Animal Multitasking

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress. Human beings in the late-modern society of work and information are not the only ones capable of multitasking. Rather, such an aptitude amounts to regression. Multitasking is commonplace among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.

An animal busy with eating must also attend to other tasks. For example, it must hold rivals away from its prey. It must constantly be on the lookout, lest it be eaten while eating. At the same time, it must guard its young and keep an eye on its sexual partner. In the wild, the animal is forced to divide its attention between various activities. That is why animals are incapable of contemplative immersion — either they are eating or they are copulating. The animal cannot immerse itself contemplatively in what it is facing because it must also process background events. Not just multitasking but also activities such as video games produce a broad but flat mode of attention, which is similar to the vigilance of a wild animal. Recent social developments and the structural change of wakefulness are bringing human society deeper and deeper into the wilderness. For example, bullying has achieved pandemic dimensions. Concern for the good life, which also includes life as a member of the community, is yielding more and more to the simple concern for survival. (12-13)

Byung-Chul Han | The Burnout Society

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Compulsive Freedom

The achievement-subject stands free from any external instance of domination forcing it to work, much less exploiting it. It is lord and master of itself. Thus, it is subject to no one — or, as the case may be, only to itself. It differs from the obedience-subject on this score. However, the disappearance of domination does not entail freedom. Instead, it makes freedom and constraint coincide. Thus, the achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom — that is, to the free constraint of maximizing achievement. Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation. This is more efficient than allo-exploitation, for the feeling of freedom attends it. The exploiter is simultaneously the exploited. Perpetrator and victim can no longer be distinguished. Such self-referentiality produces a paradoxical freedom that abruptly switches over into violence because of the compulsive structures dwelling within it. The psychic indispositions of achievement society are pathological manifestations of such a paradoxical freedom. (11)

Byung-Chul Han | The Burnout Society

Achievement Society

Today’s society is no longer Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories. It has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towers, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories. Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer “obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves. The walls of disciplinary institutions, which separate the normal from the abnormal, have come to seem archaic. Foucault’s analysis of power cannot account for the psychic and topological changes that occurred as the disciplinary society transformed into achievement society. (8)

Byung-Chul Han | The Burnout Society

The Total Panopticon

No community, in the strong sense, can form in the society of transparency. Instead, chance gatherings or crowds of isolated individuals, or egos, emerge; they pursue a mutual interest or cluster around a product line (“brand communities”). These groups are different from assemblies, which might yet prove capable of mutual political action, of constituting a “we.” They lack spirit. Gatherings such as brand communities constitute an additive formation without any inner density. Consumers voluntarily give themselves over to panoptic surveillance that steers and satisfies their needs. On this score, social media prove no different from panoptic machines. Communication and commerce, freedom and control, collapse into one. Opening up relations of production to consumers suggests reciprocal transparency; however, it ultimately turns out to be the exploitation of the social. The social degrades into a functional element within the process of production and undergoes operationalization. It chiefly serves to optimize relations of production. The illusory freedom of consumers lacks all negativity. They no longer constitute an outside that might question the systemic inside.

Today the entire globe is developing into a panopticon. There is no outside space. The panopticon is becoming total. No wall separates inside from outside. Google and social networks, which present themselves as spaces of freedom, are assuming panoptic forms. Today surveillance is not occurring as an attack on freedom, as is normally assumed. Instead, people are voluntarily surrendering to the panoptic gaze. They deliberately collaborate in the digital panopticon by denuding and exhibiting themselves. The prisoner in the digital panopticon is a perpetrator and a victim at the same time. Herein lies the dialectic of freedom. Freedom turns out to be a form of control. (49)

Byung-Chul Han | The Transparency Society

Ritual and Intimacy

The society of intimacy mistrusts ritualized gestures and ceremonial conduct. They strike it as external and inauthentic. Ritual takes place as action with externalized forms and expression that have a de-individualizing, depersonalizing, and depsychologizing effect. Those who participate in ritual practice “expressive action,” yet this does not mean that they have to put themselves on display and stand exposed. The society of intimacy is a psychologized, deritualized society. It is a society of confession, laying-bare, and the pornographic lack of distance. (36)

Byung-Chul Han | The Transparency Society