In the Swarm. Outrage Society.
Reading 'In the Swarm' by Byung-Chul Han © 2017 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
This is the first article in a short series (of four), unpacking the major themes of Byung-Chul Han’s book
by Samuel Johns and Adrian Petrice
A swarm of bees is a phenomenon that fascinates – and can still elude – serious scientific study. Why? Swarming is not a straight-forward affair. In a swarm of bees, up to 20,000 bees are on the move when a colony splits in two. The behaviour of the bees is peculiar.
To start with, 20 to 50 scout bees will go on the hunt for a new, suitable location for a colony. To start with this may be only 30m or 40m from the original hive. An individual scout bee will return to the natal nest and use the “waggle dance” to indicate the distance, direction, and quality of the proposed new location, to the cluster. If others are convinced, they will follow. The queen bee will be protected at all costs during the flight.
Swarming mostly happens during the spring – and can be followed up with secondary afterswarms or cast swarms. These are usually smaller and accompanied by a virgin queen. The workers will be depleted in this process, and may even perish if swarms continue in succession.
Finally, the flight patterns of the bees – both the scout bees and the worker bees – leave much to be studied and understood by modern science.
Why entitle his book “In the Swarm” then?
The ability to fly in a swarm, navigate complex flight paths with thousands of other bees around, and operate as an individual entity in a larger collective whole, remains of fascination. This is the key point Byung-Chul Han picks up on.
We shall unpack four aspects of the thesis of Byung-Chul Han on social media and its effects on society. These are:
- Outrage society
- Homo Digitalis, and the flight into the image
- From the hand to the finger
- A move from subject to project
We will expand on each in separate articles.
Byung-Chul Han (2017) writes that modern-day digital behaviours reflect much of the organized chaos and intent of a swarm of bees. The interactions of the queen bee, the scout bees, the depleted worker bees, and their flight together to a new, novel location, is often replicated in the masses, swarming on social media. The structure of this swarm is what interests Han, in particular.
His thesis in this book proposes that modern-day digital life radically restructures the Lacanian triad. This is the triad of meaning, founded on the real, the imaginary, and the symbolic. Han writes that digitality dismantles the real and totalizes the imaginary. Meaning is at stake.
Let us rewind a little. The French sociologist Gustave Le Bon defined modernity as “the age of the crowds”. In 1895 he wrote his seminal work “The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind” which for a century remained key reading in crowd psychology. His work suggests that crowds, left to themselves, have shown themselves incapable of realising. Despite this, they operate with intent and with a unified sense of spirit (or one could say soul), gathering and uniting.
Byung-Chul Han goes a step further. He suggests that the digital swarm does not constitute a mass nor a crowd, because no soul—no spirit—dwells within it. The soul gathers and unites. In contrast, the digital swarm comprises isolated individuals.
Han (2017) writes: “It takes a soul, a common spirit, to fuse people into a crowd. The digital swarm lacks the soul or spirit of the masses. Individuals who come together as a swarm do not develop “a we”. No harmony prevails—which is what welds the crowd together into an active entity. Unlike the crowd, the swarm demonstrates no internal coherence. It does not speak with a voice. Accordingly, it is perceived as noise”.
Han goes further still. He suggests that the “electronic citizen is a man [sic] whose private identity has been psychically erased by over-involvement”. Writing on the idea of Homo Digitalis, Han suggests that the individual actor is not anonymous, or a nobody. Rather, “he retains his private identity, even when forming part of the swarm. Although he expresses himself anonymously, as a rule he has a profile—and he works ceaselessly at optimizing it. Instead of being nobody, he is insistently somebody exhibiting himself and vying for attention”.
Yet this concentration on self – this focus on the individual – can be deeply detrimental.
Han suggests that whilst the mass has power, and the crowd has a sense of conviction (to march, to demonstrate, to protest), the digital swarm lacks all resolve. Han opines: “because of their fleeting nature, no political energy wells up”. Further, this means that online swarms often bypass dominant power relations, and target or strike individual persons instead, who are unmasked, trolled, or made to be items of scandal.
This critique runs throughout the book.
Byung-Chul Han (2017) is concerned that the subjects of our neo-liberal economy no longer constitute “a we” that is capable of collective action. The mounting “egoization and atomization of society is making the space for collective action shrink”. Han continues: “contemporary society is not shaped by multitude so much as solitude. The general collapse of the collective and the communal has engulfed it. Solidarity is vanishing. Privatization now reaches into the depths of the soul itself”.
It is this charge that we are going to consider in this book review.
Byung-Chul Han builds his concept of society on the sociological role of distance. He suggests that distance is a precursor to respectful interaction (the opposite of curious staring), which in turn allows for civility and society. A society without respect, however, without the pathos of distance, paves the way for a society of scandal. Respect forms the foundation for the public, or civil, sphere, ensuring trust is not eroded, and that civility binds together the general public.
Han writes: “taking distance is what constitutes the public sphere. Today, however, a complete lack of distance and deference prevail: intimate matters are put on display, and the private is made public. Let us call it a matter of stance: without distance, it is impossible to be in good standing. Understanding also requires a distanced perspective. Across the board, digital communication is abolishing distance and distances”.
When distance proves lacking, the public and the private become confused. Digital communication heightens this confusion, by fostering a pornographic display of intimacy and privacy on public networks (albeit curated, selected networks). Social networks can wind up being exhibition rooms for highly personal, intimate matters.
What Han calls the “outrage society” is in truth a society of scandal. It lacks bearing – or in other words, has no understanding of reserve or posture. The fractiousness, hysteria, and intractability that characterize waves of outrage do not admit tactful or matter-of-fact communication; they bar dialogue and discourse. Narrative dissolves. Only transparent “truth” is allowed.
Yet far from being productive, this can engender deep instability.
Those who are outraged do not form a “stable we” who are displaying concern for society, as a whole. Rather, enraged citizens, even though they are citizens, ignore collective concerns and demonstrate concerns only for themselves, rather than for the entirety of the social body. As such, the fits of outrage (or of anger, protest, demonstration, conviction) of late-modern society are increasingly fleeting and scattered. They emerge in fits and starts. Outrage lacks the mass—the gravitation of the crowd—that is necessary for action. Han writes in condemning tones (questioning our participatory democracy no less): “it generates no future”.
Part 2 of this review will follow soon. Watch this space.