Byung-Chul Han Ghostwrites the News

A recent article by Mark Arax profiles Stewart and Lynda Resnick, nut and pomegranate magnates in California. Owners of an unfathomable amount of farmland spread over several states, but concentrated in California, Stewart embodies an aspect of today’s subject that Byung-Chul Han sketches out in his works. One common thread running through each observation Mr. Arax makes of Stewart Resnick is an encompassing de-terrestrialization of life. Literally, a life lived at further and further distance from the earth, ontically speaking.

Like the wheat barons of the 1870s who lived on San Francisco’s Nob Hill, Resnick isn’t of this place. He’s never driven a tractor or opened an irrigation valve. He’s never put a dusty boot on the neck of a shovel and dug down into the soil. He wouldn’t know one of his Valencia orange groves from one of his Washington navel orange groves. The land to him isn’t real. It’s an economy of scale on a scale no one’s ever tried here.

Today, our farmers have never and probably will never farm, or even know how to do so. Those who do know how to farm and who perform that work are Spanish-speaking peasants and ergo they are not farmers. The real farmers, those who own the land, can also be anything else they would like to be or nothing at all. It requires no sustained interaction with the Earth at all. People, land, machines, and consequences are down on the planet and those who own the land are increasingly like people who view it all with disinterest from orbit. Planes remove us from the former realities of earthly travel, and in our days of opulence only the poorest can’t make use of them. As we will later see, some people almost seem to live on planes and in airports rather than in any one place, like George Clooney in Up in the Air.

In The scent of time, Han notes that “Every removal of distance on the earth brings with it an increasing distancing of the human being from the earth, thus estranging the human being from it.” Email, and the internet in general, erase geography. Communication can now occur right now, no matter the distance. Activities and practices lose their distance and time and become instantaneous. Barriers to the flow of information are leveled as they are encountered. Our mechanized and thoroughly fossil-fuel-lined agricultural system has removed the need for much human presence. The human presence that does remain is often, as mentioned, that of migrant workers, and their presence is one that everyone else would like to cover over.

Maybe this explains why the United  Way could declare the valley one of the nation’s skinflints, a place where the wealthy farmers donated to the children’s hospital or Fresno State athletics but almost never to the communities filled with Mexicans where their crops grew. As a class of people, the farmers and real estate developers harbor a deep-down contempt for what they have built. They hide from the fact that it relies on the subjugation of peasants from Mexico they themselves have brought here. It exists as one thing they can almost rationalize out in the fields. It becomes something else as soon as they encounter their workers in another guise — as a fellow shopper at Costco or as the parents of the kid who goes to school with their kid. It becomes scorn because they can’t allow it to become pity or self-hatred. … I doubt the Resnicks have any idea of the fester that eats at this place, the shame piled on shame.

Indeed, when reading the article one gets the impression that for the Resnicks the actual beings and events that happen on the land have no sense or meaning. Projects to improve the squalid conditions of the people who live within their domain only began after an article was published that brought to light the state in which the migrant farmers and other locals were living. It could seen as a public relations problem to be solved which makes it rather distinct from the older idea of noblesse oblige characterizing a relationship between a lord and their subject. No doubt, there are emotions and empathy involved for Mrs. Resnick in her work with the community, but it is a sense of charity and duty which seemingly only existed when their brand came under threat. The mutual experience of duration and transcendence of utility that characterizes the feudal relationship that existed in so many forms is no longer the case.

In the same way, attention to the land is only warranted when it presents a problem, finding more water during a drought, needing to destroy some of the orchard during particularly bad years, and so on. In a very Heideggerian fashion, the land only reveals itself to Mr. Resnick when it does so as an obstacle. In this case, when the capacity of the resources is stretched to capacity and growth becomes impossible so long as things continue as they are. When enough water simply cannot be gotten by any means it leads to the violent, machinic downsizing of the orchards. When the rains come again, it is almost as if there never really was a drought. The secret pipeline that was used to transport water bought from a fellow baron, under highly suspect circumstances, is physically removed after rain and floods render further purchase unnecessary. And, indeed, it is as if there never was such a pipeline.

When the flow of growth is interrupted, it is investigated and solved by any means. One must wonder how far down the chain such dirty work is delegated. The Resnicks will often claim they know nothing of any ugly undersides to their operation after they come to light, and it is not immediately obvious that this is always a lie. Whether or not they do, they indeed can insulate themselves from the ground, the land, the earth and the darkness that resides and breeds there.

This was the same distance — geographic, psychic — that allowed him and Lynda to clear-cut the oaks and to kill the independent pistachio commission, to grab a water bank that belonged to the state and to pretend for 30 years that Lost Hills wasn’t a place of dire need. It was the same distance that allows them to control more land and water — 130 billion gallons a year — than any other man and woman in California and still believe it isn’t enough.

“I know I can’t do this forever,” he says. “I’m 80 years old. Problem is, I feel like I’m 50. I feel too good to give any of it up.”

Many today lack the ability to form a narrative because they cannot orient themselves in such a way as to possess a criteria for withholding, for choosing what is not a part of the story. Now we move through a series of basically disconnected occurrences, of bare facts about a life, that can be counted up in chronological order, but not a life story than can be recounted. We stumble through life from point of sensation to point of sensation, with an unbearable chasm of emptiness in between each stimulation, a gaping maw which carries with it the terror of death. And so we work hard to remove every gap, to shorten them, so that we can return to distraction. Life is not toward anything but away from these gaps of horror. And living in this way within the vacuum of meaninglessness produces the no coherent narrative. And this is how we find Mr. Resnick, who admits to having no idea how he ended up where he did. He can relay to you the sequence of events of his life, but as Han has elucidated, a timeline is not a narrative.

And, as he says, he feels too good to stop. And why stop? That would invite the horror of the gap, the horror of silence and the utter lack of any meaningful purpose to a life in search of money. There is no stopping. Han has asserted that the auto-exploitation of the achievement-subject is applicable to boss and worker alike. Everyone is ensorcelled by the psychopolitical system. Mr. Resnick cannot stop. He cannot stop planting more trees on the dry earth, he cannot even comprehend the basic empirical realities that would indeed dictate that his project’s growth must cease, for this lack of facticity that characterizes the de-terrestrialized life does not impose upon his awareness the need to. For now, the droughts do not prove too difficult to endure with some guile, the eventual floods replenish the supply of water. The trees will be planted with abandon once more. The thing will grow so long as it can, and there are no consequences that will register for the Resnicks so long as they do not manifest themselves in such a way as to disrupt or end the project.

The project, the moving forward, the growth, that’s all there is. Its a forward motion, much like the forward motion of progress. But the telos of progress is long over. There is no longer any end, any point to be rushed towards, and consequently everything now rushes everywhere. Its a forward motion, but forward can be in any direction. The speed and intensity increase, for to stop would be to face the existential nightmare of the failure of late modernity to have any proper end or design beyond growth without limit, movement without ceasing, which is the very logic which colours the lives of its populace. Han notes that when the idea of time as a march forward towards some point, i.e. progress, was the predominating experience of people, the end allowed the intensification of speed to not be experienced as a stress. On a societal level, that time is clearly over and it is now always speed and always stress. Nothing is finished, it is hard to bring things to a close or even to know how to. Why finish something when you can move on, to another point, another sensation, another connection. You have to be always moving ahead, constantly innovative and mobile, if you want to remain on the edge, the increasingly small edge where the employable reside.

A piece about a service catering to ‘digital nomads’ in the New York Times follows these themes.

That company is called Roam, and since its founding in 2015, it has constructed an international housing network for so-called digital nomads, a growing demographic of people who travel the world while working remotely over the internet. Roam operates complexes of furnished, single-occupancy residences in four cities (Miami, Tokyo, London and Ubud, in Bali), with three more on the way (in New York, Berlin and San Francisco).

Author Kyle Chayka notes at several points that the life of a digital nomad in the Roam ecosystem witnesses the dissolution of the line between work and leisure. Indeed, this is an intensification of an already implicit structure in our lives, according to Han. For even our leisure time, now, is only to make us once more capable of work. It is work in another form. The erasure of clear boundaries between these two forms of work would be a foreseeable consequence of the increasing liquidity of our relationships to each other and to where we live and ultimately the solvency of our selves.

… a lack of affordable housing and linear careers — are particularly tough on millennials, who are also, incidentally or not, a historically unattached generation, with low rates of marriage, homeownership and childbearing. … My millennial precariousness is balanced, if that’s the word, by an ability to make rash decisions that renders my situation more bearable: I could theoretically bail at any time and become a vegan surfer in Ubud, filing dispatches to editors still marooned behind their Midtown desks. The option was always there, and in the back of my mind, I thought of Miami as a trial run for true escape: Bali did sound nice.

As Han describes a world in which making commitments and promises (such as marriage or friendship in its older forms) is becoming irrelevant to the way in which people live, Chaykha describes his own experiences of anxiety giving the rapidly shifting social and economic situation with little guarantees. The heart of the matter is the lack of guarantee itself. There is an absence of ways of being which can take hold of the future and bring it into the present, which bind it. Who today understands an oath? Relationships between people which used to give structure and order to the future as experienced within the present are increasingly provisional and subject to alteration, thus losing all efficacy at said ordering. Increasingly, it “seems like the always days are gone…”

Such things fall prey to an increasing fluidity. Things that limit and things that bind impede the flow. The flow levels them, but really that means that you level them, in your own life, as an achievement-subject who will sacrifice everything to the goal of motion, as someone who will do anything to stave off the terrifying gap between points where you are confronted with the vacuity of your life in the halls of silence. This is the stuff that the constant and further atomization we experience is made on. And it is not something Han discovered. Shaykh Murad, among others, has been talking about the modern use of the smart phone and other gadgets as tools to ward away silent and empty moments for years. To religious eyes it has been not too difficult to see this dissolution as boding ill for the human subject’s way of being. Its the same situation that Han performs a concise and sharp diagnostic of. No longer are skeptics of the project of freedom limited to what was viewed as a conservative fringe.

I opened the door onto a bedroom with an attached bathroom and enclosed porch, sparsely furnished with all-white side tables, dresser and bed, but no desk or television. The room’s white walls lacked even the desultory kitsch of hotel art, which I never thought I would miss until it was gone. My suitcase was the only sign of human life. I didn’t feel haunted; I felt like the ghost. …

Can you imagine a pair of noise-canceling headphones for geography? That’s how I started to think of Roam. When you want to, you can block out your sense of place entirely and exist in a hazy, calm, featureless space that could be anywhere. This nomadic bubble goes beyond a hotel in that it stretches around the world and is built to encompass your entire life; it promises to become your post-geographical home. Yet I found there to also be an anxiety to this hermetic placelessness, no matter how beautifully unburdened or minimalist it appears. Living anywhere is a lot like living nowhere.

Where would a digital nomad reside but a place that could be said to have erased all sense of place? Roam gives you the promise of living as a traveler but soon you realize that your work often confines you to the premises of your residence and your residence has wiped away or covered over any trace of particularity that would make travel an experience. The only sense of relief in the article comes at the point when the author experiences a moment of reattachment to the geography, and perhaps a hint of a contemplative and quiet moment:

I left my bag on the sand and waded out into the warm, shallow water.

It was comforting to float there alone, moving with the gentle waves as they passed. It felt like what I should have been doing all along — embracing freedom, warm weather, the open horizon — but I had spent so much time being a nomad that I forgot to do the actual traveling. It’s not much of a solution to the predations of capitalism: You can go anywhere, as long as you never stop working.

This kind of living effectively strips you of all social relationships which would provide support, emotional or material, and the comfort of a companionship characterized by duration and leaves you chasing away the anxieties of the unstable and tenuous living conditions which you agreed to yet somehow feel yourself subordinated to at the same time. The only way to avoid collapse is to keep moving, even if you need to change directions at each instant. The quickening of the pace equals a further estrangement of the human being from the earth. The land is as unreal for Roam founder Bruno Haid as it is for Stewart Resnick.

And it can seem like a fine mode of being for those who are currently successful enough insofar as they achieve the ability to keep moving at every point, not yet experiencing what it means to fail, and to fail so extensively that one is eventually excluded from the system. The migrant farmers who work for the Resnicks are not meaningfully a part of the system of achievement-subjects, though Lynda Resnick’s efforts may see to it that their progeny receive this opportunity.

But what happens when you do fail, or when you succeed beyond your psychological and physical capacities to keep going? Constant auto-exploitation and auto-surveillance eventually take their toll and lead to depression, exhaustion, burnout. In order to recover, the infamously overworked in South Korea have begun paying in order to spend time in ersatz prisons.

The Land of the Morning Calm is the most overworked nation in Asia. It has the second-longest work hours in the 35-nation Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, after Mexico. South Koreans work 2,069 hours a year, compared to the average of 1,764 hours among OECD countries.

Fourteen-hour days are not uncommon here, nor are six-day workweeks. …

Decades ago, it was viewed as necessary for fast-tracking economic growth. But work itself has become an occupational hazard, blamed for societal ills such as a declining birth rate and an alarming suicide rate.

In response to the hazards of the normative standard of living in South Korea, Ji-hyang Roh and her husband Yong-Seok Kwon founded Prison Inside Me, a retreat where guests pay about $578 Cdn to be locked in solitary confinement without their cell phones or any other means of communication. Here they meditate and engage in Zen retreats and other solitary and contemplative activities aimed at restoring mental stability and healing exhaustion.

I think this scarcely requires any further editorialization on my part.

Repeat visitors insist that for what it lacks in amenities, the facility makes up in spiritual healing. The penal atmosphere provides Kang with something he feels he’s missing back in the capital.

“Freedom,” he said.

That attitude reflects the irony of the jail-themed retreat, said Ji-hyang Roh, the facility’s co-founder.

“Locking themselves up in solitary confinement here is not a prison; the true prison is the world outside,” she mused.

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