The Burnout Society
Byung-Chul Han

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Neuronal Power

Every age has its signature afflictions. Thus, a bacterial age existed; at the latest, it ended with the discovery of antibiotics. Despite widespread fear of an influenza epidemic, we are not living in a viral age. Thanks to immunological technology, we have already left it behind. From a pathological standpoint, the incipient twenty-first century is determined neither by bacteria nor by viruses, but by neurons. Neurological illnesses such as depression, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), borderline personality disorder (BPD), and burnout syndrome mark the landscape of pathology at the beginning of the twenty-first century. They are not infections, but infarctions; they do not follow from the negativity of what is immunologically foreign, but from an excess of positivity. Therefore, they elude all technologies and techniques that seek to combat what is alien.

The past century was an immunological age. The epoch sought to distinguish clearly between inside and outside, friend and foe, self and other. The Cold War also followed an immunological pattern. Indeed, the immunological paradigm of the last century was commanded by the vocabulary of the Cold War, an altogether military dispositive. Attack and defense determine immunological action. The immunological dispositive, which extends beyond the strictly social and onto the whole of communal life, harbors a blind spot: everything foreign is simply combated and warded off. The object of immune defense is the foreign as such. Even if it has no hostile intentions, even if it poses no danger, it is eliminated on the basis of its Otherness.

Recent times have witnessed the proliferation of discourses about society that explicitly employ immunological models of explanation. However, the currency of immunological discourse should not be interpreted as a sign that society is now, more than ever, organized along immunological lines. When a paradigm has come to provide an object of reflection, it often means that its demise is at hand. Theorists have failed to remark that, for some time now, a paradigm shift has been underway. The Cold War ended precisely as this paradigm shift was taking place.1 More and more, contemporary society is emerging as a constellation that escapes the immunological scheme of organization and defense altogether. It is marked by the disappearance of otherness and foreignness. Otherness represents the fundamental category of immunology. Every immunoreaction is a reaction to Otherness. Now, however, Otherness is being replaced with difference, which does not entail immunoreaction. Postimmunological—indeed, postmodern—difference does not make anyone sick. In terms of immunology, it represents the Same.2 Such difference lacks the sting of foreignness, as it were, which would provoke a strong immunoreaction. Foreignness itself is being deactivated into a formula of consumption. The alien is giving way to the exotic. The tourist travels through it. The tourist—that is, the consumer—is no longer an immunological subject.

Consequently, Roberto Esposito makes a false assumption the basis of his theory of immunitas when he declares:

The news headlines on any given day in recent years, perhaps even on the same page, are likely to report a series of apparently unrelated events. What do phenomena such as the battle against a new resurgence of an epidemic, opposition to an extradition request for a foreign head of state accused of violating human rights, the strengthening of barriers in the fight against illegal immigration, and strategies for neutralizing the latest computer virus have in common? Nothing, as long as they are interpreted within their separate domains of medicine, law, social politics, and information technology. Things change, though, when news stories of this kind are read using the same interpretive category, one that is distinguished specifically by its capacity to cut across these distinct discourses, ushering them onto the same horizon of meaning. This category . . . is immunization. . . . [I]n spite of their lexical diversity, all these events call on a protective response in the face of a risk.3

None of the events mentioned by Esposito indicates that we are now living in an immunological age. Today, even the so-called immigrant is not an immunological Other, not a foreigner in the strong sense, who poses a real danger or of whom one is afraid. Immigrants and refugees are more likely to be perceived as burdens than as threats. Even the problem of computer viruses no longer displays virulence on a large social scale. Thus, it is no accident that Esposito’s immunological analysis does not address contemporary problems, but only objects from the past.

The immunological paradigm proves incompatible with the process of globalization. Otherness provoking an immune reaction would work against the dissolution of boundaries. The immunologically organized world possesses a particular topology. It is marked by borders, transitions, thresholds, fences, ditches, and walls that prevent universal change and exchange. The general promiscuity that has gripped all spheres of life and the absence of immunologically effective Otherness define [bedingen] each other. Hybridization—which dominates not just current culture-theoretical discourse, but also the feeling of life in general—stands diametrically opposed to immunization. Immunological hyperaesthesis would not allow hybridization to occur in the first place.

The dialectic of negativity is the fundamental trait of immunity. The immunologically Other is the negative that intrudes into the Own [das Eigene] and seeks to negate it. The Own founders on the negativity of the Other when it proves incapable of negation in turn. That is, the immunological self-assertion of the Own proceeds as the negation of negation. The Own asserts itself in—and against—the Other by negating its negativity. Immunological prophylaxis, that is, inoculation, follows the dialectic of negativity. Fragments of the Other are introduced into the Own in order to provoke an immunoreaction. Thereby, negation of negation occurs without the danger of death, because the immune system does not confront the Other itself. A small amount of self-inflicted harm [Gewalt] protects one from a much larger danger, which would prove deadly. Because Otherness is disappearing, we live in a time that is poor in negativity. And so, the neuronal illnesses of the twenty-first century follow a dialectic: not the dialectic of negativity, but that of positivity. They are pathological conditions deriving from an excess of positivity.

Harm does not come from negativity alone, but also from positivity—not just from the Other or the foreign, but also from the Same. Such violence of positivity is clearly what Baudrillard has in mind when he writes, “He who lives by the Same shall die by the Same.”4 Likewise, Baudrillard speaks of the “obesity of all current systems” of information, communication, and production. Fat does not provoke an immune reaction. However—and herein lies the weakness of his theory—Baudrillard pictures the totalitarianism of the Same from an immunological standpoint:

All the talk of immunity, antibodies, grafting and rejection should not surprise anyone. In periods of scarcity, absorption and assimilation are the order of the day. In periods of abundance, rejection and expulsion are the chief concerns. Today, generalized communication and surplus information threaten to overwhelm all human defenses.5

In a system where the Same predominates, one can only speak of immune defense in a figural sense. Immunological defense always takes aim at the Other or the foreign in the strong sense. The Same does not lead to the formation of antibodies. In a system dominated by the Same, it is meaningless to strengthen defense mechanisms. We must distinguish between immunological and nonimmunological rejection. The latter concerns the too-much-of-the-Same, surplus positivity. Here negativity plays no role. Nor does such exclusion presume interior space. In contrast, immunological rejection occurs independent of the quantum, for it reacts to the negativity of the Other. The immunological subject, which possesses interiority, fights off the Other and excludes it, even when it is present in only the tiniest amount.

The violence [Gewalt] of positivity that derives from overproduction, overachievement, and overcommunication is no longer “viral.” Immunology offers no way of approaching the phenomenon. Rejection occurring in response to excess positivity does not amount to immunological defense, but to digestive-neuronal abreaction and refusal. Likewise, exhaustion, fatigue, and suffocation—when too much exists—do not constitute immunological reactions. These phenomena concern neuronal power, which is not viral because it does not derive from immunological negativity. Baudrillard’s theory of power [Gewalt] is riddled with leaps of argument and vague definitions because it attempts to describe the violence of positivity—or, in other words, the violence of the Same when no Otherness is involved—in immunological terms. Thus he writes:

The violence of networks and the virtual is viral: it is the violence of benign extermination, operating at the genetic and communicational level; a violence of consensus. . . . A viral violence in the sense that it does not operate head-on, but by contiguity, contagion, and chain reaction, its aim being the loss of all our immunities. And also in the sense that, contrary to the historical violence of negation, this virus operates hyperpositively, like cancerous cells, through endless proliferation, excrescence, and metastases. Between virtuality and virality, there is a kind of complicity.6

According to the genealogy of hostility [Feindschaft] that Baudrillard outlines, the enemy first takes the stage as a wolf. He is an “external enemy who attacks and against whom one defends oneself by building fortifications and walls.”7 In the next stage, the enemy assumes the form of a rat. He is a foe who operates in the underground, whom one combats by means of hygiene. After a further stage, that of the insect, the enemy finally assumes a viral form: “viruses effectively move in the fourth dimension. It is much more difficult to defend oneself against viruses, because they exist at the heart of the system.”8 Now “a ghostly enemy” appears, “infiltrating itself throughout the whole planet, slipping in everywhere like a virus, welling up from all the interstices of power.”9 Viral violence proceeds from singularities that install themselves in the system as terrorist sleeper cells and undermine it from within. Baudrillard affirms that terrorism, as the main figure of viral violence, represents a revolt of the singular against the global.

Even in viral form, hostility obeys the immunological scheme: the enemy virus intrudes into a system, which functions immunologically and fights off the invader. For all that, the genealogy of hostility does not coincide with the genealogy of violence. The violence of positivity does not presume or require hostility. It unfolds specifically in a permissive and pacified society. Consequently, it proves more invisible than viral violence. It inhabits the negativity-free space of the Same, where no polarization between inside and outside, or proper and foreign, takes place.

The positivation of the world allows new forms of violence to emerge. They do not stem from the immunologically Other. Rather, they are immanent in the system itself. Because of this immanence, they do not involve immune defense. Neuronal violence leading to psychic infarctions is a terror of immanence. It differs radically from horror that emanates from the foreign in the immunological sense. Medusa is surely the immunological Other in its extreme form. She stands for radical alterity that one cannot behold without perishing in the process. Neuronal violence, on the other hand, escapes all immunological optics, for it possesses no negativity. The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts. That is why it proves inaccessible to unmediated perception.

Viral violence cannot account for neuronal illnesses such as depression, ADHD, or burnout syndrome, for it follows the immunological scheme of inside and outside, Own and Other; it presumes the existence of singularity or alterity which is hostile to the system. Neuronal violence does not proceed from system-foreign negativity. Instead, it is systemic—that is, system-immanent—violence. Depression, ADHD, and burnout syndrome point to excess positivity. Burnout syndrome occurs when the ego overheats, which follows from too much of the Same. The hyper in hyperactivity is not an immunological category. It represents the massification of the positive.

Notes

1. An interesting, reciprocal relationship holds between social and biological discourses. The sciences are not free of nonscientific dis-positives. Accordingly, a paradigm shift occurred within medical immunology at the end of the Cold War. In America, Polly Matzinger discarded the immunological model of preceding decades. According to her model, the immune system does not distinguish between “self” and “non-self,” i.e., domestic and foreign, but between “friendly” and “dangerous.” See Polly Matzinger, “Friendly and Dangerous Signals: Is the Tissue in Control?” Nature Immunology 8.1 (2007): 11–13. The object of immune defense is no longer foreignness or Otherness as such. Only foreign intruders that act destructively in inner, domestic space are combated. So long as what is foreign does not attract unwelcome attention, immune defenses ignore it. It follows that the biological immune system is more hospitable than previously assumed. That is, it does not harbor xenophobia. As such, it proves more intelligent than human societies. Xenophobia is a pathologically escalated immunoreaction that proves damaging to one’s own development [die Entwicklung des Eigenen].

2. Heidegger’s thinking also displays immunological traits. Thus, he decidedly rejects the Identical, to which he opposes the Same. In contrast to the Identical, the Same possesses interiority, which is the basis for every immunoreaction.

3. Roberto Esposito, Immunitas: The Protection and Negation of Life (Cambridge: Polity, 2011), 1.

4. Jean Baudrillard, The Transparency of Evil: Essays on Extreme Phenomena, trans. James Benedict (London: Verso, 1993), 65.

5. Ibid., 74.

6. Jean Baudrillard, “From the Universal to the Singular: The Violence of the Global,” in The Future of Values: 21st-Century Talks, ed. Jérôme Bindé (New York: UNESCO/Berghahn, 2004), 21.

7. Jean Baudrillard, “Jean Baudrillard im Gespräch mit Peter Engelmann,” Der Geist des Terrorismus (Vienna: Passagen, 2002), 85 (this interview does not appear in the English-language edition, The Spirit of Terrorism, trans. Chris Turner [London: Verso, 2003]).

8. Ibid., 86.

9. Baudrillard, Spirit of Terrorism, 15.