The other day I played the dérive along Valencia after a salad with a colossal heft of blue cheese. I found my way to Dog Eared Books. I always end up there. However, this time I grazed through atypical sections; like the politically charged cabinet below the register with the latest thunder for white supremacy; the sale rack; a quick glance for sci-fi, but nothing more this time.
Under philosophy I found Han’s Burnout Society. These pocket-sized books are almost irresistible for the busy post-modern man. Give me all the deep thoughts in the space between meetings. Be my vade mecum while I traverse the network.
Over the weekend Taylor whisked me off to the Botanical Gardens to see the magnolia blooms. It was in the context of that blooming that I unfolded Han’s slice of philosophy under the redwood grove canopy. The tree bath reworking my nervous system.
So very apropos as I’m diving into the book and having a meta moment reflecting on what Han calls an “excess positivity,” a “neuronal power,” “violence,” “Same.” (Baudrillard is invited.) A new category of oppression in our post immunological world that has supplanted the viral. Is this my contemporary affliction; why I get the Sunday Scaries? Loss of boredom, as Han goes on to claim. The human is animal again, too busy multitasking to survive the onslaught of information, activity, to find steady ground, to manage and also smile through the (filthy, positive) filter…
This strange new world where “Big Data never forgets anything at all” – from Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and the New Technologies of Power, then from Mackenzie Wark’s Verso piece; more on that later).
The “outsourcing of memory to technics” (Wark again).
Big Data’s promise forcing us into a new relationship with anything. Be like Big Data. Be in the frenetic stream.
And I’m only like 15 pages in.
Taylor comes over and interrupts my Hanish stupor. She recounts a moment just before where a middle-aged couple snapping photos of [which bird?] with telephoto lenses were acting very nonplus. They said (some version of): “it’s not remarkable, he’s always here.” Were they bored? Rather, were they bored enough? What was this small-talk play-acting wrenched out? Why were they so disappointed by this encounter? I’m imagining Donna Haraway sighing at the missed opportunity here to mix, to mingle, to get messy across species. Not shocked, though, like she felt toward Derrida’s failure:
Derrida failed a simple obligation of companion species; he did not become curious about what the cat might actually be doing, feeling, thinking, or perhaps making available to him in looking back at him that morning…
What happened that morning was, to me, shocking because of what know this philosopher can do. Incurious, he missed a possible invitation, a possible introduction to other-worlding.
He couldn’t cross the Great Divide between culture (human) and nature (animals, etc…). Did our photographers similarly fail? Does this couple’s mastery of photogenic capture leave them also captured, immobile, behind the (reaching, never arriving) lens? The speed of their automatic shutters; the hyperattention, the multitudes of frames they produce, threaded into the positivity stream; it has exhausted them. Are their semi-automatic shutters warring survivalism of cacophony to the birds' own musicircus. Riffing (rifling along): capture without contemplation. Does this couple ever breathe into a contemplation of the being at the other end of the lens? Dropping into a contemplation that might lead to an inter-mingling. An invitation.
The irony, too, of the lush saturation of plants. Was that weighing on them, as well? “He’s always there.”
But maybe…fuck Han? I so appreciate you Mackenzie Wark. I can’t remember what I typed, but Google led me to Wark’s piece on Han from 2019: Byung-Chul Han: Shanzhai Theory. The Burnout Society is not explicitly mentioned. In fact, the piece seems to read through Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and the New Technologies of Power despite the title referencing another of Han’s books. I’m not sure, the notes counting/referencing is a bit confusing.
I’m glad I found the article. Han’s terseness, density, and improbable accessibility, carries a seductive authority. Wark sets up their opposition to Han at the start of the piece, before juicier bits later:
The success and limitation of Han’s writing is that it universalizes the experiences of people like me, what I call the hacker class: people whose job is making new information.
Ah, maybe Han’s collecting up of “human beings” and this time, age, period of history or whatever is actually a simplistic contour around a privileged class. This hacker class, who are sneakily conscripted into this contemporary capitalist stream to produce new information. What’s more, Wark finds in Han a nostalgia for Foucauldian disciplinary society. Or more, a discreet Sovereignty to control, constrain, restrain, silence speech. Hard boundaries (feels masculine). Geographical. Not a confusing dilution of “social media shitstorms,” “flattened hierarchies.” Wark goes on to level a barb at Han for parading into media theory too clumsily. He makes amateur mistakes, psyched himself out by his own fears of Big Data and loss of solid ground:
Like many amateurs who stray into media theory, Han mistakes surface appearances for forms. Effects are taken as given and routed through permutations on concepts from the philosophical canon. It is simply not the case that social media is a world without intermediaries or unilateral forms of communication and control, as Alex Galloway demonstrated long ago with his study of protocol. Its networks are distributed but protocol can still be non-reciprocal.
Right, like is it all a messy soup? And from an optimistic POV: What about the very real power flip in social media spaces? Influence achieved without financial power. What about Black Twitter’s new protocol?