Infliction of Self — a review of The Burnout Society

Byung-Chul Han’s The Burnout Society is a collection of essays reviewing famous thinkers’ (Deleuze, Freud, Arendt, Ehrenberg, et alia) thinking about the ailments of society in an attempt to diagnose what ails now. Each essay builds towards an argument with a number of subtle nuances. At only 72 pages, this is the perfect book-club book as I am sure it would provoke much discussion despite the linguistic armour that so much German philosophy enshrouds its critical ideas in (an armour that I cannot claim to have pierced, but I still found this book to be very thought-provoking).

The argument centers around Han’s concept of the individual as a “late-modern achievement-subject” that is:

  1. self-deluded into thinking just because they are not dominated by a person or by duty, they are free;
  2. the highest expression of freedom is to produce which is exactly what the capitalist system wants,
  3. therefore people are self-exploiting themselves and thus burning out.

It is a damnation of the hyper-individualization/atomization of society. Some key quotes:

Auto-exploitation is more efficient than allo-exploitation because a deceptive feeling of freedom accompanies it.

The capitalist system is switching from allo-exploitation to auto-exploitation in order to accelerate.

and some zingers:

The attitude toward time and environment known as “multitasking” does not represent civilizational progress.

In social networks, the function of “friends” is primarily to heighten narcissism by granting attention, as consumers, to the ego exhibited as a commodity.

(ahem, follow me on Twitter…)

Most of the book serves to contextualize the factors that lead to such an ill society.

Why I liked this book

Even though this book can be glibly summed up as “late-stage capitalism is bad,” I found the discussion valuable, especially Han’s arguments for boredom and the vita contempliva. His whole discussion about humans being reduced to animal laborans and feeling that they need to “Just do something… anything!” hits me as I come out of a meditation retreat where we were encouraged to “do nothing … really good.” In fact, my years of “mastering” information overload, of being an “efficient” consumer (eg. listening to audiobooks/podcasts while doing other tasks), is a good example of the symptoms that ail burnout society. It is “deadly hyperactivity” as Han puts it. He reminds us that:

We owe the cultural achievements of humanity—which include philosophy—to deep, contemplative attention.

and:

… deep boredom is the peak of mental relaxation. A purely hectic rush produces nothing new. It reproduces and accelerates what is already available.

Furthermore, it does not lead to a good life. He uses an Aristotle quote to remind us that the capitalist society is not concerned with the Good Life, that it “absolutes survival” turning you into an animalistic machine, scratching out a mere existence of socially prescriptive productivity. Putting it bluntly he states:

In this society of compulsion, everyone carries a work camp inside.

Well, I am off to meditate and try and turn that “work camp” into a garden of happiness.

There is no “I”

At 6:15 the bell tolls. You have already been awake for a half hour. Anticipation? Slowly, you pad out of your cell at the Birken Forest Monastery, walking over the matted straw floor and into the carpeted hallway. You peek down into the meditation hall from this second-floor hallway to see if anyone is already in there. A few are. Anticipation.

The meditation hall from the second floor hallway

Down the wooden staircase to the first floor, you alight onto the tiled entrance way. Many wear socks, but the monastics don’t, so you don’t. You open one of the double doors to the sala and give a short, Japanese-style bow to the five-foot-tall statue of the Buddha. You are still unsure of the etiquette in a Thai Forest monastery, so you stick with what you know.

Along the back wall of the sala are the large, square mats, and the round, stuffed meditation cushions. Taking a set, you settle down on the black, marble(?) floor. Quarter-lotus is all your poor inflexible legs are capable of, but yesterday you could only do Burmese style, so you feel a little sense of accomplishment. Resting your hands near your belly, thumbs lightly touching, you gently close your eyes and (try to) calm your mind.
Continue reading “There is no “I””

Event: Community planning workshop

The City of Kelowna is holding public consultations in an effort to re-imagine what the Capri-Landmark area will look like in the next few decades. This week I was invited to speak at one of the workshops about my perspective on active transportation. Essentially, I gave the same talk that I did at OnPoint last year when I argued that car ownership is merely cultural and that it can and should change (and of course I plugged OGO carshare, as always). But I did give it a little twist, focusing on the relationship between culture and infrastructure, and also tried to inject some urgency into the issue.
Continue reading “Event: Community planning workshop”

Intraculturalism: A multicultural third way

“Canada is a multicultural patchwork quilt, a country of immigrants.” These are common refrains about our country. Canada is home to over 200 ethnic groups, and has an official multicultural policy since 1971 (instituted by Trudeau the elder). Yet xenophobia and racism still remain, and multiculturalism is still a hot debate. The debate is not just between the natural-born and the immigrant, but also among the immigrants themselves. That is the topic I would like to explore below.
Continue reading “Intraculturalism: A multicultural third way”

The National Mall, Washington DC

I am travelling in the capital region of the United States right now on business. I took a day to walk the National Mall in Washington, DC. It was a gorgeous day, sunny but not hot. The wind made it deceptively cool, and I got a terrible sunburn.

I walked the 5km from Union Station to the Capitol Building, the Washington Monument, and finally to the Lincoln Memorial. The National Mall is massive. This is America doing BIG at its best. The architecture, design and sheer size of the monuments is awe-inspiring.

satellite photo with line representing walking path
My walking path at the Mall

The Capitol Building had some protestors on the lawn. I didn’t get close enough to find out what they were protesting — being a foreign citizen I didn’t want to get swept up in anything. I was shocked at the size of the Washington monument. I thought that it was just an obelisk. The thing is massive and has an elevator inside! The thought put into the design of the Reflecting Pool and the Korean War monument is amazing. Below is just a few of my pictures. You can see all 45 photos and videos on Flickr →

From the Lincoln Memorial, I took a quick taxi to the White House. There were lots of school groups around on the day. You cannot get tours of the White House as a Canadian anymore. I walked around the north side and the south side, and then to the White House Visitor center, which is open to the public. On my way I was stopped by some very aggressive yelling police (actually, pretty much all the police in DC were like that). Everyone on the sidewalk was told to freeze while they blocked off the roads for some sort of presidential motorcade. Of course, everyone including me took video. I am not sure if Trump was in that car or not, but it was quite an entourage.

DC is a really nice looking city, much cleaner than most of the US cities I have been to. Mind you, I was only in the hipster Adams Morgan neighbourhood, with its tree-lined streets and classic buildings, and downtown in the capitol area. Still, it was pleasant. Contrast it with Baltimore, which I visited the following day. I grabbed a taxi from the train station and we were heading downtown. I could see a massive building with late 19th century copper roofing, similar to the parliament buildings in Ottawa. I asked the driver what that building was — literally the first interesting building I saw — and he replied simply, “Jail.”

I am staying in the inner harbour in Baltimore and it is all under contruction/gentrification right now. Red brick of the old industrial town is giving way to glass facades. It isn’t very reminiscient of The Wire at all, and I am glad for it.

Baltimore downtown

Activist Buddhism — a review of A New Buddhist Path

Since the age of 3, I have been interested in other peoples. Apparently that was the age when I toddled up to the television, pointed to the evening news, and stated: “I am going to Tokyo.” All throughout my travels and my education I have pursued some understanding about “how the world works,” about human interactions, about how communities navigate a world filled with other communities.

With two people you have a conversation, with three you have a society.

I don’t know the origin of that saying, but it lies at the heart of how I try to understand our world: war, technology, economics… each boils down to politics — not the electoral kind, but the interpersonal kind.

So, in my study of Buddhism, it is natural that I should approach it from a political perspective, especially since so much of our common (Western) understanding of Buddhism seems apolitical: people shaving their heads, retiring to isolated mountain monasteries and renunciating the world. Surely Buddhist political thought cannot simply rely on “social transformation through personal transformation”? Surely they do not believe the way to bring about a more equitable world is for everyone to  become Buddhist?

Beliefs such as those have literally caused wars.

I became curious to find out the Buddha said on how society should be structured. The enlightened one had great advice for sickness, old age and death. What advice did he have for the social, economic, and political ills society suffers from?

Continue reading “Activist Buddhism — a review of A New Buddhist Path”

39

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Miku image by lancelot-73

Today I am 39.

“3” in Japanese is san.

“9” in Japanese is kyuu.

San-kyuu is how Japanese pronounce “Thank you.”

Thus, I am making my 39th year my Thank You Year.

I intend to me more mindful of how I got to where I am, and thankful to the people, organizations, and organisms without whose support I might not have made it to 39, like so many others.

Thinking about how I got here despite how many animals I have eaten, how much carbon I have exhausted, how much ignorance I have propagated, should help me make the next years of my life more benefecial to others, and more fulfilling for me.

Thank you!

Timeline of Japanese in the Okanagan

May is Asian Heritage month in Canada. Here in the Okanagan our local Asian Heritage Month committee has been working for months to ensure that there are a number of events and activities to raise awareness of Asian-Canadian contributions to our communities, and empower immigrants. It all kicks off next week. Asian history month opening gala poster This year, the Japanese community will be hosting the opening gala on Saturday May 6th. I will be there helping out, and I am going to other events such as Family Sundays and getting a tour of the Kelowna Buddhist Temple. The Chinese, Filipino, Korean and Indian communities are all going to be doing different things so check it out.

In preparation for this year’s celebrations I did a little research into the experience of Japanese who began settling in this valley at the turn of the last century. I put together a simple timeline slideshow, to place some of the more important historical people, organizations, and events into the wider context of Japanese-Canadian history. Take a browse by clicking below, and I hope to see you at one of the AHM events this year!

Japanese in the Okanagan timeline

Drifting towards the stream

Parallel to the shore

Even while learning spells for invisibility, or getting a tattoo of protection from the war-goddess Marishiten, I never really considered myself “into” Buddhism. It was always a peripheral topic to my main interest in Asia and the martial arts.

I don’t really remember a time where Buddhism was unknown to me, even growing up in small town Canada, nestled in the Rocky Mountains surrounded by primarily rural white Anglo Protestant people. For my social studies credit in grade 10 I forwent learning about the Canadian political system to take Asian Studies. That class covered a lot, but I was able to gain a high level understanding of Buddhism: the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the difference between the Theravada and Mahayana traditions. Here is a picture of me, at age 16, by the Sleeping Buddha at Wat Pho, a famous statue in Bangkok. I remember visiting a Buddhist monastery in southern Thailand at the time, and being impressed with the monks there, but I never seriously thought about what they were actually trying to do.

Me standing in front of the Sleeping Buddha
A young me standing in front of the Sleeping Buddha, Bangkok, 1994

Later, in my twenties, when I was seriously committed to learning classical Japanese martial arts, I was exposed to mikkyō and Shingon, and of course Zen. However we were only learning about Buddhist teachings in the narrow sense of how it served the Japanese warrior on the battlefield (I wrote a paper about this for a class, if you want to learn more). Symbolism, spells, basic meditation — the classical martial arts (and even the modern ones) are rich with Buddhist esoterica. But we spent no time on the actual teachings of the Buddha. We were there to learn how to fight. Continue reading “Drifting towards the stream”

A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People

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The History of White People by Nell Irvin Painter

By default, any book claiming to be a history of “white” people must necessarily be a history of “race science.” Surely one must clearly define the boundaries of your subject? It is Nell Irvin Painter’s careful historiography of those shifting boundaries that make up most of this book. She deftly describes the classification and reclassification of races depending on the background of the classifier, and the contemporary political environment, and relates many shocking facts that are typically glossed over in other types of social history.
Continue reading “A hypercompetitive race — review of The History of White People”