The Burnout Society

The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han

A salaryman sleeping on the train. This is a fairly common sight in Japan, where overworked men will catch a nap when ever they can. Photo by Ian Campsall. Taken Februrary 3, 2006.

“Every age has its signature afflictions,” writes Byung-Chul Han. “Despite widespread fear of an influenza epidemic, we are not living in a viral age. Thanks to immunological technology, we have already left it behind. From a pathological standpoint, the incipient twenty-first century is determined neither by bacteria nor by viruses, but by neurons.” (1).

Immunological explanations focus on what is foreign or other: other people, foreign cultures, ideological enemies, viral diseases. If the Self is in confrontation with the Other, an immunological reaction is the destruction of or immunisation against the Other: the negation of a negation.

And it is here that the first trap is laid. Burnout Society is a rather Byzantine exploration of the fatigue and depression that characterises modern society - not just the why, but the how.

Though only fifty pages, it is a dense read. Much jargon and many ideas are employed from other philosophers, with hardly any exposition. If you don’t already know what Han is talking about, you will very quickly be lost.

Some of these terms are easy to confuse. For example, Han describes the Self as a positivity, and the Other as a negativity. He doesn’t mean this in the sense of positive or negative thinking, which is a mistake I’ve seen in a lot of reviews of this book. The two terms are being employed in a dialectic. Positivity means something like self-assertion. Negativity means something like assertion of another against that self.

In Burnout Society, Han argues that our lives are no longer defined by the threat of conflict with the Other. We aren’t free of violence, though. Violence now finds its expression in positivities, in destructive or exploitative self-assertions that position us against ourselves.

Our old disciplinary societies were filled with external coercion: prohibitions, moral codes, instructions, fire-and-brimstone preachers, sanctimonious neighbours. If we went against the fabric of society, we risked and accepted our punishment, whether it came from the hands of worldly powers or in divine retribution.

Our motivations today come from within. Our goals are success and health. Our life is like a project, its worth measured by our accumulation of those things. No longer obedience-subjects, we are achievement-subjects. If the rejects of disciplinary society were madmen and criminals, the rejects of achievement society are depressives and losers.

We need to be careful here. Han is obviously not saying that madmen and criminals don’t exist anymore (school-shooters and terrorists), or that we no longer have to worry about diseases (Covid-19). What he is presenting is a characterisation of our lived experience, a way of making sense of our being in the world.

This kind of philosophy does not shy away from its narrative and historical qualities. By not thinking of itself as an exercise in science or logic, it has broader scope to describe its subject matter, and often has great insights that are denied when we are too-literal about things - hence certain positivists in the Anglosphere, not being able to subject love or morality to mere numbers, simply declare these to be emotional states - assertions of psychological preference or brain chemistry - and leave it at that.

Which is not to say this approach is without its shortcomings. Some philosophers run away with wild dichotomies and strained metaphors. They are more interested in wordplay, and lay their schemas over the world without ever bothering to check if it makes sense.

I have that eternal complaint with Byung-Chul Han as well: giving a precise, German name to everything doesn’t relieve the author from his responsibility to actually explain what he is talking about, and to give examples.

Burnout Society wastes no time. It jumps right into the matter, like it’s in mid-conversation. This may be the point of this whole kind of philosophy-as-historical-conversation, but given how short the book is, it could have easily been lengthened with more exposition.

Much of what Han describes takes place in the arena of modernity and global capitalism, neither of which he spends much time describing. So, to elaborate on that, I’d like to bring in my man Zygmunt Bauman.

Bauman called our present condition “liquid modernity”. The old Marxist conception was that the oppressive structures of capitalism would be swept away, and new ones forged in their place: “all that is solid melts into air.”

This never happened. What we got was a modernity in which the solids kept re-forming and re-melting. Old, rigid codes of life and morality were thrown away, but never really replaced with another permanent way of life - except, perhaps, the subjection of all spheres of life to the logic of the market, and the resulting smorgasbord of personal meaning through consumer choice.

This is all the better for capitalism. Definite social commitments obstruct the flow of capital. If your life is fluid, on the other hand, capable of changing and adapting, and finding new expression by simply buying a different bundle of products, then the flow of capital is largely unimpeded.

Disciplinary societies are not effective at adapting to the flow of capital. They drill us into rigid patterns of living that cannot be easily changed - hence the tendency of global society towards the abolition of borders, walls, taboos, prohibitions, tariffs, punishments, and moral codes. In their place are questions of ethical management, legal systems based on broadly-defined human rights, technocratic governance, and the just distribution of goods. Capitalism is not a political question, but a force of nature that must be tamed, so that we may all share in its fruits.

The obedience-subject of disciplinary society suppressed his desires and attended his social obligations out of a deep trust that God would mete out happiness to those who deserved it. He would ostracise and confront and destroy the Other.

The achievement-subject, meanwhile, prefers to hybridise with the Other, amalgamating into one thing. The achievement-subject’s concern is with pleasure and the capacity for doing things, for being able to become anything.

Yet his labour tends not to result in a definitive work, something distinct and apart from himself, which might outlive and outlast him. Indeed, his labour hardly seems to begin or end, and brings him no gratification. Work for him is more like a series of accumulations and continuations than the production or accomplishment of tangible things.

Definite works are rigid, their form final. They are produced according to skills, crafts, and processes handed down by local, embedded cultures and traditions and institutions. All of this is rigid, and resists adaptation. So, if the global flow of goods and services demands that these institutions be swept aside, it will simply outproduce and outrun them, until they break apart.

The character of the achievement-subject reflects his mode of labour. He is formless, “able to assume any form, play any role, or perform any function. This shapelessness - or alternately, flexibility - creates a high degree of economic efficiency.” (40). When you ask him where he wants to go for lunch, the achievement-subject merely shrugs his shoulders and says, “I dunno man, you decide.”

Just because we no longer accept external compulsion, it does not mean we are free. To reach that conclusion, we’ve had to redefine freedom as being little more than consumer choice, the dazzling sense of everything you might choose to become, rather than what you actually are and do.

Nor are we free of conflict. The traumas of the achievement-subject are not those of the Freudian age, where we repressed our desires out of a sense of social duty, compulsively washed our hands, and dreamt about our mothers. No, the manias of our age are depression, exhaustion, and burnout.

None of these conditions are caused by an immunological Other. They’re not objective viruses or foreign agents that can be located in the body - or if they are, we don’t know how that is the case. They are more like cultural-bound syndromes, diagnosed on the basis of sustained mental frustration.

There’s a lot one could say about this. One could make the point that we do have an immunological response to these conditions: pills and drugs and therapy. While I agree with Han, and think he could readily defend this counter-example, all I’ll point out is that he doesn’t address it at all.

He sees conditions like burnout and depression as manifestations of the frustration of being unable to achieve. Our society, which is poor in negativities - conflicts with Others - suffers from an excess of positivities - unbounded assertions of the Self. The achievement-subject is not destroyed by the Other so much as overwhelmed by the Self. In the process of trying to endlessly achieve, we only exhaust ourselves; “we are no longer able to be able.”

Conflict with the Other may bring us harm and destruction. But it also brings us into contact with the world beyond ourselves. In pushing against it, the world pushes back against us. We change each other, and in such relations, we develop our sense of being in the world (dasein). From this we also gain the possibility of a social life: man as a social animal.

The best we can do now is encourage health and choice: welfare, wellbeing, therapy, mindfulness. Yet none of this addresses man’s needs as a social animal. His lot is reduced to a set of biological or vital processes which must be kept functioning at any cost, to mere survival. His body is a performance-machine: Leistungsmachine.

There are obvious limits to this. We are, ultimately, finite. We are squishy creatures that cannot be endlessly improved, with minds that are not infinitely re-programmable. Medicine, bio-technology, and virtual spaces allow us to prolong or ignore our potencies. They do not let us outrun them. Beyond a certain point lies the inevitable breakdown: burnout, depression, fatigue.

Even if our basic needs are fulfilled, life still seems busier than ever. Excess positivity has changed the structure of our attention, scattering it across numerous stimuli, information, and impulses. We are always multi-tasking, putting-down or picking-up. Rather than suffer a moment of boredom, we pull out our smart-phone to respond to messages, check e-mails, skim the news, read interesting book reviews…

This is a regression to man’s animal state, for it is animals that must be constantly multi-tasking, lest their prey get away, their predator kill them, or their mate be stolen. Only humans, as social animals, are capable of building an environment of calm in which they can do more than merely survive. They may relax, contemplate, focus deeply on one thing, even do nothing.

The achievement-subject hates doing nothing. At best, he simply has nothing to do. His attention flicks between different tasks as he yields to every impulse, incapable of formulating a no. He is like a tired animal, who meekly does what he must to survive, his activities an unthinking mechanical pattern that fills up all intervals with restless hyperactivity.

We lack in negative potency, the power to not do something:

If one only possessed the positive ability to perceive (something) and not the negative ability not to perceive (something), one’s senses would stand utterly at the mercy of rushing, intrusive stimuli and impulses… it would lead to fatal hyperactivity. If one had only the power to think (something), thinking would scatter among endless series of objects. (24).

Boredom is essential to man’s social life. When you are concerned with survival, you have no time to produce works of art, or contemplate life’s mysteries. We owe our cultural achievements to “deep boredom”, the peak of mental relaxation, which Walter Benjamin described as a “dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.”

We do not allow ourselves to be bored. An excess of positivity drives us to always be doing, doing, doing, to fill up idle moments with activities or hobbies, to be achieving and improving ourselves. There is hardly any time to be doing nothing. (I always make that joke when I don’t feel like hanging out: “Can’t sorry, I’m busy doing nothing.”)

Byung-Chul Han calls this ability not-to. This is not leisure time, it is an action! It is not the absence of things, but a conscious action to manifest nothingness. The former is an absence of negativities. The latter is a negation of things pre-existing. Hence in meditation, you are not merely trying to block out all external perceptions. These days you could do that by just hanging out in a flotation tank. The purpose is to feel those external perceptions, to let them in, but then deny them.

The ability not-to is essential for the contemplative life - vita contemplativa. Through contemplation, we marvel at how things are, connecting the transient, perishable experience of being to the timeless awe of beauty and perfection.

Hannah Arendt believed that we needed to assert the vita activa - a life of heroic action - against the vita contemplativa. She saw power as the creation of something new. It was a fundamentally social responsibility that required us to accept our lot as a social animal.

But the possibilities for action were being overwhelmed by the conditions of modernity. Man’s life had degraded to little more than animal laborans - a beast of burden. He toils not so much for great acts of heroism, as for physical and psychic re-assurance, for mere survival. He does not use his capacity for thinking to adjudge which of several realities he might create, but merely to calculate, to trade-off the risks and pleasures in his immediate environs. Under modernity, we are therefore reverting back to an animal state, one in which survival takes priority over action and creation.

Arendt believed that the legacy of Christianity contributed to the problem by privileging the vita contemplativa. Byung-Chul Han disagrees: quoting St. Gregory the Great, he points out that Christianity has always sought a balance between the two:

One must know, if a good course of life requires that one pass from the active to the contemplative life, then it is often useful when the soul returns from the contemplative to the active life in such a way that the flame of contemplation lighted in the heart confers its entire perfection on activity. Thus, the active life must lead to contemplation, but contemplation must proceed from what we have observed within and calls us back to activity.

Thought and action are linked. One follows the other. It is not the conditions of modern labour which crowd out the possibility of action and creation. Rather, it is our restless hyperactivity, our excess positivity, the constant urge to re-assert and thereafter out-run one’s self, which has destroyed the moments in which contemplation might happen. This breaks the link with action, rendering man, for all his technologies and choices, powerless.

The loss of faith has only made us more restlessness. “Not just human life, but the world in general is becoming radically fleeting. Nothing promises duration or substance.” (18). Our lives lack a “narrative thanatotechnics” (Bravo, Han) to give an overall assurance to who or what we are. Merely working is linked with merely surviving: man works in order to survive; he survives in order to work.

Christianity linked action and contemplation with the Sabbath. After creating the world, God declared the seventh day holy. It’s significant that the holy day is the day of rest, not the other six days of activity. The word Sabbath originally meant “stopping”, which presupposes “starting”. Both are needed, but modern society has disrupted the “stopping”. In doing so, it has destroyed those moments in which we might contemplate.

The tiredness we feel in fatigue and burnout is not the pleasant tiredness of the Sabbath. It is a solitary tiredness, where the presence of others makes us feel wary, and in need of sequestering. By letting our guard down, we feel in danger of the Other, and so turn away from them. In doing this, we lose the possibility of anything shared: common good, common society, institutions, culture, language, even friendship.

All of these require us to be willing to be vulnerable around one another. Solitary tiredness contrasts with what Peter Handke calls “reconciliatory tiredness”, in which we express our exhaustion in shared relaxation. There is no need to say anything; a bond of trust opens us up to the world, and makes room for others.

An example of this might be the feeling of going on a big, multi-day hike. After walking up a mountain for ten hours, not quite sure if you can make it, you finally reach the hut. You settle in with your companions, laying down on those hard wooden benches, which are not comfortable, but feel like pillows when your body is so sore. A gentle pleasance washes over you. In sharing it with your companions, you all feel closer to one another.

This kind of tiredness is a serene not-doing. The senses are not dulled, but rather glimmer: “Deep tiredness loosens the strictures of identity. Things flicker, twinkle, and vibrate at the edges. They grow less determinate and more porous and lose some of their resolution. This particular indifference lends them an aura of friendliness.” (33).

Depression is more like the first kind of tiredness, the solitary tiredness. The depressive wants to sever his attachments.

It is useful to contrast depression with melancholy and mourning. Freud saw melancholy as a destructive internalisation of a failed conflict with the Other, now redirected towards the Self. Mourning, on the other hand, is directed at a particular object - a loved one, perhaps - in whom we have invested our libidinal energy.

Depression is different. Lacking direction or impetus, it often wanders into our lives without a definite start or end point. While it can be a reaction to something, it is just as often the habituation of excessive, destructive patterns of self-reference and self-attention. The depressive is not passive, but hyper-active, and lacks composure.

I’m not fully convinced on this point. Han rejects Arendt’s claim that we are made passive by our condition as animal laborans, in which toil crowds out the possibility for action. He believes the opposite to be true, that it is our hyperactivity which removes the possibility for contemplation, which is a necessary link with action.

While excessive self-attention can be a form of hyperactivity, don’t depressives also have bouts of extreme passivity (anhedonia)? On these occasions, they are pliable and absent, not kinetic and restless. How do we reconcile this slowed-down, passive depression with the achievement-subject’s hyperactivity? I’m not sure Han has an answer for this.

When the depressive needs it, he has few sources of external stability to draw upon. The lack of solids in liquid modernity means the absence of deep connections to others. Most of the ego’s libidinal energy is invested in itself. What little it spends on others is scattered, fleeting, or transactional, with the full benefits of the transaction requiring you to be at the height of your vital functioning.

Our relationships feel fleeting and lack dependability. If you don’t like your friends, family, or romantic partners, you can simply declare them toxic, withdraw your efforts from them, and invest in new ones. You can dump your partner and put yourself back on the sexual marketplace, aka Tinder. You can join a subculture, which is defined more by common consumption patterns than by shared experience - your fellows are more like drinking buddies than actual mates.

Or perhaps you will take inspiration from YouTubers or Influencers or celebrities, adopting their postures as your own. Yet postures are aesthetic, and do not endure. They’re more like putting on new clothes than converting to a new religion.

The achievement-subject’s life takes on meaning when he consumes the particular goods which signal his belonging to one group or another. But the exchange of goods and services are ever-changing. Fixed, permanent relations stand in its way. The achievement-subject therefore bends his life to the whims of the market, not by rigid moral codes or pain of death, but by voluntary self-exploitation.

Exploitation didn’t go away with the disciplinary society. It still occurs, we just do it to ourselves. Worst of all, it accompanies the feeling of freedom. The achievement-subject believes himself to be his own master, but in disavowing conflict with the Other, in believing his life can be actualised through mere consumption without conflict or creation, he forsakes any means of imposing himself on the world; he forsakes all power.

Violence for the achievement-subject is not a clash of Self with Other, but a looming failure to meet his own imperatives to achieve. He is, above all, competing with himself. In his destructive compulsions to outrun himself, he chases every whim and urge. Freedom to him is little more than a dazzling infinity of choices, which wrap back around to a kind of slavery in which he lacks the ability to not-do anything.

Our modern torments are so shadowy precisely because self-exploitation accompanies the feeling of freedom. Some may feel uncomfortable about the idea of self-exploitation. They talk, for example, about “victimless crimes”. But to claim that a person can exploit themselves is little more than saying that not every decision they make is good for them. It’s little more than an admission that humans aren’t perfect. Why are we so hesitant to admit this?

I would locate the tension in our shallow definition of the word freedom. Freedom is not merely the absence of coercion or the choice to be anything. It is intrinsically linked to power. Freedom is not the possibility of becoming anything, but the actual exercise of power to create something. This requires you to impose on the world, to change some part of it, no matter how small. It is an external compulsion, a negativity.

By disavowing negativities, by renouncing external compulsion, man can do little more than exercise his biological and vital functions in never-ending positivities. This is not man at the height of power and freedom, but man reduced to bare life.

Han links this existence to Giorgio Agamben’s homo sacer. Agamben’s figure is an outlaw, cast from society by sovereign decree. He lives within the state of exception, a lawless space in which the operating norms are suspended. He no longer belongs anywhere. He is not man, the social animal, but man, the biological animal. Like a wild creature, his life is expendable, and he can do little more than toil for his own survival.

Han recognises that the picture of homo sacer describes the bare life of the achievement-subject, but is very critical of how Agamben explains it. He thinks Agamben focuses too much on obsolete social and inter-personal expressions of power. Because the achievement-subject is not compelled by external pressures, but drives himself to achieve, he is both sovereign and outlaw in one person. Han’s version of homo sacer has it even worse: he has banished himself from society. By willingly renouncing any claim to common good and common life, he is simultaneously perpetrator and victim, master and slave.

I’m not sure Han’s criticism is really justified. Where you stand on this probably depends on your beliefs about the power of history to explain the present. Do we live in a society without external coercion, or have we simply found ways to abstract that coercion into a set of impersonal processes, which run without anyone’s hand on the levers? I think the latter. Han probably does too; at least, he seems to be agreeing when he says that capitalism has encoded violence into our lives through auto-exploitation.

When talking about animal laborans, Han makes the point that if we were capable of zooming out and looking at our species as a whole, much of what looks like social processes would actually seem like the re-assertion of biological imperatives. I’m not really sure external coercion has gone away, so much as it has been made indirect. And in that sense, Han is more continuous with Agamben than a break with him: Han employs homo sacer to explain the lived experience of the individual, while Agamben uses it at the level of communities and societies.