The scent of time

James Rosenquist, Dust of Time, 1992


Considerations about Byung-Chul Han's book

“Therefore, among the corrections we need to make in the character of humanity is to greatly strengthen the contemplative element” (Friedrich Nietzsche).


Byung-Chul Han is certainly one of those who face time. This confrontation in the sense of “contemporary thinking”, as suggested by Giorgio Agamben. A reflection that appears as a sentinel and directed to its own time, but which also distances itself from it with the willingness to make visible facts, situations and problems that are obscure to the majority (AGAMBEN, 2009). His essays manage to draw attention to how a certain Western-type temporality is currently experienced, perceived by him in a state of crisis.

This reflection took shape through the essay The scent of time. A philosophical essay on the art of delay, published in Germany in 2007. Byung-Chul Han's thesis, very inspired by the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, an author also touched by a temporality in crisis, is that, contrary to the majority diagnoses in the field of time studies, the The present is crossed not by an acceleration of time, typical of modernity, but by a phenomenon understood as “dyssynchrony”.

In general terms, this composition of temporalities is understood by its condition of atomization, with no direction, ordering of meaning or a conclusion. This leads you, therefore, to reflect on the duration of time. Its central hypothesis is, therefore, that what makes current time ephemeral, not lasting, is not the speed itself, but the dimension of temporal disorientation, or dispersion. In the introduction to the aforementioned book we find this diagnosis: “The feeling that life is accelerating has, in reality, its origins in the perception that time is stumbling along without any direction” (HAN, 2016, p. 9).

It is significant, before discussing Byung-Chul Han's thinking itself, to say about his choice of essay writing. Agreeing with Theodor Adorno (2003), the dimension of autonomy and freedom offered by the genre offers the opportunity to explore different subjects, without the obligation to focus on just one, even if the desire is for (im)possible correlations. This is noticeable in this philosopher's writing, both from the varied choice of interlocutors and in the sense of approaching his themes from the perspective of complexity. As an essayist, we see a writer experimenting and understanding the aspects of what he proposes to investigate through plural compositions – supporting himself in a dynamic game of approximations and refusals.

One way to assimilate the South Korean philosopher's essays would be to place him in front of Michel de Montaigne, considered a master of essays and considered its founder in terms of form and way of thinking. As highlighted by Jean Starobinski (2011, p. 21), writing for him, and this perhaps also applies to Han, “(…) is yet again rehearsing, with always renewed strength, in an always inaugural and spontaneous impulse to play the reader at his most sensitive point, to force him to think and feel more intensely.”

The problem investigated, or “heavy” if we remember the ancient Latin definition of essay as exagium, is “dyssynchrony”, which would be responsible for the current feeling of time accelerating, for the feeling of fleetingness and ephemerality. We find ourselves, as he thinks, devoid of time-ordering structures, possible coordinates that offer support for duration. We thus become passengers.

This condition leads, following his reflection, beyond the atomization of time, but to the atomization of identity itself, resulting in the loss of notions of time, space and even being-with-others. There would be nothing more left for people than their fragile body in an unbridled search for health, in a sense that leads us to prefer it even before the gods. Only death would last. We thus find this observation in his writings: “People grow old without becoming older” (HAN, 2016, p. 10).

The alliances made by Byung-Chul Han, which offer theoretical background for his reflection, are with Nietzsche and Heidegger. The South Korean philosopher perceives something current in what Nietzsche conceived as the “last man”. This would be, succinctly, the one who expires and not the one who dies. Furthermore, he indulges in hedonism through fleeting pleasures, having nostalgia and chronic discontent. From this, a conception created by the author would emerge: “out of time”. It is a not knowing how to die, which based on his reading of Nietzsche would have to do with the lack of meaning, of decision in the face of dyssynchrony. It is a call to a problem of existence: the vital inability to make the human trajectory minimally stable, organized, with a rhythm and with a possible arrangement.

In this way, what happens are trajectories that end in “out of time”. This condition, in terms of Western temporal experimentation, would indicate the inability to conclude. The flow of time would be disorganized, like temporal dams that overflow. “When time loses its rhythm, when it flows in the open without stopping without any direction, any appropriate or good time also disappears” (HAN, 2016, p. 14).

Societies, human beings, would be giving in to time, in contrast to what Nietzsche's Zarathustra proclaimed: “Die in time”! In other words, it seems to be impossible, currently, to have a death as a consummation, given that one is not separated from life. Here Heidegger's contribution comes in: that of being free towards death as an affirmative disposition. The two philosophers teach Byung-Chul Han that this way of understanding death, at the appropriate time, creates a kind of temporal gravitation capable of ensuring that the past and the future encompass the present. For Byung-Chul Han, we would be temporally disoriented, incapable of decision, that is, of concluding something as a goal and as a meaning. Temporal orientation, or equalization and tuning, would appear as a way of providing opportunities for being in time. The fragmentation and atomization of time lead to perishing, as there is no duration. The present is, therefore, beyond gravity.

The experience of time reflected by the philosopher brings with it the feeling that things are temporary, or rather, that there is an accelerated process of making things past. In his words, “Nowadays, things linked to temporality age much more quickly than before. They instantly become the past and thus no longer capture attention. The present is reduced to current peaks. It no longer lasts” (HAN, 2016, p. 17).

After this observation, and based on Nietzsche and Heidegger, we reach a decisive point in the South Korean's argument: the feeling of perenniality currently experienced would not, as is most frequently pointed out, be related to the acceleration of time itself. This is due to a somewhat logical explanation: acceleration would only be possible when time is understood as flexible and one-dimensional. What we would be witnessing would be, in another direction, a precipitation, a disposition in which there is no support, or support, to prevent the lack of direction. Hence the unrestrained, disoriented situation is perceived as acceleration.

 Important dimensions in Nietzsche and Heidegger, that is, the conceptual images of the “goal” and the “heir”, in the first, and the “legacy” and “transmission”, in the second, seem, today, to be rare. Parallel to this, a situation of homogenization and de-differentiation stopping independent and contradictory social forms. What is at stake in this scenario, according to Byung-Chul Han, is the loss of the possibility of the dialectics of time. Explaining: “The dialectical engine arises from the temporal tension between a now and a not yet, between what happened and the future. In a dialectical process, the present is rich in tensions, while today the present lacks any type of tension” (HAN, 2016, 19).

The present transforms, in the writer's view, into peaks of current affairs, the result of the atomization process added to the dyssynchrony. The summary is, in short, this: there is no temporal stabilization or equalization available, which would be a possible solution for preserving the future. The short term, the subjective perpetuity, would therefore lead to psychological consequences, such as anguish and restlessness. This would be the result of the incessant detemporalization of the world of life, “poor of experiences” to recall an old formulation by Walter Benjamin.

Absolute discontinuity and atomization would, in this sense, be enemies of duration and experience. Thus, and reiterating that temporal acceleration is not a problem in itself, what would be in place would be nothing other than the following: life would have lost its dimension of meaningful conclusion (sensible). “Such is the origin of the agitated movement and nervousness that characterize current life” (HAN, 2016, p. 23). There is a loss of the experiential plane, resulting in the impossibility of meanings capable of filling life, of making it durable and stabilized. Thus, the atomization of life denotes restlessness, confusion, temporal disorientation, which tends to deceive us regarding time in a state of acceleration. “People tend, rather, to rush from one gift to the next” (HAN, 2016, p. 24).

Perhaps Byung-Chul Han signals a state of haste in the future, a restlessness to make decisions in the face of a shattered temporal universe, resulting from dyssynchrony. This perspective brings with it an underlying paradox: at the same time as it is everything (expanded present), it is also nothing, since under the aegis of the immediate it tends towards ephemerality. This condition would result in a profound imbalance of temporal dynamics, which is relational and dialectical. What the German historian Reinhardt Koselleck (2006) calls “space of experience” and “horizon of expectation”, or what Edmund Husserl (1994), in his phenomenology, describes as “retention and protension”.


Byung-Chul Han warns that, in addition to the lack of time, there would be, in contemporary times, a time without aroma. However, before delving into the meaning that this image of time gives, we can resort to the differentiation that it makes between an ordered temporality, which would be on the mythical plane, and the linearized one (with continuities and discontinuities), properly historical. After these differentiations, Byung-Chul Han will be able to point to what he understands as the characteristics of time today.

In mythical temporality what we have is the meaning, the order, the organized narrative of the events that print and create the world. In this context, events are organized by a clear basis of meaning. The present endures. Historical time does not bring with it this dimension of completion, of immutability, approaching the eternal. Its sign is change and not the eternal return of the same. There is, in any case, a syntax, which derives from a procedural dimension. The present is, in historical time, transitory, where there are distinctions between “nothing is” and “everything can”. But change, however, does not imply disorder, as it finds a structure, that is, a linearity.

There are two significant forms of temporal understanding, according to Byung-Chul Han: eschatological time and the time of lights. The first is the time of the end, with no action; everything is moved by providence. The time of enlightenment, which we could call modern, is different, that is, it admits an open launch into the future, where there is no end, as in eschatologies, but the emergence of the new. Here, explains the philosopher, there is a double process: defactization and denaturalization.

We are, therefore, within the scope of freedom to act. It is the time of reason, no longer supported by destiny, or even by providence, or by an eternal return of the same, but of the desired path – this is the revolutionary becoming. “In the Enlightenment, the revolution refers to a defactized time. Free from all being/being launched, in any natural or theological way, the world, like a steam colossus, is released towards the future, where it hopes to find salvation” (HAN, 2016, p. 29). It would be another form of saving history. With a future goal, returning to the discussion, the experience of time accelerates. It is the passage, thus, from the time of God to the time of men. The meaning of historical time becomes acceleration itself.

So, in schematic terms, there would be, at least in the West, two majority temporalities. The one that presents itself as an image, which is typical of mythical time; beyond what appears as an advancing line. Thus we arrive at the present time, according to Byung-Chul Han, in which there is a loss of narrative-teleological tension, which generates its decomposition into disoriented points, or atomizations. It is the world of information and no longer the terrain of history: “History illuminates, selects and channels the plot of events, imposing a narrative and linear trajectory on it. If this disappears, an amalgamation of information and events is formed that stumbles without direction. Information has no aroma. In this, they differ from history” (HAN, 2016, p. 30).

We could recover, here, Walter Benjamin's note (1986, p. 195) about the loss of experience resulting from the inability to narrate, to communicate stories, something that corroborates Byung-Chul Han's diagnosis of the world of infocracy that gives us plot.

The meaning of the experience was known exactly: it had always been communicated to young people. Concisely, with the authority of old age, in proverbs; in a long-winded way, with his loquacity, in stories; often as narratives from faraway countries, in front of the fireplace, told to parents and grandchildren. What became of all this? Who also finds people who know how to tell stories the way they should be told.

Time in Byung-Chul Han's current time is made up of dots. What's between the dots? Empty. Where nothingness prevails there is a tendency to profound boredom. Mythical time and historical time, in another way, weave time and prevent its disintegration. These intervals lead to boredom, with an accelerated need for something new to emerge. It is also the cause of the feeling of chronic insecurity, because where nothing happens is death.

The time of the points, currently experienced according to Byung-Chul Han, encourages a willingness to shorten the voids, which would be the true motivator of the contemporary sensation of acceleration. The result of this is a situation in which the emergence of ever new events is evident, of incessant and never-lasting novelties, which also brings radicalism to the surface. The discontinuities are increasingly immediate, resulting in the impossibility of moving forward through experience and narrative. Violence arises. Institutions no longer make sense or stabilize social actions. Mythical time and historical time offer narrative meaning and understanding to what is happening. They are entangled in duration and experience. Unlike atomization, isolation and frenetic discontinuity, hallmarks of today. The narrative would be this aroma of time, and this would only be possible in duration.


The contemporary feeling of acceleration, which is related to the time of the points, distances the human being from contemplative capacity. In contemplation there is nothing other than delay. “The inability to delay contemplation can give rise to the driving force that will lead to widespread haste and dispersion” (HAN, 2016, p. 87). This phenomenon would be related to the loss of temporal and spatial coordinates, that is, there is no factualization and rooting, which implies the loss of duration.

The contemplative life is, in this sense, related to taking time, which offers elements for duration. Byung-Chul Han's question is this: how can we linger on something, contemplate or meditate on something, in a world marked by the unbridled succession of quick moments, fleeting events or images?

It is, in another way, an observation about the time of use and consumption, which, supported by neoliberal logic, requires that things do not last, that they are already obsolete. This accelerated succession of fragments and events leads to a state of temporal destabilization, which would be nothing more than the lack of the possibility of lingering with things in the world of life, which would lead to duration, which is the condition for something to remain ; the possibility of developing an authentic identity. It is interesting how Byung-Chul Han, following the philosophy of Martin Heidegger, establishes that “being” is related to temporality. Because “being” meant, in its old meaning, precisely lingering and enduring.

With this in mind, it seems necessary to understand Byung-Chul Han's rehabilitation of the “contemplative life”. To do this, we return to Aristotle's philosophy. Meditating, philosophizing, theorein as a condition for leisure, the skholé. Greek leisure would not be linked to the current meaning of free time. “It is a state of freedom, alien to determination and necessity, which does not generate effort or worries” (HAN, 2016, p. 103-104). In this sense, work takes away freedom, since it is focused on immediate needs. It is for this reason that he encourages restlessness and a lack of serenity, answers given by Martin Heidegger in his time.

Leisure is, in other words, the space where there are no worries – a condition of freedom that transcends the needs of active life. It is interesting that Byung-Chul Han said that happiness came, returning to the Stagirite's reflection, from contemplative lingering in beauty, which had the meaning, precisely, of Theoria. If the temporal meaning is, therefore, duration, then Aristotelian happiness would be positioned in occupying oneself with eternal and immutable things that would rest on themselves.

It seems difficult to understand this meaning today, when human beings are deeply linked to work, where machine work is subjectivized and considered the majority form of human action. In a world marked by productivism, competition, incessant novelty, efficiency, talking about Greek leisure, with an Aristotelian brand, would, at the very least, be misleading. Leisure does not imply the duality of work and inactivity, as conceived today. It is also not derived from disconnection or relaxation. Authentic leisure means, according to Byung-Chul Han, meditating on truths, which gives it a sense of reunion, of appeasing dispersion. “Taking time requires a recollection of meaning” (HAN, 2016, p. 106).

The life led by work, which would refer to a reading of a certain Protestantism and capitalism, much to the taste of Max Weber, takes away from the subjects the contemplative life, which makes them something of animal laborers. Life, therefore, becomes equivalent to the process of machines. What exists, in this situation, are breaks, which would have a disconnection and disconnection function, but which, ultimately, would mean nothing other than just a break to carry out more efficient work.

In short, it is far from Greek leisure and closer to today's society of free time and consumption. It is a proposal, in one way or another, different from that reading by Hannah Arendt, who, in her situation, spoke of the recovery of “active life” as a way of freeing people from their ordinary needs. This is because the consumer society, in which we live with varying intensities, separates work from the needs of life itself, thus becoming an end in itself, prohibiting other forms of existence. Hence the consumer society combines with the free time society.

But what is produced is, in any case, “lack of time”, given that this time that remains, apparently free, would be nothing more than fleeting moments, which soon end, thus not being carriers of durability. It is, in a way, a simple logic to understand: consumption and duration are not compatible, as goods, in capitalist logic, do not last. If subjective, with implications for the way we conceive temporality, the productive logic of capital itself: “The cycle of appearance and disappearance of things is increasingly brief. The capitalist imperative of growth implies that things are produced and consumed in an increasingly brief period of time” (HAN, 2016, p. 111-112). There is, then, the perpetuation of obsolescence, of ephemerality, of fleetingness, of that, in short, that does not last or that ends soon.

In the consumer society there is no room for lingering and contemplation. Free time is transformed into quick experiences, stopping points that in themselves would be memories of the present. What it produces is lack of time and dyssynchrony. Consumption suppresses the possibility of remaining with things, a condition, in a Heideggerian reading, for being itself. What can be inferred is that work time under capitalist logic prohibits duration, a movement subjectivized and reproduced by people in their modes of temporal experimentation. “Perdurability and tranquility refuse use and consumption. They create a duration. A vita contemplative it is a praxis of duration. It generates another time, interrupting work time” (HAN, 2016, p. 112).

To understand the meaning given by Byung-Chul Han to the contemplative experience, it is essential to capture his dialogue with Hannah Arendt, who in the human condition (1958) was unfavorable to this perspective. His position, contrary to the contemplative tradition of Greco-Christian origin, would be that of a resolute active life, the basis for action. Arendt's diagnosis, put another way, is that the primacy of contemplation mortifies action.

Byung-Chul Han, on the other hand, disagrees with the philosopher's position, especially her understanding of the contemplative life as passivity, as a kind of paralysis, being without movement. Returning to Aristotle to confront Hannah Arendt, the South Korean thinker understands that the contemplative life is not devoid of action, showing that the bios theoretikos he would throw himself into “being at work”, mobilizing great energy in this experience.

Hannah Arendt brings with her, in her vision, a heroic disposition, even bordering on a certain messianism in her attempt to recover action as a condition for the emergence of the new. Her attempt is to revitalize action as a way of removing people from situations of animal laborers, automatic operation. But what is highlighted is that this passivity of the animal laborers It is not contrary to active life, but its counterface. “Those who are unable to stop themselves do not have access to something truly different. Experiences transform. They interrupt the repetition of what is always the same. It is not by being increasingly active that someone becomes sensitive to experiences” (HAN, 2016, p. 125). The supposed passivity is, therefore, an action, because otherwise it would become just work and occupation; no longer contemplating, doubting, gathering, meditating on the action, made absolute.


Generalized restlessness prevents contemplation. Thought ceases to contain depth, preventing something originally other. Thought loses the rhythm of time, presenting itself, in another way, dictated by it. This disposition of mind is characteristic of ephemerality and far from the lasting. Active life moves, becoming absolute, as unreflective action, preventing deviations, the indirect and the differential. Human life becomes poor in forms, in which we lose the nuances, the contradictory, the discrete, the irresoluble.

Time loses its melody, its aroma, turning into calculation. The loss of contemplation would mean nothing other than its reduction to work and thought as calculation. Contemplative retention would have something of kindness, of being able to see the beauty of things that last, that are likely to linger. The busy life leads, in another direction, to destruction and thoughtlessness, if not to alienation. Time passes, and this in a projection of subjectivation of capitalism, to be consumed. The expression “killing time” is not uncommon, which would be due to the compulsion generated by work. Meanwhile, contemplative delay grants time, extends time, which is something different from always being active and busy. “When you recover your contemplative capacity, life gains time and space, duration and breadth” (HAN, 2016, p. 135).

The result of maximizing active life is hyperactivity. The lack of tranquility, of serenity in acting. The possibility of orderly and time-filled actions. It is not an attempt to eliminate active life through thoughtless passivity. But make the action full of contemplation. Interesting Byung-Chul Han saying that opening up to the contemplative life offers space for breathing, or for the otium: a paused breath.

Hence a fruitful analogy: that which perceives pneuma both as breath and as spirit. Therefore, and this is the conclusion of your meditation on time today, the democratization of work must take into account, without a doubt, the democratization of this otium, because otherwise there would be nothing other than the slavery of everyone by the dynamics of neoliberal capitalism.

*Piero Detoni He has a PhD in Social History from USP.


HAN, Byung-Chul. The scent of time. A philosophical essay on the art of delay. Lisbon: Relógio d’Água, 2016, 144 pages. []


ADORNO, Theodor W. The essay as form. Sociology. Sao Paulo: Attica, 2003.

AGAMBEN, Giorgio. What is the contemporary? and other essays. Chapecó: Argos, 2009.

BENJAMIN, Walter. Experience and poverty. In: Magic and technique, art and politics. São Paulo: Brasiliense, 1986.

HUSSERL, Edmund. Lessons for a phenomenology of the inner consciousness of time. Lisbon: Impresa Nacional-Casa da Moeda, 1994.

KOSELLECK, Reinhart. Future past. Contribution to the semantics of historical times. Rio de Janeiro: Counterpoint, 2006.

STAROBINSKI, Jean. Is it possible to define the test? Finisher of Evils, Campinas, Jan/Dec, 2011.

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