Can I? Should I?

After centuries of deadly attacks by unseen bacterial pathogens, the long history of pandemics has now largely ended, replaced by our postmodern rival — psychological disorders.

This becomes a sweeping metaphor behind every essay by philosopher Byung-Chul Han. “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 twenty-first century,” he writes. “They are not infections, but infarctions; they do not follow from the negativity of what is immunologically foreign, but from an excess of positivity” (Burnout, 1).

Throughout his works, he uses this internal-compulsion principle in diagnosing our digital habits, work patterns, and social relationships. In the workplace, for example, he contrasts allo-exploitation (other-exploitation), when workers are coerced by external threats; with auto-exploitation (self-exploitation), when workers refuse to stop working from inner compulsion, having been conditioned by performance/achievement culture.

It applies to social media. Whereas we were once private citizens, keeping the details of our lives within a rather small and confidential sphere, we now digitally self-disclose far more willingly, autoilluminating the digital panopticon (Swarm, 72). No one compels us to share our lives online, we’re driven by an inner urgency that we rarely question until we are once again reminded that our data is at least being used against us in targetting our appetites, making us porous to carefully chosen new consumables.

Essentially this transition from external-compulsion to inner-compulsion is rooted in a move from disciplinary society to achievement society. “Achievement society is wholly dominated by the modal verb can — in contrast to disciplinary society, which issues prohibitions and deploys should. After a certain point of productivity, should reaches a limit. To increase productivity, it is replaced by can. The call for motivation, initiative, and projects exploits more effectively than whips and commands. As an entrepreneur of the self, the achievement-subject is free insofar as he or she is not subjugated to a commanding and exploiting Other. . . . Auto-exploitation proves much more efficient than allo-exploitation because it is accompanied by a feeling of liberty. This makes possible exploitation without domination” (Agony, 9).

Achievement society becomes doping society (Burnout, 30). As “the achievement-subject competes with itself; it succumbs to the destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over, to jump over its own shadow. . . . Achievement society is the society of self-exploitation. The achievement-subject exploits itself until it burns out” (Burnout, 46). Fundamentally this burnout is a failure of discipline, to decide what is of importance and what is of no importance. “When it is no longer possible to decide what is of importance, then everything loses importance” (Scent, 25).

In our lives, preserving the unimportant is essential to prioritizing the important. Preserving the no protects the yes, as it protects the Subject from burnout. Because “if one had only the power to do (something) and no power not to do, it would lead to a fatal hyperactivity” (Burnout, 24).

Byung-Chul Han is too anti-capitalist to agree with him at every point, but because of his differences, he is for me, page-for-page, one of the most stimulating non-Christian modern authors I engage. And for me he’s a model of concise writing. Here’s a selection of my favorite essays —

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