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 —

Work, Art, and Money

Dorothy Sayers, The Mind of the Maker (Harcourt, 1941), 219–220:

Whether it is possible for a machine-worker to feel creatively about his routine job I do not know; but I suspect that it is, provided and so long as the worker eagerly desires that before all things else the work shall be done. What else causes the armaments worker to labor passionately when he knows that the existence of his country is threatened, but that his heart travels along the endless band with the machine parts and that his imagination beholds the fulfillment of the work in terms, not of money, but of the blazing gun itself, charged with his love and fear. As the author of Ecclesiasticus says, he “watches to finish the work”; for once, that is, he sees the end-product of his toil exactly as the artist always sees it, in a vision of Idea, Energy, and Power.

It is unfortunate that so little effort should be made by Church or State to show him the works of peace in the same terms. Is the man, for example, engaged in the mass-production of lavatory cisterns encouraged to bring to his daily monotonous toil the vision splendid of an increasingly hygienic world? I doubt it; yet there is much merit in sanitary plumbing — more, if you come to think of it, than there is in warfare.

But if the common man were really to adopt this high-minded and Christian attitude to the worth of his work and the needs of his neighbor, are there not some products which he would refuse at all costs to produce? I think there are; and that many of the machines would stop, unless the art of propagandist deception were carried to even greater lengths than it is at present. And who would issue the propaganda, if profit were no longer a motive? Perhaps some state which, not having enough useful commodities to exchange for necessities, was obliged to specialise in the export of trash. And if nobody would accept the trash? In that case, we could scrap a very great number of the machines, and the “problem” of industrialisation would assume a different aspect; because, in that case, every man in the world would have become an artist after his fashion.