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Korean-born philosopher Byung-Chul Han completed his dissertation on Heidegger’s concept of Stimmung (mood) in 1994, and his early books were meditations on death and dying. Since the 2010 publication of Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (English title, The Burnout Society), now translated into a dozen languages, he’s produced a steady stream of slender, poetic works of cultural commentary that track the transformations of human experience we’ve suffered as we adjust to the digital age. “My task as a philosopher,” he says, “is to explain what kind of society we live in. Philosophy is truth-speaking.” 

In Burnout Society, Han contrasted the “immunological” paradigm of the twentieth century with the neuronal culture of the twenty-first. In a politics of immunology, everything foreign is “simply combated. . . . even if it has no hostile intentions, even if it poses no danger, it is eliminated on the basis of its Otherness.” We’ve outgrown all that, we in our twenty-first-century adulthood. “More and more,” Han claimed, we live in a society where “otherness” and “foreignness” have disappeared. “Foreign” has morphed into “exotic,” and we’ve become tourists of difference. Along the way, we’ve outgrown barriers. The old world was “marked by borders, transitions, thresholds, fences, ditches, and walls that prevent universal change and exchange.” The twenty-first century began a decade early with the removal of a wall—in Berlin—and globalized hybridization has since displaced the regime of immunization. We now live in a world without walls.

Han’s reflections haven’t aged well. Walls are back in style, partly in reaction to a real pandemic. But his claim that our neuronal age will be plagued by pathologies deriving from “an excess of positivity” is more plausible. In place of threats from the Other, we face “too-much-of-the-Same, surplus positivity.” Han has in mind both the homogenization of culture and the surfeit of goods, the “overproduction, overachievement, and overcommunication” enjoyed by globalization’s winners. Excess hasn’t made us happy, or even free. We’re no longer subjects of a Foucauldian disciplinary society; rather, hedonism has itself become a principle of domination, represented for Han by that omnipresent data-collector, the smartphone. A new form of human existence has emerged, the “self-projecting, even self-optimizing subject,” driven not by external compulsion but by the internal pressure to achieve and to display achievement. Always on, we suffer from “exhaustion, fatigue, and suffocation”—in a word, Müdigkeit or “burnout.”

This overstressed “achievement self” in the neuronal age is in the background of Han’s 2021 The Palliative Society, an elegant Jeremiad against “algophobia,” the fear of pain that now occupies our souls. Humans have always avoided painful conditions, but today our instinct to recoil has been institutionalized. Pain has no meaning; it lies entirely outside the symbolic system. Playgrounds are cushioned or cordoned for safety. Entertainment and social media keep us in a continuous state of anesthesia. We avoid the disturbances of art, reducing beauty to the “likeable.” Conflict and controversial thinkers are muted. Transhumanist philosopher David Pearce hopes we’ll eventually eliminate the “soul-destroying cruelties of traditional modes of love.”

Algophobia detaches us from the Other, who is inevitably a source of discomfort. Our technologies train our seeing and regulate our reactions to what we see. Film permits “an exceptional degree of cold cruelty,” crueler than the ancient arena because more abstract and distant. We comfortably watch real and fake violence, becoming purveyors and consumers of “violence porn” that has the effect of “an analgesic.” Insensitive to the pain of others, we adopt the “passivity and indifference of the silent spectator.” Images overwhelm us, but instead of shocking us to action, they erode our capacity for shock: “Our attention is so fragmented that such shock is impossible.” Our souls form calluses.

Overshadowing our flight from pain is a universal imperative to “Be Happy.” We still experience pain, but pain isn’t allowed to speak; it’s never given room to become eloquent, to rise to heights of protest or passion. Pain is depoliticized. It retreats to soothing screens or visits the doctor’s office for relief. The palliative society thus brings the “end of revolution.” Palliation transforms the exercise of power. Once upon a time, rulers ruled by inflicting bodily pain. According to Foucault, modern disciplinary power formed human beings into cogs in the industrial machine. The genius of palliative power is that it doesn’t seem to be power at all; it feels like liberation. In the quest for self-realization, the achievement selves of the palliative society cheerily “exploit themselves.” Power decouples from pain and repression: “Smart power operates in seductive and permissive ways.” We live in a “smart” panopticon: “We are constantly asked to communicate our needs, wishes and preferences. . . . Total communication, total surveillance, pornographic exposure and panoptic surveillance coincide. Freedom and surveillance become indistinguishable.”

It can’t work. Happiness must be “fractured” to be genuine. Without pain, happiness becomes reified into a boring repetition of the same. “Pain bears happiness. . . . Any intensity is painful. Passion binds pain and happiness together.” As Nietzsche knew, we can’t think or discover truth without pain. Algophobia keeps us from scraping against the sharp edges of reality. We know it can’t work, so we seek outlets from the numbing pressure of painless happiness. Girls cut themselves. Young men seek out fight clubs and gyms. Nietzsche’s anesthetized “last men” might suddenly turn into barbaric “first men,” recovering the ancient joys of pain-suffering and pain-inflicting heroism.

Han’s books have been described as a form of philosophical haiku, and he illuminates by offering flashes in the darkness. Often enough, what Han exposes is recognizable. I came away from The Palliative Society thinking William Jamesian thoughts, with an ecclesial twist. James hoped to end war, yet, knowing that war alone arouses passions, virtues, and strengths that cannot be achieved in any other human endeavor, he searched for a “moral equivalent of war.” Here’s one of the many ways the church can shore up and rebuild: Remember we can’t be disciples of the crucified without carrying a cross of our own. Call Christians, especially young Christians, to strenuous, grueling, and, yes, painful service to the kingdom.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.

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