Byung-Chul Han argues that love, sex, and even theory are disappearing in consumer cultures because our systems of finances and behaviors erode the Other in favor of sameness.
Late night TV in the US often has commercials for telephone party lines. One that airs frequently in my market has a young blond woman who is home and does not want to go out to meet men. Her presentation is always sexualized with brightly painted pouty lips, a body-hugging mini-dress, and a welcoming expression on her face. The narrator promises that she can skip the bars if she just calls, and she can be whomever she wants to be. Her dress changes to a flight attendant, a business woman with glasses, a tennis player, and she even wears a lederhosen outfit. As the commercial closes, the model giggles quietly as the narrator asks, “Who do you want to be tonight?”
Even though the ad promises “fantasy”, everything appears scripted and sexual. This appeal of sexuality offers fetishized and common stereotypes to be performed and promises that you will meet someone to share your fantasy if you only call. Byung-Chul Han argues that love, sex, and even theory are disappearing in consumer cultures because our systems of finances and behaviors erode the Other in favor of sameness. This capitalist process has commodified Eros by removing the negatives we might experience when we desire the Other.
This philosophical essay, The Agony of Eros, is written in a style that invites a general, educated reader. This review will focus on the primary ideas written for a general audience. Not every vein of theory will be explored. Han engages with ideas from Foucault, Badiou, Baudrillard, Deleuze and Guattari, Hegel, and many others. While the majority of the book deals with Eros, love, and sex, scholars who study ritual, commodification, and travel will find hidden gems.
Han begins to describe the function of Eros in experiencing the Other. “Erotic experience presumes the asymmetry and exteriority of the other” (1). The act of comparing everything creates a sameness by removing the “negativity of the atopic”. Like the party line commercial, modern consumers want to a positive experience, and desire has been negated by the choice of a type of scripted interaction. This differs from the experience of desire for the other.
Eros is that drive to engage an other even though, and because, the psychic danger will be an inability to know the Other completely. Han quotes Barthes in saying we cannot know, speak of, or speak about, the Other. “Every attribute is false, painful, erroneous, and awkward” (2). Han’s primary thesis for the collection is that we eliminate the atopic Other by reducing everything to differences that we can consume. These differences remove the negative attributes.
One of the reasons we choose the commodity route relates to the capitalist drive to consume and perform. Han finds fault in Foucault’s neoliberal Homo oeconomicus by demonstrating how the achievement society that operates with the verb “can” has replaced the disciplinary society’s verb “should”. In a neoliberal society, the self has more constraint because it is compulsively regulated by the self. We achieve, whether in work or relationships because we feel we can and therefore must achieve. “Eros is a relationship to the Other situated beyond achievement, performance, and ability” (11). Han explains society positive sexuality, so we commodify the body, sexualize its parts, and reduce sexuality to performance. Capitalism acts to commodify everything, in the process negating the Other for the sake of consumption.
His evidence of the commodification of sex revolves around how consumer culture has commodified ideas of sexuality with positives including “the quicky”, “casual encounters”, and “sex as stress-relief” (18). By limiting love to positives, the negativity of Eros can’t be part of the equation. “Modern love lacks all transcendence and transgression” (19). In the first chapter, Han uses the movie Melancholia (2011) to demonstrate how only a disaster, something that opens a negative space exposing the Other, allows a woman to engage both with sex and love.
It is only in the negative, a liminal space, that we can encounter the experience of the Other. Contemporary culture avoids the negative by consuming only positives. Han states that consumer culture creates new media images and narratives that create new wants and needs, but desire requires the Other (37). This proliferation of messages undermines Eros by creating choices that negate desire for the other by fulfilling the consumer demand. The consumer is the self and sexuality is not the Other. Han offers sexuality as “the habitual, which reproduces the Same” (45).
Sexuality is the commodification of the body. When Han writes about porn, he describes how it removes sex. Watching porn is not watching sex because the performance removes all mystery and secrecy. This lack disallows eros. “What is obscene about pornography is not an excess of sex, but that it contains no sex at all” (29). Han states porn is “bare life on display”, a state of neither sex nor sexuality. In a wandering section, Han evokes Agamben’s concept of profanation of rituals and the sacred but marks “the world is becoming more naked and more obscene” (32 and 33). While this section offers a sense of what porn does to love, it also begins making headway into examining the loss of Eros in a broader culture media and consumer culture.
In his closing chapter, Han leaves sex and sexuality to discuss the need for Eros in science and big data. This section is a rebuttal to a Wired article that dismissed the need for theory because companies like Google can analyze data and see what people do without having to ask “why?” Han counters that data analysis is nothing but calculations. Numbers themselves negate the Other and limit our erotic experience to question and use intuition that might possibly change the context of the question. Engaging with imagination, ideas, love, and sex requires an atopic Other. To encounter the atopic other means encountering the unknown and unknowable. Citizens of a globalized consumer world have every commodified distraction to keep them from the wealth of feeling and information Eros can uncover.