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The Concept of “Power” in Byung-Chul Han’s Theoretical Perspective


INSIGHT #21 • JULY 2022

  • The ipse-component

The theoretical intention of the South Korean philosopher Byung-Chul Han is to think of a «flexible concept of power» that sets itself above the interpretations that traditionally see it collapsing on violence (Gewalt), freeing it from the usual violent and coercive meaning. Indeed, he writes in What is Power? that «for power (Macht) is usually meant the following causal relationship: the power of Ego gives rise to a certain behavior of Alter against the latter’s will»[1] and, clarifying his attempt to decouple the concept of “power” from that of coercion and violence, shortly afterwards he continues by stating that «the coercive model is not up to the complexity of power. Power as constraint is expressed in the imposition of one’s own decisions against those of the Alter»[2], but such a constraint (Zwang) cannot be taken as an exemplary model of the Macht. Power for Han is much more sophisticated. Gewalt is indeed one manifestation of the Macht, but just as the Macht is not exhausted in its simple and pure political component, in the same way it does not only include the Gewalt. On the contrary, according to Han, a self-asserting power can be so, that is to say, a Macht expressed by Ego over Alter that responds to the Nietzschean character of the Übermensch without necessarily collapsing into the Gewalt or the Zwang. The question is: in what way does this happen?

In What is Power? (2018) Han writes that «all forms of power are oriented towards the creation of a continuum and presuppose a self»[3]. According to Han, power (Macht) possesses a subjective component and is founded on the presupposed presence of a subject, an ipse: for this reason, power is always made explicit in the singular and expresses itself in the creation of new and different possibilities through expression and concretization. It is not possible to think of power without an ipse that expresses and concretizes it; in fact, how could power exist without a singularity that actualizes it and makes it possible?

Consequently, power necessarily presupposes the presence of an Ego: not only the nature of power necessarily presupposes an Ego that expresses it, vivifies it, actualizes it, but its nature is also for itself precisely ipse-centric, revolving around an ipse thematized in the singular as an Ego that expresses itself, expands itself, manifests itself. There can be no power without ipse which makes it possible: power is therefore ipse-centric.

The singular word “ipse” (self) defines in Han the “being-ipse-centric” of power: it concentrates itself in an ipse that enables its positive realization, its affirmation. However, the word “self” does not only identify an Ego, a human being or more generally a living being, but also a place (Ort, position). Han writes: 

The place “brings together by drawing to itself”. By attracting and bringing everything together, it forms an ipse-centric continuum. Drawing to itself and forming a continuum makes location a phenomenon of power. […] Each power structure is therefore ipse-centric[4].

Power requires either a person or a place in order to be exercised. In particular, the place in which power is concentrated, while possibly synthesizing in itself a plurality of elements or agents that in turn allow its subsistence, reaffirms its singular nature, its being ineluctably linked to a self expressed in the singular: this applies to Ego and to all those institutionalized structures that concentrate power in them, in themselves (self, ipse) and exercise it in different forms.

Now, how does the exercise of this ipse-centered power take place? If the power is ipse-centered, how could it express itself outside itself? Han answers:

Going beyond oneself is the fundamental trait of power. But the subject of power does not rely on it, does not get lost in it. Pushing beyond oneself is the gait of power and at the same time the act of rejoining oneself. This unity of pushing beyond self and rejoining self enlarges the space of the self. […] The power of the living consists in continuing beyond the self, in occupying more space with the self[5].

The exercise of ipse-centric power takes place by enlargement and continuation, exit and re-entry, by a twofold (dialectical) movement comprising first of all a push outward from within oneself and then a return inward from outside oneself. Who is the subject that performs this dual movement? Always Ego, whose movement of thrusting beyond itself takes place without loss of self: to paraphrase the language of Karl Marx, to eternize in loss would mean to alienate oneself and to bring something out of oneself without this process of externalization involving an addition, an enrichment, a realization on the part of the self that carries out this movement of externalization. This alienation entails a loss because what is alienated is diversified and made totally other than itself with respect to itself, thus excluding the possibility of a return to the self. However, for Han there is no alienation insofar as the exit outside the self is immediately accompanied by a return to the self which defines a personal enrichment, an addition, an expansion of the «space of the self». Through the continuation of the self and the return to the self, Ego expands its own space of the self: what is externalized by the self returns to it, enriching it and not dispersing it, completing it and not dismembering it. 

Expansion and enlargement are about the presence of something or someone outside oneself. Who? The Alter. How? For Han, Ego is able to form what he calls a “ipse-centric continuum”, whereby a bridge, an inter-medial space, a link, a relation, a dynamic bond would be created between the self in question and Alter. Trough the bridge, the continuum, Egowould be able to realize itself through Alter without negative loss and without alienation, while at the same time Alterwould voluntarily and spontaneously support Ego’s expansion as an expression of its freedom. In this, the exercise of the power is expressed. 

The expansion of Ego’s Macht is for Han an expansion towards Alter and then back to Alter in himself. Conversely, Alter’s free response to this expansion consists in willingly letting Ego find space in it. The philosopher’s reasoning continues in this regard: «the power makes Ego comfortable in the Other. It produces a continuity of the self […]. It enables the power-holder to return to himself in the Other»[6], rendering the ipse-centric power relation capable of also encompassing the binomial relation created between Ego and Alter: together, the Macht finds actualization and realization in a dialectical circle that begins in Ego, expresses itself through Alter and then returns to Ego. The exercise of the Machtfor Han is dialectically circular: it comprises the expansion of the self into Alter and the subsequent return to the self. 

It is thus possible to note Han’s attempt to semanticise a relationship with Alter while remaining within a ipse-centric perspective: in fact, saying that power tends towards mediation with Alter and not towards its violent subjugation or annihilation, his theory of power would seem to already have within it the attempt at an inter-subjective conciliation with Alter. But if this were the case, would this mean the disappearance of the purely ipse-centric character of power? This aspect of Han’s theory needs to be clarified: the theoretical ambiguity revolves around the type of relationship that Ego, extruding the Macht, creates with Alter.

  • The Vermittlung

Ego expands itself: doing so, it exercises the Macht. The exercise of the Macht occurs according to a dialectic of expansion of the personal and singular space of the self and return passing through Alter. In this sense, the structure of Ego’s exercise of the Macht is circular according to a dual wave-like movement of exit and return. But how is the relationship thus created between Alter and Ego?

This dialectical movement is made possible by Vermittlung: according to the philosopher, thanks to this ability Ego implements Macht by expanding into Alter. In English, the German word is translated as “inter-mediation”: it consists in Ego’s ability to extend itself into Alter without coercion, constraint, violence of one over the other. Here then emerges the type of relationship that, according to Han, characterizes the positive exercise of Macht. The philosopher writes: 

Power as constraint and power as freedom are not fundamentally different, they only differ in the level of mediation. They are different manifestations of a single power. All forms of power are oriented towards the creation of a continuumand presuppose a self. The lack of mediation produces constraint. When mediation is at its highest, power and freedom match. […] When mediation is severely lacking, human violence returns to characterize relations[7].

The Macht synthesizes inside itself both relationship that coincides with freedom and that which would be identified with submission. These components represent the two opposite poles of the same scale: on the one hand freedom, on the other submission, but both freedom and submission fall within the same power, only according to different degrees of inter-mediation. Thus, if a high degree of Vermittlung is present, Alter would allow Ego to expand into it, voluntarily choosing to submit to this process of ipse-centered extension. In this case, for Han, submission would coincide with the free choice to submit: given the free choice, then submission would not present violent or coercive characters. On the contrary, in the case of a deficient or absent capacity for mediation, the Macht would instead be exercised in coercion, in violence, in the assertion of Ego’s power over Alter: in such a case, the “continuum” that Ego would establish when it showed itself capable of a high level of inter-mediation would be lost. Here, the Macht would collapse on violence and Alter’s submission would become a coercive act of Ego’s force. 

Thus, the possibility of a positive relationship between Ego and Alter within the exercise of the Macht is theoretically present in Han’s theory: one that is capable of a high degree of Vermittlung. However, while speaking of inter-mediation, for the South Korean philosopher the focal point of the theoretical circle, its perspective focus, is still Ego and its Macht. The Macht always needs an ipse-component that extrinsicises it. For this reason, his theory departs profoundly from a relational theory of power (such as that present in Hannah Arendt’s theoretical perspective). It is true that he semantisises the possibility of a positive relation between Ego and Alter in the exercise of power but, at the same time, he rejects the theoretical possibility of a relational and communicative power. Power is for Han always to be considered primarily as ipse-centric. Only at a later stage does it become extrinsic in the relationship between subject and subject, and in a collectivity – which for Han is in any case united around a singular Ort that allows for the existence and mutual recognition of the collectivity. The ipse-component is always present, also and above all when Ego communicates with an Alter: although it includes in itself the possibility of an exit outside itself through Vermittlung, i.e., although it takes into account the categories of a relational and plural power, first and foremost the power is ipse-centric. The possibility of Alter’s response is traced and refunded within the ipse (organic or geographical) as the condition of possibility of the Macht. Without this presupposition, there would simply be no power.

The philosopher’s position is clear: the Macht is always the Macht of an ipse, of a self, of an Ego and is always possess a singular, subjective, ipse-centric meaning. Through Vermittlung, the relation of submission is not necessarily an expression of Gewalt: there is in fact a voluntary submission that happens when Ego, by extrinsicising itself, i.e., affirming its Macht, is capable of a high level of Vermittlung. On the other hand, if this does not happen, i.e., Ego attempts to continue itself in Alter through a low level of Vermittlung, then «human violence returns to characterize relations». Consequently, for Han, submission can coincide with freedom: if it is voluntary, it is free.

Synthesize the philosopher: 

Power is the capacity of what is alive to lose itself in the Other through multiple involvement, to continue itself through negative tensions. […] Self-determination does not have to go hand in hand with oppression or denial of the Other. It depends on the mediating structure. In the case of intense mediation, it is not negative or exclusive, but integrative[8].

If capable of Vermittlung, the Macht reconciles within itself possible conflicts by standing as a single gravitational pole capable of synthesising freedom and submission, Gewalt and Εἰρήνη. Agreement and submission, freedom and service would be considered as expressions of the same Macht according to different levels of Vermittlung

But then what is violence? Expression of the Macht according to a low level of Vermittlung or radical opposition to power? Han’s answer: the mere use of violence is neither synonymous with power nor part of its exercise. On the contrary, it is synonymous with powerlessness: violence is opposed to power and occurs where the level of Vermittlung is practically zero. It is used to implement constraint. According to the philosopher, the Macht could possibly express itself in the medium of Gewalt and in the form of Zwang, but it is never based on them: «it follows that power can have a repressive effect, however it is not based on repression»[9]

According to this way of thinking, the Macht would have no need to assert itself through violence, i.e. it would not immediately collapse into the Gewalt: the Macht would be that relationship of continuum that Ego would be able to realize in Alter, thus realizing itself, and that Alter would be able to establish with Ego, thus structuring itself. A mutual recognition without loss and alienation would be implemented between the two. The inter-mediation in turn would take place in Ego’s practical ability to expand into Alter, creating the situation in which Alter, voluntarily submitting to Ego, desires what it desires and wants what it wants. 

By the way, while not giving specific examples within Han’s work, a practical case could be that of the pair of lovers: in a pair of lovers, if there really is a love affair, there would be no will to affirm one over the other because, if there were, it would not be a love affair but a mutual struggle for dominance of one over the other. In such a case, there would be little Vermittlung for Han. If, on the other hand, there were a real love affair, both would contribute to the same will precisely because of the high level of inter-mediation that exists within the couple. Conversely, if the relationship were to begin to deteriorate and degenerate, Vermittlung would again fail. The moment the relationship deteriorates further, the will for violent assertion finally reappears, which would easily collapse on Gewalt.

  • The “Zarathustrian” power

Through the different levels of Vermittlung, Han’s Macht takes up, extends and completes Friedrich Nietzsche’s notion of (Wille zurMacht. However, Han’s view of the philosopher from Basel must be reported. For Han, in fact, Nietzsche «is obsessed with a form of power that is poor in mediation»,[10] i.e., with a Macht understood exclusively as an “affirmation-of-self” (Selbstbehauptung) that expresses itself in the form of the Πόλεμος, in a form that is poor in Vermittlung and essentially structured according to a polemology. If, for Han, Nietzsche’s merit in shedding light on the essential characteristics of power at a pre-philosophical level is undeniable, at the same time it is also evident to him how the Basel philosopher encloses himself within a polemological theory incapable of considering the possibility of different inter-relationships other than the Selbstbehauptung of the strong over the weak. Thus, Han partly assumes its essential characteristics, but also attempts to show its positive and constructive relational implications: Alter and Ego find themselves through that continuum that the power relationship is able to create between the two. In this sense, speculatively speaking, there is no longer a strong that expresses the Macht and a weak that suffers its activity passively because in their place is conceptualized a unity of strong and weak that finds realization through the high level of inter-mediation. 

Han thus posits a reconciliation of Nietzschean polemology: through Vermittlung this theoretical danger would be averted. What are the ultimate consequences of this philosophical move? The arrival, at the end of his work on power, at a so-called “Zarathustrian” and aristocratic conception of power. Indeed, the philosopher concludes: «the powerful love to give themselves as an expression of their power. […] In the act of giving, he enjoys himself»[11]. The powerful person who expresses power loves to give himself by expansion: the extreme giving in the singular of the powerful person already expresses his power. The aristocratic act of giving oneself coincides with the image of a chalice that, overfilled, begins to overflow and, overflowing because of its excessive fullness, pours out on others the noble effects of its own aristocratic qualities. Likewise, from the superabundance of (Wille zurMacht spring those virtuous qualities capable of defining the superior, noble and aristocratic man from the ignoble, low and miserable one. The powerful person gives because he has to give for the necessity of his true nature. Here there is no violence, no coercion, no submission, but only gift (Wille zur Liebe).

Given that in Han’s theory the description of Zarathustra’s Übermensch and his (Wille zurLiebe is encapsulated, it is inevitable to conclude that Han, although he initially distanced himself from Nietzschean polemology, remains deeply indebted to it. Indeed, once deprived of its most problematic component, namely that coercive dimension basically justified by Nietzsche’s anthropology, the Macht would thus be the violent – and coercive – free power of the superior man whose virtue, nobility, loftiness, aristocratism is impossible to resist.

[1] B. Han, What is power?, Polity Pr, London 2018, p. 9.

[2] Ivi, p 10.

[3] Ivi, 30.

[4] Ivi, pp. 114-115.

[5] Ivi, pp. 62-63.

[6] Ivi, p. 14.

[7] Ivi, p. 30.

[8] Ivi, p. 74.

[9] Ivi, p. 42.

[10] Ivi, p. 65.

[11] Cfr. ivi, pp. 127-135.