한병철 (Han Byung-Chul) is a Korean-German philosopher and cultural theorist. He has written more than two dozen books on various topics related to contemporary culture and society, new technologies, globalization, and neoliberal capitalism. Fourteen of his works have been translated into English as of 2020, and his works have been translated into almost a dozen different languages.
Han studied metallurgy at Korea University as an undergraduate. In graduate school, Han studied philosophy, German literature, and Catholic theology in Freiburg and Munich. He has held academic appointments at the University of Basel’s Department of Philosophy, at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, and he currently teaches at the Berlin University of the Arts.
Han’s work is relevant for politically-engaged theologians and genealogists of Euro-American systems of sovereignty because his surgical interventions in contemporary political theory track new technologies of power deployed increasingly by private enterprise rather than sovereign nation-states and Ideological State Apparatuses. This is particularly germane for liberation, postcolonial, and liberal theologians, for Han’s analysis challenges their optimism in reforming secular liberal democracies and constructing a more equitable institutional cosmopolitanism. Han’s pessimistic portrait reveals that neoliberalism governs freedom, autonomy, and affective economies to reproduce capital and subjugate the post-industrial subject. Thus, politically-engaged theologies that merely seek to create a more diverse, equitable, and religiously inclusive society do not disrupt neoliberal technologies of power; they only accelerate neoliberalism’s growth.
Han is concerned with unpacking the operations of power, violence, subjectivation, politics, and production in contemporary society. On his diagnosis, our society is marked by psychopolitical exploitation, turning humans into consumers and entrepreneurs. Han tracks the transformation of the modes of production and subjectivity in neoliberalism and neoliberalism’s relationship to the proliferation of the digital, virtual, and Big Data. He critiques understandings that see existing models of sociopolitical control and governance according to the older logic of the disciplinary society. Supplanting this is a meritocratic achievement society (Leistungsgesellschaft) – neoliberal society “dominated by the modal verb can” (The Agony of Eros, 9) – which deploys the violence of positivity to exploit freedom and totalizes labor to transform citizen-subjects into consumer-projects endlessly engaged in the processes of optimization and auto-exploitation. Socioeconomic inequality is attributed to personal failure to achieve, rather than to the violence of positivity deployed by neoliberalism. Such transformations make modern political strategies of mass resistance impossible.
Psychopolitics is Han’s main contribution to political theory. It reflects Han’s rethinking of Bentham’s panopticon and Foucault’s biopower as disciplinary society transitioned into a digital achievement society that defines our contemporary neoliberal globalized world. Han argues that digital communication has not ushered in the utopia envisioned by Vilem Flusser’s anthropology of the digital. Instead, it has formed a transparency society of the digital panopticon, where psychopower supplants biopower. Unlike disciplinary biopower, “psychopower…can intervene in psychological processes themselves” (In the Swarm, 78) to anticipate, regulate, and influence behavior via the human psyche by relying upon Big Data’s information collection, predictive algorithms, and aperspectival surveillance (one not reliant on a central repressive optical gaze like in Bentham’s panopticon, but on digital surveillance efficiently logging our digital habitus and unconscious).
Transparency society is promoted by the dictatorship of transparency afforded by digital technology and social media. Netizens are encouraged to voluntarily expose themselves and be in constant communication. The freedom to share and exteriorize one’s interior state produces information and data that is collected by the digital panopticon to accelerate growth and productivity.
Han tracks the transformation of the forms of production and technologies of power to account for the development of psychopolitics in achievement society. Disciplinary society formed at the twilight of sovereign power in Europe at the end of the 17th century. The Industrial Revolution required feudal subjects to be recalibrated into obedience-subjects laboring in machinic production. Disciplinary power exercised as allo-exploitation (exploitation by outsider) and disciplinary technology of the panopticon were used to ensure moral reform and orthopedic calibration of obedience-subjects to be efficient and compliant laborers under industrial capitalism. “Modern disciplinary society continued to be a society of negativity. It was governed by disciplinary compulsion, ‘social orthopedics’. Deformation is its form of violence,” (Topology of Violence, 89). Social orthopedics forces bodies to conform to rules and trains the body to internalize movements apt for industrial production. “Calculated coercion pervades each and every limb and comes to be inscribed even in the automatism of habits,” (Psychopolitics, 16). Such calibrations thus produce an obedience-subject whose body and mind are re-formed into a docile, compliant, and ethical subject.
The transformation from disciplinary society to achievement society was also accompanied by comparable economic transformations. The political economy of achievement society is postindustrial capitalism. Neoliberalism and financial capitalism reconfigure forms of production and the laboring subject. “The neoliberal regime totalizes production, subordinating all areas of life to its dictates,” (The Disappearance of Rituals, 42). Achievement subjects are transformed from laborers to entrepreneurs who voluntarily exploit themselves.
Production has shifted to the generation of the immaterial. The distinction between owners and laborers collapses. The consumer owns the means of production themselves and internalizes the class antagonism of owner/laborer. The capitalist imperative to produce for productivity’s sake supplants the desire to satisfy one’s own needs. Growth, no longer solely calculated on the output of material goods, is measured by quantifying the immaterial such as capital, digital traffic, and likes.
Emotional capitalism compels entrepreneurs to constantly produce and consume not by negative threats, but positive affirmations. “Consumer capitalism operates through the selling and consumption of meanings and emotions…[it] enlists emotions in order to generate more desires and needs,” (Psychopolitics, 33-34). Positive emotions, particularly those related to the free expression of subjectivity, are deployed to motivate the entrepreneur unconsciously. This illusion of freedom from constraint and compulsion drives the achievement-subject to optimize performance and production by turning to doping, fitness, and aesthetic modifications. “The neoliberal imperative of performance, sexiness and fitness ultimately reduces the body to a functional object that is to be optimized,” (The Expulsion of the Other, 7). Success is quantified and measured, blocking the possibility of completion and closure. Functionalist reduction of the body accelerates the proliferation of the Same, eliminating thresholds of difference and otherness that impede unrestricted flow of capital, data, and information.
Smart power differs from disciplinary power by “shedding its negativity and presenting itself as freedom” (Psychopolitics, 10). It is subtle because it evokes positive emotions and encourages self-disclosure to internalize the “imperative to achieve” (The Burnout Society, 10). “Freedom and compulsion coincide” (47) in the consumer who is motivated to achieve, perform, optimize, and accumulate. Of course, Han is not arguing that the state no longer employs sovereign and disciplinary technologies of power. Rather, they are no longer the primary methods of subjugation and coercion.
This shift also reflects the increasing “egoification and atomization of society” (Topology of Violence, 120) that inhibits solidarity and collective resistance against neoliberal capitalism. Privatization erases both the public sphere of political organizing and action and the space where collective struggle, needs, and goals can be identified and articulated. What remains is an increasing isolationism and narcissism; self-referentiality reduces others to being merely a mirror stage of the same.
Another feature of contemporary society that Han identifies is the elimination of otherness in favor of a consumable diversity of sameness. “Foreignness itself is being deactivated into a formula of consumption. The alien is giving way to the exotic” (The Burnout Society, 2). Radical alterity is being eliminated because it impedes the flow of capital. Han suggests that consumable difference is referred to as diversity, “system-compatible differences” (The Expulsion of the Other, 19) that are economically useful and exploitable.
Diversity is commodified for the sake of furthering capitalist consumption practices. “As a neoliberal production strategy, authenticity creates commodifiable differences. It thus increases the diversity of the commodities in which authenticity is materialized. Individuals express their authenticity primarily through consumption” (Ibid., 20). Authenticity here is an inner compulsion reflecting the immaterial mode of producing the self in neoliberalism. “The I as its own entrepreneur produces itself, performs itself and offers itself as a commodity. Authenticity is a selling point” (Ibid., 19). A circular logic of producing an authentic self through consumption of authentic difference makes the achievement-subject both the consumer and product.
A consequence of auto-exploitation is burnout and depression. Life is reduced to “the immanency of vital functions and capacities” (Ibid.,51) to serve capitalist consumption and production. Bare life and labor are absolutized, and achievement-subjects as entrepreneurs of the self are utterly isolated from one another because they can only form relationships that are instrumental or useful for the self. According to Han, the achievement-subject does not become homo sacer due to subjection by an external sovereign. Rather, as homo liber compelled by “the injunction to achieve,” (The Burnout Society, 49) the achievement-subject makes itself homo sacer by “merging of victim and perpetrator, of master and slave, of freedom and violence” (Topology of Violence, 128). This life is barer than Agamben’s homo sacer because it “absolutizes survival” and “is not concerned with the good life” (The Burnout Society, 50). Rather than being banished, achievement-subjects as homo sacer live within the social order, unable to escape the totalization of positivity. “The transparent customer is…the homo sacer of the economic panopticon” (Topology of Violence, 104). The doping culture of the achievement society absolutizes competition within the self. They are the undead, not because they are able to be killed without repercussion or unable to be sacrificed, but because their lives are reduced to the maintenance of life and optimization of performance. As such, the bare life of the achievement-subject is not produced through negative sovereign violence, but by self-exploitation consequent in the compulsion to achieve.
Han, like Mbembe, has supplanted Foucault’s genealogical analysis of the operations of biopower in disciplinary society (itself an alternative to older models of sovereign power). But while Mbembe argues neocolonies are zones of exception sustained by a necropolitics of permanent warfare, Han’s psychopolitics analyzes the re-subjugation of inhabitants of the metropole through non-coercive (but not non-violent) means. Mbembe draws from Fanon’s “spatialization of colonial occupation” (Necropolitics, 79) as an operation of necropower in late modernity and centers the work of death in “the general instrumentalization of human existence and the material destruction of human bodies and populations” (Ibid., 68, emphasis original). Contemporary warfare is the central event for Mbembe, and irregular militias are the war machines employed by market forces who primarily targets civilians who pose obstacles to the extraction of resources. Mbembe tracks the material effects of the digital and algorithmic on migrants, refugees, and undesirables rather than on the achievement-subjects inhabiting the postindustrial metropoles.
Both achievement-society and Mbembe’s death-worlds, “the repressed topographies of cruelty”, are occupied by the living-dead. The superimposition of these two modes of governance sustain what Han calls the “Dictatorship of Capital,” which forecloses the possibility of revolutionary transformation. Mbembe refers to the global hegemony of neoliberalism as crypto-fascism that aggressively dismantles both democracy and replaces knowledge with metadata/information. Han sees neoliberalism as intensifying the privatization and financialization of society, whereas Mbembe argues that the contemporary moment reveals the “direct capture and control of the state by elites with substantial private economic power” (Ibid., 112, emphasis original). Han and Mbembe are pessimistic of European humanism and secular democracy’s capacity to reform. Yet Mbembe’s “ethics of the passerby” and Han’s ethics of “listen[ing] to the Other and respond[ing]” suggests that re-forging relations with the Other, in which the rejection of the logic of neoliberalism is the first step in disentangling relationality from hierarchies of power and domination.
Han’s concepts of psychopolitics and the digital panopticon anticipates and critiques Saul Newman’s assessment of technics as transcendent and “the new site of the sacred, the new source of charismatic and mystical authority in society” (Political Theology: A Critical Introduction, 150). The digital panopticon absolutizes transparency and reduces everything to exhibition value. Auto-exploitation, reinforced by the compulsion to disclose and produce, is not “religious enthusiasm” or “religious psychosis”. Newman interprets voluntary participation and subjugation in the digital panopticon theologically as “worship[ping] the technological god, seek[ing] our salvation in it, and believ[ing] that it can improve our lives and solve the problem of the world.” (Ibid., 152). Han instead attributes it to narcissistic auto-aggression, the internalization of excess positivity and freedom promoted in a post-industrial capitalist society to accelerate productivity and efficiency. Furthermore, Han states “religion is a system of negativity” (Topology of Violence, 90), antithetical to achievement-society’s elimination of negativity in order to increase efficiency and productivity.
Scholars of political theology must examine how contemporary psychopolitics merges the surveillance state and market economy to create digital class societies comprising of economically valuable consumers and ‘banned’ human waste. Those that are waste “stand outside the system or are hostile to it” and are of “low economic value” (Psychopolitics, 46). Mbembe’s zones of exception are thus outside Han’s “island of affluence”; both are sustained through the operation of digital class society as “banopticon”. Naïve optimism heralding the role of social media in organizing the multitude in grassroots movements such as Occupy and Arab Spring is no longer tenable. White nationalists have also used social media to recruit and organize. The George Floyd rebellion of 2020 and Black Lives Matter writ large have been disproportionally targeted by police surveillance of social media, the interception of cell-phone communication, and the proliferation of police drones. Moreover, drone warfare or “dataistic transparent killing” (The Disappearance of Rituals, 75) blurs the boundaries between metropolitan and neocolonial zones of exception.
Considering these developments, scholar of political theology exploring strategies of resistance and liberation must also revisit their ordo salutis and political programs. Liberationist thinkers have depended on Marxist and postcolonial theorists that assumed only disciplinary models of production and subjugation, adopting corresponding liberation programs. Liberal thinkers have shunned colonialism and neoliberal capitalism only to embrace a cosmopolitanism organized around liberal democratic states and the ethical weight of human rights discourse, which as Mbembe has argued, dissolves immediately at the sight of the enemy of the security state.
The impossibility of liberation from the dictatorship of capital today, while pessimistic, also challenges us to envision strategies and ontologies of the wholly Other. Han challenges us to reject positivization, subjectivation, and psychologization and attendant technologies of narcissistic preservation of the self. A return to the political requires a return to interacting with the Other as wholly Other. It demands that we reject the compulsion to domesticate and instrumentalize the Other. Consider the commodification of Buddhism by Catholic theologians and the corporate world and the proliferation of Native American rituals and Indigenous pharmaceuticals for the utility of the Euro-American subject. Han is not suggesting a neo-Kantian ethics that validates universal norms. Instead, he challenges us to move outside the logic and conventions of the system to that which is beyond frantic production, reproduction, and noise of today.
Such a strategy is what Han labels ‘idiotism,’ a rejection of the neoliberal logic of “total communication and total surveillance” (Psychopolitics, 58). Immersion in pure immanence or the void, a negativity that is not annihilating and moves the pathologically fatigued outside of the neoliberal political economy. No longer identifiable via interpellation, the idiot enters “the matrix of de-subjectivation and de-psychologization” (Ibid., 59). The idiot embodies “consent not to be a single being” and preserves opacity. In other words, liberation is immanent in decolonizing epistemologies and materialities such as the Black Brazilian group Olodum.
Han, Byung-Chul. In the Swarm: Digital Prospects. Translated by Erik Butler. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).
Originally published in German in 2013, this text examines the phenomena of digital communication and the massification of the digital swarm. Han covers topics such as the non-narrative, scandalous nature of digital outrage, and he compares organized labor as the masses to the digital swarm. Whereas organized labor as a collective mass has the power and will to enact political struggle, the digital swarm merely participates in temporary performances of outrage to scandals. There is no political power, will, or mass in “online shitstorms.” Han argues that the digital medium and communications increase transparency, conformity, and proliferation of the same. Through de-narrativization, the digital flattens reality into quantifiable information and noise that accelerates communication, consumption, and production.
———. Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. Translated by Erik Butler. (Brooklyn: Verso, 2017).
Originally published in German in 2014, this text is a collection of essays Han wrote extending the notion of psychopolitics that closed his 2013 In the Swarm. Han relates the exploitation of freedom to the absolutization of capitalism in neoliberalism and to the proliferation of transparency through the formation of the digital panopticon. Han argues that smart power uses freedom, permissiveness, and friendliness as a neoliberal technology of power that encourages subjects to willingly subjugate themselves. Psychopolitics is facilitated by a digital panopticon not controlled by the state but by private enterprise. His proposal to overcome the matrix of subjugation under psychopolitics is a strategy of de-subjectification and de-psychologization: he suggests eschewing the positivity of neoliberal psychopolitics in favor of the negativity found in pure immanence. By becoming the idiot, who fully accesses the wholly Other, one escapes the banality of the Same and the unending imperative of self-optimization and growth that leads to burnout.
———. Topology of Violence. Translated by Amanda Demarco. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2018).
Originally published in German in 2011, this text argues for the protean nature of violence and tracks the topological transformation of violence in sovereign, disciplinary, and achievement societies. Such transformations are related to the transformations in political economy and governance. Han’s main claim is that the violence of positivity emerges in achievement society (our late modern present). Such violence is accompanied by the auto-aggressive pathologies of burnout and depression, violence internalized not only on the body but psychologically. The danger of such violence is that it allows freedom and exploitation to coincide within the psyche of the subject, who is not cognizant of this. The positivity of violence is related to the positivity of consensus that arises in a digital economy that promotes absolute transparency and self-disclosure.
———. The Burnout Society. Translated by Erik Butler. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
Originally published in German in 2010, this text examines the emergence of specific neurological illnesses and pathologies in a postimmunological age of history. The immunological age clearly demarcates between the Same and the Other and seeks to protect oneself from the Other. The postimmunological age does not react negatively to the Other. Instead, the category of otherness/foreignness is being supplanted by difference that is commodified: violence now is “immanent in the system itself” rather than stemming from a reaction to the Other. Such accumulation of consumable difference is facilitated by the violence of positivity, driving achievement-subjects to overproduce, overachieve, and overcommunicate until burning out. Multitasking, hyperattention, and the constant stream of communication and information diminishes the ability of contemporary subjects to contemplate, see, and experience life. The forces driving burnout strip life to its vital functions, the pursuit of health without any meaning or purpose. The achievement subject becomes a zombie.
Other Works Cited
———. The Agony of Eros. Foreword by Alain Badiou. Translated by Erik Butler. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2017).
———. The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present. Translated by Daniel Steuer. (Medford: Polity Press, 2020).
———. The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today. Translated by Wieland Hoban. (Medford: Polity Press, 2018).
———. The Transparency Society. Translated by Erik Butler. (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2015).
Mbembe, Achille. Necropolitics (Durham: Duke University Press, 2019)
Newman, Saul. Political Theology: A Critical Introduction. (Medford: Polity Press, 2019).