Byung-Chul Han’s Critique of “Transparency Society”
Update: I wrote a more in-depth analysis and critique of Byung-Chul Han’s work in a later post Digital Humanism.
I’ve been reading a lot about Byung-Chul Han’s new book Transparency Society recently, in which the German philosopher critiques what he takes to be the unexamined rhetoric of transparency, perhaps exemplified by the Pirate Party, the marginal but boisterous political party founded on the platform of open information exchange.
I take it that the gist of his analysis is that the pro-transparency discourse of European and American society supposes a fundamental link between transparency, disclosure and security, and thereby posits transparency as an intrinsic moral good. But, he warns, transparency whets an insatiable appetite for uncovering and disclosure, promoting a society of nakedness or shamelessness that verges on pornographic. The sense of life becomes inflected with performance and display, and this devalues intimacy.
Even worse, the dialectic of transparency, which presumes disclosure, excludes the possibility of trust. Trust can only occur in a society that allows for the possibility of concealment.
Han views the rhetoric of transparency as a conceptual tool of Capitalism and a corollary of Neoliberalism, suggesting to the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung that it is intrinsically tied to increased productivity.
I am won over by the need to subject the concept of transparency to ideology critique, but I’m suspicious that Han has not sufficiently differentiated between different modes of transparency, which carry radically different implications.
First, there is the transparency that has been vaguely asserted by Facebook to be a social good, and I think Han’s aesthetic critique of the devaluation of intimacy into episodes of performance is relevant to this regime. We might also include reality television and the prurient interest the public seems to take in the personal lives of celebrities and politicians under this mode.
Second, there is the desire for transparency in businesses and government, which is driven by the legitimate and compelling public interest to monitor powerful organizations for serious abuses. Is there room in Han’s critique for whistleblowers or investigative journalism?
Third, there is the insistence by governments and industries that they be allowed ever-increasing access to the public’s personal information. Under this regime, we have the TSA maintaining that air travelers in the US must submit to body imaging scans, for example – only one of countless examples of the post-9/11 erosion of the privacy protections in the US.
As soon as we start differentiating between different transparency regimes, we find that most parties favor some forms of transparency and oppose others, and these asymmetries are instructive.
The US government, for example, increasingly supports the creation of a massive surveillance infrastructure with ever-greater access to private communications, while simultaneously making ever-increasing demands that it be allowed to conduct its own affairs in secrecy. Examples of the latter include Obama’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers and the recurring use of state secrecy claims to circumvent lawsuits. State secrecy provisions have even been asserted to prevent disclosing the DOJ’s legal rationale for matters of urgent public interest.
We cannot simply lump all of these together as an amorphous rhetoric of transparency.