Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Bryan Counter reviews The Crisis of Narration

Byung-Chul Han. The Crisis of Narration. Trans. Daniel Steuer. Hoboken, N.J.: Polity Press, 2024. 100 pp.

Review by Bryan Counter

11 April 2024

In response to the familiar platitude that everyone is distracted these days, Marina van Zuylen has argued that what we actually have is “disengaged engagement” in a “multitasking universe, where we are enthralled by a weird kind of disembodied focus.”[1] Our attention is monopolized by a constant influx of information, data, statistics, and as a result we seem distracted, but in reality we are hyper-focused. In other words, narrative gives way to storytelling, with the latter being aligned with information and commodity rather than relaxation and imagination. As Byung-Chul Han writes in The Crisis of Narration: “The modern reader has lost the long, slow, lingering gaze”—that is, the ability to daydream or to be truly distracted (p. 1). This also means that we can no longer listen to one another. As we can no longer listen or distractedly read, we lose our capacity for wisdom, “and its place is taken by problem-solving techniques” (p. 10). Not for nothing is part of this book focused on digitalization, which, to a higher degree than information in general, “intensifies the atrophy of time” (p. 19).

Han begins this study by writing: “Everyone is talking about ‘narratives.’ Paradoxically, the inflation of narrative betrays a crisis of narration.” What he goes on to lament about this paradox is itself paradoxical: the crisis of narration is “a lack of meaning and orientation” in narrative, but this lack of meaning and orientation is a lack that ostensibly fills itself with various narrators and types of information (p. vii). There is never a lack of information! And yet, calling on a children’s book by Paul Maar, Han shows on the one hand how storytelling tends to reduce the world around us to mere information, and on the other hand how narratives come about when the world refuses that reduction.

The Crisis of Narration brings to mind other recent texts that diagnose our present moment with striking accuracy and urgency, such as Anne Dufourmantelle’s In Defense of Secrets (2021) and Anna Kornbluh’s Immediacy: Or, The Style of Too Late Capitalism (2024), to give just a couple of examples. The modern touchstones of transparency, immediacy, and telling stories each leave so much left untouched, unsaid. As Han writes: “Narrative is a play of light and shadow, of the visible and invisible, of nearness and distance. Transparency destroys this dialectical tension, which forms the basis of every narrative” (p. 40). Writing and thinking in a style reminiscent of Martin Heidegger, Han has many other reference points throughout this slim book. Echoing the juxtaposition of eroticism and pornography by Roland Barthes, Han in one notable instance contends that information “is pornographic, because it has no cover. Eloquent narrative is only the cover, the veil that weaves itself around the things. Covering and veiling are essential to narrative. Pornography does not tell anything. It gets right down to it, whereas the eroticism of narrative indulges in incidental details” (p. 30). Information decides ahead of time how it should be interpreted, whereas narrative gives us the task (and enjoyment) of making sense ourselves.

The transition from narrative to storytelling is how the world becomes disenchanted, and this disenchantment proliferates. As our everyday lives are increasingly transformed by the media we consume and their methods of consumption, so are our works of art and ways of experiencing art. We can seemingly no longer speak of the quasi-Romantic conception of the artist or of the spectator: “A Netflix series is nothing like a piece of art that corresponds to a pronounced danger to life and limb” (p. 47). Our state of constant bombardment itself becomes the danger when so much of what we take in is low stakes, for profit, part of an entertainment machine.

In a brief later section called “Theory as Narrative,” Han justifies theory insofar as it “designs an order of things, setting them in relation to each other” rather than, like data, “merely disclos[ing] correlations between things” (p. 50). And perhaps this is Han’s intervention: to show that theorizing can help us to create a path, to prioritize the world around us, even if—and in fact precisely when—this means going against the grain. For if we do “live in a post-narrative time” despite the abundance of narrative-speak everywhere, it is for no other reason than that we have lost the plot (p. viii).


[1] Marina van Zuylen, The Plenitude of Distraction (New York, 2017), p. 9.