Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power by Byung-Chul Han****

Reading dates: 12–13 May 2018

Sometimes, in our Dialectical Materialist Book Group, we limit ourselves. The topic is always related to politics, we want to read full books (not just texts, although we let go sometimes), under 150 pages and contingent, relevant. How many good books are there that fit our criteria? Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power is perfect for us. It explores how we have left the disciplinarian society of biopolitics for a time of psychopolitics, where entrepreneurs of the self practise self-exploitation and self-surveillance. We are in the time of internal struggle, of mental health epidemics and this is evident to see. His argument — even though he draws on the same old Foucault and Deleuze in the same old way — is compelling, provocative and made us have an animated discussion. The issue, though, is that his solution, although interesting (to become an idiot, to be idiosyncratic), has not been feel tested and remains in the realm of the theoretical.

When communication is to be accelerated, idiosyncrasy poses an obstacle inasmuch as it amounts to an immunological defence against the Other. Idiosyncrasy stands in the way of unbounded communicative exchange. Accordingly, immunosuppression is necessary for acceleration to proceed.

I can think of many idiots out there who are not, most definitely not the solution to the new technologies of power (social media, the smart phone, Big Data) and the psychic turn of neoliberalism. He writes: ‘The idiot does not exist as a subject – he is “more like a flower: an existence simply open to light”‘. If only … Some idiots are not flowers, unless one thinks of a Venus Flytrap.

My favourite parts are his language digressions: in particular timeline versus event, immanence versus transcendence (what Capitalism aims to do), and emotion versus affect versus feeling. These last categories are all around us in speech, design, art, objecthood, but rather muddled:

Emotions are dynamic, situative and performative. Emotional capitalism exploits precisely these qualities. Feelings, in contrast, cannot be readily exploited inasmuch as they have no performativity. Finally, affects are not performative so much as eruptive; they lack performative directionality.

It made me think of the qualities of my own work, of what I put in it, on what sustains it.

The weirdest moment in the book, however, was this eerily accurate quote (replace jogging with yoga and see who it reminds you of):

From ages thirty-six to forty-five they are dynamic, get up early to go jogging, have no children but are married, like to travel, and watch Seinfeld.