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The Crisis of Narration
by byung-chul han
polity, 100 pages, $16.95

My friend J, a computer programmer, once convinced his former roommate—also a programmer—to watch the Japanese art film Asako I & II, about a woman who falls in love with two identical-looking but different men. J’s roommate sat patiently through this intricate, two-hour meditation on identity before complaining that the film could have been much shorter: say, five to ten minutes. He could have saved even more time by reading a plot summary in bullet-point form. That would have been far more efficient.

This story, which J told me over lunch when I said I was writing this review, is also a parable. We are either J, the humanist programmer, or we are the ex-roommate, the rationalist who doesn’t see the point in J’s humanism—in his engagement with gradual, digressive, and lyrical unfoldings. The roommate just wanted information, conveyed in useful packets.

This split—and perhaps existential choice—between information and narrative animates the philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s new book-length essay The Crisis of Narration. According to Han, narratives—formally constructed stories, rich with allusion and suggestion, open to interpretation by the community—are disappearing as Homo sapiens transforms into what he calls Phono sapiens.

Han’s prime example of a master narrator is Herodotus. The Greek historian could “forgo explanation,” trusting in the power of a few key images to convey history’s complexity and tragedy. His audience knew what it meant when a city was sacked, or a general sent into exile. Thus Herodotus’s storytelling made sense of the past and pointed to the future. Narrative, Han argues, brings together discrete moments of experience, both personal and collective, so that we feel that it’s all heading towards something, is for something. Stories can bind together families, tribes, and civilizations.

By contrast, Han looks around at the present and sees disintegration. People who grew up with phones—and even many older people who didn’t—can’t read a novel anymore, sit through a film without looking at their phones, sit through a TV show without pausing it to check their emails, finish an article online—in short, can’t really do anything without multitasking. There’s no moment of rapture in reading the first page of a book because the mind no longer expects to reach the end. The old tools of storytelling are obsolete; distraction supersedes even entertainment, let alone art. And because we can’t narrate our lives, “we can’t construct narratives connected to our own inner truth.” Truth simply falls out of the human vocabulary, replaced by big data: charts, memes, viral clips. Phono sapiens is “lost” in a “forest of information,” without passion or purpose.

He also lacks consolation. Whereas narratives have a “wondrous and mysterious” quality, there is something frantic about the data pouring out of our screens: charts and infographics, advertisements and commercials. Our information society lives in an “age of heightened mental tension”: constantly stimulated, constantly expecting surprise, constantly fragmented. Phono sapiens may become terrified of climate change, political extremism, or microplastics; he may compulsively bet on stocks and games; he may be addicted to dating apps; or all of the above. In any case, he is stuck in an information loop without the possibility of closure.

If we take Han’s argument seriously, and I think we should, its implications for our common life are very grave. A society structured around pure information, around data, will struggle to access the traditional meaning inscribed in acts such as marriage, child-rearing, community service, and churchgoing. All of these come to be perceived as inefficient or pointless. The same could be said of cooking dinner for friends, attending a sporting event without wagering on the outcome, or writing a thank-you note.

But, one may object, isn’t the world full of narratives? Don’t people turn to their phones in search of Instagram stories? Aren’t politicians always trying to construct a compelling “narrative”? Not so: “The more we talk about narration or narrative,” Han cautions us, “the more we’re alienated from it.” The stream of pseudo-narratives one finds on TikTok, Instagram, or X are replacement calories for a narrative-starved hive mind. Han calls this development “the inflation of narrative,” a term that applies to much of the media landscape. UFOs, pandemics, pop-star romances, global wars: All, in different ways, are discursive simulacra of the complex, allegorical, future-oriented, rich, and humanizing narratives that Han locates, however vaguely, in the past.

Han’s diagnosis is partly a spiritual one. Most contemporary people, he suggests, don’t experience the time between birth and death in a natural, primal way—especially if they no longer believe in stories of salvation, whether pagan or Christian. Instead they must anxiously distract themselves from death. According to Han, the busyness and noisiness of digital life and the internet is the eerie sound emitted by the narrative vacuum: a void that expresses itself “in a lack of meaning and orientation.”

Han finds the smartphone age overwhelming. So do I. And yet as powerful as Han’s brief book is, he is perhaps too pessimistic about our ability to regain our spiritual thirst. In my own work, writing and directing plays in New York City, I have found that narrative and the demand for narrative are still alive. A good dramatic scene, written and performed at just the right pitch of subtlety and pathos, may still speak for itself; there is indeed something “wondrous and mysterious” in those moments in which something small can stand for something big, something close to universal.

I’ve come to understand that theater, in our time, isn’t a genre of entertainment. It is, for me at least, a refuge and a place of consolation: a castle at the edge of the desert in the late empire of the human soul. What theater is for me, and philosophy is for Han, any number of things could be for any number of people: cinema, prayer, a long walk, a night in front of the fireplace, with the phone on airplane mode (or even, dare I say, off).

Homo sapiens has reason to hope, then, that Phono sapiens is just a very modern version of the Neanderthal: a competitor species that will not live to tell its own story.

Matthew Gasda writes from New York City.

Image by Ketut Subiyanto, public domain. Image cropped.

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