Byung-Chul Han says we are self-exploiting ourselves more than ever [reblogged]
The coronavirus crisis has exacerbated many of the ills of our time. Videoconferences do not provide the same connection as human contact while rituals and community have disappeared. In this essay, the South Korean-born philosopher suggests the pandemic could provide an opportunity to radically rethink our modern way of life
The SARS-CoV-2 virus is a mirror that reflects our society. It has served to emphasize even more strongly the symptoms of the illnesses our society was suffering from before the pandemic struck. One of those symptoms is exhaustion. In one way or another, we are all feeling more fatigued and drained. This is a primordial fatigue, one that constantly haunts our existence as though it were our own shadow. During the coronavirus pandemic, we have been feeling even more worn out than usual. Even the inactivity forced upon us by lockdowns is exhausting. It is fatigue, not idleness, that reigns in the time of a global pandemic.
In my book “The Burnout Society”, which was published for the first time 10 years ago, I described fatigue as an illness of the neoliberal performance society. We voluntarily and enthusiastically exploit ourselves in the belief that we are fulfilling ourselves. What wrings us dry is not an external coercive force, but an inner imperative to be ever more productive. We are killing ourselves in a quest for fulfillment and optimization, crushing ourselves in order to perform well and give off a good image.
In the neoliberal performance society, unauthorized exploitation is being carried out. The subject is forced to submit, to exploit himself, becoming at the same time the master and the slave. In a manner of speech, everyone carries within themselves their own forced labor camp. The odd thing about this camp is that one is at the same time the prisoner and the guard, the victim and the criminal. In this, it differs from the cowed subject of the authoritarian society, as described by Foucault in his book “Discipline and Punish”. But Foucault did not take into account the rise of the neoliberal performance society, in which we voluntarily exploit ourselves.
While the world is locked down, plastic surgeons have been inundated by the demand for operations to eliminate the signs of fatigue. What characterizes the subject of this society, who under the pressure to perform exploits himself, is the sensation of freedom. Exploiting oneself is more efficient than being exploited by others, because of that feeling of freedom. Kafka gave a perfect description of the paradoxical freedom of the servant who believes he is the master in hisAphorisms. “The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.” The animal that whips itself is the embodiment of this subject, obliged to be productive and who, while exploiting himself, believes himself to be free.
One of the most sinister aspects of SARS-CoV-2 is that those affected by it suffer from extreme exhaustion and despondency. Furthermore, there have been many cases where people have recovered only to continue to suffer serious after-effects as a result of what has been described as long Covid. One of these symptoms is fatigue syndrome, which can be summed up very well by the phrase ‘when the battery will no longer charge.’ Those affected are no longer able to perform or to work. They even find it difficult to fill a glass of water. Even when walking they are forced to stop constantly to recover their breath. They feel like living corpses. As one patient explains: “It’s like when your cellphone is down to 4% battery and you have to last the whole day on that 4%, without being able to charge it.”
The virus does not only wear down those who are infected, but also those who are not. In his bookPandemic!COVID-19 Shakes the World, Slavoj Žižek dedicates a whole chapter to the question: “Why are we always tired?” In this chapter, Žižek analyzes my bookThe Burnout Society in great detail, very flatteringly describing it as a “masterpiece.” He argues that exploitation on the part of others has not given way to self-exploitation but instead it has been outsourced to Third World countries. I agree. This is what is happening.The Burnout Society describes the neoliberal Western society and not workers in Chinese factories. I would not describe these people as exploiting themselves. But on the other hand, what I would call a neoliberal mentality is also expanding in the Third World through social media. There as well men isolate themselves and become narcissists. Like everyone else, they assimilate the neoliberal mantra: he who fails does so through his own fault. They accuse themselves and not society. To a lesser or greater degree, social media turns us all into producers, entrepreneurs in the business of ourselves. The neoliberal lifestyle is being globalized.
Žižek does not analyze this primordial fatigue, which now not only affects western society but seems to represent a global phenomenon. Naturally, it is not only inner pressure that exhausts, but external pressure as well. It is not only self-exploitation that wears us down, but exploitation by others. Global conditioning to production, the pressure to produce and to achieve growth, drains us all. There is however a passage in which Žižek seems to embrace my theory of self-exploitation, where he writes: “People who work from home seem to find more time to ‘exploit themselves.’ As such, in the age of pandemic, that neoliberal forced labor camp is called working from home.
” We have been thrown into a collective fatigue and as such the virus could also be called the virus of exhaustion. Working from home is tiring, perhaps even more so than working in the office. It causes so much exhaustion because, above all, it lacks the rituals and temporary fixed structures of the office. It is tiring to work at home alone, spending the day in pajamas sitting in front of the computer screen. Lack of social contact is also tiring, the absence of hugs and physical contact with others. My bookThe Disappearance of Rituals was published in Germany before the pandemic. In it, I describe our present on the basis of the thesis of the disappearance of rituals. Today we are losing temporary fixed structures, even temporary architectural ones, those that give stability to our lives. Furthermore, rituals generate a community without communication, whereas what we have today is communication without community. Social media and its constant platform for ego exhaust us because it destroys the social fabric of community. Once again this backs the theory that the virus is a mirror to our society and serves to aggravate its crises.
The virus is accelerating the disappearance of ritual and the erosion of community. It is even eliminating those rituals that remain such as going to a football match or a concert, eating out at a restaurant or going to the theater or the cinema. Social distancing is destroying social life. Other people have become potential carriers of the virus from whom I have to keep my distance. The virus has radicalized the expulsion of the other that I diagnosed many times before the pandemic. In truth, the virus acts as an amplifier of crisis in our society. All of the social crises I had previously identified have now been exacerbated. Endless videoconferences also pull us out and turn us into videozombies. Above all, they require us to permanently look at ourselves in the mirror. It is tiring to contemplate our own reflections on the screen; we are always looking ourselves in the eye. The irony is not lost that the virus appeared in the age of the selfie, one of the clearest indicators of the narcissism that prevails in our society. The virus feeds narcissism. During the pandemic, everybody is faced with their own image. The screen turns us into a type of permanent selfie.
Videonarcissism has some absurd secondary effects. It has led to an increase in plastic surgery. Seeing a blurred or distorted image on a screen leads people to question their own appearance. When the screen has a high definition wrinkles become apparent, as does hair loss, skin blemishes, bags under the eyes and other things we find unesthetic. During the pandemic, Google searches for cosmetic surgery have increased. While the world is locked down, plastic surgeons have been inundated by the demand for operations to eliminate the signs of fatigue. Above all, people are now discussing digital dysmorphia. The digital mirror has led people to suffer from dysmorphia, the obsessive fixation on a perceived imperfection in appearance. The virus has radicalized our obsession with perfection, which even before the pandemic had us tearing our own hair out. In this too, the virus is a mirror on our society. In the case of digital dysmorphia not only metaphorically but also in the most literal sense: a mirror that makes us even more depressed over our own appearance. This is also exhausting, a phenomenon derived from our digital dystopia.
The German government has repeatedly stressed that the pandemic has given digitalization the impulse it needed, that the country has finally been freed from its humiliating lack of progress in this respect. In terms of digitalization, Germany is in fact a leading Third World country, which does not bother me. I would love to live in an area without coverage and dedicate myself to gardening. To me, that would be wonderful. In my bookLoa a la tierra.A voyage to the garden (orIn Praise of the Earth. A Journey in the Garden ) I explain how happy I feel spending time in the backyard, removed from the paroxysm of digital communication. Now, thanks to the pandemic, Germany is finally entering the first world. Anybody would say that today digitalization is an end unto itself. After all, we know that politicians do not like to think. They are also not interested in what a good life is. Apparently, their ultimate maxim is growth. In reality, they should be extremely concerned that digitalization undermines the basis of democracy through fake news, social media bots and armies of trolls. The virus is accelerating the disappearance of ritual and the erosion of community. It is even eliminating those rituals that remain such as going to a football match or a concert.
In the clamor for growth, it is always forgotten that the secondary effects of digitalization the pandemic is shining a light on are precisely the negative ones. Digital communication is considerably unilateral; it is not transmitted with the body or with facial expressions and is therefore very limited. The pandemic has led to this form of communication, which in itself is inhumane, to become standard. Digital communication exhausts us as well. It is a type of communication without consequence, one that makes us unhappy. During videoconferences, through purely technical motives, we cannot look each other in the eye. We set our focus on the screen. It is tiring not to be able to read the facial expression of the other person. Hopefully, the pandemic will make us realize that there is something in the mere physical presence of other people that makes us happy, that language implies a corporeal experience, that a shared dialogue requires a physical presence, that we are corporeal beings. InThe Disappearance of Rituals , I highlighted the physical dimension of the ritual.
“Rituals are processes of incorporation and corporeal staging. The orders and values prevailing in a community are experienced and consolidated corporeally. They are recorded in the body, that is to say, they are assimilated corporeally. Therefore, rituals foster an embodied knowledge and a corporeal memory, an embodied identity, a corporeal rapport. The ritual community is an embodiment. A corporeal dimension is inherent to the community. Digitalization weakens the communal bond in that it has a disembodying effect. Digital communication is a form of disembodied communication. ”
Even before the pandemic, there was widespread hysteria over health. What most concerns us today is survival, as though we find ourselves in a permanent state of war. In the battle for survival, the question of quality of life is the first casualty. All of our life forces are applied to prolonging existence at whatever cost. InThe Palliative Society , I describe our current society as a society of survival. In view of the pandemic, the tooth and nail fight for survival has witnessed a viral radicalization. The fight against the virus has intensified the fight for survival. It has reduced the world to a state of quarantine in which normal life has ground to a halt and become little more than a struggle to make it from one day to the next. Health has been elevated to the prime objective of mankind.
The survival society has completely lost the ability to place value on quality of life. Even enjoyment has been sacrificed on the altar of remaining healthy, enthroned as an end in itself, what Nietzsche called the “new idol.” The draconian smoking ban is also a thrall to the hysteria for survival. Survival must replace enjoyment. He who only worries about survival cannot enjoy. The prolongation of life has become the supreme value. We have willingly sacrificed everything that makes life worth living to survival. During the pandemic, a radical restriction of human rights has also been accepted without discussion. We have accepted the state of emergency without complaint, which has reduced life to purely the pursuit of survival. Under the state of emergency, we have self-isolated voluntarily and quarantined of our own volition. In the battle for survival, the question of quality of life is the first casualty
Koreans call the state of depression brought on by the pandemic the “corona blues.” During the lockdown, shorn of human contact, depression has spiraled and become the genuine pandemic of the present day. The Burnout Society opens with the following assessment:
“Every age has its signature afflictions. Thus, a bacterial age existed; at the latest, it ended with the discovery of antibiotics. Despite widespread fear of an influenza epidemic, we are not living in a viral age. Thanks to immunological technology, we have already left it behind. From a pathological standpoint, the incipient 21st century is determined neither by bacteria nor by viruses, but by neurons. Neurological illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and burnout syndrome mark the landscape of pathology at the beginning of the 21st century. “
We will soon have enough vaccines to combat the virus. But we will not have a vaccine against the global pandemic of depression. In South Korea, many thousands of people take their own lives every year. The main cause is depression. In 2018, some 700 school-aged children tried to commit suicide. The media, meanwhile, speak of a “silent massacre.” On the other hand, in South Korea, around 1,700 people have died from Covid-19. The pandemic has also exacerbated the problem of suicide. Since the pandemic began the number of suicides in South Korea has risen vertiginously. It seems as though the virus is a catalyst of depression. However, on a global scale, there is still too little attention being paid to the psychological consequences of the pandemic.
Depression is a symptom of the burnout society. The subject forced to be productive suffers from burnout from the moment in which he feels he cannot take any more. He fails because of the demands he places on himself. The possibility of not being able to give any more leads him to destructive self-admonishment and self-harm. The subject forced to perform fights against himself and succumbs because of it. In this battle waged against one’s own person, the victory goes to work-induced burnout. SARS-CoV-2 has overwhelmed our society with exhaustion by radicalizing its pathological distortions. We have been thrown into a collective fatigue and as such the virus could also be called the virus of exhaustion. But the virus is of itself a crisis in the etymological sense of the Greek word krisis, which can be translated as a point of determination or judgment. By heeding a pressing call to alter our way of life, it could also lead to the reversal of this insecurity. But we can only achieve this if we submit our society to a radical overhaul; if we manage to find another way of life that gives us immunity to the virus of fatigue.
Byung-Chul Han is a philosopher and writer who lectures at the University of Fine Arts in Berlin.
Among his published works are The Burnout Society and The Disappearance of Rituals.
English version by Rob Train.