Brolin Xavier

Thoughts on The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han

They cannot be killed at all. Their life equals that of the undead. They are too alive to die, and too dead to live.

- Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society

I don’t wanna live like this, but I don’t wanna die.

- Ancient Proverb (Vampire Weekend lyric)

This book has been the “waiting around” book of the last few months for me. I have read it, over the course of a few months, in snatches of time when in line for something or on a short train ride (an aside: I cannot read on buses, it makes me nauseous, but trains? I will always read on trains). This was all time I could have been scrolling, neurotically checking my email and my other email and Slack and GChat and iMessage and WhatsApp and and and maybe most importantly, time I could have been using for posting online and in turn reading posts by people equally or far more mentally ill than I am, that I have instead wasted reading this.

That last part is a joke; I do not consider this book a waste of time at all. It’s instead a launching point for consideration and reconsideration, a nugget to ruminate over, a book to annoy anyone I know by talking about endlessly (I have not yet had a chance to do this but believe me I will). It is, like Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, a little book that contains multitudes, and is, I imagine, influential in similar circles. Whoever on instagram told me to read it, I have unfortunately forgotten who you were at this point, but thank you.

A recurring feature of the contemporary Professional Managerial Class (to which I and probably nearly everyone reading this belong to) is the Hustlegrind Guy (I’m using the gender-neutral Guy here). There are the true freaks of LinkedIn, the youtube commenters, the instagram grifters, the nootropic microdosing podcast hosts, most of whom I have had the fortune of never interacting with. But there are the regular folks, who are Hustlegrind Guys not by choice; they (we) have not opted into the hustlegrindset, but have had the hustlegrindset thrust upon them (us). This has resulted, often not by choice, and often at the threat of precarity (more on that in a little bit), in taking the plenty of modern, western life’s offerings, internalizing it, turning Can into Should, possibility into anxiety, connectedness into hyperactivity, 9-to-5 into 5-to-9 and beyond. Han calls this the achievement society, epitomized by the Obama campaign’s “Yes We Can” (ok this kinda ages this book a little bit, more on that in a bit too!) , and the glut of which is positivity (you can do this! you can do this! you can do this! you can do this!). This glut of positivity, the endless and internalized need to keep up and achieve, has resulted essentially in the automated self-policing of workers (especially “knowledge workers”), of an expansion of the protestant work ethic into realms beyond work (monetized hobbies, gamified fitness, personal CRMs etc), of hyper-optimization. All that, in turn, has led to a profound burnout, to depression and hyperactivity. These may seem counter to each other, but if we see our hyperactivity as hypervigilance, the rest required after vigilance is no longer there, and the reaction is, in essence, a neurotic, anxious, depressive state.

Okay; I can see that. This book was written in 2010, and the English translation came out in 2015. I think in part that the world we had then (or at least the dominant form of discourse and “general trend” of society at that point is somewhat removed from where we are now. I mentioned the reference to the first Obama campaign as something that affixes this book in its time; another is the notion that society has moved into being achievement society rather than a disciplinary one; and yet another, totally unforeseen, is the movement of the deep sickness of society as having moved from viral/bacterial to neuronal.

One thing I kept thinking while reading this book (and someone please correct me if I just missed this!) is: what about precarity? Precarity still exists, in fact it's more relevant than ever, and precarity is, at least to me, the underlying material anxiety that drives the achievement anxiety. The material threat of losing whatever status you have built up, whether it's a job, or some form of standing, is so insurmountable that it has been internalized as a gnawing desire to keep going, to keep achieving, because what else is there? To this point, I think the last decade or so has split western (and non-western!) society into two: with one segment focused on and surviving achievement society, feeling its ills, but knowing no way out but through, and the other segment also doing the former, but rejecting the latter in favor of a return to a disciplinary past. The former is stuck in a dream/nightmare where, to paraphrase Michel Clouscard, everything is permissible, and nothing is possible. And the latter are basically the same, except nothing is permissible, either.

The last thing, and maybe the biggest is this movement of society's ills from the viral/bacterial to the neuronal; we are no longer sick purely in body but increasingly of the mind. We can't focus, we can't rest, we are on, on, on, on and on. Han saw this, in the very early years of the 21st century, as a sign of "progress", that we had moved past the viral and the bacterial; we'd solved those. And in a very real way, we have! We are safer than ever against the ravages of the body, more vulnerable than ever to the ravages of the mind. But as we get a quarter of the way through this century, what's evident is that the viral and bacterial ages are not irrelevant, but hyper-relevant and subsumed into the neuronal. Much like the effects of a viral infection on cognitive abilities in the long term, the neuronal has been affected and exacerbated by the viral. These last few years of physical, viral disease has not given way to immunity, it has metastasized from the body to the mind and soul.

There is so much more to think and write about this book, not least of which is how to resist the rot. Many have written and spoken about society's collective depression as the result of witnessing the end of something, maybe the end of history (though not as Fukuyama put it). There's the notion of hypernormalization, that the world has entered the Cool Zone, that we're circling the drain.



I don't know.

There are few prescriptions given here (again, let me know if I missed something); the main one (though it's not explicitly stated as a solution, more just presented as the antithesis of whatever the hell we have going) is to embrace and aim for the vita contemplativa -- the contemplative life. Rest, boredom, doing nothing, introspection as somehow, hilariously, inconceivably, a radical act against achievement society. Given that "Luddite" is becoming less of a term of ridicule and more of an aspiration, maybe that's true. The Marxist, the materialist, etc would argue that individual acts, no matter how radical at the surface, are nothing without broad, systemic change. And of course Han's aware of that, and so is anyone who's read and thought through this book in any sense. His aim is diagnosis, though there's plenty of that going around these days. I guess, though (to keep the pathology metaphor going), that at some point with enough fight back, there could be something akin to herd immunity. Til then, get bored, once in a while.