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Byung-Chul Han: Shanzhai Theory

There are three kinds of idiots: those who can count, and those who can’t. The ones who can count are obsessed with debunking received ideas and finding the hidden truth behind it. They measure things, calculate, and through the rigorous use of their own idiosyncratic reasoning they know why the earth is flat. Then there’s idiots who want to diverge from received ideas but are more playful, willful, intentionally absurd. Byung-Chul Han reminds us of this kind of idiocy which Deleuze thought characteristic of the philosopher. Is Han this kind of special idiot? Maybe.

McKenzie Wark25 March 2019

Shanzai version of the Puma logo.

As Han writes in Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and the New Technologies of Power (Verso, 2017): “Idiotism discloses a field of immanence of events and singularities.” (81) Where intelligent people weigh up the evident facts and reasons, the idiot’s thought is addressed to an outside. There’s a play with language in Han of which I’m quite fond. He takes the consensus language of theory and puts the terms through permutations, opening up possible conceptual spaces outside the familiar, done-to-death ones.

For a start: what if we are not subjects, but projects. No more is it a matter of a subject internalizing external limitations and prohibitions to become productive and normative. To be a project is to be left alone to find one’s own creativity and difference. There’s no corrective agency if you get it wrong. If you get it right, you win the prize. The subject was governed by “I should.” The project is governed by “I can.”

Let’s pause here and ask: for whom might this be the case? It is easy to see why Han’s writing is popular with readers who identify with this problem of being a project, and the depression and burnout that comes from supposedly being completely sovereign, but really reduced to self-exploitation. I could think of myself as a project, for instance.

For others the world of disciplinary constraints has only intensified. The cops don’t look at a well-dressed white weirdo like me for long, but that’s not the case for a lot of others I pass on the streets of New York. 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.

Han thinks we are slaves without masters. The dialectic of master and slave did not lead to a dialectical overcoming and supersession, but rather to the totalization of the condition of the slave, universal labor. (Slave is a loaded word in English, let’s note in passing). The master is the one who performs no useful labor, who just enjoys the fruits of the work of others, and is free to pursue games of self-realization with other masters.

If one looks around there sure seems to be plenty of these about, turning their billions into weird follies like personal art museums or crusades to save the world with platitudes. As far as the internal world of the hacker class is concerned, there’s no chance for that. The latter-day slave has no relations with others that are free of purpose. This kind of capitalism – if that is what this still is – exploits not just labor but also our play, our feelings, our communication. In short it exploits our freedom.

Capital has made labor over in its own image. Han: “Capital reproduces by entering into relations with itself as another form of Capital: through free competition. It copulates with the Other of itself by way of individual freedom… [I]ndividuals degrade into the genital organs of Capital.” (3-4) It turned out Capital did not admit a dialectical negation and supersession. Does that mean that the hacker class is merely human capital, through which Capital makes more of itself? Maybe, but maybe not entirely. Maybe there’s a remainder, and maybe class antagonism now takes different forms.

Han: “industrial capitalism has now mutated into neoliberalism and financial capitalism, which are implementing a post-industrial, immaterial mode of production – instead of turning into communism.” (5) This is where Han falls a bit short of the pure immanence of philosophical idiocy to me. Why risk such a daring negation of the dialectic itself to just have it land on boring old [modifier] capitalism? Maybe there’s a novel mode of production laminated onto the old one that needs its own idiomatic language.

Here he reads as if channeling Henri Lefebvre. Han: “In our world, we no longer work in order to satisfy our own needs. Instead, we work for Capital. Capital generates needs of its own; mistakenly, we perceive these needs as if they belonged to us.” (7) And so: “we are being expelled from the sphere of lived immanence.” (7) Han strikes one of his characteristic conservative notes, which arise whenever he invokes a lost totality. That a world of freedom was achieved and has been lost is always a dangerous theme. The moment of freedom was the bourgeois emancipation form religion as transcendent other, which resulted in its replacement by a new one, a transcendent Capital. “Capital is a new God.” (8) Clicking likeis the digital amen.

Han sometimes plays with Hegelian Marxism, as above, and sometimes with Michel Foucault and his epigones. I don’t think digital panopticonis his most interesting coinage. I prefer to call the emergent technics of power the vector, after that glorious idiot Paul Virilio. But I do enjoy the gam of turning Foucault on his ear, although here the precedent is surely Jean Baudrillard.

The digital panopticon outsources Big Brother and turns everything into information as well as a commodity. This has philosophical consequences. Han: “Information represents a positive value; inasmuch as it lacks interiority, it can circulate independently, free from any and all context… The negativity of otherness or foreign-ness is de-interiorized and transformed into the positivity of communicable and consumable differences.” (9) In place of the negativity of otherness comes an affirmation of positive differences.

The vector entails a move from biopolitics to psychopolitics. (A theme from Bernard Stiegler). Han: “Digital psychopolitics transforms the negativity of freely made decisions into the positivity of factual states.” (12) It forecloses the openness of the future. It’s the negation of freedom itself, where freedom would have once been a form of negation. To be free was to join with others who are free from necessity and transform a situation at will.

Disciplinary power was a regime of norms and inhibitions that negated tendencies to difference and pushed the subject to perform as required. It turned out to be rather inefficient, and it made people dependent on constraints from without. Psychopower operates seductively. It is constantly calling on us to share, participate, confide. “Today’s crisis of freedom stems from the fact that the operative technology of power does not negate or oppress freedom so much as exploit it. Free choice is eliminated to make way for a free selection from among the items on offer.” (15) Disciplinary subject moves within a closed system, psychopower makes open projects, which will diverge but only in affirmative ways.

Han puts the Hegelian-Marxist and Foucauldian problematics together. The era of sovereignty, of the power to kill, was the era of agrarian production. The era of biopolitics, of the power to make live, is the era of disciplining bodies for the factory and urban life. But this is too crude now. Psychopower exploits unconscious, affirmative drives instead. What Han stops short at really thinking is whether it emerges out of an era in which the agrarian and industrial are subordinated to a new mode of production based on control of information that may be more than just Capital with modifers.

It seems to me fair enough though to say with Han that Foucault did not get much beyond the biopolitics of managing individuals and populations around regulative norms. His later work on neoliberalism didn’t really flesh out a corresponding technics. Han: “the blind spot in Foucault’s analysis is the technology of power under the neoliberal regime. Foucault did not see that the neoliberal regime utterly claims the technology of the self for its own purposes: perpetual self-optimization…” (28)

Capital – if that is what this still is – became immaterial and non-physical. “Now, productivity is not to be enhanced by overcoming physical resistance so much as by optimizing psychic or mental processes.” (25) Its less about disciplinary and more about aesthetic interventions in the organizing of (a) life. Here Sianne Ngai’s aesthetics categories of the zany, cute and interesting appear as useful in the way they articulate what became of labor, the commodity and the public sphere when production was subordinated to information.

Sovereign power seizes, disciplinary power produces, psychopower teases. But this may be an era of the exhaustion of the psyche as a resource, at least among those of us who belong to the hacker class in the over-developed world. As Dominic Pettman puts it, we’ve passed peak libido. There’s an obsession with productivity cults, forms of self-monitoring and positive thinking, as Melissa Gregg has chronicled. These seem a bit like a certain kind of Protestantism. One where you are left exposed and alone, not with God but with Capital, and called to make an absurd leap into servicing its every need.

The psyche cannot be subjected to positivity entirely. It gets exhausted and depressed, spirals into self-hate. The hacker class has to con itself into long periods offlow, where creative energy spools out into one’s elected medium, but it is as unbiddable as grace. It’s a world rather unlike the one George Orwell foresaw, in that at least in the bubble we inhabit it is much less about external threats and more about a psychopolitics of interior states, and an exploitation of the illusion of freedom to choose how one wants to be Capital’s bitch. (A word I choose to emphasize something Han doesn’t: the apparent feminization of working with information, and the femme-phobic fear of that among a lot of men).

This is a mode of production based less on abstractions of reason than on emotions. Han: “the pressure of acceleration now is leading to a dictatorship of emotion…. Emotions assume dimensions beyond the scope of use value. In so doing they open up a field of consumption that is new and knows no limit.” (46) Work requires not just cognitive competence but also emotional competence.

Work becomes a part of what I call gamespace, a closed world of instrumentalized play. Han: “the realm of necessity comes to colonize the realm of freedom.” (51) What Tiziana Terranova ironically calls free laborbecomes a source of value extraction as well. Happiness used to be found in unproductive things, in excess, luxury, the unnecessary, but all those are articulated to value-extraction too in the guise of competitive games. “As a means of production, gamification is destroying play’s potential to set free.” (52) And most provocatively: “the auto-exploiting subject carries around its own labor camp.” (61) Which corresponds to certain bleak observations in George Perec’s novel W.

The tech on which this all rests, what I call the vector, brings along its own ideological baggage. Rather than enlightenment, it’s about transparency. If enlightenment shed light on previously mystified things, transparency wants to thin those things out into information, leaving nowhere to hide at all. It becomes a kind of fetishism, (what Donna Haraway called code fetishism), as if the informational aspect of any given thing stood in the place of that thing and occluded the materiality of its coming into existence.

Han: “By a fatal dialectic, the first Enlightenment switched over into barbarism. Now, in the second Enlightenment – which appeals to information, data and transparency – the same dialectic threatens to do the same.” (58) It’s a new “barbarism of data.” (59) The original enlightenment had its own statistical obsessions. As Han notes, Rousseau’s general will is a calculus that is supposed to happen without mediation by politics at all – something Hiroki Azuma has already seized upon as an an affirmative model.

Han: “Now communication and control become one, without remainder.” (40) Interestingly, psychopolitics is less dependent than biopolitics on norms and corrections precisely because it has much more extensive information to go on. “In contrast to Big Brother, who could be quite forgetful, Big data never forgets anything at all.” (62) It relies on us being not its subjects but our own projects, quantifying our own actions, making and measuring ourselves in our positivity. It’s a way of being devoid of ethics or truth, because it lacks any point of negation. It never comes up against what is other to it.

The outsourcing of memory to technics changes the relation between past, present and future. Human memory is narrative, and every remembering is also a forgetting, a negation of some other possible past-present relation. Machine memory replaces the mutually exclusive alternatives of narrative arcs with statistical inference. Han: “Hegel, the philosopher of Spirit, would deem the omniscience that Big Data promises to be absolute ignorance.” (68)

Correlation replaces causality with probability. If A then probably (or not) B. This is not a relation of necessity. Only the concept makes knowledge, the concept dwells within things themselves. Absolute knowledge narrates a totality, about the Spirit as world’s interiority. This is the world foreclosed rather than the summation of reason in history. Hegelian thought is a dead dog indeed.

Perhaps the tactics used against the coercive side of enlightenment won’t work against transparency. Romanticism made a fetish of exceptions, of the anomalous, the strange, the different, the weird, the queer, the idiotic. This could include the great man who rises above the herd and masters it, as Romanticism was just as likely to break for reaction as liberation. Foucault is still working this vein in calling for practices of freedom that might bring forth new modes of existence, that are discontinuous with norms, and which generate unnamed subjectivities, relations, qualities.

Han accepts part of this program: “Neoliberal psychopolitics is a technology of domination that stabilizes and perpetuates the prevailing system by means of psychological programming and steering. Accordingly, the art of living, as a praxis of freedom, must proceed by way of de-psychologization.” (79) But it seems to me that the romance of the exception on its own is not enough. Psychopower loves differences, and assimilates them to the extraction of value from subjective states in the name of creativity and liberal self-realization.

In another short text (In the Swarm, MIT Press, 2017), Han expands on the connection between psychopower and social media. “Digital psychopolitics is taking over the social behavior of the masses by laying hold of, and steering, the unconscious logic that governs them.” (80) This too opens with a little wordplay, juxtaposing the concept of the spectacle with respect. The spectacle rewards the voyeur, the gawker, who wants to rubber-neck and sticky-beak. Respect implies distance, reserve, opacity rather than transparency. Han: “A society without respect, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for a society of scandal.” (1)

Civil society involves a looking away from what is private. Social media confuses public and private realms. “Digital communication is fostering this pornographic display of intimacy and the private sphere.” (2) Actually there’s a reversal: the private is exposed, but in the public realm, the gawker can remain an anonymous troll. Respect is not possible here. “Anonymity and respect rule each other out,” and “trust may be defined as faith in the name.” (2)

Han: “Digital windows open not onto a public space but onto other windows.” (16) In the absence of respect, what we get are social media shitstorms, immediate discharges of affect, “communicative reflux.” (3) They are produced by flattened hierarchies and a decline in values. Power might be asymmetric, but respect can be symmetrical. It commands distance.

Sovereignty used to mean commanding others to be silent. But now it’s the power to command shitstorms of outrage, volatility and scandal. Civil society requires a measured stance, but now there’s a lack of bearing and reserve. Han draws on that reactionary standby, Gustave Le Bon and good old bourgeois fear of the swarming masses. Apparently, no spirit can animate the swarm and it doesn’t cohere into a universal subject. Its ways are ludic and non-binding, fleeting patterns rather than enduring organizations. It’s what Baudrillard ironically celebrated as the black hole of the masses. I’m far less inclined than Han to mourn the decline of a bourgeois, patriarchal cultural apparatus. It seems strange to take the old broadcast era regime of the spectacle as on object of nostalgia.

It’s an eerie thought, but what if nobody rules this clusterfuck anymore? Drawing on the language of Hardt and Negri, Han writes: “No one rules the empire. It is the capitalist system itself, which encompasses everyone. Today, exploitation is possible without any domination at all.” (13) This seems far from the case, given the vast differentials of power and wealth, but that the ruling class too is subject to the same corrosive logic is a delirious thought.

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.

Nor is it the case that the undermining of older forms of authority is in favor of a generalized leveling. The exposure of the private workings of the Catholic Church and corresponding decline in respect for it seems no great loss to me. And yet there seem to be no shortage of new forms of authority, such as the charismatic megachurch. If there is a “Gleichschaltung of communication” it may take the form of the sedimenting in place of the culture of a new ruling class, for whom transparency and self-actualization were temporary ideological means to an end.

For Han, as for Jodi Dean, “Transparency means the end of desire.” (25) Transparency forecloses of the future. For there to be not just civil society but for there to be history, there has to be opacity. Actually, as Randy Martin showed, the vector creates the possibility for multiple possible futures to exist at the same time. Volatility, probability and the management of risk certain constrain history to measurable futures, but it now constrains it within a matrix of possible futures in a way the classical model of Capital did not quite anticipate.

Is action still possible? Technology shifts agency from hand to finger. As Vilem Flusser says, it’s a liberation from burden of matter. Action is animated by negation, and the digital offers no material resistance. Its more and more game-like, but it doesn’t realize the freedom of the human as homo ludens, as we’re not free to play. Psychopower draws us into the race. The utopia of play became compulsory optimization, where everything in life is a speed run.

Gamespace is a world based on counting; history is a world about recounting. Gamespace is an additive, homogenous, serial time; history is a time of negation and qualitiative breaks, of kairos. Heidegger’s hand thinks rather than acts, and for him the typewriter already veils the essence of writing, that the hand is the medium of being, that thinking is handicraft. The manual atrophy of digital is making thought impossible.

Heidegger’s thinking as handicraft takes as its avatar the farmer who tills and cultivates from the depths. Who waits and picks the brain-fruit when its ripe. True logos is hidden; digital gamspace is mere shadows on the wall. Respect, distance and seclusion are all foreign to information, which is about transparency and speed. Information is cumulative and additive; philosophical truth is exclusive and selective. Han: “There is no such thing as a mass of truth.” (40)

The farmer stands subject to the nomos of the earth, the primary division that grounds all order. But for Han we are no longer subject to anything, but are our own free projects, but whose freedom to play is itself subordinated to Capital. We are projects perhaps of what Benjamin Bratton calls the nomos of the cloud. The digital turn is leaving the earth, making what I call a third nature. Han plays freely here with tainted concepts. Nazi ontology too makes a fetish of the earth and those who claim to truly belong.

The patriarchal notes in all this weighty earthiness go unacknowledged. Han: “The stone presses downward and manifests its heaviness. But what this heaviness weighs down on is us, at the same time, it denies any penetration into it” (56) Truth is in the hands of those who penetrated it, not the penetrated. The penetrated as the dark hole of profound secrets and silence.

Not all of this seems to me to be inspired philosophical idiocy. More like a philosophical nostalgia confused with nostalgia for philosophy. What is more interesting, and forward-looking is his short essay (Shanzhai: Deconstruction in Chinese, MIT Press, 2017). It starts with a contrast between western and Chinese metaphysics at an extremely general level, and in particular from Hegel’s (ethnocentric) view of Chinese culture as dishonest.

This then opens a space for some play with the language of contrasts. There is the western metaphysic of being, essence, discontinuity of events and discrete change. Then there is the Chinese metaphysic of inconstancy, decreation, absence and discreet change. Heidegger’s (western) thought is about deepening paths, versus the Chinese view of continuously variable paths.

The bifurcation continues: truth is adaptability to change (east) rather than an absolute (west). The east is about tendencies of movement rather than the west’s obsession with laws of nature. Consequently, there are concepts of power as situation (east) versus power as sovereign (west). There’s the origin or original in the west versus the east’s continuous creation, where the origin can be decided retrospectively.

In the west, Plato banished the poets. Mimesis is a bad thing in western philosophy but especially when it is not a faithful copy of an origin or original. The image lacks being in the western imagination. For Adorno, the field around an artwork shapes it but it still has an inner depth of truth. To be an artist is to be an originator of a true and unique style. It’s a culture of exclusion and transcendence (west) versus a culture of inclusion and immanence (east).

In the east, it’s about continuous change without a privileged origin and original. Han’s example is Chinese painting, where collectors add their marks and calligraphy. In the west, the work is solitary, unitary and distinct. In the east, the work is social, malleable and continuous. In the west, the best painting has a soul, and reflects the viewer. In the east, the best painting aspires to emptiness, and the viewer is lost in it.

It’s a model of the artwork as flat and empty, ideally a void. “It is not the inwardness of the essence but the outwardness of the tradition or the situation that drives change onward.” (15) In the history of Chinese painting, originals by the master might fall out of favor and be replaced by copies by others. Artists learns through copying. To get a forgery into a collection could make a career. (Everyone collector should get the paintings they deserve.) It is also not unknown for artist to borrow a masterpiece and return a copy of it.

There are two views of the copy available in eastern aesthetics: the exact replica, which might almost be the Platonic copy, but here the copy need not have a lesser degree of being than an original, as there aren’t really originals. The second concept is of reproduction with difference and variation. Like the famous Terracotta Army, mass produced but not identical. The ones sent out to western museums were then modern copies of these copies. Or the famous modern painter Zhang Daqian who caused a scandal in Paris with a show revealed to be replicas of lost paintings known only from descriptions.

While not Chinese, Han, also uses the example of the Ise Grand Shrine in Japan: a copy that is more exact that the original, as it is rebuilt every 20 years. I saw another version of copy as variation in China in the 80s, which was restorations which included improvements. Its an aesthetic of the original preserved through the copying (east) rather than the authenticity of the ruin (west).

Han thinks the Chinese (east Asians in general) would have fewer scruples about human cloning, which anticipates in a weird way a recent story about twins who were born with a genome edited using CRISPR by a Chinese researcher. Han thinks the east has a worldview where life is a cycle with variations rather than something distinct and unique. The west is obsessed with creation, but the east thinks of iteration.

It’s also the difference between operating naturally (east) versus trying to represent nature (west). Maybe I would recode this as a difference between a metonymic and a metaphoric relation between culture and nature. It’s not about mimicking original nature but about elaborating on nature’s own techniques of iteration with variation. Eastern thought, for Han, is already deconstruction.

This classical aesthetic and philosophical background opens up a way for Han to talk about shanzhai, or the copying of western products by Chinese companies, the famous example being cellphones, but there are shanzhai sneakers and even cars. Sometimes they are better than the western originals. One added a feature that could recognize counterfeit money. Han: “Gradually its products depart from the original, until they mutate into originals themselves. Established labels are constantly modified. Adidas becomes Adidos, Adadas, Adadis, Adis, Dasida, and so on. A truly Dadaist game is being played…” (72)

Shanzhai comes from ‘mountain stronghold,’ like in the classical Chinese novel The Water Margin (incidentally Mao Zedong’s favorite). Appropriations and variations on successful novels are not unknown either. The Harry Potter knock-offs are not unique in this. Where it touches on less philosophical, more venal interests, all this is fueling a trade war. Han: “The creativity inherent in shanzai will elude the West, if the West sees it only as deception, plagiarism, and the infringement of copyright.” (78)

It’s a striking essay that does what a work of speculative theory should: pose some questions rather than some answers. But it has its limitations. Like a westerner, Han still treats philosophy as origin for aesthetics as a world of appearances. This shanzhai essay is still within philosophy as a western discourse. Also: eastern discourse, if it truly had the properties Han ascribes to it, would surely have mutated into something else already. It would not reducible to an origin in even as eastern concept. Or rather it might have mutated into several things. It might have deconstructed deconstruction by now.

Han’s most cheeky suggestion is that Mao’s writings were already a kind of shanzhai Marxism (on which see Laikwan Pang). But perhaps the west also has this shanzhai worldview, and corresponding practice, in a minor mode. Maybe it is not so much deconstruction as what the situationists called détournement. And maybe the actual practices of producing concepts in historical time in the west have always been collective acts of détournement. As Han writes in Psychopower: “We would have to think with Marx beyond Marx in order to make freedom – indeed, time that is free – our own.” (51) That was already the program of the Situationist International. Moving on might not be about being faithful to that or any other original critical theory, but iterating and mutating them into new ones.

This seems more promising than some of Han’s more reactionary impulses. Conservatives, having no tradition left to conserve, end up treating yesterday’s reactions against modernity as if they were a tradition and treat them as an origin. But I think Han himself offers a better alternative in Psychopower: “The course our future takes will depend on whether we prove able, beyond the world of production, to make use of the useless.” (52) That would have to be something other than Han’s habit of critiquing the digital in a completely digital way, through binaries of terms, marked negative and positive. This is theory that is itself a media effect rather than a critique of it.

McKenzie Wark is the author of A Hacker Manifesto, Gamer Theory50 Years of Recuperation of the Situationist International, The Beach Beneath the Street, and the forthcoming Capital is Dead, among other books. They teach at the New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College in New York City.

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