Quiet Please: On Anna Katharina Schaffner’s “Exhausted” and Byung-Chul Han’s “Vita Contemplativa”

Josh Cohen reviews Anna Katharina Schaffner’s “Exhausted: An A–Z for the Weary” and Byung-Chul Han’s “Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity.”

Quiet Please: On Anna Katharina Schaffner’s “Exhausted” and Byung-Chul Han’s “Vita Contemplativa”

Exhausted: An A–Z for the Weary by Anna Katharina Schaffner. Profile Books. 240 pages.Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity by Byung-Chul Han. Polity Press. 128 pages.

IT’S HARD TO TALK about the everyday malaises of advanced consumer societies—“overwork,” “hyperstimulation,” “burnout”—without calling forth a critique of the explicit and tacit contracts governing our economic, cultural, and psychic lives. Don’t these words contain an implicit anatomy of neoliberalism’s discontents, its unrelenting instrumentalism, torn social bonds, and moral indifference?

And yet the same words are also ripe fodder for the perpetuation of existing arrangements, for the exploitation of our physical and mental vulnerability. Burnout, consumerism assures us, doesn’t require a new social order, just a new mattress, diet, fitness regimen, meditation program, or general attitude.

Writing about exhaustion is liable to become a symptom of these competing pulls between the polemical and the palliative—that is, to decry the illness and then look for remedies in the very forces (wellness consumerism, self-improvement, positive psychology, corporate yoga) making us ill.

Entering a chronically overcrowded market for the fickle and stretched attention of potential readers, a writer on exhaustion is all too likely caught between excoriating the society that threatens their survival and, well, surviving itself, which tends to mean not biting the cold, bony hand that barely feeds them. You can’t just lament how tired we all are, chides the superego of burnout society; you must give us practical prescriptions for feeling less tired, or at least feeling less bad about it.

One way of circumventing this dilemma, unfortunately not readily accessible to most of us, is to become a superstar in the firmament of social theory. Judging by Vita Contemplativa: In Praise of Inactivity (2023), a philosophical meditation on the meaning of inactivity, the Korean German thinker Byung-Chul Han, who over the last decade has put out more than 20 such brief, urgently concentrated interventions into the state of psychosocial life under late capitalism, isn’t feeling undue pressure to offer hacks on carving out a little me-time from your busy day. Ironically enough, the status conferred by achievement and fame seems to earn its holder the right to eschew any obligations toward practical guidance.

The book makes a fascinating and telling contrast in this regard with Anna Katharina Schaffner’s Exhausted: An A–Z for the Weary (2024), a glossary of burnout that explores the possible remedies for exhaustion alongside its causes and vicissitudes. The author of the excellent Exhaustion: A History (2016), Schaffner used to be a cultural historian working a full-time job in a university English department that, like so many academic posts in the United Kingdom, had long been menaced by the threat of soul-crushing administrative burdens or even redundancy.

Schaffner’s way out of this trap was to train and start a practice as a coach specializing in “helping the exhausted.” Exhausted is something like the distilled wisdom of that practice, a short compendium of reflection and counsel on the various causes and cures for exhaustion from “Capitalism” and “Dante” to “Xenia” and “Yellow.” The book attests to the depth and breadth of Schaffner’s erudition and critical sensibility. You will not find many avowed self-help books rich in discussions of Friedrich Nietzsche, Herman Melville, and Walter Benjamin, or that ask us to take seriously the depredations of neoliberalism and corporate culture as a central source of physical and spiritual corrosion.

But it’s also here that the book comes to be entangled in the predicament it’s diagnosing. In order to conform to the terms of the self-help genre, Exhausted has to carve out shortcuts from sober pessimism to peppy affirmation. Apparently leaning into a critical politics, the “Burnout” entry notes that “the happiness industry pushes individual coping strategies, while research shows that in the vast majority of cases, it is our working environments that are making us sick.”

She returns to this observation five entries later, in “G Is for Ghosts,” invoking Bartleby, titular protagonist of Melville’s great story whose famous refrain, “I would prefer not to,” would become a key slogan of the Occupy movement and a byword for the impulse to refuse. The cadaverous young copyist who one morning abruptly stops working has been sapped of all life, Schaffner notes, by “his dull and oppressive working environment.”

The unsettling power of Bartleby’s refrain for so many generations of readers is that it shuts down the circuits of negotiation and exchange, cancels all shared rules of communication. Bartleby doesn’t say yes to the attorney’s request to copy a document, but neither does he refuse or defy it. He induces outrage in his colleagues above all because they cannot fathom what he’s trying to say or why.

Schaffner seems to recognize that the power of Bartleby’s refrain lies in its sabotage of functional discourse, and at the same time, she wants to restore him to it, effectively to bring him back to work. “What, then, can we learn from Bartleby?” she asks, and unlike the attorney and his fellow employees, for whom Bartleby is evidently a hole torn in the fabric of learning, she has an answer: he can teach us to be less negative. “Let us therefore counter Bartleby’s repetitive rejoinder with a question: ‘What would you prefer to do instead?’”

Can a writer as thoughtful as Schaffner really be commending us to read “Bartleby”—Bartleby!—as an object lesson in the virtues of a positive attitude? Seeing Melville’s story reduced to a cautionary lesson in the need to have “a positive vision of what we want to do with our life,” it is hard not to resort to weary snarl.

But before rushing simply to deride the platitudinous use of this great story, we might remind ourselves that against the more abstracted and sealed-off scholasticism of so much modern academic philosophy, Schaffner wants to recover a more venerable conception of philosophy as guided by the question of how one should live. It’s a sound impulse, if vulnerable to the temptation to offer easy takeaway reassurances.

In fact, Schaffner’s book is most interesting and surprising when addressing the privations and wounds of our contemporary cultures of work and leisure, conditions that surely defy any quick fix. She introduces us to Nietzsche as the great seer of modernity’s morose instrumentalism, quoting The Gay Science on the effective abolition of joy and the vita contemplativa. Already in 1882, Nietzsche was warning that “educated people” were increasingly able to understand rest only as a peripheral function of work and the “need to recuperate,” an insight whose salience today is painfully obvious.

Another entry, “C Is for Capitalism,” gives us a fine summary exposition of Max Weber’s The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1905), focusing especially on its adumbration of the Lutheran injunction against “waste of time” and unproductive activity, arguing that the same morality tacitly underwrites our own codes of living and working, and pushing us to subject those codes to “critical attention.”

But passages like these only accentuate the irresolvable tensions between such critical attention and the compulsory positivity of the self-help genre. These tensions lend Exhausted a peculiarly split quality. The book stirs in us a spirit of discontent and protest against the stifling pressures neoliberalism exerts on our minds and bodies, only then to enjoin us to an equanimous “acceptance” of our feelings of anger and loss.

The subject of the first entry (“A Is for Acceptance”) is also the presiding spirit of the whole book. Schaffner quotes the Daoist parable of the farmer who “accepts both what seems initially positive and negative with equanimity, refusing to make rash judgements.” Acceptance is the basis for Schaffner’s preferred therapeutic approach, as formalized in the Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT).

The basic thrust of this approach is to come face-to-face with our inner critic, “naming it, observing what it does without judgement and then letting it go.” ACT involves noting the ongoing broadside of the inner critic without “fusing” with it, thus turning negative thoughts “into objects of our critical discernment rather than accepting them as the truth about ourselves.” In other words, we must decline to take our superego too seriously, to be railroaded into buying its version of the truth about ourselves. In a comparison taken from ACT practitioner Russ Harris, the flow of our thoughts is likened to the rotating dishes on a “kaiten” or conveyor belt sushi bar—we simply let the unappetizing dishes or thoughts pass us by.

The comparison reveals an implicit model of the mind as commanded by a discerning consumer who knows what they like. On this model, the psychic ear hearing the negative thoughts is fully separate from the psychic mouth speaking them, notwithstanding their occupation of the same skull. It’s this kind of split that makes it possible to treat the superego’s punishing pronouncements as we might an unappetizing passing sando. But our relationship to our superego is not that of a choosy consumer. Even if we reject Freudian metapsychology, experience alone will show us that the power of the inner critic lies in our vulnerability to it, as well as in our availability to the bad news it tells us about ourselves. If simply ignoring the superego were enough to diminish it, we’d surely have tried that already.

All this may simply demonstrate an inbuilt limitation of the self-help genre: in the face of the self’s helplessness, it can only run aground. Schaffner’s appeal to acceptance feels like a way of acknowledging the chasm between the psychosocial burdens imposed by neoliberalism and the self’s capacity to bear them. It is a basic premise of her book, after all, that burnout is a structural effect of working environments that are making us poor, exhausted, and ill—conditions that severely restrict our capacity to help ourselves.

Han starts from the same premise, placing the emphasis more on the spiritual poverty of what he has famously called “burnout society,” for which inactivity can be perceived only as a deficiency, and not as the substantial “capacity in itself” it really is. As a region of experience that cannot be bought, sold, or otherwise put to work, inactivity is a cipher of utopia, of freedom from the tyranny of wage labor and the commodity. More radically still, Han follows Maurice Blanchot in conceiving the inactive as refractory to knowledge. Embodied in the figure of Eurydice, avatar of “night, shadow, sleep and death,” it is what cannot enter the daylit world without being instantly dissolved by it. In inactivity, the will abdicates its own sovereignty in the service of the higher state of “not-doing”: “Activity reaches perfection in inactivity.”

For Han, inactivity is not in a relation of opposition to activity but a permanent possibility within it, one to which our neurotically goal-oriented society is blind. As for Schaffner, Nietzsche is an essential thinker here. Han cites a late fragment on “inventive people” and their need for sufficient time to work without purpose or productivity. Only in such nonpurposive creativity is it possible for something authentically new to emerge, “something that has never been there before.”

Han’s praise for inactivity as midwife to the new doesn’t prevent him from using much of the second half of Vita Contemplativa to stage a sustained critique of Hannah Arendt’s advocacy for the “vita activa,” specifically what he sees as its fetish of novelty. Centered on the imposition of a sameness and conformity that blocked the birth of the new, Arendt’s midcentury critique of “mass society” failed to anticipate the emergence of a society of compulsory novelty, presided over by social media.

In this society, laments Han, “everyone thinks they are unique. Everyone has their own story to tell. Everyone is a performer of their self. The vita activa takes the form of a vita performativa.” In this world of singular selves competing for attention and status, of start-ups and new editions, meaningful novelty gives way to relentless iteration—the latest iPhone, food fad, or reality TV format.

By yoking the new to activity, Han argues, Arendt entrenches the rule of sameness, the repetitive cycle of business as usual. By disentangling us from the demands of the clock, inactivity extricates us from this cycle and creates the space for the new as a real event rather than a predictable iteration of the same. In Han’s formulation: “To oppose the compulsion of work and performance, we must create a politics of inactivity that is able to produce a genuinely free time.”

There is a palpable beauty, at once philosophical and aesthetic, to Han’s vision of the insinuation of a sabbatical time of freedom and purposelessness into the dominant time of productivity and work. This pure time, uncontaminated by the intrusions of need and obligation, makes a telling contrast with the moments of relief and amelioration snatched from the unforgiving flow of clock time by the exhausted imagined readers of Schaffner’s book.

Taken together, these two forms of time serve as an analogue to the two forms of culture (high and mass) famously described by Adorno as “two halves of an integral freedom, to which, however, they do not add up.” On Schaffner’s side, we have the precarious and short-lived freedom of “acceptance.” On Han’s, the ideal and impossible freedom of inactivity. Opposed to one another, these two conceptions of time are also phenomena of the same commodified logic they would each, in their very different ways, wish to oppose.


Featured image: Arthur Garfield Dove. Sunrise III, 1936–37. Yale University Art Gallery, Gift of Katherine S. Dreier to the Collection Société Anonyme. Yale University Art Gallery (1949.3). CC0, artgallery.yale.edu. Accessed June 10, 2024.

LARB Contributor

Josh Cohen is a psychoanalyst in private practice and professor of literary theory at Goldsmiths University of London. He is the author of numerous books and articles on psychoanalysis, modern literature, and cultural theory, including How to Read Freud (2005), The Private Life: Our Everyday Self in an Age of Intrusion (2015), Not Working: Why We Have to Stop (2019), How to Live. What to Do: In Search of Ourselves in Life and Literature (2021) and Losers (2021). His All the Rage: Why Anger Drives the World is forthcoming in October. He is a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature.


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