“The End of Things”, by Byung-Chul Han: in a disembodied world

“The End of Things. Upheavals in the world of life” (Undinge. Umbrüche der Lebenswelt), by Byung-Chul Han, translated from German by Olivier Mannoni, Actes Sud, “Questions de société”, 144 p., €16, digital €12.

” Tell me, when will you come back ? » The chorus is not only that of the famous Barbara song that the German philosopher of Korean origin Byung-Chul Han, at the end of his new book, says he listens to at home on a 1950s jukebox. indeed like a melancholic question that crosses the entire work, launched at the address of a world that is disappearing, that of things.

Crown, cross, book, shoes or, by rummaging through an author’s drawer, a date-wood stamp struck by lightning: these are things which have, according to a thought inspired by Martin Heidegger, the capacity to help us inhabit the world. Because, before having a function, they attest to a fundamental presence, like all those everyday things that surround us and which acquire a strange intensity if we know how to look at them in silence. It is through this presence that things “resist”, become our “supports”, retain our memories and connect us to materiality, to manuality and, in short, to a certain “earth order”.

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Or “we no longer inhabit the earth and the sky, we inhabit Google Earth and the Cloud”, laments Byung-Chul Han in The End of Things. Taking up the idea of ​​the philosopher Vilém Flusser (1920-1991) according to which information is a “non-thing”, he considers that “digitalization derealizes and disembodies the world”. Reviving the romantic accent of the critique of modernity by adding new motifs to it, the author of The Transparency Society (PUF, 2017) berates “numerical order” Who “fragments life”, or “Phono Sapiens”, a kind of post-human with fingers to tap the screen but deprived of hands, happily accesses a digital hyperreality made available from his smartphone.

narcissistic object

This one, too smooth, does not have, for Han, the ontological dignity of a thing. Because this narcissistic object “leads to the disappearance of the other”. The world of information, for all these reasons, no longer tells us anything: “The information is additive, not narrative. They can be counted, but not told. » Thus a « story » Facebook’s only role is to accumulate « likes », whom he nicely calls “the digital amen”.

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If the theme of the derealization of the world recalls Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007), the professor at the University of the Arts in Berlin quotes above all Roland Barthes (1915-1980), whose analysis of photography he applies to the whole of reality. film: as a thing, it would manifest the irruption of presence beyond what can be represented, thanks to the alchemy of light and small grains of silver. The digital image, subject to superficial information, would be incapable of this. But if the thing can disappear as information, doesn’t art show us how signs and information can also, in the opposite direction, be reified and gain consistency (as Ileana Parvu defends in particular in The consistency of things, University Press of Provence, 2021)? Under new guises, aren’t things already back? With this book, we will know better where to wait for them, in silence, or by slipping a coin into the jukebox.