Han – Die Müdigkeitsgesellschaft [The Burnout Society]

Han Byung-Chul, Die Müdigkeitsgesellschaft, 2010. 

The book was recently translated into English as The Burnout Society; my notes are based on the Korean translation, as the former was not yet available. There are not many false friends in Han’s lexicon here, save the keyword Müdigkeit. Where the English translation has opted for ‘burnout’ – a relatively specific term, calling to mind the subject broken and weary stuck fast to the wheels of late modernity, I am sticking here (along with the Korean translation) the more generic ‘fatigue’, leaving open a more varied set of connotations.

Every age has its malaise, its disease, its ‘condition’. If the previous age of discipline, of Freudian repressed subjectivity, was about immunisation – the protection of the integral self, a clear line between in and out, friend and enemy – the fatigue society is where such Others become mere difference, nonthreatening. If previously the question was prohibition, repression, restriction, the negative, today is the overabundance of positivity; a performance society where the mantra is always, I can do it. Unbounded productivity cannot countenance any shackling, however prudent.

If hystery was our previous malaise, today it is depression; the transitional subject despairs at this overloading of the libidinal self, the demand that one be oneself – but this is not a ‘psychological problem’, rather a structural effect. In this situation, what we know to be ‘control’ and ‘freedom’ – the dynamic itself collapses, and one exploits oneself in a way that makes one feel free. The efficacy of what we know as subject, agency, power evaporates into confusion. Indeed, Bartleby is dumb to this positivity drive. I can do becomes I would prefer not to. But contra Agamben, this refusal of machinic repetition in itself does not constitute a potenza.

This fatigue is one which requires incessant activeness (we are denied even relaxed complacence) but in its repetition blocks out the nothingness, the ‘deep boredom’ that is required for a break into something new. We have lost precisely what Cezanne used to do in his long stares, a nothingness… viva activa has triumphed over viva contemplativa. Hence, contra Arendt, and as Nietzsche teaches, Han argues that we must learn to see: to stop doing and doing, to stop and take in the external. Today we have no ‘breaks’, only persistent anxiety and tiredness. In late modernity, one loses not only faith in the big Other but even the present reality; life has never been so ‘pointless’. Reduced to frenetic repetition for the sake of keeping-going, the normal subject is itself a homo sacer of sorts, a being that keeps on living at all costs.

Han’s fatigue is what Peter Handke (in Versuch über die Müdigkeit) calls a divisive or schizophrenic tiredness; it separates us from each other, and, violently, into the blindness of the ego. Against this Handke and Han posit a more essential and true fatigue – not exhaustion from repetition, but a clearing, a space.