Book Notes: Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society

Readers say they want more reviews of the hot new books in philosophy, so here is one I just finished.

There is no reference point for the modern subject other than the Self. In our pursuit of complete freedom, we have done away with any limitations imposed by morality, norms, expectations and definitions that exist outside of the Self. The Self is the only source of the truth for an individual.

This drive towards complete self-referentiality – “I am what I say I am, and don’t you dare try to define my experience, my identity, and my way of being” – aims to create perennially lonely, uprooted subjects that are extremely useful to the fluid economy. The subjects themselves pay for their bristly freedom with loneliness, anxiety, depression, and a constant sense of exhaustion that they can’t even fully explain to themselves:

In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.

Depression, says Byung-Chul Han, is pervasive in modern technological societies which have dismantled the disciplinary societies that Michel Foucault analyzed. The modern “entrepreneurs of their own lives” aren’t controlled, disciplined or punished by an external institution or figure of authority. They have interiorized the disciplinarian and have invited him to inhabit their inner lives.

It’s wrong, Han argues, even to refer to the late-modern achievement-society subject as a subject. The more correct word would be “a project.” One has to treat oneself as a constant project of enhancing productivity, and mete out punishment and discipline to oneself.

The obvious freedom from any outside constraints that we enjoy obscures for us the sad truth that we have dismantled the prison walls only to bring them inside ourselves. Our world is that of a constant auto-aggression for the sake of the freedom from any external constraints. That auto-aggression results in what we call depression.

This is a valuable, if very repetitive (especially for such a slim volume), book. Be forewarned, though, the English translation stinks. The translator intersperses the text with parenthesised German words he finds complicated, and that interrupts the flow of the text. People say that the Spanish translations of this author are much better, which is why he’s super popular in Spain. Another reason, of course, is that Spain and Germany have a very intense cultural exchange both in fiction and in philosophy.

3 thoughts on “Book Notes: Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society

  1. Heh. I like the nod to and implied difference from Foucault, whereas the old French bastard pretty much started the whole ‘neoliberalism as a form of government turned inwards’ line of analysis way back in ’79.

    Since this is partially for benefit of el, I’ll throw in a recommendation for a translation of Foucault’s Birth of Biopolitics and Agamben’s Homo Sacer. They deal with much the same subject matter that this book does (guessing from Clarissa’s review rather than having read Burnout Society myself) and have the advantage of being classics, meaning they are, ahem, much more… freely available than more recent publications. Heavy reads, mind.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You are absolutely right. Han picks apart both Foucault and Agamben, and I like that because it’s about time both were stripped of their sacred status. This is why I find Han refreshing.

      It’s great to have readers who get these things so easily and without me even having to mention them.


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