The Burnout Society: scattered and bored
The Burnout Society/Byung-Chul Han; translated by Erik Butler (2015), Stanford University Press ©
Translation of Müdigkeitsgesellschaf by Byung-Chul Han (2010) MSB Matthes & Seitz Berlin Verlag ©
Review by Adrian Petrice and Samuel Johns
“The capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life”.
Byung-Chul Han shocks us with this thought. The essence of capitalism is: Survival.
Where can we go from here?
The Burnout Society, from Korean-born and Berlin-residing philosopher Byung-Chul Han, was first published in 2010 and translated into English in 2015. It tackles one of the most talked about issues of work in the 21st century. Increasingly, workers complain of “burnout” and “brownout”. “What is brownout,” you ask? The painful, long-term drowning in innumerable tasks, operations, projects, and to-do lists at work, that can lack meaning, purpose, and significance. All direction evaporates. All sense of purpose fades, and tasks become futile, work becomes pointless.
Han tackles this controversial subject in three distinct areas:
- The profound boredom of late modernity
- Brewing a society of tiredness
- Burnout, survival, and the inner logic of achievement
In this first article in the mini-series, we tackle boredom.
The profound boredom of late modernity
There is a problematic, toxic positivity that blights western culture. That is what Byung-Chul Han argues against in The Burnout Society, and considers again in his more recent book Saving Beauty (2018).
He writes: “excessive positivity expresses itself as an excess of stimuli, information, and impulses. It radically changes the structure and economy of attention. Perception becomes fragmented and scattered.” He suggests that our attitude towards time and the environment grows into being a function of multi-tasking in all things. Human beings in the “late-modern society of work and information are not the only ones capable of multitasking. Rather, such an aptitude amounts to regression. Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.” Han continues: “In the wild, the animal is forced to divide its attention between various activities. That is why animals are incapable of contemplative immersion.”
For Han, the argument flows logically then, that
an inability to contemplate and reflect deeply, lies behind the spiritual poverty of the western world. This is our malaise of boredom.
Firstly, Han would suggest that we owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.
Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible.
Increasingly, such immersive reflection is being displaced by an entirely different form of attention: hyperattention, or “scattered modes of awareness.” He argues that creativity and “hectic rush” cannot go hand in hand.
Hyperattention and hyperactivity only ever reproduce and accelerate things that are already available.
Secondly, contemplation precedes communion. Han convincingly argues that the “gift of listening is based on the ability to grant deep, contemplative attention—which remains inaccessible to the hyperactive ego.” Han calls this “profound attention” and links it directly to the contemplative state, where “one steps outside of oneself, so to speak, and immerses oneself in the surroundings or in the act of listening.” The other example Han gives on this count is dancing. Only human beings can dance. Compared with linear walking, the convoluted movement and method of dancing represents a luxury, an escape from the achievement-principle entirely.
So, how do we find peace and resilience?
Both listening and contemplation – as forms of “profound attention” – amount to much of the spiritual awareness and life of humanity. Han argues that we destroy these at our peril, impoverishing not only our culture, through hyperattention and hyperactivity, but also risking undermining our very humanity.
In another book we reviewed, John Mark Comer deals with the symptoms of hurry sickness endemic to modern culture and calls us to ‘eliminate hurry’, through four main spiritual practices and habits;
- Silence and Solitude
Comer describes life like a book. Look at the margins on the side of the pages. They’re likely taking up at least 20% of the total of the page, perhaps even 30%. Yet look at the margins in our lives: in our quest for "optimisation", we tend to eliminate the margins, the buffer spaces that should allow for accidents and unintended interruptions, as well as spontaneity. (In another mini-series, we looked at this quest for optimisation with some critical distance.) Comer speaks of margin as “the space between our load and our limits”.
We should cultivate and cherish this space and not feel the need to fill every idle interval with distractions, notifications and the endless digital buzz of modern media.
Allow yourself to be alone with yourself and you might hear your own thoughts, focus on your own life, and not simply react to the feeds competing for your time and attention.
Part 2 following.
*** Readability (3/5): accessible language and yet profound, philosophical arguments
**** Application (4/5): we all deal with work in late-modern society; burnout can apply to us all
**** General Appeal (4/5): highly recommended as an introduction to this topic
*** Commitment (3/5): Weekend read or major commitment? Eminently readable
**** Challenge (4/5): a good read, though philosophical, and thus intellectually challenging
**** Recommendation (4/5): read it, enjoy it, ponder it, and savour it!