You are here

The Critical Media Theory of Byung-chul Han

The second speaker in this AoIR 2017 session is Wolfgang Suetzl, whose focus is on Byung-chul Han, an enormously prolific Korean philosopher working in Germany (he has five books coming out in 2017 alone). Han is influenced by Hegel and Heidegger, but also by Zen Buddhism; he has also drawn on Foucault, Baudrillard, Flusser, and Handke.

Han combines political philosophy, aesthetics, and digital communication; he has argued that digital communication has become the form of power under neoliberalism, and that deliberation is undermined by algorithmic control. In particular, he suggests that digital media in their rapidity remove the time required for rational deliberation.

In his book In the Swarm, he critiques the idea of swarm intelligence, which has been a substantial buzzword in recent years; Han argues that the swarm manifests a centrifugal force of thinking within which only short-lived communalities can be established, while over the longer term groups drift apart and are united only in indignation and protest against the status quo.

Han also highlights the violence of positivity in digital media (as exemplified by the Facebook like button, which seduces users into positive expressions); positivity is a business model in digital media as positive content circulates more widely and generates more engagement. Related to this are also the aesthetics of smoothness, represented both in digital photo filters and haptic touchscreen interfaces.

For Han, digital media no longer represent but co-present, offering a sequence of public and private spaces that sit alongside one another. Han also critiques transparency, which is ruled by presence and the present tense, while the time of politics is ordinarily the future. Further, he sees a crisis of alterity, where liking creates an inferno of sameness.

This sees the emergence of psychopolitics, then, in an extension of Foucault's work: there is a commercial exploitation of freedom itself, rather than of actions and labour. Overall, this is a critical media pessimism: his work is rigorously philosophical, accessible, written well, and drawing on Buddhist media theory; but there is also a tendency towards a nostalgic, overly poetic, and somewhat apocalyptic view of the world.