Assessing Our Frayed Society with Byung-Chul Han

The Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han is nothing if not enigmatic. Not much is known about him beyond the brief bios accompanying the ever-increasing number of slim volumes of his work being translated into English and the rare interview which he occasionally submits to give. He was born in Seoul in 1959. He briefly practiced metallurgy before moving to Munich in the 80’s to study theology, literature, and philosophy. He’s currently Professor of Philosophy and Cultural Studies at the University of the Arts (UdK) in Berlin. And it might be the cagey wisdom of Han’s Delphic retreat from mainstream celebrity that has largely saved him from the fate of fellow “popular” philosopher Slavoj Zizek, who has been abandoned by the Left now that his gadfly schtick has outworn its ideological usefulness. Instead, Han has been received mostly with polite skepticism. The Guardian has referred to him as “intellectual lodestar” for the New Romantic movement in Germany. The Los Angeles Review of Books embraces Han’s critique of neoliberal control over the individual subject (more on that later), but calls his criticism of pornography “baffling.” In other words, whatever notoriety Han has achieved in American has come in spite of our inability to pigeon-hole his work into the usually limited scope of our current political situation.

The difficulty in categorizing Han or recruiting him for Manichean political use originates in the challenging nature of his ideas themselves. Because his work offers up a critique not just of specific political issues, but of Western technological culture itself, his apparent lack of utility is really his secret strength. And the expectations which he avoids conforming to are often themselves critiqued within his work, giving it a significance much deeper than the “relevance” against which he sets himself.

As a Heideggerian, Han is interested in the subjectivity of our experiences in the digitized world. And so, for instance, when he writes about depression or narcissism, he attempts to reconstruct the experience of living in a depressive/narcissistic society from the inside out while occasionally using familiar cultural signposts for orientation along the way. In his book The Transparency Society, he writes that

It is telling that Facebook has consistently refused to introduce a ‘Dislike’ button. The society of positivity avoids negativity in all forms because negativity makes communication stall. The value of communication is measured solely in terms of the quantity of information and the speed of exchange . . . Most importantly, the negativity that rejection entails cannot be exploited economically.

What Han gives us is a notion that many have experienced slowed down enough, as it were, that it can be articulated as a thought. There’s more than a little of the spirit of The Moviegoer’s Binx Bolling’s “only the haters seem alive” in Han’s work. According to Han, it’s necessarily so. In our world control doesn’t emanate from injunctions preventing people from doing this or that, but from proclamations of freedom instead, or what Han calls “the violence of positivity.” The question posed to us – Han would perhaps call it the question that we’re made to pose to ourselves – is not a question of aught, but “can”. For specific examples, think of recently manufactured gender identities or alarming “advances” in biomedicine. Overburdened with such endless but ultimately meaningless possibility, Han embraces the Bartleby-esque power of negative resistance. Han is a prophet of the word “no”.

Han’s interests are focused, but he gives his mind wide room to roam, drawing from sources ranging from the anodyne to the absurd, such as Kant, Kafka, Augustine, Proust, and the films of Charlie Kaufman. And yet a few distinct themes which he returns to again and again through his books stand out: the changing nature of control in our digital world, the concept of the “transparent society,” the death of eros and the rejection of the Other, and the manic depression of our narcissistic culture. These various thrusts are all connected in that each helps to shed light on the other. They work in a gestalt, as components of a single unified language Han has created to describe the experience of contemporary life. To pick up any Han book is to begin reading in media res, because you don’t necessarily understand his thought by following a rigid line of argument, but by slowly acclimating yourself to his perceptions instead. Han forces you to tarry with him, which gives his work an almost intimate feeling.

Han begins his book The Transparency Society by observing that

No buzzword dominates contemporary public discourse so much as ‘transparency.’ Above all, it is emphatically invoked in connection with the freedom of information. The omnipresent demand for transparency, which has reached the point of fetishism and totalization, goes back to a paradigm shift which cannot be restricted to the realm of politics and economics.

The goal of our transparent society is to denude itself completely of negativity, of even the expression of negative feelings (hence no “Dislike” button on Facebook). Things are smoothed down to a sheen of pure surface in order that they can be made “calculable, steerable, and controllable.” This animating logic leaves little room for things like art, religion, and erotic love, which all require some sort of resistance (metaphor, ritual, and seduction) in order to develop into themselves. They require process, time, and a bit of distance in order to draw the subject in. The image of a religious icon, for instance, allows a viewer to enter in and join with spiritual mystery, but that entrance requires prayer and contemplation. Han would argue that prayer and contemplation are intimately bound up with the mystery itself. To remove the prayer, the tarrying element, is to simultaneously remove the mystery. And so denuded of their animating mystery, images become “transparent” and “freed from all dramaturgy, choreography, and scenography, from any hermeneutic depth, and indeed from any meaning at all – they become pornographic. Pornography is unmediated contact between the image and eye.”

The Transparent Society removes the barriers of time and thought necessary to build meaning in the universe. Without a mediating membrane separating things, we lose the very things most precious to our humanity. In “the bare life” as Han calls it, things deteriorate into the appalling. In the Transparent Society narrative becomes accumulation, because a narrative implies distance between subject and object. Every story is a process of becoming, but the transparent society objectifies everything, denuding it simultaneously of erotic mystery and the negative space between one thing and another which our desire seeks to bridge. If that sounds abstract, consider it in terms of literal pornography as contrasted with chivalry or courting. Things “unmasked” and laid completely bare don’t reveal their true essence, but are deformed into something grotesque.

There’s a direct link to be made between Han writing in The Transparent Society that without an erotic “gap in knowledge, thinking degenerates into calculation” and he writes in The Agony of Eros that

exhibition destroys any and all possibilities for erotic communication. A naked face without mystery or expression – reduced simply to being on display – is obscene and pornographic.

Transparency in every facet of culture is obscene. And at the secret heart of this obscenity, this death of erotic distance, lies the end of meaning itself and its replacement with nihilistic accumulation and calculation. This is no world for hidden transcendence or useful and open hierarchy. This is the world of Big Data, dating apps, and a culture simultaneously obsessed with both physical fitness and suicide on demand.

Han is quick to stress how differently control is implemented in a society of complete transparency than in a world of open and obvious domination. The “biopower” that Michel Foucault described, using Jeremy Bentham’s panopticon as an explanatory symbol of control, is, Han tells us, no longer relevant in the digital world. Instead, control now operates under the very guise of freedom itself.

We have internalized control. Like so many other tasks, it has been outsourced to us through cheap technology. Han compares the modern cell phone to a secular rosary, “Both the rosary and the smartphone serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control . . . Power operates more effectively when it delegates surveillance to discrete individuals.” The internalization of regulating authority, and the loss of erotic distance in culture, has a couple of obvious detrimental effects on the human psyche. On one hand, we have burn out from information overload with no meaningful narrative to give the data we encounter coherence or significance. Han’s The Burnout Society begins with the striking declaration that “Every age has its signature afflictions.” Ours, he maintains, is determined “neither by bacteria nor by viruses, but by…[n]eurological illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and burnout syndrome”. If 20th century modernity was marked by a confrontation with “the other”, in the form of ideological struggle and operating under the metaphor of the contagion, then our current maladies are marked, and Han would say originate from, a complete negation of the other. In other words, by narcissism.

Han’s most recent book to be translated into English, Polity’s The Expulsion of the Other, focuses on this collective narcissism. His psychological explanation of depression as a narcissistic disorder where one encounters only themselves (Han would call it “The Same”) in the world, is expanded and put to political use. In it, he criticizes our popular notions of diversity by writing:

What dominates today is not uniformity of ‘every Other is like the next’ that characterizes the ‘they’. That uniformity gives way to the diversity of opinions and options. Diversity only permits differences that conform to the system; it constitutes an otherness that has been made consumable. And it perpetuates the Same more efficiently than uniformity does, for its apparent, superficial variety obscures the systemic violence of the Same. Variety and different options create the illusion of an otherness that, in reality, does not exist.

Any American critic of progressivism will, perhaps surprisingly, find something to agree with in the statement above. “Everyone can be different just so long as they’re the right kind of different,” has become a common lament in contemporary American politics. Han again writes in what might be construed as a conservative idiom when he says:

We live today in the neoliberal system, which breaks down temporally stable structures, fragments living-time and permits the disintegration of what binds us together in the interests of increasing productivity. This neoliberal politics of time creates anxiety and insecurity. And neoliberalism fragments humans into isolated entrepreneurs of themselves. This isolation, which goes hand in hand with the elimination of solidarity and total competition, produces anxiety. The diabolical logic of neoliberalism is this: anxiety increases productivity.

Han is heavy on interpretation and light on data and facts. He values heuristics over disputation. But out of his prose, which is approachably direct compared to other philosophers writing in the continental tradition, arises a coherent argument for human nature which separates him from some of his flashier cohorts. Han’s writing is heavily influenced by Nietzsche, and so has an aphoristic quality. Aphorisms are a joy to read, but infuriating to argue against. They’re meant to present themselves as the final word. And so when a reader does disagree with Han, the variance sticks. You’re left to deconstruct his arguments against your own. This kind of disagreement, as Han would say, isn’t bad. In fact, by drawing us into something more than a “passive, live-and-let live relationship with the other, but rather an active, involved relationship to its being”, as he writes in Topology of Violence, Han might say that his work offers up the necessary amount of resistance to make real understanding, real knowledge, possible. It’s not a great mystery why, despite occasionally writing like one, Han hasn’t necessarily been embraced by the Left. His counsel to combat what ails our world isn’t formula or ideology, but a return to thinking itself. His prescription is no more prescriptions.

Byung-Chul Han should interest conservatives and classical liberals, not just for the criticisms he offers of a culture still struggling to balance human needs against the “diabolical logic” of technocracy, but for the simple fact that he himself offers up the negativity he finds lacking in our modern world.