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Book: The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han

The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han might be the book I discussed the most since I read it, four months ago. Rarely does one read books that change their already formed views towards society. Even more rare of an event is when a book makes one doubt their life philosophies and long-established goals. I think The Burnout Society had such an influence for me and even though I was already leaning close to the book’s thesis, I hadn’t heard or read such a coherent rendering of it before.

The book talks about that underlying part of Western society that we all know, yet may not have quite nailed as a thing in itself. It’s about the constant thirst for individual achievement, personal accomplishment, or just having an impact.

There is a deep level of insight and the antithetic proposal becomes obvious (to abstain from the problematic things the author describes) yet never explicitly stated. The book is purely social criticism, powerful enough to shatter our social imaginary.

It is composed of eight chapters which I will try to briefly summarise.

I.

In the first chapter, Byung-Chul starts with a core argument of the book’s thesis:

Neurological illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and burnout syndrome [...] do not follow from the negativity of what is immunologically foreign, but from an excess of positivity.

The author defines the era of the past century as an immunological era, which has resulted to our current era being deprived of any negativity as it has been successfully purged.

The epoch sought to distinguish clearly between inside and outside, friend and foe, self and other. The Cold War also followed an immunological pattern. [...] Even if [something] has no hostile intentions, even if it poses no danger, it is eliminated on the basis of its Otherness.

That’s an interesting take on recent world history; yet it almost feels like playing with words. It becomes even sillier when the author says that eliminating all otherness in a political context results in neurological illnesses for individuals. But this kind of silliness sounded radical, which made me keep on reading to see if it was the kind of radical I’m fond of.

II.

In the second chapter, Byung-Chul talks about today’s society not being Foucault’s disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society.

In contrast to a disciplinary society, which is a society of negativity that prohibits (don’t/should), an achievement society is one that positively encourages (can). Still, Byung-Chul says, the achievement-subject remains disciplined.

Clearly, the drive to maximize production inhabits the social unconscious.

Being achievement-subjects, we are much more productive. Discipline-subjects work because they shouldn’t be slackers; achievement-subjects work because they can become millionaires.

In this way, the achievement-subject being exploits itself. Voluntarily, it becomes both the abuser and the abused.

This is where things start to make sense. There is clearly an insatiable need in our society to maximise production, achievement, impact. And indeed, this need overcomes the need for rest. I recall recent conversations with coworkers, residents of the United States, that take pride in sleeping 5 hours every night and starting work at 5AM. The self-abuse that Byung-Chul talks about is obvious.

The discussion about disciplinary versus achievement started to make more sense with this statement by the author:

Disciplinary society’s [...] negativity produces madmen and criminals. In contrast, achievement society creates depressives and losers.

Almost too absolute yet seemingly a true insight, that seems completely obvious in retrospect—at least obvious to consider if not accept. Oversimplifying: weren’t hysteria and madness things that used to be talked much more in the past and depression a thing that governs the present? I have this feeling, which might be false, but it definitely feels true.

III.

In the third chapter, Byung-Chul talks about boredom. In praise of idleness, like Bertrand said—yet not quite in the same sense.

The aforementioned (from the previous chapters) excessive positivity of our society leads to excessive stimuli and information. As a result, a new form of attention develops: hyperattention. Characterised by rapid diffusion of information and fast change of focus, hyperattention means that our tolerance for boredom abates.

But, boredom is quite important. The author claims it to be fundamental for the spark of creativity to arise. Presumably, this is how we started dancing:

If a person experiences boredom while walking and has no tolerance for this state, he will move restlessly in fits and starts or go this way and that. However, someone with greater tolerance for boredom will recognize, after a while, that walking as such is what bores him. Consequently, he will be impelled to find a kind of movement that is entirely different. Running, or racing, does not yield a new gait. It is just accelerated walking. Dancing or gliding, however, represent entirely new forms of motion. Only human beings can dance. It may be that boredom seized him while walking, so that after—and through—this “attack” he would make the step from walking to dancing. Compared with linear walking, straight ahead, the convoluted movement of dancing represents a luxury; it escapes the achievement-principle entirely.

Such a satisfying hypothesis and at the same time beautifully depicting the argument in favour of boredom.

Circling back to the existence of excess of positivity, we employ multitasking in order to deal with it. Byung-Chul remarks that this is a step backwards in terms of cultural quality. Multitasking is common to animals who while eating must be careful not to be eaten. Deep focus, instead, is the intellectual technique to which we owe humanity’s cultural achievements.

If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation.

IV.

The fourth chapter of the book is titled Vita Activa. Hannah Arendt described this concept in her book The Human Condition, in which she wanted to redeem it against vita contemplativa. According to Hannah, vita activa is being misinterpreted as just restlessness, whereas it can actually be heroic action.

She says modern society forces humans into animal laborans, a concept that designates humanity’s defining characteristic as labour, rather than thinking. As animal laborans there is no vita activa—only passivity.

Byung-Chul states that animal laborans are no more, though. An individual out of Hannah’s model is supposed to relinquish their individuality (ego) and merge in the “over-all life process of the species”. Instead, in today’s achievement society ego is cultivated by labour.

Indeed, merging our individuality for the humanity as species and its objectives is not part of our individual-obsessed culture. Such a process would be part of a culture that is defined by collectivity, not individuality.

In the second half of the chapter, the author speaks about the fleetingness of modern life. Hyperattention (chapter 3) is our society’s reaction to this lack of being, as he calls it. Everyone carries a labour camp inside them, in which, he says, “one is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator”.

It was at this point that I thought that this book is probably the genius kind of radical. It is indeed ourselves from within that compels us to keep working and keep achieving. The incessant need to augment our ego in order to matter in the grand scheme of things.

Life, somehow, is more ephemeral than ever. It is only through our accomplishments that we can achieve immortality, which will bring the desired success of our individuality.

Byung-Chul ends the chapter with a comment on religions:

Even religions, as thanatotechnics that would remove the fear of death and produce a feeling of duration, have run their course.

V.

Chapter five is where Byung-Chul talks about the power to say no, i.e. the power to express negativity.

According to Hegel, negativity is precisely what keeps existence [Dasein] alive.

If positive potency is the power to do something and impotency is the exact opposite, that is the inability to act, then there is also negative potency which is the power to not do something.

Arguments from the first and the third chapter now connect: we lack negative potency as we have purged ourselves of all negativity. Lacking the ability to say no to something (say no as in block it and not perceive it), the result is an excess of stimuli: hyperattention.

The author also touches on Zen meditation here, in which the objective to free oneself from all distractions requires activity.

VI.

Chapter six is about Bartleby, the Scrivener, a short story by Herman Melville. Bartleby, who’s an above-average skilled scribe, starts responding to all requests with “I would prefer not to”.

Byung-Chul analyses how the society portrayed in the story is a disciplinary society. Further, he notices a lack of excess positivity, at which point he disagrees with an analysis of the story by Giorgio Agamben. According to Byung-Chul, Bartleby is not the absolute potency. Him being an employee of the Dead Letter Office, also, depicts a negativity that contradicts Agamben’s ontotheological interpretation.

Byung-Chul concludes that the story is not really about de-creation, but rather about exhaustion.

I was neither entirely convinced of the above conclusion nor about what point Byung-Chul is really trying to make here. Byung-Chul states that the society in Bartleby, the Scrivener is a disciplinary one, yet somehow there is exhaustion of the achievement-society’s kind.

It is a very thought-provoking story nonetheless, with both analyses insightful and astute.

The exclamation that ends the tale is both a lament and an indictment: “Ah Bartleby! Ah humanity!”

VII.

The penultimate chapter is called The Society of Tiredness. Bilingual reviewers say this chapter title is also a better translation of the original German book title Müdigkeitsgesellschaft.

Here, the author draws a lot from Peter Handke’s Essay on Tiredness. Tiredness in our achievement society is solitary tiredness. This is in contrast to another kind; the tiredness that trusts in the world. While the trusting tiredness dissolves ego and makes room for an Otherness, solitary tiredness results in an exhausted ego.

[Handke] calls it “we-tiredness”. I am not tired “of you,” as he puts it, but rather I am tired “with you”.

This is another interesting aspect of the achievement society. While striving to achieve, one gets tired. The target, or motivation, in this tiredness-inducing process is inward-looking; it is the self. It is in this way that the ego gets exhausted. It is “used up” as motivation fuel.

In contrast, in a attempt to strive for something that has others as target, the tiredness-inducing process is outward-looking. Trusting others to continue with the tiredness-inducing process, whatever that might be. There is no ego to play the role of motivation. Ego, instead, melts, firstly because the target of the work is an otherness and, secondly, because getting tired results in relinquishing control of the work (i.e. tiredness-inducing process) to an otherness.

VIII.

In the final chapter, Byung-Chul claims that today’s achievement society is much different than the disciplinary society that Freud developed psychoanalysis for. So much different that he believes that a person’s psyche is, also, much different and thus psychoanalysis is irrelevant for the achievement-subject.

In our society of achievement, there is less and less negativity and prohibition. There is instead more and more freedom. An achievement-subject does not work out of duty (defined by others; targeted at others), but rather out of pleasure (defined by itself; targeted at itself).

This absence of relation to the Other is problematic especially in terms of gratification. The achievement-subject cannot draw satisfaction from its work because there’s no one to commend it. Hence, the achievement-subject feels compelled to do more and more.

This combination of lack of satisfaction and self-exploitation (chapter 2) results in burnout. As the achievement-subject is subject to no one but itself, it liberates itself into a project. It is liberation, because the achievement-subject does that in the name of freedom, of being free to do that which pleases it. And it is a project—and not a subject—in the etymological sense, as it is not subjugated. It (the subject itself) needs to be something positive, after all.

In this way, though, the violence does not disappear. The violence now originates from itself. As we said in chapter 2, this is now a self-exploitation. It is represented as a freedom, yet it is still a (self-) coercion.

This result makes the capitalist system much more efficient as self-exploitation includes the illusion of freedom. Freedom and violence now coincide.

In the final pages, Byung-Chul examines Agamben’s homo sacer. He declares:

[The homines sacri of achievement society] cannot be killed at all. Their life equals that of the undead. They are too alive to die and too dead to live.

Epilogue

When I started reading this book I thought the author was using word metaphors to describe the real world, almost in a kabbalistic interpretation. How can immunology describe an era and somehow this metaphor to result in mental conditions?

Also, how does all this reconcile with current psychology? My guess would be not very well. The obvious argument that what the book describes is just a different—i.e. a philosophical—approach probably satisfies neither philosophers nor psychologists.

Yet, even though the first chapter felt silly, as I continued reading, everything made sense. In the end, it somehow made total sense. I remain cautious of its thesis but at the same time I feel this book changed many of my world views. At least in the way that I try to examine things through Byung-Chul’s lens now.

In conclusion, I’m quite astounded by The Burnout Society. What a genius book. Reading it has generated this weird feeling that comes up when something quite profound has happened. The feeling that I cannot remember how it was to exist before having experienced it.

--
Originally written in Feb 2021 for Astral Codex Ten’s Book Review Contest. Adapted and re-published here in Apr 2021.

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