The Burnout Society

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

A Sunday on La Grande Jatte, Georges Seurat, 1884

They are too alive to die, and too dead to live

I finished reading this book sitting on a red, plastic chair at my aunt's house in Port Dickson, the town where my parents were born and raised. There's a Buddhist shrine to my left occupying most of the living room, Chinese New Year cookies neatly arranged in cylindrical containers with red caps were scattered across the coffee tables; my other cousins were in the room, still too young to understand what burnout is. Red packets were distributed today. It was a dangerously hot day, I was melting. The AC kept my body, and my mind calm.

I learned about The Burnout Society while watching a video on the Overthink podcast channel. I was intrigued by the ideas discussed by Prof. Ellie and felt impelled to read it. It also helped that it's only 60 pages long. I love reading short books.

This was my first philosophical reading, so quickly got lost reading this book, especially towards the end. A large portion of the book involved referencing other philosophical work, with jargons like the Self as positive and the Other as negative, Homo Sacer, Ego and Superego, Vita Activa and Vita Contemplita, etc.

Nonetheless, there were ideas in this book that made me doubt my life philosophy and shook me out of my current my way of living.

I was relentlessly pushing for achievement, constantly thirsting for productivity, for self-optimizing time and energy to maximize output, trying to complete (everything) now instead of later. This made me restless, I felt like I always had to be doing something. I felt an intense pressure to achieve. I fundamentally believed this was a necessary trait to be successful, if you're always doing, building, creating, that means you create more opportunities for your future self, and live a better (future) life. But I never realized I wasn't living the now, the present moment, the little things that make up my life. I was a self-exploiting achievement-subject in an achievement society.

My biggest lesson from the book is we lack the power not-to do something. We're driven to always be doing, doing, doing. We yield to every stimulus and desire, we fill up the quiet moments of our lives with noise and activity, destroying any opportunity for deep contemplation, idleness and boredom. We deny ourselves freedom, action, and creativity. We've become exhausted animals who can do nothing but toil for mere survival. We are simultaneously perpetrator and victim, the master and the slave.

We need to make more time to be doing nothing, and practice the ability to not-do. That means resisting the urge to escape boredom and reach for the stimulation of our devices; sit with the feeling of boredom, make friends with it, and it will show you the hidden secrets behind everything. We owe our cultural achievements to "deep boredom", which Walter Benjamin describes as a "dream bird that hatches the egg of experience".

This ability to not-do leads to a contemplative life - vita contemplativa. Through contemplation, we marvel at the way things are. We step outside of ourselves, and immerse in the surroundings. What is fleeting and inconspicuous reveals itself to us. Without this contemplative composure, we find expression for nothing; and art is "expression action".

Nietzsche knew that human life ends in deadly hyperactivity when very contemplative element is driven out.

"From lack of repose our civilization is turning into a new barbarism. At no time have the active, that is to say restless, counted for more. That is why one of the most necessary corrections to the character of mankind that have to be taken in hand is a considerable strengthening of the contemplative element in it."

Below are quotes from the book I captured.

excess positivity

  • "Obesity of all current systems" of information, communication, and production.
  • Neurological illnesses such as depression, borderline personality disorder, ADHD, burnout mark the landscape of pathology at the beginning of the 20th century. They are not infections, but infarctions (blockage of arteries).
  • They point to excess of positivity.
  • The hyper in hyperactivity represents the massification of the positive
  • Violence of positivity that derives from overproduction, overachievement, and overcommunication. It does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts

Achievement society

  • Today's society is no longer Foucault's disciplinary society, the 21st century is an achievement society
  • The switch from the negative Should to the positivity of Can
  • Can increases the level of productivity
  • Achievement-subjects are entrepreneurs of themselves
  • Unlimited Can is the positive modal verb of achievement society.
  • "The depressed individual is unable to measure up; he is tired of having to become himself" – Ehrenberg
  • Depression also follows from impoverished attachment, a characteristic of the increasing fragmentation and atomization of life in society
  • It is not the imperative only to belong to oneself, but the pressure to achieve causes exhaustive depression
  • Burnout syndrome does not express the exhausted self so much as the exhausted, burnt-out soul.
  • It is not the excess of responsibility and initiative that makes one sick, but the imperative to achieve: the new commandment of late-modern labor society
  • The complaint of the depressive individual "Nothing is possible" can only occur in a society that thinks "Nothing is Impossible"
  • depression is the sickness of society that suffers from excess positivity. It reflects humanity waging war on itself
  • The achievement-subject gives itself over to compulsive freedom – the free constraint of maximizing achievement
  • Excess work and performance escalate into auto-exploitation


  • Excess positivity is an excess of stimuli, information, and impulses.
  • "Multitasking" does not represent civilizational progress. It amounts to regression. It is commonplace among wild animals. An attentive technique required for survival in the wilderness
  • Animals are incapable of contemplative immersion either they are eating or they are copulating
  • Activities such as video games produce a broad bu flat mode of attention, similar to the vigilance of a wild animal.
  • We owe cultural achievements of humanity to deep, contemplative attention. Culture presumes an environment in which deep attention is possible.
  • immersive reflection is being displaced by hyperattention: a rash change of focus between different tasks, sources of information, and processes
  • Profound idleness that benefits the creative process. Walter Benjamin calls this deep boredom "dream bird that hatches the egg of experience"
  • if sleep represents the high point of bodily relaxation, deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation.
  • Boredom is a "warm gray fabric on the inside, with the most lustrous and colorful skills"; "in this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream." We are "at home ... in the arabesques of its lining"
  • The "gift of listening" is based on the ability to grant deep, contemplative attention – which remains inaccessible to the hyperactive ego
  • Viva Contemplativa: it connects to the experience of being in which what is beautiful and perfect does not change or pass
  • the basic mood: marvel at the way things are, nothing to do with practicality or processuality
  • Cartesian doubt has taken the place of wonder
  • Whatever is floating, inconspicuous, or fleeting reveals itself only to deep, contemplative attention.
  • in a contemplative state, one steps outside oneself and immerses oneself in the surroundings
  • Paul Cezanne, master of deep, contemplative attention could "see the fragrance of things". His contemplative mode of observing a landscape as a kind of externalization or de-interiorization "The landscape thinks itself in me" "and I amn its consciousness"
  • Without contemplative composure, the gaze errs restlessly and finds expression for nothing
  • art is "expressive action"
  • Nietzshe: human life ends in deadly hyperactivity when every contemplative element is driven out
    • "From lack of repose our civilization is turning into a new barbarism. At no time have the active, that is to say restless, counted for more. That is why one of the most necessary corrections to the character of mankind that have to be taken in hand is a considerable strengthening of the contemplative element in it.

Vita Contemplita

  • Hannah Arendt: Modern society as a society of "laboring" – nullifies any possibility for action when it degrades the human being into animal laborans, a beast of burden.
  • Modern humanity passively stands at the mercy of anonymous process of living. Thinking degrades into calculation, mer cerebral functioning.
  • Modern loss of faith does not concern just God or the hereafter. It involves reality itself and makes human life radically fleeting. Life has never been as fleeting as it is today. Not just human life, but the world is becoming radically fleeting. Nothing promises duration or substance.
  • A society of work in which the master himself has become a laboring slave. In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside. One is simultaneously prisoner and guard, victim and perpetrator.


  • Nietzsche formulates three tasks for which pedagogues are necessary. One needs to learn to see, to think, and to speak and write.
  • Learning to see means "getting your eyes used to calm, to patience, to letting things come to you" – that is, making yourself capable of deep and contemplative attention, casting a long and slow gaze"
  • Such learning-to-see represents the first preliminary schooling for spirituality.
  • One must learn "not to react immediately to a stimulus, but instead to take control of the inhibiting, excluding instincts"
  • Reacting immediately, yielding to every impulse, already amounts to illness and represents a symptom of exhaustion.
  • Vita contemplativa is not a matter of passive affirmation and being open to whatever happens. Instead, it offers resistance to crowding, intrusive stimuli
  • Hyperactive intensification leads to an abrupt switch into hyperpassivity; now one obeys every impulse or stimulus without resistance. Instead of freedom, it produces new constraints
  • We live in a world that is very poor in interruption; "betweens" and "between-times" are lacking
  • delaying proves necessary if action is not to sink to the level of laboring. Activity that follows an unthinking, mechanical course is poor in interruption. Machines cannot pause. Despite its enormous capacity for calculation, the computer is stupid insofar as it lacks the ability to delay.
  • Negative potency: the power to not do, a.k.a the power to say no
    • If one only possessed the positive ability to perceive (something) and not the negative ability to not perceive (something), one's senses would stand utterly at the mercy of rushing, intrusive stimuli and impulses. In such a case, no "spirituality" would be possible. If one had only the power to do (something) and no power to not do, it would lead to fatal hyperactivity. If one had only the power to think (something), thinking would be impossible to think back and reflect, for positive potency, the preponderance of positivity, only permites anticipation and thinking a head.

society of tiredness

  • society of achievement and activeness is generating excessive tiredness and exhaustion
  • tiredness in achievement society is solitary tiredness, it has a separating and isolating effect.
  • Peter Handke, "Essay on Tiredness" calls it "divisive tiredness": "Already the two ... were irresistibly recoiling, each into ... private tiredness, not ours, but mine over here and yours over there"
  • Tiredness of this kind proves violent because it destroys all that is common or shared, all proximity, and even language itself.
  • eloquent, seeing, reconciliatory tiredness in opposition to speechless, sightless, divisive tiredness (I-tiredness: "solitary tiredness")
  • "fundamental tiredness" is not a state of exhaustion where one is unable to do anything. Instead, it represents a singular capacity. It allows spirit/intellect to emerge. It is tiredness that of negative potency, namely of not-to
  • "we-tiredness" : I am tired "with you"
  • "A cloud of tiredness, an ethereal tiredness, held us together then"
  • The sabbath, originally a word that meant stopping, is a day not-to, Heidegger: it is a day free of all in-order-to, of all care.
  • a day on which use of the useless proves possible
  • it is a day of tiredness. The interval is a time without work, a time of, and for, play.
  • A time of peace. Tiredness is disarming. In the long, slow gaze of the tired person, resolution yields to a state of calm

Burnout society

  • the "sovereign man" is a man of leisure
  • A hyperactive person would've disgusted Nietzsche: the "strong soul" keeps "calm", "moves slowly", and "has an aversion to what's too lively"
  • in Thus Spoke Zarathustra: "All of you who are in love with hectic work and whatever is fast, new, strange – you find it hard to bear yourselves, your diligence is escape and the will to forget yourself. If you believed more in life, you would hurl yourself less into the moment. But you do not have enough content in yourself for waiting – not even laziness!"
  • The capitalist economy absolutizes survival. It is not concerned with the good life.
  • it is sustained by the illusion that capital produces more life, which means a greater capacity for living.
  • Concern about living the good life yields to hysteria of surviving
  • The reduction of life to biological, vital processes makes life itself bare and strips it of all narrativity. It takes livingness from life, which is more complex than simple vitality and health.
  • Given the atonmization of society and the erosion of the social, all that remains is the body of the ego, which is to be kept healthy at any cost. The loss of ideal values leaves, other than the exhibition value of the ego, only health value behind. Nietzsche's last nam declares Health is the new goddess after the death of God "one honors health. "We invented happiness" say the last human beings, and they link"

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