In his 2015 work Burnout Society, the philosopher Byung-Chul Han argues a cult of individual achievement has led to mass burnout and depression across society. Resisting burnout is simple, but easier said than done: we must slow down, and rediscover how to think.
In his short but powerful 2015 work Burnout Society, the South Korean-born, Berlin-based philosopher Byung-Chul Han suggests that modern society is gripped by an ‘imperative to achieve’ — and that mass burnout and depression is the result.
Han begins his analysis by reflecting on how the norms that govern society have changed in recent decades.
No longer do we live in a society characterized by hard institutional power, a society described by the 20th-century French philosopher Michel Foucault as closed, brutish, oppressive — a “disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories,” Han writes.
For, in the 21st-century, such a world has been replaced by…
a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories.
We are no longer the “obedience-subjects” of disciplinary society, Han claims, but the “achievement-subjects” of achievement society.
And the transition to the modern, 21st-century achievement-society we live in today has led to tremendous psychic change.
One way this changes comes out is that depression, rather than oppression, is now the sickness of the age.
For, while obedience-society was characterized by negativity, by holding people in line with ‘should’, achievement-society is characterized by positivity, and its operative word is ‘can’ — its popular plural: ‘Yes, we can.’
And it is precisely this insistent, excess positivity that creates conditions ripe for burnout and depression, Han writes:
The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘Nothing is possible,’ can only occur in a society that thinks, ‘Nothing is impossible.’
But, beyond this backdrop of excess positivity, what else is it about modern society that drives people to burn out?
Han introduces two key concepts here: hyperattention, and self-exploitation. Let’s look at each in turn.
The excess positivity of modern, achievement-based society also expresses itself through excess stimuli, information, and impulses, Han says.
He compares our situation as modern humans to animals in the wild whose survival depends on scattering their attention between various stimuli. He writes:
The attitude toward time and environment known as ‘multitasking’ does not represent civilizational progress. 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.
While eating, for instance, an animal in the wild must remain on constant alert — looking out for threats, mates, rivals, predators, and so on. Han writes:
The animal cannot immerse itself contemplatively in what it is facing because it must also process background events.
This reflects our modern mental state — a state Han labels “hyperattention”.
Hyperattention, Han tells us, is characterized by “a rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes”, where perception becomes “fragmented and scattered.”
Perhaps we can all relate to instances of this: using our phones while watching TV, the frantic flipping between tabs on an internet browser, having a conversation with someone who isn’t really listening…
The transition to a technological achievement-society, where there is an ever greater influx of stimuli and information, is thus “bringing human society deeper and deeper into the wilderness,” Han writes:
Concern for the good life… is yielding more and more to the simple concern for survival.
Beyond hyperattention, another characteristic of the achievement-subject is that we no longer need to be pressured into maximizing our productivity by an external power.
For, in a society where the only imperative is to achieve, no other constraints are needed. No coercion is required: having internalized the goals of optimal performance and achievement, we exploit ourselves.
As Han puts it:
[T]he disappearance of domination does not entail freedom. Instead, it makes freedom and constraint coincide. Thus, the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom — that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation.
We think that by turning ourselves into performance machines we are exercising our ultimate individual freedom — that it is our free choice to ‘be the best we can be’, to ‘optimize’ ourselves and achieve as much as possible — but really by doing so we rid ourselves of any freedom worth having. Han writes:
The exhausted, depressive achievement-subject grinds itself down, so to speak. It is tired, exhausted by itself, and at war with itself. Entirely incapable of stepping outward, of standing outside itself, of relying on the Other, on the world, it locks its jaws on itself; paradoxically, this leads the self to hollow and empty out. It wears out in a rat race it runs against itself.
The problem is not competition among individuals, Han says; the problem is that we are competing with ourselves. This “self-referentiality… escalates into absolute competition.” In other words:
[T]he achievement-subject competes with itself; it succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own shadow. This self-constraint, which poses as freedom, has deadly results.
Indeed, once we begin competing against ourselves, the race is unending. This, Han says, is what leads to burnout:
Burnout, which often precedes depression, does not point to a sovereign individual who has come to lack the power to be the ‘master of himself.’ Rather, burnout represents the pathological consequence of voluntary self-exploitation.
We thus find ourselves in a rather bizarre situation where people are seemingly voluntarily exploiting themselves and burning themselves out. As Han neatly summarizes:
Achievement society is the society of self-exploitation. The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out.
Han thinks self-exploitation is simply the latest stage of capitalism — for, from the perspective of the capitalist system, it’s a much more efficient way of doing things. As Han puts it:
Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation [i.e. external-exploitation] because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it.
Rather than being pressured to maximize our individual productivity by external forces, we now willingly expolit ourselves in the name of individual achievement.
We maximize our own performance because we feel that by doing so we are effectively exercising our individual freedom, and becoming the best version of ourselves. Han continues:
The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient. The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.
Han is not as detailed in his recommended solution as he is in his diagnosis, but some hints of how we might face up to ‘Burnout Society’ can be drawn together.
For one, Han thinks that the great cultural highpoints of humanity — the hallmarks of the good life — owe their existence not to hyperactivity but to deep, contemplative attention. He writes:
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.
Elsewhere, he writes that
hyperactivity represents an extremely passive form of doing, which bars the possibility of free action.
And that hyperactivity, hysterical work, and production are
The reaction to a life that has become bare and radically fleeting.
In other words, the relentless exploitation and optimization of ourselves is filling a void.
And, by hurtling into every project, by scattering our attention across multiple tasks and endless scrolling, we bar ourselves from ever finding ways to properly fill this void.
Filling the void properly requires deep, careful contemplation, Han suggests; but in a society of excess stimulation, opportunities for such thoughtfulness prove elusive. Often, thinking degrades into “mere calculation”, and the “weighing of consequences.”
To reclaim our aptitude for deep contemplation, we need to welcome boredom back into our lives. We need to slow down, resist constant stimulation, and give our psyches room to breathe.
We might sloganize such an approach as follows:
Rather than see ourselves as the fast-moving entrepreneurs of our own lives, perhaps as Nietzsche recommended we might instead style ourselves as the thoughtful, perceptive poets of our own lives.
All this of course is much easier said than done, but Han thinks accessing the good life means not yielding to the (ultimately passive) hysteria of hyperattention and maximal-production. As Nietzsche’s Zarathustra declares:
All of you who are in love with hectic work and whatever is fast, new, strange — you find it hard to bear yourselves, your diligence is escape and the will to forget yourself. If you believed more in life, you would hurl yourself less into the moment. But you do not have enough content in yourselves for waiting — not even for laziness!
Hyperattention and hyperactivity are forms of escapism that serve only endless production; they dehumanize us.
In our quest for the good life, Han thinks, slowing down, resisting constant stimulation, and rediscovering how to contemplate might be our greatest ‘achievements’ of all.
If you’d like to learn more about Han’s dissection of contemporary culture, his 2015 book Burnout Society is a short but illuminating read. Its first chapter, in which Han discusses pandemics, makes for rather ironic reading this side of Covid, but the remainder of the work remains as incisive and timely as ever.
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