The commodification of self edition
I had a busy week, so I couldn’t read or listen to anything that aroused a strong craving in me to bang out a post and subject the world to the gyan that usually oozes out of me. As Thursday passed and Friday was ending, I still had nothing. At around 8 PM on Friday, I found myself contemplating a dreadful thought: What would happen to the world if I failed to share my profound wisdom? I shuddered at the mere thought. The fact that people rely every week on the wisdom that drips out of me for meaning in their lives is a responsibility I take seriously. Then I enjoyed a sumptuous dinner with friends, and then I slept like a BBMP dog.
On Saturday, I woke up, finished downloading the previous night’s dinner, and headed to my usual coffee spot—my own little piece of heaven. For years, going to the coffee shop as soon as I wake up or after I finish sculpting my Greek god physique in the morning has been a ritual. I can’t think of a greater pleasure in life than a hot cup of strong filter coffee, a place to sit, and a few good things to read.
As I parked my bike and was crossing the road to the coffee shop, it hit me. Early in the week, I heard a brilliant podcast episode. I can only describe the experience of listening to it as getting punched in the brain with a boxing glove dipped in chilly power and lined with rusty old nails. I had heard Stephen West, the wonderful host of the Philosophize This! podcast, distill the philosophy of Byung-Chul Han, the South Korean-born philosopher, cultural theorist, and author residing in Germany.
I had discovered the episode as I was scrolling through my non-algorithmic feed of new podcast episode releases on my Pocket Casts app. Until that moment, I had never heard of Byung-Chul Han. After listening to the episode, I felt ashamed and had a fair amount of regret that I hadn’t discovered him earlier.
Han is bloody brilliant, and I can’t think of many people who have chronicled the ills of life under modern capitalism in as brutal a fashion as he has. He’s the definitive philosopher of our times and our miserable lives. I kept nodding and chuckling nervously as I listened to the episode, because what he says is what I have been feeling for a long time, and I have been writing here as well. His philosophy ties in with the common theme of all the posts I have published so far—how to live a meaningful life.
I didn’t have a lot of time to dive deep into his work, partly because he only speaks German. So I had to rely on translated interviews, analyses of his philosophy, and syntheses by podcasters. This is fraught with issues, but it’s good enough to get an outline of his philosophy. I intend to read his books this year and write more detailed summaries, but for now, I wanted to write a broad introduction to his key ideas. My hope is that they will spark a few questions in you.
One of the key ideas of Byung-Chul Han is that we no longer live in what the French historian and philosopher Michel Foucault called the “disciplinary society.” In a disciplinary society, those in power no longer rely on violence to enforce conformity. The era of beheadings and violent public spectacles to punish non-conforming citizens has passed. In modern disciplinary society, individuals are surveilled and controlled by disciplinary institutions such as schools, prisons, hospitals, and factories. These institutions are designed to transform individuals into “docile” self-regulating entities that conform to society’s normative expectations.
“The judges of normality are present everywhere. We are in the society of the teacher-judge, the doctor-judge, the educator-judge, the social worker-judge; it is on them that the universal reign of the normative is based; and each individual, wherever he may find himself, subjects to it his body, his gestures, his behavior, his aptitudes, his achievements.” ― Michel Foucault, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison
He says Foucault’s disciplinary society was characterized by “you should not.” In other words, a society where people were controlled through “negative power.” This was the world people lived in for a long time, but Han argues that we now live in a world of “positive power,” where “can’t do” has been replaced with “can.”
He says Foucault’s disciplinary society was characterized by “you should not,” or, in other words, a society where people were controlled through “negative power.” This was the world people lived in for a long time, but Han argues that we now live in a world of “positive power,” where “can’t” has been replaced with “can.”
In a society of “positive power,” people are told they can be whoever they want to be and achieve whatever they desire. All they have to do is dream big, work hard, and constantly chase those dreams. In this society, nobody tells people they “can’t,” but rather, people are motivated because they are led to believe they “can” achieve anything.
“Positive power”—what a provocative conception of modern society!
This is positive power, positive power. Says “can,” negative power says “should,” and as Han says, “Can is much more effective than the negativity of should.” Therefore, the social unconscious switches from should to can. — Philosophize This!
The achievement society
Positive control has turned the world into an “achievement society.”
This is a new, interesting, positive form of control we are living in, what Han calls an achievement society, not a disciplinary society. Nobody holds a gun to your head and tells you what to do anymore; again, that’s an old-fashioned tactic at this point.
All you have to do to control people is tell them all the stuff that they can be doing in theory if only they make themselves valuable enough, if only they work hard enough to make their minds as efficient and optimized as they possibly can be. What Han calls psychopolitics is an extension of Foucault’s biopolitics.
You tell people that, and you don’t need a gun to people’s heads because in the pursuit of endlessly maximizing their abilities, they’ll spend the rest of their lives going crazy about never being good enough, never doing enough, never being efficient enough.
If there’s ever a moment where they’re not spending their time being as productive as they possibly could towards making themselves more valuable, they will actually feel bad about. — Stephen West of Philosophize This! explaining what Byung-Chul Han means.
In modern society, we have all become “entrepreneurs of the self.” We have all become our own personal projects. It’s you versus the world, and if you don’t continually improve, you lose. The result of this Hunger Games-like reality is that we are constantly optimizing our lives. If you stop optimizing and improving yourself to take a moment to smell the roses, you lose. You are a commodity, and the only way you can win is to increase your value. You must constantly “invest” in yourself, even if it means sacrificing things like friendships, because they are pointless distractions in the journey to the ultimate optimized self.
Practically everybody is not a person anymore; they’re their own little personal project. We turn ourselves into a commodity with market value. Everything we learn is not just learning anymore; it’s an investment in ourselves. Everything is about mentally optimizing yourself, working, producing more efficiently with your mind, and it’s a beautiful way to go through life, by the way. You know, if somebody calls you out for being a narcissist, you can just call them a loser, right? That’s just somebody that’s lazy; they’re not going for their dreams like I am. You know they can’t possibly understand the level of work that this kind of stuff takes.
If you’re in a relationship or a friendship and the other person says you’re focusing too much on yourself and your own projects and it’s causing problems in the relationship, you can just say, “Whoa, whoa, being in a relationship? Too much drama for me at this point in my life. I don’t have room for all that. I gotta focus on me and my market value for a while.” It really is a beautiful set of excuses to make it seem to you like it’s a character deficiency in the other person rather than you focusing entirely on yourself. — Stephen West of Philosophize This! explaining what Byung-Chul Han means.
This culture of endless self-optimization results in burnout. We are unhappy when we don’t achieve our goals and even unhappier when we do achieve them because our brains love the thrill of the chase, not the destination. The dramatic increase in depression, anxiety, and other mental health issues stems from this culture that pushes you to always do better.
“Depression—which often culminates in burnout—follows from overexcited, overdriven, excessive self-reference that has assumed destructive traits. The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak. It is tired, exhausted by itself, and at war with itself. Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, on the world, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out. It wears itself out in a rat race it runs against itself.” ― Byung-Chul Han, Müdigkeitsgesellschaft
Anxiety and constant dissatisfaction are the grease in the wheels of capitalism.
We are both masters and slaves
Han is a vocal critic of neoliberalism, the economic ideology that promotes free markets, deregulation, and the individual over the collective. In this environment, individualism reigns as the guiding philosophy of life. It’s just you and nothing else. In this individualistic world characterized by pathological narcissism, there’s no external force oppressing or exploiting us—we are doing it to ourselves. Han employs the poignant metaphor that we are both master and slave, whipping ourselves to death at the altar of neoliberalism.
The consequence of this individualistic and narcissistic society, where people are treated as “human capital,” is that we not only plunder nature but also ourselves. We’re in auto-exploit mode by default until we die.
Many of us are on the verge of suffocation, and this suffocation is called burnout today, as I mentioned earlier. I should actually be free if I am free from the constraints or commands coming from the other house, but I am not free because I myself am the one who creates constraints, constantly inventing my own commands and subjecting myself to them. It’s not the other who oppresses me; rather, I am suffocating myself, even though there is no master making me a slave. I am not free because I am the master who makes myself a slave; I am both master and slave at the same time.
One could simply say that I am plundering myself to death, I am working myself to death, I am optimizing myself to death. The disappearance of the other is a pathological phenomenon of the present; being interconnected is not the same as being connected, especially boundless connectivity weakens the bond of an intense relationship and presupposes the other who eludes my availability. It is only the unavailability of the other that makes closeness possible. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.
Age of narcissism
We’ve all become raging narcissists. However, this rampant narcissism is not the cause but rather the result of the incentives that nudge us to be narcissistic. This phenomenon is prominently displayed on social media platforms, where we incessantly share and overshare all aspects of our lives. All of this feeds into a performative culture where emotions, relationships, work, and achievements are all performances in service of “optimizing” and “improving” various aspects of our lives. Nothing is sacred, and everything is seen as a resource to be exploited.
Today’s consumer society knows a healthier panoptic structure – not solitude through regulation, but overcommunication guarantees transparency. What is special about the digital panopticon, above all, is that its inhabitants actively participate in its construction and maintenance by exhibiting and exposing themselves. Pornographic self-display and panoptic control become one. The actionism and exhibitionism feed the net as a digital panopticon.
The panopticon is perfected where its subject is not controlled by external compulsion, but out of the need to shamelessly expose oneself – where the fear of losing one’s privacy and intimacy becomes the desire to put oneself on display. Google and social networks that present themselves as spaces of freedom are simultaneously digital panopticons.
Today surveillance does not take place as an attack on freedom as is commonly assumed – rather, one voluntarily submits to the panoptic gaze, diligently helping to construct the digital panopticon by stripping and displaying oneself. The inmate of the digital panopticon is thus victim and perpetrator at the same time. This is the dialectic of freedom: freedom turns out to be control. The subjected subject is not even aware of its subjection here; the power structure remains completely hidden from it. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.
Life is a performance, and if we don’t perform hard enough, we don’t get enough points to climb the invisible global scoreboard.
Narcissism is the symptom, not the cause:
But to Byung Chul Han, that’s almost the opposite of what’s going on. The narcissistic individual is not the cause of the world being more narcissistic. The ethos of the world makes narcissism an extremely common lane for people to fall into because they have almost no other options. The same way in former societies it was very common for people to fall into a lane in life like go to school, graduate, go to work, get married, have kids, house, white picket fence… Narcissism is a lane we’re funneling people into in neoliberal society. — Philosophize This!
One of my favorite observations of Han was the lack of what he calls “the other.” The other is anything that isn’t the same. In other words, the Other is negativity, opposition, pain, opposing views, and disagreements. Han says that
The time in which there was such a thing as the Other is over. The Other as a secret, the Other as a temptation, the Other as eros, the Other as desire, the Other as hell and the Other as pain disappear. The negativity of the Other now gives way to the positivity of the Same. The proliferation of the Same constitutes the pathological changes that afflict the social body. It is made sick not by denial and prohibition, but by over-communication and over- consumption; not by suppression and negation, but by permissiveness and affirmation. The pathological sign of our times is not repression but depression. Destructive pressure comes not from the Other but from within. — The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today
Han says that everything has become the same because we are all doing the same thing and comparing ourselves to the same people.
“The terror of the same today reaches all areas of life. We traveled all over the place without having any experience. One learns everything without acquiring any knowledge. There is a craving for experiences and stimuli with which, however, one always remains the same as oneself. One accumulates friends and followers without ever experiencing the encounter with someone else. Social media represents a null degree of social.
Total digital interconnection and total communication do not make it easy to meet others. Rather, they serve to find people who are the same and think alike, making us pass by strangers and those who are different, and they ensure that our horizon of experiences becomes narrower and narrower. They don’t entangle us in an endless loop of self and ultimately lead us to a “self-propaganda that indoctrinates us with our own notions.” ― Byung-Chul Han, The Expulsion of the Different
Think of the other as a virus. To develop antibodies, you need to be infected. In the same way, we need different perspectives. More of the same leads to intellectual obesity.
Everyone today wants to be authentic, that is, different from others. We are constantly comparing ourselves with others. It is precisely this comparison that makes us all the same. In other words: the obligation to be authentic leads to the hell of sameness. — Interview with EL PAÍS
The church in our pockets
Perhaps one of the most depressing metaphors that I heard was Han’s comparison of the smartphone to a rosary and beads. We confess to it, but don’t ask for forgiveness, but attention. Every like is akin to an “amen.” We don’t notice that we have become slaves to the smartphone because our brains have been numbed to the constant secretion of dopamine.
Subjection means being subordinate. The smartphone is a digital devotional object, and indeed the emotionalization of the digital in general. To be a subject means to be subjected. As an apparatus of activation, the smartphone functions like a handcuff – in its handiness it also represents a kind of hand iron. Both serve self-surveillance and self-control. Power increases its efficiency by delegating surveillance to every single individual. We are easy digital serfs while clicking Like and sharing. As we do so, we submit to the power structure. The smartphone is not only an effective surveillance device, but also a mobile confessional – confession was a very effective technique of power.
We confess the depths of our soul. Today we live in a digital Middle Ages – we keep confessing, but voluntarily. But we do not ask for forgiveness, but for attention. It is no longer the church but the click and the market that lend us an ear. We live in a digital serfdom, the new lords are called Facebook or Google. They provide us with land for free and tell us to diligently cultivate it. We productively cultivate as we communicate, share, undertake, narrate, fill the timeline. Then the lords come and harvest, and we don’t even notice that we are being exploited. — Translated transcript snippet from this German video.
Listen to these episodes:
Our obsession is no longer for objects, but for information and data. Today we produce and consume more information than objects. We actually get high on communication. Libidinal energies have been redirected from objects to nonobjects. The consequence is infomania. We are all infomaniacs now. Object fetishism is probably over. We are becoming information- and data-fetishists. Now there is even talk of datasexuals. Tapping and swiping a smartphone is almost a liturgical gesture, and it has a massive effect on our relationship to the world. Information that doesn’t interest us gets swiped away. Content we like, on the other hand, gets zoomed in, using the pincer movement of our fingers. We literally have a grip on the world. It’s entirely up to us.
We consume extravagantly without end — yet are always left grasping for more. Such is the pitiful state of modern man. And all the while, that which as been abundantly provided for us, that which is renewable, sustainable, and of superior quality — the wild foods, the well-made durable goods, and the renewable sources of energy — are left underutilised, ignored, and wasted. This is a gross tragedy for as Berry again states in the same essay, “abundance, given moderation and responsible use, is limitless.” — limitless in the most sustainable and satisfying manner.
Over time, I’ve come to realize that DID is also what helps me be a really different, expansive kind of editor: when I’m reading, I pull from a distinct “vault” of knowledge which is filled with memories and sounds of everything I’ve ever read or edited or researched, all weaving together into decades-long patterns of speech, writing and communication. Before knowing I have DID, I’d mercilessly shame myself for not knowing how to “just push through” with an editing task on occasion; now I know how to recognize this resistance as a request for rest (before my editor self is pushed to dissociate in order to get what she needs). As you might imagine, things in my mind are complex, and the work of DID and communicating with my “system of selves” will continue for the rest of my life.
I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when he sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.”
When the flashing sidebar connects that hand lotion, those hiking boots, a beach vacation, or some rugged SUV with satisfaction, joy, and inner peace, it sure feels like we’d be suckers not to buy it. And when that thing inevitably disappoints, we hardly even notice. There’s always something new to buy. That narrative of elusive satisfaction isn’t just something we’re repeatedly being told; it is a story we’re literally buying into all the time. No surprise, then, that when our beloved to whom we once upon a time “pledged our troth” inevitably disappoints, we start thinking it might be time to get a new beloved.
Are you happy with your miserable life? If not, get a credit card and buy the life you want. 0% interest, conditions apply*