Critique of Swarm – Part 1

The following is a first part of a critique of Byung-Chul Han’s In the Swarm. This will respond to the first chapter.


“Respect presupposes a distanced look – the pathos of distance. Today, it is yielding to the obtrusive staring of spectacle…. A society without respect, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for the society of scandal. Respect forms the foundation for the public, or civil, sphere. When the former weakens, the latter collapses. The decline of civil society and a mounting lack of respect are mutually conditioning. Among other things, civil society requires respectfully looking away from what is private. Taking distance is what constitutes the public sphere.” (1)

“According to Carl Schmitt, sovereignty is a matter of deciding when a state of exception holds. […] Sovereignty means being able to produce absolute quiet – eliminating all noise and making all others fall silent in a single stroke.” (5)

Schmitt’s concern of sovereignty is a naturalized view of human operations: sovereignty must assert itself. For Schmitt, when any human grouping lacks sovereign decision, it will descend into a state where it cannot address anything and the sovereign must emerge to institute decision (one may think of Heidegger’s condemnation of “chatter” [das Gerede] which must be silenced). Within these references to Schmitt we discover the previous musings on respect in the nature of power to be passing Schmitt off as Foucault with contrast to a Deleuze-Guattarian rhizomatic and affective form of digital communication:

“Inasmuch as letters are tied to the analog medium of writing, they are named events. Anonymous letters are readily discarded. Moreover, letters possess a different temporality. As the writer laboriously composes a missive by hand or on a typewriter, immediate agitation and excitement pass. In contrast, digital communication enables affective discharge right away. On the basis of its temporality alone, it conveys impulsive reactions more than analog communication does. In this respect, the digital medium is a medium of affect.”(3)

“As a medium, power ensures that communication flows speedily in one direction. The choices effected by the intendant of power are followed silently, as it were, by the subjects of power. […] The best shield against the shitstorms would be charisma – that is, an auratic expression of power. Charisma prevents shitstorms from brewing up in the first place. The presence of power increases the likelihood that my decisions will be accepted by others. As a medium of communication, power increases the probability of yes, given the possibility of no. […] As a medium of communication, respect operates in a manner that is similar to power. The person granted respect holds views or makes decisions that are commonly accepted and taken on without contradiction or objection. Often, the respected individual provides an example to be followed.” (4)

First, while Foucault did take up Sovereignty as a topic of discussion, but it is not strictly commensurable with his notion of power. “The problem of sovereignty […] serves only to mask the real transformation in the operation of power which takes place with the emergence of the bourgeois state: it conceals the expansion and consolidation of a disciplinary power, of an ever-tightening coercive control of the body and of normalizing ‘technologies of behavior’. […] Foucault’s argument is that any theory of sovereignty or self-determination must be abandoned, since the ‘free subject’ upon which such theories rely is in fact intrinsically heteronomous, constituted by power.” (Peter Dews, “Power and Subjectivity in Foucault”)

As we shall see, Han’s considerations on respect will also draw more explicitly upon Foucault, but Han fails to account for the positive and negative accounts of power in Foucault’s trajectory as a theorist. Hence he seemingly fails to account for the capacity for a “respect” that comes from power that institutes a “civil society” and a simultaneous power that constitutes domination and control. How is it that the individual can be composed solely by power without being a subject, but also a subject? How does the political relate back to this monism that “dissolves the link between power and oppression and desire and liberation, and therefore the political content of the concepts themselves?” (Dews)

By subsuming Schmitt into Foucault, Han disguises the necessarily centralized and political form of decision into a decentralized force of individual situations constituted as a “civil society” wherein forces play against one another while ensuring “respect.” This is a further extension of the contradiction already present in the Foucault-ian power relation where “if self-identity is considered to be inherently repressive of a desire theorized as boundless flux, then any collective construction of a new form of social identity can only appear as a further form of repression; while if a subject-constituting power is seen as the principle of any conceivable social system, then the thawing of a frozen pseudo-autonomy is no longer even a possibility.” (Dews) Han attempts to play the later against the first without taking a real account of either. Respect supposedly constitutes a symmetrical recognition through distance: “Unlike power, respect does not necessarily imply asymmetrical conditions. Respect is often felt for role models or superiors, yet mutual respect is possible based on symmetrical recognition. Accordingly, a ruler may even have respect for those he rules. Today, the shitstorms that are bubbling up everywhere point to the fact that we are living in a society without mutual respect. Respect commands distance. Both power and respect make space; they are distance-creating communicative media.”(5) There is no true account, however, of what constitutes respect, or of the possibility wherein societies built upon respect first-and-foremost could include a homogenous core of those who respect one another while removing those who are deemed unworthy of respect. The sovereign ability to cut through chatter is opposed to a primordial chaos of “shitstorm” that bubbles up and must be held at bay (a periodized manifestation of “boundless flux” or social entropy like Heidegger’s “chatter” or Hobbes’ “state of nature”) but the self-same sovereign respect is dispersed into what itself becomes an origin-less expression that permeates through “charisma” instead of “desire” or “pleasure.”

We should likewise look at how the counterpoised digital, dark variation of the rhizome, of affect, is also a problematic representation of the digital infrastructure. It is not simply that non-hierarchical, wave-driven networks have failed and realized themselves as a terrible swarm of unintended consequences. It is that the very assumption that this form – in its positive or negative representations – models the internet well at all.

‘To…centred systems, the authors contrast acentred systems, finite networks of automata in which communication runs from any neighbourhood to any other, the stems and channels do not pre-exist, and all individuals are interchangeable, defined only by their situation at a given moment – such that the local operations are co-ordinated and the final global result synchronised without a central agency.’ (Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, A Thousand Plateaus; quoted in Barbrook)

Early attempts at schizo-politics through de-centered networks was Guattari’s work with Radio Alice: an unlicensed Italian community radio that operated on time and resources provided by volunteers, encouraging communities to create their own shows, and bringing in listener call-ins. This was not particularly unusual as the free radio movement was picked up in many places as a general part of counterculture. However, for Guattari, the free radio was explicitly theorized as a project of unleashing desire and giving a space of unlimited expression to incite rebellion and revolt – the project was put down. Guattari, undeterred, would attach himself to the French project Radio 93 in Paris with a lobbying organization, the FNRL. In 1981, after the socialist political victory in France, the FNRL managed to lobby for laws ensuring no advertising on radio and that all new licensed radio shows had to come out of volunteer groups with no internal financing – they were to be gift economies only. With a new license and no fear of financial corruption, the pirate radios around FNRL were molded into Frequence Libre. Again, the project quickly failed. The radio could not acquire the fiscal resources to stay afloat, volunteers had other responsibilities, and they couldn’t acquire an audience with their political rhetoric that was dominated by Guattari’s self-sectarianism. (Richard Barbrook, “The Holy Fools”)

Rhetoric about the new nomadism of the net and the digital have subsequently been picked up, continuing this trend. The digital avant-garde upholds the net as the crux of destabilization, non-identity, gift-economies, libidinal explosion; as these projects fail Han turns it around and locates the networked flow as its dark opposite. The wave, the uncontrollable, the multiple, all this is taken as fact, but as that which eliminates a necessary sovereign for “order.” Of course, in reality, all these spaces and communications – even going back to the Frequence Libre – have revealed themselves to operate aristocratically. Either they make concessions to capital, taking in revenue, or they exist as insular groups with hierarchical demands. The sovereign voice of insular political unity collapses under the demand of the market or the stronger sovereign decision of the state. Today, the majority of digitized information is still under the control of market interests. Copyright is the simplest example, but data extraction (most of which is sold) is even more pervasive. From the fiefdom of the message board to the kingdom of the Google campus, it is a tightly controlled hierarchy that is the dystopic potential within digital networks. This should be the starting point of analysis that seeks to connect digital activity to political disintegration.

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