The Burnout Society: Why so tired?
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 piece, we look at what he says about tiredness.
Brewing a society of tiredness
From a malaise of boredom – driven to distraction by hyperattention – brews a society of tiredness; exhausted and apathetic.
To show how we are building this society of tiredness, Han launches his argument from the basis of our achievement society.
He writes: “as a society of activeness [or Aktivgesellschaft], achievement society is slowly developing into a doping society. In the meanwhile, the negative expression of brain doping has been replaced by neuro-enhancement. Doping makes it possible to achieve without achieving, so to speak.”
To illustrate his point, Han gives two practical examples. A surgeon able to operate with greater concentration by using neuro-enhancers would make fewer mistakes and be able to save more lives. In this scenario, the general use of neuro-enhancers is not viewed as a problem. One need only to ensure fairness by making neuro-enhancers available to everyone. However, if doping were also permitted in sports, it would degrade sport into a mere pharmaceutical race. For all that, simple prohibition cannot prevent both the body and the human being as a whole from becoming a performance-machine that is supposed to function without disturbance and maximise achievement.
The underlying question is therefore one of telos, of ultimate aim. What is the purpose of all this effort? Why maximise achievement to this end? Why pursue function without disturbance, to what end?
“the society of achievement and activeness is generating excessive tiredness and exhaustion.”
Han calls the logical extreme of this “we-tiredness” – in other words “I am not tired of you, but rather I am tired with you.”
In Han’s view “the tiredness of exhaustion is the tiredness of positive potency,” meaning that
we get tired simply because we know about so many things we could do, but at the same time we are incapable of doing them.
On the contrary, “tiredness that inspires is tiredness of negative potency, namely of not-to”: I could do this and that, but I decide not to.
Being tired is not the problem; the problem is that the kind of tiredness that our society brews is one of exhaustion; it is no longer in tune with rhythms of rest which can renew inspiration in us.
Sabbath: a refuge from restlessness
In the Jewish and Christian traditions, this is well understood by the Biblical law of the Sabbath. The word Sabbath originally meant “stopping” [or aufhören in German, which evokes the action of ‘hearing out’]. Hence, Sabbath is a day of not-to. It is a matter of interval, of ‘in-between time’ [or Zwischenzeit] when we decide not to be active.
Furthering this thought with the ideas of Heidegger,
Sabbath is a day free of all in-order-to, of all care.
After He created it, God declared the Seventh Day holy (i.e., special, unique, unlike the rest, one of a kind—sacred). That is, the day of in-order-to is not sacred, but rather the day of not-to, a day on which the use of the useless proves possible. The Biblical mandate of Sabbath is therefore quite shocking. God is ordaining as sacred not the days of “in-order-to” but rather the days of “not-to,” of stopping and of interval, of care and of useless provision.
Han argues convincingly, then, that the company inspiring not-doing for one day a week, by upholding the rule of non-working Sundays or weekends, or special Sunday hours, stands in direct opposition to the society of activity and restlessness.
*** 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!