A year or two ago, Byung-Chul Han castigated me in a seminar at UDK in Berlin. At the zenith of a so-called breakdown that apparently precipitated his departure from the university, he was behaving ludicrously. I was stunned and disarmed. He seemed to be the only philosophy professor in the city who cared. I believe he suffered for it.
Byung-Chul Han literally makes scenes: he sets stages where the ridiculous state of academia and the heartbreaking thoughtlessness of public space are revealed in an appalling spectacle. In seminar that day, between his astute goading, he told us that we should be paying him 200 or 2,000 euros to attend. At his trial, Socrates impudently suggested that Athens should pay him for his services and warned against killing the gadfly, whose sting awakens people, lest they spend the rest of their lives asleep.
In our times, it shouldn’t be clear who in the room was saner: Byung-Chul Han with his impossible accusations or a man who took them so seriously that he stamped out of the room, violently slamming the door to punctuate his theatrical exit. Byung-Chul Han certainly can’t be held responsible for the cultural condition for the possibility of these scenes. People who criticize his behavior are missing the point, blinded by their quick judgment to the possibility of Byung-Chul Han the human being. In recent years his books have been brutally criticized in the press for their degeneration into repetitive truisms. But it doesn’t seem like anyone hears what he’s saying.
He must live in my neighborhood, because I’ve seen him riding his bicycle a couple times. First, a few months after the incident in the seminar, during his period of indefinite leave from the university. He looked nearly homeless, wearing jeans and a pair of worn-out Crocs. He peddled slowly, looking in front of him with his head down, as if he were afraid of being caught outside.
A few days ago, after I announced another “Han sighting” in the neighborhood, my friend sent an excerpt from a talk Byung-Chul Han gave in Barcelona a few months ago.
“I am different, I am surrounded by analogue objects. I have two 400kg pianos and for three years I have grown a secret garden that connects me to reality: colors, scents, feelings… I have allowed myself to notice the earth’s otherness: earth had weight, everything was done by hand, what’s digital has no weight, no resistance, you can move a finger and there it is … It is the abolition of reality. My next book will be called Eulogy to earth. The secret garden. Earth is more than digits and numbers.”
This fits what I observed. Byung-Chul Han looked restored, rejuvenated, nicht mehr so fertig.
I was walking near my apartment when a cyclist going the same direction passed by. Byung-Chul Han was keeping a relaxed pace. He turned towards me and I looked into his eyes before he moved on.
The impetus for this post was a message I sent in conversation with my friend:
They’re making him a laughingstock in the papers again. I have great respect for this guy who allows his person to become the theater for their meaningless gossip. Plus, his writing is financing some fine, weighty pianos. The peal of those soft, crystalline notes is priceless. I think he’s just expressing a sanity that everyone else is too embarrassed to talk about because it undermines the ego’s prized complexity in the digital age. I’d love to have a garden and a nice apartment, wearin’ my Crocs. But I’m sure he went through hell for this.