Byung-Chul Han’s vision of our future has the feeling of a philosophical explication of the novels of William Gibson, the philosophy of today’s cyberpunk Real World. Man is the achievement-subject, an auto-exploiting, self-surveilling entrepreneur of career-oriented and personal projects for optimizing their productivity in an increasingly competitive world of immaterial production. To fail within the system means inevitable burnout/depression, to internalize one’s inability to maximize their skills and usefulness. Perhaps they were merely left behind by the times or caught in impossible circumstances, it doesn’t matter.
If they can’t find some way to get it back together they have a very short ride to being categorized as trash by the large data mining firms that supply every government and corporation with the tendencies and desires of each person and their economic importance. You spend enough time living as trash and you’ll never get back in, never get credit, never be above the dregs. It is ground floor level living as seen in Blade Runner.
The information that those data firms collect and organize allows a piercing digital gaze into your lower drives, as every click and keystroke is collected and things about you that perhaps even you do not perceive are laid bare. The gloved fist of manipulation may now take hold of you psychically, at a pre-reflexive level. To the extent that people are utterly slaves to their impulses and drives is now also the extent that they may be easily directed and moved to flow in such a way as to increase the capacity of the system.
Today’s control says ‘yes’. Gone is the outmoded form of power than confronts the human will head on, that seeks to crush its resistance violently. The neoliberal psychopolitical state has realized what the devil knew a long time ago: man is weakest against his passions. Simply permit everything and what more resistance could there be?
In every way the carnal soul is fed. Politics is a product and politicians are like entertainers (highly managed brands that rely on demographic-psychic data to sell effectively whatever message is in demand) vying to retain their audience. Respect and distance are eroded and the public/private distinction is withered as transparency becomes nothing more than a means to obtain scandals for consumption by the masses. Advertising penetrates every layer of daily existence offering a constant false-catharsis of consumption and the ads are increasingly pornographic in nature, bombarding people with the image of sex as a consumptive act.
Rationality recedes into the background as the logic of the disciplinary society, and a focus on emotions is the emergent fixation. As shown in the research of Zygmunt Bauman, corporate managers today are more like motivation coaches, the office environment is increasingly gamified and the employees ability to enjoy their tasks is cultivated, positive emotions are increased so that motivation to perform becomes predominant.
Emotions are performative in so far as they call forth certain actions. As inclinations, they represent the energetic – the sensory, or even sensuous – basis for action. Emotions are steered by the limbic system, which is also where the drives are seated. They form the pre-reflexive, half-conscious, psychico-instinctual level of action that escapes full awareness. Neoliberal psychopolitics seizes on emotion in order to influence actions on this pre-reflexive level. By way of emotion, it manages to cut and operate deep inside. As such, emotion affords a highly efficient medium for psychopolitically steering the integral person, the person as a whole.
-Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics
Emotion is the basic criteria for truth and freedom. Whats true is what you feel and “being free means giving free rein to emotions.” We no longer consume products so much as emotions and experiences and meanings, which can never be exhausted. Politics is a politics of grievances, phenomena such as microaggressions are known by the emotional responses that are triggered in the victim of the aggression which gives rise to the need for catharsis. As “… affect does not open up space. Instead, it steers a linear path to discharge, unload itself. The digital medium is an affect-medium too.” Digital communication allows the release of all accumulated affective loads, and when many such streams of affect come together at once it is called a shitstorm. How familiar are we with this phenomenon? The boiling, raging emotions of a multitude come together in a great, online conflagration.
In this way, many movements and identities which claim an anti-status quo position are easily neutered as their activity flows along the lines of affective buildup and discharge in virtual spaces. These identities are also as recognizable by their particularly conventions of conspicuous consumption, which is an activity now the purview of everybody. In order to have a type of existence in your own eyes, much less socially, you must consume the associated meanings via their products until you have woven an ontic-tapestry so that you can show and see an identity. What does a communist consume? Communist books, communist podcasts, old Soviet films, and so on.
What does Han offer to us as a meaningful line of flight? He takes up a conception of Deleuze’s (this book is in fact secretly and unsecretly Deleuzian in many ways) about a mode of existing called idiotism. The idiot is disconnected from the affective buildup-release cycle, veiled in silence. “Idiotism erects spaces for guarding silence, quiet and solitude, where it is still possible to say what really deserves to be said. … above being merely informed and networked.” Deleuze noticed with the emergence of television how much everyone was constantly speaking, how it produced an effect that he found completely hostile to thinking. How intensified this has become.
The only way to possibly think is to be quiet, to find the space for thought. Perhaps idiotism is a form of eremitism, but perhaps it is finding a way to be-a-hermit-while-among. Is it possible to erect walls and guard silence in the crowd? I don’t see why not. An appreciation of ascetic practice, while not a part of the popular conception of them as thinkers, has always lined the philosophy of Nietzsche and Deleuze. For, in Nietzsche and Spinoza, Deleuze discovered the idea of asceticism as the opening up of lines of flight. These technologies of the self allow one to become something else, to think something else that could not otherwise be thought. These are methods for increasing oneself.
Foucault came to a similar interest later in his life via he work of Pierre Hadot and the Stoics. Forms of self-discipline were, for Foucault, the method by which one is “to make their life into an oeuvre that carries certain aesthetic values and meets certain stylistic criteria.” This way of life is taken to be as separate from the forms of power and domination arrayed against us, to be in some sense beyond the disciplinary/control logic.However, as Foucault later notices and as Han will forcefully remark, technologies of domination and technologies of the self intersect.
Producing your smartphone from your pocket every five minutes in order to check Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Linkedin, etc. and to update each group of followers on your life via confessional text and photos is one of the ways in which everybody today practices compulsive self-surveillance and self-disclosure, each piece of data now recorded and preserved in perpetuity. Fitness trackers provide biometric data for the purposes of tweaking and optimizing routines and for display, if you wish. Self-help books and seminars offer to give you ‘secrets’ to increase your employability and productivity and so on. Domination is increasingly auto-domination.
Han points out this intersection as problematic but does not sufficiently explore it. It seems not at all obvious that this means that all technologies of the self serve the function of auto-domination/exploitation. Or that it is not in fact ascetic practice and perhaps that alone that could indeed create and protect the idiotism that Han looks towards.
When one fasts from all food, drink, and sex (averting the eyes from all such stimulating imagery which abounds today) then one is perhaps the only person among the multitude at that moment who is no engaging in consumption. There are no coffees, no cigarettes, no sandwiches. The thoughts are constantly being redirected from daily life to the remembrance of God. In this way, the state of the human is lifted from its closeness to that of animals and resembles more the angels who neither need nor crave such things.
Refusing to eat to one’s fill at every meal, rising in the night to pray, giving alms without consideration of who begs or for how much or for what, spending significant portions of time in quiet and in awe and remembrance of God, these and other methods of living serve to detach you from the world of affective buildup-release, obsessive networking, personal projects aimed at increasing productivity and career prospects. Not just detached from the activities to some degree but also detached from the modes of thinking which produce them. This way of living allows your world to take on a distinctly alien logic to that of the global monoculture.
But, as every religion has recognized, man must go out into the world to earn his living. Most people are not so positioned as to be able to remove themselves from society. Thus, an eremitism only for the wealthy is not much at all. We must continue to exist amidst the cacophony of the cyberpunk Real World. In order to find work one often has to bend themselves to the demands made upon them. The system has made it so that the smart phone and social media and self-optimization techniques are indispensable in varying degrees if one is to survive.
I think the reality of locating the lines of flight becomes something religious people living through late modernity are already well familiar with. You live in the world that you live in, in the way that you must live in it, while maintaining your spiritual and devotional practices which in many ways insulate you from the worst of what constantly assaults the psyche. There people find protection against the compulsion to identify oneself completely with their economic power. Your value (and the fact that you must be said to have a value) is directly tied to your job and status in our world. If you possess no interiority, no practice beyond pursuit of career, when an inevitable failure in that struggle occurs there is often a deep crisis. How many mid-life crises arise from the brief glimpses of the meaninglessness of a life lived for money and material comforts alone?
Without some practice of self-naughting, there is effectively no barrier whatsoever between you and every technique aimed at your carnal self, designed to trigger drives and wants which steer you towards further consumption. If the self is not disciplined the self will be dominated. If the heart is not nurtured and protected it hardens and becomes blind to further sicknesses that will afflict it. One slowly finds themselves deadened to much of evil and ugliness. Eventually, one becomes unmoored and is consigned to drift through a sea of relativism and confusion, the haze and the neon light. As has been the religious insight for thousands of years, feeding the carnal self is like feeding a terrible beast. It grows stronger and if never held in check it quickly becomes as hard to contend with as a grown lion.
We cannot be, nor should we be, free of our carnality. It is appropriately human but if you want to achieve a nobility and elevated existence and space of thought you must give this self control and direction. It cannot be allowed to exceed to its station.
In many ways, the idiot is the Nietzschean man who can ascend the mountains, to stand above the increasing mediocrity and leveling out of life, the increasing living against life that is encouraged by the system. The idiot, in his aloofness from the base aspects of today’s incessant speech and endless streams of communication, in his guardianship over solitude, indeed could be said to be noble, to possess higher virtues. True ascetic practices have always been the cultivation of strength. But, contra Nietzsche, this strength is not our possession as great men but a gift to us as small men who need and ask for the mercy of our Lord. Indeed, these practices are a part of God’s mercy toward His creation. They are life affirming but they accompany also an understand of the purpose of life.
Profess the truth of monotheism and worship God alone, do not hoard up wealth but spend generously in charity, safeguard your brothers and sisters and those in need. Such has united untold numbers across untold spans of time. Such striving has been the bedrock of countless civilizations.
Even beyond the traditional Abrahamic sphere, Kongzi recognized the integral nature of the ritual way of life to living itself. Seeking and attaining ritual mastery, self-control, and ultimately Virtue became the method of his school (known as Rujia). In this way large matters become small matters. One attends first to themselves, if they are rightly ordered then the family will be rightly ordered, if the family is rightly ordered then society is rightly ordered. As Kongzi sought to safeguard the ritual practices of Zhou, which amounted to the last authentic exmaple of the Way of Yao and Shun, so too are we today tasked with safeguarding our ritual inheritance. It is as much a task of discernment as it is practice and learning.
“… Eunuch-like, pandering to their era—these are the village worthies.”
Wan Zhang said, “If the whole village declares them worthy people, there is nowhere they will go where they will not be worthy people. So why did Kongzi regard them as thieves of virtue?”
Mengzi replied, “If you try to condemn them, there is nothing you can point to; if you try to censure them, there is nothing to censure. They are in agreement with the current customs; they are in harmony with the sordid era in which they live. They seem to dwell in devotion and faithfulness; their actions seem to be blameless and pure. The multitude delight in them; they regard themselves as right.But you cannot enter into the Way of Yao and Shun with them. Hence, Kongzi said they are ‘thieves of virtue.’
“Kongzi said, ‘I hate that which seems but is not. I hate the weeds out of fear that they will be confused with grain sprouts. I hate cleverness out of fear that it will be confused with righteousness. I hate glibness out of fear that it will be confused with faithfulness. I hate the tunes of the state of Zheng out of fear that they will be confused with proper music. I hate purple out of fear that it will be confused with vermillion. I hate the village worthies out of fear that they will be confused with those who have Virtue.’
“The gentleman simply returns to the standard. If the standard is correct, then the multitudinous people will be inspired. When the people are inspired, then there will be no evil or wickedness.”
Much has been thrown into confusion when it comes to a ritualized way of life. How does one now discern the standard and return to it? Conceive of it? Practice it? The Enlightenment project was one which, in its creation of the secular, it expelled ritual, discipline, and belief to the private realm alone. What the logic of this exile consists of is outlined by Talal Asad, as he has made its study, in various forms, the work of much of his life.
The idea that “religion” is everywhere and at all times essentially the same,’ that it can therefore be the object of a single comprehensive theory, is one of the great creative fictions of the modern world…
It is that according to our modern construction “religion” (at any rate in its worldly forms) consists precisely of those beliefs-sentiments-practices which are not essential to our common politics, economy, science, and morality… It is not the locus of “the sacred” that I want to emphasize here, but the normative process of defining what is integral and excluding what is marginal to the modern state…
… the attempt to establish fixed boundaries between populations, to reform and standardize their beliefs and practices, to secure their loyalties, and to define their community membership—all of this has been central to the project of the modern nation-state which is essentially “secular” and not “religious.” …
Throughout the modern world, as in Europe historically, the construction of secularism has meant something more than a simple separation of religion and the state. It has involved the coercive universalization of modern morality, knowledge, law and nation-statehood.
-Talal Asad, Religion and Politics: An Introduction
Everything integral to the operation modern state, to the current neoliberal psychopolitical system as well, has been universalized. Thus, areas which were administered by religious law which must fall under the control of the state are deemed ‘backwards’ and given ‘secular’ updates in the civil code and so on. As Deleuze and Guattari have said, capitalism is always decoding flows. The coded flows of ritually understood forms of life in various parts of the world, as they are more fully integrated into the world-system, are decoded. The ritual forms are blast apart and in their place we find an increasingly global, monocultural consumer form of life.
Embodied practices, such as the rituals of Zhou which Kongzi sought to protect and transmit, are no longer to constitute any form of public life. Public displays of religiosity and ritual are a source of great consternation and discomfort for many and a problem to be solved by secular governments, such as that of France and Quebec especially. This has constituted a great opening up of human subjectivity to the further commodification of life. It has made possible the world described for us by Gibson’s novels and Han’s philosophical books. This rearrangement of traditional forms and modes of life are the ground of modernity. In contrast to Han’s reservations about technologies of the self in a general sense, ritual practice was expelled from public, secular society precisely because it does not serve the purposes of the neoliberal, psychopolitical system. They are marginal, and I believe at least somewhat obstructive, to the current mode of consumptive living.
There thus exists a tension in ritual practice, the tension of a form of living which is inherently public as well as private but now finds itself no longer at home in one of its former contexts but adrift in an exile to the private world. And even that private world now faces the constant erosion of its boundaries by the trajectory of the cultural practices of digital communication. That which once constituted the very nature of shared, holistic experience is now being slowly fragmented from multiple points. Given that, can ritual practice still be said to constitute a method for resisting the neoliberal forms of psychic domination? Does it, in this mode, retain its effectiveness as technologies of the self for achieving ritual selfhood, whether that be Jewish, Christian, Islamic, Ruist (Confucianist), Daoist, etc?
This is a question only experience can answer, but I have to say that I incline towards an unqualified yes. Even given late modern conditions, I think that the evidence is still resoundingly in favor of the viability of ritual practice. If you are in or among any kind of community or the company of those who still steep their lives in such practices, it will be hard to confuse them with a typical networked, careerist of today. Even if they do engage in those forms of communication and socialization, even if they are indeed possessors of what can be called a ‘career’, it is cleat that they do not go about these things in the same manner as someone completely severed from ritual practice. As for what forms ritual life will take in the future, I am sure it would be difficult to say. Things are even now in flux more than stasis and adaptation is nearly constant.
I would like to close with a troubling and sobering passage of Bauman’s, as quoted in Asad’s paper:
There are two antithetical ways one can approach the explanation of the Holocaust. One can consider the horrors of mass murder as evidence of the fragility of civilization, or one can see them as evidence of its awesome potential. One can argue that, with criminals in control, civilized rules of behaviour may be suspended, and thus the eternal beast always hiding just beneath the skin of the socially drilled being may break free. Alternatively, one can argue that, once armed with the sophisticated technical and conceptual products of modern civilization, men can do things their nature would otherwise prevent them from doing. To put it differently: one can, following the Hobbesian tradition, conclude that the inhuman pre-social state has not yet been fully eradicated, all civilizing efforts not withstanding. Or one can, on the contrary, insist that the civilizing process has succeeded in substituting artificial and flexible patterns of human conduct for natural drives, and hence made possible a scale of inhumanity and destruction which had remained inconceivable as long as natural predispositions guided human action. I propose to opt for the second approach, and substantiate it in the following discussion.
-Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust