The Fatigue Virus

Image: Wu Yi


The Covid-19 virus wears down our society in burnout by deepening its social fractures. He leads us to collective fatigue

Covid-19 is a mirror that reflects the crises in our society. It shows the pathological symptoms that existed before the pandemic. One of these symptoms is tiredness. We all feel very tired in some way. It is a fundamental tiredness that accompanies us everywhere and all the time. The idleness imposed during the lockdown made us tired. There are those who say that we could rediscover the beauty of leisure, that life could slow down. The truth is that time, during the pandemic, is controlled not by leisure or slowing down, but by tiredness and depression.

Why do we feel so tired? Today, tiredness seems to be a global phenomenon. Ten years ago, I published a book, The tired society, in which I described fatigue as a disease that afflicted neoliberal performance society. The tiredness experienced during the pandemic forced me to think about this issue again. Work, no matter how hard it is, does not cause fundamental weariness. We may be exhausted after work, but this exhaustion is different from fundamental tiredness. The job ends at some point. The compulsion to perform to which we subject ourselves extends beyond that. It accompanies us during leisure time, torments us even in our sleep, and often leads to sleepless nights. It is not possible to recover from the performance compulsion. It is specifically this internal pressure that makes us tired. There is therefore a difference between tiredness and exhaustion. The right kind of exhaustion can even save us from being tired.

Psychological disorders such as depression or burnout are symptoms of a profound crisis of freedom. They are a pathological sign, indicating that today freedom often turns into compulsion. We think we are free, but in reality, we exploit ourselves wildly until we collapse. We realize ourselves, we optimize ourselves, until death. The insidious logic of permanent performance forces us to go beyond ourselves. As soon as we achieve something, we want more, that is, we want to go beyond ourselves again. But, obviously, it's impossible to overstep the leg. This absurd logic leads us, finally, to the collapse. The subject of the performance believes he is free, but in fact he is a slave. He is an absolute slave insofar as he voluntarily exploits himself, even in the absence of a master.

The neoliberal performance society makes exploitation possible even in the absence of domination. The disciplinary society, with its orders and prohibitions, according to Michel Foucault's analysis in watch and punish, does not describe the current performance society. This society exploits its own freedom. Self-exploration is more effective than exploitation by others because it goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom. Kafka clearly expressed the paradox of the freedom of the slave who thinks he is the master. In one of his aphorisms, he writes "The animal snatches the whip from the owner's hands and whips himself, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the leash". This constant self-flagellation makes us tired and, ultimately, depressed. In a way, neoliberalism is based on self-flagellation.

Covid-19 has the exceptional characteristic of causing patients to suffer extreme tiredness and fatigue. The disease seems to simulate fundamental weariness. And reports are piling up of patients who have recovered but continue to suffer severe, long-lasting symptoms, one of them being “chronic fatigue syndrome”. The expression “the batteries no longer charge” describes it well. Those afflicted by it are no longer able to work and perform. Pouring themselves a glass of water is a tremendous effort for them. When walking, they need frequent breaks to catch their breath. They feel like the living dead. One patient reports that: “it actually looks like the phone has only 4% battery, and you really only have 4% for the whole day, you can't recharge”.

But the virus doesn't just make those affected by Covid tired. It is also driving healthy people to exhaustion. in your book Pandemic – Covid-19 and the reinvention of communism, Slavoj Žižek devotes an entire chapter to the question “Why are we always tired?”. In this chapter, Žižek disagrees with my book The tired society, arguing that exploitation by others has not been replaced by self-exploitation, but has only been relocated to Third World countries. I agree with Žižek that this relocation did, in fact, take place. The tired society it mainly concerns Western neoliberal societies and not the plight of Chinese workers. But through social media, the neoliberal way of life also spreads across the Third World. The advance of selfishness, atomization and narcissism in society is a global phenomenon. Social media turns us into producers, entrepreneurs, who are, in themselves, companies. They globalize the culture of the ego that destroys communities, destroys everything social. We produce ourselves and put ourselves on permanent display. This self-production, this “being exposed” of the ego, makes us tired and depressed.

Žižek, in a passage from his book on the pandemic, seems to lay the groundwork for the self-exploration thesis, writing that “we might even get [homeworkers] more time to 'explore ourselves'”. During the pandemic, the neoliberal field of work acquired a new name: the home office. The work in home office it's more tiring than work at the office. However, this fact is not explained by self-exploration. Tiresome is the solitude involved, sitting endlessly in pajamas in front of a screen. We are confronted with ourselves, compelled to constantly reflect and speculate about ourselves. Fundamental weariness is ultimately a kind of ego weariness. The other people, who could distract us from our ego, are absent. We get tired because we lack social contact, hugs, the human touch. Under the conditions of quarantine, we begin to realize that others may not be “hell”, as Sartre wrote in between four walls, but the cure. The virus also accelerates the disappearance of the other one I described in The expulsion of the other.

An absence of ritual is another reason for fatigue induced by the home office. In the name of flexibility, we are losing the fixed temporal structures and architectures that stabilize and invigorate life. The absence of rhythm, in particular, intensifies depression. Rituals create communities without communication, whereas what prevails today is communication without ritual. Even those rituals that we still had, such as football matches, concerts, going out to eat in a restaurant, going to the theater, to the cinema… were cancelled. Without greeting rituals, we are thrown back to ourselves. Being able to greet someone cordially takes the burden off you. Social distancing dismantles social life. He tires us. Other people are reduced to potential carriers of the virus from whom the distance must be kept. The virus amplifies the crises already present. He is destroying community life, which was already in crisis. It alienates us from others. It leaves us even lonelier than we already were in this era of social media that reduces social and isolates us.

Culture was the first thing to be abandoned during lockdown. What is culture? It builds communities! Without it, we resemble animals just trying to survive. It is not the economy, but above all culture, that is, communal life, which needs to recover from this crisis as soon as possible.

Constant Zoom meetings also tire us out. They turn us into Zoombis. They force us to constantly look in the mirror. Looking at your own face on the screen is exhausting. We are constantly confronted with our own faces. Ironically, the virus emerged precisely in the era of selfies, a fashion that can be explained as a result of the narcissism of our society. The virus intensifies this narcissism. During the pandemic, we are constantly confronted with our own faces; we produce a kind of Selfie infinite in front of our screens. It tires us.

This Zoom narcissism has particular side effects. It has led to an explosion of cosmetic surgeries. Distorted or blurred images on the screen make people despair about their appearance, and if the image resolution is good, we suddenly detect wrinkles, baldness, age spots, dark circles and other unattractive skin imperfections. Since the start of the pandemic, Google searches for cosmetic surgery have skyrocketed. During the lockdown, cosmetic surgeons were flooded with inquiries from patients wanting to improve their tired appearance. There is even talk of a “Zoom dysmorphia”. The digital mirror encourages this dysmorphia (an exaggerated preoccupation with perceived defects in one's physical appearance). The virus takes the optimization frenzy that gripped us before the pandemic to the limit. Here, too, the virus reflects our society. And, in the case of Zoom dysmorphia, the mirror is real! Sheer desperation about our appearance rises up in us. Zoom dysmorphia, this pathological preoccupation with our egos, also makes us tired.

The pandemic has also revealed the negative side effects of digitization. Digital communication is a very one-sided, attenuated relationship: there is no gaze or body. He lacks the physical presence of the other. The pandemic is ensuring that this essentially inhuman form of communication will become the norm. Virtual communication makes us very, very tired. It is a communication without resonance, a communication devoid of happiness. In a Zoom meeting, we cannot, for technical reasons, look you in the eye. All we do is stare at the screen. The absence of the gaze of others makes us tired. The pandemic, hopefully, will make us realize that the physical presence of another person is something that brings happiness, that language implies a physical experience, that successful dialogue presupposes bodies, that we are physical creatures. The rituals we lost during the pandemic also imply physical experience. They represent forms of physical communication that create communities and therefore bring happiness. Most of all, they pull us away from our egos. In the current situation, rituals would be an antidote to fundamental weariness. A physical aspect is also inherent in the community as such. Digitization weakens community cohesion as it has a disembodied effect. The virus alienates us from the body.

The health craze was already rampant before the pandemic. Now, we are primarily concerned with survival, as if we find ourselves in a permanent state of war. In the battle for survival, the question of the good life disappears. We invoke all life forces just to prolong it at all costs. With the pandemic, this fierce battle for survival is going viral. The virus transforms the world into a quarantine ward in which all life stiffens in sheer survival.

Currently, health becomes the greatest goal of humanity. The survival society loses track of the good life. Even pleasure is sacrificed on the altar of health, which becomes an end in itself. Nietzsche had already called her the new goddess. The strict ban on smoking expresses the mania for survival. Pleasure gave way to survival. Prolongation of life became a supreme value. In the name of survival, we willingly sacrifice everything that makes life worthwhile.

Reason dictates that, even in a pandemic, we do not sacrifice every aspect of life. It is the task of politics to ensure that life is not reduced to mere living, mere survival. I am catholic. I enjoy being in churches, especially in these strange times. Last year, at Christmas, I attended a midnight mass that took place despite the pandemic. That made me happy. Unfortunately, there was no incense, which I like so much. I wondered: Is there also an incense restriction during the pandemic? Why? Leaving the church, as usual, I stretched out my hand to the font of holy water and was surprised: the font was empty. A bottle of disinfectant was placed beside her.

corona blues is the name Koreans have given to the depression that spreads during the pandemic. Under the conditions of quarantine, without social interaction, depression deepens. The real pandemic is depression. The Boredom Society part of the following diagnosis:

Each age has had its fundamental infirmities. Thus, we have a bacteriological age, which came to an end with the discovery of antibiotics. Despite the immense fear we have today of a flu pandemic, we do not live in a viral age. Thanks to the immunological technique, we have already left that era behind. Viewed from a pathological perspective, the beginning of the XNUMXst century is defined neither as bacteriological nor viral, but neuronal. Neuronal diseases such as depression, attention deficit disorder with hyperactivity syndrome (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD) or Burnout Syndrome (SB) determine the pathological landscape of the beginning of the XNUMXst century.[I]

Soon, we will have enough vaccines to defeat the virus. But there will be no vaccines against pandemic depression.

Depression is also a symptom of the burnout. The performance subject enters into burnout at the moment when it is no longer able to “be able”. He can no longer meet his self-imposed performance demands. No longer being able to “be able” leads to destructive self-recrimination and self-harm. The performance subject wages a war with himself and perishes in it. Victory, in this war against yourself, is called burnout.

Thousands of people commit suicide every year in South Korea. The main cause is depression. In 2018, around 700 school-aged children attempted suicide. The media even talks about a “silent massacre”. By contrast, so far, only 1700 people have died from Covid-19 in South Korea. Such a high suicide rate is simply accepted as collateral damage from the performance society. No significant measures were adopted to reduce this amount. The pandemic has intensified the suicide problem – its rate has risen rapidly in South Korea since the disease began to spread. The virus apparently also exacerbates depression. Around the world, however, little attention has been paid to the psychological consequences of the pandemic. People have been reduced to mere biological existence. Only virologists are listened to, who have assumed absolute authority when it comes to interpreting the situation. The real crisis caused by the pandemic is the fact that mere life has become an absolute value.

The Covid-19 virus erodes our society into burnout by deepening their social fractures. It leads us to collective fatigue. The coronavirus could therefore also be called fatigue virus. The virus, however, is also a crisis in the Greek sense of krisis, signifying a turning point. After all, it can also allow for the reversal of our destiny and a distance from our sufferings. He makes an urgent appeal to us: you must change your life! But we can only do that if we radically overhaul our society, if we succeed in finding a new way of life that is immune to the tiredness virus.

*Byung-Chul Han is a professor at the Universität der Künste Berlin. Author, among other books, of Palliative society: pain today (Voices).

Translation: Daniel Pavan.

Originally published in the magazine The Nation.


[I]      HAN, Byung-Chul. Tiredness Society – Petrópolis, RJ : Voices, 2015.

See this link for all articles