Reading 'Saving Beauty' by Byung-Chul Han (2018) Polity Press ©
by Adrian Petrice and Samuel Johns
The Good, the True, and the Beautiful.
Three founding statutes. Three articulations of truth for Plato in Ancient Greece (350 BC). Three cornerstones of the transcendentals of Thomas Aquinas (1250 AD), reflecting our fundamental properties of being. And three starting points for philosophy to launch into goodness (ethics), truth (logic), and beauty (aesthetics).
Why is it that we are so fixated by beauty? What attracts us to that which is beautiful?
Picture this scene with us. You are walking to college one morning – by which we mean your local free WiFi hotspot – to login to Zoom and attend a 1h morning class with your professor. With mask on, and hand sanitizer in your pocket, you’re ready to broach the outside world. On the way to class, you could pause to smell the roses, and enjoy the scents of spring. But time is pressing on and you must keep moving. At the traffic lights you pause, waiting for a green pedestrian light to cross the road, and marvel at the sky in the distance – wisps of cloud, a blue chill in the air, birds fighting for airspace, and a great sense of endlessness and scale. Beep, beep, beep. Suddenly, you are reminded where you are. The pedestrian light is flashing green and you rush across the road. Two streets further on and you are almost there, at the café for the free WiFi hotspot. Class starts shortly. Hopefully the socially-distanced line for the shop will move fast. In the queue ahead of you, a smell of stunning perfume awakes your senses and you suddenly feel alive and invigorated. Again, the clock is ticking. Class starts in three minutes. You focus, you concentrate. Stop drifting off into day-dream land and stay in the land of the living, you tell yourself. Pull yourself together.
Is beauty a mere distraction? Does it point us towards the truth, or rather is it driving the other direction, and leading us towards folly and distraction?
Is beauty in danger and needs saving or we are the ones in danger and could be saved by beauty?
In this stunning book, by the Korean-born and German-residing author Byung-Chul Han, we are introduced to the idea of “Saving Beauty”. The basic thesis of Han is that beauty is being manipulated, distorted, reshaped, refashioned, gamified, and exploited in the modern world – for various ends, including marketing, advertising, and consumerism.
This review is going to unpack three aspects of the thesis of Byung-Chul Han on beauty, or better said the concept of the aesthetic. These are:
- The smooth as the signature of the present time
- The aesthetics of data in modern-day life
- The ideal of beauty and beauty as truth
The smooth as the signature of the present time
Byung-Chul Han is writing from the perspective of a post-Christian Western European culture, where the post-modern mind dominates. What does this mean? In short, his writing position represents a critique of the post-objective or post-truth rationality of the West, and also the deep reliance on subjectivity, individual experience, and affect (or feeling) that engenders post-modernity. Remember, that Jean François Lyotard (1947) defined post-modernity as the “incredulity towards meta-narratives”.
On the very first page of the first chapter Han suggests that it's particularly representative for our age that Jeff Koons, "a master of smooth surfaces" is arguably the most successful living artist. In his work "everything flows in soft and smooth transitions". The artist himself says that anyone encountering his work should only emit a simple 'Wow'. His art is focused on smooth surfaces and their immediate effect; it does not invite interpretation or reflection.
The ballon shaped sculptures embody "a perfect and optimized surface without depth and shallows.” It is an art in the age of Like, where smooth is the new ideal.
What then is the smooth? Han suggests that “the smooth is the signature of the present time”.
He suggests that it “embodies today’s society of positivity” insofar as “what is smooth does not injure, nor does it offer any resistance”. We could nickname this the “culture of the like”. To like and to be liked, in quite simple terms – on Instagram photos and Facebook posts, with Tweets and new YouTube uploads. The culture of the like is the epitome of the smooth. “The smooth only conveys an agreeable feeling, which cannot be connected with any meaning or profound sense – it [only] exhausts itself in a ‘wow’”.
"The Balloon Dog is not a Trojan horse, it does not hide anything. There is no inwardness hidden behind its smooth surface.
As in the case of the smartphone, you only encounter yourself, and not the other, when faced with the highly polished sculptures. The motto of Koons’s art: ‘The core is always the same: learn to trust yourself and your own history'." (Han)
What is so disagreeable about this culture? To Han the “culture of the like” is profoundly concerning. Not only does it risk being devoid of any meaning, but further it can embody the pursuit of perfection in all things and the reach for optimisation, without depth or nuance. Han suggests that this culture provokes “de-mystification” whereby “everything becomes available for enjoyment and consumption”. Suddenly, present-day culture becomes a (hyper)consumer culture driven by the logics of marketing, advertising, and consumerism. Art, beauty, aesthetics, and mystery are open to be manipulated, distorted, reshaped, refashioned, gamified, and exploited for these ends.
Seems like a lot of theory? Well, Han is adamant to add concrete examples to his critique. He suggests the role of the smartphone, as one such device for (hyper)consumption. Consider the impact on the senses of touch and sight, for instance. Han says the smartphone “secularizes [all] that it touches.
In contrast to the sense of sight, touch is incapable of wonderment. The smooth touchscreen [of the smartphones], therefore, is a place of de-mystification and total consumption. It produces what one likes”. Hence all the conversations of echo chambers, bubbles of belonging, and reinforced distortion of social media platforms, that have risen to the fore in recent years through the political incidences of Brexit, Trump, and populism, to name only a few.
Han continues: “as in the case of the smartphone, you only encounter yourself, and not the other, when faced with the highly polished sculptures…Art opens up an echo chamber, in which I assure myself of my own existence. The alterity or negativity of the other and the alien is eliminated altogether”. The motto of Konns's smooth art is epitomised and even taken a step forward on the smooth screen of the smartphone, as it transports the physical smoothness of the 'user experience' into how one sees the world. The self-confirmation biases amplified by customised feeds and social media bubbles are enhanced by algorithms that render for each 'user' a customised social reality revolving around their ego. Everything seems to conspire to amplify your own biases: ‘The core is always the same: learn to trust yourself and your own history'.
What can this lead to? Well, obviously to social tensions and polarisation. The moment one steps out of the smooth virtual environment, into the 'real life', one is meeting potentially adverse circumstances, real people, abrasive and different, unwilling to be conveniently 'muted', 'blocked', 'unfollowed' at the swipe of a button on a smooth device. This presents us with an opportunity for exerting wisdom in dealing with tension and difference through respectful encounter, civil discourse and compromise, but it can also lead to even more radicalisation and polarisation and entrenched retreat into one's digital tribe.
Han argues that even beauty itself is “smoothened out by taking any negativity, any form of shock or injury, out of it. The beautiful is exhausted in a Like-it. Aestheticization turns out to be anaesthetisation; it sedates our perception”. He goes on to argue that our entertainment industry works relentlessly on the visible and the presentable to destroy any sense of the imaginary, paradoxically presenting nothing to see. This means that both beauty and ugliness are exploited, to become consumable, palatable, and ‘smooth’.
The aesthetics of data in modern-day life
Han continues his thesis on beauty and the beautiful to provide a coherent critique of the role of data in the modern world. His suggestion is that our movement from information to data masks a subtle shift towards ‘total visibility’ and dis-ambiguity. Just as TS Eliot (1904), the famous British poet, decried a slipping from wisdom to knowledge, and knowledge to information, in his poem “Choruses of the Rock”, so Han seems to contribute to this, on the next level, of data and its increasingly important role in our modern world.
Han writes: “data have something pornographic and obscene about them. They have no inside, no flip sides; they are not ambiguous. In this, they differ from language which does not permit things to come into perfectly clear focus. Data and information deliver themselves to total visibility and they make everything visible”. The concept of total visibility (or what other theorists such as Paul Virilio have termed ‘the information bomb’ of being ‘blinded by the light’) introduces, for Han, the second Enlightenment Age.
He suggests that acts, which presuppose a free will, belong to the dogmas of the first Enlightenment Age. The second Enlightenment Age, however, smoothens such acts into operations – into data-driven processes that take place without any autonomy. These acts become “transparent as they are operationalized…submitting themselves to computable and controllable processes”. Coupled with the thesis above, of the slide towards the ‘autonomy of data’, this thought deserves more interrogation – although this lies beyond the scope of this short book review.
Han goes on to suggest that “information is [also] a pornographic form of knowledge”. He writes that “it lacks the inwardness which characterizes knowledge”. Knowledge is able to also contain negativity, paradox, and nuance, in the sense that it is often gained through a form of resistance. Han writes that “knowledge has an altogether different temporal structure from that of information. It stretches between past and future”. Information, on the other hand, dwells in a smoothened-out time that is made up of indifferent point-like presences. This is a time without events [or ereignis] and destiny, a time without clear demarcation or even telos.
The ideal of beauty and beauty as truth
Bringing the two elements above together, Byung-Chul Han argues that the “smooth body” of Instagram or YouTube epitomises the interaction of the ‘smooth’ as the signature of the present time with the ‘aesthetics’ of data, in late-modernity.
Consider the example of taking a selfie.
Remembering that Han suggests that the “smooth is an optimized surface without negativity”, we turn to our smartphone, use a blemish-reducing app, add a colour-enhancing filter, and go on to enjoy taking photographs of immense smoothness and positivity.
Han urges us to be cautious. He writes that the growing insecurity and anxiousness we have about ourselves (in an epoch nicknamed the ‘age of anxiety’) produces, amongst other things, the addiction of taking selfies. Our self never comes to rest, is never idle, and, faced with an inner emptiness, tries to produce itself through the subject lens of the selfie.
To Byung-Chul Han this demonstrates two critical movements. Firstly, our body is in crisis. We are restless for rest, and yet filled with emptiness. Our solutions (often technologically-driven) decompose our bodies into pornographic body parts, such as the smiling selfie or the head and shoulders portrait. Secondly, we convert this – willingly – into sets of digital data. Han argues that the digital age is “entirely dominated by the belief that life can be measured and quantified”. The digital network reworks and net-works the body. We voluntarily, freely, submit our bodies as bytes and bits of data to an informational terminal hosted by Google, Facebook, and the like. Even through a deeply subjective image such as a selfie, we become networked and incorporated in a broader web, transmuted to a profile or an interface within the global communication network, and so commoditise our own image.
The society of the smartphone
Just as we filter reality through our smartphone lenses, so we filter the world around us. We look at the world through an increasingly technological (or instrumental) filter. To be “like-able” for Facebook or “love-able” for Instagram, can become a never-ending quest. It also means to be instantly consumable. An ever-present cycle of managing and improving our “digital avatars” can quickly ensue, working hard to present the right image, to please others, and to ensure we look beautiful. This can be exhausting. We may end up spending much of our real lives building the shape or look and feel of our virtual lives, which sounds like a lot of halls of mirrors and echo-chambers. All that is presented, in the end, is the curated, perfected, filtered, optimised “über” reality. Ultimately a fake reality. A lie.
The quest for digitally enhancing beauty – often driven by our own insecurities, our pride, and our anxiety – continues to feed the media machine. We present and produce more and more data, more consumables, to fuel a system that Han warns tends towards excess and boredom. Ultimately, this can undermine the uniqueness of true beauty.
When we divorce truth and goodness from beauty, we downgrade beauty to a commodity to be auctioned and consumed. We take the soul out of it and we end up with a hollow package – a form without substance or character.
The saying still stands, that a “picture paints a thousand words”.
Yet when we’re consuming a thousand pictures a day, on Flickr or Instagram or Facebook or the like, does that still hold true? In many ways, in our “society of the smartphone” it is easier to take a picture than it is to share a complement, or to speak a few wise words, or to look truthfully in the eyes of our neighbour. We smile for the camera, but do we smile for reality?
Han reminds us: beauty is not a consumer good. Beauty is distorted – and even manipulated, refashioned, gamified, and exploited – when the ends are advertising, or self-promotion. Beauty is not a consumable. Beauty is not a transactional commodity. It’s far more than that.
Genuine beauty does not incite consumerism or satisfy the passing attention of a consumer. Rather, genuine beauty invites admiration and contemplation. Han writes: “consumption and beauty are mutually exclusive”.
Lingering on Beauty
As consumers (or perhaps we should say “users”), the tendency is to drown in a world of immanence and forget all about ultimate transcendence. We drown in data. We drink information till we’re bloated. And we can lose sight of knowledge and forget wisdom. Han suggests that the more we entertain this frame – of seeing ourselves as users and consumers – the more we lose our character, and our distinctiveness. Han writes:
“Character and consumption are opposites. The ideal consumer is a person without character. Lack of character enables indiscriminate consumption."
But there is a way out.
As consumers, our default mode is placing ourselves firmly at the centre of the frame. To borrow the terms of another philosopher (Charles Taylor), we frame life in “radically anthropocentric” terms. But when we choose to commit to something or someone beyond ourselves, we willingly abandon that chimerical central spot.
Han cites Simone Weil – “[beauty requires us] to give up our imaginary position at the centre”. Beauty has the capacity – the power, the aura, and the character – to arrest our attention and to free us from ourselves. For Han, this is a critical moment on the road of maturity. “The ego immerses itself in beauty. It rids itself of itself, in the face of beauty”.
Han’s central thesis
The central idea of Byung-Chul Han (2018) in this extraordinary work, is that beauty is in crisis. Threatened by consumerism, beauty is being reduced to a mere consumer value. It is being manipulated, distorted, reshaped, refashioned, gamified, and exploited in the modern world. To what ends? For Han, to demean beauty, to bow down to the gods of conformity and convenience, decouples the (absolute) essence of beauty from any ethical and moral dimension. Han suggests that the process is something like “beauty hand[ing] itself over to the immanence of consumption”. He continues:
“Today, we are faced with a crisis of beauty – insofar as the beautiful is smoothened out into objects of pleasure, of the Like, into something arbitrary and comfortable. The saving of beauty is the saving of that which commits us”.
Han concludes by opposing the smooth with the real. In what may seem like a facile dualism, Byung-Chul Han arrives at a point where he suggests that natural beauty is opposed to digital beauty. Han writes: “the longing for natural beauty is ultimately the longing for a different mode of being, for another, altogether non-violent form of life”.
Hidden within this statement is an appreciation for the transcendentals of the good, the true, and the beautiful – where we started, with Plato’s thought from 350 BC.
Han writes: “Beauty is a hideout. Concealment is essential to beauty. Transparency and beauty do not go together. Transparent beauty is oxymoronic. Beauty is necessarily semblance. Opacity is inherent to it. Opaque means shaded. Unveiling disenchants and destroys beauty. Thus, it lies in the nature of beauty that it cannot be unveiled.”
To the Christian this makes perfect sense, in many ways. Consider the mystery surrounding the Incarnation, or the mystery of the Holy Spirit, and likewise the veiling of meaning within the parables and stories that Jesus told. God, Augustine says, intentionally obscures the Holy Scriptures through the use of metaphorical style, parables, images, and story, burying things “under figures of speech” in order to make them an object of desire.
In sharp contrast, information and data, by definition, cannot be veiled. They are transparent by nature. Information simply is given. Data simply is represented. It repels any metaphor, any veiling dress. It speaks straight out.
With the unveiling of metaphor, may come the veiling of meaning.
Byung-Chul Han stirs us to reflect on this paradox.
*** Readability (3/5): accessible language and yet profound, philosophical arguments
**** Application (4/5): we all deal with beauty, it affects us all!
**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to philosophy
*** Commitment (3/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Short and readable
**** Challenge (4/5): a good read, though certainly intellectually challenging
**** Recommendation (4/5): read it, enjoy it, and pass it on to a friend too!