Category: Non-fiction

Byung-Chul Han
[Transparency society]



​There is no dearth of catchy phrases to capture the social complexity of our human coexistence with one another. Operating in the permanent shadows of impending catastrophes, Ulrich Beck’s risk society continues to enjoy popularity. Often quoted is Dirk Baecker’s crisis society, which will never again be accorded a state of innocent normality. Successful as well is Gerhard Schulze' s experience society, which, restlessly driven, grapples with its own abundance.

The sociological theories associated with all of these concepts are far more differentiated than the slogans the media have culled from them. Nevertheless, wieldy coinages rarely damage intellectual careers, and when used as aggressively as by philosopher Byung-Chul Han (born in Seoul in 1959) they reflect not only the pleasure he takes in pointed thinking but also his ambition to find resonance beyond the academe.

Han, who teaches philosophy and media theory at Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design, previously drew attention to himself in 2010 with an essay entitled Müdigkeitsgesellschaft (fatigue society). He made the proposition that an uncontrollably positive society, one that denies everything negative, produces psychic exhaustion on a mass scale. It was gratefully taken up in many debates on the social disease known as burnout and the susceptibility to depression seen in a work environment that focuses entirely on external achievement.

In Transparenzgesellschaft (transparency society) Han now pursues his line of thinking further, expanding it into a polemic against "systemic coercion," a totalitarian threat inherent in all social, economic, and political processes. Yet the title of the book serves only as an umbrella term for nine additional types of societies which he takes up chapter by chapter—building blocks for a social theory which is itself intended to completely explain all phenomena.

Han once again voices opposition to “positivity society.” He criticizes the exhibition imperative to which everything visible is subjected and discovers pornography as its obscene essence. He takes the field against the fetish of evidence and mistrusts the principle of comprehensive disclosure. He stands against the forces of acceleration underlying the swelling streams of information and sees a "control society" at work that voluntarily self-monitors itself at all levels—something Gilles Deleuze characterized as the successor to a punitive "disciplinary society." For Han, displaying something under a spotlight and self-exposure are subject to the same exploitation imperative.

In short, the author describes transparency as a consumeristic ideology, defending against it the virtues of concealment, opacity, secrecy, indeed, even of the sacred and the spirit, in order to prevent humans from becoming increasingly akin to the algorithmically computable inner life of machines. “Those who relate transparency solely to corruption and freedom of information fail to recognize the extent of its implications," he writes, because "transparency society is a hell of sameness." And he sees the first dawning of its emergence early on: “Even in Rousseau, we can observe that the ethic of total transparency suddenly changes into tyranny as a matter of necessity."

Han’s book is an exercise in dialectical thinking which is field testing its refractory posture at the very historical moment when NGOs such as Transparency International or LobbyControl are able to show significant success in the fight against corruption. The posture coincides with the sporadic victory march of the German Pirate Party and its demands for Liquid Democracy. Subscribing to Han’s views involves the danger of applying a single measure to all of these phenomena. Without a casuistry that weighs each instance anew to determine where a politician is being condemned in the name of narrow-minded, bourgeois self-righteousness, and where a major bank is evading taxes to the detriment of the common weal, the scope of such a theory is limited. It is shaky precisely in the alleged incontrovertibility with which Han points out the connection between transparency and trust.

"Trust," he says, "is only possible in a state between knowing and not knowing. Trust means establishing a positive relationship with another person in spite of not knowing." In that respect, Han's dialectical volts are themselves subject to a dialectical reservation: one can always also posit the opposite of each of them. While Han’s diagnoses refer to highly technologized Western societies, his pretension is to universality. Indeed, his arguments are based on metaphysical assumptions which, in the name of yearning for transcendence, are based on man’s own soothing self-concealment.

All this makes it difficult to draw conclusions for the material world from Han’s insights; the critical standpoint he assumes is repeatedly mystified through a kind of hare-and-hedgehog game. In places where we think he is pursuing a purely political line of attack, something religious resonates in his argumentation, and when he brings in heavy anthropological artillery he is often merely propounding cultural criticism of our totally computerized world. But not only that. In his blanket condemnation of all transparency phenomena he acts as if he could peer into the inner workings of the present age from without, as an utter non-participant.

Transparenzgesellschaft is published in a series that has chosen as its title Nietzsche's notion of fröhliche Wissenschaft (gay/happy science). But what is being dealt with here is neither upbeat nor science. Han’s prognoses are profoundly dark, and his intellectual posture is geared not toward the argumentation itself but rather to elegance of formulation. The author writes in an aphoristic/essayistic style that towers above all academic grayness. The price of this compression, as it develops afresh from section to section, sometimes over just a few lines and sometimes over a page or page and a half, is an apodictic tone that brooks no contradiction. There is something well-nigh visionary in the way Han invokes the demise of liberty in transparency society.

Christian Descamps, editor of Quinzaine littéraire, once commented that another one of Han’s principal witnesses, namely, sociologist Jean Baudrillard, had to be read like science fiction. That is also not a bad recommendation for Byung-Chul Han’s Transparenzgesellschaft. Things are guaranteed not to turn out as badly as the picture he paints for his readers in this dystopia disguised as a status description. And yet, fail to grapple in a timely manner with the dystopian horrors and sooner or later they may well overtake you. 
Vorname Name

By Gregor Dotzauer, 18.03.2013

​Gregor Dotzauer is literary editor at Der Tagesspiegel in Berlin.

Translated by Philip Schmitz