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. We are going everywhere and nowhere. When events and actions are no longer part of a superior movement that can collect them and keep them together, the result is that nothing is really completed. No goals are achieved, no conclusions are drawn. Consequently, time is fragmented into endless tasks – some trivial, others urgent, some expressive, others preventive. Nothing is rounded off to become a real experience; neither does anything grow to maturation.
The shrinking moment
Maturation and growth are among the slow phenomena that require another kind of time and rhythm. Rhythm and direction are what make time into real time – what Bergson called «duration» (la durée). Memory creates a consciousness of time that preserves the past in the present. In the same way that the continuity of a biography can orient the individual, the collective narratives help us to orient ourselves in history.
Contrary to both Christianity, which longs for individual liberation and the kingdom of God, and the modern ideologies, which still dream of progress, postmodernism is marked by the failing of bigger stories. Communities no longer share a common story and consequently time also fragments. Everyone lives in their own time, without taking part in greater time-spans or projects, like the building of cathedrals. Without the long time-spans the scaffolding that should support time vanishes, and nothing is left to guarantee pauses and intervals and to allot each thing its time. Byung-Chul Han sees such disintegration everywhere: in the constant flow of information, in the endless operations of digital work.
«Each of us must find ways to win back slow and lingering time.»
Behind Han’s criticism there is of course an affinity to Heidegger and his concerns over the instrumental approach to life. Like Heidegger, Han seeks to play out the problem of time in an existential philosophy that is both poetic and critical. Distractions, busyness and technological activity are all marked by in authenticity. The counterbalance is found in a quiet acceptance of the slow moment. Han lets Chinese poetry meet with Heidegger’s dwelling upon boredom and the time where nothing comes to pass – a sort of Daoist emptiness, where restless desire is vanquished, and time returns in the form of pure contemplation.
The hyperactive life
What Hannah Arendt cherished as vita active – «the active, productive life» – has, according to Han, become something we could call a vita hyperactiva. In a somewhat contrived argument, Arendt is charged with underestimating the value of meditative states of mind. This argument also brings us to the conclusion of the essay: Each of us must find ways to win back slow and lingering time. This endnote seems a bit faint and particularly unsatisfying because he has also pointed out that Heidegger’s analysis of our existential situation is not timeless and universal, but rather springs from a crisis of meaning in modernity. At the beginning of the book, acceleration, the technical goal-oriented rationality and the vanishing of grand narratives were the central points of argument. Thus, it appears strange that Han looks not to the political, but rather to Proust and his In Search of Lost Time to find a solution. Poeticising about the scent of time, the taste of madeleines dipped in tea and the smell of old-oak furniture does not bring us to the root of the temporal crisis the author has sketched out.
What is missing in The Scent of Time is a thorough inquiry into direction and goals over which stories can structure time anew and that can bind cultures together in a real community. The author captures the issue of a «post-historical» disorientation, but offers conspicuously weak and apolitical solutions.
Heidegger’s attempt to project himself into history under the Nazi regime is an ominous example of how willingness to take part in the grand events of history can become fatal. In the age of global ecological crisis, it can also prove dangerous to be too wary of collective narratives. The real counterbalance to a fragmented, accelerated and individualistic time should be a kind of collective long-term thinking – a shared time for growth and learning.