The philosophy of Byung-Chul Han

The French philosopher Gilles Deleuze once said: “There is no need to fear or hope, but only to look for new weapons.”

‘Weapons’ may give us the wrong associations, but what he refers to are concepts that, like a brick, can be used to destroy what is hindering the growth of our lives, and at the same time, help us build or create something sustainable.

The Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s work can be seen a toolbox aimed at helping us understand our contemporary society, while also presenting us with concrete ideas, thoughts or ‘weapons’ that might help us overcome or resist our own weak desires and vanities.

Read the rest of my portrait of Byung-Chul Han that I wrote for The Mindful Word 

My review of The expulsion of the other

My review of In the Swarm

My review of Saving beauty

A small feature on Han, can be read here.

About Byung-Chul Han

Today, we live in a society organized mainly around capitalism. Not only are making money and, to some extents, having a career objectives that guide many people’s lives, but prestige, status, and social identity also are typically measured within a capitalistic mindset. Even when corporations claim that “people come first,” they refer to their employees’ skills and experiences as “human capital” or “cultural capital.” Everything we do has monetary value attached to it.

According to the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, this tendency is part of today’s achievement society, which can be seen starkly in digital communication, including social media, changing us from citizens to consumers. Han’s latest book, In The Swarm, is a wakeup call to action, declaring that it’s time for citizens to care more about society’s welfare than their own egos. “Responsibility for the community defines citizens. Consumers lack responsibility, above all,” he writes.

Han was born in Seoul in 1959. He studied metallurgy in Korea before moving to Germany in his early 20s to study philosophy, German, and theology. Today, Han is a professor at the University der Künste in Berlin. His initial fame sprang up mainly after publication of his book Mudigkeitsgesellschaft, which, directly translated, means “the fatigue society.” However, in English, this was cleverly translated to The Burnout Society. He is the author of more than 20 books, which have been translated into many languages and are well-read among socially and philosophically aware readers.

Han’s philosophy dovetails with French philosopher Gilles Deleuze’s idea about seeing our current achievement society as a “control society.” Unlike Michel Foucault’s disciplinary society, in which people know that their freedom is limited, people in a control society actually–and very falsely–believe that they are free. It’s a shift from disciplining the body to controlling the mind in a seductive way. The consequence is that people tend to exploit themselves aggressively until they burn out, collapse, or suffer from depression. Usually “exploitation” entails someone being exploited by someone else, Han claims that we actually do it to ourselves. “The crisis we are now experiencing follows from our blindness and stupefaction,” Han writes in In The Swarm. By “crisis,” he refers to at least two things: First our democratic crisis caused by the shallowness of digital communication, social media, information overload, etc., which he says undermines critical thinking, respect, trust, etc. Second the consequences it has on a personal level cf. stress, depression, burnout, suicides, etc.

Han is part of a growing number of sociologists and philosophers who conduct social analyses. Similar ideas can be found elsewhere among theorist related to the Frankfurter school, but also among other critical psychologist, spiritual teachers and so forth. Some of these ideas are how a too-rigid positivity is destructive, especially when it comes to self-development; how technology makes everything accelerate; and how we are always at work. Still, Han contributes to this debate not so much by adding new idea, but by presenting clearer, almost poetic descriptions of what’s going on. His books advance the idea that philosophy is for everyone. His postulating and concrete style always forces the reader to reflect, to wit: “Digital devices have mobilized work itself. The workplace is turning into a portable labor camp from (which) there is no escape.” Do we live in a labor camp?

He also asserts that freedom has become a constraint. “Exhausted achievement-subject(s) can rest only in the same way that a leg falls asleep.”

Han’s main claim is that today’s neoliberal psycho-political power appears to be invisible and imperceptible unless we pay very careful attention. But–and this is the problem–we rarely pay attention because that which works as an invisible or imperceptible power is also what prevents us frompaying attention, e.g., Twitter and Facebook. Therefore, a traditional critique of capitalism is not sufficient. The point really is that we must understand that our daily lives and our ideas about freedom have become nothing but cogs in the machinery of capitalism.

One of the reasons for this is that a digital culture is based on counting. “In contrast, history means recounting.” On Twitter or Facebook, one counts followers, likes, retweets, or friends, whereas real friendship, Han says, “is an account, a narrative.” Digital culture is also tied to the mantra of transparency found in modern political and corporate-governance literature, which only diminishes trust while monitoring and controlling every click we make online.

“Transparency is ruled by presence and the present tense,” Han claims. However, to think, we need distance — physical and mental — that is what constitutes the public sphere. It is from distance that we learn to respect, reflect, and analyze. “A society without respect, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for the society of scandal.” Still, some may ask, couldn’t we use these same media outlets — YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc., — to activate a critical awareness, bringing academia out of the ivory tower and into the broader society?

Two guiding concepts work as analytical tools for Han in all his books: freedom and power.

Freedom, according to Han, is both a problem and a possibility. It is becoming, as Deleuze would say, emphasizing that we become by combining courage to stand up against dominating ideals and norms with the belief that things could be different. Freedom is becoming whatever, i.e., in some way disobeying power. Real freedom is socially anchored, as he says in Psychopolitics. “Freedom is a synonym for the community that succeeds.”

But today, we are not free, Han claims in In The Swarm: “Information fatigue includes symptoms that characterize depression. Above all, depression is a narcissistic malady,” he writes. We, or many of us, only hear the echoes of ourselves, for example, when we cry with joy when strangers follow us on Twitter, or when our tweets are retweeted. At the same time, this freedom to constantly polish and refine social profiles–and gain more “cultural capital” while others comment, like, or retweet–creates more pressure. “As such, it marks the end of freedom…The achievement subject exploits itself until it collapses.”

Although there is a tendency toward redundancy in Han’s many books, his critiques of concepts such as freedom, power, control, and transparency are highly relevant.

In In The Swarm, however, one might detect something old-fashioned in Han’s philosophy–or perhaps even wrong–in some of his claims. For example, he writes “the mass is power” because it shares an ideology, whereas the digital swarm is narcissistic and is not unified. “They do not march.” This, of course, is wrong. After the election of U.S. President Donald Trump, one of the most encouraging things has been how people marched in the streets. First, there was the women’s march in January, then marches this month against recent white-supremacist activity in Charlottesville. Furthermore, do we really need a new ideology against the online swarm to overcome another (i.e., capitalism)?

Han operates with a romantic ideal about authenticity and truth, yet perhaps we just need to push the underlying idea of the Internet further. Allow it to have no roots, no control, no editing. Instead, view it as a rhizome that grows horizontally without a beginning or end. Pure becoming. When nothing is given, one is free to harmonize his or her life with reality, to change according to the rhythms of existence–no longer caring whether what he or she is doing would fit into a neoliberal mindset.

Critical voices might say that the downsides of neoliberalism—and especially of the Internet–that Han discusses have been explored before. However, Han focuses on something else. Basically, he not only raises questions regarding the condition of our current society, but also asserts that the real problem is that we don’t raise such questions. He is part of a growing choir claiming that many of us are becoming the kind of easily malleable citizens that totalitarian dictators dream about.

Han’s philosophical encourages us to think, and I view that as a good enough reason to read his books.

Published in Metapsychology, Volume 21, Issue 35.

For more on Byung-Chul Han, please see my portrait The Philosophy of Byung-Chul Han,

Or my essay, Which dish of noodles are your life worth?

Or my review of, Saving beauty.

In Danish: anmeldelse af Transparenssamfundet , I Sværmen & Træthedssamfundet


Which dish of noodles is your life worth?

Depression is a narcissistic sickness – Byung-Chul Han, Agonie des Eros

“We no longer live in a disciplinary society controlled by prohibitions or commands, but rather in an achievement-orientated society that is allegedly free,” says philosopher Byung-Chul Han in the documentary film Müdigkeitsgesellschaft–Byung-Chul Han in Seoul/Berlin. He continues, “Yes, we presume ourselves to be free, but in reality we voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves until we collapse.”

German video artist Isabella Greeser directed this poetic documentary film about Han. The first part reflects upon the film Der Himmel über Berlin, directed by Wim Wenders and written by Peter Handke, perhaps because it’s Byung-Chul Han’s favorite film. Müdigkeitsgesellschaft–Byung-Chul Han in Seoul/Berlin had its world premiere on February 9 at the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona (CCCB). A few hundred people attended the show.

Byung-Chul Han is popular not only in Germany, but also in Spain, where five of his books have been lated into Spanish. Han’s thesis is that today’s neoliberalism has made politics psychological, or mental. The logic of neoliberalism has invaded our minds. This is sad, since our mind is all we have. It’s our ability to be present in our life, to think, and to love that is threatened by this invasion. We shrink mentally. More and more is said and done in the same, almost hypnotic and uncritical fashion. All that is strange, secret, or negative—in other words, all that passes through our thoughts—disappears, due to the ongoing repetition of sameness. It seems like all aspects of life suffer from the idea of “best practice,” so popular in business organizations. We lack a critical yet creative approach to overcome this confinement.

In the documentary film, we follow Byung-Chul Han as he wanders the streets of Berlin. He talks about his passion for antiquarian shops, and at least here, time seems to endure. As he passes by the tomb of philosopher Georg W. F. Hegel, he says that he is “the most important philosopher for me.” One quickly realizes that Byung-Chul Han is in no hurry, although he publishes with the speed of Usain Bolt. Still, he doesn’t seem too motivated by performance as such. On the contrary, he stops. He sits down. He reads. He closes his eyes. He pauses. All of these are forms of resistance towards today’s positivity. Luckily, he is not part of what elsewhere he has called “the terror of positivity.”


Philosophy is an intervening time, he notes in Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (Eng. Fatigue Society). Philosophy can be understood as the time of “non-doing,” “a peace time,” as he calls it, in reference to Peter Handke. The concept of “non-doing” also resembles elements of mindfulness in that it stresses that we don’t need to be doing things constantly. Non-doing allows things to unfold at their own pace.

Halfway through the film, Byung-Chul Han flies to Seoul, in South Korea. He was born there in 1959. In this part of the world, the relevance of the philosopher’s thesis and analysis becomes even more evident. People are exhausted. They sleep on the metro, on the busses, behind the cash register. It seems tragicomic. Those who are not sleeping live through the gleaming light of the ever-present cellphones. Do the cellphones work as pacemakers?

In Transparenzgesellschaft (Eng. The Transparency Society), Han notes that we are forced or coerced into participating in ongoing positive communication: declaring, “I like,” over and over, again and again. However, we don’t have to like everything. Social media forces people to communicate more. No pause. Perhaps because updates and news drop down quickly, one needs to keep adding new communications in order to remain visible. A non-visible person is like a non-existent person. It is exhausting.

This reminds me of French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, who once said that “art is not communicative, art is not reflexive. Art, science, philosophy are neither contemplative, neither reflexive, nor communicative. They are creative, that’s all.” However, in order to be creative, one needs to stop, allow oneself to be formed or touched by what is happening as it happens, without judging it according to some predefined ideal. Actually, I think that Han’s philosophy, like most forms of Buddhist meditation, tries to free us from the conventional illusion of having a self. Furthermore, unlike his German collegians at the Frankfurter School, Han is not normative in his critique, but immanent. This makes his approach more creative. Most of his critique is realized as practice. To stay with the vocabulary of Deleuze, then he points out liberating lines of flight that can change our relation to the world, for example, that it is ok not to do anything.

Byung-Chul Han claims in Agonie des Eros (Eng. The Agony of Eros) that we (far too many of us, at least) have become narcissistic. I find it difficult not to agree with him. Like Narcissus, more and more people fall into the water and drown. Or life vanishes while people are Googling their own name. Or they jump off a bridge. South Corea is on the top of the list of countries with the highest suicide rate. In the film Han passes by a bridge in Seoul that is a popular site for suicides. Apparently, no one attempts to understand the depression that leads many to commit suicide. Rather, the sadness is covered up with quotes from poems alongside colorful pictures of delicious noodle dishes. Which dish of noodles is your life worth?

Neoliberal capitalism has gone mad. Freedom has turned itself into a voluntary constraint on performance or achievement. Capitalism is like a train without brakes. We are exhausted; perhaps we need to embrace a tired society where it is okay to do nothing for a while. The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard once wrote to his fiancé Regine Olsen that freedom is the element of love. If we follow Han, then today we are not free. Instead of love and compassion, we have stress, burnout, and depression. I guess it is time to take a break. Pause. Close your eyes. Breathe.

Byung-Chul Han’s voice is both original and needed, and not just in Spanish and German. The documentary is a harmonic introduction to some of his thoughts and also provides some biographical information. Though it doesn’t add anything new regarding his ideas, it can serve as a supplement for those who still can’t find the time to sit down and read one of his short but stimulating books.

For more about Buying-Chul Han, please, see here.

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