- Against SurfingOn Lingering with Byung-Chul Han
Most English audiences have not yet heard of Byung-Chul Han. Erik Butler's recent translations of The Transparency Society (2015) and The Burnout Society (2015) by Stanford University Press are promising. The Korean-born German philosopher and cultural theorist currently teaches at the Universität der Künste in Berlin. He is the author of sixteen books and has been translated into over a dozen languages. He looks at our current drives to performance and transparency and its organization by neoliberal market forces. In an era of multimedia screens and hypercommunication, Han speaks on behalf of the secret, of shadows and opacity, of the inaction of contemplation, the Other, and—perhaps his foremost concern—negativity. Especially today, negativity is seldom upheld as scrupulously and taken with such seriousness as Han takes it. This is perhaps his primary contribution to contemporary theory. For Han "the society of transparency manifests first and foremost as a society of positivity" (The Transparency Society, 1). Alongside our notions of optimization and efficiency comes an evacuation of depth, of nuance, and of lingering, and of all the beauty that emerges only with patience, he says. Han contrasts the cadence of narration to the unimpeded acceleration of information. Where narration is ritualistic and ceremonial, information is additive and productive. In contrast, he observes, "thresholds and transitions are zones of mystery, uncertainty, transformation, death, and fear, but also yearning, hope, and expectation. Their negativity constitutes the topology of passion" (32). [End Page 129]
As Han illustrates in The Transparency Society, our current society is one in which all alterity is lost, where the friction of difference is evacuated. Where pure information reigns, knowledge lacks all depth. "Compulsion for transparency flattens the human being itself, making it a functional element within a system" (2–3). Han shows that there is a sensitivity to human communication that transparency can know nothing of. He addresses what Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg could not yet see: with optimization and operationality comes a compulsion to accelerate, and to strip ourselves of all ambivalence and ambiguity, of all humanity. The society of hypercommunication and exhibition no longer has access to the cult value of its objects, he argues, or to ritual. It is barred from the society of transparency. The society of transparency is thus pornographic. Eros instead inhabits the ambivalent play between the hidden and the open, and "the erotic presumes the negativity of the secret and hiddenness" (25). A spectacle with neither narration nor choreography, the world today is one of exhibition, not representation. Here the inside and the outside, the public and the private, collapse into one another. But a polis without an oikos is no longer properly political either. The society of transparency is thus depoliticizing. A shift accompanies our embrace of communication technologies then; the digital age supersedes the biopolitical. Current digital panoptica are "aperspectival" and decentralized (45).
Han continues this analysis in The Burnout Society. Contemporary society suffers from an overabundance of "positivity," he repeats, a dialectic not of the Other but of the Same. This creates new challenges. Han writes, "The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates, it does not exclude, it exhausts. That is why it proves inaccessible to unmediated perception" (The Burnout Society, 7). If anything, we now suffer from a surplus of freedom. Whereas the biopolitical regime of the previous century was disciplinary, the twenty-first century is performative and achievement based. Depression, ADHD, and burnout syndrome express a surplus of positivity, not repression or negation. Our current skills in "multitasking" are not a development but a regression. What we are losing are the skills of contemplation and listening. Not the vita activa that Hannah Arendt argues we are lacking, but instead—more and more—it is the vita contemplativa that is lost to us. Restlessness dominates the hour. An...