A student petition made its way around the University of Notre Dame last month asking for filters to block pornography on campus wi-fi. This month Tumblr announced that it would ban pornography and most forms of nudity. It seems that porn is finally starting to be recognized for the danger that it is, and few have the ability to describe how its proliferation relates to the death of the erotic in Western culture as does the Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. His aphoristic turns of phrase cut to the bone of the issue. “The society of intimacy is a psychologized, deritualized society,” he writes in The Transparency Society. “It is a society of confession, of laying-bare, and the pornographic lack of distance.” It’s pithy sentences like that, which peer through the symptoms of the age in order to describe deeper maladies, that make every new Han translation an event in its own right.
Han’s latest release, What is Power? from Polity Press, might feel in some ways like a departure from his typically confident and controlled writing. It seems like his analytical abilities are clouded, that he’s searching for some phrase to unlock his insights. But the real issue is that, though the book is just now being published in English, it is one of Han’s earlier works. In What is Power? Han hasn’t yet found his aphoristic, almost Delphic, voice. That leaves him succumbing to some of the worst instincts of professional philosophers: jargon-laden writing that says simple things in overly complicated language, vagueness, and the inability to come fully out of the shadows of his influences.
So, no, What is Power? is not Han’s best work. It doesn’t even come close to comparing to The Agony of Eros or The Burnout Society. But it’s valuable nonetheless. Walter Benjamin wrote that the angel of history moves through time backwards, always seeing the world unfold in retrospect. What the publication of lesser early work from profound thinkers and artists gives us is a better sense of how their greatness came to be, how it developed through time. In What is Power? the seeds of Han’s future insights are obviously germinating. Four major aspects that he would later develop are of particular interest: his definition of power as a mediating field rather than a mechanical force, the notion that the influence of others can be experienced as a kind of secondhand freedom, a critique of Foucault’s overly simple notions of power, and the use of theology in expressing his ideas.
As the title suggests, this is a book about the nature and definition of power. Han makes his case in an overly complex way, but the ideas he’s expressing are quite simple. Too often we confuse force, or violence, with power. But violence is actually a breakdown of power. Han writes, “In contrast to naked violence, power can be associated with sense.” Power is the ability to project our subjectivity into the interiority of another—to make them participate, as it were, in our idea of reality. If this sounds abstract, just take the example of pornography again (although it isn’t a subject that Han addresses in this particular book). It’s powerful without being forceful or violent because it causes people to willfully participate in its “reality.” Two examples from literature might be 1984, a book about force, and Brave New World, a novel about power. Power seduces, and the more powerful it is, the less it needs to rely on actual physical force. A truly power person, Han writes, “does not simply elicit agreement, but enthusiasm and excitement.” And the illusion of exuberant freedom we feel as a result of sophisticated power, is really, Han explains, a sort of secondhand pleasure. What we’re actually experiencing is a sense of continuity as the organizing power develops within us. Hence the pathetic joys of the pornography addict.
His definition of power seems right, but the early Han relies too heavily on cliché. His current work still engages deeply with Nietzsche and Heidegger, but this Han seems too eager to incorporate their flaws into his thinking as well as their strengths. Out of mercy, I’ll spare you the long and tedious paragraph about Nietzsche’s conception of power as the ego piercing and conquering the alter (or other). But it’s shocking to the degree that Han swallows Nietzsche’s nihilism, an infinite refraction of the will to power through human consciousness, identity, and the great chain of being itself. Instead of turtles, it’s power all the way down. The current Han wouldn’t uncritically accept this.
Unfortunately, Han also accepts much of Foucault wholesale, a thinker who in his later writing almost brushes off contemptuously as one who mistakes violence for power. Perhaps it’s because Han couldn’t yet rely on his status or reputation to cover him while taking shots at such a beloved figure in the academy that he almost seems to pass off his own theories as a continuation or building upon of Foucault’s. Maybe at that point they actually were. Regardless, we still can make out the tiny fissures of disagreement that would later become a full-throated opposition to Foucault’s programmatic oversimplification of power relations, as when Han writes, “Because it is so focused to a large extent on the body, Foucault does not sufficiently take note of the power that creates habits at the symbolic level. Habitus refers to the totality of a social group’s dispositions or habits. It comes through an internalization of values or perceptions that are formed with regard to a particular order of rule.” That might seem like praising with faint damnation, but Han goes on in later books to develop this criticism into a full-bodied takedown, if you’ll pardon the pun.
Something that makes Han unique among contemporary philosophers is the seriousness with which he takes theology. We see this in What is Power? and it’s a redeeming quality of the book. Han uses Tillich to elaborate on what we said earlier about power being the projection of will, or sense, into another. A neurotic, a violent criminal, for instance, can only use force to impose his will (or as Han phrases it, achieve a “continuity of self”) in another. God, however, “would represent a figure at the highest point of mediation,” because God is paradoxically self-affirming through the very act of self-renunciation. It’s unclear whether Han is himself a believer, but it’s interesting nevertheless that he takes theological ideas seriously and, even early on in his career, uses them to define the limits of secular reasoning.
It’s no exaggeration to say that Han is one of the most relevant philosophers of our age, able to make diagnoses when other philosophers, particularly knee-jerk Foucauldian social critics in America, have trouble even seeing an illness. What is Power? is an important document of a philosopher still developing, still growing, though it’s nevertheless interesting in its own right. Han’s flops are better than most other philosophers’ greatest hits.
Still, there’s a noticeable lack of depth in What is Power? Near the beginning of the text, Han concurs with Nietzsche’s idea that the origins of language reside in our will to power. When man named the animals, he asserted some sort of domination over the Earth. Every utterance is a demand for order, a way of projecting sensibility onto the world. But the later Han, the one who references Proust so often, might have leavened the analysis with a bit of literary wisdom. Yes, sometimes language is an assertion of power, but just as often it’s a kind of self-deception, a way of rejecting or hiding from ourselves our very limited ability to control reality. Han is more open to this duality in his later works, and it’s fascinating to read him before he’s comfortable with the ambiguities of human frailty.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.