Thinking through Non-Things
Byun-Chul Han’s writing reminds me of religious writing. In Non-Things, he preaches against technology and digitization (aka the “non-things”), and writes a very bad chapter on photography.
Han calls for a new “temporal architecture” of lingering, against the fast-paced, unfocused, effervesence of an “information”-based society. Allegedly, this slow-form (“all form is slow” he says elsewhere)temporal architecture would allow people to construct the trust, responsibility, promises, faithfulness, bonding, and commitments that he sees lacking in our digitized society. Yet, he not only calls for that temporal architecture, but space organized for emptiness--which is a stillness that attracts and structures attention. Together, Han envisions a space and time of “negative resistance” to constitute experience of facticity, against a digitized world that, through the proliferation and freedom of digital content, turns people passive. Specifically, negative resistance in a factual world requires us to practice care.
Han’s writing often feels problematically uncritical, undercooked, and contradictory. Instead of untangling the shortcomings of his writing, however, I’d like to develop some of his strong points. First, a trivial story:
The other day, I drove to a bar in Los Angeles to meet some friends. Normally, I’d follow my GPS step-by-step, so that I would not need to think or plan the route. The GPS does the thinking for me. But the map glitched. I needed to look at the route, memorize the highways and exits, and pay attention to where I was at. I put my phone down to navigate highways that I knew, and felt free from the dictation of the GPS, which sounds incredibly dramatic (look, sarcastically, at my holy and pure experience of non-technology!). But now I do not need my GPS to go to that same location, because the sense of place that I cultivated on the highway became my own--an internalized map.
Mainly, I understood what Han means by care. He says, “If we have a predictable future in the form of an optimized present, we need not care.” Contingency, according to Han, opens us up to care. In this instance, if I do not have a phone to tell me exactly where to go, or, in Han’s words, to “take care of” me, I am open to making a wrong turn. I must pay attention, learn the route, and drive with intention. Additionally, because I care, the knowledge of the route becomes, in some sense, my own. If I am constituted in part by the knowledge that I grasp and internalize, and that knowledge is local, then I can belong to the locality that I know. Really, it’s knowledge that I can now trust in my gut.
The GPS is a small and silly example. Han’s critique goes further: where we develop care, we can also develop those things like trust, responsibility, promises, faithfulness, bonding, and commitment. Yet, digitization (Han’s focus) is not the only thing that removes us from care (think of knowledge--especially ideology--that closes us off from contingency, from needing to trust another person), and it would be important to reflect on those thing that remove us from the experience of things, or distract us from cultivating character and community.
Digital photography, according to Han, is one of those things that removes us from the facticity of the world; for it is automatically fake, and is no longer “magic.” He favors mediums that are not so transparent and smooth, like a vinyl or a film photo, for these preserve a poetic form. And I used to argue something similar, especially when I switched from a DSLR to a mirrorless camera, but I cannot entertain his critique anymore. For although a digital photo can proliferate infinitely without intention or care, severed from a particular instance of expression (which is something Han is nervous about: infinite, valueless content), there is no automatic glory in film. A bad photo on film is just as much trash as a bad photo on a digital camera; it is not the medium alone through which a photo communicates, but through its form. It may just be easier to fill a hard drive with trashy pictures on a digital camera. In the digital world, it may just be easier to be careless.
Where Han leaves us is towards a temporal and spatial architecture of “care.” His care requires the attention and stillness of what he calls “knowledge” rather than pure “information,” taking place in everyday rituals that build narratives out of our lives. Which might mean, for him, it is better to abandon the GPS when we do not need it; for me, it means to be attentive to the mechanism and limitations of the digital camera while I am taking a picture.