WHEN a philosopher explicitly inspires anything in Scottish public life, I’m there in a flash.

Whatever can momentarily raise me above never-ending stramashes and deep-frozen ideologies. So I rushed with open arms to the news that the theme of this year’s Edinburgh International Festival (EIF), Rituals That Unite Us, was shaped by Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han (above), particularly his 2020 book The Disappearance Of Rituals.

But ironically, the more I’ve dived into the sources, the more politicised things have gotten. Han takes some uncompromising stances towards modern life. And the question of rituals that might “unite” us is hardly a neutral issue, in a post-indyref Scotland.

In the EIF brochure, festival director Nicola Benedetti’s take on Han’s theory of rituals is gentle enough, speaking of the “importance of collective experiences to bind us closer together.”

She continues: “I think most of us would agree that our environment is saturated with endless distractions and the unavoidable consumption of tales and tragedy from around the world.

“What is this doing to our senses, to our ability to empathise with experiences that are not our own?

READ MORE: The National launches urgent Gaza fundraiser with Medical Aid for Palestinians

“To cut through the chaos and noise, our Festival will create an intensified sense of shared space, time and emotion, with room for celebration and contemplation.”

According to Han, to create such ritual times and spaces is to resist our modern surrender to information overload.

Information constantly tries to surprise us, notes Han. It dissolves us into countless little reactions to our social media devices. Ritual slows down and thickens this reactivity, binding us to a slower sense of time passing.

Ritual makes us feel like we possess the world, alongside others with us in the ritual. This is better than merely interacting with it, as we flick and tap through our screens.

The EIF have curated these concepts quite well. There will be a new evening street spectacle (by the immersive makers Pinwheel) that will open the festival: it seeks an “extraordinary Edinburgh …in the cracks of the cobbles”. Bean-bag concerts will place audiences right amidst the playing musicians.

One might also charitably cast the various cheap-ticket schemes as ways to get more bodies into rooms with each other. That’s at least better than digital indifference and disconnection.

The other two themes taken from Han’s book are a combination of the recycled and the eyebrow-raising. There are yet more performances of the canon – Carmen, Hamlet, Cosi Fan Tutte, Oedipus Rex, Figaro, Mahler’s Fifth.

But don’t worry – they’re gathering them under Han’s concepts of “The Game of Life and Death” and “The Art of Seduction”.

Go to the source, though, and matters fascinatingly darken. The EIF brochure quotes Han thus: “Life is only possible in symbolic exchange with death”.

But in the book, Han connects this to a positive embrace of the act of suicide. Apparently, “suicide is the most radical rejection imaginable of the society of production. It challenges the system of production”.

We want philosophers to startle us, if they can. The Disappearance Of Ritual certainly does that.

In another chapter, Han tries to draw a distinction between war as play, and war production (he doesn’t like the way we perform for market society).

READ MORE: Vote for Labour and Scotland will lose its voice at Westminster

The Prussian military theorist Carl von Clausewitz saw war as “the continuation of policy by other means”. But, notes Han, he also saw that traditional war, in its rules-bound, mutually honouring form, allowed for the possibility of politics after the fighting stopped. He even calls this kind of war as one conducted by “sovereign players”

By comparison, the drone warrior “completely dispenses with the reciprocity that constitutes war as ritual combat. The attacker is wholly invisible. A screen is not an opponent ... Here, death is produced mechanically. Drone pilots work shifts. For them, killing is mainly work.”

Under the current atrocities, that’s a deeply challenging distinction. (Though, to be honest, I don’t think “Grupo Corpo’s choreography and the effervescent jazz stylings of Endea Owens” quite covers this particular life-and-death game).

But it at least indicates that the “reappearance” of ritual in our lives is hardly just a matter of aesthetics, never mind the elegant curation of events. Han’s thought is an act of resistance to the digital and informational era – a warning about the exhaustion and demotivation it raises in us.

The EIF folks might be pleased to know, from a recent interview, that Han believes “art, as opposed to philosophy, is still in a position where it can evoke the glimmer of a new form of life … capable of letting something entirely new begin.

“The revolution can begin with as little as an unheard-of colour, an unheard-of sound.”

This – beyond “social inclusion”, “visitor footfall”, and “economic multipliers” – is a good enough justification for arts spending and cultural budgets. Does the 2024 EIF programme live up to this possibility? Not sure. Discuss.

But if rituals “bring people together and create an alliance, a wholeness, a community” – as Han is quoted in the EIF brochure – how can the indy-minded not also get involved in this discussion?

Surely, there’s a battle of competing ritual acts beneath the Scottish question – and they often polarize, hardly creating a “wholeness”.

Take the Saltire and the Union flag being waved at competing marches or events, across commitments to independence or Unionism. Here, ritual is hardly the “stabiliser of life” that Han wants it to be. However, I’d want to distance myself from some of Han’s pessimisms. Particularly his despair about the possibility of an informed public sphere, under our digital conditions.

It’s this pessimism which drives him to idealise (maybe even sentimentalise) phenomena like ritual, silence and withdrawal.

READ MORE: ALL Scottish party leaders back The National's fundraiser for emergency Gaza aid

Writing for this paper is one refutation of his pessimism – but so is the news, research and activist eco-system in which we co-exist, and often overlap with.

I would bet that most of you reading this regard “information” not as a kind of universal acid rain, destructively corroding the modern character, but as tools and resources to build a better Scotland, by ever-better argumentation and storytelling.

Yet talking with a few well-weathered comrades over the last week, it was striking how much of a consensus they expressed about the importance of emotion and culture to the cause of independence.

Time was when such talk was anathema. Tom Nairn’s “tartan monster” lurked at many shoulders, a caution to invoking anything “irrational” or “atavistic” around the fate of Scotland.

Yet in the era of Trump, Johnson, Farage, Meloni, Orban, of “take back control” and “feels over reals”, there has been wave after wave of campaigning which appealed, full throttle, to the “cultural and emotional”.

So do you go into the same trenches, prodding the voter’s amygdala with shocking images of the ruin of the Union? That feels like a war with diminishing returns.

What is interesting about the EIF’s thoughts on ritual is the scale on which it operates. A festival in Edinburgh, in a set of familiar buildings, is not a titanic and abstract struggle for the direction of a nation (or nation-state).

What the indy movement may need is a combination of creativity at the community level, with a long-term patience towards the outcome of such an investment.

Will this deeper assertion of autonomy and self-determination eventually emerge a strengthened citizenry? One that takes independence as its “settled will”, in the same way as devolution was its expression in 1997?

And might the horizons of such a combination be both more intensely local, and more intensely planetary, than our current modes of community empowerment?

Not a debate I would impose on the writhing, declaiming, virtuosic talents at the EIF. Artists and creators serve their populations best by being as free and expressive as they can be.

But for sparking the debate in the first place, two cheers to Benedetti – and to her eclectic reading.