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Brian Haman reviews Byung-Chul Han’s Psychopolitics and explores a regime of domination that has discovered the force of the psyche.

Byung-Chul Han,Psychopolitics: Neolibealism and New Technologies of Power, translated by Erik Butler (Verso, 2017), 96 pp.

Big Data has been big news recently. The latest reports suggest that Cambridge Analytica, the British data analytics firm, harvested personal data from over 87 million Facebook users without their consent in order to construct a digital panopticon, which was subsequently used to target American voters with bespoke political advertising during the 2016 presidential election. The advertising content itself was shaped according to the psychological profiles that resulted from the monolithic digital net cast by the company, a practice that it monetizes in order to enable politicians and corporations to influence voter and consumer behaviour. Although Cambridge Analytica’s psychographic profiling was exported to the American market in 2012 and played its part there in approximately 44 political races only two years later, the company’s twenty-first century practices bear the imprint of two early twentieth-century American “influencers,” Edward Bernays and Walter Lippmann. Manufacturing consent, however, has become irreversibly digital in scope and the implications should concern us all.

In his book Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, South Korea-born and Berlin-based professor and cultural critic Byung-Chul Han explores the nature of freedom in the era of Big Data. Drawing on a range of theorists and writers, including Marx, Foucault, Deleuze, Orwell, and Nietzsche, Han sounds the alarm against the transition from passive surveillance to active steering in which there is an “emptying-out” of the individual not through violence but rather voluntary self-exposure. As he defines it, “Neoliberal psychopolitics is a technology of domination that stabilizes and perpetuates the prevailing system by means of psychological programming and steering.” The prevailing system to which he refers is no longer capitalism’s biopolitics with its disciplinary control, but rather neoliberalism’s “psychic turn” in which the psyche, rather than the body, is optimized as a productive force. As Han succinctly puts it, “Physical discipline has given way to mental optimization.”

If informational self-determination is an essential component of freedom, as Han rightly argues, then our apparently limitless drive to submit ourselves willingly to the corporate-cum-state digital panopticon heralds a de facto relinquishment of our freedom. Here Han distinguishes his ideas from both Foucault’s technologies of the self and Bernard Stiegler’s “psychotechnological psychopower.” According to him, while Stiegler’s analysis overlooks digital technology such as the internet and social media, Foucault fails to appreciate the extent to which neoliberal technologies, with their insistence on self-optimization, instantiate a model of domination and exploitation.

Anyone familiar with the rise of the “self-care” industry will recognize Han’s point. In order to deflect attention away from their wholesale dismantling of public services as well as their high tolerance for systemic inequality, neoliberal policy makers peddle the self-help myth of self-determination. Forget about external circumstances, the neoliberal thinking goes, if you direct your gaze inwardly in an attempt to improve yourself then good things will follow as surely as night follows day. The reality, as Han writes, is of course very different:

Under neoliberalism, the technology of power takes on a subtle form. It does not lay hold of individuals directly. Instead, it ensures that individuals act on themselves so that power relations are interiorized – and then interpreted as freedom. Self-optimization and submission, freedom and exploitation, fall into one.

Through its internalization, the neoliberal mantra of self-improvement further legitimizes policies and practices that are detrimental to the individual. The freedom to remake the self is merely the freedom to mould the self within highly prescribed neoliberal parameters in order to ensure one’s efficient functioning within that system.

Concise almost to the point of being aphoristic, Han’s writing style manages to distil complex ideas into highly readable and persuasive prose. Originally published in German in 2014 (Psychopolitik: Neoliberalismus und die neuen Machttechniken), his book is also remarkably prescient. Take for example, the following passage:

Through micro-targeting, personalized messages are devised to address and influence voters. As the practical microphysics of power, micro-targeting is data-driven psychopolitics. Likewise, intelligent algorithms make it possible to predict voting behaviour and optimize candidates’ appeal. Individually calibrated messages to voters are hardly any different than personalized advertisements. More and more, voting and buying, the state and the market, citizens and consumers are coming to resemble each other. Micro-targeting is becoming the standard practice of psychopolitics.

Here Han simultaneously anticipates the Cambridge Analytica revelations and explains the dynamics at work ex post facto.

Elsewhere, however, his concision hinders his analysis. The book’s epigraph is a provocative quote from the American neo-conceptual artist Jenny Holzer (“Protect me from what I want”), but Han indulges too frequently in adopting Holzer’s suggestively compact linguistic style. Of the few actual digital technologies mentioned, Han repeatedly invokes Facebook’s ubiquitous vernacular to underscore his points: “Like is the digital Amen. When we click Like, we are bowing down to the order of domination. The smartphone is not just an effective surveillance apparatus; it is also a mobile confessional. Facebook is the church – the global synagogue (literally, ‘assembly’) of the Digital.” On other occasions, Han veers uncomfortably close to billboard-sized statements (“Neoliberalism is the capitalism of Like”), which highlights the fine line between cleverness and self-indulgent sloganeering.

More importantly, Han overlooks the link between social media, mobile phones, and activism. After all, the myriad ways in which the digitally dependent masses across the world have harnessed these new technologies precisely in order to subvert existing power structures suggest the extent to which digital spaces have become contact zones. Power may be asymmetrical, but it is by no means unilateral. One is reminded of the sustained anti-corruption protests in Romania in early 2017, France’s Nuit Debout of 2016, or the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement as well as protest movements in non-Western contexts, especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, Turkey, South Korea, Hong Kong, Brazil, Argentina, Mexico, and elsewhere. While some of these movements postdate the 2014 publication of Han’s original German text, many of them do not and their exclusion from his book only weakens his arguments.

Today American technology companies such as Microsoft, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, and Google continue to amass an international treasure-trove of data, while data analytics companies such as Cambridge Analytica have played a part in more than 200 elections across the world, including Nigeria, Kenya, the Czech Republic, India and Argentina. Far from a uniquely Western phenomenon, data-driven political campaigns and movements have become the global norm. All of this begs the obvious question – what can be done? Drawing on the Western philosophical tradition of free-thinking philosophers such as Socrates and Descartes, Han concludes that we should embody the idiot or fool, which he laments “has all but vanished from society.” For Han the idiot represents “heretical consciousness” and “a practice of freedom,” one that undermines neoliberalism’s “compulsion to conform.” S/he is “unallied, un-networked, and uninformed. The idiot inhabits the immemorial outside, which escapes communication and networking altogether.” Although not devoid of a certain lyrical quality, Han’s idiotism bears faint traces of Timothy Leary’s 1960s countercultural imperative and one wonders how effective or indeed practical such an approach would ultimately be in resuscitating freedom amidst ever-increasing levels of digital dissonance and necessity. Far more compelling are intermittent moments of silence and here Deleuze (whom Han quotes) has a great deal to offer:

It’s not a problem of getting people to express themselves but of providing little gaps of solitude and silence in which they might eventually find something to say. Repressive forces don’t stop people expressing themselves but rather force them to express themselves; What a relief to have nothing to say, the right to say nothing, because only then is there a chance of framing the rare, and ever rarer, thing that might be worth saying.

As Deleuze and Guattari remarked almost forty years ago in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, “To go unnoticed is by no means easy.” But perhaps it has become necessary.


Brian Haman is the Book Review and Interview Editor of The Shanghai Literary Review. He holds a PhD from the University of Warwick in the UK, and his writing on Asian music and literature has appeared in The Guardian, South China Morning Post, Asian Review of Books, and Cha.

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