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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.


In 'The Story of My Heart' (1883) Richard Jefferies coined the term ultra-humanity to describe how

...a great part, perhaps the whole, of nature and of the universe is distinctly anti-human. The term inhuman does not express my meaning, anti-human is better; outre-human, in the sense of beyond, outside, almost grotesque in its attitude towards, would nearly convey it.

John Fowles paid homage to it in 'The Tree' to explain human uneasiness with wilderness, and our impulse to domesticate or destroy it. "It may sound paradoxical," he wrote, "but we shall not cease to be alienated - by our knowledge, by our greed, by our vanity - from nature until we grant it its unconscious alienation from us."

'The Story of My Heart' is a strange book. It could be called a spiritual autobiography, part nature mysticism, part homegrown philosophy - or what Jefferies himself calls "soul-thought". The beginning especially reads like an English 'Walden', but by a writer whose illness made him obsessed with vigor (he even attempts to reason mankind to immortality). The youthful exuberance of novels like 'Bevis' has here become a defiant vitalism, like a tragic character in D.H. Lawrence or Knut Hamsun.

The book contains reminiscences of his experiences in the country and the human "vortex" of London, as well as several chapters of metaphysical speculation. Though these are less surefooted, it's fascinating to follow his struggle with putting the ineffable into words.

For Jefferies the idea of ultra-humanity is connected with the lack of design he perceives in nature, in a universe ruled by chance. Hence it also implies the absence of a god. From this atheist position, however, he looks for some controlling instance that is

...not force in the sense of electricity, nor a deity as god, nor a spirit, not even an intelligence, but a power quite different to anything yet imagined.

Here he clearly runs into the limit of expressibility. (This happens several times in the book, until the claim that what he means is "quite different to anything yet imagined" starts sounding a bit childish.) But it's almost as if he wants to deify the physical laws of the universe. Again, he imagines

...a force without a mind. I wish to indicate something more subtle than electricity, but absolutely devoid of consciousness, and with no more feeling than the force which lifts the tides.

His attempt to find a new balance of abstract divinity ultimately fails, simply because the moment he gives his idea any attributes it topples over to one of either sides, physical or divine. For instance when he describes it as "something better than a god. There is something superior, higher, more good" - without realizing this would threaten an infinite regress of "deities all the way up", instead of "turtles all the way down".

'The Story of My Heart' confirmed Jefferies' reputation as both an atheist and a mystic - no doubt equally scandalous in Victorian England. Evelyn Underhill, in her work on mysticism, later reproved him for what he "apprehended in these moments of insight, yet somehow contrived to miss". But his attempt to express his intuitions in his own terms, completely outside the Christian mystical vocabulary, anno 1883, is still heroic.

The Story of My Heart
The earth and sun were to me like my flesh and blood, and the air of the sea life.
With all the greater existence I drew from them I prayed for a bodily life equal to it, for a soul-life beyond my thought, for my inexpressible desire of more than I could shape even into idea. There was something higher than idea, invisible to thought as air to the eye...

Woodcut illustration by Gertrude Hermes (from an aging Penguin).

the midsummer hum

They started. Mark lifted his spear, Bevis his bow. A deep, low, and slow sound, like thunder, toned from its many mutterings to a mighty sob, filled their ears for a moment. It might have been very distant thunder, or a cannon in the forts far away. It was one of those mysterious sounds that are heard in summer when the sky is clear and the wind soft, and the midsummer hum is loud. They listened, but it did not come again.
"What was that?" said Mark at last.
"I don't know; of course it was something magic."

Richard Jefferies' novel 'Bevis' (1882) has long been a childhood classic, though its unique depiction of the world of boyhood is more about than for children. It also contains some of Jefferies' most lyrical descriptions of nature.

A large part of the book's charm lies in the way Jefferies inhabits the imagination of its heroes, Bevis (named after the medieval hero Sir Bevis of Hampton) and his friend Mark. As they explore the English countryside in a great voyage of exploration that takes them to the New Nile and New Formosa (a little islet in a pond) where savages, tigers and water monsters roam, as well as kangaroos (rabbits), Jefferies faithfully follows the boys' naming and fantasizing of their world.

The only other book to carry this through with such realism and conviction might be the Dutch 'Kees de jongen' (1923) by Theo Thijssen, which is also set in the late 19th century. Though that takes place in an urban environment (Amsterdam's Jordaan) while 'Bevis' is quintessentially about the natural world (Coate, Swindon).

This immersion in the world of children also means the boys often behave amorally (in the sense of premoral, not immoral), and their treatment of animals and children is at times callous to the point of cruelty. In fact, for modern readers the book's Victorian social strictures as well as the boys' hunting sprees, which has them basically shooting at anything that moves, may make for some cringing reading.

But Jefferies, who in other works revealed himself an eccentric nature mystic, clearly loves the rural scenery and wildlife he describes. (It's just that he is from the age when observing and shooting were seemingly synonymous. As he wrote elsewhere, "woods and fields lose half their interest without a gun".)

And while he stays with the boys' perspective throughout, the adult author now and then takes over to wax lyrical on matters of the cosmos.

They listened: the wood was still; so still, they could hear a moth or a chafer entangled in the leaves of the oak overhead, and trying to get out. Looking up there, the sky was blue and clear, and the sunlight fell brightly on the open space by the streamlet. There was nothing but the hum. The long, long summer days seem gradually to dispose the mind to expect something unusual. Out of such an expanse of light, when the earth is tangibly in the midst of a vast illumined space, what may not come? - perhaps something more than is common to the senses. The mind opens with the enlarging day.

The hum is "the loud midsummer hum in the sky" - not the modern hum of distant highways or overhead jets, but perhaps something like the insect ambiance of Yeats' "bee-loud glade". It recurs throughout the book, most of which takes place over the course of a summer, and often signals moments of heightened awareness. Moments when the boys pause in their activities to look and listen, and the midsummer, midday sun seems to suspend time in a motionless now where only sound continues.

Though there was not a breath of wind under the boughs, yet the sound of the fall now rose, and now declined, as the water ran swifter or with less speed. Sometimes it was like a tinkling; sometimes it laughed; sometimes it was like voices far away. It ran out from the woods with a message, and hastening to tell it, became confused.
The forget-me-nots and the hart's-tongue, the beeches and the firs, listened to the singing. Something that had gone by, and something that was to come, came out of the music and made this moment sweeter. This moment of the singing held a thousand years that had gone by, and the thousand years that are to come. For the woods and the waters are very old, that is the past; if you look up into the sky you know that a thousand years hence will be nothing to it, that is the future. But the forget-me-nots, the hart's-tongue, and the beeches, did not think of the ages gone, or the azure to come. They were there now, the sunshine and the wind above, the shadow and the water and the spray beneath, that was all in all. Bevis and Mark were there now, listening to the singing, that was all in all.

sonian forest

Sonian Forest - 1

Sonian Forest - 2

Sonian Forest - 3

Sonian Forest - 4

Sonian Forest - 5

Sonian Forest - 6

The Sonian Forest (Zoniënwoud, Forêt de Soignes) stretches south of Brussels in vast tracts of cathedral-like beechwood, not unlike the Klever Reichswald, except the city's proximity is felt in some rudely dissecting highways.

Part of the Sonian Forest is the old forest-arboretum of Groenendaal, which contains some impressive trees from all corners of the world. This is also the site of the ancient Groenendael Priory, once home to Jan van Ruysbroeck.

A walking-paced documentary / promo film about the forest is 'Forêt en Ville' (in French/Dutch).


Long under the radar, this 'side project' with members including Colin Newman (Wire) and Robin Rimbaud (Scanner, here on guitar) has already churned out four albums since their debut EP. Githead makes hypnotic guitar pop with a post-rock twist - art pop as one of their album titles branded it - combining deep droning grooves, spun-out jams and lyrics by turns dreamy and caustic. Fellow veterans Yo La Tengo might be an unlikely reference.

A few highlights: from 'To Have And To Hold' and 'This Is A Cause (These Are Effects)' via 'Option Paralysis' (whose pre-crisis lyrics ask: "Our new crisis / Is it conscience or control?") and 'Drive By' (with its exasperated refrain: "You are overloaded in your inbox today, you understand nothing in your inbox today") to 'Take Off', from their standout album 'Landing' (2009).

And that's all before 2014's pleasantly rough-edged 'Waiting For a Sign'.

be passers-by

The massive gate to the Mughal ghost-palace of Fatehpur Sikri, the Buland Darwaza, contains a curious Christian inscription - or rather, an Islamic inscription quoting Jesus:

Jesus, son of Mary (on whom be peace) said: "The world is a bridge, pass over it but build no houses upon it. He who hopes for a day may hope for eternity; but the world endures but an hour. Spend it in prayer, for the rest is unseen."

This saying is part of a surprisingly large body of Jesus wisdom in Islamic literature; Jesus who is after all an important Muslem prophet who features prominently in the Quran. In 'The Muslem Jesus', Tarif Khalidi collected some 300 sayings and stories ascribed to Jesus. The oldest sayings in the collection, which Khalidi dubs the Muslem Gospel, date back to the second century AH. From this Islamic perspective Jesus emerges as a rather composite character who diverges from the Biblical Christ and is variously portrayed as a wandering ascetic, a wonder doctor and a devout proto-Muslem.

Buland Darwaza, Fatehpur Sikri, India

The bridge simile occurs twice in 'The Muslem Jesus', most famously by Al-Ghazali (logion 220), but prior to that in a saying from Ibn Qutayba (logion 99), though Khalidi adds that it "is ascribed to al-Hasan Al-Basri by al-Mubarrad (d.285/898), a contemporary of Ibn Qutayba."

Christ said: "The world is a bridge. Cross this bridge but do not build upon it."

From here, the saying, or motif has been connected to the Gospel of Thomas, logion 42, the shortest and among the most mysterious in this non-canonical gospel, which leaves the bridge unmentioned but merely states:

Jesus said: "Be passers-by."

The Gospel ascribed to the Apostle Thomas (who in an unrelated legend was said to have travelled as far as India and introduced Christianity there) was discovered as part of the Coptic Nag Hammadi collection. Its Gnostic and often puzzling sayings ("These are the secret words which the living Jesus spoke") have been the source of endless comment, as they reveal a Jesus very different from the Biblical one, more akin in fact to the Muslem ascetic.

In today's Wikipedia parlance, "some scholars believe" that the Gospel of Thomas betrays Buddhist influences - though the same has been said about Manichean, Zoroastrian, Neoplatonic and many other strands in the religious tapestry of the Middle East circa first century.

Intriguingly, however, it would suggest that this particular image of transience and detachment came full circle in sixteen centuries, from unknown Eastern origins, recorded by an early Christian, spread back east by Muslems and preserved in stone by an emperor famed for his religious tolerance.

the mind made a swing

Between the poles of the conscious and the unconscious, there has the mind made a swing:
Thereon hang all beings and all worlds, and that swing never ceases its sway.
Millions of beings are there: the sun and the moon in their courses are there:
Millions of ages pass, and the swing goes on.
All swing! the sky and the earth and the air and the water; and the Lord Himself taking form:
And the sight of this has made Kabir a servant.

- Kabir, from 'Songs Of Kabir' (online / pdf) translated by Rabindranath Tagore (1915).

Kabir, the fifteenth century mystical poet from Benares (Varanasi) who claimed to be both "the child of Allah and of Ram", but also stressed that God was to be found "neither in Kaaba nor in Kailash". As Evelyn Underhill wrote in her introduction to the volume:

Living at the moment in which the impassioned poetry and deep philosophy of the great Persian mystics, Attar, Sadi, Jalalu'ddin Rumi, and Hafiz, were exercising a powerful influence on the religious thought of India, he dreamed of reconciling this intense and personal Mohammedan mysticism with the traditional theology of Brahmanism.

In this poem (#16), the dazzling imagery of infinity and the primacy of the mind (even God is suspended from the mind's swing) are deeply Vedantic, while the image of a cosmic swing appears to have been a favorite of Kabir, and he returned to it in different variations. But even though his swing might be "held by the cords of love", it doesn't take away from the rebellious, anti-dogmatic nature of his poetry. Here's another, more confrontational poem (#42), which exposes the two religious institutions of Hinduism and Islam in one fell swoop:

There is nothing but water at the holy bathing places; and I know that they are useless, for I have bathed in them.
The images are all lifeless, they cannot speak; I know, for I have cried aloud to them.
The Purana and the Koran are mere words; lifting up the curtain, I have seen.
Kabir gives utterance to the words of experience; and he knows very well that all other things are untrue.

After his death, legend has it that a sectarian fight took place over Kabir's dead body. Underhill comments, with a hint of sarcasm:

His fate has been that of many revealers of Reality. A hater of religious exclusivism, and seeking above all things to initiate men into the liberty of the children of God, his followers have honoured his memory by re-erecting in a new place the barriers which he laboured to cast down. But his wonderful songs survive, the spontaneous expressions of his vision and his love; and it is by these, not by the didactic teachings associated with his name, that he makes his immortal appeal to the heart.

crown of thorns

Doornenkroon / Crown of Thorns - 1

Doornenkroon / Crown of Thorns - 2

Behold, a modern miracle: Christ in the Drain Pipe, with a crown of thorns that beatifies this standard issue hostile architecture.

Seen in Rotterdam.