Transparency is the order of the day. It is a term, a slogan, that dominates public discourse about corruption and freedom of information. Considered crucial to democracy, it touches our political and economic lives as well as our private lives. Anyone can obtain information about anything. Everything—and everyone—has become transparent: unveiled or exposed by the apparatuses that exert a kind of collective control over the post-capitalist world.
Yet, transparency has a dark side that, ironically, has everything to do with a lack of mystery, shadow, and nuance. Behind the apparent accessibility of knowledge lies the disappearance of privacy, homogenization, and the collapse of trust. The anxiety to accumulate ever more information does not necessarily produce more knowledge or faith. Technology creates the illusion of total containment and the constant monitoring of information, but what we lack is adequate interpretation of the information. In this manifesto, Byung-Chul Han denounces transparency as a false ideal, the strongest and most pernicious of our contemporary mythologies.
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The Transparency Society
By Byung-Chul Han, Erik Butler
STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESSCopyright © 2012 MSB Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlagsgesellschaft mbH
All rights reserved.
THE SOCIETY OF POSITIVITY
No buzzword dominates contemporary public discourse so much as "transparency." Above all, it is emphatically invoked in connection with the freedom of information. The omnipresent demand for transparency, which has reached the point of fetishism and totalization, goes back to a paradigm shift that cannot be restricted to the realm of politics and economics. Today the society of negativity is yielding to a society that progressively dismantles negativity in favor of positivity. Accordingly, the society of transparency manifests itself first and foremost as a society of positivity.
Matters prove transparent when they shed all negativity, when they are smoothed out and leveled, when they do not resist being integrated into smooth streams of capital, communication, and information. Actions prove transparent when they are made operational — subordinate to a calculable, steerable, and controllable process. Time becomes transparent when it glides into a sequence of readily available present moments. This is also how the future undergoes positivization, yielding an optimal presence. Transparent time knows neither fate nor event. Images are transparent when — freed from all dramaturgy, choreography, and scenography, from any hermeneutic depth, and indeed from any meaning at all — they become pornographic. Pornography is unmediated contact between the image and the eye. Things prove transparent when they abandon their singularity and find expression through their price alone. Money, which makes it possible to equate anything with anything else, abolishes all incommensurability, any and all singularity. The society of transparency is an inferno of the same.
Whoever connects transparency only with corruption and the freedom of information has failed to recognize its scope. Transparency is a systemic compulsion gripping all social processes and subjecting them to a deep-reaching change. Today's social system submits all its processes to the demand for transparency in order to operationalize and accelerate them. Pressure for acceleration represents the corollary of dismantling negativity. Communication reaches its maximum velocity where like responds to like, when a chain reaction of likeness occurs. The negativity of alterity and foreignness — in other words, the resistance of the Other — disturbs and delays the smooth communication of the Same. Transparency stabilizes and speeds the system by eliminating the Other and the Alien. This systemic compulsion makes the society of transparency a calibrated society. Herein lies its totalitarian trait: "New word for Gleichschaltung: Transparency."
Transparent language is a formal, indeed, a purely machinic, operational language that harbors no ambivalence. Wilhelm von Humboldt already pointed to the fundamental in transparency that inhabits human language:
Nobody means by a word precisely and exactly what his neighbour does, and the difference, be it ever so small, vibrates, like a ripple in water, throughout the entire language. Thus all understanding is always at the same time a not-understanding, all concurrence in thought and feeling at the same time a divergence.
A world consisting only of information, where communication meant circulation without interference, would amount to a machine. The society of positivity is dominated by the "transparency and obscenity of information in a universe emptied of event. "Compulsion for transparency flattens out the human being itself, making it a functional element within a system. Therein lies the violence of transparency.
Clearly the human soul requires realms where it can be at home without the gaze of the Other. It claims a certain impermeability. Total illumination would scorch it and cause a particular kind of spiritual burnout. Only machines are transparent. Eventfulness and freedom, which constitute life fundamentally, do not admit transparency. Thus, Humboldt also observes of language:
[A] thing may spring up in man, for which no understanding can discover the reason in previous circumstances; and we should ... violate, indeed, the historical truth of its emergence and change, if we sought to exclude from it the possibility of such inexplicable phenomena.
The ideology of "postprivacy" proves equally naïve. In the name of transparency, it demands completely surrendering the private sphere, which is supposed to lead to see-through communication. The view rests on several errors. For one, human existence is not transparent, even to itself. According to Freud, the ego denies precisely what the unconscious affirms and desires without reserve. The id remains largely hidden to the ego. Therefore, a rift runs through the human psyche and prevents the ego from agreeing even with itself. This fundamental rift renders self-transparency impossible. A rift also gapes between people. For this reason, interpersonal transparency proves impossible to achieve. It is also not worth trying to do so. The other's very lack of transparency is what keeps the relationship alive. Georg Simmel writes:
The mere fact of absolute knowledge, of full psychological exploration, sobers us even without prior intoxication, paralyzes the vitality of relations. ... The fertile depth of relationships, which senses and honors something more, something final, behind all that is revealed ..., simply rewards the sensitivity [Zartheit] and self-control that still respects inner privacy even in the most intimate, all-consuming relationship, which allows the right to secrets to be preserved.
Compulsive transparency lacks this same "sensitivity" — which simply means respect for Otherness that can never be completely eliminated. Given the pathos for transparency that has laid hold of contemporary society, it seems necessary to gain practical familiarity with the pathos of distance. Distance and shame refuse to be integrated into the accelerated circulation of capital, information, and communication. In this way, all confidential spaces for withdrawing are removed in the name of transparency. Light floods them, and they are then depleted. It only makes the world more shameless and more naked.
Autonomy presumes one person's freedom not to understand another. Richard Sennett remarks: "Rather than an equality of understanding, a transparent equality, autonomy means accepting in the other what you do not understand, an opaque equality." What is more, a transparent relationship is a dead one, altogether lacking attraction and vitality. A new Enlightenment is called for: there are positive, productive spheres of human existence and coexistence that the compulsion for transparency is simply demolishing. In this sense, Nietzsche writes: "The new Enlightenment. ... It is not enough to recognize in what ignorance man and animal lives; you must also learn to possess the will to ignorance. You must understand that without such ignorance life itself would be impossible, that under this condition alone does the living preserve itself and flourish."
It has been demonstrated that more information does not necessarily lead to better decisions. Intuition, for example, transcends available data and follows its own logic. Today the growing, indeed the rampant, mass of information is crippling all higher judgment. Often less knowledge and information achieves something more. It is not unusual for the negativity of omitting and forgetting to prove productive. The society of transparency cannot tolerate a gap [Lücke] in information or of sight. Yet both thinking and inspiration require a vacuum. Incidentally, the German word for happiness [Glück] derives from this open space; up until the Late Middle Ages, pronunciation revealed as much [Gelücke]. It follows that a society that no longer admits the negativity of a gap would be a society without happiness. Love without something hidden to sight is pornography. And without a gap in knowledge, thinking degenerates into calculation.
The society of positivity has taken leave of both dialectics and hermeneutics. The dialectic is based on negativity. Thus, Hegel's "Spirit" does not turn away from the negative but endures and preserves it within itself. Negativity nourishes the "life of the mind." Spirit has "power," according to Hegel, "only by looking the negative in the face and tarrying with it." Such lingering yields the "magical power that converts it into being." In contrast, whoever "surfs" only for what is positive proves mindless. The Spirit is slow because it tarries with the negative and works through it. The system of transparency abolishes all negativity in order to accelerate itself. Tarrying with the negative has given way to racing and raving in the positive.
Nor does the society of positivity tolerate negative feelings. Consequently, one loses the ability to handle suffering and pain, to give them form. For Nietzsche, the human soul owes its depth, grandeur, and strength precisely to the time it spends with the negative. Human spirit is born from pain, too: "That tension of the soul in unhappiness which cultivates its strength, ... its inventiveness and courage in enduring, persevering, interpreting, and exploiting suffering, and whatever has been granted to it of profundity, secret, mask, spirit, cunning, greatness — was it not granted through suffering, through the discipline of great suffering?" The society of positivity is now in the process of organizing the human psyche in an entirely new way. In the course of positivization, even love flattens out into an arrangement of pleasant feelings and states of arousal without complexity or consequence. Alain Badiou's In Praise of Love quotes the slogans of the dating service Meetic: "Be in love without falling in love!" Or, "You don't have to suffer to be in love!" Love undergoes domestication and is positivized as a formula for consumption and comfort. Even the slightest injury must be avoided. Suffering and passion are figures of negativity. On the one hand, they are giving way to enjoyment without negativity. On the other, their place has been taken by psychic disturbances such as exhaustion, fatigue, and depression — all of which are to be traced back to the excess of positivity.
Theory in the strong sense of the word is a phenomenon of negativity, too. It makes a decision determining what belongs and what does not. As a mode of highly selective narration, it draws a line of distinction. On the basis of such negativity, theory is violent. It is "produced to prevent things ... from touching" and "to redistinguish what has been confused." Without the negativity of distinction, matters proliferate and grow promiscuously. In this respect, theory borders on the ceremonial, which separates the initiated and the uninitiated. It is mistaken to assume that the mass of positive data and information — which is assuming untold dimensions today — has made theory superfluous, that is, that comparing data can replace the use of models. Theory, as negativity, occupies a position anterior to positive data and information. Data-based positive science does not represent the cause so much as the effect of the imminent end of theory, properly speaking. It is not possible to replace theory with positive science. The latter lacks the negativity of decision, which determines what is, or what must be, in the first place. Theory as negativity makes reality itself appear ever and radically different; it presents reality in another light.
Politics is strategic action. For this reason alone, it inhabits a realm of secrecy. Total transparency cripples it. The "postulate of openness," Carl Schmitt wrote, "finds its specific opponent in the idea that arcana belong to every kind of politics"; "political-technical secrets ... are in fact just as necessary for absolutism as business and economic secrets are for an economic life that depends on private property and competition." Only politics amounting to theatocracy can do without secrets. In such a case, however, political action gives way to mere staging. An "audience of Papagenos," in Schmitt's phrasing, makes the arcanum vanish:
The eighteenth century staked much on self-confidence and the aristocratic concept of secrecy. In a society that no longer has such courage, there can be no more "arcana," no more hierarchy, no more secret diplomacy; in fact, no more politics. To every great politics belongs the "arcanum." Everything takes place on stage (before an audience of Papagenos).
It follows that the end of secrecy would be the end of politics. Accordingly, Schmitt demands of politics more "courage to secrecy."
As the party of transparency, the Pirate Party is continuing the move toward the postpolitical; this amounts to depoliticization. It is an antiparty, a party without color. Transparency is colorless. Convictions do not gain entry as ideologies, but only as ideology-free opinions. Opinions are matters of no consequence; they are neither as comprehensive nor as penetrating as ideologies. They lack cogent negativity. Therefore, today's society of opinion leaves what already exists untouched. "Liquid democracy" displays flexibility by changing colors according to circumstance. The Pirate Party represents a colorless party of opinion. Here politics yields to administrating social needs while leaving the framework of socio-economic relations unchanged and clinging to them. As an antiparty, the Pirate Party proves unable to articulate political will or to produce new social coordinates.
Compulsive transparency stabilizes the existing system most effectively. Transparency is inherently positive. It does not harbor negativity that might radically question the political-economic system as it stands. It is blind to what lies outside the system. It confirms and optimizes only what already exists. For this reason, the society of positivity goes hand-in-hand with the postpolitical. Only depoliticized space proves wholly transparent. Without reference, politics deteriorates into a matter of referendum.
The general consensus of the society of positivity is "Like." It is telling that Facebook has consistently refused to introduce a "Dislike" button. The society of positivity avoids negativity in all forms because negativity makes communication stall. The value of communication is measured solely in terms of the quantity of information and the speed of exchange. The mass of communication also augments its economic value. Negative judgments impair communication. Further communication occurs more quickly following "Like" than "Dislike." Most importantly, the negativity that rejection entails cannot be exploited economically.
Transparency and truth are not identical. Truth is a negative force insofar as it presents and asserts itself by declaring all else false. Further information — or simply an accumulation of information — produces no truth. It lacks direction, that is, sense. Precisely because of the lacking negativity of what holds true, positivity proliferates and propagates. Hyperinformation and hypercommunication attest to lack of truth — indeed, to lack of being. More information, or more communication, does not eliminate the fundamental absence of clarity of the whole. If anything, it heightens it.CHAPTER 2
THE SOCIETY OF EXHIBITION
According to Walter Benjamin, it is "more important" for cult objects to "be extant" than to "be seen." "Cult value" depends on existence, not on exhibition. The practice of locking sacred items in an inaccessible room, and thereby withdrawing them from visibility, heightens their cult value. For example, some images of the Madonna remain covered almost all year. Only priests may approach certain divine statues. Negativity implemented through separation (secret, secretus), fencing-off, and isolation constitutes cult value. 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.
Excerpted from The Transparency Society by Byung-Chul Han, Erik Butler. Copyright © 2012 MSB Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlagsgesellschaft mbH. Excerpted by permission of STANFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents
The Society of Positivity,
The Society of Exhibition,
The Society of Evidence,
The Society of Pornography,
The Society of Acceleration,
The Society of Intimacy,
The Society of Information,
The Society of Unveiling,
The Society of Control,