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From pasta to pyrotechnics

Play more and work less: A visit with Byung-Chul Han in Karlsruhe

After the death of God, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, health was elevated to a goddess. In Karlsruhe, perhaps? Here the sun shines 1691 hours a year which puts it in fifth place among German cities in the best-weather listing of Men's Health magazine. It has a palace, a park and a zoo but almost no cultural attractions or other urban seductions. So it naturally lends itself to the pursuit of outdoor activities, the vita activa. "If there were a horizon of meaning which exceeded the bare essentials of life," says the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, "health would not be able to absolutise itself to such an extent." But is Karlsruhe really a place for a healthy but simple life? Or also one for art and contemplation? These two disciplines are certainly promoted at two of the city's educational establishments, and by highly distinguished teachers. Located next to one another, the Center for Art and Media (ZKM) and the University for Arts and Design (HfG) are situated in a faceless if centrally located part of town – one which on first sight gives no hint that it holds such an unusual concentration of creativity and intelligence.

The hall of the former industrial building which has housed the HfG since 1992 is almost intimidatingly huge. Its generously proportioned interior showcases regular presentations of the work of the students who study exhibition design, scenography, communication design, art history, media theory and product design. But one theorist rules over all of these practice oriented disciplines: Peter Sloterdijk (here and here), the rector of the academy for the past decade. Through his own TV show, a string of successful books and regular feuilleton contributions he has made a name for himself that extends far beyond the academic world. But what is it like to live in the shadow of this philosopher king? Who is this Byung-Chul Han, who has been a professor at the HfG for a year-and-a-half now?

Han teaches philosophy and media theory although one should probably be wary of such narrow terms. After all, the staff at this institution enjoy huge freedoms when it comes to subject matter – according to the maxim of the rector, the academy does not employ teachers limited to one particular field of study, but authors. And it is in his capacity as an author that Han, who prefers to steer clear of the public eye, refusing all TV and radio interviews, has been hard to ignore recently. He has published an entire series of books in recent years, mostly with smaller publishing houses. He attracted the most attention last year, though, with his essay on the "Müdigkeitsgesellschaft" [tiredness society], an unexpected bestseller which paved the way for "Topologie der Gewalt" [topology of violence] due out soon. And the slim essay "Shanzai. Dekonstruktion auf Chinesisch" [Shanzai. Deconstruction the Chinese way] has just been published. What these books have in common is that they tackle the most pressing questions of the day in the most elegant and clearly formulated prose. This is not the stuff that is usually spawned by academic philosophy.

Byung-Chul Han's office does not give the impression that its occupant plans to make himself too comfortable. On the large architect's table sits only a laptop and the pump for the bike which he uses to travel between his flat and the university. In the corner are two or three piles of books. Very few of the professors who teach in Karlsruhe actually live there, Han says, and he too has a second address in Berlin. But then what's the difference between Karlsruhe and Berlin for someone who comes from a megacity like Seoul? To the Korean, everything in Germany and Switzerland, where he also spent a few years teaching and living, appears relatively tranquil. But how did Byung-Chul Han arrive at the German language and philosophy? Where did he get the energy for an academic career that culminated in a postdoctoral thesis, something no other Asian has achieved in the German humanities?

Han has set up a number of hurdles in the question and answer game that forms the basis of every journalistic profile. Not only did he nicely but firmly ask me to turn off the tape recorder and to rely solely on handwritten notes – he also refused outright to answer the question about his age. In Asia, he explained half coquettishly, half apologetically a person's date of birth plays a far lesser role than it does in the West. A culture which sees the world as a cyclical process of return does not regard birth or death with the pathos accorded to it by Occidental thinking. No genesis narratives like in the West, no myths which form the foundations of society. And already Han has arrived at the centre of his theory of "Entschöpfung" [a neologism of Han's coining, which prefixes the German word for "creation" with "ent", meaning "away from" – to mean something like "de-create"] which he expounds on in his most recent essay "Shanzai". The Chinese neologism is best translated as "fake" and describes what on the surface are tangible things from the world of commodities. Mobile telephones, for example, made in China which look more or less like the models they imitate and have more or less similar names such as "Nokir" or "Samsing". Products which successively develop away from the original so that the established label "Adidas" starts out as Adidos and changes to Adadas, Adadis, Adisa before ending up as Dasida.
The term fake only half fits what to Western eyes are brazen appropriations of the originals. Ultimately, Han maintains, the Chinese notion of the original is not determined by a one-off act of creation. You cannot think in terms of a permanent identity when everything is permanently in flux. Through the shanzai glasses the authority of uniqueness appears as nonsensical as the category of the counterfeit. When for example it emerged that the Chinese terracotta warriors which the Hamburg Ethnological Museum exhibited in 2007 were nothing more than replicas which had been made on site parallel to their excavation in China, the German museum felt betrayed and closed the exhibition in indignation. But the Chinese had no sense of having acted duplicitously or illicitly; in their eyes the practice of copying merely was a continuation of the ancient production process of the figures which – whether it had an old or new production date – always fulfilled the same function.

Or the Ise shrine, the holy of holies in Shintoist Japan. Every year millions of religious pilgrims visit it in the belief that the sacred building is 1300 years old. In actual fact, the temple complex is completely renewed every 20 years. Not only is the building carried off and built from scratch but all the treasures inside it are removed and replaced, whatever can be burned is burnt and any metal is buried in the earth. The difference between the original and copy, Han says, plays no role. You could say after all that the copy is closer to the original than the actual original "because the older a building gets, the more it departs from its original state." A copy would restore it to its 'original condition' so to speak, especially because it is not tied to an artist subject." UNESCO however proved to be closed to this line of argument and struck the Ise shrine off its list of world heritage sites. Even though the ceremony of destruction and renewal contributes significantly to the cult value of the pilgrimage site. The West, one could conclude, cultivates a museum-like commemoration of dead origins, the East exists at the centre of a living tradition that is cyclically repeated.

Which of these two sides does Byung-Chul Han stand on? He has also written a book about Zen Buddhism and might therefore be regarded as a special representative of Far Eastern thought within a European context? "Nonsense," he said, brushing the question aside. "I am really not interested in Asiatic thinking. I am interested in models of thought which are not connected with any cultural setting." And China? "China is just an alibi," Han says, "another model for thinking and being-in-the-world." A regular Sinologist would therefore not be interested in the work of this philosopher, also because from a philological and historical perspective, Han works much too imprecisely. And this is how he likes it: Eastern philosophy for him is essentially a tool with which he can loosen all the tightly bolted standards of Western thinking, or take them to bits.

The made-up word shanzai describes nothing other than a deconstruction method. "Shanzai," says Han, "is Ent-Schöpfung". And that means: before the fetishised beginning of the Western world, before myth, birth and the philosophical axiom, there is always something else – creation [the German schöpfen means "to create" but also also means "to ladle" or "spoon"], there is a pool where we fill our ladles. If we abandon hardened ideas of originality and genius and creatio ex nihilo,  we might move towards far more flexibility of thought, so the philosopher hopes. Philosophy could relax into a productive game, which might lead to completely new outcomes. "We should all," he demands "play more and work less. Then we would all produce more!" Or is it a coincidence that the Chinese, for whom both the notions of genius and the original are alien concepts, are responsible for almost every invention – from pasta to pyrotechnics – that has left its mark on Western culture.

Byung-Chul Han has written no less than fourteen very different books that defy attempts to pigeonhole them into a single concept. From monographs on Heidegger and Hegel to books on globalisation, death, power and the Western passion story. "Duft der Zeit. Ein philosophischer Essay zur Kunst des Verweilens" [The scent of time. A philosophical essay on the art of lingering] is the title of one publication from 2009 – but woe betide any bookseller who places it among gift books, despite its flowery title! It was namely here that Han so brilliantly formulated his criticism of the restlessness of the animal laborans. In his later essay on the "Müdigkeitsgesellschaft" or tiredness society, Han went on to explain how the never-ending pressure of the active life can destroy us.

The realisation that the perseverance slogan of positive thinking, as prompted by the dictates of increased efficiency, makes people sick has long since trickled down to the foundations of self-help literature. Han argues pathogenetically. It stands to reason that a culture which coined "Yes we can" as the self-confident slogan of the eternal "can-do" suffers from sicknesses like depression, borderline personality disorder and burnout syndrome. The cause of this internally rooted set of problems is the positively viewed constant potency of an incessant readiness to perform. The scourge of our time is called voluntariness. No longer is it an external repressive power that leads to the deformation of society, as even in the previous century. "The disciplinary society," writes Han "is still ruled by the no. Its negativity creates madmen and criminals. The performance society on the other hand creates depressives and failures." In short, the problem today is not the other but the self (which constantly and emphatically says "Yes!").

Danger does not loom from without; no foreigner, no immigrant oversteps the boundaries of the individual trimmed for unlimited self-expansion. Byung-Chul Han argues for replacing the immunological paradigm (pestilential infection by a hostile virus) with the neuronal (internal psychic implosion). The Hegelian master-slave dialectic has not been thought through to the end, Han says, if the successful liberation of the slave from the master today consists of masters also working like slaves. In other words, when everyone works likes slaves, a promising perspective remains unfulfilled: that everyone, masters and slaves alike, give themselves over to leisure! But this remains nothing more than a lovely utopia, as long as every person, including the best paid manager, competes primarily with himself – for want of an external agency of gratification.

Okay then! And how did Byung Chul-Han arrive at the German language and philosophy? How did he become a philosopher in Europe? Who will want to know that, he asks by way of a reply. Probably because there were no university fees to pay in those days, perhaps also because philosophy required less reading than literature, which is his true interest? Korean for Han is now just a mother tongue, or rather the language he uses to talk to his mother when he visits Seoul. If you read his work you will soon see that he has a relationship with German that borders on the erotic and is at home in it like almost no other philosopher. Why is he such a talented thinker? Who knows? But his first degree which he completed in Korea over thirty years ago, was in metallurgy and essentially dealt with the flexibility of materials.


This article originally appeared in the July/August issue of Literaturen magazine.

Ronald Düker is the editor of Literaturen magazine.

Translation: lp - let's talk european