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“Like is the digital Amen”. Book Review: Psychopolitics by Byung-Chul Han

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Cultural theorist Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017) provides a pessimistic view of the status of freedom in modern society. He argues, neoliberal politics coupled with technological innovations have resulted in the age of psychopolitics: the subjugation of the mind.

A spectre is haunting Byung-Chul Han – the spectre of Foucault. Underpinning Han’s work is an attempt to revitalize what Foucault termed biopolitics–how various disciplines have achieved diverse techniques for the “subjugation of bodies and the control of populations”1within a contemporary context in the form of psychopolitics. According to Han, it is not only the networks of power that enmesh the body that we need to scrutinize but also how networks of power now subjugate the mind. Psychopolitics is a compact book (a mere 86 pages) comprised of 13 short essays which range broadly in topics; from our (in Han’s view faulty) reliance on Big Data, or the onslaught of an internalisation of Big Brother to how neoliberal psychopolitics has drastically compromised our freedom.

“We do not deem ourselves subjugated subjects, but rather projects: always fashioning and reinventing ourselves […] The freedom of Can [being a project] generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should, which issues commandments and prohibitions. Should has a limit. In contrast, Can has none.”

Han manages to convey a stark and convincing version of the play of psychopolitics in contemporary society while writing with slogan-like clarity. For example, in his essay on freedom he argues that “we do not deem ourselves subjugated subjects, but rather projects: always fashioning and reinventing ourselves”2. A state that Han argues is much more constraining than being a subject: “The freedom of Can [being a project] generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should, which issues commandments and prohibitions. Should has a limit. In contrast, Can has none.”3

In an essay called “Healing is killing,” Han further develops his attack on the subject-as-project idea by criticizing the notion of self-optimization that seems to have taken root in modern society. That is, self-management workshops, motivational retreats, seminars on personality and so on. In short, the abundance of self-optimization opportunities is, for Han, an example of how “[n]eoliberalism has discovered integral human being as the object of exploitation.”4 Consider the fordist society in which the focus was on optimizing the body for menial labour, whereas now the mind must also follow optimizing suit.

“It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”

Essentially, Hans critique of contemporary society adds to the clamour of leftist intellectual voices, that focus on the abhorrent power structures of neoliberalism, and it is, in this sense, not very interesting. However, the redeeming factor of Hans work is that all his essays substantiate his conceptual tool of psychopolitics. With this, Han convincingly argues how repression occurs in a neoliberal age precisely because the disciplinary powers seek to “please and fulfill, not to repress.”5 A most Foucauldian methodology, as Foucault himself argues: “It seems to me that the real political task in a society such as ours is to criticise the workings of institutions, which appear to be both neutral and independent; to criticise and attack them in such a manner that the political violence which has always exercised itself obscurely through them will be unmasked, so that one can fight against them.”6

Ultimately, both book and concept suffer from a lack of depth. It seems that the unfolding of such an important concept begs further investigation. Yet perhaps it can be argued that what Han’s work lacks in depth is compensated for with succinct and memorable provocation. In a way then, by raising more questions than it answers, Psychopolitics achieves more than those other, more daunting tomes of critical theory.

 

Works Cited

Foucault, Michel. The History of Seuxuality Volume 1: An Introduction. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978.

Foucault, Michel and Noam Chomsky. Human Nature: Justice vs. Power. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate. London: Souvenir Press, 2011.

Han, Byung-Chul. Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power. London: Verso, 2017.

  1. Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality Volume 1: An Introduction (New York: Pantheon Books, 1978), 140.
  2.  Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, (London: Verso, 2017), 1.
  3.  ibid., 1-2
  4. ibid., 29.
  5. ibid., 36.
  6.  Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault, Human Nature: Justice vs. Power. The Chomsky-Foucault Debate (London: Souvenir Press, 2011), 49.

Alexander is currently completing his Master’s in Comparative Literature at the University of Copenhagen. Here he spends days desperately attempting to avoid literary theory classes in order to take courses in philosophy and Lacanian psychoanalysis. He is ostensibly a volunteer at Ark Books, but no one can remember the last time he took a shift. For the Ark Review he will be writing various analysis of literary things with Lacan as the theoretical spearhead. A deceivingly brilliant field to pick of course, because no one understands Lacan, and thus Alexander comes off as smart. He asks for all complaints or disagreements concerning his articles be addressed to the big Other.

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