Here are three I ideas I take from reading Byung-chul Han’s The Burnout Society in relation to what interests me in complex social processes of identity formation.
The first is his idea that we live in an achievement society rather than a disciplinary society. Byung-chul Han may be taking Foucault to his logical conclusion when he argues that rather than being exploited we have now come to exploit ourselves voluntarily. In contemporary society there is no limit to the extent to which we are encouraged to be flexible accommodating and self-improving. We commit to stretch targets and KPI’s, more for less, smart working, efficiency savings and we make ourselves life-long learners. We focus on our own health and the habitual improvement of the body. Byung-chul Han argues that freedom and constraint now combine in the same individual so we are both the exploiter and the exploited as we endeavor to achieve more and more. As a result, he argues, we risk depression and burn-out. We are encouraged to commit to the dictum that ‘nothing is impossible’, but as a consequence the opposite is also true, that nothing is possible. We can go on improving ourselves, fitting in, meeting new and more exacting targets, getting more for less without end, until we hollow ourselves out. There is no-one else to look to for help or guidance if we are all to be self-starting entrepreneurs. We are entirely responsible for our own futures, we must depend on ourselves rather than others.
I see echoes of this argument in what Svend Brinkmann put forward to the Complexity and Management conference in 2015 (read some of the main themes of the conference here) – the narrative of self-improvement and continuous development militates against ever being rooted, of reflecting and staying put. His injunction was that we should say no to self-development, no to the life coach, no to endless flexibility and fitting in.
The second argument I take from Byung-chul Han is the pressure we are under not to reflect on our current situation of self-exploitation: that contemporary multi-tasking which arises from the bombardment of new technology and the pattern of work does not lead to freedom, but to fragmented attention. Hyperactivity makes us passive, where we are always responding and never initiating. A similar argument is made by Sherry Turkle in her latest book Reclaiming Attention: the Power of Talk in a Digital Age, further arguing that our constant preoccupation with our gadgets makes us avoid eye-contact and face to face communication, diminishing our capacity for empathy. Byung-chul Han riffs with Walter Benjamin on the importance of being bored, of languishing undistracted to be with one’s own thoughts. And he turns Hannah Arendt on her head by pointing out that although she ultimately valorizes action over contemplation, in the end it is contemplation, thinking, which is most help to us ‘when the chips are down’. It is a great skill to learn not to act immediately to a stimulus, but to reflect, resist, or say no. Only through continuous attention can we recognize what is important about a lived life.
The third argument which interests me in Byung-chul Han’s book is that contemporary society society suffers from an excess of positivity, an absence of negative constraint. He understands constraint in Hegelian terms, that we are defined as subjects through the negation of others: we negate the negation of others, and in doing so become ourselves through and with the other. Further drawing on Freud Byung-chul Han argues that our characters were formed through the repression of desires and instincts in order to conform to a disciplinary society. Without the constraint of a disciplinary society, of an orientation to the otherness of others, we are lost to ourselves, suffering from indeterminacy as the German sociologist Axel Honneth puts it. We are plagued with narcissistic disorders where we are unable to find ourselves and each other. As self-defining entrrepreneurs, as achievers, we are supposed to define ourselves; however, are incapable of pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Computers, for Byung-chul Han, are symptomatic of the age, since they are the epitome of autistic self-referentiality requiring no otherness to perform. And in a sense we come to mimic them, endlessly performing, exploiting ourselves, in a self-referencing loop.
So, sack your life-coach, take a day off the gym, resist your targets, put your phone down, take your colleagues out for a coffee, reflect together, think about your life, do nothing. Be bored.
 Arendt, H. (1971) Thinking and Moral Considerations, Social Research, 38:3, 417-446.
 Honneth, A. (1999) Suffering from Indeterminacy: an Attempt at a Reactualization of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, Amsterdam: Van Gorcum.