tiredness society

Paulo Pasta, Nobody, 2005, Oil on canvas, 200 X 300 cm, 1993


Note on Byung-Chul Han's essay

The philosopher based in Germany, Byung-Chul Han, in tiredness society, considers that the end of the bacteriological era coincides with the discovery of antibiotics, in 1928. The HIV virus pandemic, which from 1977-78 killed 32 million people, and Covid-19, which in the 2020-21 biennium reached 15 millions of deaths, not to mention the different types of flu Influenza (A, B, C and D) and the Ebola virus, did not change his mind. His emphasis falls on immunising viral diseases, ignoring world tragedies. The publication in Portuguese of the essay, without the self-critical afterword, demonstrates that the author continues with his old convictions by proposing an acrobatic and risky leap, from biology and medicine, to philosophy, sociology and politics.

The XNUMXst century would be the time of neuronal diseases: depression and disorders, whether attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or borderline personality. We would no longer die from an infection attacked by an otherness, but from heart attacks from an excess of positivity (the same). Globalization suspended negativity (difference) by crossing national barriers and imposing a cosmopolitanism. Here, it is worth remembering: “The bourgeoisie can only exist on condition that it ceaselessly revolutionizes the instruments of production, productive relations and social relations… The bourgeoisie compels nations to adopt the bourgeois mode of production, constrains them to embrace what it calls civilization”, as predicted by Karl Marx in the 1848 manifesto.

In fact (which liberates), it is capital that has been globalized. If in the 1960s the “consumer society” was the target of academic criticism in developed countries, more than sixty years later the problem in developing countries is not consumerism, but the difficulty of the population in accessing a basic food basket. The author abstracts reality from reasoning. It erases from the statistics the increase in social inequalities, a consequence of neoliberal policies: deindustrialization, precarious work, unemployment and unemployability due to the lack of absorption of unskilled labor in the face of extraordinary advances in technology.

For the professor at the University of Berlin, “the same does not lead to the formation of antibodies”, therefore, “it is not possible to speak of a defense force, except in a figurative sense”. The immigrant would only be a burden, instead of a threat. Well, in capitalism, admitting that individuals are cogs in the systemic gear or that inter-individual competition corrupts solidarity is reasonable, but it does not level out the unequal. In the last presidential elections in the United States and Europe, the predominant issue among voters was immigration. Tribes that wield toxic egalitarianism are not a parameter to universalize postmodern theses (or worse) about sociability, in total. Rather, they refer back to the inside-outside cognitive equation.


performance society

Unlike Michel Foucault, Byung-Chul Han considers that studies on the total institutions of the “disciplinary society” – hospitals, prisons, barracks, factories, seminars – have given way to institutions such as banks, genetics laboratories, airports, offices, etc. shopping malls. They correspond better to the “performance society”, in which “the inhabitants no longer proclaim themselves subjects of obedience, but subjects of performance and production; they are entrepreneurs of themselves”. Note that the matrix of entrepreneurship, deindustrialization, is hijacked from the screen.

The disciplinary society was characterized by negativity (prohibition, coercion). The performance society with “increasing deregulation is abolishing it”. The following passage is very illustrative: “Unlimited power is the positive modal verb of the performance society. The collective plural of affirmation Yes, we can it precisely expresses the positivity character of the performance society. In place of prohibition, commandment or law, project, initiative and motivation enter. The disciplinary society breeds madmen and delinquents. The performance society produces depressives and failures”. In the descriptive image, the class struggle and the failure of meritocracy are overlooked. Condemnation echoes a resigned lamentation, without a compass. A fertile field for self-help literature and motivational neurolinguistic talks for entrepreneurs.

The impact of neoliberalism on the European continent resulted in the shift of social democracy towards single thought, who made a clean slate on the right and on the left. Suddenly, everyone was in favor of austerity, fiscal balance and containment of social spending. Almost knocking at the door of Murray Rothbar, founder of anarcho-capitalism, for which the social organization must guide the axiom “the State is an unnecessary evil”. This, despite the catastrophic lessons of the 2008 crisis showing the indispensability of state regulation. Witness the fatal neglect of private security in the tragedy of the submissive, which brought billionaires to the Titanic's graveyard.

“Liberalization does not always create more productivity. It is necessary to stimulate government spending in areas that bring return (health, education, etc.)”, now recognizes the commentator of the Financial Times, Martin Sandbu, against the monetarist dogmas of the 1990s that criminalized essential investments. Nevertheless, extractive productivism at the expense of the environment continues to be glued as a karman to the social unconscious of the performance society, in pursuit of immediate profit. According to the old Marx, the ongoing economic process marches independently of the will of the subject: “it resembles the sorcerer who cannot control the internal powers that he set in motion with his magic words” (op.cit.).


A gap in the narrative

Byung-Chul Han performs a kind of phenomenology of the feelings that surfaced in the so-called post-modernity, starting with boredom. He would then explain why people, on the one hand, reject the act of contemplation and, on the other hand, run the hyperattention marathon with the radar on multiple signals and only one certainty – defeat in the end. Like an animal in the jungle that when eating takes care not to be eaten, humans would be restless beings. Without the patience of Zen Buddhists, they absolutize vita activates and sink into the hysteria and nervousness of the whirlpool of action.

“The society of weariness, as an active society, slowly unfolds into a society of doping. The incessant elevation of performance leads to an infarction of the soul”. The pressure for results, the absence of regulations and the exhaustion caused by super positivity induce the use of anxiolytics and antidepressants. A phenomenon that Christian Dunker with a sense of humor calls “Sunday night syndrome”, a moment between idleness and activism.

“Deep tiredness loosens the grip of identity. Things sparkle and shimmer on its banks. They become more indeterminate, permeable, and lose a certain amount of their decisibility”. Who we are, where we came from and where we are going. The famous questions don't shut up. The South Korean author metabolizes the distressed subjectivity of the time marked by the irrationality of the climatic catastrophe, the terror of nuclear war, the erosion of democracy and the specter of new pandemics. Reasons to combat the dystopia of the extreme right, necropolitics, in the Foucaultian sense of the sovereign who controls mortality and defines life as a manifestation of power. It is time to mobilize public opinion and overcome collective ill omens.

Neoliberalism, that is, the world's new reason, serves as the backdrop for Byung-Chul's essay and the film The wolf of Wall Street, by Martin Scorsese, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. However, in the work of art it was appropriate to avoid the concept in order to value emotions. In a theoretical reflection, the silence about the society that dare not say its name is a big gap in the narrative. It does not contribute to the work of decoding free market totalitarianism. This is the main point. In the theater of politics, there is no diagnosis without making the director of the show accountable and without a prognosis with a view to reorganizing the role of the actors, and the audience.

* Luiz Marques is a professor of political science at UFRGS. He was Rio Grande do Sul's state secretary of culture in the Olívio Dutra government.


Byung-Chul Han. tiredness society. Translation: Enio Paulo Gichini. Petrópolis, Voices, 136 pages.

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