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  • Writer's pictureQuique Autrey

Outside the Circle: In Defense of Opacity & Inactivity



Plot Summary: Spoiler Alert


The Circle (2017) is a dystopian science-fiction thriller based on Dave Egger's 2013 book of the same name. Mae (Emma Watson) finds herself in a lifeless, dead end position as a call center intern. One day, Mae receives an opportunity of a lifetime when her college friend Annie (Karen Gillian) secures an interview for a support position at the Circle, a massive technology and social media corporation. Annie is one of the most influential people at the Circle, a member of the "top 40".


Mae kills the interview and takes the job. With this new opportunity, Mae is hoping to better support her family, especially her father (Bill Paxton) who suffers from multiple sclerosis. Everyone is excited about Mae's opportunity except her long time friend Mercer (Ellar Coltrane) who's a luddite with serious reservations about the Circle.


Mae has a difficult time adjusting to the culture of the Circle at first, but quickly gets the hang of things. At a company meeting (reminiscent of Apple's product reveals under Steve Jobs), CEO Eamon Bailey (Tom Hanks) introduces everyone to SeeChange. SeeChange is a product where countless tiny cameras can be placed anywhere to give people real-time, high quality video of what's happening.


As Mae acclimates to the Circle, she comes in contact with Ty Lafitte (John Boyega), the creator of TrueYou, the Circle's social media platform. At first she doesn't recognize who he is, although she picks up on his suspicion of the more enthusiastic employees at the Circle. At another company gathering, COO Tom Stenton (Patton Oswalt) introduces Congresswoman Olivia Santos, who has agreed to a share her daily political activity to the public through use of SeeChange.


Once Mae discovers Ty's true significance at the Circle, he leads her to a secret chamber containing the massive cloud server where all the information collected by SeeChange will be stored. Ty confesses to Mae that TrueYou has evolved out of his control, and the way it's being utilized is outside the bounds of what he originally intended.


One day Mae's mother shows her a picture of a chandelier that Mercer created from deer antlers. When Mae shares it on her Circle profile, a shitstorm of negative comments ensue. People are outraged over Mercer's apparent killing of the deer. Mercer confronts Mae at her workplace and demands that she leave him alone. Distressed, Mae decides to kayak in order to clear her mind. It's late in the evening and the waves are choppy. When her kayak capsizes, the Coast Guard comes to the rescue. They were alerted to the emergency through SeeChange cameras.


At the next company meeting, Eamon introduces Mae to the gathering and praises SeeChange and its role in her rescue. This leads to Mae's decision to go "completely transparent," which entails wearing a tiny SeeChange camera and exposing her life to the world 24/7. While Mae increases in popularity and influence, she also endangers her relationship with her parents. In one awkward scene, Mae calls her parents as they are attempting to have sexual intercourse, which is subsequently broadcast to the whole world. Her parents begin to distance themselves from her at this point.


At a board meeting, Eamon announces that almost all 50 states have agreed to allow voting through the Circle app. Mae wants to take it to the next level and require every voting citizen to have a Circle account in order to vote. Eamon and Tom agree with Mae, although her friend Annie is disturbed by the suggestion.


At the following company gathering, Annie introduces Soul Search, a program that enables you to find anyone on the planet in less than 20 minutes. After demonstrating the effectiveness of the program by finding a fugitive felon, the crowd pleads with Mae to find her estranged friend Mercer. Mae tries to resit the crowd's demand, but eventually succumbs to their pressure. Once Mercer is found in an isolated cabin, he tries to flee the impassioned Circle users who are trying to disrupt his privacy and capture his every move. One person places a small camera on his truck window, and the whole world watches as Mercer tries to flee his followers. In a moment of distress, trying to escape the surveillance of a drone, Mercer swerves uncontrollably off a bridge to his death. Mae watches in overwhelming regret and dismay.


After the horrific accident, Mae takes a break from her job. Although her parents ask her to not to return, she eventually goes back to the Circle. Mae reconnects with Ty and he reveals to her that he has uncovered something very important. At the next company meeting, Mae shares that connection has helped her recover from the loss of her friend. Then she asks both Tom and Eamon to come on the stage and suggests they both go fully transparent. Mae reveals that Ty has discovered all their secret emails messages and exposed them to the world. No one should be exempt from transparency, Mae reasons. At this stage, Eamon and Tom know they are fucked! Everything goes black, in an attempt to silence Mae. But the crowd lights up the stage with their personal phones. Mae reiterates the importance of transparency.


The movie ends with Mae kayaking, not bothered by the drones that seem to be tracking her.


Byung-Chul Han




My goal is to analyze the film through the lens of some of the writings of Byung-Chul Han. I was first introduced to Han by my online friend Peter Rollins. At his recommendation, I started with his book The Burnout Society. I was immediately hooked and purchased almost every book he's written that's been translated into English. I've read 10 of his books so far and hope to read all of them in the next year or so. While I am no Byung-Chul Han expert, I am definitely a student of his work and am constantly challenged by his perspective.


Han was born in Seoul, Korea in the late 1950s. He studied metallurgy in Korea before moving to Germany to study philosophy, theology and German literature. In 1994, he completed his doctoral degree at Freiburg on Heidegger's understanding of mood (Stimmung). Most recently, Han served as professor at the Berlin University of the Arts.


Han is interested in many different things, from Zen Buddhism to photography and gardening, to the psychological effects of late-stage capitalism. In terms of a broad overview most relevant to this piece, I'll say that Han focuses on how our neoliberal performance society leads to psychological burnout. He writes extensively about the loss of a sense of otherness and narration that stems from our obsession with transparency and the accumulation of data. Han believes that transparency has transformed into a digital panopticon that leads to our own self-exploitation and loss of humanity.


The demands of the transparency society, which The Circle embodies in a hauntingly accurate way, enforce a totalitarian system of exposure that erodes the values that make us human (e.g., opacity and inactivity).


Secrets Are Lies: The Allure of Transparency



In this clip from The Circle, Mae sits down and has a conversation with Eamon in front of the entire company. After describing her kayaking incident, Eamon asks her to share what profound insight she's come to. Mae responds, "Secrets are lies." She admits that when she's watched, she's better behaved and feels her safety can be secured.


Eamon reveals that his son, Gunner, was born with cerebral palsy. Bound to a wheelchair, he's limited in what he can see or experience. Eamon explains that Gunner can only truly experience the world through the digital eyes of others. Eamon considers it a moral crime to deprive Gunner and others like him of the experiences that able bodied people like Mae can have.


Mae agrees with Eamon. She says:


When you deprive others of experiences


like the ones I had,


you're essentially stealing from them.


Knowledge is a basic human right.


Access to all possible human experience


is a basic human right.

At this point, Mae reveals to the crowd that she is going "fully transparent" by wearing a modified SeeChange camera at all times (except when she's in the bathroom). This will enable the world to see everything she experiences. She has inaugurated the transparency society.


At the beginning, Mae's experiment opens the door to greater connection, influence and power in the company. But it quickly starts to take turn for the worse. In the scene below, Mae has to escape to the bathroom to have a vulnerable conversation with her friend Annie. She only has three minutes before the camera switches back on.





Mae is worried about Annie's physical health. Annie admits that she is fried from the incessant activity and demands of the Circle. We'll come back to this pervasive burnout and exhaustion in a moment. Annie is disturbed by Mae's digital transformation through her transparency experiment. She asks Mae about her parents. Mae admits she has not spoken to her parents in sometime. Her parents distanced themselves from Mae after the transparency camera captured them in an awkward sex act for all the world to see.


This is the great irony of connection in the transparency society. The more Mae connects with others through the screen, the more disconnected she feels from her actual ties to friends and family. Han describes our collective experience when he states the more likes we pursue on Facebook the less invested we are in strengthening the bonds of our real friendships.


In the Transparency Society, Han writes,


Only emptiness is entirely transparent. To avert this emptiness, a mass of information is brought into circulation. The mass of information and imagery offers fullness in which emptiness is still noticeable. More information and communication alone do not illuminate the world.

The mere representation of information does not result in a sense of connection or truth. Mae's broadcasted monologues and our words on social media are an accumulation of meaningless chatter. The allure of transparency is that it will lead us to greater connection and the truth of the matter. What Han shows us is that transparency only reveals an emptiness at the center of our lives. It doesn't matter how much Mae shows her viewers. Posting more on X adds nothing to our life. As Han reminds us, "more information and communication alone do not illumine the world."


What is needed to arrive at a sense of human connection and truth is a sense that our lives are connected to a larger narrative. This narrative framework provides a sense of transcendence, a horizon that sets the boundaries from which we can derive a sense of meaning. According to Han, "transparency has no transcendence. The society of transparency is see-through without light. It is not illuminated by light that streams from a transcendent source."


This narrative transcendence also provides a form of negativity that protects us from a ubiquitous positivity that leads to the hell of the same. Another irony of the Circle is the digital panopticon of SeeChange is supposed to result in the revealing of truth and hold politicians accountable. The problem is that full transparency leads to a, "depoliticized space."


Han writes:


Transparency is inherently positive. It does not harbor negativity that might radically question the political-economic system as it stands. It is blind to what lies outside the system. It confirms and optimizes only what already exists. For this reason, the society of positivity goes hand-in-hand with the postpolitical.


In Defense of Opacity



"I live from what others don't know about me"

-Peter Handke

Han ends the preface to The Transparency Society with these words:


Transparency is an ideology. Like all ideologies, it has a positive core that has been mystified and made absolute. The danger of transparency lies in such ideologization. If totalized, it yields terror.


The positive core of transparency is that truth and intimacy often require open communication and access to another. Transparency as an ideology perverts this positive core by removing opacity and otherness from the equation. Without these, it is impossible to be in genuine relation with others.


Authentic connection requires otherness. This may be one of Han's most important messages. In his latest book, Vita Contemplativa, he states, "a deep relationship requires an other who can make themselves unavailable."


If everything can be seen, then everything can be seen through. Opacity maintains a distance and space between people and objects that makes relatedness possible.


Opacity is a disruption of the narcissistic ego that wants to consume and understand everything in its purview. Opacity is a limit required to maintain the mystery and vitality necessary for truthful existence.


"I'm Fried": The Psychological Cost of Achievement



In the clip above, Annie confesses that her relentless activity at the Circle has led to emotional exhaustion. This is the central premise of Han's The Burnout Society.


Han argues that contemporary society is marked by an, "imperative to achieve." This has resulted in collective burnout, anxiety and depression. Han begins his analysis by reflecting on the transition from the disciplinary society (Foucault) to what he calls the achievement society.


If the disciplinary society was characterized by negativity, issuing the modal verb "should", the achievement society is marked by positivity, with the new demand being you "can". The achievement society is the world of endless possibility. It is also the world of tremendous psychic change. Two aspects of this psychic change are what Han calls hyperattention and self-exploitation.


Hyperattention


The transition to the digital achievement society has transformed how we attend to our lives. Han calls our modern mental state hyperattention. Hyperattention, according to Han, is marked by, "a rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes." In this mode of attention, our perception is scattered and fragmented.


Han argues that our hyperattention resembles the wild animal in nature, "the animal cannot immerse itself contemplatively in what it is facing because it must also process background events." Like the gazelle constantly tracking for threats, mates, rivals and predators, our attention is caught in a frenetic ping pong across a frenzy of multitasking.



In this scene, Mae interacts with Gina and Matt about her lack of social participation in the Circle. Although her employers are clear the Circle is not a "clock in, clock out type of place", the clear message is that Mae is excepted to participate in all the social events and to share constant updates about her life on the social media platform.


Mae is assured that being a staff member at the Circle is not simply about work, but community. Matt states that Mae is a, "full, knowable person of unlimited potential."


This is precisely what Han fears about our achievement society. There is always another thing to share about ourselves and another sight to fix our attention on.


For Han, this perpetual cycle of information sharing and attentional fixation is, "bringing human society deeper and deeper into the wilderness." Rather than promoting human flourishing, our achievement society is "yielding more and more to the simple concern for survival."


Self-Exploitation



One of the most intriguing aspects of Han's philosophy is his emphasis on the transition from allo- exploitation (other's exploiting you) in the disciplinary society to auto-exploitation (you exploiting yourself) in the achievement society.


Han believes that we have transitioned from human subjects to human projects. In our achievement society, we become "entrepreneurs" of ourselves and exploit ourselves in the name of productivity and achievement.


In a society where the sole imperative is to achieve, no external constraints are needed. Coercion is no longer required. With the goals of optimal performance and achievement internalized, we exploit ourselves.


You would imagine that moving away from external coercion would result in greater freedom. But the opposite is true. Han explains:


[T]he disappearance of domination does not entail freedom. Instead, it makes freedom and constraint coincide. Thus, the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom — that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation.


We see this with Mae's interaction with Matt and Gina. Although the external constraint is absent (e.g., this is not, "a clock in, clock out type of place"), the culture of relentless sharing and achievement leads to an exploitation of self that's governed by the person's internal appropriation of the imperative rather than an external demand. As Han writes in Psychopolitics Neoliberalism and New Technologies of Power:


The freedom of Can generates even more coercion than the disciplinarian Should, which issues commandments and prohibitions. Should has a limit. In contrast, Can has none. Thus, the compulsion entailed by Can is unlimited. And so we find ourselves in a paradoxical situation. Technically, freedom means the opposite of coercion and compulsion. Being free means being free from constraint. But now freedom itself, which is supposed to be the opposite of constraint, is producing coercion. Psychic maladies such as depression and burnout express a profound crisis of freedom. They represent pathological signs that freedom is now switching over into manifold forms of compulsion


In Defense of Inactivity



The Cirlce begins and ends with Mae on her kayak. Without offering an explanation, these scenes express Mae's desire to be connected to herself and the larger natural world. Kayaking is a ritual activity that has no calculable outcome in mind. She is going out for the sake of the experience, not to perform or achieve anything.


While Han is a philosopher and not a self-help guru or therapist, I do think it's possible to extrapolate some ways to resist our collective burnout from his writings.


One of Han's convictions is that eudaemonia or the good life does not result from hyperactivity but from boredom, contemplative lingering and inactivity.


According to Han, "inactivity constitutes the human." He writes:


When life follows the rule of stimulus-response, need-satisfaction, and goal-action, it atrophies into pure survival: naked biological life. Life receives its radiance only from inactivity. If we lose the ability to be inactive, we begin to resemble machines that simply function. True life begins when concern for survival, for the exigencies of mere life, ends. The ultimate purpose of all human endeavor is inactivity.


Without time and space for boredom and deep contemplation, we reduce human existence to bare, animal life. We barely scratch the surface of what makes life most meaningful.


Time where we sit with ourselves without the impulse to accomplish anything is what's needed for human fulfillment. Han states:


This 'to-no-end', this freedom from purpose and usefulness, is the essential core of inactivity. It is the basic formula for happiness.


We need more contemplation and less calculation. Han would encourage us to enjoy greater "ceremonious inactivity" or leisurely pursuits instead of optimizing our interests. In an era of endless projects, influencers and side hustles, Han would ask us to cultivate our humanity and pursue the good life through stillness, silence and dwelling in the moment.










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