And by a prudent flight and cunning save A life which valour could not, from the grave. A better buckler I can soon regain, But who can get another life again? Archilochus

Monday, January 23, 2023

A Review of "The Disappearance of Rituals" by Byung-Chul Han


Christopher Garbowski, "Community and Rituals: A Review of Byung-Chul Han’s 'The Disappearance of Rituals'"
Toward the end of the twentieth century, give or take a decade or so, the idea that we were living in a post-secular age was making some headway among those interested in the place of religion in modern societies. The primary evidence was to be found in places such as the United States, with its highly religious population, and ditto Poland, as well as in several post-communist countries where religion seemed to be undergoing a revival after the official atheist ideology of communism was finally cast aside once the subjugated nations regained their sovereignty.[1] By and large, this optimism concerning the modest return of religion has faded, with a few significant exceptions, such as Africa, where the religious practice continues to experience growth for the time being at any rate.

Ronald Inglehart has linked the advancing progress of secularization with growing wealth and the rising standard of living in such societies where this process occurs. Furthermore, he claimed that, by and large, this is an emancipatory phenomenon.[2] One would likely be not far off to say that such an opinion is now reasonably mainstream and becoming more so in Poland, where I live. In his book Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good? Rupert Shortt presents several negative stereotypes concerning religion and his arguments against them.[3] However, even the most sensible argumentation will not carry much weight in contemporary polarized societies with a highly prejudiced meritocracy in this and other matters.[4]

Inglehart is a prominent social scientist, and his claims must be taken seriously whether one accepts them. However, a significant part of the accompanying phenomena he describes is a matter of interpretation. In his provocative essay The Disappearance of Rituals, cultural philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who teaches at the University of the Arts in Berlin, implicitly challenges the sanguine view that the socio-economic processes accompanying and also driving secularization are particularly emancipatory; on the contrary, he forcefully argues the disappearance of “rituals”—obviously so important in religious traditions, among others—drives the “erosion of community.”[5]

Han does not explicitly deal with secularism. Nevertheless, it is implicit in his diagnosis of the contemporary Western world, especially considering the importance of ritual in preserving community in a given society. Although other forces in society, for instance, historical memory in service of national communities, also generate rituals, it is not likely they do so to a more considerable degree or in more meaningful terms. Rituals, for the author, are symbolic acts that “represent, and pass on, the values and orders on which a community is based.”[6] Naturally, religion plays a vital role in this process, not only through ordinary rituals but also their heightened form in festivals, which imply rest and leisure through their circular treatment of time—that is, following the liturgical calendar—they respond to the profound fact that “humans regularly feel the need to unite.”[7]

Several decades ago, the self-centered nature of individuals in contemporary consumer society was labeled as a “culture of narcissism” by social thinker Christopher Lasch. The prominent communitarian philosopher Charles Taylor challenged that charge by forwarding an interpretation that members of these developed societies are primarily bound by an ethics of authenticity wherein they aspire to be true to themselves and their originality. “This is the background that gives moral force to the culture of authenticity,” he argued, “including its most degraded, absurd, or trivialized forms.”[8] He also proffered some ideas about how the ethos can avoid being trivialized or degraded to narcissism and better serve society. Now, Han cites but is not convinced by these arguments. Upending Taylor’s claims, he curtly retorts: “The narcissism of authenticity undermines community.”[9] Han rejects the moral façade of authenticity, claiming it leads to a form of self-exploitation, which the neoliberal regime appropriates into its production process. The seeming originality of individuals is a form of conformism, evident, among other places, in the fashion for tattoos, wherein the body becomes an “advertising space.” The narcissistic cult of authenticity rejects sociability and politeness, effectively leading to the brutalization of society. Even the arts have become increasingly profane and disenchanted, losing their playful nature through focusing on form and content. Thus “[t]he disenchantment of art is a symptom of narcissism, of narcissistic internalization.”[10] Significantly, the fashion for tattoos and—considering the public square—crude and brutal public demonstrations are evident in Polish society at present, symptoms of an atomized society, as Han would put it, or more accurately, a significant segment of Polish society. In a consumer society, this adds up to the phenomenon that, in symbolic terms, through self-absorption, we consume ourselves.

Another crucial element in Han’s list of pathologies of the neoliberal society is the lack of closure or at least a certain manner of closure. He lists nationalism as a negative, fundamentalist form of closure, while culture is a positive form that aids in providing an identity for a community. What is important, culture is also receptive to what is foreign; thus, it helps create an “including identity.” Globalization, on the other hand, creates a hyper-culture that perforates healthy boundaries and the natural attachment of people to sites. “A de-sited hyper-culture is additive” and thus hampers closure; what is more, it propagates “a cancerous proliferation of the same, even to the hell of the same,” argues Han.[11] This is one of the causes of the culture wars—although he does not use this term—since, as he puts it, “[t]he strengthening of site fundamentalism (…) is a reaction to hyper-cultural non-sitedness.”[12] Needless to say, the confrontation can be pretty hostile, and both sides are at fault to different degrees.

Rituals are important, among other things, since they provide structure to essential stages in life and give meaning to time. In this sense, it could be said they also help those of us who are, in a manner of speaking, abandoned by those who undergo the ultimate transition that awaits us all. Rites of passage are threatened in the current intense forms of communication and production. Thus, “temporally intense transitions are disintegrating into speedy passages, continuous links and endless clicks.”[13] One might add that this is likely a factor in creating the significant number of singletons: a symptom of the inability to build lasting relationships that form the base of the community.

The neoliberal order does not only wreak havoc in traditional societies. In the West, it has transformed the pursuit of knowledge initiated in the Enlightenment—although Han overlooks the influence of religion that led to the establishment of the universities in the Middle Ages, with their much earlier impact on that pursuit initiated in much earlier period. He adds that since the human being is no longer capable of producing it rapidly enough, machines now produce knowledge and do so mechanically. The human being is reduced “to a data set, a variable that can be calculated and manipulated.”[14] This augments an overabundance of communication without substance.

The above hardly does justice to Han’s rich discussion and proffered insights. Among his main points is that in a ritualistic society, as he succinctly puts it, much is implicitly understood by its members, and therefore effectively, there is the “community without communication,” while the reverse is true today, where there is a prevalence of “communication without community.”[15] Although he attempts to present the situation in a balanced manner, it is evident where his greater sympathies lie. When he claims the processes that create this situation are not emancipatory, that is putting what he describes more fully rather mildly.

In The Strange Death of Europe, Douglas Murray astutely detects a palpable sense of ennui in the eponymous continent: the sense that “life in modern liberal democracies is to some extent thin or shallow and that life in modern Western Europe, in particular, has lost its sense of purpose.”[16] Han’s insightful essay suggests the roots of the continent’s malaise, in no small measure caused by the loss of religion, together with the rituals that hold a society together.[17] Murray felt the countries of Central Europe were something of an exception. To what degree was he right? As a vital country of the region undergoing a period of transition, Poland is worth looking at somewhat closer.

One might begin by noting that after the downfall of communism in the seminal year of 1989, Polish society has quite rapidly elevated its standard of living. Indeed, through its dynamic economy that fostered this change, the country has been dubbed “Europe’s growth champion” by one economist.[18] To attain this, Poles underwent a severe transformation that Han would describe in the broadest terms as incorporating a forceful version of neoliberalism together with its system of production. A number of the pathologies he ascribes to this combination have gripped society; although they might not yet have taken quite the powerful hold he describes in his book, in the historically short period of time the socio-economic system has been employed, the effects are nevertheless quite substantial. Will they continue to build up and—conversely—what forms of resistance to the erosion of community can be mustered are important to consider.

To better understand the specific form of the challenge, in his perceptive study Populism and the European Culture Wars, Frank Furedi points out that post-traditional and post-national sentiments, propagated by the likes of Jürgen Habermas, exercise substantial influence over the cultural elites and institutions of Western societies. This attitude tends toward specific aberrations; for instance, the author observes that the testimony to “the narrow technical vision of contemporary cosmopolitanism is that its worship of heterogeneity has contributed to the cultural valuation of parochial identity politics.”[19] This might be understood as one of the political forms of the narcissistic cult of authenticity, and it has also substantially taken hold of political and cultural elites in post-communist countries.

Among the last sources of ritual that remain in society is connected to one of the foundations of community: the family. Along with religion, the family was a target under communism since it created more independent individuals better able to withstand regime propaganda. Many post-communist societies are still affected by the decline of the family under communism. No doubt, it is among the factors that make Russian society, with the family in terrible condition and divorce rates relatively high, not to mention the accompanying substance abuse, so susceptible and passive toward the authoritarian state propaganda of the Putin regime. The strength of the Church—with the numerous accompanying rituals—was a crucial factor in maintaining the family in Poland. One critical study indirectly supports the notion that the strength of the family likewise helps in the EU.

It turns out that in Nordic countries, which are highly secular and gender equality is very high, there is a much greater level of partner violence than in Poland. In the study Violence Against Women: An EU-wide Survey published 2014, Scandinavian countries were at the top of the list for women reporting past abuse, ranging from 52% to 46%, while Poland was at the bottom with a couple of other countries at 13%.[20] It has been argued that the cause for this is likely connected with the high rate of cohabitation in Nordic countries: namely, relationships where partner turnover is comparatively rapid with all the heated emotions involved. While religion is not mentioned as a reason for the low rate of abuse in Poland, it plays a role in the popularity of marriage, with all the incumbent benefits, to the couple and the community.

The more “European” Poland becomes, the more the above pathologies infiltrate it. Among other matters, as was mentioned, the narcissistic cult of authenticity Han describes effectively rejects sociability and politeness, leading to the brutalization of society. This brutalization is more clearly visible now in Polish society, even if it has not yet been internalized to the extent that seems to be the case in Scandinavian countries. Once again, the family remains a source of possible growth of the community. How long this will be the case in Poland, among other countries, remains to be seen. Unfortunately, some of the current signs are not optimistic.

Cultural philosophy is not a science, and so its insights are on the intuitive side. Jacques Maritain placed a high value on creative intuition but felt its insights come to us through art. In the case of authors like Han, the intuitions of cultural philosophy can also be taken seriously. Indeed, the problem he tackles requires attention. Through its diagnosis of the breakdown of community at a fundamental juncture, Han’s The Disappearance of Rituals gives some idea of where the sources of strength can be found for any counteraction to the process, and that is what makes it such an important work.

[1] Peter Berger and Jose Casanova were among the prominent proponents of this thinking. See, for instance, Casanova’s seminal work on religion in the public sphere, which includes a chapter on Poland. José Casanova, Public Religions in the Modern World (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1994).

[2] Ronald Inglehart, “Giving Up on God: The Global Decline of Religion,” Foreign Affairs 99, (September/October 2020): 110–118.

[3] Rupert Shortt, Does Religion Do More Harm Than Good? (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019).

[4] Michael J. Sandel, The Tyranny of Merit: What’s Become of the Common Good? (London: Allen Lane, 2020).

[5] Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present, translated by Daniel Steuer (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2020), vi.

[6] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 1.

[7] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 39.

[8] Charles Taylor, The Ethics of Authenticity (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), 29.

[9] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 17.

[10] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 25.

[11] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 34.

[12] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 34.

[13] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 35.

[14] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 82.

[15] Han, The Disappearance of Rituals, 1, passim.

[16] Douglas Murray, The Strange Death of Europe: Immigration, Identity, Islam (London: Bloomsbury, 2017), 258.

[17] Murray, not personally religious himself, also claims that the loss of religion in the continent is part of the problem.

[18] Marcin Piatkowski, Europe’s Growth Champion: Insights from the Economic Rise of Poland (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018).

[19] Frank Furedi, Populism and the European Culture Wars: The Conflict of Values between Hungary and the EU (London: Routledge, 2018), 72–73.

[20] Carolyn Moynihan, “A Nordic Paradox: Higher Gender Equality, More Partner Violence,” Mercatornet.com, May 28, 2019, https://mercatornet.com/a-nordic-paradox-higher-gender-equality-more-partner-violence/24369/.

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