Work, self-exploitation, and time
Lately someone shared an article in the DAF Slack workspace by the philosopher Byung-Chul Han, “The Tiredness Virus“. It made me think of some conversations I had with several other Deep Adaptation volunteers on the topic of how we (globalised modern humans) are “in” time and “with” time…
This part felt quite striking:
“Work, no matter how hard it might be, does not bring about fundamental tiredness. We may be exhausted after work, but this exhaustion is not the same as fundamental tiredness. Work ends at some point. The compulsion to achieve to which we subject ourselves extends beyond that point. 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 compulsion to achieve. It is this internal pressure, specifically, that makes us tired. There is thus a difference between tiredness and exhaustion. The right kind of exhaustion could even free us from tiredness.
Psychological disorders such as depression or burnout are symptoms of a deep crisis of freedom. They are a pathological signal, indicating that freedom today often turns into compulsion. We think we are free. But we actually exploit ourselves passionately until we collapse. We realize ourselves, optimize ourselves unto death. The insidious logic of achievement permanently forces us to get ahead of ourselves. Once we have achieved something, we want to achieve more, that is, we want to get ahead of ourselves yet again. But, of course, it is impossible to get ahead of oneself. This absurd logic ultimately leads to a breakdown. The achievement subject believes that it is free but it is actually a slave. It is an absolute slave insofar as it voluntarily exploits itself, even without a master being present.
… The achievement society exploits freedom itself. Self-exploitation is more efficient than exploitation by others because it goes hand in hand with a feeling of freedom. Kafka expressed with great clarity the paradox of the freedom of the slave who thinks he is the master. In one of his aphorisms he writes: “The animal wrests the whip from its master and whips itself in order to become master, not knowing that this is only a fantasy produced by a new knot in the master’s whiplash.” This permanent self-flagellation makes us tired and, ultimately, depressed. In a certain respect, neoliberalism is based on self-flagellation.
… But through social media the neoliberal form of life is also expanding across the Third World. The rise of egotism, atomization, and narcissism in society is a global phenomenon. Social media turns all of us into producers, entrepreneurs whose selves are the businesses. It globalizes the ego culture that erodes community, erodes anything social. We produce ourselves and put ourselves on permanent display. This self-production, this ongoing “being-on-display” of the ego, makes us tired and depressed.”
It made me reflect on the feeling of burn I experience, in my mind and my body, after a whole day “at the coal-face” on my computer. A physical sensation of burn in my mouth, my back, my legs, my eyes. And how the next step (and sought-after compensation) is then a smoke by the window and a film, after a nice dinner usually not prepared by me – too busy for that!
Although I find my work exciting and worthwhile, am I being self-exploitative, even while I feel free to do this work or not? And could this be an expression of white supremacy culture?
I think that this article, and other conversations on this topic, may be helping me to become more aware of the benefit of letting go, now and then, and just be a bit unproductive for a while. Go out for a walk or a bike ride by the river. Go for a run (although this is still a goal-oriented endeavour: stay fit, etc.)… Which has coincided with a feeling of increased spaciousness in the past few weeks. But how long will it last, I wonder? And how can I cultivate this state of being?
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