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Phono Sapiens by Matthew Gasda | Article

The crisis of storytelling
by byung-chul han
polity, 100 pages, $16.95

MFriend J, a computer programmer, once convinced his former roommate – also a programmer – to watch the Japanese art film Asako I & II, about a woman who falls in love with two identical-looking but different men. J’s roommate patiently sat through this complicated, two-hour meditation on identity before lamenting that the film could have been much shorter: say, five to ten minutes. He could have saved even more time by reading a bulleted plot summary. That would have been much more efficient.

This story, which J told me over lunch when I said I was writing this review, is also a parable. We are either J, the humanistic programmer, or we are the ex-housemate, the rationalist who sees no point in J’s humanism – in his involvement in gradual, digressive and lyrical unfoldings. The roommate just wanted information, conveyed in handy packages.

This split – and perhaps existential choice – between information and stories animates the philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s new essay. The crisis of storytelling. According to Han, narratives – formally constructed stories, rich in allusions and suggestions, open to interpretation by the community – disappear as Homo sapiens turns into what he calls Phono sapiens.

Han’s prime example of a master storyteller is Herodotus. The Greek historian could “renounce explanations,” relying on the power of a few key images to convey the complexity and tragedy of history. His listeners knew what it meant when a city was sacked or a general sent into exile. Herodotus’ stories thus gave meaning to the past and pointed to the future. The story, Han argues, brings together discrete moments of experience, both personal and collective, so that we feel like everything is going well. direction something is for something. Stories can connect families, tribes and civilizations.

Han, on the other hand, looks around at the present and sees disintegration. People who grew up with phones – and even many older people who didn’t – can no longer read a novel, watch a movie without looking at their phone, watch a TV show without pausing it to check their email , an article online, in short, I can’t really do anything without multitasking. There is no moment of rapture in reading the first page of a book because the mind no longer expects to reach the end. The old tools of storytelling are outdated; distraction even trumps entertainment, let alone art. And because we cannot narrate our lives, “we cannot construct stories related to our own inner truth.” Truth simply drops out of the human vocabulary and is replaced by big data: graphs, memes, viral clips. Phono sapiens is ‘lost’ in a ‘forest of information’, without passion or purpose.

He also lacks comfort. While stories have a “wonderful and mysterious” quality, there is something frenetic about the data pouring out of our screens: charts and infographics, advertisements and commercials. Our information society lives in an “age of heightened mental tension”: constantly stimulated, constantly surprised, constantly fragmented. Phono sapiens may become afraid of climate change, political extremism or microplastics; he can bet compulsively on stocks and games; he may be addicted to dating apps; or all of the above. Either way, he’s stuck in an information loop with no possibility of closure.

IIf we take Han’s argument seriously, and I think we should, the consequences for our common life are very serious. A society structured around pure information, around data, will struggle to access the traditional meaning captured in actions such as marriage, raising children, community service, and church attendance. All this is perceived as inefficient or pointless. The same can be said about cooking dinner for friends, attending a sporting event without betting on the outcome, or writing a thank-you note.

But, you might object, isn’t the world full of stories? Don’t people go to their phones looking for Instagram stories? Don’t politicians always try to build a convincing ‘story’? That is not the case: “The more we talk about stories or narratives,” Han warns us, “the more alienated we become from them.” The stream of pseudo-stories you find on TikTok, Instagram or X are replacement calories for a story-starved hive mind. Han calls this development ‘the inflation of the story’, a term that applies to a large part of the media landscape. UFOs, pandemics, pop star romances, global wars: they are all, in different ways, discursive simulacras of the complex, allegorical, forward-looking, rich, and humanizing stories that Han locates, however vaguely, in the past.

Han’s diagnosis is partly spiritual. Most contemporary people, he suggests, do not experience the time between birth and death in a natural, primal way – especially if they no longer believe in redemption stories, whether pagan or Christian. Instead, they must distract themselves anxiously from death. According to Han, the bustle and noise of digital life and the Internet is the eerie sound emitted by the narrative vacuum: a void that expresses itself “in a lack of meaning and orientation.”

Han finds the smartphone era overwhelming. Me, too. And yet, as powerful as Han’s short book is, he may be too pessimistic about our ability to regain our spiritual thirst. In my own work writing and directing plays in New York City, I have discovered that stories and the demand for stories are still alive. A good dramatic scene, written and performed in just the right tone of subtlety and pathos, may still speak for itself; there is indeed something “wonderful and mysterious” in those moments when something small can stand for something big, something almost universal.

I have come to understand that theater in our time is not a genre of entertainment. It is, for me at least, a refuge and a place of solace: a castle on the edge of the desert in the late realm of the human soul. What theater is to me, and philosophy to Han, can be for any number of people: cinema, prayer, a long walk, an evening in front of the fireplace, with the phone on airplane mode (or even, dare I say, out).

Homo sapiens so there is reason to hope so Phono sapiens is just a very modern version of the Neanderthal: a competing species that won’t be able to tell its own story.

Matthew Gasda writes from New York City.

Image by Ketut Subiyanto, public domain. Image cropped.