Book Notes: Byung-Chul Han’s The Expulsion of the Other

The Expulsion of the Other is the first book I have read by the German-Korean philosopher who is one of the best popularizers of Zygmunt Bauman’s thought today. There is nothing beyond what Bauman already said here but Byung-Chul Han writes a lot more simply and accessibly. He also has an interest in literary criticism that Bauman lacked.

The book’s title makes it impossible for the author to avoid the subject of immigration. Byung-Chul Han lives in Germany, so obviously the issue is a red-hot burning one. The problem is that if you want to be part of intellectual life, you either keep strictly silent on the issue or take the position that “nobody has more right to live anywhere than anybody else.” The latter is the pronouncement that Byung-Chul Han makes but he does it with such obvious boredom and listlessness that it becomes clear this is nothing but an empty formula of compliance.

What really interests Han is the elimination of even the possibility of an actual engagement with the Other from our lives. The worship of diversity is actually completely counterproductive to it:

Diversity only permits differences that conform to the system; it constitutes an otherness that has been made consumable.

The consumerist terror of conflict and unpleasantness is depriving us of anything that even remotely looks like stability and causes deep anxiety:

It is only from conflicts that stable relationships and identities ensue. A person grows and matures by working through conflict.

This requires time, however, and that is contrary to the neoliberal value of increasing productivity. So people opt for

the fast relief of tension that is handed over to chemical processes. . . Antidepressants suppress states of conflict and quickly restore the depressive performance subject to a functioning state.

As I said, there is nothing particularly new here for those who have read Bauman. But Byung-Chul Han has some really good turns of phrase that are useful:

We constantly send messages on Twitter. But they are not directed at a concrete person. They mean no one. Social media do not foster a culture of discussion. They are often affect-driven. Shitstorms are an undirected flood of affects that does not form any public discourse.

Bauman, of course, had taken this idea even further and explored how the very possibility of a participatory political process was destroyed by the fake spectacle of politics that played out on social media.

All in all, I liked Byung-Chul Han and I will keep reading his work, if only because Bauman is no longer with us, and I miss his insight.


Every year, we get emails asking people to volunteer to host high school students from underdeveloped countries who come to stay for a year because they won a scholarship. The hosts don’t get paid anything to do it. And every year the program finds enough hosts. I’m awed that there are people who want to undertake such a duty just to be kind. I wish I had it in me but I don’t. But I deeply admire those who do.