TSElosophers meeting 18 November 2019. Toni Ahlqvist, Elina Järvinen, Kari Lukka, Otto Rosendahl, Morgan Shaw, Ekaterina Panina, Milla Wirén

Psychopolitics – Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (2017), Buyng-Chul Han


The overarching theme of “psychopolitics” in Han’s book pivots around the changes in the nature of power geared towards upholding the neoliberal regime of capitalism: the new (primarily digital) technologies have transformed the traditionally disciplinary power of ‘should’ into an internalized and thus invisible soft power of ‘can’. This builds on a few trajectories, each of which Han touches in its own fragment: people are made to believe that they are ‘projects’ that need constant improvement; the access to behavioral data granted by omnipresent digital technologies enables manipulating people psychologically in ways that benefit neoliberal capitalism; this manipulation plays on emotions, exploits the embedded faith in the need of self-improvement, and draws from the urge of being ‘Liked’ in sharing one’s life in the gamified realm of digital social life, to name just a few of the trajectories. The label “psychopolitics” builds on the Foucauldian notion of biopolitics, with Han making the argument that compared to the times of Foucault, contemporary technologies do not stop at controlling the physical aspects of human life, but are insidious to the point of penetrating the realm of the psyche as well.

The book has more width than its relatively few pages would at a first glance suggest. As a result, Han seems to be content with throwing out numerous ideas, and tracing the contours of some connections, without digging deeply into any of the resulting openings or bothering with the waterproofing of the underlying building blocks which he utilizes in making propositions. The book’s resulting shape divided the TSElosophers, leading to one of the most polarized discussions in the history of our little group. Some of us appreciated the ideas and connections that were offered without missing more solid underpinnings, whereas others doubted whether any substantial ideas or connections could be put together from such flimsy building blocks.

From the viewpoint of the proponents of the book, this emerging picture of our current society is realistic: digitalization is a mighty tool for neoliberal powers that have reaped the benefits of capitalism in its diverse, ever-evolving forms throughout the ages, especially as it becomes a means of disguising manipulative and exploitative power in the invisibility cloak of ‘freedom’. This controlling mechanism of ‘freedom’ differs from genuine freedom, because it is built on an embedded, but externally imposed, imperative of making people believe and want something they then are given license to ‘freely’ pursue. This reading of Han understands capitalism as a systemic feature of most modern societies of today, as a part of which most of us simply are and act – both rich and poor – most often not really paying much attention to this fact at all. The way out, as suggested by Han, is to draw from the power of what he calls “idiotism”, namely the ability to not conform to the environmental expectations even at the risk of looking like the ‘god’s fool’ or ‘king’s jester’ – stupid from the viewpoint of the flock – which would allow one agency that can function ‘outside-of-the-box’. These thoughts resonated with the ones of us liking the book, especially as they crystallized some of the notions they have themselves been recently working with.

Opponents of Han’s approach among the group criticized the thinness of Psychopolitics as a work of scholarship, challenged its seeming negation of individual and collective agency, and questioned whether Han’s suggested “idiotism” abnegates social responsibility and possibilities for cooperation in ways that just echo individualist tendencies of neoliberalism rather than confront them.

Despite briefly raising points that explicitly reference Marx, Hegel, Kant, Foucault and Deleuze, Han’s treatment of these thinkers’ ideas often seems cursory, and in some instances suggests questionable readings of important points. At the same time, unacknowledged traces of Critical Theory haunt some aspects of the book’s discussion of freedom, ultimately leaving its conceptual role rather ambiguous. What Han ends up assembling, therefore, came across to some of the TSElosophers as a precarious stack of often underdeveloped and ill-fitting pieces. While sometimes interesting in themselves, for them they fail to cohere into a solid foundation for taking prior philosophical work in a new direction.

However, Han is far more successful in the depiction of a frightening dystopia in which the forces of capitalism oversee an omnipresent and yet imperceptible psychological influence operation that harnesses populations to its (unfortunately largely unarticulated) ends. Under the regime Han describes, digital confession and zealous work on the self as a project lures all of capitalism’s congregants to ‘freely’ align themselves with its subliminally implanted agenda. The extensive catalog of superlatives Han employs (“utter”, “total”, “complete”) conjures this effort not as a development still in progress but as an unassailable finished edifice and thus a perfect exercise of power. However, questions linger: who is actively writing the software behind this apparatus, and what are they aiming to accomplish with it? While Han’s ‘collective psychogram’ may be an emergent and impersonal phenomenon, the building and maintenance of the systems of surveillance, inducement, and monetization that operationalize it – in the view of the opponents of the book – cannot be as disembodied and without strategic purpose as he would have them appear. Capitalism is, in the end, the work of capitalists no matter how quiet, frictionless, and automatic the systems they create to carry out this effort out may become.

This begs the question (which worry also united the proponents and opponents of the book), then, Is ‘psychopolitics’ a ‘politics’ at all? Can there be a politics that seems to assume the total negation of most forms of individual and collective agency? Is Han to be taken literally in his assertions that the conditions of psychological influence he describes makes any form of opposition, whether understood as class struggle or political resistance, completely impossible? Some in this group hold that this trap is less inescapable than Han makes out.

Han himself suggests one opportunity for escape: the embrace of “idiotism”. To be an idiot has historically been to be both holy and afflicted, enduring a sanctified suffering at the margins of society. An idiot is someone from whom almost any form of behavior is tolerated, and from whom next to nothing is expected or required. They are therefore ‘sub-optimal’, even superfluous, to the orderly workings of economic and political systems. When induced to ‘Like’, Han seems to suggest that an ‘idiot’ can, like Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, evade the issue by simply stating “I would prefer not to,” becoming a puzzle that the wielders of Big Data will be entirely uninterested in solving.

But where does that leave us, especially as an ‘us’ that is more than a collection of self-optimizing ‘I’s? Is becoming irritants to the silent and effortless processes of capitalism, eventually banned from its hyper-efficient workings, but left free to make our cryptic pronouncements at the margins where we seek to preserve or rehabilitate our souls, really the best we can hope for? This is a question we hope the TSElosophers will return to in future discussions.