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I’ve been thinking a lot about depression, narcissism and burnout recently. An abundance of sociopathic status seekers in my work environment have led me to ponder whether they are truly happy or more prone to more illness. Despite their status, most seem mentally ill.
Caveat 1: My thoughts on this are still being formed and I will tweet as the thoughts reach me. There may be some flow issues with this thread, remember it’s a thread not an essay, but I hope by the end it will all be clear more or less.
Caveat 2: A lot of what I am going to say was inspired by reading The Burnout Society by Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han. It’s only a short read and I highly recommend it to understand the sickness of our late-capitalist current age.
Han’s diagnosis of our depressed culture is that we live in an overly positive culture that is increasingly dominated by narcissism and self-reference. We have also lost our desire due to the disappearance of the ability to devote to 'the other', the stranger, the non-self.
Many today revolve exclusively around themselves, unable to build meaningful relationships. Even love and sexuality are permeated by this social change: sex and pornography, exhibition and presentation are displacing love, eroticism and desire from the public eye.
The abundance of positivity and self-reference leads to a loss of confrontation. We cannot confront - or be confronted - in this never ending “feel-good” positive safe space of world we have created. But how did this age arise? Where is it going?
Every age has its signature afflictions. Once a bacterial age existed; it ended with the discovery of antibiotics. We were once afraid of an influenza epidemic, but we are not living in a viral age. Thanks to immunological technology, we have already left it behind.
No. From a pathological standpoint, our age is determined neither by bacteria nor viruses, but by neurons. Neurological illnesses such as depression, ADHD, runaway narcissism, and burnout are the hallmarks of the early 21st century.
The difference between these mental illnesses vs old physical illnesses is they do not result from the negativity of what is immunologically foreign, but from an excess of positivity. Therefore, they elude all technologies and tech- niques that seek to combat what is alien.
Otherness/discipline/confrontation are disappearing. We live in a time that’s poor in negativity. We’re bombarded with messages that we are special, unique, & can do anything we want to if we only be ourselves. But what happens when our own mediocrity means we don’t achieve much?
One of the problems is that with so much around us - food, opportunity, data, sensation - our ancient behaviours haven’t had time to adapt. Before, the smartest learnt to take want they can during times of scarcity, now the smartest are learning to exclude what is non-essential.
Baudrillard: “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.”
What I’m saying is that in previous times, that which was bad for us was obvious & real. It was clearly dangerous like the wolf or the rat & we learnt to fight them accordingly. However what is bad for us now looks good & feels pleasurable (porn, cakes, feels). We have to adapt.
Our current dangers are over-abundance (junk food, porn) and over-positivity (never being told we are wrong). The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts. Depression, ADHD, and burnout all point to excess positivity, not negativity.
Our world long ago moved from one of discipline to one of kindergarten-level positivity. Gone are the asylums, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories. It has long been replaced by another regime, a society of gyms, yoga studios, offices, banks, airports, juice bars and malls
We no longer live in a disciplinary society. We live in an achievement society - a tyranny of positivity where everyone is told they are unique and can do anything. Where doubt and hesitation are seen as weakness.
Disciplinary society is a society of negativity. It is defined by the negativity of prohibition. Achievement society is overwhelmingly positive - we are told we can and should try anything. Obama’s “Yes we can” and Nike’s “Just do it” epitomise society’s positive orientation.
Prohibitions, commandments, and the law are replaced by projects, initiatives, and motivation. Disciplinary society is governed by “no”. Its negativity produces repressed madmen and criminals. In contrast, achievement society creates depressives, losers and sociopathic strivers.
Why did society move from a negative disciplinary one to a positive achievement one? Think of the old anti-slavery argument. It’s about capital and production. Free Men are more productive than slaves. Capital wants to give us the illusion of freedom to make us more efficient.
It is not the excess of responsibility and initiative that makes one sick, but the imperative to achieve: the new commandment of late-modern labor society. The gig economy (hey @0x49fa98!) hasn’t made us independent business owners, it’s turned us into hyperactive rats.
The complaint of the depressive individual, “Nothing is possible,” can only occur in a society that thinks, “Nothing is impossible.” Depression is the sickness of a society that suffers from excessive positivity. It reflects a humanity waging war on itself. We are our own slaves.
Excessive positivity also expresses itself as an excess of stimuli, information, and impulses. It radically changes the structure and economy of attention. Perception becomes fragmented and scattered. I’m going to now share a secret with you...
Remember your teachers and bosses telling you that “multitasking” was something laudable? That we modern men are better than our predecessors because we can multitask so much in our digital age. They lied to you. Multitasking isn’t evolution - it’s devolution.
Multitasking does not represent civilizational progress. Do you know modern people are not the only ones capable of multitasking? Multitasking is common among wild animals. It is an attentive technique indispensable for survival in the wilderness.

Multitasking is regression.
An animal busy with eating must also attend to other tasks. It must hold rivals away from its prey. It must constantly be on the lookout, lest it be eaten while eating. At the same time, it must guard its young and keep an eye on its sexual partner. It’s always busy.
Wild animals are forced to divide their attention between various activities. That is why animals are incapable of contemplative immersion - they are either eating, fighting or fucking. This is why squirrels never built the pyramids.
We owe the cultural achievements of humanity to deep, contemplative attention. Boredom & free time are the wells of creativity. Culture depends on an environment in which deep attention is possible. If we are constantly active (online or offline) contemplation becomes impossible.
Nietzsche knew this. He knew that humanity ends in deadly hyperactivity when every contemplative element is driven out. The Last Man reigns supreme at the end. Here’s one of his quotes about this:
“From lack of repose our civilization is turning into a new barbarism. At no time have the active, that is to say the restless, counted for more...”
“... That is why one of the most necessary corrections to the character of mankind that have to be taken in hand is a considerable strengthening of the contemplative element in it.”
Exhaustion and barbarity. That’s what the multitasking of our positive achievement society is creating. This might not be so bad to our mental wellbeing if we still had religion and an ultimate goal, but we don’t. All this frantic busyness is for nothing except self-glorification
Life has never been as fleeting as it is today. Not just human life, but the world in general is becoming radically fleeting. Nothing promises duration or substance. Given this lack of purpose, nervousness and unease arise.
Belonging to a group or tribe might benefit a people that works for the sake of its kind to achieve something (Hello Jews and Chinese!). However, the modern western ego stands utterly alone. Even religion has run its course. Leftism tries to replace this but it’s unfulfilling.
The general lack of purpose beyond oneself is reinforcing the feeling of fleetingness and emptiness. It makes life bare. Work itself is a bare activity. The activity of bare labour corresponds entirely to a bare life. All that remains is material status flaunting.
People who suffer from depression or burnout syndrome develop the same symptoms as caged wild animals. They are entirely apathetic and can no longer even recognize physical cold or the orders given by guards. They are like Bartleby the Scrivener from Melville’s short story.
What leads people to this depression? It’s the hyper-activity of what positive capital has twisted them into. They react immediately, yielding to every impulse, email, Facebook Like and new Netflix show. Chasing every rainbow results in total exhaustion.
Think back to my wild animal analogy. Hyper-activity leads to an abrupt switch into hyper-passivity; now one obeys every impulse or stimulus without resistance. Instead of freedom, it produces new constraints. It is an illusion to believe that being more active means being freer.
Today we live in a world that is very poor in interruption. Our phones are always on. Emails constantly arrive. Social media is always there. The rests and “between-times” are lacking. Acceleration is abolishing all intervals - and we are told that this is a good thing!
The person who believes they can do anything - who wants a picture perfect child, high-flying career, a pristine Instagram page and a tight body built from 20 weekly yoga classes - has been conned by positivity into a prison of narcissism. Burnout or depression closely follows.
Without doubt, or without people telling us “no”, we just follow every urge or impulse. Again, this isn’t freedom, it is the acceleration of capital transforming us into more efficient machines of production and - more importantly - consumption.
The positivization of the world means that both human beings and society are transforming into autistic performance-machines. And sociopathic status seekers are the biggest victims. They aren’t winners. Narcissistic self-referentiality is just leading them faster to exhaustion.
Sociopathic status seekers often think they’re smart, but most of them are just busy fools. Their constant calculating means they can no longer think for themselves. Hyper-activity is actually hyper- passivity because you are not thinking, you’re just following capital’s commands
We are burdened not by rules and prohibitions but excessive positivity and possibility. Our dictatorial imperative is to let your self flourish - “be your own truth”. Think of all those films where the message was to “be yourself” and “you’ll achieve your dreams”.
Yet we can’t keep up with ever-rising status. Our dreams are dictated to us by society and they move ever increasingly upwards and out of our grasp. They’re always others richer and prettier than you. Entering higher social circles just means the goalposts are moved further.
So if just “being ourselves” leads to our goals, the implicit message is that if we don’t reach our goals (impossible as they constantly change) then the problem is in fact ourselves. When reality hits, the positive society means the ego takes the hit directly. Depression follows
The society of achievement and activeness is generating excessive tiredness and exhaustion. Only when we utterly break down and are mentally and physically exhausted are we finally finding the negativity and respite we so desperately require.
The ancients knew this. The Hebrews created the Sabbath for a reason. The Sabbath is a word that originally meant “stopping”. Without this rest nothing can be achieved. Civilisationcannot contemplate and advance. People don’t come together and form communities, bonds.. families.
Prometheus brought work to mankind when he gave mortals the gift of fire. Today’s achievement-subject deems itself free when in fact it is bound like Prometheus. Doomed to be tortured by the eagle of acceleration gnawing at its organs and never allowed to rest.
The sociopathic status seeker does not pursue works of duty. Its maxims are not obedience, law, and the fulfillment of obligation, but rather freedom, pleasure, and inclination. Above all, it expects the profits of enjoyment from work.
It works for pleasure and does not act at the behest of others. Instead, it hearkens mainly to itself. It is the ultimate self-starting entrepreneur - the start-up guy, the social media huckster. A person who thinks they are their own boss and is “empowered”.
However, such freedom others is not just empowering and liberating. “Freedom” means developing new constraints. Freedom from others switches into narcissistic self-relation, which creates many of the mental issues we see afflicting so many.
One thing you notice about sociopathic status seekers online and in the workplace is they have no character - no principals they stick to. Think how social media maximises this and adds to the sickness ever more, like by like.
Thousands of Facebook or LinkedIn frIends offers further proof of the late-modern ego’s lack of character and definition. They try to please everybody, strive to offend nobody, and in turn become nobody themselves. As always, think of capital’s unconscious motive here.
In positive terms, such a human being without character is flexible, able to assume any form, play any role, perform any function. This shapelessness—or, alternately, flexibility—creates a high degree of economic efficiency. The best worker bee has no values and thinks he is free
“In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.” - Byung-Chul Han.
Narcissism isn’t empowerment. Narcissism is the very opposite of strong self-love. Let me quote the sociologist Richard Sennett about why this is so:
“Self-absorption does not produce gratification, it produces injury to the self; erasing the line between self and other means that nothing new, nothing “other,” ever enters the self...”
“.. It is devoured and transformed until one thinks one can see oneself in the other—and then it becomes meaningless.. The narcissist is not hungry for experiences, he is hungry for Experience. Looking always for an expression or reflection of oneself... one drowns in the self.”
Depression & burnout follow overexcited, overdriven, excessive self-reference that has assumed destructive traits. The exhausted sociopathic status seeker grinds itself down. He becomes tired, exhausted by himself, and at war with himself. Entirely incapable of stepping outward.
Narcissists exhaust themselves in rat races they run against themselves.
Digitalisation is making this worse.
There’s very little “reality” or consequence online which in meat world would warn a sociopath when their narcissism is getting out of control. Online, the narcissistic ego encounters itself first and foremost in everything it sees.
The real world makes itself known through resistance. Act like a dickhead and someone is likely to beat you or fire you. But our ridiculous overly-positive society is removing this resistance to the sociopathic.
I’m definitely waffling now so let me try and wrap this up...
Capital absorbs everything. What is capital but relentless competition?
Our positive achievement society has created absolute competition because now we have narcissists competing with their own egos to produce/consume more. A destructive compulsion to outdo itself over and over
“You can do anything!” “Just do it!”

These slogans of positive achievement create a society of self-exploitation, which is all good for capital until the obedient little narcissist exploits itself too much and finally burns out.
Auto-exploitation is more efficient than standard exploitation because it gives a deceptive feeling of freedom. The exploiter is also the exploited. Exploitation now occurs without domination. That is what makes self-exploitation so efficient. And in this way capital accelerates.
Let’s quote Nietzsche again:

(From Thus Spoke Zarathustra)

“All of you who are in love with hectic work and whatever is fast, new, strange—you find it hard to bear yourselves, your diligence is escape and the will to forget yourself...”
“... If you believed more in life, you would hurl yourself less into the moment. But you do not have enough content in yourselves for waiting—not even for laziness!”

This is what Nietzsche called “The Last Man”
Our Clown World is sustained by the illusion that more capital/status produces more life. Concern about living the good life yields to the hysteria of surviving. The reduction of life to biological, vital processes makes life itself bare and strips it of all meaning.
Yet this doesn’t lead to more life. Quite the opposite. Sociopathic status striving leads to downward fertility, atomised individuals, and an autistic society. It means barren wombs. It means the opposite of life - it means death.
Given the atomization of society and the erosion of the family, all that remains is ego, consumption and work. Nothing else is left. We’ve never lived in a society so filled with positive messages, but this is why we are depressed, and the narcissists the most depressed of all.
I would hope that the increasing depression and burnout we see would lead people to question their values and what makes them happy. However, I have my doubts. Those that know not real life cannot truly die. They cannot be killed at all. Their life equals that of the undead.
They are too alive to die, and too dead to live.

<End>
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