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  • Psychopolitics:Theorization against Crisis
  • Shiqi Lin (bio)
Review of Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and Technologies of Power, trans. Erik Butler (London and New York: Verso, 2017), 87 pp

Imagine a typical day in a world metropolis today—let it be New York, San Francisco, New Delhi, Beijing, Jakarta, Brasilia, London or Berlin: when you get up and open your email box, you find yourself buried in letters notated by "EMERGENCIES" and "DEADLINES" in exclamation marks. When you step outside of your room, you have minimal clue where the surveillance cameras are hidden but you are sure you are surveilled via a monitor in a mysterious somewhere. When you open your social media, you receive advertisements customized only for you about products you have just discussed with a friend over the phone and searched online. Not only that, you see the youth on social media proudly post their DNA genetic testing results and photoshopped pictures of the best boba tea places they have gone to. After long hours of overwork, when you finally lie in the sofa and turn on your TV for consolation, the flood of fake news only drives you mad and unsettled for the rest of the night.

More and more, we seem to be living in a world where excessive freedom and unchecked surveillance are intertwined, where the promise of technology backfires into eternal labor and exhaustion, where time is infinitely accelerated into meaningless junktime elapsing in superficial sociality, where desires and anxieties are reaching their boiling points. This is the world that concerns Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. Following his previous projects such as Was ist Macht (What Is Power; 2005), Duft der Zeit (The Scent of Time; 2009), Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (The Burnout Society; 2010) and Agonie des Eros (The Agony of Eros; 2012), Psychopolitik (Psychopolitics; 2014) is a continuation of his longstanding efforts to "seize the moment" and theorize the political crisis of our time. Coming from a tradition of Continental philosophy and writing in a distinctly aphoristic style, Han draws extensively on Karl Marx's freedom of capital, Michel Foucault's biopolitics, G. W. F. Hegel's negative dialectics, Gilles Deleuze's society of control and immanence, Zygmunt Bauman and David Lyon's liquid surveillance and Eva Illouz's emotional [End Page 517] capitalism to offer a provocative account of the omnipresent operation of neoliberal governance in contemporary political life.

Specifically, Han divides his analysis in thirteen short chapters to theorize how the apparatus of neoliberal power has experienced paradigm shift from "biopolitics" to "psychopolitics" in the digital age. Thanks to heated discussions of biopolitics over the past three decades, we have now understood Foucault's differentiation of biopolitical/disciplinary power (i.e. power over life) from sovereign power (i.e. power over death) as a productive analytical tool to study the immense resources modern states invest in calculated management of life. However, as Han contends, biopolitics, not so different from sovereign politics, operates in the same logic of negativity, which entails coercive disciplining and subordination, and fails to consider contemporary lived experiences in which human subjects voluntarily labor themselves overtime and immerse themselves in the freedom of media exposure. Furthermore, as Han continues, if biopolitical states are content with management of population statistics, then what we are observing today is a transforming set of technopolitical governance aiming to harness and engineer every individual's psychic realm on a much more microscopic and intrusive level.

Viewing Foucault's theorization of power as an unfinished and under-developed project, Han puts forward the notion of "psychopolitics" to address the penetration of power into "the deeper layers of the soul" (20) in the neoliberal regime of power. Taking inspirations from "smartphones" and "smart technologies" operating on the basis of the Like button, Han declares neoliberal power now functions as "smart power" (15) in a liberal and friendly appearance that encourages human subjects to constantly pursue higher achievement in "unbounded freedom and communication" (8). Through this economy of "likes" and "shares," smart power, as Han provocatively frames, turns human subjects into projects auto-exploiting themselves: Information and emotion are exhausted; individual and collective psyches are engineered through big data. In fact, as Han claims...


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pp. 517-522
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