Byung-Chul Han: the burnout society

The translation of Byung-Chul Han’s small book the Burnout Society is unfortunate. For one, it immediately places the work in the discourse of the burnout, which connotes all sorts of self-help positive thinking bear the burden alone nonsense that are ever so perpendicular to what the book is about. For another, it is wrong. The original title, Müdigkeitsgesellschaft, is more accurately translated as “the tiredness society” or “society of the tired”. The actual medical condition of being burned out is an aspect of this tiredness, but it is not the main focus of the book. Which, unfortunately, means that the point of the closing reflection on what it means to be tired together tends to get lost on English readers. It comes as a surprise, rather than as a fitting conclusion.

As these words are written, the importance of quarantining oneself against the Covid-19 virus is entering into public consciousness. This is an interesting point in time, since many latent patterns of thought are directed at and applied to the upcoming quarantine situation. The common sense interpretation of how to deal with the new situation emerging, and thus we get an unusually clear picture of the common sense interpretation of how to deal with the old situation. For a brief moment in time, we can see the change in action, and contrast what’s new with what’s old.

One common reaction to the quarantine is to say “gosh, I’m gonna get so much done! This sure is going to be a very productive time!”. A quarantine is seen as a temporary reprieve from restraints that prevent the full forces of creative output to be unleashed into the world, and thus as a potential time of unparalleled getting shit done. Unread books, hobby projects, writing ideas, gardening feats, culinary experiments – whatever it is, now is the time for getting it done. The pent up creative energy will flow with wild abandon. ushering in a new era of unprecedented personal productivity.

Byung-Chul Han contends that the last few decades have seen a shift from what he calls negative production to positive production. The former is a process of standardization and error elimination, whose goal at all times is to remove flaws in order to maximize efficiency. These flaws can either be technical, in the sense that the productive machine is not optimally configured, or social, in the sense that abnormal elements of society have to be removed or repressed so that the eternal productivity can continue without interruptions. Deviant forms of life, queer sexualities or non-conformist ideologies are examples of such abnormalities. The goal of negative production is to make each part of the production process standardized and interchangeable, including the human components. A worker is a worker, and workers do as they are told.

Positive production, in contrast, relies not on standardized units of production doing what they are told. Instead, these very same units have internalized the imperative to be productive to such an extent that they tell themselves what to do. The specifics vary from person to person, but the imperative to Produce remains a constant. At work, this expresses itself as an ever increased effort to attain maximum productivity, to be the utmost exemplar of whatever work is performed in all aspects. At home, it expresses itself as a nagging sense that one should do something productive. Academics have a name for this nagging sensation: “I should be writing”. The same goes for any other productive endeavor: I should be reading, painting, remixing, organizing, meditating. Whatever the activity, the same nagging sensation arises that it should indeed be done.

The upcoming Covid-19 quarantine, a period of time within which a person is specifically obligated to stay at home, is a good way to see the two mentalities of production in action. For those working under the paradigm of negative production, this would be a period to unwind – to be themselves, to sleep in, to not give a darn about the Man. Those laboring under the new paradigm, however, have to get themselves ready to (as paradoxical as it might seem) get to work. There imperative is still there, and it is even stronger for there not being anything else to do. The quarantine is a great opportunity and an even greater obligation.

Based on this, we should be able to predict that a substantial number of people will end up more tired at the end of the quarantine than at the beginning of it. The amount of actual work accomplished during the quarantine is beside the point; the tiredness is not a result of sustained effort, but of constantly feeling that the Work should be performed. Positive production allows no time for rest, only for more of itself, more production. Instead of the quarantine being two weeks of rest, relaxation and recovery, it will be two weeks of constant anxiety over not sufficiently productive during our allotted time. At the end of it, tiredness and exhaustion will be the words of the day.

The point of this book is not to argue that we should go back to negative forms of production. This is a book of philosophy, after all, which means the point is to get us to ask ourselves if this really is how we want to spend our lives (in and out of quarantine). Like all good works of philosophy, it does not lead to a clear-cut easy to implement answer, and leaves readers with more questions than they previously had. I say we acknowledge our tiredness, and then proceed to be as unproductive as we need to be.

Byung-Chul Han: the burnout society