Achievement Society and its Achievement Subject

We live in an accelerated society. Our modern work culture has converted each of us into a Sisyphus of Albert Camus. We do not have time to stand and stare. Byung-Chul Han diagnoses that we living in a burnout society. A neoliberal society has set us on a rat race. It has enslaved us to an obsession to maximize achievement and performance. We are pushed to excessive positivity and seem to lack the ability to handle negativity or other experiences. Han’s thesis is that we have moved from Foucault disciplinary society to a society of achievement that is tied to an experience of unbound freedom. But it’s a paradox. We have a free constraint of maximizing individual achievement and self-optimization. Lacanians think that we are living in a society of enjoyment by command. The society of prohibition is dead and we have full freedom to enjoy. But enjoyment happens behind the back of the law. There is jouissance in the breaking of the law. Hence, we have a paradox of enjoyment in a society of enjoyment by command. Han indicates that burnout in our society occurs from the paradoxical form of freedom which becomes an immanent form of violence— the violence of positivity. He seems to suggest that biopower has become more radical. It has become psychopolitical power and has become invisible. He boldly points out that class struggle is replaced by the inner struggle of the self. This is why he challenges us to re-engage with negativity or the other which can be done by withdrawing from the accelerated society through meditation and inaction which are modes of meaning and autonomy.

The new psychopolitical power that we experience is simultaneously a system of freedom and a system of control. Under the guise of freedom, the achievement subject willingly engages in self-exploitation. The inner struggle of the self becomes the new site of conflict. In some way, we are sucked into the system and are sucked by the system and hence do not resist or rebel. We are happy to serve the interests of capital. Han teaches that we can resist this voluntary surrender to a mode of self-exploitation only through a new mode of engagement with the negative. Engaging negativity, therefore, becomes an antidote to the burnout society. The excess of positivity is creating too much of the same and hence, is causing a breakdown in our society. It has led to the disappearance of otherness. Han says that otherness is replaced by a difference that is close to conformity. To Han otherness is an unknowable, unpredictable and radically different way of being in the world. The difference is not an immunological category. It can be consumed. Thus, otherness in a society of achievement is converted into a consumable or commodifiable difference. Han says, that the other does not exist anymore. This has transformed each of us into a consumer. There is no host and, therefore, we all feel not at home.

The achievement subject is not the obedient subject of Foucault. We are challenged to be entrepreneurs of ourself-to-be and desire to be the best we can be. In an achievement society enough is never enough. We are, therefore, self-disciplined to achieve and there is no need for outside control. Hence, an achievement society that appears to be a society of unbound freedom is actually a society of constrained freedom. We have completely internalized Foucault disciplinary society. Achievement subject does not work for a master but all the same is a Hegelian slave who is chained to his/her project of achievement by his/her voluntary will. This compulsive freedom is a chained freedom. The achievement subject has to surrender himself/herself to compulsive freedom. It conditions us to accept our self-exploitation and think of it as an achievement. Unfortunately, the subject of achievement enacts the rights of the sovereign but turns himself/ herself into bare life. Bare life is thought to be a good life. In ancient politics, the good life was achieved through the subject being included within the power of the sovereign. When the sovereign retracts these Rights, the subject is reduced to a condition of bare life. Georgio Agamben tells us that when we are denied the possibility of the good life, all that we do is labour endlessly to merely survive. Han, therefore, indicates that the good life is taken away in a society of achievement through a deception that longs and labours for a good life but has to settle for bare life.

Han offers a way of reeding ourselves from the perils of the society of achievement. He thinks that we have to restore the immunological character of otherness. The reduction of the otherness into consumable difference has de-immunized the other and expelled all negativity from our life. Not all negativity is destructive. Hence, Han thinks that we have to linger with the negativity of the other. If the self has no excess to the other, then, thinking becomes an endless repetition of the same. Hence, there cannot be any progress and enrichment in such a society. With the expulsion of the other, the society of achievement seduces people into refusing the good life and preferring the bare life. The good life is a negative notion. It involves the negativity of others in which different people have a different conception of the good life and each of them competes to declare their view as a good life. This engagement with the other is needed to bring about slowness, a pause or stop of the frantic labour for survival in an achieved society. Han says that there is therapy in slowness, in the pause, reflection and listening. This is why he challenges us to shun aside hyper-action of the society of achievement and exhorts us to choose in-action of a pause that can lead us to contemplation. Contemplation is an important therapeutic weapon against the society of achievement that rewards us with bare life and its consequences like depression and hyper action syndrome. Contemplative rest is emancipative. To Nietzsche contemplation is an excluding instinct. It thus helps us to resist all intrusive stimuli and enter an active passive state. Besides, contemplation, listening is also an important therapeutic tool. It opens us to the suffering of the other. Listening to the experiences of the others enhances our own experience.

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Hypocrisy is the tribute that vice pays to virtue.

- Fr Victor Ferrao