The music of thought

Phenomenological Variations with Byung-Chul Han

“My books,” says Byung-Chul Han, “are not repetitions, but variations.” Musical variations of the same theme. Approaches from varied perspectives, in a phenomenological tone, trying to show the full reality of the other, blurred in the torrent of the rush in which we usually move. In his recent book, The Tonality of Thought. Trilogy of conferences. Vol. I (Paidos, 2024), we find ourselves facing a new variation of the themes to which the Korean philosopher approaches with his special sensitivity and acuity.

This book collects some of the lectures given by Han. It is a symbiosis of spoken locution, rather than read, accompanied by music by Bach and photographs of the thinker during his presentation. The anthropological topics that he deals with are said in confidence, they have more of a gathering flavor than a conference or, as he points out, they are more in the form of preaching than speech. He stings here and there like a bee jumping from one flower to another. A style that has been pleasant to me; with many coincidences and, also, some differences in his proposals.

He says: “In my garden, I feel, above all, a deep peace, a deep and redemptive strength, transcendence, majesty. The garden has made me become a believer again. At the time, I thought that true biology was a theology. Now, I think that God has given flowers to human beings to alleviate a little of his uncontrollable violence.” Han, certainly, has a garden in his house and is very much like a gardener in his way of looking at reality: he plants, cares, prunes, contemplates, waits. A gardener does not separate himself from his garden and, for this reason, he says that he travels little.

This attitude of waiting, typical of a farmer, leads him to think about the virtue of hope in terms of what “has not yet arrived” and open to the surprise of the advent, of the new, of that which appears and enters the scene without mediate any calculation. Hope and future go hand in hand. Planning, the algorithm, on the other hand, live to control, cage the future and end with “everything is already written” as Gabriel, the character in the movie Mission Impossible VII, cynically says, for whom artificial intelligence reads and measures the millimeter destiny of all people. Hope, on the other hand, escapes algorithms and Excel sheets.

Han returns to his critique of performance capitalism oriented toward consumerism, achievement, and material well-being. A culture that privileges competition to the point of exhaustion, points out deadlines, sets results, accumulates things; but that, in so many cases, has lost the wisdom of life. We are together, but we are not in communion. Many results and, however, few interpersonal ties. “The neoliberal subject – Han points out – as an entrepreneur of himself is not capable of establishing relationships with others that are free of purpose [what I get, what I gain]. Nor can a friendship free of purpose arise between self-entrepreneurs. However, originally being free means “being among friends”: in Indo-European, the words freedom and friend have the same root. At its core, freedom is a relational word. It is only possible to feel truly free within an accomplished relationship. The complete isolation to which the liberal regime leads us does not make us truly free. Freedom is synonymous with achieved community.” Freedom is woven with others, not alone.

Han, on other occasions, has referred – correctly – to the need to pause, to enjoy the aroma of time, to stop and contemplate the depth of reality. On this occasion, he points out that “the party interrupts work. Work disconnects and isolates people. (…) Participating in creation, becoming divine, being part of divinity: that is the essence of the party, the essence of the celebration. Today’s life, colonized in its entirety by production, is an absolute atrophy of life. We have to admit once and for all that we have lost that divine existence, that transcendence. The party is the opposite of production and work. The party is more about waste than production.”

In this aspect of the work, it seems to me that Han overdoes it and remains stuck in the pathological dimension of the work. He does not look at work as an area in which essential dimensions of the human condition emerge. Although work can be alienating for human beings, however, its significance overcomes this limitation. Han does not fully see the humanizing value that work has, he remains in the anomalies of a way of seeing the economic and business organization and loses sight of the value of work indicated in its very creation origins: the human being has been placed in creation ut operanetur, so that it works. That is to say, work is not a curse, even if in the history of humanity and in current contemporary society, human beings do not get it right.

The book, in short, is suggestive. Han is a philosopher who invites you to meditate. His incarnated philosophy, the musical tone of his thought, is always a pleasant call to dwell on the essential dimensions of the human condition.