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the digital panopticon

In his essays 'The Burnout Society' ('Müdigkeitsgesellschaft', 2010) and 'The Transparency Society' ('Transparenzgesellschaft', 2012), Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han rethinks Michel Foucault's account of the workings of control for the digital age.

Han has long been a colleague of Peter Sloterdijk, but his books are slimmer and his prose more concise. What they do have in common is that in English translation their German fondness of concept-stringing-together creates some awkwardnesses.

Today's society of control possesses a distinct panoptic structure. In contrast to the occupants of the Benthamian panopticon, who are isolated from each other, the inhabitants of today's panopticon network and communicate with each other intensively. Not lonesomeness through isolation, but hypercommunication guarantees transparency. Above all, the particularity of the digital panopticon is that its inhabitants actively collaborate in its construction and maintenance by putting themselves on display and baring themselves. They display themselves on the panoptic market. Pornographic putting-on-display and panoptic control complement each other. Exhibitionism and voyeurism feed the net as a digital panopticon. The society of control achieves perfection when subjects bare themselves not through outer constraint but through self-generated need, that is, when the fear of having to abandon one's private and intimate sphere yields to the need to put oneself on display without shame.

This new and aperspectival panopticon makes no distinction between center and periphery: everything and everyone is equally illuminated by the colorless radiation of transparency. Crucially, in Han's symbolism, transparency is different from light. The old adage 'sunlight is the best disinfectant' doesn't apply to transparency, because whereas light also produces shadows - the positivity of exposure and definition is balanced by the negativity of concealment, vagueness, mystery - today's transparency seeks to be total, disrupting everything equally to create an obscene hypervisibility.

Transparency, fed by hyperinformation and hypercommunication, thus creates a new Gleichschaltung - or as Han also calls it, a "hell of sameness". In this respect it exacerbates the effect money has in a globalized, neoliberal economy. (Except of course for those who can, as Scott Fitzgerald put it, "retreat into their money", and remain invisible. The flattening effect of money seems to run into paradox when applied to the new global class of superrich.)

But the burnout society (or fatigue society, a more direct translation of 'Müdigkeitsgesellschaft') also mirrors the transparency society in another way: both follow this strange new logic of self-control and self-exploitation. Foucault's discipline and punish are still there, except that everyone now works as their own prison guard, or self-manager.

The society of transparency obeys the logic of the society of achievement [Leistungsgesellschaft] entirely. The achievement-subject [Leistungssubjekt] operates independently of external domination forcing it to work and exploiting it. One is the master and entrepeneur of oneself. However, the disappearance of the instance of domination does not lead to real freedom or the absence of constraint, for the achievement-subject exploits itself. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim collapse into one. Auto-exploitation proves more efficient than allo-exploitation because a feeling of freedom attends it. The achievement-subject subjects itself to freely willed, self-generated constraint. This dialectic of freedom also underlies the society of control. Utter auto-illumination functions more efficiently than utter allo-illumination because it is attended by the sensation of freedom.

In a third essay, 'Agonie des Eros' (2012 - not available in English), Han explores possible ways out. They hinge on his concept of positivity, which combines the neoliberal 'yes we can' mentality and the very 'definedness' (HD! 3D!) of the information age. In other words, a tyrrany of exhibition value.

What we need is more negativity, Han argues, in the sense of contrast, creating pairs of opposites instead of vast, distanceless sameness - more ambiguity and less definition, more theory and less data, more alterity and less self.

If that sounds too abstract, Han's example of ultimate alterity is the approaching planet in Lars von Trier's 'Melancholia'. A "dialectic of disaster" to save us from the hell of sameness.

monkey minds in the devil's time

Labeling music political seems to have become faintly distasteful, but Steve Mason (formerly of the Beta Band) aims straight for it on 'Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time' (2013).

Steve Mason - Monkey Minds in the Devil's Time

It's a sprawling concept album that develops from fragile childhood memories ('Lie Awake') to articulated political outrage ('Fire!', 'Fight Them Back'). It also continues the Beta Band's vintage 'future-folk' sound, mixing and matching anything from gospel ('Oh My Lord') to dub and rap ('More Money, More Fire', a concise explanation of the 2011 London riots).

On top of that songs are interspersed with voice samples, including a grim excerpt from Dante's 'Inferno' and a maddeningly smug Tony Blair. Oh, and some Brazilian Formula One commentary ('The Last of the Heroes'). At first the sound bytes seem to illustrate the album title - a Buddhist expression for an easily distracted mind - but the whole thing ends up tying together surprisingly well.

Monkey minds also hint at a root cause of today's disheartening apoliticality: people are just in a constant state of distraction. As Mason argued in an interview:

I don't know anyone who's attempting to really say anything in music today. I think, generally, the disappointing thing is the lack of any sort of expression about anything other than what Rhianna wore to the MTV awards. You see people talking about that in interviews as if it were a valid thing to talk about but it's just a way of keeping everyone behind the closed curtains. They know that if people got behind the curtain then – hopefully – some kind of change would happen, once they saw the filthy, disgusting, beast that's running the world!

urban wildflowers

Spoordijk Spangen, Rotterdam - 1

Spoordijk Spangen, Rotterdam - 2

Spoordijk Spangen, Rotterdam - 3

Spoordijk Spangen, Rotterdam - 4

Spoordijk Spangen, Rotterdam - 5

Spoordijk Spangen, Rotterdam - 6

A small area of urban wilderness on an abandoned railway embankment in Rotterdam Spangen.