Philosophy as Enchantment: Exploring the Work of Byung-Chul Han
“To me, everything that is is magical and mysterious,” explains Byung-Chul Han in a recent interview. He continues, “I would say that I am not a romantic, but a realist who perceives the world the way it is. It simply consists of magic and mystery.” Intriguing words from a philosopher who has written numerous precise and concise philosophical treatments with titles like The Expulsion of the Other, The Agony of Eros, Psychopolitics and many more. As Han sees it, “My task as a philosopher is to explain what kind of society we live in. Philosophy is truth-speaking.” And he prefers to truth-speak directly and poetically: “Why do you write a 1,000-page book if you can enlighten the world in a few words? A 1,000-page book, which has to explain what the world is about, perhaps cannot express as much as a single haiku can…In my writings I do indeed make use of this haiku effect. I say: It-is-so. This creates an evidence effect, which then makes sense to everyone.” Han’s ability to unite logic and art—to do philosophy-as-haiku—is rare indeed. So rare that Han finds a wider readership among artists than philosophers. His blending of precise German terminology (Han is a German speaker and writer) with artistic flair is, in the words of Gesine Borcherdt, “like a mixture of Martin Heidegger and Zen.”
But Han is no passing novelty where style trumps substance; it is precisely in the unity of style and substance that his work packs such pungency and foresight—prophetically so. “It is worth noting,” Borcherdt explains, “that Han didn’t need to wait for a pandemic to describe how we are voluntarily tied to our laptops, how we exploit ourselves in the neoliberal home-office mode, how this makes us feel creative, smart and connected while we cover up our feelings of precarity with swipes and likes; he did that more than a decade ago.” One would be hard-pressed to find more potent, concise philosophical meditations on human living than Han’s; what ails us, and what may yet enchant us again.
Recapturing Embodied Living Amid Digitalization
One of Han’s ongoing interests is how technologies and habits of living affect the human being, and how embodied, humanely-scaled living might be recovered and celebrated. In one of his most well-known books, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects, he writes that digital media, “is reprogramming us, yet we fail to grasp the radical paradigm shift that is underway. We are hobbling along after the very medium that, below our threshold of conscious decision, is definitively changing the ways that we act, perceive, feel, think, and live together. We are enraptured by the digital medium yet unable to gauge the consequences of our frenzy fully” (ix). While seeming efficient and convenient, the digital medium leads “us to avoid direct contact with real people,” and “strips communication of tactility and physicality.” Such “digitality radically…dismantles the real” (22).
Han particularly examines the role of the smartphone and social media in creating this new world: “as a digital reflector, the smartphone serves to renew the mirror stage after infancy. It opens up a narcissistic space—a sphere of the imaginary—in which one encloses oneself. The other does not speak via the smartphone” (22). Han unpacks this more fully in The Expulsion of the Other, where he writes, “this has created a familiar field of view from which…the Other is eliminated, a digital echo chamber in which subjective spirit encounters nothing but itself…Today the silent voice of the Other is drowned out by the noise of the same” (60-63). He explains further, “without the presence of the Other, communication degenerates into an accelerated exchange of information” and “disintegrates into exhibition spaces of the I, in which one primarily advertises oneself” (75-76). Han considers theological implications as well: “the smartphone is the devotional object of the digital-information regime. As a tool of repression it acts like a rosary, which in its handiness the mobile device represents. To ‘like’ is to pray digitally. We continue to go to confession. We expose ourselves voluntarily, yet we’re no longer asking for forgiveness, but rather for attention.”
Han’s innovative and artistic ability is on display in his stimulating exploration of how digitality changes our relationship with our own hands. “Digital technology is making human hands waste away,” he laments, as humans deal less with “thingly things” and more with “unthingly information.” Han suggests, “the new man will finger instead of handling.” Fingering versus handling; what a thought-provoking juxtaposition. In the digital world, you click, you get; you swipe, you see—no labor nor friction; no resistance nor weight. The hands formed of screens-swiping and button-pushing are quite different than the hands formed of the clash of shovel with dirt, the heft of brick and mortar, the precision of needle and thread, the kneading of dough into bread. But, “digital man fingers the world” (In the Swarm, 32).
Reviving Meaningful Living Amid Neoliberalism
Another common thread weaving through Han’s work is an analysis of neoliberalism, which he defines as a “further development—indeed a mutated form—of capitalism” that has “discovered the psyche as a productive force.” It is now, “immaterial and non-physical forms of production [that] determine the course of capitalism. What gets produced are not material objects, but immaterial ones—for instance, information and programs” (Psychopolitics, 25). Everything is flattened into categories like productivity and efficiency, data and information; all of which drive the self further inward. “Emancipation from a transcendent order…is the hallmark of modern politics. Only under modern conditions—when transcendental means of justification no longer possess any validity—is a genuine politics, the politicization of society as a whole, held to be possible…Society, the reasoning goes, can construct itself anew, purely from within on the basis of immanent properties” (7). As Han sees it, neoliberalism is a system built around the self and its constructions, where the appearance of freedom and liberation mask the mechanisms of control. He calls this the “psychic turn—that is, the turn to psychopolitics” where “perpetual self-optimization” of “the self-as-a-work-of-art amounts to a beautiful but deceptive illusion that the neoliberal regime maintains” as “a highly efficient mode of domination and exploitation” (25, 28). Han ponders the theological implications: “the neoliberal ideology of self-optimization displays religious—indeed, fanatical—traits…Now, instead of searching out sins, one hunts down negative thoughts…Today, even fundamentalist preachers act like managers and motivational trainers, proclaiming the new Gospel of limitless achievement and optimization” (30).
Han further contemplates the neoliberal focus on achievement and optimization in The Burnout Society. “Achievement society is the society of self-exploitation. The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out” (46-47). This is what he sees as so alluring yet dangerous about society’s promises of complete freedom and autonomy; even when sources of oppression or repression are removed in society, this “absence of external domination (rules) does not abolish the structure of compulsion. It makes freedom and compulsion coincide. The achievement-subject gives itself over to freestanding compulsion in order to maximize performance. In this way, it exploits itself…The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient” (49).
Han sees both the Marxist or Foucauldian analyses of capitalism, power, and politics as too imprecise for today’s world. He writes, “Today, we live in a post-Marxist age. In the neoliberal regime, exploitation no longer takes place as alienation and self-derealization, but as freedom, as self-realization and self-optimization. Here there is no Other as an exploiter, forcing me to work and alienating me from myself; rather, I voluntarily exploit myself in the belief that I am realizing myself. This is the diabolical logic of neoliberalism” (The Expulsion of the Other, 38). Similarly, regarding Foucault, Han argues “that Foucault’s analysis of the disciplinary society can no longer explain our present…[Foucault’s] disciplinary regime works with commands and restraints. It is oppressive. It suppresses freedom. The neoliberal regime on the other hand is not oppressive, but seductive and permissive. It exploits freedom instead of suppressing it. We voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves believing that we fulfil ourselves…Foucault did not see that.” Han continues, “the subjects of neoliberal meritocracy, believing themselves to be free, are in reality servants. They are absolute servants, exploiting themselves without a master. Self-exploitation is more efficient than exploitation by others, because it goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom…So it is not oppression but depression that is the pathological sign of our times.”
Though Han has developed his ideas over decades, interest in his work has increased recently as weighty questions about technology, government, the pandemic, and more have emerged. In The Burnout Society written over a decade ago, Han was already warning of the health-above-all-else mindset:
Concern about living the good life yields to the hysteria of surviving. The reduction of life to biological, vital processes makes life itself bare and strips it of all narrativity. It takes livingness from life, which is much more complex than simple vitality and health. The mania for health emerges when life has become as flat as a coin and stripped of all narrative content, all value. Given the atomization of society and the erosion of the social, all that remains is the body of the ego, which is to be kept healthy at any cost…Bare life makes all teleology vanish—every in-order-to that would give reason to remain healthy. Health becomes self-referential and voids itself into purposiveness without purpose. (50-51)
No matter one’s opinions on COVID-19 policies and how individuals and governments should respond, one can’t help but recognize the visionary nature of Han’s argument.
In a May 2020 interview, Han suggested, “The virus is a mirror. It shows what society we live in. We live in a survival society that is ultimately based on fear of death…A society of survival loses all sense of the good life…The pandemic brings death, which we have carefully suppressed and outsourced, visible again. The constant presence of death in mass media makes people nervous.” He also thought theologically: “For survival, we willingly sacrifice everything that makes life worth living: sociability, community and proximity…Religious services are prohibited even at Easter…Charity manifests itself as keeping a distance. Virology disempowers theology…The narrative of resurrection completely gives way to the ideology of health and survival. In the face of the virus, belief degenerates into a farce.”
Despite the stinging criticisms Han levels, each of his books also offer a creative alternative vision of what life can be. He explains,
Every book of mine ends in a utopian counternarrative. In The Burnout Society  I countered I-fatigue, which leads to depression, with Us-fatigue, which brings about community. In The Expulsion of the Other  I contrasted increasing narcissism with the art of listening. Psychopolitics proposes idiotism as a utopian figure against complete interconnectedness and complete surveillance. An idiot is someone who is not networked. In The Agony of Eros  I propose that only Eros is capable of defeating depression. The Scent of Time  articulates an art of lingering. My books analyze the malaises of our society and propose concepts to overcome them. Yes, we must work on new ways of life and new narratives.
Two of his most recent books also offer intriguing lines of thought quite relevant to Christian expression and sound theological thinking. In The Disappearance of Rituals , Han considers how rituals can structure and stabilize life as “they anchor values and symbolic systems in the body, reinforcing community. In rituals we experience community, communal closeness, physically.” About his newest book Nonobjects (Undinge in German; still to be translated into English), Han offers this hint:
In Undinge I have made the proposition that nowadays we perceive reality primarily in terms of information. As a consequence, there is rarely a tangible contact with reality. Reality is robbed of its presence. We no longer perceive its physical vibrations…Perception, reduced to information, numbs us to moods and atmospheres. Rooms lose their poetics. They give way to roomless networks along which information spreads. Digital time, with its focus on the present, on the moment, disperses the fragrance of time. Time is atomized into a sequence of isolated presents. Atoms are not fragrant. Only a narrative practice of time brings forth fragrant molecules of time.
This is enchanting philosophy.
Joshua Pauling teaches high school history, and was educated at Messiah College, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. In addition to Modern Reformation, Josh has written for Areo Magazine, Front Porch Republic, Mere Orthodoxy, Public Discourse, Quillette Magazine, Salvo Magazine, and The Imaginative Conservative. He is also head elder at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, North Carolina.