I cannot recall where I learned of Byung-chul Han, but I’ve had the pleasure of reading one of his books of philosophical essays (The Scent of Time) recently, and seldom has a philosophy text resonated so immediately with my circumstances. In this book, Han argues for contemplative time. He says it is essential for humans and human society and claims the “acceleration” of everyday life robs us of the value of reflective thought and “slow time.”
Raised and educated in Germany, where he now teaches, Han invokes the works of several German philosophers to provide a starting-point regarding the acceleration of time. He draws on Nietzsche, Arendt, Husserl and, to a larger extent, Heidegger…but Derrida, Aquinas, Aristotle, and others as well. He also quotes from quite a few poets, such as Celan, Hölderlin, Büchner, Handke, Ch’iao Chi, and spends two chapters on Proust (but of course…).
Han posits that the point-like, algorithmic availability of information runs counter to knowledge and wisdom, which require experience, which in turn requires duration and connection rather than arbitrary retrieval: “Promising, commitment and fidelity, for instance, are genuinely temporal practices. They bind the future by continuing the present into the future…creating a temporal continuity.” He criticizes the very technology that permits a person like me to learn about his work (I am certain I heard of him online somewhere). That criticism says the faster we go, the further we are from our earthiness–the airplane removes us from earth’s gravitational field as well as from the soil, “estranging the human being from it.” He adds, “The internet and electronic mail let geography, even the earth itself, disappear…Modern technology de-terrestrializes human life.”
Strong opinions, large claims. But oh, I thought at once of Whitman and his long expansive drawling poems when I read, “Instead of leisurely strolling around, one rushes from one event to another. This haste and restlessness characterize neither the flâneur nor the vagabond.” The whizzing about leads to anxiety and a lack of durable relationships. People hover instead of connect, swiping left or doomscrolling, feeling bored–which is a kind of empty-mindedness. I observe this trend of rushing and hovering in my students and among my colleagues. I have not found much Whitman-like lounging in current poetry publications, but a great deal of anxiety appears in contemporary poems. Writers reflect the times. Context shapes us.
But of course, our culture urges us to keep active, as though activity of any kind is valuable and can somehow stave off boredom, loneliness, or death. “Addiction to distractions” and the via activa are the sort of socio-cultural pyschological behaviors Han would like us to slough off. He wants us to leave behind the “Calvinist” (as he terms it) belief that “Wasting time is the worst of all sins.”
“In the consumer society, one forgets how to linger,” he notes, correctly. While we may browse the sale rack at a store for many minutes, the pressure is to buy the next new, better, faster, brighter object before we leave. What about sitting quietly, noticing the scent of flowers or incense, taking in the sounds of the world each of us experiences differently, or walking for half an hour as aimlessly as possible–without a phone, or money, without pop music or podcasts, alone or with a companionable fellow stroller? The very thought makes some people uncomfortable; they aren’t at ease with their reflective selves in the world, with human experience. Why is this so? Has it always been so? These questions Han touches on.
I have felt the pressure of filling up my time with lists of things to do, people to see, things to purchase, jobs to fulfill, projects to complete. It’s been hard to make space for dawdling, daydreaming, drafting poems. I haven’t submitted work since July, and so few poems have come to mind lately that this begins to feel like writer’s block. The Scent of Time has reminded me to open up more space in my life for simple experience on the level of daily phenomena, which is the stuff out of which I write poetry.