Navigating Spectrality

“My tears are flowing; earth, take back your child! —Faust.” So reads the epigraph to Byung-Chul Han’s peculiar book In the Swarm, which signals his founding theme: that we have lost hold of the earth, the terrestrial order. Han’s style is abrupt and frequently bombastic; In the Swarm reads like a manifesto (although no plan of action is ever proffered), the short chapters rushing by, each hinging on a concept or term introduced in the chapter preceding, circling and folding back on itself. In the preface, Han claims that “digital media ... is reprogramming us,” that we are experiencing a “radical paradigm shift” of which we are unaware (loc. 58). The shift is taking place “below our threshold of conscious decision,” a “crisis” produced by the “blindness and stupefaction” of our “frenzy” for the new (loc. 58). As a manifesto, then, In the Swarm is also an existential diagnosis, seeking to articulate the spectrality of a digital world that has dissolved its terrestrial roots (loc. 841). In this paper, I will attempt to follow the interlinking of Han’s argument, and try to discern a plan of action that we might follow therein.

In his first chapter, “No Respect,” Han sets up a dichotomy between voyeurism and respect: “spectare” versus “respectare” (loc. 68). Unlike the voyeurism of spectare, respect “presupposes a distanced look,” is invested with “deferential consideration”—this distance “is what constitutes the public sphere” (loc. 68). What is more, “[t]aking distance” is “a matter of stance,” a taking of position. Looking ahead, then, we can say that respect acknowledges space, terrestriality, or earthiness. Distance and stance require ground. And it is this ground which is the basis for “names.” “A name provides the basis for recognition,” Han argues, and trust, in turn, is “defined as faith in the name” (loc. 79). But in a digital medium without ground, there is no orientation, so no distance or stance, and so no taking of position that could make possible a name. The consequence is the “shitstorm” (loc. 106). Where before there was trust and recognition, now there is only anonymous and virulent “noise” (loc. 106). Because the digital medium has “flattened” all “hierarchies,” no “authoritative pronouncement[s]” can be made to “generate[] silence, which represents room for action” (loc. 106). There is only the seething, writhing, roiling mob. In this, Han sees a loss of true “power,” which “operates in a manner similar to” respect. Both power and respect are a “state of asymmetry”; both power and respect “make space”; they are “distance-creating” (loc. 106, 119). Finally, then, Han sees this double loss, of respect and power, as a loss of sovereignty. And without sovereignty, the “pathos of distance” gives way to the raw “affect” of the shitstorm (loc. 68, 92). Respect, distance, stance, trust, the name, silence, power, respect—the method of Han’s reasoning becomes clear. This conceptual structuration is also a practical structuration (though it gives only a highly abstract praxis). In a word, the digital medium has destroyed asymmetry, which is the principle of structure, and which, in turn, gives the possibility of space, distance, stance, and power—our praxis, then, must seek this asymmetry.

But this is only an inference. Han does not say as much himself. He argues through dichotomies—this, good; that, bad—but does not give us a way to move from the bad to the good. Too frequently the most obvious plan of action one can glean from his book is a reactionary one, a Burkean conservatism, a return to the pre-digital. Indeed, with his emphasis on sovereignty and power as related terms of respect, this first chapter comes across as disturbingly fascistic (made more so by the ghosts of Schmitt’s and Heidegger’s politics in his work). Yes, the shitstorm is a contemporary horror, just as Burke was appalled by the Terror in France. But power does not seem like the only possible avenue for restoring asymmetry, distance, and respect to public life.

Or perhaps he does give us a way to move? It always remains implicit, but perhaps we can draw something from his declamations. In the next chapter, the “Outrage Society,” Han distinguishes between “outrage” and “rage” (loc. 141, 153). Outrage “lacks bearing—reserve and posture” (loc. 141). Bearing is a “measured stance,” and is “what constitutes the civil sphere” (loc. 141). This term should be taken in both senses: as posture and as heading. As such, rage, against outrage, is a bearing, a way of holding oneself, and a way of taking ground. It is this bearing that begins “the first act of narration in Western culture,” The Iliad (loc. 153). Rage “structures, inspires, animates, and gives rhythm ... it is the heroic medium of action” (loc. 153). It is “narrative” (loc. 153). Whereas outrage is a passive “condition,” rage is a “capacity”; rage “produces the future,” while outrage “generates no future” (loc. 153). So the above conceptual structuration requires the narrative force of rage to motivate it, for it to be put into action.

The following chapter, then, “In the Swarm,” sets about locating the possibility of this narrative force. Han establishes another dichotomy: the “mass” versus the “new mass,” the “crowd” versus the “swarm” (loc. 182). The “swarm” is not a true mass, Han argues, because it has “no soul—no spirit” (loc. 182). The “soul” is what “gathers and unites,” the coherent “voice” of the mass; the swarm produces only “noise” (loc. 182). The swarm lacks “the interiority of assembly” given the mass by its collective voice; it is volatile and “carnivalesque,” “ludic and nonbinding”—it has no organization (loc. 200). “Organized labor,” on the other hand, “consists of enduring formations,” possessed of “a single spirit, unified by an ideology,” and “march[ing] in one direction” (loc. 200). “Only when a crowd is resolute about shared action,” Han writes, “does power arise. The mass is power” (loc. 200). The swarm is a product of the “capitalist system” and its “logic of self-exploitation” (loc. 236, 219). Through the digital order, it reduces “everyone” to “solitude,” and so “blocks the formation of a counterpower that might be able to put the capitalist order in question” (loc. 236). Han’s allegiances now become clearer. He takes up a stance in the modern phase, between monarchic sovereignty and swarming anarchy, the phase of mass movements and ideological revolutions and even, we might contend, the historical dialectic. He wants to preserve the sovereignty of the people; the earlier insinuation of Burkeanism cannot hold. He pines for the lost days of revolution, of organized social movements, of solidarity, before the days of the “contemporary achievement subject” who is “perpetrator and victim in one” (loc. 219). This is “exploitation” without “domination,” the rule of the shitstorm, where the swarm “strike[s] individual persons” rather than the system of power (loc. 219).

Han steadily deepens his argument over the following several chapters, but a brief treatment of the chapter “The Nomos of the Earth” will suffice for our discussion here. Han contends that “[c]ategories such as spirit, action, thinking, and truth belong to the terrestrial order” (loc. 748). These “stand to be replaced by ... operation,” the “atomiz[ation]” of action, a consequence of the “egoization and atomization” of the political subject brought about by the swarm (loc. 748, 236). The narrative force of action is lost. We see, then, that the terrestrial order, the earthiness, that Han champions is not merely a pastoral dream, a privileged desire for a simpler time (though he, like Heidegger upon whom he heavily relies, certainly draws close to such pastoral naivety). Rather, the terrestrial is the realm of spirit—the site of relation, mediation, responsibility, and truth. He does not set up the terrestrial as that pure life whereby transcendent spirit might be attained, but rather as existence itself. It is that from which we draw our representations, and that to which our representations point. In Gadamer’s language (whom Han does not cite), the terrestrial, the world, is “a closed circle of meaning in which everything is fulfilled” (Truth and Method 117). Han’s is not a reductive materiality, but a consummation of materiality in its fullness.

But I am being generous. Han makes few, if any, of these links explicit. He circles, he dallies, he pronounces. He says that this is how it is without acknowledging the suffusion of his statements with oughts. He takes his few concrete examples of contemporary culture, shitstorms and Paris syndrome and Google Glass, as surety for his theorizing and his declarations of how things should be. All of this hand waving reaches its climax in his final chapter, “Psychopolitics.” Having staked his claim, he decides that Foucault’s biopower and biopolitics just do not cut it: “a further paradigm shift” is underway (loc. 1044). He contends that biopower is “unable to penetrate, much less mold, the psyche of the population”; it can only mold “external factors such as reproduction, mortality rates, and health conditions” (loc. 1044). But it does not touch the inside, the interior. Oh, sacred interiority, now threatened by this new evil, psychopower! But this entirely misses the point of biopolitics/power. What does the regulation of bodies accomplish if not the regulation of minds? What does the regulation of bodies accomplish if not the self-exploitation required of those living within a capitalist system? What does the regulation of bodies accomplish if not the mob justice wielded against those who do not fit the mold? Indeed, the positing of biopower against the classical power of sovereignty was precisely to demonstrate the way by which power is no longer only externally imposed but undertaken from within. It is the interpellation of the modern subject, who chooses his subjection, all by himself (as Althusser said), who chooses to wear a Fitbit, and so to be a healthier, more productive, more capable member of society. Han’s dichotomizing method simply re-enacts the split between subject and object that so many, since at least Heidegger, have sought to overcome. Merleau-Ponty, in 1945, demonstrated that we are our bodies, that the mind is not some sanctified inner bastion, but out there, in the world, in our behaviour and our actions, free but entangled, complex and compromised and contaminated, never fully available, never fully complete. Foucault’s biopolitics draws out such notions in the realm of the social. Psychopower is nothing but a regressive innovation (which is to say, no innovation at all).

So what is to be done with In the Swarm? Certainly, it is problematic. Han’s emphases on asymmetry, responsibility, and distance are valuable, but the fact that he cannot conceive of these outside of a framework of power is troubling. His reliance on a shared ideology is similarly difficult to accept. He longs for the days of organized movements, but glosses over the violence of the “counterpower” that these movements wrought. He wants a revolution against the dominant system, and yet the revolution he seeks is one according to the same logic of the historical dialectic that produced the system we have now. Violence after violence after violence; as Derrida wrote, this describes not only the history of politics, but of metaphysics, even of philosophy generally. Dialectical, dichotomous thinking, incessant overturning of the old, or fighting against the new that seeks to do the same—we would be better served to follow Derrida in trying to avoid speaking, or Ellul and his ethic of nonpower, than Han. Han champions a modern sovereignty, but must sacrifice the particular to a homogeneity of the same. The heterogeneity of the asymmetrical hierarchy he laments is only permitted within such a totalizing dialectic, one that can only efface and ultimately eradicate difference. How then are we, in this digital age, to encourage the flourishing of the truly heterogeneous, of the plural and the multiple, of the fecund mess of the world, of bodies and faces and hands, of particulars and complexity—all of which is to say, of life? Han does not provide any fruitful solutions. But he sure plays some fun games with words.

Works Cited

Althusser, Louis. On the Reproduction of Capitalism: Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses. Verso, 2014.

Derrida, Jacques. “How to Avoid Speaking: Denials.” 1987. Translated by Ken Frieden, Derrida and Negative Theology, SUNY Press, 1992, pp. 73-142.

—. “ Violence and Metaphysics.” Writing and Difference. 1967. Translated by Alan Bass, Routledge, 2001.

Gadamer, Hans-Georg. Truth and Method. 1975. Bloomsbury Academic, 2013.

Han, Byung-Chul. In the Swarm. 2013. Translated by Erik Butler, MIT Press, 2017. Kindle.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. 1945. Translated by Donald A. Landes, Routledge, 2014.

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