Topology of Violence, by Byung-Chul Han

By J.J. Charlesworth

Capitalism is making us mentally ill because we’ve all accepted its new message – that our freedom can be found in our constant self-realisation, which turns out to be our never- ending self-exploitation. That’s the driving message of Byung-Chul Han’s newly translated extended essay (it’s 130 pages long), but its bleak diagnosis of late-modern capitalist society only seems to have been confirmed in the years following the publication of the original German version in 2011. Through his restless, polemical revisiting of continental theory from Gilles Deleuze and Michel Foucault to Slavoj Žižek and Giorgio Agamben, the Korean-born German philosopher makes the sweeping argument that the nature of violence, power, social control and human subjectivity itself, has been transformed in recent decades: from what he defines as the old ‘obedience society’ to the new and more pernicious ‘achievement society’.

For Han, violence in capitalist society has shifted from externalised violence – the violence of state punishment bearing down on individuals in order to regulate and discipline them (Foucault’s critique of ‘biopower’) – to an invisible, internalised violence, in which human beings ‘do violence to themselves’. Lacking the internalised ‘other’, the inner policeman of the Freudian superego of twentieth-century man (Han thinks psychoanalysis was of its time), 
the twenty-first-century subject is in perpetual conflict with itself, demanding ever higher performance and greater gratification in a culture that insists on the value of unbridled subjective freedom – what Han calls the ‘achievement-subject’. This leads principally to narcissism and depression, the defining psychological ailments of millennial society: ‘burnout’, says Han, ‘is the pathological consequence of voluntary self-exploitation.’

It’s a familiar narrative: philosophically and politically, its roots are in that post-Deleuzian theorising that pretends that human consciousness is so shaped by the process of capitalism that it cannot escape it, even if it wanted to try. Han’s main update to that dystopian intellectual view – even though he appears to take issue with Deleuze, Foucault and others – is to insist that there can be no ‘outside’, no internal social division that could provide the negative counter to the relentless ‘positivization’ of the achievement society.

Of course, Han’s pessimism with regard
to the helplessness of the achievement-subject could (just about) be read as a call to resist.
 There are many points here that resonate with the anxieties of 2018; his pithy observations that social media is ‘dominated by hypertrophied selves’, who narcissistically ‘twitter for attention’, or that ‘Google and social networks like Facebook are also digital panopticons for secret services’, anticipate current misgivings over digital culture’s negative effects on isolated subjects.

The trouble is that since Han has bought into to the idea that subjects are entirely produced by their social context, it leaves him in a place where there are no subjects with sufficient autonomy
to act politically. Painting himself into his logical corner, he concludes that there’s actually no one in power, no one doing the exploiting; ‘systematic violence... affects all members of a social system indiscriminately, making them victims and therefore requiring no antagonism between the classes, no hierarchical relationship between those above and those below for its development’. In other words, the rich aren’t to blame, they’re as caught up in the system as you are! ‘The subject who wields power is neither a power-holding person nor the ruling class but rather the system itself,’ is Han’s wacky conclusion.

But it’s also one that has become increasingly current, notably in the recent fascination with accelerationism as it has in much radical environ- mentalist thinking. Blaming ‘the system’ is, and always was, a philosophical and political evasion.

Since he can’t see his human subject as any- thing other than the spinning cogs of capital, his only solution is to withdraw and separate, rather than intervene. But it turns out Han’s view of us is tediously misanthropic; though he berates anyone arguing for resistance as ‘tilting at windmills’, in his last lines he grumbles that the subjects of the achievement society are ‘impossible to kill’. ‘Their lives are like those
of the undead. They are too alive to die and too dead to live.’ With no sense that people can actively change their circumstances, all that’s left is to demean the human ghost in the machine...

Topology of Violence, by Byung-Chul Han, trans. Amanda DeMarco, The MIT Press, £14.99/$19.95 (softcover)

From the Summer 2018 issue of ArtReview Asia