Achievement Society

Today’s society is no longer Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories. It has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories. Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer “obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves. The walls of disciplinary institutions, which separate the normal from the abnormal, have come to seem archaic. Foucault’s analysis of power cannot account for the psychic and topological changes that occurred as the disciplinary society transformed into achievement society. (8)

Byung-Chul Han | The Burnout Society


The Total Panopticon

No community, in the strong sense, can form in the society of transparency. Instead, chance gatherings or crowds of isolated individuals, or egos, emerge; they pursue a mutual interest or cluster around a product line (“brand communities”). These groups are different from assemblies, which might yet prove capable of mutual political action, of constituting a “we.” They lack spirit. Gatherings such as brand communities constitute an additive formation without any inner density. Consumers voluntarily give themselves over to panoptic surveillance that steers and satisfies their needs. On this score, social media prove no different from panoptic machines. Communication and commerce, freedom and control, collapse into one. Opening up relations of production to consumers suggests reciprocal transparency; however, it ultimately turns out to be the exploitation of the social. The social degrades into a functional element within the process of production and undergoes operationalization. It chiefly serves to optimize relations of production. The illusory freedom of consumers lacks all negativity. They no longer constitute an outside that might question the systemic inside.

Today the entire globe is developing into a panopticon. There is no outside space. The panopticon is becoming total. No wall separates inside from outside. Google and social networks, which present themselves as spaces of freedom, are assuming panoptic forms. Today surveillance is not occurring as an attack on freedom, as is normally assumed. Instead, people are voluntarily surrendering to the panoptic gaze. They deliberately collaborate in the digital panopticon by denuding and exhibiting themselves. The prisoner in the digital panopticon is a perpetrator and a victim at the same time. Herein lies the dialectic of freedom. Freedom turns out to be a form of control. (49)

Byung-Chul Han | The Transparency Society

Ritual and Intimacy

The society of intimacy mistrusts ritualized gestures and ceremonial conduct. They strike it as external and inauthentic. Ritual takes place as action with externalized forms and expression that have a de-individualizing, depersonalizing, and depsychologizing effect. Those who participate in ritual practice “expressive action,” yet this does not mean that they have to put themselves on display and stand exposed. The society of intimacy is a psychologized, deritualized society. It is a society of confession, laying-bare, and the pornographic lack of distance. (36)

Byung-Chul Han | The Transparency Society

Figure and Eros

Figural garb eroticizes the Word. It raises it to an object of desire. The Word exercises a more seductive effect when disguised figurally. The negativity of concealment transforms hermeneutics into erotics. Discovering and deciphering occur as pleasurable laying-bare. In contrast, information stands naked. The nudity of the Word strips it of all appeal. It flattens it. The hermetics of mystery does not equal diabolism to be eliminated at all costs in favor of transparency. It creates symbolism — indeed, it represents a singular cultural technique — which generates depth (even if it may prove illusory). (19-20)

Byung-Chul Han | The Transparency Society


In the society of positivity, things become commodities; they must be displayed in order to be; cult value disappears in favor of exhibition value. Bare existence has no meaning as far as exhibition value is concerned. Whatever rests in itself — that is, remains what it is [bei sich verweilt] — possesses no value. Value accrues only insofar as objects are seen. The compulsion for display that hands everything over to visibility makes the aura — the “appearance of a distance” — vanish entirely. Exhibition value, which signals the fulfillment of capitalism, cannot be derived from the Marxian opposition between use value and exchange value. It is not use value because it stands removed from the sphere of utility; it is not exchange value because it does not reflect any labor. It exists thanks only to the attention it produces. (9)

Byung-Chul Han | The Transparency Society