Emma Melonic, "Surviving Hyperculture"
The following is a condensed version of "Surviving Hyperculture" by Emina Melonic, published at Law & Liberty.
Does the term “culture” even mean anything, given humanity’s turn away from particularity and toward a more fluid world of never-ending change? Philosopher Byung-Chul Han, known for his treatise-like reflections on modern life, combining philosophical inquiry with cultural critique. Han objectively delineates and clarifies modern society’s existential ailments, while trying to discern where we may be going on the current trajectory. His book Hyperculture: Culture and Globalization is a look at the way the world is shifting due to globalization.
Who are we as human in this strange world? Are we mere tourists, to use Han’s metaphor, or are we searching for a deeper meaning? By definition, a tourist collects experiences that are often superficial, and the way we experience culture today seems to operate on the same level. Rootlessness to such an extreme can lead to a total existential breakdown. Any notion of boundaries, be they metaphysical or geographical, will quickly dissipate and with that the perennial question of what it means to be human. After all, it is our differences that maintain creativity as well as, unfortunately, destruction.
The worlds are shifting, and the question is whether a new world is emerging. “After the end of culture,” writes Han, “should the new human being simply be called ‘tourist’? Or are we at long last living in a culture that affords us the freedom to spread into the wide open world? If we are, how might we describe this new culture?” Han is alluding to the “end of culture,” which is enough to make everyone quite depressed. Fast-moving technology has precipitated this change, and we cannot turn back the clock. Technology has tapped into human listlessness and spiritual torpor, taking many souls hostage.
What exactly is hyperculture? Han’s concept of “hyperculture” is drawn from Ted Nelson’s invention of hypertext. Han explains that, for Nelson, everything is connected, and hypertext is not necessarily limited to digital text. As Han writes, “Neither body nor thinking follows a linear pattern. … [H]ypertext promises a liberation from compulsion, [and] what Nelson imagines is a hypertextual universe, a network without centre, in which everything is wedded together.”
If we have reached the point in our society in which everything is connected in a way that renders us even more alienated from that very society, then we have to ask: what is culture in this context? What is humanity? Do such things even exist anymore? In the United States, for example, we like to speak of the so-called “culture wars,” which indeed are not imaginary, and they have serious consequences on different aspects of society. But given the all-pervasive reality of globalization, are we engaging in culture wars anymore, or are our battles shapeshifting, unable to be captured and properly dealt with?
In addition, the mere idea of God has been neglected, and by implication, our spiritual lives. Since he is concerned with “sitelessness” and “rootlessness,” Han looks at the notion of pilgrimage. Sacred language has all but disappeared from our existential and literal vocabulary (at least from the collective myriad of voices), and the concept of a pilgrim seems antiquated. But in fact, this may be one of the primary ways to return to God.
A pilgrim is not a modern human being at all. As Han writes, “A pilgrim is a peregrinus. He or she is not fully at home Here, and thus pilgrims are on their way to a special There. Modernity overcomes precisely this asymmetry between Here and There. … [I]nstead of being on its way towards a There, modernity progresses towards a better Here. But a necessary part of the pilgrim’s wandering across the desert is uncertainty and insecurity, that is, the possibility of going astray. Modernity, by contrast, thinks that it is moving along a straight road.”
A pilgrim is geared toward arrival, whereas modern or postmodern man (especially one whose existence is defined by globalization and digitization) couldn’t care less about that. Since everything is shapeshifting all the time, today’s digitized human being is quickly losing his or her humanity through such an endeavor.
In the hypercultural space,” Han tells us, “one does not ‘hike’; one ‘browses’ what is presently available.” There is no point of departure or arrival, and this will prove to be an existence devoid of meaning. If we look at ourselves as pilgrims, then we can also conclude that we desire belonging. This is one human desire that rarely goes away. But a “tourist” (to use Han’s word), or someone who is searching for nothing, will never care about belonging. As Václav Havel wrote, “The tragedy of modern man is not that he knows less and less about the meaning of his own life, but that it bothers him less and less.”