Byung-chul Han is a Korean writer and philosopher who has spent most of his career in Germany and Switzerland, producing a number of works that have met with success outside academia. This is probably because of his clarity of style and the popularity of his subject matter: he casts a critical eye over modern society and explains why, with the human race as developed as it’s ever been, so many people aren’t really that happy with their lot.
This theme is explored in detail in The Burnout Society, a short work dating from 2010. Han begins by introducing the idea of a society based on the language of immunology, with life revolving around the self and others, the familiar and the alien. What this meant is that in politics and society people acted very much as our bodies do when an infection is detected, isolating and annihilating the threat; as a result, anything not forming part of the whole is automatically part of this threat (here Han gives the example of Cold War rhetoric). You’ll note the use of the past tense here, and this is because the writer believes that this was a 20th-century concept and that we’ve moved on (to which I can only say Trump, Brexit, refugees on Manus Island … ).
The core concept of the work, then, is that the 21st century has brought with it a very different issue. The threat to our way of life no longer comes from without, but from within, in the sense that it is built into the fabric of our society. Where the past focused on “May-Not” or “Should” (Nicht-Dürfen, Sollen in German), we now live in an age of “Can” (Können), and the concepts “Prohibition, Commandment, Law” have been replaced by “Project, Initiative, Motivation”. The problem with this shift is that while it seemingly frees us, in truth it simply shifts the emphasis of control from external to internal, meaning that when we no longer feel up to the challenge of continual improvement, we burn out – and our immune system has nothing to attack as the damage is coming from within.
The Burnout Society is a fascinating little book, short and well-structured, with its seven brief sections skilfully linked, drawing the reader carefully through the writer’s argument. In a blunt manner (typical of both Germans and Koreans), he reveals the true nature of modern life, using an interesting expression to label us:
The new Human-type, helplessly exposed to the excess of Positivity, is deprived of any sense of agency. The depressive person is this animal laborans (working animal) that exploits itself, voluntarily, without coercion. They are both culprit and victim.
A little harsh perhaps, but anyone who has found themselves caught up in a busy working environment will be familiar with the feeling of being on a treadmill with no end in sight – and where the only chance of a rest is to collapse, exhausted.
Han expands on this Blur-esque idea (modern life, well, it’s rubbish) by examining a concept a little too close to the bone, namely the proliferation of sources of information and entertainment. With so many distractions and choices, it’s hard to decide upon – and focus on – what we really want to do, and while multi-tasking may seem like an evolutionary step, the writer argues that it’s actually a sign of regression, taking us back to the wild animal state where taking your eye off what was around you, even at meal times, was impossible. So, basically, getting distracted by Twitter while trying to write a blog post is a sign of a savage beast (though I may be paraphrasing a little too much there!).
This is a book that demands a little thought from the reader, but the writer carefully sets up his idea, with each section drawing us further on. Han starts most parts by looking at other thinkers’ ideas, but he’s certainly not afraid to contradict them. A good example is his examination of Hannah Arendt’s claims that we’ve given up our individualism and become cogs in the machine, leading to a society too jaded and exhausted to think. Han’s counter-claim is that we’re too full of ego; it’s the dual role mentioned above, that of being our own boss and underling simultaneously, that has us frazzled.
So what’s the way out? Well, one avenue of escape is that of the vita contemplativa. Han sets out the case for boredom, the necessary precursor of creativity, as the only way to prevent us from a life of repetition and mild refinement, before going on to take a quick look at Nietzsche (inevitably). The idea of “the pedagogy of seeing” is another way of looking at the need for reflection:
The dialectic of Being-Active, which escapes Arendt, is that the hyperactive intensification of activity turns this into a Hyper-Passivity, in which we helplessly follow every impulse and stimulus. Instead of freedom, it brings forth new constraints. It is an illusion to believe that the more active we become, the freer we are.
In a world where pauses and breaks are ever shorter, if present at all, both Nietzsche and Han stress the importance of stepping back and the need to develop the ability to resist the multitude of available attractions: saying no to all the shiny new books, perhaps?
The Burnout Society certainly isn’t my usual fare, but I enjoyed it immensely, and its core message is one we should all consider. Han dips nicely into others’ ideas too, giving us a taste of other views on the subject. As with much popular philosophy, it’s hard to shake off a nagging feeling that Han’s ideas are simply common sense explained clearly; not a bad thing, of course, but perhaps meaning that there’s nothing here as clever as you might think on a first reading. Of course, it may just be that in the time since the book’s publication, what were once profound insights have now become fairly self-explanatory truths.
The book culminates with a section in which Han uses Peter Handke’s Versuch über die Müdigkeit (An Essay on Tiredness) to finally explain how he thinks we should deal with the issue. There is a danger of grind and fatigue leading to what he calls “an infarction of the soul”, and worse still, this is an individual affliction pushing people apart. Handke describes a need to make a space in the world, to change the “I-Tiredness” to “We-Tiredness”, or a “communal tiredness”, a comfortable one that will actually promote happiness.
And it’s here that we finally realise that the title of the English version has had it wrong all along. You see, in truth what Han is arguing against, “Performance Society”, is the true Burnout Society. Handke’s (and Han’s) “Tiredness Society” is actually something to strive for, a possible future development, a society in which we have the power to step back and “Not-Do” (Nicht-Tun). It’s only when we admit the importance of perspective, boredom and the ability to reject the many attractions the modern world offers, that we’ll be able to enjoy a well-earned tiredness instead of an exhausting fatigue.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I might just end there – you see, after all that philosophising, I’m suddenly feeling very, very tired …
Reviewed by Tony Malone
The Burnout Society
Written by Byung-Chul Han
Translated from the German by Erik Butler
Published by Stanford University Press
Tony Malone is an Anglo-Australian reviewer with a passion for language and literature. In 2009, he started a review site, Tony’s Reading List, which has developed a strong focus on literary fiction in translation, featuring around one hundred reviews of translated literature every year. Recently, his work has also appeared in online journals, including Words Without Borders and Necessary Fiction.
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