Self Help

The Burnout Society - Byung-Chul Han (Author)

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Matheus Puppe

· 10 min read



Here is a summary of The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han:

The book argues that we live in a “neuronal” age, marked by illnesses like depression, ADHD, and burnout syndrome that stem from an excess of positivity and stimulation rather than negativity like infections or viruses.

Han contends that modern society is no longer organized along “immunological” lines that demarcate self/other, inside/outside, friend/foe. Instead, otherness and foreignness disappear, replaced by hybridity and difference without negativity.

Whereas immunological societies react strongly against the “other,” neuronal illnesses follow a dialectic of positivity - they arise from an excess of the “same.” Contemporary society bombards us with positivity, information, communication, production, and stimulation. This causes inflammation and overload rather than immune reactions against the “other.”

According to Han, burnout syndrome is the signature illness of this neuronal age. It stems from hyperactive, self-motivated achievement behavior that leads to exhaustion and depression. Rather than an immunological lack, it results from an excess - the hyperpositivity of a society that mandates relentless activity, communication, and performance.

The book introduces conceptual frameworks like “achievement society” and “burnout society” to diagnose the pathologies caused by the overload of positivity characteristic of today’s neuronally-configured society.

  • Foucault’s concept of disciplinary society, defined by institutions like hospitals and prisons that separate the normal from the abnormal, is no longer an accurate framework for understanding today’s society.

  • We now live in an achievement society, focused on productivity, self-optimization, and initiative rather than obedience. The modal verb is “can” rather than “should not.”

  • While disciplinary society produces madmen and criminals via prohibition and negativity, achievement society creates depressives and losers through systemic pressures to achieve.

  • The social unconscious push to maximize production drives the shift to an achievement society. The positivity of “can” is more efficient than the negativity of “should.”

  • Alain Ehrenberg links depression to the shift away from fixed social roles and toward self-initiative. But depression also stems from fragmented social bonds and systemic violence in achievement society.

  • Rather than an inability to “become oneself,” depression often expresses exhaustion from societal pressures to achieve and produce constantly.

  • The analysis overlooks systemic violence and positive excesses rather than negative prohibitions in achievement society. Burnout is better understood as an exhausted soul than a sleepy self.

  • Nietzsche would say the human in the process of becoming a reality en masse is not a sovereign superman but “the last man” who does nothing but work. This new human type lacks all sovereignty and is exposed to excessive positivity without defense.

  • The depressive human is an animal laborans that exploits itself voluntarily, without external constraints. The achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom and auto-exploitation, which is more efficient than allo-exploitation.

  • Excessive positivity also leads to an excess of stimuli and fragmented perception. Multitasking represents a regression to animal-like vigilance, displacing contemplative attention and allowing deep immersion.

  • Profound boredom is crucial for creativity, but hyperattention has no tolerance for idleness. Contemplative lingering reveals fleeting phenomena. Without it, the gaze finds no expression.

  • Arendt sought to rehabilitate vita activa against the importance of vita contemplativa, connecting it to the priority of heroic action. But contemplative attention remains essential, as a counterforce against compulsive activity.

  • According to Arendt, modern society degrades humans into mere animal laborans (beasts of burden), nullifying the possibility for meaningful action. She sees modern life as characterized by passivity and calculation rather than active deeds.

  • Byerly argues that Arendt’s view does not fit today’s “achievement society”, where the late-modern laborer has an ego on the verge of bursting, caught up in nervous hyperactivity.

  • He suggests that modern life’s lack of meaning, faith, and narrative makes existence feel radically fleeting. This generates anxiety that manifests as hysterical overwork and obsession with productivity and health.

  • Byerly likens today’s workers to homo sacer (sacred man) - their lives are bare and expendable, yet also “undead” and thus must be preserved at all costs.

  • He argues that the debate of master/enslaved person has not led to universal freedom and leisure but rather to a society of compulsion, where the master has become enslaved. People exploit themselves, acting as both prisoners and guards.

  • Byerly sees echoes of concentration camp victims in those suffering from depression, burnout, etc. today. He suggests Arendt’s invocation of thinking at the end of her book is an ineffective stopgap.

  • He argues that the loss of contemplative life has fueled the hysteria of modern achievement society. Learning contemplative seeing is necessary to cultivate spirituality and patience.

  • Melville’s story “Bartleby” describes an inhumane working world where the characters have degraded into a state of pure labor. The office environment is gloomy and melancholy.

  • The assistants suffer from neurotic disorders and hyperactivity, representing the opposite of Bartleby, who falls into silent immobility.

  • Bartleby develops symptoms of neurasthenia, and his phrase “I would prefer not to” expresses apathy and lack of drive rather than true negative potency or delay.

  • The society is still disciplinary, with walls and partitions symbolizing control. The recurring motif of the prison-like “Tombs” also reflects this.

  • Bartleby ultimately dies in isolation, representing an obedient figure trapped in a disciplinary society.

  • His symptoms and fate reflect the problems of an inhumane system that burns out individuals through constant hyperactivity and control. Bartleby represents a pathological figure unable to resist or interrupt this system.

Here are the key points from the passage:

  • Achievement society is developing into a doping society, with “neuro-enhancement” replacing “brain doping”. Scientists now argue it is irresponsible not to use such substances.

  • Doping makes it possible to achieve without really achieving. It leads to becoming a performance machine that functions without disturbance to maximize achievement.

  • As the flipside of the achievement society, excessive tiredness and exhaustion are generated, caused by a surplus of positivity.

  • Tiredness in the achievement society is isolating and separating. Peter Handke calls it “divisive tiredness” - it makes people mute and blind and destroys shared language.

  • Handke contrasts this with an “eloquent, seeing, reconciliatory tiredness” that loosens the ego’s strictures and opens a shared space of indifference where no one dominates.

  • The passage critiques the achievement society and contrasts different forms of tiredness - isolating versus connective. Excessive achievement demand leads to exhaustion, while another state of fatigue can open communication.

Here are a few critical points in summarizing the passage:

  • The passage contrasts two types of tiredness: “I-tiredness,” which is world-destroying, arising from the ego wearing itself down, versus a “tiredness that trusts in the world,” which connects one to the world.

  • As the ego grows exhausted, gravity shifts from ego to world. This trusting tiredness “opens” the I and “makes room” for the world, re-establishing duality and connection.

  • Trusting tiredness enables calm, serene not-doing. It brings wonder back into the world, finds community without belonging, and makes possible a “society of tiredness.”

  • This contrasts with the society of activity and achievement. The passage advocates moving from ego-driven exhaustion to a shared, world-connected tiredness.

  • It conceives of an “immanent religion of tiredness” where rhythm and attunement allow community without familial or functional ties. This “Pentecostal company” inspires not-doing and could represent the future of society.

In summary, the passage contrasts ego-driven exhaustion with a healthy, world-connected tiredness that can enable community, calm, and serenity. It advocates this shared “tiredness that trusts in the world” as a model for society.

  • The late-modern achievement subject shares features with Kant’s obedience subject in that both are internally divided and act at the behest of an Other.

  • However, for Kant, this Other is God, who rewards moral accomplishment, while for the achievement-subject, there is a crisis of gratification due to the absence of the Other.

  • Without the Other, the achievement-subject cannot receive recognition or reward, so it feels compelled to perform more continuously.

  • Contemporary relations of production also contribute to this crisis, as definitive ‘works’ are no longer possible and labor remains inconclusive.

  • Narcissism and the erasure of boundaries between self and others lead to a lack of stable self-image for the achievement subject.

  • In contrast to the hysteric’s characteristic morphe, the depressive is amorphous and lacks character.

  • The dismantling of prohibitions and negativity in contemporary society leads to general dissolution and boundlessness rather than repression.

  • Freud’s analysis of the “Schreber case” exemplifies how the prohibition of homosexuality and pleasure led to repression in 19th-century disciplinary society.

  • Ehrenberg argues that depression stems from a confrontation between limitless possibility and the uncontrollable. However, the rebellious and unconscious play no role in depression, which lacks negativity and alterity.

  • New media dilutes being-for-otherness. Virtual spaces encourage narcissistic self-encounter rather than engagement with the resistance of the real.

  • Depression severs attachments, unlike mourning, which maintains a libidinal attachment to an object. The modern ego scatters libido across fleeting relationships that are easy to withdraw from.

  • Ehrenberg distinguishes melancholy and depression quantitatively as the democratization of the exceptional. But melancholy involves negativity, while depression stems from excess positivity.

  • Ehrenberg locates depression in the exhaustion of sovereignty and initiative. But burnout results from self-exploitation, not lack of mastery. The imperative to reinvent oneself dynamizes production.

  • Ehrenberg sees depression resulting from the decline of conflict as the basis of identity. However, depression defies the psychoanalytic conflict model in a deconflictualized, positive society.

  • Ehrenberg argues that in an achievement society, individual competition escalates into an absolute competition where the achievement subject competes with itself in a destructive, self-defeating loop of trying to outdo itself constantly. This self-imposed compulsion masquerades as freedom but has deadly consequences.

  • The seductions of the ego ideal replace the superego’s prohibitions. The achievement-subject projects itself onto an unattainable ego ideal, resulting in auto-aggression and self-destruction when it cannot reach it.

  • Achievement society runs on self-exploitation, which is more efficient than allo-exploitation because an illusion of freedom accompanies it. The exploiter and exploited are one.

  • Agamben’s concept of homo sacer fails to grasp the violence of positivity and inclusion in achievement society. The injunction is not to exclusion but to relentless achievement.

  • The achievement-subject as homo liber becomes homo sacer, simultaneously sovereign and bare life. Freedom and violence coincide.

  • Ehrenberg also does not see the self-exploitation in psychic disorders. Nietzsche’s “sovereign man” is not a hyperactive achievement subject but a critique of it.

  • Capitalism absolutizes survival and the rigid separation between life and death. More capital produces the illusion of more life capacity.

  • Achievement society reduces life to bare biological processes and vital functioning, stripping it of narrative meaning. Health becomes an end rather than a means to a greater purpose.

  • Members of achievement society are like “sacred men” whose lives are holy yet bare, reduced to survival. Their lives are too alive to die, yet too dead to live.

  • This differs from previous eras when sacred men could be killed. Now they are undead, their lives solely focused on unconditionally maximizing health and vital capacities.

  • Life becomes purposeless with the loss of values beyond ego exhibition and health. Health is the new goddess to be pursued at any cost.

  • In summary, achievement society has made life hollow, reducing it to stay alive at all costs. Health has become an empty goal without transcendent meaning. Members are caught between life and death, unable to live genuinely.

Here is a summary of the key points from the notes you provided:

  • Note 0 cites a source.

  • Notes 21-22 cite and briefly summarize a source that discusses struggles between social groups being replaced by individual competition in the face of globalization.

  • Notes 23-25 cite and summarize ideas from Agamben’s Homo Sacer about sovereignty, bare life, and the figure of homo sacer. The summary criticizes Agamben’s theory as historically inaccurate.

  • Notes 26-27 further cite and discuss Agamben and the idea of bare life.

  • Notes 28-29 cite and discuss Nietzsche on the will to power and overcoming.

  • Note 30 cites Aristotle on wealth accumulation and living vs. living well.

  • Note 31 cites Nietzsche’s idea of the last man and health replacing God.

In summary, these notes engage with ideas from Agamben, Nietzsche, Aristotle, and others, critically discussing critically discussing Agamben’s theory of sovereignty. The main themes include bare life, liberty, overcoming, living well, and health and happiness.



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