Thursday, March 30, 2023
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< view full issue: Transparency
Antonio Pacheco

"The Society of Transparency", commentary on the book by Byung-Chul Han

Amateur Philosopher

Transparency, a quite fashionable word lately. Thus, suddenly, it seems a positive term that evokes in others the ideas of sincerity, truth, honesty, virtue even... stretching the term considerably. Its semantic opposite, opacity, would then take on a pejorative meaning, associated with concealment, falsehood, concealment... lies. Transparency precludes deception, stands up to be counted, is synonymous with honesty, or does it? The German philosopher, as he has already done with the work already commented, shows us that things are not as simple as they seem, and that just as the excess of positivity had its dark and pathological side, also transparency has its "dark" side.

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"Time becomes transparent when it is graded as the succession of an available present, and the future is also positive as an optimum present." Transparent time is a time that is devoid of all destiny and events, dramatics, choreography and stage design, of all hermeneutic depths, in all senses, become pornographic. Pornography is the immediate contact between the image and the eye. Things become transparent when they are stripped of their singularity and are fully expressed in the money dimension, which makes everything comparable to everything else, suppresses any immeasurable traits, any uniqueness of things. "The society of transparency is the hell of equality"

It is clear that the term "transparency" has some connotations in B.C.'s interpretation. They are much richer, more complex and unsuspected than at first sight. After a powerful start, the book is disconnected from the usual use of the term to take us quickly to other places, to the deep waters of the open sea where the German philosopher unfolds as if he had been born in them. He admits, after reading the first and short chapter, this reader, like a pugilist, felt on the edge of technical knock-out. If the previous work shone in meanings, this one is already overflowing, if one of the objectives of thought and philosophy in particular consists in the establishment of links between different information and apparently disconnected data, the development of meaning and meaning that sheds new light and give meaning where it seemed there was none, the author, professor at the University of the Arts in Berlin, provides us with a truly masterful lesson in this diminutive work.

Transparency is not associated with any virtue

Thus we will see how terms like capitalism, transparency, positivity, exposure, pornography, acceleration, intimacy, information, revelation... and finally control are intermingled. Each of the small chapters in which this little essay is divided, which does not reach 100 pages, analyzes an aspect of the current society in relation to a certain epithet and shows the logical path that the author has followed to reach their conclusions, if a server were a reader more expert in philosophical works would seem that some of them are truly brilliant, as of course I am not, I have to assert such thing with some precaution ;-)

Images become transparent when, liberated from all dramaturgy, choreography and stage design, of all hermeneutic depth, of all senses, they become pornographic

For example it seems to me precious its apology of the mystery in the word as opposed to the simple dry and naked information... a sign of "transparency":

"The figurative cloak eroticizes the word, elevating it to the condition of an object of desire." The word acts with greater seductive power when it is figuratively clothed. "The negativity of the hidden transforms hermeneutics into something erotic. The nakedness of the word takes away all charm, it flattens it".

A bitter defence of the mystery, of the concealment... not for evil and self-interested ends, but rather to endow that which is hidden with greater grandeur and meaning. It also defends intimate space, of not revealing everything, of the need of the veiled to be discovered through the effort of interpretation, defence of distance, necessary distance... transparency, taken in the sense of the author, that makes it synonymous with equalization, mechanising, loss of meaning, forced positivity, something flat and blunt, without sharp edges... but also without depth, bland and poor. No... by no means Byung-Chul Han associates transparency with no virtue at all in their essay, with no intrinsic good. In a quite debatable way, it even vehemently defends concealment in political strategy, since total transparency impedes any strategy, makes us enter into the of "post-political" field.. to simple cold, calculating and aseptic technocratic administration.

The most important thing derived from transparency: control

The book, after an intellectual journey in which we will witness the most unsuspected consequences and meanings of its central term, ends up in its prediction for the future... if chapter by chapter has been revealing aspects of the current society in relation to Transparency, aspects such as exposure and evidence, pornography (not in the purely sexual sense but rather as the broad term of the superficial exhibition society), acceleration (another undesirable result of superficiality and lack of depth), intimacy and revelation; the book is locked into its conclusion in the most important issue of all derived from transparency: control.


It was the British philosopher Jeremy Benthan who imagined a quite special penitentiary dedicated not only to punishment and the defence of society before the criminal elements, but also to their re-education. He called the same "panoptic", word derived from the Greek term pan "todo" and optical "vision". It consisted of a series of cells, incommunicado to each other, that were exposed before a central patio where a surveillance construction was erected. This construction was constantly occupied by jailers who subjected the prisoners to a constant vigilance, night and day, and without them, and this was the most important thing, they could know at any particular moment if they were being watched or not.

The guards had the prisoners' cells before them, but the prisoners never knew when they were looking at them. The idea of Jeremy, who was a good man, father of philosophical utilitarianism and in no way a sadist, was that this pressure of constant vigilance would end up creating habits of virtuous life in the inmates that would later allow their reinsertion into society with guarantees of success... It goes without saying that this objective was not fulfilled, although Benthan obtained something that he had not really intend, that their penitentiary design was copied not only in prisons, but also in asylums, hospitals, schools, factories... wherever surveillance is deemed necessary, due to the economy provided by the design.

The whole globe was grown in a huge panopticon

Through the Internet, social networks, ubiquitous surveillance cameras and other gadgets, today's society have transformed in reality not only the panopticon imagined by Bentham, but also the "Big Brother" surveillance system deamed up by George Orwell In their excellent novel, 1984,... Moreover, such unidirectional and asymmetric surveillance systems in which a few watch over many have been improved by the current control society, or drifting towards it, a society in which for the sake of transparency, the powerful monitor from above... but themselves are increasingly watched from below, and also where surveillance is not enforced coercively as in Benthan models and cameras imagined by Orwell, but they are the same guarded ones who voluntarily undergo surveillance in exchange for a turn to monitor others... As in the society of fatigue, fruit of the excess of self-imposed positivity where each individual was also their own personal dictator, under the illusion of freedom, in a society of transparency, each individual voluntarily submits themselves to surveillance under the illusion of greater control.

Under the illusion of freedom, in a society of transparency, each individual voluntarily submits themselves to surveillance under the illusion of greater

"Today, the entire globe develops to form a great panopticon". There is nothing outside of the panopticon, it becomes everything. "No wall separates the inside and the outside. Google and social networks, which have the appearance of free spaces, adopt panoptic forms. Today, contrary to what we normally suppose, vigilance is not carried out as an attack on freedom, but rather each of us voluntarily surrenders to the panoptic view, as we undress and expose ourselves".

The best: another brief but dense work, similar to concentrated Oxo cubes or the apparently inedible dehydrated food consumed by the astronauts who, after adding hot water, turns those dry portions into appetizing dishes... They contribute to what is solid and seemingly dead, the liquid of life in the form of thought that the reader has to put. It is interesting to read the German author and amuse yourself time and again in his appetizing compressed texts, full of ideas, but the time saved in reading the brief extensions of his work in relation to the work of other philosophers, to rereading and interpretation, is well worth it.

The worst: Readers not accustomed to philosophical subjects should abstain, those more versed and experts may already prefer works of greater scope... For my part I have enjoyed the intellectual adventure proposed by this strange philosopher, and I eagerly await and impatiently his next publications. In spite of all its virtues and at risk of being tiresomely insistent, I find books too expensive considering the times we are in, its "apparent", and emphasize apparent, poor value for money, will discourage more than a few readers.

Antonio Pacheco es author of the blog and self-taught blogger



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