Joshua Krook, “The Philosophy of Byung-Chul Han” (28 February 2021)
In his theory on mass formation psychosis, Belgian clinical psychologist Dr Mattias Desmet identified four features underpinning the emergence of the phenomenon: widespread social fragmentation, isolation and alienation; large numbers of people experiencing a lack of meaning or purpose in their lives; free-floating anxiety in the form of depression and stress; and free-floating psychological discontent often manifesting as aggression and hostility directed against scapegoats. Desmet does not go into much detail on how these features arise or relate to one another – but I chanced on finding on Youtube some videos on the philosophy (or aspects thereof) of South Korean-born German philosopher Byung-Chul Han who has written works on late-stage capitalism with its emphasis on digital technologies, how these technologies drive change and how the pace of this change affects humans and culture. Han’s most famous work is “Müdigkeitsgesellschaft”, known in English as “The Burnout Society”, in which Han treats contemporary Western society as a landscape of depression, stress, burnout and inability to concentrate created by a culture that prioritises a “can-do” attitude and positivity, encouraging everyone to be self-promoting and entrepreneurial, and subtly driving people into what Han calls self-exploitation and constant self-reference. “Achievement” (or rather, the process of becoming something) and recognition become ends in themselves, leading individuals to concentrate on striving to produce and achieve more and more, to succeed more and more, and driving them into exhaustion, stress and burnout – in short, the individual form of the free-floating anxiety that Desmet refers to in his theory of mass formation psychosis.
Vlogger Joshua Krook has put together a 10-minute video introducing the work of Byung-Chul Han to the general public, and a very good survey it is too of Han’s philosophical themes and his most significant writing. Krook sums up Han’s worldview succinctly: we live in a perfectionist, achievement-oriented society where untidiness and negativity are abhorred, and the quest for achievement, success and perfection is driving people into social isolation and mental illness. Some of us become manic about striving for perfection, and to achieve perfection we may become narcissistic and end up losing touch with others and ultimately with reality. If things don’t work out the way we expect them to, we may become intensely angry.
In the space of ten minutes, Krook ranges across five of Han’s most recent books: “The Burnout Society”, “Saving Beauty”, “The Transparent Society”, “Good Entertainment: A Deconstruction of the Western Passion Narrative” and (I think, because Krook does not actually mention the title) “The Agony of Eros”. Intriguing ideas that Krook finds in these works include Han’s criticism of the aesthetic of much current art and culture which emphasises perfection and achievement in the form of smooth lines and surfaces, trapping the viewer in a banal relationship with artistic objects that do not permit individual interpretation or deeper engagement. Another interesting notion is Han’s apparent challenging (as Krook sees it) of the difference between high art and low art, between art for its own sake and art done for self-pleasure, and the suggestion that art done for self-pleasure or for fun, no matter how fleeting it is, may be more authentic than art produced for an earnest purpose.
While Krook’s survey of Han’s work does not directly link Han’s philosophy to supporting Desmet’s mass formation theory, viewers of Krook’s video who also go on to investigate other of Han’s work, such as the philosopher’s analysis of violence in Western society in books such as “Topology of Violence” and “Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power”, will be able to see how Han’s work helps to buttress Desmet’s mass formation theory though it is worth investigating in its own right.
As the voiceover soundtrack to Krook’s video essay is the essay’s most important feature, and is fast and dense with information, viewers may need a transcript of the essay to follow the narration.