top of page
  • Joshua Pauling

Technology, the Body, and the Modern Condition: What Christians can Learn from Byung-Chul Han



We don’t have to look far for evidence of social breakdown and cultural crisis. And there is no shortage of commentators pointing the finger in a variety of directions. Some of the most insightful evaluations of our modern predicament come from Byung-Chul Han, who cuts through the noise in his pungent and prophetic works of philosophical reflection. As Gesine Borcherdt explains, “Han didn’t need to wait for a pandemic to describe how we are voluntarily tied to our laptops, how we exploit ourselves in the neoliberal home-office mode, how this makes us feel creative, smart and connected while we cover up our feelings of precarity with swipes and likes; he did that more than a decade ago.”[i]

 

When read with discernment, his works offer especially keen insights and frameworks of analysis that can resonate with Christian readers and provide them with fresh ways of understanding and responding to so many of our modern problems. What follows is a brief introduction to Han and his work, focusing in on three domains where his ideas are especially helpful. Namely, in understanding the formative power of technology, the centrality of the body, and the nature of the modern condition.

 

Who is Byung-Chul Han?

A philosopher and cultural theorist born in South Korea yet residing in Germany since the 1980s, Han is a bit of an enigma, with a lifestyle at odds with modernity’s pace. He lives life slowly, spending much of his time tending his plants, playing the piano, going for walks, and writing a few poetically precise sentences each day. This is what he calls “living life backwards” which he thinks puts him closer to living rightly since modernity pushes us into an “upside down life.”[ii] I think this is a major factor that enables him to perceive modern pathologies and problems so keenly. Han calls himself a “realist who perceives the world the way it is,” and explains that his “task as a philosopher is to explain what kind of society we live in.” Philosophy, as he sees it, “is truth-speaking.”[iii] Han accomplishes his task in a unique style that is part poetry, part philosophy—and always pithy.

 

Han also occupies a somewhat unique position in today’s world that defies typical Right-Left categorization. He is not an ideologue from either side. This is partly because of Han’s bridging of multiple worlds: East and West; art and philosophy; theology and politics. Though Han has developed his ideas over decades, interest in his work has grown as weighty questions about technology, anthropology, democracy, and more are intensifying.

 

The Formative Power of Technology

In one of his most well-known books, In the Swarm, he writes that digital technology, “is reprogramming us, yet we fail to grasp the radical paradigm shift that is underway. We are hobbling along after the very medium that, below our threshold of conscious decision, is definitively changing the ways that we act, perceive, feel, think, and live together. We are enraptured by the digital medium yet unable to gauge the consequences of our frenzy fully.”[iv] While efficient and convenient, slick and smooth, the digital medium leads “us to avoid direct contact with real people,” and “strips communication of tactility and physicality.” Such “digitality radically . . . dismantles the real.”[v] Han goes beyond simple critiques of this new device or that piece of content, as he pulls back the curtain on technology’s formative power in shaping how we think of and experience ourselves, others, and the world. This is vital, especially for Christians who frequently focus on critiquing the content of what is available online, without a real consideration of the form itself. For Han, the form is the deeper issue that works in dehumanizing directions.

 

Han also frequently notes the religious character of digital interactions. He calls constant technological engagement a “liturgical gesture” that catechizes users to conclude that “I have the world firmly in my grip. The world has to accord with my desires.”[vi] Swiping, clicking, posting, speaking to Siri, taking selfies—all of these actions accumulate into a series of liturgical-like habits that shape one’s life. Ironically, by means of our devices, Han even suggests “we continue to go to confession. We expose ourselves voluntarily, yet we’re no longer asking for forgiveness, but rather for attention.”[vii] And, I would add, affirmation and acceptance. Han goes further: “social media is a church: like is ‘amen’; sharing is communion; consumption is salvation. The repetition . . . gives the whole affair the character of a liturgy.”[viii] We are being catechetically trained and liturgically formed towards autonomy and disembodiment. To counter such influences, Han suggests reclaiming the importance of human embodiment and presence, which resonates with the Christian understanding of body’s goodness and the centrality of God’s bodily self-revelation in Christ.

 

The Centrality of the Body

With the digital revolution advancing, Han is concerned that we are “experiencing the transition from the age of things to the age of non-things.” In his signature style he writes, “we no longer dwell on the earth and under the sky but on Google Earth and in the Cloud.”[ix] Data, algorithms, and analytics rule. Even objects become receptacles of data. “Smart” refrigerators track your eating habits and tell you when to buy more milk. So too, our bodies become info-terminals via wearable and implantable technologies that quantify every aspect of bodily life from heart rate to sleep cycles. The endless information that accumulates in all the devices and objects surrounding us, and that is used for the careful curation of our personal identities, causes Han to wonder if “we are headed towards a trans-human and post-human age in which human life will be a pure exchange of information.”[x] Our sense of self and identity is so mediated and molded by digital technologies that it has little to do with real bodies and real places.

 

But Han sees this as a precisely anti-human outcome, since the body plays an inimitable role in what it means to be human. Han argues that “without bodily touch, no ties can emerge,” and that “community has a bodily dimension.” But, “because of its lack of corporeality, digital communication weakens community.” Han focuses in specifically on the importance of eye contact—what he calls, the gaze.  “The gaze stabilizes community,” and, he argues, “the absence of the gaze is partly responsible for the loss of empathy in the digital age.”[xi] In the face of disembodied and dualistic understandings of the self, Han calls for reclaiming the body and external forms. There must be something real that provides meaning beyond the self-referential creations of the human will. Han flips the script, moving from the inside-out nature of self-understanding today, to an outside-in approach. Here we can see Han’s philosophical realism—that things really exist outside of our minds, and that humans best flourish when their lives align with reality. Han puts it this way: “We may imagine a ritual turn that re-establishes the priority of forms. It would invert the relationship between inside and outside, spirit and body.”[xii] All of this is to say that your embodied self is who you are. You are given an identity and a form. The world itself is given too, and has in-built structures that imbue life with meaning and enchantment as we participate in them.

 

The Nature of the Modern Condition

Another thread woven throughout Han’s work is an analysis of neoliberalism, which he defines as a “further development—indeed a mutated form—of capitalism” that has “discovered the psyche as a productive force.”[xiii] As Han sees it, neoliberalism is a system built around the self, where the appearance of freedom and liberation mask the mechanisms of control. He calls this the “psychic turn—that is, the turn to psychopolitics,” where “perpetual self-optimization . . . amounts to a beautiful but deceptive illusion” that is actually “a highly efficient mode of domination and exploitation.”[xiv] This leads Han to argue that both Marxist and Foucauldian analyses of capitalism, power, and politics are too imprecise for today’s world. He writes, “today, we live in a post-Marxist age. In the neoliberal regime, exploitation no longer takes place as alienation and self-derealization, but as freedom, as self-realization and self-optimization. Here there is no Other as an exploiter, forcing me to work and alienating me from myself; rather, I voluntarily exploit myself in the belief that I am realizing myself. This is the diabolical logic of neoliberalism.”[xv] Similarly, Han argues that “Foucault’s analysis of the disciplinary society can no longer explain our present. . . .[Foucault’s] disciplinary regime works with commands and restraints. It is oppressive. It suppresses freedom. The neoliberal regime on the other hand is not oppressive, but seductive and permissive. It exploits freedom instead of suppressing it. We voluntarily and passionately exploit ourselves believing that we fulfil ourselves. . . . Foucault did not see that.”[xvi] Here Han shows his willingness to let the truth take him where it may, instead of being captured by one ideology or another.

 

Han further contemplates achievement and optimization in The Burnout Society, where he argues that “achievement society is the society of self-exploitation. The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out.”[xvii] While society promises complete autonomy and the removal of sources of oppression or repression, this “absence of external domination does not abolish the structure of compulsion. It makes freedom and compulsion coincide. The achievement-subject gives itself over to freestanding compulsion in order to maximize performance. In this way, it exploits itself. . . . Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient.”[xviii] So, in the name of freedom and self-making, we end up as enslaved exploiters of ourselves, which makes for anything but freedom and flourishing. Here, Han’s insights align with the Christian conviction that true freedom is found not in abolishing limits or seeking self-interest, but in embracing the limits and purposes stitched into our nature, and found in human relationships of giving and receiving.

 

Evaluation

More could be said about Han. But suffice it to say here that much of his work, when read carefully, has application for Christians. His evaluations of the personal, cultural, and political conditions of our moment provide fresh ways of understanding and responding to what we are seeing, and frequently (though not always) are rooted in a realism that resonates quite nicely with classical Christian understandings of God, man, and the world. So too, his analyses of rituals, embodiment, and technology run parallel to the arguments we might give for liturgical and sacramental worship rooted in local parishes.

 

When it comes to critique, it is true that many of Han’s works are variations on a theme, and some of the same concepts and neologisms find their way into multiple books. For anyone who has kept up with Han’s output of short monographs each year, it can get repetitive at times. It seems to me that themes reappear as he holds them up like diamonds to the light and discovers new dimensions worth elucidating further.

 

Also, I wish Han unpacked his arguments more. He drops bombs and leaves much of the shrapnel for readers to sort out. I know that his brevity and punch are intentional, as he explains: “Why do you write a 1,000-page book if you can enlighten the world in a few words?”[xix] His books usually come in at under 100 pages and are really compilations of essays. On one hand, this helps make his dense writing digestible in bite-sized chunks. Yet on the other hand, further development would help show the reader how he arrived there.

 

Despite these critiques, Han’s work potently reminds us how we frequently exploit ourselves in the name of freedom, how we exhaust ourselves in the name of individuality, and how the techno-structures of modern life form us in ways that are inconsistent with human flourishing—and I would add, inconsistent with the deepest reality of the cosmos, which is the Christian story. In our digitized and disoriented world, reclaiming thick forms of Christian belief and practice that incorporate our physical bodies and physical places is necessary for us to withstand the onslaught of the machine and rightly live as human beings, fully alive.


[i] Gesine Borcherdt, “Byung-Chul Han: ‘I Practise Philosophy as Art,’” Art Review, Dec 2, 2021, https://artreview.com/byung-chul-han-i-practise-philosophy-as-art/.

[iii] Borcherdt, “Byung-Chul Han,” Art Review.

[iv] Byung-Chul Han, In the Swarm: Digital Prospects (MA: MIT Press, 2017), ix.

[v] Han, In the Swarm, 22.                       

[vi] Byung-Chul Han, Non-Things: Upheaval in the Lifeworld (MA: Polity Press, 2022), 19.

[vii] Borcherdt, “Byung-Chul Han” Art Review.

[viii] Byung-Chul Han, Infocracy: Digitalization and the Crisis of Democracy (MA: Polity Press, 2022), 7.

[ix] Han, Non-Things, 22.

[x] Han, Non-Things, 72.

[xi] Han, Non-Things, 16, 20-21.

[xii] Byung-Chul Han, The Disappearance of Rituals: A Topology of the Present (MA: Polity Press, 2020), 22.

[xiii] Byung-Chul Han, Psychopolitics: Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power (NY: Verso, 2017), 25.

[xiv] Han, Psychopolitics, 25, 28.

[xv] Han, The Expulsion of the Other: Society, Perception and Communication Today (MA: Polity Press, 2018), 38

[xvi] Borcherdt, “Byung-Chul Han,” Art Review.

[xvii] Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society (CA: Stanford University Press, 2015), 46-47.

[xviii] Han, The Burnout Society, 49.

[xix] Borcherdt, “Byung-Chul Han,” Art Review.


Joshua Pauling is a classical educator, furnituremaker, and contributing writer at Salvo Magazine and Modern Reformation. He has written for FORMA, Classical Lutheran Education Journal, Front Porch Republic, LOGIA: A Journal of Lutheran Theology, Mere Orthodoxy, Merion West, Public Discourse, Quillette, The Lutheran Witness, Touchstone, among others. He studied at Messiah University, Reformed Theological Seminary, and Winthrop University. He is currently vicar at All Saints Lutheran Church (LCMS) in Charlotte, NC and is completing additional studies through Concordia Theological Seminary towards ordination. He and his wife Kristi have two children.

1 comentario


csklingerman96
04 may

This offers some wonderful insights; I had not connected the dots to realize that freedom and oppression come together into self-exploitation in our society. It is a fascinating concept. The claims that social media use is religious, comparing likes to "amens" and so on, was also intriguing. I am not sure I quite understand how it is liturgical and catechetical, however. I would love to see that expounded on. The most thought-provoking part of the essay was the focus on physical contact and presence with one another. In thinking about how to approach that from a Christian perspective, I was reminded of Paul's instruction to "Greet one another with a holy kiss." Through Christ and the mass we are in…

Me gusta
bottom of page