In chapter 7, Byung-Chul Han smacks down Naomi Klein’s fun but idiotic book The Shock Doctrine, and I love him for that. The problem with it, aside from the book contributing to the conspiracy genre, is that, once again, the author is missing the ways in which neoliberalism differs from the primitive stage of capital accumulation. We are not in grave danger of violent psychiatric interventions by a repressive state apparatus. We are eagerly and willingly doing the work such an apparatus did in the past on ourselves.
You know how the Soviets put dissidents in loony bins and pumped them full of Seroquel and crap to make them more compliant? We are now putting the Seroquel and Co into our own bodies with the same goal. Nobody is making us. Nobody is dragging us off to the dungeons to do that.
Here is a good quote to illustrate the previous point:
The body no longer represents a central force of production, as it formerly did in a biopolitical, disciplinary society. Now, productivity is not to be enhanced by overcoming physical resistance so much as by optimizing psychic or mental processes. Physical discipline has given way to mental optimization. (25)
Just think about all the productivity planners we so love on this blog. Han is clearly right.
And by the way, look at how accessible Han’s language is. This is very rare in thinkers who write in German, like he does.
OK, so what’s the problem with endless self-optimization now that the exploited part of the human being is not the body but the mind? Just like physical breakdown and exhaustion haunted the industrial workers’ bodies, we now face mass-scale mental breakdowns and exhaustion.
Trying to eliminate every painful experience and every negative emotion makes human lives not fully human. The terror of negativity, exclusion, true difference, triggers, and so on comes from the fear of humanity and the desire to turn human beings into nothing but completely efficient machines.
Everybody hates long posts, so I’ll stop here.
The greatest contribution of Han’s book is that he tears into the fashionable concept of biopolitics. He says that when Foucault first came up with the term, it was already starting to get outdated. Today, when everybody is suddenly into it (just go to any academic book fair and look at recent releases), it’s completely dead.
Why? Because biopolitics is all about capitalism managing human bodies to make them more productive. Automation and the digital revolution, however, destroyed the need for large numbers of physically productive bodies in post-industrial societies. Today it’s all about the obesity of sedentary bodies and not about the physical exhaustion of the lean, muscular ones. And I’m glad if you have a muscular body but are you manufacturing many goods with it?
Neoliberalism doesn’t care about disciplining physical bodies because “it has discovered the psyche as a productive force” (25).
I don’t detest Foucault – there would be no Bauman without him, after all – but I’m so glad somebody is finally taking apart the idea that biopolitics is something we need to discuss in relation to the events after the 1970s.
You folks all know how I hate the narratives based on not noticing that the world economy has changed dramatically since then. And Han is one of the people who hates them, too. The tone of his writing gets downright acerbic when he gets to this point.
Note, by the way, that this is only page 25, and I already got 3 posts out of them. Han’s books are all tiny. But he’s very anti-fluff, so the books are very densely packed. He’s not one of those people who feel the need to quote Aristotle, Hegel and Derrida for 200 pages to prove they are well-read until they finally deign to make a point. I like authors who are sure of themselves and can just say what they fucking mean already, without dancing around the issue forever.