The Philosophy of Byung-Chul Han

In the 1980s, there were a series of writers who challenged the way people thought of the then-growing popularity of colour television and news media. I have written before about Neil Postman, and his fear of our world becoming a ‘trivial society’ and Marshall McLuhan, who warned us that ‘the medium is the message’. (Technology is not just a tool, embedded within it is a message.)

I’ve been searching for a modern author who can do in our times what these authors did then. Challenge assumptions. Lift up the veil of technology and help us understand what lies underneath.

Enter Byung-Chul Han. Han is South Korean-born, German philosopher and is one of the most daring philosophers I’ve read in recent years. He offers quick, incisive books rather than long, jargon-heavy reads. (His books are usually less than a hundred pages.) In this way, he’s great if you are new to philosophy. Or like me, enjoy reading something in one sitting.

What’s more, Byung-Chul Han is telling the stories that need to be told today. Stories about modern technology, about where we are as a society and where we are heading if we don’t change course.

This winter, I dug into five of Byung-Chul Han’s most recent books to discover the definitive philosophy of Byung-Chul Han. In digging into his writing, I hoped to get some of that feeling of revelation I got from reading Postman and McLuhan. In many ways, I was not disappointed.

If there is an overall thesis in Han’s recent works it’s this:

We are living in a shallow, achievement society, where all negativity has been erased, edges smoothed and filters applied. We are showing more of ourselves, often in close ups, and seeing less of the ‘other’. In a constant pressure for achievement, success and self-gratification, we are becoming isolated and mentally ill, detached from nature, authentic experience and other people.

In his most famous work, The Burnout Society, Han lays out the key framework for his argument. In the 20th century we lived in a ‘disciplinary society,’ Han says. In the 21st century, we live in an ‘achievement society’. We have moved from being ‘obedience subjects’ to ‘achievement subjects’. Or, in other words, entrepreneurs of the self.

What has remained consistent is the pressure to produce more. What has changed is the language. Instead of being subjected to an order that we ‘should’ do something, we are being subjected to an imperative that we ‘can’ do something.

Can is much more effective than the negativity of Should. Therefore the social unconscious switches from Should to Can. The achievement-subject is faster and more productive than the obedience-subject. However the Can does not revoke the Should. The obedience-subject remains disciplined.

In our constant drive for achievement, for achieving anything we Can do, we get sick and burnt out. The achievement-subject works manically to maximise achievement, leading to ‘self-exploitation’. We start fighting with ourselves. Alain Ehrenberg (one of Han’s many quotations in the book), says it succinctly: ‘The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of becoming himself.’

It’s a beautiful line. We cannot just be ourselves, we have to become ourselves, and this process is exhausting. To become ourselves, we have to constantly keep achieving more and more, leading to further exhaustion and burnout. Because our achievement is performative, we lose touch with other people, and start indulging in narcissism and self-love.

This leads neatly onto Byung-Chul Han’s other works on love (eros), beauty and entertainment.

Starting with love, Byung-Chul Han tells us that today we’re in a crisis of love. This crisis is caused by the growth of narcissism and the separation between us and the other. The world is increasingly appearing, not as something ‘other’ to us, but as an innumerable number of reflections of ourselves.

We see perfectly crystallised digital images without any vagueness or ambiguity. But it is in this very vagueness and ambiguity that we can most connect with something other than ourselves. It is in the negatives, Han says, that we discover the other. An easier way of understanding this is the more common idea that it is someone’s imperfections that make them beautiful. In a digital world without imperfection, with just a screen, with no past or future, only now, there is also no beauty.

Here, Byung-Chul Han’s next book on my reading list comes into play, Saving Beauty. To me, this book has the best English translation and is therefore the strongest of the five to read.

Byung-Chul Han starts with an exhortation of the artwork of Jeff Koons, who I have also written about before. The artwork of Jeff Koons, and the modern aesthetic of much of modern culture has a certain smooth characteristic, says Han.

Why do we today find what is smooth beautiful? Beyond its aesthetic effect, it reflects a general social imperative. It embodies today’s society of positivity. What is smooth does not injure. Nor does it offer any resistance. It is looking for Like. The smooth object deletes it’s Against. Any form of negativity is removed.

Here, he brings up his familiar themes. Today, we have lost the negative in place of the positive. We must be positive at all times. This, however, traps us into a banal, shallow passivity. When we look at a Jeff Koons artwork, the only response we can have is ‘Wow’. There is no negative thing to react Against. As a result, we lose introspection and contemplative distance. ‘The aesthetic of smooth abolishes such distance.’

This idea resonates with me, in part because it’s so present in the types of media we see today. Instagram, with its perfect images, Apple, with its clean cut advertising or television, with its make-up-laden news presenters. According to Han, all digital media has this smooth quality. ‘It turns even nature into a window of itself’. Everything becomes subjective, viewed from our perspective into the screen, creating a recursive loop where all we are really seeing is ourself.

What else do we see on our Instagram feed but a recursive look at ourselves, in Byung-Chul Han’s words, a smooth space of the same?

‘Balloon Dog’ by Jeff Koons (and his many assistants)

Here is a good place to turn to another book in the collection, The Transparent Society. If you are going on your own journey into the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han, this book is the shortest of the five, and so, the fastest to read. It nevertheless provides a few bold images to reinforce the central points. This is a core part of why these books are so great, the presence of core, unifying metaphors.

Here is the central example:

Today the entire globe is developing into a panopticon. There is no outside space. The panopticon is becoming total. No wall separates inside from outside. Google and social networks, which present themselves as spaces of freedom, are assuming panoptic forms. Today surveillance is not occurring as an attack on freedom, as is normally assumed. Instead, people are voluntarily surrendering to the panoptic gaze. They deliberately collaborate in the digital panopticon by denuding and exhibiting themselves. The prisoner of the digital panopticon is a perpetrator and a victim at the same time. Herein lies the dialectic of freedom. Freedom turns out to be a form of control.

This is another way of reinforcing his achievement-subject argument earlier. In a society of achievement, we end up exhibiting various aspects of ourselves, to the extent that ‘every subject is also its own advertising object’. We become our own commodities, while at the same time selling ourselves as our own entrepreneurs.

What is lost in this is again a form of negativity. The negativity inherent in not knowing something about someone else. If transparency builds out our positive society, then what we lose is the negativity of being blind. This is something we don’t realise we have, or need for that matter. But it is important to realise, as Han tells us, that humans are not even transparent to ourselves. Our subconscious hides our true nature – and so the imperative to be transparent seems a doomed one (or a self-harming) one from the start.

He makes an interesting point here about the transparency of politics. Going against the common theme of complete transparency of government, Han says that it may in fact be okay for us to know less – to allow for longer term, strategic decision making. A government that is transparent at all times would take no risks, nor contemplate difficult decisions.

This – I think for most Westerners – is a much more difficult argument to concede to. It may even be true that the government would work better with less transparency, but the cost might not be justified. An efficient government that makes long-term decisions against the interests of the people (hiding behind a lack of transparency), is still a bad government.

Here, Byung-Chul Han stumbles upon perhaps the most difficult part of writing books of such short length: complexity. A more nuanced argument might provide exceptions for democratic norms. It may well also be argued that the privacy of the government is less important than the privacy of its citizens. Certainly that has a gut instinct appeal that the reverse does not.

But if this is a weakness of Han’s work, it is also its core strength. In the long diatribes of academic writing, there is very little room for stunning visual metaphors, bold claims or sweeping statements about trends. As a result, it is rare to come across a writer like Han who actually makes you think about so much of the world at once, so many ideas at once, or offers a groundbreaking perspective. The flaw of his writing is also its core strength: in simplicity, he highlights the complexity of the world and holds it in one mind.

The Panopticon – a surveillance prison

I will turn now to the last of the books on my reading list, Good Entertainment. I have saved this one for last, in part, because I found it the hardest of the five to understand. Running it by a friend, I believe that Byung-Chul Han is here calling out the fact that there is not so much difference between high and low culture as we may at first presume. He is also suggesting that passion has been used to mask our true desire: play.

In Western culture, we have this vision of the ‘hungry artist’ as someone suffering on behalf of the rest of us, to create an incredible artwork. By contrast, we have this image of the hedonist – someone engaging in pleasurable activities for his own benefit.

In Han’s view, there is very little difference between the two. The hungry artist, far from having no reward for his work, is experiencing a reward simply in the negativity of the thing with which he is pursuing. He centres on the image of the writer in Kafka:

Writing is passion. It is a continual rescue attempt that turns into its opposite. The writer rescues himself through his downfall, in the literal sense of the term. Rescue shows itself to be a flight from the world and its light, and in turn leads to suffocation. The writer digs into the depths believing he will rescue something buried, but that something may be himself.

The reward for the writer, is in some ways, the suffering with which he voluntarily embarks upon.

Byung-Chul Han goes on to suggest that in our achievement-society, we are pursuing passion at the expense of play. We have come to view ‘work and play’ as the same thing, even though they are mutually exclusive. His hope is that we will somehow ‘triumph over the age of passion’ to bring about ‘good entertainment’ again – a kind of play that is not centred on production.

It is hard not to get affected by this argument. In the world we are in now, where everything is centred on production, where everyone feels like an entrepreneur of themselves, even art feels passionless – as if we are making something just because it will be an achievement. Byung-Chul Han is right here to question whether we should be pursuing play for its own sake, as something outside of the commodified society. A play where we don’t write a book to sell it, or paint an artwork to sell it – but do something just for the fun of it again, and restore our sense of good entertainment once more.

Reading the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han has made me really confront my own assumptions of where we are as a society. There is so much to lose in our push for constant achievement, production and consumption and there is also a lot to gain, surprisingly, from the negatives in life.

If I’ve learnt anything from Han it’s that we don’t need perfection, smooth lines and filters, to feel complete. We need the authenticity that comes from the negative, the imperfect, the hidden and the simply beautiful. Instead of falling in love with ourselves, we should be falling in love with others and the world, not to see ourselves in them, not to commodify them, not to achieve friendship or marriage or love, but to appreciate what makes them different and other.

Instead of thinking about what we Can or Should do, we should try to dislodge ourselves from imperatives, especially if they lead to the same place. It takes a lot of introspection to be authentic, to connect to the world and to connect to our own instincts outside of social imperatives – but Han reinforces the idea that this is essential.

To be free, we need to let go of achievement, of the imperative to be positive at all times. We must just be us – with the negativity and imperfections that come with that. It would sound banal if it weren’t so difficult.

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