Feb 10, 2023
3 mins read
Greetings, friends! Thanks once more for your support — it has been encouraging to me for this past year-plus.
Now, since it's February, please be so kind as to allow me me give you a State of My Mind Address.
The argument of Byung-Chul Han’s essay The Burnout Society may be summarized as follows:
The nineteenth and twentieth centuries conceived of the chief threats to our well-being as viral or bacterial intrusions of the destructive Other, against which we needed to develop an immunologial response. (Think for instance of how the Nazis always described Jews, or for that matter American politicians described Communists, using metaphors of infectious disease. That language was everywhere.)
But the story of the 21st century is very different (even if many of our most influential thinkers and cultural critics don’t seem to realize it): Whet we suffer from is not the excessive negativity of the Other but the excessive positivity of the Same. We are not being threatened or discilined or controlled from without, we are being driven from within. We have become self-exploitative – or self-Taylorizing, as it has also been called.
We look like we’re hyper-active but we’re not. We can but passively respond to the barrage of demands upon our attention that we have chosen for ourselves – no one imposes them on us, though we try to tell ourselves that they do.
Our condition of ceaseless hyper-attention is not an advance in cognitive power but a retreat into animalism, for it is animals who are required to multitask – for instance, to eat while keeping parts of their minds attentive to the possibility that predators are nearby. Animals do not have the luxury of contemplation, of single attention; by contrast, humans (uniquely) developed their societies in ways that have made contemplation possible for us – and now we have turned our backs on that astonishing achievement and are retreating into the attentional condition that we share with the beasts.
Thus Han argues. It is in response to this very situation that I have been writing for the past decade or more. I have written about:
the imperative of repair
beginning with the repairing of our attention
which then perhaps can lead to the repairing of institutions
but only if we become aware of the vast resources of the past that we have neglected or cast aside as filth: We need to let our roots feed our crown.
At this point I think I have laid out the case about as well as I know how to lay it out. What remains is practice – a series, in fact, of focal practices. It occurred to me recently that perhaps the place where I best practice what I preach is in my newsletter, where I simply call good things to my readers’ attention. I do that in some recent essays as well, for instance in my celebration of Oliver Sacks’ Awakenings on its 50th birthday, and in a forthcoming essay on our need to recover the work of Albert Murray. It seems to me that I need to do more of this sort of thing: more celebration, more attention-calling, more opening up of the wise and wonderful gifts of literature, art, music. That ought to be for me a focal practice.
Also, I plan to get back to the mini-podcasts on Jesus … when our puppy Angus is a little older.