The discomfort of non-things
Writing sometime around 1933, in an unpublished fragment he would later incorporate into his famous essay on the storyteller, Walter Benjamin wondered about the power of information. You can picture him putting down his newspaper to write the opening lines:
‘Every morning news reaches us from around the globe and yet we lack remarkable stories. Why is this the case? It is because no incidents reach us any longer not already permeated with explanations. In other words: almost nothing occurs to the story’s benefit anymore, but instead it all serves information.’
The art of storytelling, Benjamin concluded, is partly based on ‘keeping one’s tale free of explanation.’ A little ambiguity goes a long way. In contrast to this, the constant flow of information is pre-digested. Stifled by the narrowing of possibility, information brings far too much explanation and not nearly enough storytelling for Benjamin’s taste. There is little room left to fill in the gaps, everything comes already accounted for. For Benjamin, a good story leaves plenty of room for different explanations to emerge.
The problem is not just a lack of intrigue. Benjamin has two other concerns. First is the type of knowledge and creative insight that this streaming information leaves little room for. It pushes out the need for more open and reflective accounts of the world. There is little space for reflection, everything quickly gets swamped by the next bit of news.
The second is a lack of time. The rolling demands of information trap us in a fleeting present. Information is always about novelty, hurrying us to the next thing. Benjamin observed that:
‘Information is valuable only for the moment in which it is new. It lives only in that moment. It must be completely subject to it and declare itself immediately without losing any time.’
Information is quickly exhausted. A story, on the other hand, does not ‘use itself up’, it preserves itself, it has staying power.
Benjamin’s brief thoughts on the vanishing art of storytelling bring us straight into the immediacy of today’s information economy. Everything is in service of information. Urgent social media feeds and their flowing fragmented bits of content may not always be full of explanation, although we can see this in the rush for the hottest-take on the trending news, yet there is certainly a sense of a lack of time and space. Embodied in the quick flick downwards through those tumbling notifications, more open forms of storytelling have been pushed out by an impulse to consume the new.
Echoing Benjamin’s concerns, a sense of something lost hangs over media theorist Byung-Chul Han’s newly translated book Non-things: Upheaval in the lifeworld. What Han sketches in its pages is less about stories and more about disappearance. It is not just storytelling that is eroding, for Han information undermines much else. Things, Han claims, ‘are increasingly receding into the background of our attention’. In its place is an abundance of informational ‘non-things’. For Han this is no suitable replacement for a more solid world. Instead, like the information that comes to define it, the world is ‘fading away’, it is becoming ‘ghostly’ and ‘disembodied’.
The spectre of memory, another lost property, appears throughout Han’s book as does the loss of narrative and contemplative recollection that memories might once have allowed. Our devices might keep showing us past content and telling us we have memories, yet Han would warn us that these are actually just bits of stored data masquerading as a memory. They give only the impression of events and of personal landmarks. Provocatively Han argues that processes of digitalization have brought with them ‘an end to the paradigm of the thing’. Things disappear, to be replaced or usurped by non-things.
Without the structuring properties of material things, those objects made of tangible stuff, the pursuit of novelty and the ‘compulsion for new attractions’ takes over. We are constantly looking for the next thing to capture our enervated attention. We become ‘information hunters’ with an ‘attraction toward surprises’. Without solid actual things to anchor it in place, Han pictures the world as being ‘intangible, cloud-like and ghostly’.
As stability and solidity are lost, so Han’s argument goes, things move quickly and often without comprehension. We can neither grasp nor fully understand. Instead everything is fleeting. Things move too quickly for us to really know them. The world passes us by in a blur. The overwhelming presence of information makes us both ‘short-sighted and short of breath’. As we navigated their surfaces it was the resistance offered by things that slowed us down, whereas the sleek surfaces of our automated devices and the endless flows of information offer no such resistance. This lack of friction leads to acceleration.
As well as it’s neatness of divisions from the old to the new, Non-things is a book defined by its pace and restlessness. It is caught-up in the type of acceleration with which it is dealing. It rattles along. The ideas surface quickly. Han’s book replicates the breathlessness it is observing. This matching of rhythm might be a useful tool for capturing something of the times, but by repeating this breathlessness Han also imports some of the wider problems that the book is seeking to account for. Not least, we find the world blurring past in segmented chunks. The eagerness to move through the book’s core insights makes this an energetic and engaging read. The cost of such a relentless pace was always likely to be depth. The speed at which the passages race by and swarm together means that much like the disorientating and unstable mediated experiences being explored the reader is also left with only a dashing impression of something that can’t quite be comprehended.
Han’s book is also undoubtedly nostalgic for a world of objects. The closing chapter in which he celebrates an old jukebox that he has managed to acquire tells its own story of the preservation of things. Perhaps non-things haven’t totally removed the need for things. Vinyl records and physical books, for instance, are managing to hold on. What Daniel Miller once described as ‘the comfort of things’, the reassuring attachment we build up with the items that adorn our homes, is unlikely to be abandoned entirely for the apparent discomfort of non-things and their unreassuringly ghost-like presences. If the materiality of things is as important as Han makes out, then it would be strange for there not to be some sort of defence or preservation of those object relations.
The non-things that Han worries over are clearly part of the story, and the accounts provided give glimpses of an overall direction of digital life, yet this still feels like a partial impression of something that might be seen quite differently if more detail and intricacy were to have been included. In its haste the book rushes past some of the tangled materialities of social life into which those non-things are embedded. There are times in this book when I simply wanted Han to slow things down and allow that scenery to settle into place. As good as Han's accounts are, Benjamin might have advised a slightly more sedate pace with a little more storytelling and a little less explanation.