When our faith in grand narratives erodes as our lives become increasingly hectic, time itself loses its direction and meaning.
The South Korean, German-based cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han has gained renown for a series of short, philosophical books. Each one is intended as an intervention in the conditions of contemporary society, where the tendencies of our time are examined against a philosophical backdrop. In The Scent of Time the topic for scrutiny is time itself. How does the experience of time affect us as human beings and as political beings? Han anchors the discussion in the philosophy of modern thinkers like Nietzsche, Heidegger and Arendt, while also consulting postmodern thinkers like Lyotard and Baudrillard. This way the problem of our perception of time is connected to the question of grand narratives and historical myths.
Faster and faster
Time, in our traditional conception, is like a river: It floats onwards and carries us on a long journey where the life of the individual moves together with the collectives of culture. We humans alternately drift and navigate from the past towards the future. This perception of time is about to be unsettled: We are getting busier so that time squeezes us – it seems to push us from behind without opening up ahead of us.
«The problem of our perception of time is connected to the question of grand narratives and historical myths.»
However, the problem goes deeper than the qualms of everyday psychology. Historically things are obviously speeding up – communication, transport, calculations and the transformation of society itself. In ecological and critical parlance, the period after the Second World War has been dubbed «the great acceleration» – an intensified modernisation and interconnection of all production processes. Time is carried along by a sequence of events that is too rapid for the individual to keep up with.
Han also refers to the sociologist Hartmut Rosa, who talks about a «social acceleration», where a plenitude of possibilities makes the life of the individual exceedingly complex and manifold. Where life formerly appeared to be a sequence, it now resembles an explosion: The movement unfolds in several directions simultaneously, in an abundant and momentous realisation of different possibilities of life.
«We are going everywhere and nowhere.»
At first glance this sounds fantastic – to be allowed to live ten lives in one lifespan – but Rosa also describes how this uncontrolled acceleration leads to a peculiar form of stagnation: a «frenetic standstill.» On a higher level this state of things can be described as post-historical. Han points out that the plethora of actions and events not only veils the stagnation, it signifies the end of history.
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