3 Nov 2021

Reflections on The Agony of Eros by Byung-Chul Han (Part 1: From Melancholia to Bare Life)

The MIT Press (2017)
Neue deutsche Denke are a bit like buses; you wait ages for one to come along, then two or three arrive on the scene. Byung-Chul Han is one such thinker; part of a generation that also includes, for example, Markus Gabriel [a] and Armen Avanessian [b]
Han is Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at the Universität der Künste Berlin and is (according to his publishers) one of the most widely read theorists writing today, both inside and outside the Academy; the author of over twenty books, including (in English) The Burnout Society (2015), Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017), and The Scent of Time: A Philosophical Essay on the Art of Lingering (2017).
But the text I wish to discuss here is an essay on love entitled The Agony of Eros (2017), in which he argues that to be dead to love is to be dead to thought itself ...

The Agony of Eros comes with a foreword by Alain Badiou, whom, readers will recall, published his own little book on love - Éloge de l'amour - in 2009, in which he argued (after Rimbaud) that love needs re-inventing as an opportunity - not for pleasure, so much as for a new form of self and (communist) society; for love provides one possible source of resistance to the obscenity of the market. [c]   
I have to say, for me, attaching this foreword is mistaken. Han doesn't need a formal blessing from Badiou, the old man of French philosophy, and doesn't need his text to be vouched for by someone who uses the phrase true love three times in the space of a single page and insists that this authentic form of experience is an affirmation of alterity and a radical refusal of the norms of globalised capitalism. 
I mean, come on ...! Reading this almost makes me immediately put the book down. I'm sure Badiou sincerely clings to such fantasy, but I'm hoping Han is going to offer a slightly more sophisticated take on the topic - though I already have my doubts, if, indeed, it's true that he essentially offers a strong reading of the former's own political thesis concerning the revolutionary potential of love.  
Anyway, let's find out ... Note that the chapter titles given in bold are Han's own.
The crisis of love - taken as a given - is not due, argues Han, to greater freedom and unlimited possibilities, but to an "erosion of the Other [...] occurring in all spheres of life", along with its corollary, the increasing "narcissification of the Self" [d].
Now, that might be so, but it's hardly a new or original observation. D. H. Lawrence was saying much the same thing a hundred years ago [e]. And, without referring directly to his work, Han acknowledges his indebtedness to Jean Baudrillard by adopting the phrase l'enfer du même to describe the situation we now find ourselves in [f].        
We need to escape from this hell of the same and encounter the atopic Other in all their negativity, otherwise we are are heading for depression, says Han. But this escape might not be a particularly pleasant experience; for it seems that "only an apocalypse can liberate - indeed, redeem - us from the hell of the same, and lead us toward the Other." [3] 
To which one might ask: Is it really worth it?  
All this talk of healing and cleansing via a disastrous event, a terrible experience, or a sacrifice of the self, makes one wonder whether Han's been watching too many films by Lars von Trier and listening to too many operas by Richard Wagner [g].
Do we really want to reinvoke "the proximity of eros and death" [5] in order to liberate ourselves from narcissistic captivity? Does it really require courage to dream of the lovely Ophelia, surrounded by fallen flowers, "drifting in the water with her mouth half open - her gaze lost in the beyond, like a saint or a lover" [6], or is it not simply plunging back into the same old Romantic (and Christian moral) idealism whose formula reads: salvation via catastrophic fatality ...? 
Over to you on this one Síomón ... 
Being Able Not to Be Able
Han says we are living in a neoliberal achievement society dominated by the can-do frame of mind; one in which citizens are self-motivated and self-exploiting. Foucault thought this an improvement upon disciplinary society and in his later work adopted a sympathetic attitude towards neoliberalism and the civil liberty it allows. 
But Han disagrees and thinks Foucault naive in his uncritical assumptions and failure to notice "the structure of violence and coercion underwriting the neoliberal dictum of freedom" [10]. Neoliberal freedom is the freedom of auto-exploitation and the will to achieve ends with the subject wearing themselves out.     
Han wants people to recognise their limitations; to see that love is a relationship "situated beyond achievement, performance, and ability" and ultimately finds expression "as a kind of failure" [11] and certainly not as sexual success. Indeed, Han seems to look to a time that is after the orgy when we revalue "dignity, decency, and propriety" [13] as methods of maintaining distance and thus preserving otherness. 
A time that is also post social media. For by means of social media, "we seek to bring the Other as near as possible, to close any distance [...] to create proximity" [13]. But this simply results in "making the Other disappear" [13]. In other words - and in words that Heidegger might have approved of - the total abolition of remoteness "does not produce nearness so much as it abolishes it" [13] [h]
So, the best thing lovers can do is keep apart - in every sense - and realise that love is not about enjoyment or the generation of pleasant feelings; nor is it about "inconsequential emotion and arousal" [13]. It is, rather,  "something that wounds or incites passion" [14] and often ends with injury.
I have to admit, I rather admire this model of love with built in negativity; "nourished by what doesn't yet exist" [16]. I'm all for secrecy, silence, and seduction rather than the guarateed satisfaction of needs. Indeed, I've been writing in favour of delayed gratification and the deferral of pleasure for years: click here, for example.        

Bare Life
The negative model of love, conceived in terms of injury and transformation, is, says Han, in danger of disappearing completely thanks to love's "increasing positivization and domestication" [18]. We no longer fall in love and risk madness, but enter into a relationship of mutual consent in which we are allowed to stay the same and seek only "the confirmation of oneself in the Other" [18].
Love has become a mixture of hedonistic calculation and stress relief; lacking all transcendence and transgression, there is nothing fatal (or even dangerous) in it. The modern day lover prefers bourgeois good health over "sovereignty and freedom" [19]. For Han, this is not the good life as the ancient Greeks conceived of it, but threadbare existence; life of comfort and convenience; the sort of life longed for by the Letzter Mensch who invented happiness. 
Again, I smile at all this as it reminds me of what I was writing a decade ago - in the essays collected in Erotomania (2010), for example. But I don't believe I ever arrived at the (neo-Hegelian) conclusion that "Love is an absolute end unto itself." [22] Probably that's because I always remember Lawrence saying that whilst in love one must give, one must never give oneself away and that it was all too easy to die for love - the hard thing being to live for it. 
Of course, Han is talking of death in a psycho-symbolic rather than a biological sense and he is thinking of Bataille when he insists that "The negativity of death is essential to erotic experience" [25]. Which, again, might be the case, but it all seems so overblown and old hat - as Houellebecq would say: "We're a long way from Wuthering Heights ..." [i]  
[a] Markus Gabriel is a German philosopher and writer based at the University of Bonn. He regards himself as a thinker in the post-Kantian tradition concerned with metaontology and metametaphysics. Gabriel has spoken out against government measures taken in Europe during the coronavirus pandemic, believing them to be unjustified and a step on the road towards a cyber dictatorship (or virocracy). 
      See: Transcendental Ontology: Essays in German Idealism, (Bloomsbury, 2013).
[b] Armen Avanessian is an Austrian philosopher, artist, and theorist who has held fellowships in the German departments of Columbia and Yale University. His work on speculative realism and accelerationism in art and philosophy has found a wide audience beyond academia. His concept of hyperstition also designates a method for the actualization in the present of ideas or fictions from the future. 
      See: Hyperstition (2015) a documentary film on time, narrative, philosophy and theory by Christopher Roth in collaboration with Armen Avanessian: click here for a trailer on Vimeo.   
[c] See In Praise of Love, by Alain Badiou (with Nicholas Truong), trans. Peter Bush, (Serpent's Tail, 2012). 

[d] Byung-Chul Han, The Agony of Love, trans. Erik Butler, (The MIT Press, 2017), p. 3. All future page references to this work will be given directly in the main text. 

[e] See for example what Lawrence writes in his 'Review of The Social Basis of Consciousness, by Trigant Burrow', in Introductions and Reviews, ed. N. H. Reeve and John Worthen, (Cambridge University Press, 2005), pp. 329-336. 
      These lines give a good idea of how Lawrence anticipates Byung-Chul Han and the French theory he relies upon:
      "Humanity, society has a picture of itself, and lives accordingly. The individual likewise has a private picture of himself, which fits into the big picture. In this picture he is a little absolute [...]
      Even sex, today, is only part of the picture. Men and women alike, when they are being sexual, are only acting up. They are living according to the picture. If there is any dynamic, it is that of self-interest. [...] It is inevitable  when you live according to the picture, that you seek only yourself in sex. Because the picture is your own image of yourself: your idea of yourself. [...] The true self, in sex, would seek a meeting, would seek to meet the other. This would be the true flow [...] what I would call the human consciousness, in contrast to the social, or image consciousness. 
      But today, all is image consciousness. Sex does not exist, there is only sexuality. And sexuality is merely a greedy, blind self-seeking. Self-seeking is the real motive of sexuality. And therefore, since the thing sought is the same, the self, the mode of seeking is not very important. Heterosexual, homosexual, narcistic, normal, or incest, it is all the same thing." [335]     
[f] L'enfer du même is poorly translated by Erik Butler as 'inferno of the same', which - apart from sounding like some cheesy disco - thereby misses the fact that Baudrillard was explicitly playing on Sartre's famous phrase L'enfer, c'est les autres, commonly translated into English as 'Hell is other people'. I have therefore modified Butler's translation in this post. 
      Those interested to know more, should see Baudrillard's essay 'The Hell of the Same', in The Transparency of Evil, trans. James Benedict, (Verso, 1993).  

[g] Han's first chapter is essentially an interpretation of von Trier's Melancholia (2011); a film inspired by a depressive episode which prominently features music from the prelude to Wagner's Tristan und Isolde.  

[h] See my post of 22 September, 2021: On the Question of Distance and Proximity

[i] Michel Houellebecq, Whatever, trans. Paul Hammond, (Serpent's Tail, 1998). 
      With this brilliant line, from his debut novel, Houellebecq refers to the progressive effacement of human relationships and a kind of vital exhaustion which characterizes the early 21st century. And he does so twenty years before Byung-Chul Han picks up the idea and runs with it. 

This post continues in part two - from Porn to The End of Theory - which can be read by clicking here

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