The vita contemplativa


“Not the least cause for today’s temporal crisis is the absolute value attached to the vita activa. This leads to an imperative to work, which degrades the human being into an animal laborans. The hyperkinesia of everyday life deprives human existence of all contemplative elements and of any capacity for lingering. It leads to a loss of world and time. So-called strategies of deceleration do not overcome this temporal crisis; they even cover up the actual problem. What is necessary is the revitalisation of the vita contemplativa. The temporal crisis will only be overcome once the vita activa, in the midst of its crisis, again incorporates the vita contemplativa.”

—Byung-Chul Han. preface to The scent of time (trans. Daniel Steuer)

Berardi: The Risk of Reactionary Nostalgia

“The consciousness of living in a condition of abstract domination, the consciousness of the increasing control that technical automatisms are exerting on the social and cultural life of populations, has led me to develop a sense of aversion towards the potency of technology, and a sentiment of nostalgia for political freedom and for the authenticity of life. But I don’t like these sentiments, I don’t recognise them as a part of me. They have successfully conquered some part of my mind because I fear my own impotence. But this fear is the impotence: there is no impotence except in the fear of it.

My philosophical formation, my political experience and my personal character do conflict with these sentiments of reactionary nostalgia, and of fear of the process of post-human development.

. . .

These sentiments . . . are also linked with the process of decline of my mind, of my body and my sexuality. I must consciously come to terms with impending senility, in order not to mistake this personal condition as universal.

I ask myself: how deeply have I been influenced by the reactionary philosophy that descends from the humanist critique of technique and from the nostalgia for authenticity? My intention is to disjoin the understanding of the crisis of humanism from the reactionary nostalgia conveyed by this understanding.”

—Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, Futurability.

Byung-Chul Han’s elegant critique sent me back to this Berardi that I’ve not read properly. I discovered Berardi from Federico Campagna’s The Last Night. I think often of this passage.

Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society

“The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking’ does not represent civilisational progress. Human beings in the late-modern society of work and information are not the only ones capable of multitasking. Rather, such an aptitude amounts to regression. Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.”

“Not just multitasking but also activities such as video games produce a broad but flat mode of attention. Recent social developments and the structural change of wakefulness are bringing human society deeper and deeper into the wilderness.For example, bullying has achieved pandemic dimensions. Concern for the good life, which also includes life as member of the community, is yielding more and more to the simple concern for survival.

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.”

Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (t. Erik Butler)

The devastating effects of an excess of positivity on the social and cultural realm are explored in Han’s book. It’s a bleak portrayal of a post-Freudian west distracted by low-level stimuli in order to stave off inner emptiness. For a book published in 2010 it seems quite prophetic. Nine years later there seems little doubt of the gulf between the political establishment and a population for whom celebrity culture, consumerism and wealth acquisition have become the principal ideologies.

Burnout and Deep Boredom

“Every age has its signature afflictions. . .Neurological illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder [ADHD], borderline personality disorder (BPD), and burnout syndrome mark the landscape of pathology at the beginning of the twenty-first century. [the choice of words is careful, but what is new, the labelling or the “illnesses’] They are not infections, but infarctions; they do not follow from the negativity of what is immunologically foreign, but from an excess of positivity. Therefore, they elude all technologies and techniques that seek to combat what is alien.”

“If sleep represents the high point of mental relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation.”

—Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (t. Erik Butler)

“[Mark] Fisher argues, to the detriment of innovation, boredom itself has been radically transformed by the advent of digital media. Today the slightest hint of restlessness or pocket of spare time tends to have us reaching for our smartphones—and yet the possibility of real boredom, and the urgent desire to escape it, has historically acted as an important cultural catalyst. For punks in the 1970s, the ‘dreary void of Sundays, the night hours after television stopped broadcasting, even the endless dragging minutes waiting in queues or for public transport” were viewed as a ‘challenge, an injunction and an opportunity’. Nowadays, ‘in the intensive, 24/7 environment of capitalist cyberspace, the brain is no longer allowed any time to idle; instead it is inundated with a seamless flow of low-level stimulus’. In compulsively engaging with frivolous online content that we recognise—even celebrate—as tedious, we sorely limit ourselves. We have arrived at a situation in which ‘no one is bored, everything is boring.'”

—From this week’s TLS, a review of Fisher’s K-Punk

And yes, there is an irony in posting these excerpts in a blog post. That ‘dreary void’ remained into the 1980s. I miss deep boredom. It is something that today must be willed and sought out. One of those days when everything one reads coalesces around a theme.