For today’s post, we have picked the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han, who began to publish his books some years ago. However, we have just recently come across him thanks to his speech at the Center of Contemporary Culture of Barcelona (CCCB) a few days ago. We were wondering why this gentleman, born in Seoul in 1959, has received this much attention lately, and this is what we found out.
Byung-Chul Han studied metallurgy in Korea before he moved to Germany in the 1980s to study Philosophy. He had to deceive his family so that he could have the opportunity to follow what he was passionate about. Despite not mastering German language, Han finished his studies and he is currently a professor at a Berlin university.
But Han has much more to give us. We are convinced that his success on the media lies in his speech, which deals with issues that are politically incorrect. He also encourages us to think without prejudice, that is, without basing ourselves on what someone else previously thought or affirmed, even if that person was a renowned philosopher. Han invites us to consider everything and take the good part of it. At BertaGrama Traducciones, we fully identify and embrace this idea, as we firmly believe that traveling, translating, reading and observing are key actions to achieve this purpose.
The elements of his philosophy are rich and varied: he introduces ideas such as the “original animal”, borrowed from Paul Lafarge, as a way to fight against consumer society. He also introduces narcissism, power and neoliberalism, issues that severely affect society nowadays.
In addition, we love his method of showing his ideas: all of his works are short and are usually organised as a sort of written maieutics. First, Han poses a topic and provides the ideas of other authors -Hegel, Nietzsche or Foucault, about that topic. Then, right when you have been convinced that these are the best thoughts ever and you are just about to run to the nearest bookstore to get their original books, Han begins to refute them all. Our philosopher does not make moral judgments, but exposes the facts and the consequences and how they are harmful for human beings.
In The Agony of Eros, a bestseller in Germany, Han considers the threat to love and desire in today’s society. For Han, love requires the courage to accept self-negation for the sake of discovering the Other. In a world of fetishized individualism and technologically mediated social interaction, it is the Other that is eradicated, not the self. In today’s increasingly narcissistic society, we have come to look for love and desire within the “inferno of the same.”
Han offers a survey of the threats to Eros, drawing on a wide range of sources—Lars von Trier’s film Melancholia, Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde, Fifty Shades of Grey, Michel Foucault (providing a scathing critique of Foucault’s valorization of power), Martin Buber, Hegel, Baudrillard, Flaubert, Barthes, Plato, and others. Han considers the “pornographication” of society, and shows how pornography profanes eros; addresses capitalism’s leveling of essential differences; and discusses the politics of eros in today’s “burnout society.” To be dead to love, Han argues, is to be dead to thought itself.
In The Transparency Society, we see that transparency is the order of the day. It is a term, a slogan, that dominates public discourse about corruption and freedom of information. Considered crucial to democracy, it touches our political and economic lives as well as our private lives. Anyone can obtain information about anything. Everything—and everyone—has become transparent: unveiled or exposed by the apparatuses that exert a kind of collective control over the post-capitalist world.
Yet, transparency has a dark side that, ironically, has everything to do with a lack of mystery, shadow, and nuance. Behind the apparent accessibility of knowledge lies the disappearance of privacy, homogenization, and the collapse of trust. The anxiety to accumulate ever more information does not necessarily produce more knowledge or faith. Technology creates the illusion of total containment and the constant monitoring of information, but what we lack is adequate interpretation of the information. In this manifesto, Byung-Chul Han denounces transparency as a false ideal, the strongest and most pernicious of our contemporary mythologies.
In The Swarm, digital communication and social media have taken over our lives. In this contrarian reflection on digitized life, Byung-Chul Han counters the cheerleaders for Twitter revolutions and Facebook activism by arguing that digital communication is in fact responsible for the disintegration of community and public space and is slowly eroding any possibility for real political action and meaningful political discourse. In the predigital, analog era, by the time an angry letter to the editor had been composed, mailed, and received, the immediate agitation had passed. Today, digital communication enables instantaneous, impulsive reaction, meant to express and stir up outrage on the spot. “The shitstorm,” writes Han, ”represents an authentic phenomenon of digital communication.”
Meanwhile, the public, the senders and receivers of these communications have become a digital swarm—not a mass, or a crowd, or Negri and Hardt’s antiquated notion of a “multitude,” but a set of isolated individuals incapable of forming a “we,” incapable of calling dominant power relations into question, incapable of formulating a future because of an obsession with the present. The digital swarm is a fragmented entity that can focus on individual persons only in order to make them an object of scandal.
In relation to the digital world, Han published What is power, expressing that true power is intentionally hidden and that we are subdued through daily and innocent actions such as clicking “like” on a social network.
Other books by Han include Shanzhai, Philosophy of Zen Buddhism, and The Burnout Society, where Han interprets the spreading malaise as an inability to manage negative experiences in an age characterized by excessive positivity and the universal availability of people and goods. Stress and exhaustion are not just personal experiences, but social and historical phenomena as well.
As disheartening as Han’s ideas may be, we are still encouraged by his recent words in Barcelona: “Capitalism needs all of us to be the same, including tourists. Neoliberalism would not work if people were different.” To recover our differences, Han suggests “returning to the inner animal, which doesn’t consume or communicate unfortunately. I don’t have concrete solutions. In the end the system might implode by itself… In whatever case, we are living in a radically conformist time… the world is at the limit of its capacities, perhaps it will short circuit and we will recover this inner animal.”