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

Mindfulness in sports

I spent the final year delivering online classes to students of sport psychology, philosophical leadership, critical thinking, and mindfulness in organizations.

A few times, I did record a session (or more likely: a part of a session) for those students, who – for various reasons – couldn’t attend. Some of these, I’ve decided to share. I hope you will join me.

Catalonia: For the love of thinking

“And don’t say anything. Think of your children,” a woman close to me said.

The woman was not the first and probably will not be the last to tell me not to participate in the debate about what takes place in Spain and Catalonia.

I have lived in Catalonia for almost a decade, my children go to school here, and I love the Catalan and Spanish people here and the mixture and humor they create due to the small differences between them. Yet, I miss critical thinking. I miss that you don’t have to defend yourself constantly, I miss a world where things are not always either black or white, I miss breathing and thinking without all these limitations caused by rigid identity markers.

Let me be very clear: I am against all kinds of police violence, I think that the Spanish president Rajoy is incompetent to the level where I am tempted to call him stupid. But I am not in favor of a Catalan nation, I am not an independentista. And this is where the problem begins. Because if I am not for it, then I must be a fascist, or in favor of state brutality, etc. But I am not.

This very simple exercise is difficult for many to grasp.

The Catalan schools and especially the media have played a very unfortunate role in the creation of a Catalan narrowmindedness. The output of the Catalan state-owned television channel TV3 resembles state propaganda. In order words, what is unfortunately very difficult to find in this region is reflection, self-critique, or even self-irony.

Let me recap once again, I don’t want to be labeled a fascist.

I am for a legitimate referendum. I think that Rajoy should resign and I hope he will. I have always been against monarchy (also in Denmark), so seeing the king speak to the Catalans almost turned me into an independentista: the king was embarrassing for all thinking human beings. And, just to stress once again, I hate violence. Instead I am for compassion, understanding, and love. These are the remedies for thinking, for democracy. I see that there is a lot of unity in Catalonia and Spain, but unfortunately there are also militant and hateful forces – on both sides. Some people in Catalonia were happy that the police showed a violent side, whereas for many it was humanity that was losing; some people in Madrid hope that the Catalan president will remain stubborn so they can put him in prison.

Still, I ask myself, is it my responsibility to participate? I am just a tourist from Denmark, who happens to live here. I think it is. I think it is almost all people’s obligation to participate. I have no hidden agenda. On the contrary, I have listened to the independentistas’ arguments for nine years. The arguments are emotive and touching in their historical references, but they also rely on stereotypes and are often unjust (e.g. the civil war was not “Barcelona versus Madrid” but was in fact Spain being at war with itself; Madrid was the last city to fall for Franco’s regime. Or the claim that Catalonia today is oppressed or even colonized, I believe the living standard in Barcelona is quite high and liberal). At worst, however, the arguments are nationalistic, protectionist, and capitalistic, three things I can’t see anything positive in. And yet, it’s the hate that affects me most. I do not doubt that there are Spanish people who hate Catalans, just as I have witnessed many Catalans who hate everything related to Spain. Luckily, these are two extremes, because every day I also see and meet caring people who see themselves as both Catalan and Spanish. Unfortunately, many of these are silent because of a mental or even moral pressure that implies everything independent is good. I am, like many here, a feminist, an ecologist, and a cosmopolitan, yet I am still not an independentista.

The debate culture, if it exists at all, is claustrophobic. I have spoken with school teachers who are against independence but who say to me “don’t tell anyone, I might lose my job.” I have spoken with people who feel like putting the Spanish flag up on their balcony, but are afraid of being thrown out of their apartments. I have spoken with several people who just tell me to shut up.

I don’t believe that I know the truth; rather, in a very pragmatic way, I think that we gradually become wiser by sharing and debating openly and honestly. The crucial element is that all should be free to speak, and should not be afraid, should not feel “forced” to vote, as some people have told me they felt.

So, yes, there is something rotten in Spain, but there is also something rotten in Catalonia. It’s a utopian island located in an ocean that doesn’t exist, a seductive dream. But as the philosopher Gilles Deleuze once emphasized, the real utopia is “now-here”. Start acting, living, thinking with love, por favor.

I write this love-letter because I love more than a handful of pure-blooded Catalans and a few Spanish people, and I see that there is much more bringing them together than separating them. I am tired of the propaganda, tired that neither the arguments nor the premises or logic behind them are debated, tired of being wrong simply for not being in favor of independence. George Orwell could not write his Homage to Catalonia today, but would find much inspiration for a new edition of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

So, let me now step down in the hope that Rajoy and Puigdemont will do so as well. No more rigidity, no more violence. There is so much love in Spain. People don’t come here for the sun, but for the alegria, the pure joy of life.

Should the majority of people – not just 40% – wish to develop a new state, then I will follow, gladly, and my gift to the new state would be free courses in critical thinking. Something that has apparently never been taught in Catalan schools before.

About Byung-Chul Han

Today, we live in a society organized mainly around capitalism. Not only are making money and, to some extents, having a career objectives that guide many people’s lives, but prestige, status, and social identity also are typically measured within a capitalistic mindset. 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 has monetary value attached to it.

According to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, this tendency is part of today’s achievement society, which can be seen starkly in digital communication, including social media, changing us from citizens to consumers. Han’s latest book, In The Swarm, is a wakeup call to action, declaring that it’s time for citizens to care more about society’s welfare than their own egos. “Responsibility for the community defines citizens. Consumers lack responsibility, above all,” he writes.

Han was born in Seoul in 1959. He studied metallurgy in Korea before moving to Germany in his early 20s to study philosophy, German, and theology. Today, Han is a professor at the University der Künste in Berlin. His initial fame sprang up mainly after publication of his book Mudigkeitsgesellschaft, which, directly translated, means “the fatigue society.” However, in English, this was cleverly translated to The Burnout Society. He is the author of more than 20 books, which have been translated into many languages and are well-read among socially and philosophically aware readers.

Han’s philosophy dovetails with French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s idea about seeing our current achievement society as a “control society.” Unlike Michel Foucault’s disciplinary society, in which people know that their freedom is limited, people in a control society actually–and very falsely–believe that they are free. It’s a shift from disciplining the body to controlling the mind in a seductive way. The consequence is that people tend to exploit themselves aggressively until they burn out, collapse, or suffer from depression. Usually “exploitation” entails someone being exploited by someone else, Han claims that we actually do it to ourselves. “The crisis we are now experiencing follows from our blindness and stupefaction,” Han writes in In The Swarm. By “crisis,” he refers to at least two things: First our democratic crisis caused by the shallowness of digital communication, social media, information overload, etc., which he says undermines critical thinking, respect, trust, etc. Second the consequences it has on a personal level cf. stress, depression, burnout, suicides, etc.

Han is part of a growing number of sociologists and philosophers who conduct social analyses. Similar ideas can be found elsewhere among theorist related to the Frankfurter school, but also among other critical psychologist, spiritual teachers and so forth. Some of these ideas are how a too-rigid positivity is destructive, especially when it comes to self-development; how technology makes everything accelerate; and how we are always at work. Still, Han contributes to this debate not so much by adding new idea, but by presenting clearer, almost poetic descriptions of what’s going on. His books advance the idea that philosophy is for everyone. His postulating and concrete style always forces the reader to reflect, to wit: “Digital devices have mobilized work itself. The workplace is turning into a portable labor camp from (which) there is no escape.” Do we live in a labor camp?

He also asserts that freedom has become a constraint. “Exhausted achievement-subject(s) can rest only in the same way that a leg falls asleep.”

Han’s main claim is that today’s neoliberal psycho-political power appears to be invisible and imperceptible 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 prevents us frompaying attention, e.g., Twitter and Facebook. Therefore, a traditional critique of capitalism is not sufficient. The point really is that we must understand that our daily lives and our ideas about freedom have become nothing but cogs in the machinery of capitalism.

One of the reasons for this is that a digital culture is based on counting. “In contrast, history means recounting.” On Twitter or Facebook, one counts followers, likes, retweets, or friends, whereas real friendship, Han says, “is an account, a narrative.” Digital culture is also tied to the mantra of transparency found in modern political and corporate-governance literature, which only diminishes trust while monitoring and controlling every click we make online.

“Transparency is ruled by presence and the present tense,” Han claims. However, to think, we need distance — physical and mental — that is what constitutes the public sphere. It is from distance that we learn to respect, reflect, and analyze. “A society without respect, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for the society of scandal.” Still, some may ask, couldn’t we use these same media outlets — YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc., — to activate a critical awareness, bringing academia out of the ivory tower and into the broader society?

Two guiding concepts work as analytical tools for Han in all his books: freedom and power.

Freedom, according to Han, is both a problem and a possibility. It is becoming, as Deleuze would say, emphasizing that we become by combining courage to stand up against dominating ideals and norms with the belief that things could be different. Freedom is becoming whatever, i.e., in some way disobeying power. Real freedom is socially anchored, as he says in Psychopolitics. “Freedom is a synonym for the community that succeeds.”

But today, we are not free, Han claims in In The Swarm: “Information fatigue includes symptoms that characterize depression. Above all, depression is a narcissistic malady,” he writes. We, or many of us, only hear the echoes of ourselves, for example, when we cry with joy when strangers follow us on Twitter, or when our tweets are retweeted. At the same time, this freedom to constantly polish and refine social profiles–and gain more “cultural capital” while others comment, like, or retweet–creates more pressure. “As such, it marks the end of freedom…The achievement subject exploits itself until it collapses.”

Although there is a tendency toward redundancy in Han’s many books, his critiques of concepts such as freedom, power, control, and transparency are highly relevant.

In In The Swarm, however, one might detect something old-fashioned in Han’s philosophy–or perhaps even wrong–in some of his claims. For example, he writes “the mass is power” because it shares an ideology, whereas the digital swarm is narcissistic and is not unified. “They do not march.” This, of course, is wrong. After the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, one of the most encouraging things has been how people marched in the streets. First, there was the women’s march in January, then marches this month against recent white-supremacist activity in Charlottesville. Furthermore, do we really need a new ideology against the online swarm to overcome another (i.e., capitalism)?

Han operates with a romantic ideal about authenticity and truth, yet perhaps we just need to push the underlying idea of the Internet further. Allow it to have no roots, no control, no editing. Instead, view it as a rhizome that grows horizontally without a beginning or end. Pure becoming. When nothing is given, one is free to harmonize his or her life with reality, to change according to the rhythms of existence–no longer caring whether what he or she is doing would fit into a neoliberal mindset.

Critical voices might say that the downsides of neoliberalism—and especially of the Internet–that Han discusses have been explored before. However, Han focuses on something else. Basically, he not only raises questions regarding the condition of our current society, but also asserts that the real problem is that we don’t raise such questions. He is part of a growing choir claiming that many of us are becoming the kind of easily malleable citizens that totalitarian dictators dream about.

Han’s philosophical encourages us to think, and I view that as a good enough reason to read his books.

Published in Metapsychology, Volume 21, Issue 35.

For more on Byung-Chul Han, please see my portrait The Philosophy of Byung-Chul Han,

Or my essay, Which dish of noodles are your life worth?

Or my review of, Saving beauty.

In Danish: anmeldelse af Transparenssamfundet , I Sværmen & Træthedssamfundet


To Think Philosophically?

”If philosophy did not exist, we cannot guess the level of stupidity [there would be]. Philosophy prevents stupidity from being as enormous as it would be were there no philosophy. That’s philosophy’s splendor, we have no idea what things would be like … So when we say ”to create is to resist,” it’s effective, positive, I mean.” – Deleuze, L’Abécédaire de Gilles Deleuze.

What does it means to think philosophically?

I don’t think that only philosophers think or reflect. Rather, philosophers do so in a distinctive way by creating concepts that can help us see things we weren’t aware of before. It can be the way Simone de Beauvoir made many readers aware of the problematic assumption that men were the first sex and women were merely a diversion. It reminds me of how Deleuze and Guattari, years later, said that for far too long, the hegemonic ideal has been a white, 33 year old heterosexual man called Jesus, which not only discriminates, but also hinders our thinking. In a broader sense, be open toward other ways of living. This is also why solely giving advice, potentially, takes away the responsibility from each of us to be accountable for our actions.

So while we all – or most of us – think daily about what to eat, wear, do, etc. (especially if you have children who need healthy lunches and clean clothes), thinking philosophically requires that we pay attention to the present moment — that we critically reflect on what is happening, including evaluating our own behavior. It emphasizes that philosophy can’t teach you what to think or give you clear steps to attaining peace of mind. However, it can nurture critical thinking that can help us evaluate various forms of thinking. Instead of telling us what to think, philosophers can help us clarify how thinking is possible and perhaps even show us what philosophical thinking looks like.

For example, today it seems rather convenient to say that people who voted for Brexit or Trump can’t think, but here we might just be showing our own arrogant tendency for moralizing, i.e., judging. Instead, differences in opinions are an invitation to confront our own possible lack of understanding. Why do they believe that this is right? Once we get a better grab of their life-situation and moral reasoning, then we might show how the arguments behind these votes exhibit incoherent thinking. Thus, empathy for difference is not a blind acceptance but an ongoing process of questioning.

Similar, Trump voters, for example, seem to fear women, blacks, Mexicans, homosexuals, etc. He discriminates and represses what scares him, but more importantly, he does so based on irrational feelings of fear. He acts stupid. Yet, we should still ask whether Trump is the main problem, or whether it’s the ideology created him and later put him in power. There is, of course, no evidence that shows that men, in general, are better than women at anything, no evidence that Caucasians are better than blacks, etc. His value judgments, therefore, are not based on facts, but ignorance. But how can ignorance seduce so many?

So, although philosophy should not be about giving advice, it can still be taught. People can learn to become more aware about their own unreasonable beliefs and recognize their blind spots, such as whether they unintentionally discriminate by how they use language, etc. Such teaching is not taking away personal responsibility, but instead giving responsibility back to the people so they can become informed citizens and think for themselves.

Another example may illustrate this. Today, the media talk a lot about “fake news.” (I wonder whether all this talk is true or an example of how the concept of fake news can be used strategically.) People seem to ask: Who is responsible? Who should control it? However, instead of blaming Facebook or any other medium, I think it is troubling that so few people apparently are capable of critically questioning the news they receive — the sources, motives, agendas, and how the news is framed. Also, it seems as if many believe that objective journalists exist, even though everything is subjective. The truth is not out there, but created through our engagement with the world. Even journalists who strive to deliver well-researched news are still colored by their career objectives, personal beliefs and ideas, editors’ input, etc.

Therefore, if people really can’t think for themselves, then teaching them how to think becomes a social responsibility for all of us — mostly through schools.

Luckily, I have seen a growing trend, which I embrace, in which philosophy is being taught to children. I think that going forward, teaching philosophy is the best way to combat future sexism, racism, and other discrimination, the sad consequences of not being able to think philosophically. I stress best way because teaching people how to think won’t necessarily guarantee that they don’t repress, discriminate or violate other human beings, still self-knowledge tend to minimize self-deception in most sane people.

Plato's Academy

Plato’s Academy, Athens: Philosophy was from the beginning open to the world, in direct relation with the world – in the streets, parks, etc. Philosophy for all!

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