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  • Byung-Chul Han's Negativity; or, Restoring Beauty and Rage in Excessively Positive Times
  • Jason A. Bartles (bio)

Smart power with a liberal, friendly appearance—power that stimulates and seduces—is more compelling than power that imposes, threatens and decrees. Its signal and seal is the Like button. Now, people subjugate themselves to domination by consuming and communicating—and they click Like all the while.

—Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics

"Are you a happy person?" ask Niels Boeing and Andreas Lebert in an interview with the South Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. The question risks dismissing Han's insightful critique of neoliberalism as little more than the scribblings of a maladjusted philosopher. Han replies, [End Page 55] "I don't ask that question." When the interviewers inquire about what brings him joy, his immediate response is: "I can't enjoy the world" (2015b). Han eventually concedes small joys such as the scent of fragrant rice, the relative quiet of Germany, and listening to Bach, Schubert, and Schumann. Still, negativity pervades Han's description of contemporary life in which humans work nonstop until they suffer from burnout or depression. They hand over their most intimate details to Big Data, yet find it impossible to connect deeply with friends or lovers. They are distracted from contesting gross injustice by social media that encourage fleeting annoyance over collective action. They are isolated and lonely, yet they believe they are free. To be happy in such a world, according to Han, to find joy here and click Like, is only possible for those who have been duped by an illusion of freedom that coerces more efficiently than any sovereign figure or disciplinary institution in human history.1

In The Burnout Society, for example, Han maps the prohibitions that characterize the life of the achievement subject in neoliberal societies. Citizens have become competitive entrepreneurs and consumers who live in a world where there is no contemplation, no duration, no substance, no serenity, no rage, no potentiality, no messianic hope, no common space, no collective action, no sharing, no friendship, no love, no rest, no play, no duty, no gratification, and no conclusion. Paradoxically, this subject does not even recognize these prohibitions as such; they feel there is no repression, no discipline, no negation at all. In contrast to the disciplinary society, Han characterizes the burnout society as exhibiting "an excess of positivity, that is, not negation so much as the inability to say no" (2015a, 41). Instead of "not-being-allowed-to-do-anything [Nicht-Dürfen]," the achievement subject is faced with "being-able-to-do-everything [Alles-Können]" (2015a, 41). Unrelenting positivity seduces them into refusing the good life. "In positive terms," writes Han, "such a human being without character is flexible, able to assume any form, play any role, or perform any function. This shapelessness—or, alternately, flexibility—creates a high degree of economic efficiency" (2015a, 40). Everyone can take on any role; therefore, everyone can be replaced by anyone, so each person must become a self-exploiting competitor in the race for optimal performance to merely survive. Under [End Page 56] neoliberalism, the allo-exploiting violence of negativity is increasingly replaced by the auto-exploiting violence of positivity.

Han's negativity, as I analyze it in this essay, opens a space for disagreement and dissent within this excessive positivity. In Topology of Violence, he claims, "Not all negativity is destructive. Not infrequently, forms of negativity such as hesitation, pausing, boredom, waiting, or rage prove constructive, though they are threatened with disappearance in the course of society's increasing positivization" (2018c, 117). Amid his scathing critiques of the effects of neoliberalism, Han also explores ways of restoring a constructive negativity to the world. I consider two of these tactics—beauty and rage—through a comparative analysis of contemporary media and literature that also seek to restore negativity. In dialogue with Han, the open-world, postapocalyptic videogame Death Stranding (2019) directed by Hideo Kojima, the utopian horror short story "Things We Lost in the Fire" (2016) by the Argentine writer Mariana Enríquez, and the Chilean protest song "A Rapist in Your Path" (2019) by Colectivo Las Tesis each describe dark...