3 Nov 2021

Reflections on The Agony of Eros by Byung-Chul Han (Part 2: From Porn to The End of Theory)

Byung-Chul Han

Whilst philosophe du moment Byung-Chul Han gives reference to the four great Bs of 20th-century French philosophy - Bataille, Blanchot, Barthes, and Baudrillard - it's clear that The Agony of Eros (2017) is primarily written under the influence of Alain Badiou. 
Which means his defence of love is really just an excuse to stage a neo-Marxist assault upon techno-capitalism, developing his argument that the latter is responsible for creating a burned-out society in which an obscene (pornographic) ideal of transparency and self-disclosure is the cultural norm, compromising other values, including secrecy, silence, and shame, upon which eros (and mental health) depend.    
Writing in The Burnout Society (2015), Han describes a pathological landscape shaped by depression, attention defecit disorder, and exhaustion, all thanks to a 24/7 lifestyle of continuous positivity - a form of violence in his view - in which we are all expected to become entrepreneurs of the self. This leads not only to ever greater levels of self-exploitation, but to narcissism, and thus the extermination of Otherness, which, once more, is crucial for love and, indeed, society. 
For when subjects are concerned exclusively with themselves, then relationship with others becomes impossible - as does thought - and we end up living in l'enfer du même ruled over by the kind of painfully inferior and deeply stupid politicians presently posturing (and virtue signalling) on the global stage. 
Anyway, let's return to The Agony of Eros (2017). I remind readers that the titles given in bold are Han's own and that page numbers given refer to the English edition of the text, translated by Erik Butler and published by the MIT Press. 

Han opens his fourth chapter with the kind of concise statement that readers will either love or loathe: "Porn is a matter of bare life on display." [29] 
It's an attempt, I suppose, to distill Baudrillard's rather complex idea of porn as the hyperreality of sex (i.e. the more sexual than sex) into a kind of pithy observation that some will find profound and others see as a piece of shallow sloganeering. Of course, it could be both ... 

Si vous aimez l'amour, vous aimerez le surréalisme, said André Breton [a]. But if you love Love, you're also going to hate porn, which, according to Han, is antagonistic to eros and spells the end of sexuality as he would have it; i.e., something authentic, something natural, something sacred
The pornographication of the world is, he says, "unfolding as the profanation of the world" [29] - and this is a very bad thing; presumably because some things, like love, should be reserved only for the gods and not made freely available for misuse and commercial exploitation by mortals. 
Men might be encouraged to play with love - one possible definition of erotics. But should not be allowed to debase love - one possible definition of porn, in which there is nothing playful, nothing sanctified, nothing mysterious: "In contrast, the erotic is never free of secrecy." [32]             
Again, all this interests, but it does seem to be going over old ground; do we really want to resurrect the tired opposition between eroticism on the one side and porn on the other? One recalls D. H. Lawrence's axiom: "What is pornography to one man is the laughter of genius to another." [b]  
In Why Love Hurts (Polity, 2012), Eva Illouz makes the fascinating claim that, thanks to dating apps like Tinder, desire is no longer determined by the unconscious mind, so much as conscious selection. 
What's more, she argues, we have had our imagination heightened by all the faces and bodies we encounter online, with the result that we are more often disappointed with those we meet in the real world; the flesh never shapes up.  
Han doesn't quite buy this though: 
"Counter to what Illouz assumes, desire is not 'rationalized' today by increasing opportunities for, and criteria of, choice. Instead, unchecked freedom of choice is threatening to bring about the end of desire. [...] Today's ego [...] does not desire. To be sure, consumer culture is constantly producing new wants and needs by means of media images and narratives. But desire is something different from both wanting and needing. Illouz does not take the libido-economical particularity of desire into account." [37]

For Han, fantasy survives because it inhabits an undefined space that is outside the network of information-technology: 
"It is not heightened fantasy, but - if anything - higher expectations that are responsible for the mounting disappointment experienced in contemporary society." [ 38]
The high information density of social media is not conducive to the imagination. That's why, says Han, "pornography which maximizes visual information [...] destroys erotic fantasy" [38]. The secret of eroticism is that it forever withdraws the object of one's desire from view; it provides a glimpse, but never reveals all. Love - like horror - takes place in the shadows. Indeed, at its most extreme, love is blind and makes blind; a retreat into the "twilight space of dreams and desire" [40].        
Unfortunately, today, "faced with the sheer volume of hypervisible images, we can no longer shut our eyes" [40]. Compulsive (and compulsory) hypervigilance certainly makes it extremely difficult to do so and hypervisibility might be thought the "telos of the society of transparency" [40-41].  
The agony of eros thus involves not only a crisis of fantasy, but being forced like Alex in A Clockwork Orange to have our eyelids clamped open, so that we might see everything all of the time. 

The Politics of Eros
Oh dear, Byung-Chul Han and I are forced to part company once more; too much talk, right from the off, concerning the universal nature of love (Badiou) and beautiful souls guided by Eros (Plato) ... 
As for contemporary politics within a burnout society, well, according to Han, it's founded on pleasure-based desire (epithumia) and has no interest in either eros or thumos - the latter being something I have written about on Torpedo the Ark: click here and/or here, for example [c].
Whilst acknowledging that "a politics of love will never exist" [44], that doesn't stop Han dreaming of love stories unfolding against a background of political events and of a secret resonance existing between politics and love. For political action is "mutual desire for another way of living - a more just world aligned with eros on every register" [44]
Is it? That's news to me. I mean it could be that, but it could be something entirely different; a politics of evil, for example, which understands love to be an eternal part of life, but only a part: "And when it is treated as if it were a whole, it becomes a disease [...]" [d].      
That, in a nutshell, is my concern with Byung-Chul Han: that he turns a once healthy process of the human soul (love) into a diseased ideal and I suggest he read Lawrence's hugely important novels Aaron's Rod (1922) and Kangaroo (1923) to get an astonishing insight into this. Or some Nietzsche.      
The End of Theory
When not inspired by the inner truth and greatness of National Socialism, Heidegger was moved by the beating wings of the god of love; it was Eros who encouraged him as a thinker to venture along previously untrodden paths into the incalculable. At least that's what he told his wife. And Han believes him, because he also believes that:
"Without seduction by the atopic Other, which sparks erotic desire, thinking withers into mere work, which always reproduces the Same." [47] 
Thinking not only becomes more powerful, but also more uncanny, when it's eroticised. Without erotic inspiration it just becomes dreary and repetitive: "Likewise, love without eros and the spiritual lift it provides deteriorates into mere 'sensuality'." [48] 
This is why an artificial intelligence will never be able to produce a beautiful philosophical concept and why genuine thinking "transcends the positivity of given facts" [49] and data-analysis. Confronted with the "pullulating mass of information and data" [50], says Han, we need theoretical thinking more than ever. For theories, like ceremonies and rituals, "confer form on the world" [50] and keep things from breaking down into sprawling chaos.
In other words, information overload "massively heightens the entropy of the world; it raises the level of noise" [50]. And that's a problem, because thinking "as an expedition into quietness" [50] demands calm. We are faced with a spiritual crisis at top volume: "Rampant, massive information - an excess of positivity - makes a racket." [50] 
And just as we can't close our eyes, neither can we block up ears. Philosophy might be the "translation of eros into logos" [52], but when it speaks it does so in a seductive whisper, it doesn't shout or issue commands. And it still respects the importance of silence. 
And on that note, I'll shut up ...  
[a] No surprise that Byung-Chul Han eventually calls on André Breton for support, describing the surrealist reinvention of love as "an artistic, existential, and political gesture" which "ascribes a universal power to eros"; the power of poetic revolution and renewal. See chapter 6, 'The Politics of Eros', in The Agony of Eros. The lines quoted are on p. 46. 
[b] D. H. Lawrence, 'Pornography and Obscenity', in Late Essays and Articles, ed. James T. Boulton, (Cambridge University Press, 2004), p. 236. 
      Having said this, Lawrence does then go on to call for rigorous censorship of genuine pornography, which he says you can recognise "by the insult it offers, invariably, to sex, and to the human spirit" [241]. Where Lawrence and Byung-Chul Han appear to significantly differ is on the question of secrecy. Whereas the latter thinks it fundamental to eroticism, Lawrence writes:
      "The whole question of pornography seems to me a question of secrecy. Without secrecy there would be no pornography. But secrecy and modesty are two utterly different things. Secrecy has always an element of fear in it, amounting very often to hate. Modesty is gentle and reserved." [243]
      Of course, Lawrence was writing in a different time. Today, pornography is not underworld or under the counter, it's freely and openly available online and the styles, values, and norms of the sex industry have been largely determine mainstream culture (this is what is meant by pornification). Still, what he writes in this essay is something that the author of The Agony of Eros might like to consider.   
[c] Whilst I don't expect Han to have read either of the above posts, I'm surprised he didn't refer to Peter Sloterdijk's work on thumos in his psycho-political study Zorn und Zeit (2006). 
[d] D. H. Lawrence, Kangaroo, ed. Bruce Steele, (Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 328.
      See also Outside the Gate (Blind Cupid Press, 2010) in which I discuss the politics of evil (as well as the politics of style, the politics of cruelty, and the politics of desire), with reference to the work of Nietzsche and D. H. Lawrence. 
To read part one of this post - Melancholia to Bare Life - click here.       

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