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Byung-Chul Han's 'The Scent of Time': Why We Cannot Contemplate in the Age of Acceleration
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A very relevant book nowadays, where time has accelerated to the point of disturbance. Time is just a human notion, that has the possibility of being slowed down or accelerated by the power of the mind.
Byung-Chul Han talks about the “scent of time” and how we have lost the art of lingering; or in other words, the art of contemplation. The book talks about how humanity has attached a lot of value on activity to the point of becoming animal, or what he calls animal laborans.
Long ago, I took a course called “Semiologia de la Vida Cotidiana” by Dr. Alfonso Ruiz Soto, in which I learned the same topic but from an individual perspective. The main idea is that human consciousness develops itself in reality through stages. First, it uses attention to perceive reality; then, it decodifies reality by understanding it. Right after, it memorizes the idea, since once it comprehends it, it can memorize it and remember it. After this, it gains the capacity of desiring that thing it comprehended; hence it learns to desire something in reality. Then, it uses creativity to satisfy that desire, in here we do not need to use as an example a desire of something big or material, it can be something as banal as to drink water, just the desire of drinking, and the “creativity” it uses when you stand up from your desk and grab a glass of water to satisfy that desire. After this, we can mostly say, we are done, we got the desire, we satisfied it and we are done, but what Alfonso teaches us is that the next step is contemplation; this lingering sense of yourself drinking the glass of water and then reflecting on it, taking the time to digest the fact that you are satisfying yourself, reflecting on it, really feeling it, having as a result an accurate notion of time, where time is not speeding up. This is something that we aren’t experiencing on our daily life at all, and was something that our ancestors used to experience. However, we should not let this lesson on an individual level; Byung-Chul Han essay is about the same thing, but in a social context. He points out the reason of this phenomenon, where it comes from and the importance of recovering our capacity of contemplation as species.
Byung claims that nowadays time has a sense in which the present is not the main point of gravity, and it’s seen as a process that has only a meaning insofar as it has a goal; thus acceleration makes sense, and contemplation is an obstacle. Any gap in between two things, where nothing happens, is boring, and it’s seen as a threat. Time has a scent when it has duration and when it gains depth and, as a consequence, meaning.
Things in nature are repetition; everything in it has cycles. The back and forth of things in nature are aimless, nothing has “progress” as a goal, everything in nature has an eternal presence; hence our nature as human beings is also led by cycles. The back and forth of things in cycles destroy dispersion; when the world is constructed in events which have the purpose of a goal, it makes our lives less fulfilling; the acceleration of our lives robs humanity of its own unique capacity of contemplation, and this is due to the fact that humans believe that nothing in nature exists on its own, making contemplation something that should be overcome as soon as it happens. Repetition and cycles are seen as boredom, as unproductive and aimless.
Byung cites Aristotle and his three forms of life; the hedone, the polis and the contemplation life, and points out that neither of them were led by compulsion, nor were they forced. Consequently, a life where money is an aim, is not a happy life, and a life of contemplation is a higher source of happiness. Lingering gives beauty to everything we do. This means that our now capitalistic way of life would be alien to Aristotle were leisure as he claimed it, it’s none existent. Leisure was on his days, not a source of distraction as it is now, it was a time dedicated to the pursue of something. Work was given the meaning of contemplation and was done for its own sake.
Byung also touches the topic of Calvinism, which comes from Max Weber’s book (click here for an overview), and how it changed the meaning of work with the belief that through labor one could reach salvation. This is when work started to change its meaning, and contemplation started to disappear. The seeker of salvation aimed to attain its goal by working, leaving the present moment behind and putting compulsive work as a priority. Life dominated by work is a “vita activa” which is entirely cut off from contemplation. If the human being loses all capacity for contemplation, it degenerates into an animal. The life which adjusts itself to the mechanical work process knows only breaks, work-free periods, as moments used to regenerate and fully regain the ability to work again, hence this is where leisure gained its current meaning. Work is prioritized to such a degree that any time outside of work is just time to be “killed” or to rest.
There is a very interesting book cited by Byung, called “In Search of Lost Time” by Marcel Proust, in which the narrator writes down his experiences in the form of a novel that states the importance of memory in daily life, and how time is of radical importance to the creation of memories, which are only occurring when we gather experiences. One of the most famous passages in the book is the scene of the Madeleines, where the narrator drinks a cup of tea and eats some of these cookies. The importance of this passage is the fact that he remembers his childhood memories by smelling the Madeleines. Suddenly, everything stopped making any sense, his worries disappeared and he was just submerged into the experience of smelling and eating those delicious cookies and reviving his childhood memories. The scene portrays the idea that the only way to make memories is by experiencing things in depth, because when we speed up, we cannot longer comprehend or grasp anything; therefore memories cease to be created, they cease to exist. All this novel revolves around involuntary memories, and how they aren’t just a way of looking back in time, but a way of looking back and into the present at the same time. Scent is then a very powerful sense, that makes the creation of memories easier. However, we should aim to do the same with everything we do on our daily lives, with all our senses.
The title of the book comes from the fact that all senses can be accelerated; sound, taste, sight and touch; but, as we have seen on Marcel’s Proust example, scent has a peculiar aspect, because it cannot be accelerated nor slowed down. As a further matter, Byung reminds us that we should recover the scent of time on our daily lives, bringing back contemplation, a unique capacity of the human being. A necessary human action that opens up spaces for breathing and further thinking. A necessary lesson that puts humanity in context with their reality, with nature, and recovers our capacity to engage with the present moment on many other things that aren’t related to work or survival.
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