The Burnout Society
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The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han

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eBook - ePub

The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han

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Our competitive, service-oriented societies are taking a toll on the late-modern individual. Rather than improving life, multitasking, "user-friendly" technology, and the culture of convenience are producing disorders that range from depression to attention deficit disorder to borderline personality disorder. Byung-Chul Han interprets the spreading malaise as an inability to manage negative experiences in an age characterized by excessive positivity and the universal availability of people and goods. Stress and exhaustion are not just personal experiences, but social and historical phenomena as well. Denouncing a world in which every against-the-grain response can lead to further disempowerment, he draws on literature, philosophy, and the social and natural sciences to explore the stakes of sacrificing intermittent intellectual reflection for constant neural connection.

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In a very cryptic tale—“Prometheus”—Kafka undertakes a few modifications of the Greek legend. His reworking reads, “The gods grew weary, the eagles grew weary, the wound closed wearily.”1 I would subject Kafka’s version to further revision and turn it into an intrapsychic scene: the contemporary achievement-subject inflicting violence on, and waging war with, itself. As everyone knows, Prometheus also brought work to mankind when he gave mortals the gift of fire. Today’s achievement-subject deems itself free when in fact it is bound like Prometheus. The eagle that consumes an ever-regrowing liver can be interpreted as the subject’s alter ego. Viewed in this way, the relation between Prometheus and the eagle represents a relation of self-exploitation. Pain of the liver, an organ that cannot actually experience pain, is said to be tiredness. Prometheus, the subject of self-exploitation, has been seized by overwhelming fatigue.
For all that, Kafka envisions a healing tiredness: the wound closes wearily. It stands opposed to “I-tiredness,” whereby the ego grows exhausted and wears itself down; such tiredness stems from the redundancy and recurrence of the ego. But another kind of tiredness exists, too; here, the ego abandons itself into the world [das Ich verläßt sich auf die Welt hin]; it is tiredness as “more of less of me” [Mehr des weniger Ich], healthy “tiredness that trusts in the world.”2 I-tiredness, as solitary tiredness, is worldless and world-destroying; it annihilates all reference to the Other in favor of narcissistic self-reference.
The psyche of today’s achievement-subject differs from the psyche of the disciplinary subject. The ego, as Freud defines it, is a well-known disciplinary subject. Freud’s psychic apparatus is a repressive apparatus with commandments and prohibitions that subjugate and repress. Like disciplinary society, the psychic apparatus sets up walls, thresholds, borders, and guards. For this reason, Freudian psychoanalysis is only possible in repressive societies that found their organization on the negativity of prohibitions and commandments. Contemporary society, however, is a society of achievement; increasingly, it is shedding the negativity of prohibitions and commandments and presenting itself as a society of freedom. The modal verb that determines achievement society is not the Freudian Should, but Can. This social transformation entails intrapsychic restructuring. The late-modern achievement-subject possesses an entirely different psyche than the obedience-subject for whom Freud conceived psychoanalysis. Freud’s psychic apparatus is dominated by negation [Verneinung], repression, and fear of transgression. The ego is a “seat of anxiety” [Angststätte].3 In contrast, the late-modern achievement-subject is poor in negation. It is a subject of affirmation. Were the unconscious necessarily connected to the negativity of negation and repression [Verdrängung], then the late-modern achievement-subject would no longer have an unconscious. It would be a post-Freudian ego. The Freudian unconscious is not a formation that exists outside of time. It is a product of the disciplinary society, dominated by the negativity of prohibitions and repression, that we have long since left behind.
The work performed by the Freudian ego involves the fulfillment of duty, above all. On this score, it shares a feature with the Kantian obedience-subject. For Kant, the conscience occupies the position of the superego. Kant’s moral subject is subject to “power” [Gewalt], too:
Every man has a conscience and finds himself observed, threatened, and, in general, kept in awe (respect coupled with fear) by an internal judge; and this authority watching over the law in him is not something that he himself (voluntarily) makes, but something incorporated into his being.4
The Kantian subject, like the Freudian subject, is internally divided. It acts at the behest of Another; however, this Other is also part of itself:
Now, this original intellectual and (since it is the thought of duty) moral predisposition called conscience is peculiar in that, although its business is a business of man with himself, one constrained by his reason sees himself constrained to carry it on as at the bidding of another person.5
On the basis of this split, Kant speaks of a “doubled self,” or “dual personality.”6 The moral subject is simultaneously defendant and judge.
The obedience-subject is not a subject of desire or pleasure, but a subject of duty. Thus, the Kantian subject pursues the work of duty and represses its “inclinations.” Hereby, God—that “omnipotent moral being”—does not appear only as the instance of punishment and condemnation, but also (and this is a very important fact, which seldom receives due attention) as the instance of gratification. As the subject of duty, the moral subject represses all pleasurable inclinations in favor of virtue; God, who epitomizes morality, rewards such painfully performed labors with happiness [Glückseligkeit]. Happiness is “distributed in exact proportion to morality [Sittlichkeit].”7 The moral subject, which accepts pain for morality, may be entirely certain of gratification. There is no threat of a crisis of gratification occurring, for God does not deceive: He is trustworthy.
The late-modern achievement-subject does not pursue works of duty. Its maxims are not obedience, law, and the fulfillment of obligation, but rather freedom, pleasure, and inclination. Above all, it expects the profits of enjoyment from work. It works for pleasure and does not act at the behest of the Other. Instead, it hearkens mainly to itself. After all, it must be a self-starting entrepreneur [Unternehmer seiner selbst]. In this way, it rids itself of the negativity of the “commanding [gebietender] Other.” However, such freedom from the Other is not just emancipating and liberating. The dialectic of freedom means developing new constraints. Freedom from the Other switches into narcissistic self-relation, which occasions many of the psychic disturbances afflicting today’s achievement-subject.
The absence of relation to the Other causes a crisis of gratification. As recognition, gratification presupposes the instance of the Other (or the “Third Party”). It is impossible to reward oneself or to acknowledge oneself. For Kant, God represents the instance of gratification: He rewards and acknowledges moral accomplishment. Because the structure of gratification has been disturbed, the achievement-subject feels compelled to perform more and more. The absence of relation to the Other, then, represents the transcendental condition for the crisis of gratification to arise in the first place. However, contemporary relations of production are also responsible. A definitive work [Werk], as the result of completed labor [Arbeit], is no longer possible today. Contemporary relations of production stand in the way of conclusion. Instead, one works into the open. Conclusive forms [Abschlußformen] with a beginning and an end prove wanting.
Richard Sennett has also traced the gratification crisis to a narcissistic disturbance and the absent relation to the Other:
As a character disorder, narcissism is the very opposite of strong self-love. Self-absorption does not produce gratification, it produces injury to the self; erasing the line between self and other means that nothing new, nothing “other,” ever enters the self; it is devoured and transformed until one thinks one can see oneself in the other—and then it becomes meaningless. . . . The narcissist is not hungry for experiences, he is hungry for Experience. Looking always for an expression or reflection of [oneself]. . . . one drowns in the self.8
Experience [Erfahrung] involves encountering the Other. It alters. Experiencing [Erlebnis], in contrast, expands the ego into the Other, into the world. It com-pares. Love of self is still determined by negativity insofar as it devalues and wards off the Other in favor of the Own. The Own sets itself against the Other. Thereby, the Other acts to preserve distance. Self-love means taking an explicit stand vis-à-vis the Other. Narcissism, in contrast, blurs the border. If one suffers from a narcissistic disorder, one sinks into oneself. When reference to the Other goes missing, no stable self-image can form.
Sennett rightly connects contemporary psychic disturbances to narcissism, but he draws the wrong conclusions:
Continual escalation of expectations so that present behavior is never fulfilling is a lack of “closure.” The sense of having reached a goal is avoided because the experiences would then be objectified; they would have a shape, a form, and so exist independently of oneself. . . . The self is real only if it is continuous; it is continuous only if one practices self-denial. When closure does occur, experience seems detached from the self, and so the person seems threatened with a loss. Thus the quality of a narcissistic impulse is that it must be a continual subjective state.9
Sennett maintains that the narcissistic individual intentionally avoids achieving goals: closure yields an objectifiable form, which, inasmuch as it possesses independent substance, weakens the self. In fact, precisely the opposite holds. The socially conditioned impossibility of objectively valid, definitive forms of closure drives the subject into narcissistic self-repetition; consequently, it fails to achieve gestalt, stable self-image, or character. Thus, it is not a matter of intentionally “avoiding” the achievement of goals in order to heighten the feeling of self. Instead, the feeling of having achieved a goal never occurs. It is not that the narcissistic subject does not want to achieve closure. Rather, it is incapable of getting there. It loses itself and scatters itself into the open. The absence of forms of closure depends, not least of all, on economic factors: openness and inconclusiveness favor growth.
Hysteria is a typical psychic malady of the disciplinary society that witnessed the founding of psychoanalysis. It presumes the negativity of repression, prohibition, and negation, which lead to the formation of the unconscious. Drive-representations [Triebrepräsentanzen] that have been pushed off into the unconscious manifest themselves, by means of “conversion,” as bodily symptoms that mark a person unambiguously. Hysterics exhibit a characteristic morphe. Therefore, hysteria admits morphology; this fact distinguishes it from depression.
According to Freud, “character” is a phenomenon of negativity, for it does not achieve form without the censorship that occurs in the psychic apparatus. Accordingly, he defines it as “a precipitate of abandoned object-cathexes.”10 When the ego becomes aware of object-cathexes taking place in the id, it either lets them be or fights them off through the process of repression. Character contains the history of repression within itself. It represents a determinate relation of the ego to the id and to the superego. Whereas the hysteric shows a characteristic morphe, the depressive is formless; indeed, he is amorphous. He is a man without character. One might generalize the observation and declare that the late-modern ego has no character. Carl Schmitt says it is a “...

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