He is seen as a rising star in his profession, who can topple thought structures that underpin our everyday existence with a few sentences. For this, he is both admired and attacked. A conversation with Berlin philosopher Byung-Chun Han
By Niels Boeing and Andreas Lebert
Byung-Chun Han has suggested Café Liebling in Prenzlauer Berg as a meeting place. The reticent philosopher teaches at the Universität der Künste (University of the Arts) in Berlin and has made waves with books about Fatigue Society and Transparency Society. He avoids interviews.
The time agreed for this meeting passed ten minutes ago. Has he stood us up? Then Han comes cycling down the street. He sits down and orders a coke.
ZEIT Wissen: Where have you just come from?
Byung-Chul Han: My desk, as usual.
ZEIT Wissen: What are you working on?
Han: I’m writing a new book about beauty. I decided to do it after reading an interview with Botho Strauss. When asked what he misses, Botho Strauss answered: “beauty”. He didn’t say anything else – I miss beauty, and I got it. So then I thought, I’ll write a book about beauty.
ZEIT Wissen: So you are thinking about beauty. What does this thinking look like?
Han: Thinking consists of perceiving similarities. I often experience that I suddenly perceive similarities between events, between a current event and an event in the past, or between things that are happening at the same time. I pursue these relationships.
ZEIT Wissen: And what do you think beauty is?
Han: I perceive a connection between different things that are taking place today or are popular today. For example, Brazilian waxing, Jeff Koons’ sculptures and the iPhone.
ZEIT Wissen: You are comparing the removal of body hair with a smartphone and an artist?
NIELS BOEING AND ANDREAS LEBERT anticipated that the world view of philosopher Byung-Chul Han would put them in rather a dark mood, but after four hours of conversation, the atmosphere was almost exhilarated. Maybe this is proof of Han’s theory that it is primarily an excess of positivity that causes depression.
Han: The common feature is easy to see: it’s about smoothness. This smoothness characterises our present day. You know the G Flex, a smartphone made by LG? This smartphone has a very special coating: if it gets scratches, they disappear after a very short time, so it has a self-healing skin, almost an organic skin. This means that the smartphone remains totally smooth. I ask myself, why would a few scratches matter on an object? Why this striving for a smooth surface? And there we have a connection between the smooth smartphone, smooth skin and love.
ZEIT Wissen: Love? Please explain.
Han: This smooth surface on the smartphone is a skin that is not vulnerable, that avoids all injury. And is it not true that when it comes to love, we also avoid injury these days? We don’t want to be vulnerable, we avoid hurting or being hurt in any way. Love requires a great deal of commitment, but we avoid this commitment, because it leads to injury. We avoid passion, and falling in love hurts too much.
Falling in love is not allowed any more, in French you would say “tomber amoureux”. This falling is too negative, indeed it’s an injury that should be avoided. I see a link with another idea…
We live in the age of “Like”. There is no “Dislike” button on Facebook, there is only “Like”, and this “Like” speeds up communication, whereas “Dislike” slows it down. Similarly, being hurt slows communication down. Even art no longer wants to hurt anyone today. In Jeff Koons’ sculptures, there is no injury, no breaks, no cracks, no fractures, no sharp edges, not even any seams. Everything flows in soft, smooth transitions. Everything seems rounded off, polished, smoothed down – Jeff Koons’ art is smooth surfaces. A culture of likeability is emerging today. I can apply that to politics as well.
ZEIT Wissen: You mean that politics is smooth?
Han: Politicians also avoid any kind of commitment. What is evolving is likeability politics. Which politician is an example of this likeability? Maybe Angela Merkel. That’s why she’s so popular. She obviously has no convictions, no vision. She keeps an eye on public opinion, and if it changes, she changes her views, too. After the nuclear catastrophe in Fukushima, she was suddenly against nuclear power. You could also say that she’s slippery like an eel. So today, we really are dealing with smooth politics.
There is an interesting connection between smooth skin, smooth art and smooth politics. In the emphatic sense, though, political action requires vision and commitment. It must be capable of hurting. But today’s smooth politics doesn’t do that. It’s not just Angela Merkel, none of the politicians today are able to do it. They are only the system’s likeable henchmen. They repair any parts where the system fails, and do so in an illusion that there is no alternative. But politics must offer alternatives, otherwise it’s no different from a dictatorship. Today, we live under a dictatorship of neoliberalism. In neoliberalism, everybody is an entrepreneur of themselves. In Marx’ day, capitalism had a completely different work structure. The economy consisted of factory owners and factory workers, and no factory worker was an entrepreneur of themselves. There was external exploitation. Today, we exploit ourselves – I exploit myself under the illusion that I am expressing myself.
“Freedom is the opposite of compulsion”
ZEIT Wissen: The term neoliberalism is therefore frequently seen as a left wing weapon.
Han: That’s not correct. Neoliberalism describes the state of current society very well, because it’s about exploiting freedom. The system strives towards increasing productivity, and so it switches from exploiting others to exploiting the self, because this generates more efficiency and more productivity, all under the guise of freedom.
ZEIT Wissen: Your analysis isn’t very encouraging. We exploit ourselves, we risk nothing, neither in love nor in politics, and we don’t want to be wounded or to wound.
Han: I’m sorry, but those are facts.
ZEIT Wissen: How can an individual in this society find happiness – should we be more committed to our ideals?
Han: The system makes that difficult. We don’t even know what we want. The needs that I perceive as my needs, are not my needs. Take for example Primark, the clothing discount store. People organise car shares because there isn’t a Primark store in every town. Then they arrive and virtually ransack the shop. There was a newspaper article recently about a girl: when she heard that Primark was opening a store next to C&A on Alexanderplatz [Berlin], she screamed with joy and said, if there’s a Primark here then my life is perfect. Is this life really a perfect life for her, or is it an illusion generated by consumer culture? Let’s look at what is happening here, exactly. Girls buy hundreds of dresses, each dress costing maybe five euros – which in itself is madness, because people die for these clothes in countries like Bangladesh if a clothing factory collapses. These girls buy a hundred dresses, but they hardly wear them. Do you know what they do with them?
ZEIT Wissen: They show these clothes on YouTube, in Haul Videos.
Han: Exactly, they advertise! They make masses of videos in which they plug the clothes that they’ve bought and play at being models. Every YouTube video is watched half a million times. Consumers buy clothes and other things, but they don’t use them, they advertise them, and these adverts generate new consumption. In other words, this is absolute consumption that is disconnected from the use of things. Companies have delegated advertising to the consumers. They themselves no longer advertise. It is a perfect system.
ZEIT Wissen: Should we protest against it?
Han: Why should I protest if Primark arrives and makes my life perfect?
ZEIT Wissen: “Freedom will have been an episode”, you write in your new book, Psychopolitik [Psychopolitics]. Why?
Han: Freedom is the opposite of compulsion. If you subconsciously see the compulsion that you are subjected to as freedom, then that’s the end of freedom. That’s why we’re in a crisis. The crisis of freedom is that we perceive compulsion as freedom, so no resistance is possible. If you compel me to do something, then I can fight this external compulsion. But if there is no longer an opponent who is compelling me to do something, then there can be no resistance. That’s why I chose the motto for the beginning of my book: “protect me from what I want”, the phrase made famous by the artist Jenny Holzer.
ZEIT Wissen: So we have to protect ourselves from ourselves?
Han: If a system attacks my freedom, then I have to resist. The perfidious thing is though that the system today doesn’t attack freedom, but instrumentalises it. For example: when there was a census in the 1980s, there were demonstrations. There was even a bomb in a government office. People took to the streets because they had an enemy in the state that wanted to take information from them against their will. Today, we hand over more data about ourselves than ever before. Why is there no protest about that? Because compared to then, we feel free. At that time, people felt that their freedom was being attacked or reduced, and that’s why they took to the streets. Today, we feel free and we hand over our data voluntarily.
ZEIT Wissen: Maybe because smartphones can help us get to where we want to go. We consider the benefit to be greater than the harm.
Han: Maybe, but in its structure, this society is no different from medieval feudalism. We are in serfdom. Digital feudal lords like Facebook give us land and say: plough it, and you can have it for free. And we plough it like crazy, this land. At the end, the feudal lords come and take the harvest. This is an exploitation of communication. We communicate with each other, and we feel free. The feudal lords make money from this communication, and secret services monitor it. This system is extremely efficient. There is no protest against it, because we are living in a system that exploits freedom.
“The digital society of today is not a classless society”
ZEIT Wissen: How do you deal with it personally?
Han: Like everybody else, I am uncomfortable when I’m not connected, of course. I am a victim, too. Without all this digital communication, I can’t do my job, as a professor or as a writer. Everybody is involved, integrated.
ZEIT Wissen: What role do Big Data technologies play?
Han: An important one, because Big Data is not just being used for surveillance, but particularly for controlling human behaviour. And if human behaviour is being controlled, if the decisions we make in the feeling of being free are totally manipulated, then our free will is endangered. In other words, Big Data challenges our free will.
ZEIT Wissen: You wrote that Big Data gives rise to a new class society.
Han: The digital society of today is not a classless society. Take for example Acxiom, the data company: it divides people into categories. The last category is “waste”. Acxiom trades data from about 300 million US citizen, which is almost all of them. By now, the company knows more about US citizens than the FBI, probably even more than the NSA. At Acxiom, people are divided into seventy categories, and they are offered in a catalogue like retail goods, and you can buy one for every kind of need. Consumers with a high market value are in the “Shooting Stars” group. They are between 26 and 45 years old, dynamic, get up early to go jogging, don’t have any kids but might be married, and they have a vegan lifestyle, like to travel, watch Seinfeld on TV. This is how Big Data is generating a new digital class society.
ZEIT Wissen: And who is in the “waste” class?
Han: Those with a poor score value. They can’t get credit, for example. And so, alongside the Panopticon, Jeremy Bentham’s ideal prison, we have a “ban-opticon”, as sociologist Zygmunt Bauman called it. The Panopticon monitors the enclosed inmates of the system, while the ban-opticon is a measure that identifies people as undesirable and excludes people who are outside of or hostile to the system. The classic Panopticon is used for discipline, the ban-opticon however ensures the system’s security and efficiency. It is interesting that the NSA and Acxiom are working together, that is, the secret service and the market.
ZEIT Wissen: Is it possible that the “waste” class reaches critical mass eventually, so that it can no longer be controlled?
Han: No. They hide, they are ashamed, they are on unemployment benefit, for example. They are constantly being made to feel afraid. It’s crazy how much fear job seekers live with here. They are imprisoned in this ban-opticon, so that they can’t break out of their fear prison. I know many job seekers, they are treated like waste. In one of the richest countries in the world, in Germany, people are treated like scum. Their dignity is taken away. Of course these people don’t protest, because they are ashamed. They accuse themselves, instead of making society responsible, or accusing it. No political act can be expected from this class.
ZEIT Wissen: Pretty depressing. Where will it all end?
Han: In any case it can’t continue like this, because of natural resources if nothing else. Oil will last maybe another 50 years. We are living under an illusion here in Germany. We have largely outsourced production. China now manufactures our computers, our clothes, our mobile phones. But the desert is getting closer and closer to Beijing, and you can barely breathe there because of the smog. When I was in Korea, I saw that these yellow dust clouds travel all the way to Seoul. You had to wear a face mask because the fine particles damage your lungs. The way things are developing there is very dramatic. Even if it works out okay for a bit longer – what kind of a life is it? Or just look at those people who put all sorts of sensors on their bodies and measure blood pressure, blood sugar and fat percentages around the clock, and put these data on the net! It’s called self-tracking. These people are already zombies, they are puppets whose strings are being pulled by unknown powers, as Georg Büchner said in Danton’s Death.
At this point it’s worth mentioning that our conversation in Café Liebling was frequently at risk of derailing. There was a constant stream of street musicians at our table who, without a second thought, shoved their instruments worryingly close to the recording equipment and played their hearts out: a saxophonist with Glenn Miller hits, an accordion player with tunes from Paris, a singer and guitarist with a “Que Sera” chorus. But Byung-Chul Han spoke with great concentration, you could almost watch his thoughts forming until they became sentences, which he then lined up precisely. In these moments, his attention was entirely on his thoughts – not on the people he was presenting them to. Nor did the entertainment derail him in the slightest.
“Happiness is not a state I aim for”
ZEIT Wissen: Professor Han, in South Korea you first studied metallurgy. How come prospective metal technician Byung-Chul Han became a philosopher and vocal system critic?
Han: I’m a technology freak. When I was a child, I loved to tinker, on radios and other electronic and mechanical appliances. I actually wanted to study electrical or mechanical engineering, but it turned out to be metallurgy. I really was an enthusiastic technician and tinkerer.
ZEIT Wissen: And why did you stop?
Han: Because one time, when I was experimenting with chemicals, there was an explosion. I still have the scars. I almost died, or at least I could have been blinded.
ZEIT Wissen: Where was that?
Han: At home in Seoul. I was a student. I spent the whole day tinkering, milling, soldering. My drawers were full of wires, meters and chemicals. I was a kind of alchemist. Metallurgy is modern alchemy, really. But I stopped on the day of the explosion. I still tinker, but not with wires or soldering irons. Thinking is a kind of tinkering, too. And thinking can lead to explosions. Thinking is the most dangerous activity, maybe more dangerous than atomic bombs. It can change the world. This is why Lenin said: “learn, learn, learn!”
ZEIT Wissen: Do you want to hurt people?
Han: No. I try to describe what is present. It is hard to see through things. That’s why I try to see more – to learn to see. I write down what I’ve seen. It is possible that my books hurt, because I show things that people don’t want to see. It is not me, not my analysis that is merciless, but the world in which we live; it’s merciless, crazy and absurd.
ZEIT Wissen: Are you a happy person?
Han: I don’t ask that question.
ZEIT Wissen: Do you mean that this question shouldn’t be asked?
Han: It is actually a meaningless question. Happiness is not a state I aim for. You have to define the term. What do you mean with happiness?
ZEIT Wissen: Quite simply: I enjoy being in the world, I feel at home in the world, I enjoy the world, I sleep well.
Han: Let’s start with the last one. I don’t sleep well. The day before yesterday, at a symposium about the good life with the philosopher Wilhelm Schmidt, I opened with a piece of music: the Goldberg Variations. Bach composed the Goldberg Variations for a Count who suffered from serious insomnia. I reminded the audience of the first sentence of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. In English, it goes: “For a long time, I went to bed early.” But in French, it is actually: “Longtemps je me suis couché de bonne heure.” Bonheur is happiness. So the correct translation would be: “For a long time, I went to bed happy.” I told the audience that sleeping well is a sign of a good and happy life. I suffer from insomnia myself.
ZEIT Wissen: What do you do when you can’t sleep?
Han: What do I do? I just lie there. On the other point: do I like being in the world? How can you like being in this false world? That’s not possible, and so, I am not happy. I often don’t understand the world. It seems very absurd to me. You can’t be happy in the absurd. For happiness you need a lot of illusions, I think.
ZEIT Wissen: You enjoy…?
ZEIT Wissen: What do you enjoy?
Han: I can’t enjoy the world.
ZEIT Wissen: A nice piece of cake?
Han: I don’t eat cake. I could enjoy a good meal, but food in Berlin, in Germany, is a problem. Germans don’t seem to appreciate good food. Maybe it comes from Protestantism, this hostility towards sensuality. In Asia, food has a totally different value, a much higher one. People spend a lot of money on it, unlike in Germany. Take Japan, for example: food is a cult there, an aesthetic. Especially the unbelievable freshness of it! Fragrant rice could make someone happy, as well.
ZEIT Wissen: That sounds like a grain of happiness. You’ve lived in Germany for 30 years. How do you tolerate it?
Han: I wouldn’t say tolerate. I like living in Germany. I love the quiet here, which I wouldn’t have in Seoul. I particularly love the German language, its words as well. Anyone who reads my books can see that. I have a language here in which I can philosophise very well. Yes, there are things that make me happy. Food not so much, but Bach played by Glenn Gould. I often listen to Bach for hours. I don’t know if I would have stayed in Germany this long without Bach, without Schubert’s Winterreise, without Schumann’s Dichterliebe. During my philosophy degree, I used to sing a lot, especially the songs of Schumann and Schubert, and I took a lot of singing lessons for it as well. Singing Winterreise accompanied by the piano, that’s very nice…
“Language is being silenced”
ZEIT Wissen: So there is beauty! You spend a lot of time badmouthing the world.
Han: Maybe. I really make my students despair, because I tell them all of these problems in my lectures. When I said in the lecture before the last one, today we are going to think about solutions, some of them applauded. At last! Now he’s going to free us from despair!
ZEIT Wissen: How lovely. Solutions is a topic we want to discuss with you, too.
Han: I wanted to think about solutions, but then I only described more problems.
ZEIT Wissen: Oh well. So what other problems are there?
Han: There is no language today – there is speechlessness and helplessness. Language is being silenced. On the one hand, there is this immense noise, communication noise, on the other there is this huge wordlessness, a wordlessness that is different from silence. Silence is very eloquent. Silence has a language. Stillness is also eloquent, and it can be a language, too. But noise and wordlessness are without language. There is only wordless, noisy communication, which is a problem. Today, there is not even knowledge, only information. Knowing is completely different from information. Knowledge and truth sound old-fashioned now. Knowledge also has a different time structure, it spans past and future. And the temporality of information is the present, now. Knowing also comes from experience. A master has knowledge. Today, we live with the terror of amateurishness.
ZEIT Wissen: What do you think of what is happening in science? Does it not create knowledge?
Han: Scientists no longer reflect on the social context of knowledge. They are doing positive research. Every knowing takes places within a power relationship, and power relationships, new capacities, generate new knowledge, a new discourse. Knowledge is always embedded in a power structure. You can simply do positive research without recognising that you are under the spell of this power, and without reflecting on the contextuality of knowledge. This reflection on contextuality no longer takes place. Philosophy is becoming a positive science too. It doesn’t refer to society, only to itself. It’s becoming blind to society.
ZEIT Wissen: Do you mean the whole of academic life?
Han: More or less. What happens now is Google Science, without critical reflection about our own activity. The humanities should think critically about their own activity, but this is not happening. Many are doing emotion research, for example. I would love to ask a scientist who is involved in this research: why do you do what you do? They don’t think about their own activity.
ZEIT Wissen: What do you suggest?
Han: This is about what social relevance the humanities have. We have to understand clearly the social background of our own research, because all knowledge is embedded in the power relationships of the system. Why is emotion research being done so intensively today? Maybe because emotions are now seen as a productive force. Emotions are being used as tools of control. If you influence emotions, you can control and manipulate human behaviour on a subconscious level.
ZEIT Wissen: Now you sound like a conspiracy theorist. Is it possible to create a better system with more intelligence?
Han: Intelligence comes from intel-legere, reading between, differentiating. Intelligence is an activity of differentiation within a system. Intelligence cannot develop a new system, a new language. The mind is completely different from intelligence. I do not believe that very intelligent computers could copy the human mind. You can design a totally intelligent machine, but machines will never invent a new language, something completely different, I believe. A machine has no mind. No machine can output more than its input. This is precisely the miracle of life, that it can output more than its input, and can output something completely different from its input. That is life. Life is spirit. That’s how it’s different from a machine. But this life is endangered when everything is automated, when everything is ruled by algorithms. An immortal machine human, as imagined by posthumanists like Ray Kurzweil, would no longer be human. Maybe we will achieve immortality eventually with the help of technology, but we will lose life. We will achieve immortality at the cost of life.
© for the translation: Rebecca Darby, November 2015.
Original article, published on 7/9/2014: http://www.zeit.de/zeit-wissen/2014/05/byung-chul-han-philosophie-neoliberalismus/komplettansicht
 The German term used here is “Geist”, which can mean “mind”, or “spirit”, or “essence”, or even “ghost”.