The man in the tattoo parlor doesn’t hide his previous relationships. On the contrary, he brings (or she brings him) to make another affirmation of love. It is like an ethical confirmation; despite all the discrimination, greed, and violence in today’s world, we must “go on” affirming what matters. Daily.

You know when you’re in love. Or to put it differently: if you’re doubting, you’re not in love.

The last thing I heard the tattooist ask the man as I left the store was, “Are you sure?”

“Do I look like I am doubting?”

 It was her saying those last words. 

Transparency, trust & predictability

In the book The Transparent Society (1992), Italian philosopher Gianni Vattimo says, “All things are reduced to the level of pure presences that can be measured, manipulated, replaced, and therefore easily dominated and organized—and in the end man, his interiority and historicity are all reduced to the same level.” In a similarly titled book, The Transparency Society (2017), Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han reaches the same reductive conclusion: “The transparent society is a hell of the same.” 

Transparency leads to predictability. It’s a society that trims everything risky, chaotic, turbulent, or different to look the same. Such a society is characterized by its smoothness and a desire to make everything clean and neat, as Han writes in Saving Beauty (2018) when he detects this smoothness in artist Jeff Koons’s sculptures, as well as in iPhones and Brazilian waxing.

Still, regardless of these less encouraging descriptions of transparency, the general understanding of it is overtly positive. Uncritically, many people ask for more transparency when problems emerge. “The more transparent, the better” seems to be the mantra. For this reason alone, I think we need to reflect a bit more on the concept. 

Read the entire essay in Erracticus

The philosophy of Byung-Chul Han

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

‘Weapons’ may give us the wrong associations, but what he refers to are concepts that, like a brick, can be used to destroy what is hindering the growth of our lives, and at the same time, help us build or create something sustainable.

The Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s work can be seen a toolbox aimed at helping us understand our contemporary society, while also presenting us with concrete ideas, thoughts or ‘weapons’ that might help us overcome or resist our own weak desires and vanities.

Read the rest of my portrait of Byung-Chul Han that I wrote for The Mindful Word 

My review of The expulsion of the other

My review of In the Swarm

My review of Saving beauty

A small feature on Han, can be read here.

Shouldn’t I say something out of love?

Readers of the stream of philosophical blogging that I have produced during the last few years will be familiar with the Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Behind me, I have 11 or 12 of his books—small essays to be more exact—and some of them I have mentioned here, here, and here.

In The Expulsion of the Other (2018), Han continues his analysis of our everyday existence in today’s achievement society. The Other is expulsed due to the terror of the Same.

“In that hell of sameness, humans are nothing but remote-controlled puppets.”

Expanding on this idea, Han returns to the question “Why?”. He claims that if it becomes irrelevant, nothing is understood, then adds, “knowledge is understanding … Insight in an emphatic sense is also transformative.” That philosophical thinking is transformative is well known, but some philosophers—especially phenomenalists—may differ regarding the Why-question, claiming that it leads to unending regress: because, because, because. Instead, for example, Merleau-Ponty would prefer How- and What-questions.

Still, Han’s errand is to illustrate that when everything is reduced to the Same, we become blind or deaf because the strangeness or even the painfulness of the Other is erased. The world turns flat and boring. After all, the subject of seduction is the Other: “the Other as eros.”

Eros is part of thinking, an idea that Han developed in his essay The Agony of Eros; it’s Eros that makes us courageous enough to take a step into the unknown.

Continuing, Han stresses that neoliberalism is not guided by reason; quite on the contrary the freedom of neoliberalism is an advertisement: “… freedom itself is exploited. People willingly exploits themselves under the illusion of realizing themselves.”

“We do it to ourselves,” as Radiohead once sang, “and that’s what really hurts.”

The ideas that Han present here are not new. He has repeated these, at least, since the publication of Müdigkeitsgesellschaft in 2010 (English, The Burnout Society, 2017). But still, like repeating a good joke, small nuances are added.

Han’s style is Hegelian; he operates in dualism. It makes him easy to follow but at times he misses, at least in my opinion, the blurry gap in between. For example, Sameness is bad because it makes us numb whereas the Other opens us for thinking; negativity is good because it challenges and affects us, whereas the terror of positivity makes us empty; love is the answer whereas today’s narcissism and the endless string of selfies only creates emptiness and depression; it’s better to listen than just communicate. Lastly, today’s notion of authenticity is “the self’s neoliberal form of production.”

It’s difficult not to agree. Today people optimize their bodies and souls to become attractive, sellable commodities. Status, prestige, and power are guided by the market, not by love as a political and transformative power.

Still, when Han quotes Deleuze for saying, “Playing the fool has always been a function of philosophy” because the philosopher breaks with the predominant, i.e., the Same, Han tends to be against or opposing the Same from an opposite position. Black or white. However, in my opinion, Deleuze’s philosophy doesn’t create an opposition to a dominant position; rather he is more prepositional, more immanent, placed in the midst of life pointing out new forms of life.

Han, on the other hand, is transcendental. I sense his German roots, Hegel and especially Heidegger, when it comes to truth and origin. He tends to aim at reawakening an “original animal” within. For example, he follows Heidegger’s concept of Eigenlichkeit, the potential for being that suffers from the seductive power of They (Das Man). We are narcissistic in the eyes of the Other because we want to be liked and followed by them, but Han want us to be more true to ourselves regardless what They say and feel. Intuitively I follow him (although I understand the self as a changing process of becoming, not something solid but something else), and similar ideas can be found, for instance, in psychologist Edward Deci’s Why We Do What We Do, where he writes, “…narcissism involves desperately seeking affirmation from others.

Narcissism is not the result of Eigenlichkeit, but is its antithesis.

Continuing, Han writes that the constant hypercommunication “destroys both you and closeness. Relationships are replaced by connections.”

How do we overcome the terror of positivity, the hell of Sameness?  Han suggests that we use listening as a generous invitation for another to speak. “Listening is a bestowal, a giving, a gift. It helps the Other to speak in the first place.” My silence, therefore, expresses a hospitality.

In conclusion, Han tells us what most of us already know, but unfortunately many find it difficult to live up to: Love is the answer. “Only eros is capable of freeing the I from depression, from narcissistic entanglement in itself.”

What Han doesn’t explore sufficiently in this essay is the delicate balance between a healthy self-love (I would call it self-care) and narcissism; that is, today many people are selling love, praying love, even acting lovingly but in a way that seems to be fueled by their desire for status and prestige related to being a loving person. There is a political correctness that has even invaded love, playing with Heidegger’s distinction between Eigenlichkeit and Das Man; authenticity and They.

It could be interesting to relate his ideas to Spinoza, who defines love as the increase of our joy, as well as of our power to act and think, with the recognition of an external cause. His love is social. Thus, instead of striving to be honest towards myself (Eigenlichkeit), maybe I should try to engage with love and care for others. In a way it would make better sense to love my wife than myself because her love makes me more powerful and joyous. And, therefore, I can act with more compassion socially.

I’m not sure that Han would disagree with these preliminary thoughts; still, what he gains in his accessible and stimulating analysis is perhaps what I miss: a more thorough study where the treatment and diagnosis hang together better. For example, yes, we should listen, but what do we do when what we hear is unacceptable, such as misogyny, racism, and extreme nationalism? Shouldn’t I say something out of love?

If love is the answer, then it means that when there is no doubt, there is love. Seen in this light, Han’s book is full of compassion because every time love is absent, we should doubt, imagine, think … how to enhance love.


First published in Metapsychology, Volume 22, Issue 43

Learn to philosophize

Today, we live in a society organized mainly by capitalism. Not only is making money an objective that guides many people’s lives, but so are prestige, status, and social identity. Even when corporations claim that “people come first,” they refer to their employees’ skills and experiences as “human capital” or “cultural capital.”

Everything we do is a currency that can be counted. This problem can be seen through two concepts: power and freedom.

Today, the power that controls us (i.e. status, prestige, identity) appears invisible unless we pay very careful attention. But—and this is the problem—we rarely pay attention because that which works as an invisible or imperceptible power is also what seduces us not to pay attention.

The consequence is that we are not free. Freedom can be seen as both a problem and a possibility. It is becoming, emphasizing that we become by combining courage to stand against dominating ideals and norms with the imagination that things could be different. Thus, freedom is more than my individual liberty to do whatever I feel like doing because that neglects how everything is interconnected. Freedom is social; it’s about succeeding in creating a sustainable future—together.

Most philosophers – and this is probably no surprise – suggest that thinking is the best remedy against today’s maladies. But in order to think philosophically (i.e. reflect, contemplate, analyze) we must be capable of loving, that is, relating to others and the world with care.

Socrates is the example. He philosophized for free. And he showed that philosophy is social. Perhaps for that reason is it difficult to philosophize today when we have become too narcissistic. “The narcissistic-depressive subject only hears its own echo… Social media like Twitter and Facebook aggravate this development, they are narcissistic media,” wrote Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han In The Swarm.

The question, therefore, is: how do we learn to pay attention?

Philosophy and mindfulness in the schools

The answer is to bring philosophy and mindfulness to schools at all levels, although my errand here is at business schools. Business is, of course, part of the current problem as well as it can become a crucial part of the solution.

Mindfulness is easy to implement as a non-religious meditation practice which helps cultivate and strengthen our capacity to pay attention. With this in mind, future leaders can with greater success make sustainable and responsible decisions that are not grounded in their own egos, or the ego of the board members. The point is to cultivate an awareness that will gradually make it desirable to make decisions on behalf of others – if for no other reason, then because we are all connected.

The combination of philosophy and mindfulness, I believe, is one the strongest assets against today’s rigid achievement society that makes many of us suffer in a way that very few people realize that they themselves are the perpetrators of their own misery. It’s also a strong tool against the current idea that transparency per se is good, although it undermines the most elementary of human relations: trust.

Still, before future leaders can act in a sustainable way, they must be aware of what is actually going on. And it is here that business schools can be part of creating a better future for all, because instead of speaking about attention and concentration, we can develop it. And once future leaders are aware, they will also question some of the models used in business.

The blogpost was originally post at Esencialblog at Toulouse Business School – Barcelona.

Et demokrati kræver myndige mennesker

“Journalisten er den, som kan tilføre information en etisk såvel som æstetisk ramme. En ramme, der ikke kun handler om at behage læseren, men også om at oplyse, støde, problematisere og fabulere. Gode journalister er gode observatører; de er gode til at tolke det, som sker, hvorved de formår at give informationerne et skær af saglighed, som læseren derefter kan vurdere fornuften af ved hjælp af forstand.”

Fra min kronik Et demokrati kræver myndige mennesker. Det skal journalistikken hjælpe med bragt i Information. Den påpeger vigtigheden af den gode journalistik i en ’postfaktuel æra’, fordi den kan træne, pleje og skærpe den kollektive forstand. Modsat skaber den mindre gode journalister umyndige læsere, der ikke længere evner at skelne mellem sandt og falsk.

Life is a shockingly hairy crotch

“The smooth is the signature of the present time,” writes philosopher Byung-Chul Han in Saving beauty. This kind of smoothness, he continues, “connects the sculptures of Jeff Koons, iPhones and Brazilian waxing.”

Han claims that today smoothness is the same as beauty, and this concept embodies today’s society of positivity. We live in a society that offers no resistance; we simply look for others to like us or like what we have posted. Smooth, smoother, smoothest = good, better, best.

Another way of saying this is that a lot of contemporary art works in concert with neoliberal capitalism, instead of resisting or working against it. For instance, Han contends that Koons is, “arguably the most successful living artist at the present is a master of smooth surfaces.” In other words, Koons is playing the capitalistic game. What determines success is the ability to sell your art. Success is here being defined as being known and admired.  Koons’ version of art does not require the artist to open an “echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence,” as Han writes. “The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether.”

Koons is about as progressive as a Brazilian waxing.

For readers, who are familiar with Han’s work, Saving Beauty unfolds the same arguments against today’s achievement society. Han discusses the transparent, porno, and burnt-out society we have become. What is sad, of course, is that art, apparently, has also been reduced to something kitsch: shiny tulips, balloons, and smoothness.

This book is full of startling, precise statements. For example, he says, “A selfie is precisely such, an empty, expressionless face.” The addiction that our current society seems to have with taking selfies only illustrates an actual emptiness of the ego. It lacks character, and instead, it is smooth and easily likeable.

The core argument in Savage beauty is that today, beautiful equals smooth, clean, and transparent. In contrast, in earlier times, like during the era of Plato, Kant, and Hegel, there was no distinction between beauty and the sublime. Experiencing sublime beauty is not supposed to be pleasurable; rather, it hurts. It makes you fall and stumble. It is similar to falling in love because you can lose yourself and act rather stupid.

“The sight of beauty does not cause pleasure, but shocks,” Han stresses. I must admit that although I attend exhibitions monthly, I rarely am affected. Visiting the Guggenheim in Bilbao earlier this year, I had a chance to experience Koons’ tulips, which was a pleasurable experience. However, they did not affect me like Richard Serra’s The Matter of Time did. With Serra’s work, I found that his huge iron sculptures opened for me an encounter where I interrelated with the work in a way that affected my equilibrium. The viewing his work made me become someone else. That is the beauty of experiencing your own fragility.

“Instead of opposing the sublime to the beautiful, one should return to beauty a sublimity that cannot be subjected to inwardness,” writes Han. Art can shake us, make us see the world differently, and make us perceive our own limitedness and flaws. “The longing for beauty,” Han says, “is ultimately the longing for a different mode of being, for another, altogether non-violent form of life.” Unfortunately, the digital nature of beauty in our current age has removed all negativity or otherness that might have existed. All there is left is something likeable. Yet, following Heidegger, Han suggests that concealment is essential to beauty since “transparency and beauty do not go together.”

This reflects how information cannot be veiled, whereas knowledge can retreat into secrecy. Art is related to the secret story as Roberto Bolaño once said. It conceals something for us, but it often does so in a way that it painful and not pleasurable. Art  requires hard work. “Without injury, there is not truth,” Han claims. The smiles and likes of today, “lacks any intensity, any quality of a shock.”

Beauty is located, somewhere “between disaster and depression,” according to Han, “… inherent to beauty is a weakness, a fragility, and a brokenness.” I have experienced that feeling with the artwork created by Serra, not with Koons’ work.

In today’s transparent consumeristic society, art is rarely contemplative. The ideal consumer, Han argues, is a person without character. The ideal worker or citizen in today’s neoliberal and capitalistic society tolerates everything as long as it sells. Nothing is avoided because there might exist a market somewhere for it. “Facebook is a characterless market,” Han writes. Art, when it is made smoother, is characterless as well.

Still, why all the fuss about saving beauty? Why must we fight to save it?

“Beauty promises freedom and reconciliation,” and “truth is freedom,” as Han writes. In other words, a world of smoothness is false; it’s a world of “post-truth.”

For Han, the beautiful is both true and good, it’s almost like the Korean-German philosopher is turning Platonic.

Han is a strong critic of contemporary society. He elegantly hides his own moralism (most of the time). When “beauty frees me from myself,” Han points out, then saving beauty is also a way to rescue the other. It represents an opportunity to save the negative and that which constitutes me as another.

Han ultimately ends up embracing the philosophy of Alain Badiou, especially, his idea that the task of philosophy is to be loyal or faithful towards whatever binds us together. (Han also ended up with Badiou in his essay, The Agony of Eros).

If there is a morale, it is that we have to show fidelity to what takes place. Fidelity is unconditional in that it presupposes commitment. That means, that we once again should try to become capable of matching all parts of life, not just when life is pleasurable and smooth. We must do so even when life is a shockingly hairy crotch or chest. To do so is to save democracy. Or as Han finishes his essay: “The saving of beauty is the saving of that which commits us.”

I recommend the book.

See also my review of Buyng-Chul Han’s In The Swarm.

Algo sobre Byung-Chul Han

“Ya no vivimos en una sociedad disciplinaria controlada por las prohibiciones o mandatos, sino más bien en una sociedad orientada al logro del que es supuestamente libre,” según el filósofo Byung-Chul Han.

Y continua, “Sí, presumimos que somos libres, pero en realidad somos nosotros mismos quienes, de manera voluntaria y casi pasional, nos empujamos hasta llegar al colapso.”

La video artista alemana Isabella Greeser dirigió este poético documental sobre Han. Este documental tuvo su premier mundial el 9 de febrero (2015) en el Centre de Cultura Contemporánea de Barcelona (CCCB). Unos cuantos cientos de personas acudieron al show.

Byung-Chul Han es popular no solo en Alemania, sino también en España, donde cinco de sus libros han sido traducidos al español. La tesis de Han es que el neoliberalismo de hoy ha transformado la política, en una –Psicopolítica– como titula otro de sus libros. La lógica del neoliberalismo ha invadido nuestras mentes. Esto es triste porque nuestra mente es todo lo que tenemos. Es nuestra habilidad de estar presente en nuestra vida, nos permite pensar, y amar y ahora está amenazada por esta invasión.

Nos encogemos mentalmente. Cada vez más se dice y hace de la misma forma, casi de manera hipnótica y acrítica, siguiendo la corriente. Todo esto es extraño, secreto o negativo, en otras palabras, todo lo que pasa por nuestra mente desaparece, debido a la repetición continua de la mismidad. Parece que todos los aspectos de la vida sufren de la idea de “mejores prácticas”, tan popular en las organizaciones empresariales. Nos falta un enfoque crítico con tono creativo para superar este confinamiento.

En la película documental, seguimos a Byung-Chul Han mientras pasea por las calles de Berlín. Habla de su pasión por las tiendas de antigüedades, que al parecer allí soportan el paso del tiempo. Al pasar por la tumba del filósofo Georg W. F. Hegel, comenta que para él ha sido su filósofo más influyente.

Con rapidez te das cuenta de que Byung-Chul Han no tiene prisa, aunque publique con la rapidez de Usain Bolt. Aun así, no parece motivado con la actuación como tal. Al contrario, él se detiene. Se sienta. Lee. Cierra sus ojos. ¡Para! Todo esto son formas de Resistencia hacia la positividad de hoy. Afortunadamente, él no es parte de lo que en algún lugar se llama “el terror de positividad.”

La filosofía es un tiempo intermedio, señala en La sociedad del cansancio. La filosofía puede ser entendida como el tiempo de “no-hacer”, “tiempo de paz”, como él lo llama, refiriéndose a Peter Handke. El concepto de “no-hacer” También se asemeja a los elementos de la atención plena en la que subraya que no necesitamos estar haciendo cosas constantemente. “No-hacer” permite que las cosas se desarrollen a su propio ritmo.

A mitad de la película, Byung-Chul Han vuela a Seúl donde nació en 1959. En esta parte del mundo, la relevancia de la tesis y el análisis del filósofo se hace aún más evidente. La gente está agotada. Duermen en el metro, en los autobuses, detrás de la caja registradora. Parece una tragicomedia. Los que no están durmiendo viven a través de la luz resplandeciente de los omnipresentes teléfonos móviles, ¿Funcionan los teléfonos móviles como los marcapasos?

La filosofía de Han, como la mayoría de las formas de meditación budista, trata de liberarnos de la ilusión convencional de tener un yo. Por otra parte, a diferencia de sus estudiantes universitarios alemanes de la Escuela de Frankfurt, Han no es normativo en su crítica, sino inmanente. Esto hace que su enfoque sea más creativo. La mayor parte de su crítica se realiza como práctica. Se trata de cambiar nuestra relación con el mundo, por ejemplo, dice que está bien no hacer nada.

Byung-Chul Han afirma en La agonía del Eros que muchos de nosotros nos hemos convertido en narcisistas, y me resulta difícil no estar de acuerdo con él. Como Narciso, más y más personas caen en el agua y se ahogan. O su vida se desvanece, mientras que la gente está buscando en Google su propio nombre. O saltan de un puente. Corea del Sur se encuentra en la parte superior de la lista de países con la tasa más alta de suicidio. En la película, Han pasa por un puente en Seúl, un sitio muy popular para los suicidios. Al parecer, nadie intenta comprender la depresión que lleva a muchos a cometer suicidio. Más bien, la tristeza se encubrió con citas de poemas junto con imágenes coloridas de deliciosos platos de fideos. Pero  ¿que vale más, un plato de fideos o tu vida?

El capitalismo neoliberal se ha vuelto loco. El capitalismo es como un tren sin frenos. Estamos agotados; tenemos que abrazar una sociedad cansada donde está bien no hacer nada por un tiempo. En lugar de amor y compasión, tenemos estrés, agotamiento y depresión.

Es el momento de tomar un descanso. Pausa. Cierra tus ojos. Respira.


For more on Byung-Chul Han (in English), please see my review of In the Swarm, or my review of Saving beauty.

In Danish: anmeldelse af Transparenssamfundet , I Sværmen & Træthedsamfundet

Mindfulness for begyndere

Mindfulness drejer sig om at leve ved fuld bevidsthed. Bevidstheden er ikke kun noget kognitiv, men i lige så høj grad noget kropsligt. Med den franske filosof Merleau-Pontys begreb ”la chair” (kødet) kan man sige, at erfaringen –  det at leve – sætter sig i både sindet og kødet på en.

Bevidstheden er en passagen mod større og større grad af opmærksomhed. For at skærpe ens opmærksomhed og nærvær opererer mindfulness med to vinger: 1) koncentration (samatha meditation) og 2) observation (vipassana meditation).

Koncentrationen svarer til at stikke en pind i jorden, hvor du sætter en elastik omkring. Indenfor elastikkens rækkevidde kan du observere koncentreret, det vil sige uden at blive forstyrret eller lade dig distrahere. Du kan læse koncentreret, selvom bilerne larmer udenfor. Men kan du også læse koncentreret i en bus fuld af skolebørn? På camp nou, mens Barcelona taber til Real Madrid? Gradvist kan elastikkens elasticitet udvides. Erfaringen af  nye øjeblikke, kan hjælpe en med bedre at kende ens egne begrænsninger. I realiteten kan ens rummelighed eller elasticitet udvides så meget, at hele ens liv leves i en koncentreret observation: mindfulness.

Mindfulness handler om at blive fortrolig med det ufortrolige, bekvem med det ubekvemme, idet man formår at etablere en indre stilhed, hvorved man uforstyrret kan observere, det som sker, uden at dømme. Af samme grund kan man også handle mere hensigtsmæssigt i stedet for blot at reagere.

For den franske filosof Gilles Deleuze handler etik om ikke at være uværdig til at bære eller rumme det, som sker. Det, som livet møder en med. Etikken bliver en livsform, mere end et regelsæt. Hvordan udvider man løbende sin kapacitet til at blive påvirket uden pludselig at lukke af, fordi man ikke rumme mere? Hvordan gøres ens elastik mere elastisk?

I sin korteste form er mindfulness meditation (jf. opmærksomhed og observation), men meditation alene fører nødvendigvis ikke til en mere etisk og vis levevis, selvom dette er intentionen. Der findes flere forskellige former for meditation, der alle har til formål at transformere eller kultivere sindet. Den amerikanske meditationslære Joseph Goldstein, skriver: ”Hvis du vil forstå dit sind, sæt dig ned og observer det.”

Kunsten er at leve opmærksom og nærværende. Hele tiden. Meditation er på den måde kun laboratorieundersøgelser. Personligt ønsker jeg ikke at leve hele mit liv med min røv placeret på en pude, mens jeg med krydsende ben observerer mit sind. Snarere vil jeg gøre hele livet til et stort laboratorium, hvilket filosoffer altid har gjort.

Mange praktiserer i dag mindfulness for at minimere flere af livets store og små utilfredsheder. Det kan være det stressende pres, der udspringer af især samfundets neoliberale præstationskrav. Der er dog også mange, der stresser sig selv på grund af deres tilgang til livet. De vil ikke gå glip af noget. Af samme grund er der mange, der praktiserer mindfulness for at kunne forholde sig anderledes til verden, fx med en større grad af venlighed og generøsitet.

Ifølge Buddhismen, hvorfra mindfulness stammer, er ethvert liv lidelsesfuldt, men disse lidelser kan undgås (eller minimeres) ifølge Buddha, såfremt en person formår at leve koncentreret (mindfulness), etisk og vist. Denne trebenede skammel behøver selvsagt samtlige ben, hvis ikke det hele skal vælte omkuld. Eksempelvis vil en øget forståelse eller visdom lede til en mere ansvarlig, etisk eller moden levevis, som igen kan skærpes ved at man løbende udvikler og udvider sit refleksions- og erfaringsrum. Eller omvendt. Der er ingen rangering. En øget selvindsigt medfører, at selvbedraget gradvist minimeres. Det betyder, at de erfaringer og erkendelser som opstår, når du observerer sindet har betydning for din måde at leve og tænke på – såfremt man tør acceptere disse.

* * *

Når du mediterer, vågner du op. Det er i hvert fald ideen med meditation, selvom nogen sikkert falder i søvn eller drømmer. Meditation er reelt blot at sætte sig ned, rette ryggen, trække vejret og give slip på ens tanker. Ikke at tænke intet, som det så mytisk påstås af nogle, men at give slip på alle de tanker og følelser, der strømmer gennem en. Uden at dømme de tanker, som passerer.

Meditation handler ikke om navlepilleri. Snarere om at løsrive sig fra den del af verden, hvor titler, prestige, status og magt florerer. At gøre sig mindre forbundet eller afhængig af disse sociale identiteter. Der er tre ting, som er vigtige i forbindelse med meditation eller mindfulness. 1) Det handler ikke om dig, så drop dit ego, 2) Alle levende organismer er en del af den samme verden, gensidigt forbundet, og 3) Medfølelse er afgørende for alt liv.

At anvende mindfulness som en form for ego-trip, har derfor intet med mindfulness at gøre. Det er blot et ego-trip i forklædning.

Det er ikke svært at mediterer, men måske at ville det. Vi trods alt i en verden, hvor det er meget nemt at lade sig distrahere eller underholde. Hele verden synes at være til stede i vores lommer, hvis det altså er der, vi har mobilen. Meditation kan dog hjælpe en med at prioritere.

Hvad er det, som du vil bruge din tid på?

At meditere er en tålmodig og krævende praksis, men også givende. Gradvist har jeg selv erfaret at meditation kan muliggøre længere erkendelser af ren og skær sammenhørighed med livet. En erkendelse af at alt er forbundet.

* * *

Meditation er en slags ikke-gøren, hvilket ikke er det samme som en passiv accept. Snarere et forsøg på aktivt at gøre sig værdig til at erfare, det som sker. Ved fuld bevidsthed. Det minder om Gandhis begreb om ikkevold, som jo heller ikke er et passivt, men derimod en aktiv strategi om ikke at gøre vold. Den tysk-koreanske filosof Byung-Chul Han har i flere værker plæderet for en ikke-gøren, som et sagligt alternativt til den undertrykkelse, som vi selv skaber i vores iver efter at præstere.

Det hele er for så vidt ganske banalt.

Meditation kan fremme en større taknemmelighed, fordi den kan træne vores opmærksomhed på det, som forekommer, mens det forekommer. Denne ide om at selve aktiviteten – nu og her – er værdifuld, findes hos både de stoiske filosoffer og Aristoteles.

* * *

Mindfulness, som flere kalder for hjertet af Buddhismen, er en oversættelse ordet ”sati”, der er skrevet på det ældste buddhistiske sprog Pali. ”Sati” refererer til hukommelse såvel som opmærksomhed. Hvad er det, som man vælger at huske? Som man ikke vil glemme?  Er denne sindsstemning kompetent eller inkompetent? Er denne sindsstemning værd at kultivere eller bedre at opgive?

Mindfulness refererer også til hjertet, ikke kun som en muskel (eller en lidt søgt poetisk metafor), men som en følelsesmæssig intuition, der kan trænes som var det en muskel. Ideen er nu ikke at vi skal følge vores hjerte, som i en romantisk popsang, men træne hjertet ved hjælp af disciplin. Jeg er nok ikke den eneste, der har erfaret at mit ”hjerte” vil noget, som reelt ikke er givende for mig. Men hjertet er et vigtigt organ – selv i disse tider, hvor alt reduceres til hjernen.

Recordar er det spanske ord for at huske og mindes noget; et ord som oprindeligt betyder at noget ”vender tilbage og passerer hjertet.” Ideen er, at ens erindringer passerer hjertet, hvorved man kan prøve at forholde sig anderledes til de ting, som kan ændres, og ikke bekymre sig om de ting, som ikke ændres. Det handler om at rydde op, så man kun gemmer de givende minder eller de minder, som man kan acceptere uden vedvarende frustrationer. Der er ingen grund til at slås med fortiden. Der er ingen grund til at gemme på alt det, som ikke står ens hjerte nært.

Det er altså muligt at etablere en mere givende relation til sin egen fortid. Det vil sige ikke længere gøre sig til offer af ens skæbne, men betragte ens skæbne – uanset hvad – som noget man selv har valgt.

De stoiske filosoffer og Nietzsche, talte om det frigørende i at positionere sig i denne ene verden. Der findes ikke andre. I stedet for at klandre guder eller underkaste sig transcendente idealer, kunne du selv prøve at skabe en flugtvej ud af meningsløsheden.

Selvom mindfulness er et bevidst, opmærksomt og ikkedømmende nærvær i hvert øjeblik, skal man passe på med ikke at gøre nuet til noget helligt. Ethvert nu rummer altid noget fortidigt, som ikke er blevet fuldt ud aktualiseret, ligesom det rummer noget fremtidigt, som endnu er i færd med at blive udfoldet.

Når mindfulness taler om nuet, er det primært af pædagogiske hensyn, for at vi ikke skal dvæle unødigt ved fortiden eller bekymre os om fremtiden. Men nuet som sådan eksisterer ikke, da det jo hele tiden forandrer sig. Sagt anderledes, hunde synes altid at være tilstede i nuet, logrende med halen, på jagt efter et klap eller en kiks, men de er ikke bevidste eller opmærksomme, mens de logrer på halen. Ellers ville de ikke kunne æde sig selv ihjel.

* * *

Så, kan mindfulness alene redde verden? Nej. Ingen eller intet kan redde noget som helst alene. Ændringer kræver et fælles engagement.

Verden bliver nødvendigvis ikke bedre, fordi en eller anden mediterer. Men meditation kan skærpe den enkeltes opmærksomhed på de sociale og politiske strukturer, som hæmmer forskellige former for liv, fx det nuværende præstationssamfunds rigide idealer. Ligesom meditation kan skærpe den enkeltes opmærksomhed på sproget, fx hvordan visse ord implicit undertrykker køn, racer eller seksuelle tilbøjeligheder. Mindfulness kan  endvidere fremme et mere opmærksomt forhold til ens eget forhold til verden. Af samme grund kan mindfulness være dét skub, som nogle mangler for at vågne op, og involvere sig i skabelsen af en mere venlig og bæredygtig verden. Sammen.

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