Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld by Byung-Chul Han (Translated from German by Daniel Steuer) - review by Tom Whyman

Tom Whyman

Ghost of the Jukebox

Non-things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld


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In his terse cultural-theoretical sermon Non-things, Byung-Chul Han describes a world in which ‘things’, the objects that, in the words of Hannah Arendt, ‘have the function of stabilizing human life’, are being gradually displaced by ‘non-things’ – that is, ‘information’, which ‘obscures things and drains them of their colour’. Han has made a sort of cult name for himself by publishing countless similar tracts over the course of the past decade or so, rubbing against the grain of an increasingly internet-oriented world. What we might call his conservatism, his intractability in the face of what we are told is progress, often recalls that of Theodor Adorno, animated as it is by the struggle to reach beyond the bad world we currently inhabit towards a better state of things – though Han is more likely to invoke Adorno’s bête noire, Martin Heidegger.

Han’s great achievement in this book is to describe something that anyone who spends their time working from home on a computer, consuming media on streaming platforms, finding dates on Tinder or keeping in touch with friends on Facebook or Instagram will already be at least dimly aware of, though far from necessarily sure how to conceptualise: the deep alienation, the restless dissatisfaction and confusion that one experiences with the world as it is mediated through a screen.

Put simply, for Han we are the kind of creature that needs things, because it is only our engagement with things, real objects that persist in our shared world over time, that allows for the sort of stability necessary for meaning to emerge. Non-things appear to us as

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