The Limits of Understanding the Pandemic Philosophically

The Limits of Understanding the Pandemic Philosophically

The Limits of Understanding the Pandemic Philosophically

Byung-Chul Han’s The Palliative Society tries to contextualize the emotional and cultural ramifications of Covid-19 without ever addressing its material consequences.


The Covid-19 pandemic has brought death to the forefront of daily life. Whether in the overwhelming moments of intimate grief or the omnipresent background hum of irrepressible dread, the virus’s deadly ramifications have been impossible to avoid. It is the ways in which we have responded to this crisis, however, that philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s latest work, The Palliative Society, wants to take up as the basis for cultural analysis. For, as Han writes in the opening to his book, “Our relation to pain reveals what kind of society we are.” Written in German in 2020 and now translated into English by Daniel Steuer, this short book (or perhaps, more accurately, long essay) attempts to position our social reaction to the pandemic as being of a piece with our contemporary inability to reckon with pain. Han seeks to utilize an extended reading of our relation to pain as a means of opening up a critique of our social, cultural, and political lives. But this work demonstrates both the possibilities and the pitfalls of taking up such a weighty historical moment in media res. Stuck somewhere between genuine insight and banal truisms, radical critique and reactionary entrenchment, The Palliative Society is never quite able to position the pandemic as a historic event, using it merely to confirm an argument that feels already well-rehearsed.

Han contends that “a universal algophobia rules: a generalized fear of pain,” permeating the entirety of our social life as we attempt to further cocoon ourselves away from any and all negativity. This algophobia is perpetually exacerbated by our collective desire for palliative remedies, treatments that can temporarily mask pain but ultimately leave its underlying source untreated. The palliative, which is only ever superficial, offers immediate relief even as our deeper, more substantive wounds continue to fester. Here we have the major contention of The Palliative Society: Our pathological avoidance of pain ensures that we increasingly feel nothing at all.

Han contends that our palliative culture is also a “culture of likability,” relying upon a forced, false positivity that inhibits both contact and conflict. For the readers of Han’s other books (more than a dozen have already been translated into English), the ramifications he finds of this tendency toward the absolute avoidance of pain will likely not come as surprise: Social alienation and loneliness, cultural stagnation, digital burnout, addiction, impatience, and narcissism are all topics he has covered before. Han argues that we are living in a “hell of the same,” an endless scroll upon which we find ourselves merely drifting along, unable to dislodge ourselves back into history. We are enmeshed in the “residues of positivity which accumulate beneath the surface of the culture of likes,” unable to encounter the negativity that could break us out of this holding pattern. “Without pain,” Han writes in his latest book, “there is thus also no revolution, no departure from the old, no history.”

Yet it is the encounter of our palliative society with the virulence of the coronavirus that Han’s text purports to explore: “The pandemic makes death, which we had carefully repressed and set aside, visible again.” If we are a society obsessively bent on avoiding pain and death, how might the ever-present sense of illness that the virus awakened affect us? Han’s answer seems to be that it has ultimately merely exacerbated the dominance of our algophobia, our response having necessarily been overdetermined by the social world the virus entered. Since we were already desperate to avoid an encounter with negativity and pain, Han thinks that our emphasis upon quarantine and social distancing did not mark any life-changing break—instead, it was an intensification of already present trend lines. “We are too alive to die, and too dead to live. Our overriding concern with survival we have in common with the virus, this undead being which only proliferates, that is, survives without actually living.” The critique here rests upon the contention that we do not have a culturally resonant narrative for why so many of us have been so desperate to avoid contracting Covid. Which is to say, Han argues that we compulsively avoid death in order to continue not really living at all. Yet this diagnosis of our omnipresent ennui rings especially hollow, for it has been our very desire to survive that has so consistently come into conflict with capital’s desire to keep us at work.

For a thinker so critical of the contemporary focus on the surface and the immediate, Han’s style here works as its own palliation, with the author unable or unwilling to probe too deeply, instead skimming along at a pace that never allows us to linger too long on the particulars of any one of his claims or contentions. Han relies on the aphoristic mode, packing sweeping proclamations into short, concise declarations on how we live now. This makes the experience of reading him quite a welcome change from the norms of much academic writing. Yet this tendency toward pithy synthesis ends up leaving many of his arguments noticeably vague and underdeveloped; they begin to strain under their own weight if subjected to too much scrutiny. The notion that power has become “decoupled from pain” and “can do without repression” seems quite at odds with the fact that the George Floyd rebellion was met with extreme state force. To note that “consumer goods are presented as works of art” and thus that “the arts come to draw upon the aesthetics of consumption” is surely accurate but hardly ranks as a novel insight. That our response to a highly contagious disease was initially to withdraw from one another so as to limit its spread demonstrates an attempt at collective care as much as a collective neurosis.

There are limits to the degree to which quarantining and social distancing can be read metaphorically rather than as material practices of harm prevention. As much as Han’s work succeeds in its attempts to reveal the degradations and harms wrought upon our psyches by our increasingly digitally mediated lives, the text’s most prominent weaknesses arise from the author’s inability to fully comprehend and consider the material consequences brought about as a result of the pandemic. These are, not coincidentally, the moments in which the book most fully begins to sound like an echo of contrarian talking points. For instance, Han’s argument that “the only difference between the home office and the labour camps of despotic regimes is that, in the former, the ideology of health and the paradoxical freedom of self-exploitation reign” rings as exceptionally ludicrous. Here the concern is not for those who had to continue or return to in-person work in the midst of the pandemic in order to sustain some semblance of economic “normalcy” and suffered as a result (indeed, these people are never mentioned). Instead, the workers most impacted by the pandemic, in Han’s rendering, have been those white-collar workers sequestered in their homes without access to their ergonomic office chairs. In the book’s conclusion, Han sees the pandemic ushering in the final fall of liberalism, to be replaced by a biopolitical surveillance regime. Yet, in a country that could not even arrive at a discussion of a modest proposal for a vaccine passport, this kind of hand-wringing appears hyperbolic. What is actually astounding about the Covid crisis is the degree to which the state scaled down, outsourcing much of its response to individual localites, individual corporations, and individuals themselves.

Even with its faults, Han’s sloganeering does deliver some necessary truths. His focus on the necessity of touch as the beginnings of care and his emphasis on the interpersonal sharing of pain as the precondition for revolutionary action are both staunch reminders of how much we continue to deeply need community and connection outside of the digital sphere. The pandemic has provoked an enormous shift, but it happened in the material realm that Han engages with least. The age of just-in-time production and global supply chains appears deeply strained. Unionized workers are striking across the country against companies that have relied on them throughout the pandemic to produce record-breaking profits and offered little in return. Non-unionized workers are coordinating walkouts too, in response to increased hours and low wages. The pandemic has exposed and heightened the innumerable precarities of the working class and made how we work look increasingly untenable. Mass injections of funds into the threadbare social safety net have so far not been forthcoming, even as decades of austerity and stagnation are coming home to roost. The pandemic revealed that our society has failed to address the real inadequacies and social inequalities at its core, and the need for bone-deep structural change remains an absolute necessity, especially in the face of the climate crisis. The Palliative Society gets this much right: Superficial fixes will not be enough, and arriving at substantive solutions will not be without pain.

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