Book Notes: The Burnout Society by Byung-Chul Han

Thoughts on Chapters 1-4

I am introduced to Byung-Chul Han’s work by Professor Ellie Anderson through this video.

I’m finding it difficult to make literature notes on this book because Han’s writing is meticulous and it already feels perfectly articulated.

It appears that Terence McKenna’s words remain true to this day – we need to do significantly less if we want to attempt to reclaim our experience and attention.

Chapter 1: Neuronal Power

The contemporary age is characterized by an abundance of neurological illnesses (depression, borderline personality disorder, ADHD and burnout syndrome). Using an immunological metaphor, these conditions are not caused by the invasion of a foreign entity, but instead, arise from an excess of positivity or the (immunologically) Same. [Loc 38]

The rise of globalization is not compatible with the immunological model as eliciting an immune reaction works in opposition. [Loc 63]

Strengthening defence mechanisms are pointless in a system dominated by the Same. [Loc 94]

Conditions for the a surplus of “positivity”: Overproduction, overachievement and over-communication. [Loc 94]

Reactions: Exhaustion, fatigue and suffocation. [Loc 94]

The violence of positivity does not presume or require hostility. It unfolds specifically in a permissive and pacified society. [Loc 118]

Burnout syndrome occurs when the ego overheats, which follows from too much of the Same. [Loc 125]

Chapter 2: Beyond Disciplinary Society

Society has changed from being disciplinary to achievement based.

Prohibitions, commandments, and the law are replaced by projects, initiatives, and motivation. Disciplinary society is still governed by no. Its negativity produces madmen and criminals. In contrast, achievement society creates depressives and losers. [Loc 133]

Depression results from (1) failure to become oneself and (2) the pressure to meet the needs of achievement society: “the imperative to achieve”. [Loc 160]

Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity. It reflects a humanity waging war on itself. [Loc 174]

The disappearance of domination does not entail freedom. Instead, it makes freedom and constraint coincide.

This leads the individual in an achievement society towards “compulsive freedom” or the freedom to maximise achievement. [Loc 174]

Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation. This is more efficient than allo-exploitation, for the feeling of freedom attends it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim can no longer be distinguished. Such self-referentiality produces a paradoxical freedom that abruptly switches over into violence because of the compulsive structures dwelling within it.

Chapter 3: Profound Boredom

Excess stimuli (information, impulses), multi-tasking, video games leads to a “broad but flat mode of attention”.

Deep, contemplative attention is required for writing, philosophy and creativity.

If sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Chapter 4: Vita Activa

The vita activa refers to a way of life characterized by purposeful, active involvement in the world, rather than a contemplative, passive attitude towards life. The term is often contrasted with the vita contemplativa, which is a more passive, inward-looking approach to life.

Anxiety and hyperactivity arise due to life and the world being fleeting and bare.

Not the active life but the contemplative life makes man into what he should be. [Loc 310]

The loss of the ability to contemplate … is also responsible for the hysteria and nervousness of modern society. [Loc 310]

Chapter 5: The Pedagogy of Seeing

The vita contemplativa offers resistance to crowding, intrustive stimuli.

[^1]: Foucault’s disciplinary society is a type of society in which individuals are subjected to a system of surveillance and control in order to regulate and normalize their behavior. This system of control is imposed through an array of techniques, such as the use of surveillance, classification, normalization, and examination. The disciplinary society is made up of individuals who are constantly monitored and shaped by disciplinary institutions, such as schools, prisons, and the military.

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