Let me start with a little context: I am writing this essay in the laundromat of a tiny highway-town in the industrial-agricultural region of middle America, on the snow-swept cusp of the Red River Valley. No-man’s land, fly-over-country, Trump’s America. The laundromat is empty but for me with my critical-theoretical books, my computer, my smartphone, my expensive laundry. With these talismans, I delude myself into thinking I am an emblem of another world, another kind of life. And then, a skinny white man and white woman enter and walk immediately to a lo-fi slot-machine full of quarters and strategically-placed, unreachable fifty-dollar-bills. “Test Your Skill” the slot machine reads, three surveillance-cameras pointed at it.
The couple are maybe 27 and high—pale, jumpy, too thin, a few red sores beginning to appear on their faces and hands: probably it’s meth, a half-hidden epidemic spreading across rural America, increasingly paired with prescription opioids, and heroin. The man’s jacket reads “BULLIES” and he’s got two teardrops tattooed by his eye—such tattoos are typically a remembrance of how many people the wearer has killed—and a red handkerchief conspicuously placed in his back-left pocket. The woman is in something plaid, like pajamas.
I’m wondering what these two are doing in this hamlet, otherwise full of hunters, farmers, electricians, construction-workers, and evangelical Christians; I’m thinking about migration and poverty, the urban and the rural, populism, misinformation, and education in America. And I’m writing this essay about them all. But then, on the table beside me, my smartphone vibrates. “Time for your Duo French Lesson,” it reads. My attention turns, and I am relieved, perhaps, to be unburdened of my dark thoughts in favor of this message: friendly, inviting, encouraging and forgettable in its banality. With an inflated sense of accomplishment, I log into this gamified language-learning app, in search of an elusive, better, more capable, perfect self. The me that is just out of my reach… if only my French was better, if only I was better. My mind now focused wholly on the graphics before me, I forget the laundromat gamblers, they and I rapt by our private addictions, my surveillance all the more precise as it is built into my smartphone, inches from my face.
In Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power, the English translation by Erik Butler released by Verso in 2017, Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han would likely agree with the parallel I’m drawing between the drug-using gamblers’ addictions and my own more subtle, technological one, interrupting, as it did, my ability to truly contemplate. Han, however, does not use the language of addiction, but of religious fervor. “Smartphones represent digital devotion—indeed, they are the devotional objects of the Digital, period. As a subjectivation-apparatus, the smartphone works like a rosary… Both the smartphone and the rosary serve the purpose of self-monitoring and control” (12). And with the at-times aggressive language Han employs when describing the continued loss of human liberty and individuality, he also would likely also agree with the deeper connection I’m seeing emerge between both of these types of addictions and the politics of hate, fear, and helplessness: the crisis of democracy that is sweeping across Europe and the United States.
The greater power is, the more quietly it works. It just happens: it has no need to draw attention to itself…Indeed, power can even use freedom to its own ends… Smart power cosies up to the psyche rather than disciplining it through coercion or prohibitions. It does not impose silence. Rather, it is constantly calling on us to confide, share and participate: to communicate our opinions, needs, wishes and preferences—to tell all about our lives. Friendly power proves more powerful, as it were, than purely repressive power. It manages not to be seen at all. (13-15)
The power held in my phone is friendly—it is simply trying to help me become my best self. But in so doing, Han argues, it is leading me to become my own drill master. He writes “People are now master and slave in one” (5). As my own drill master, as master and slave, I become a docile subject to subtly coercive forces of which I am not fully aware, forces whose ultimate aims I cannot begin to understand. This, he suggests, is where the new, smart power lies: within our very psyches. The result? A crisis of freedom since truly smart “power can even use freedom to its own ends” (13).
Han categorizes this crisis of freedom as a part of the psychopolitics that, he argues, characterize the neoliberal, capitalist era. In mobilizing the term psychopolitics, Han builds on and critiques Foucault’s notion of biopower and biopolitics. Basically, in biopolitics, power works to govern and control whole populations, rather than individual subjects, and does so not with the threat of death but by maintaining normalcy, a status-quo. But in Han’s estimation, with biopolitics Foucault still maintains too strong a belief in the power of discipline and the centrality of the body as productive and controllable entities in the economy, politics, and society at large, under capitalism.
In contrast, Han argues that the body is no longer central. Rather “the neoliberal regime… exploits the psyche above all… Big Data provides the means for establishing not just an individual but a collective psychogram—perhaps even the psychogram of the unconscious itself. As such, it may yet shine a light into the depths of the psyche and exploit the unconscious entirely” (21). The exploitation of individuals’ psyches by the unseen, global forces of capital, and the ability to statistically predict and shape future activities of whole populations as a result is, according to Han, the true, underlying shape of contemporary politics and society. This state of affairs marks “an intensification, of capitalism” and the result is a world in which even our unconscious fears and desires are bought and sold in the digital marketplace and the political arena (18).
In this slim, crisply-worded volume—the English translation is only 87 pages—Han’s sobering arguments are quite compelling—if, at times, overstated. (“When we click Like, we are bowing down to the order of domination” (12).) I was reminded, at times, of Theodor Adorno’s and Max Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), with its passionate rhetoric and mixing of social-psychological, philosophical, and political-theoretical concepts, as well as the two texts’ shared, and fervent, belief in the perversion of human liberty and individuality under capitalism. Also compelling, especially for readers of the Stillpoint Journal, is this notion of psychopolitics itself. In true Derridean fashion (though, based on my reading of Psychopolitics and The Burnout Society (2010), I’d say that Han’s conceptual framework owes more to G.W.F. Hegel than to Jacques Derrida), Han does not offer an extensive, direct definition of this innovative political and psychological category. He comes closest in the final pages when he writes: “Neoliberal psychopolitics is a technology of domination that stabilizes and perpetuates the prevailing system by means of psychological programming and steering” (79). The implications of this programming and steering are pretty clear: less freedom, more coercion and control.
For Han, the increase in coercion and control takes various forms, especially “perpetual self-optimization, which coincides point-for-point with the optimization of the system, [and] is proving destructive. It is leading to mental collapse. Self-optimization, it turns out, amounts to total self-exploitation” (30). Self-optimization and its constant activity (“time for your Duo French lesson”), Han argues in both Psychopolitics and The Burnout Society, eliminates the possibility for deep reflection, introspection, revelation, feeling, and even, happiness. He write: “True happiness comes from what runs riot, lets go, is exuberant and loses meaning—the excessive and superfluous. This is, it comes from what luxuriates, what has taken leave of all necessity, work, performance and purpose” (52). What self-optimization creates, in its focus on work, performance, and purpose is burnout, anxiety, depression, and the inability for the kind of thinking necessary to address the complex challenges facing humanity today.
So what is to be done, for those of us interested in decreasing human suffering and increasing human freedom and capacity for thought and expression? On first glance, Han’s response may strike many Stillpoint readers as unacceptable. Han writes: “Accordingly, the art of living, as the praxis of freedom, must proceed by way of de-psychologization. This serves to disarm psychopolitics, which is a means of effecting submission” (79). But what, precisely, does Han really mean by “de-psychologization”? Based on the arguments of Psychopolitics as a whole, I suggest that this phrase actually means to “de-externalize” or “de-digitize” one’s psychology and psyche, not to de-psychologize as a whole. Even if such a move were possible, erasure of one’s internal life would simply amount to the very process that Han’s book aims to condemn. In fact, the thrust of many of Han’s arguments reveals a deep commitment to the notion of the psyche: the mind, the unconscious, and yes, even the soul.
In which case, for those of us who might agree with the substance of Han’s arguments, but not with this notion of “de-psycholigization,” then what is to be done? To extend the metaphor and analogy with which I began, the answer seems obvious: quit. Turn away from the slot-machine, stop using the meth or prescription painkillers, turn off the smartphone, disable the Facebook account. But as many of us know, it’s more complicated than this, and the metaphor of addiction only takes one so far when society as a whole is increasingly shaped by the new, digital “drug of abuse.” Han himself does not venture into such simplistic prophylactics. Instead, in the end, he advocates for idiocy, and drawing on Giles Deleuze, silence.
Han writes: “Idiotism erects spaces for guarding silence (Freiräume des Schwigens), quiet, and solitude, where it is still possible to say what really deserves to be said” (84). The question that follows, then—a question with which Stillpoint is actively engaged—is: How can each one of us create—in our own lives, families, work places, and communities—such “spaces for guarding silence,” spaces that remain relevant, while simultaneously offering respite from the grip of a coercive psychopolitics, tightening its hold in today’s hyper-connected world? Ultimately, what Psychopolitics forces readers to consider, is the challenge, and urgent necessity, of creating conditions “where it is still possible to say what really deserves to be said,” and of being capable of thinking such deserving notions in the first place.