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.

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”

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”

Best of 2016

2016 has been a tumultuous year, for both the entire world and for me personally. I have categorized some of the best hits and big changes below into three categories: Life, Posts and Media.

Life

Death and rebirth

This year we had a cancer scare in my family which made me put community activity on hold for a few months while we waited for test results (maybe I should write a post about how we were totally failed by the Canadian medical system, and had to get this sorted out in Japan?). I had to leave ORCA, which was sad because I think they do important work. I stopped playing D&D. There were many serious talks.

However, two good things came out of this: first, it doesn’t look to be cancer. Second, it made me rethink my life. What they say about near-death experiences is true.

New job

After 4 years in startupland, 3 of which dealing with adtech, I finally moved on to a new, more stable (and less morally hazardous) work environment. My new company is in a massive growth phase, so I get to use a lot of my startup skills. The nice thing is they have lots of customers and resources and experienced executives, making it a much easier to execute.

Vegetarianism

On December 28th 2015, I decided to stop eating meat. A year has passed and I am still not eating it, and am pretty happy about the decision. I wrote about why at the 6 months mark →

Travel

I had the opportunity to visit Texas for the first time, and learned a bit about that state’s history, and of America’s as a whole. My wife and I also took a getaway to the Sunshine Coast, where we could delve a little into BC’s aboriginal history.

This year we took two trips to Japan (I am still on one as I write this). Since we stay in Kyoto, the city of temples, I took both opportunities to explore Japanese Buddhism. Here are a couple of posts exploring the issue:

Public appearances

Early this year I did a couple of radio interviews: one on downsizing and one on Syrian refugees. I was on a public panel about transportation. Lastly, and totally randomly, I was on local TV news.

Posts

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This year was a good one for blogging. I have 54 posts (including this one) for 2016, which is an uptick over recent years. Starting a newsletter to help people who do not use Twitter or RSS to help keep up gave me some more motivation to write, holding me accountable to a schedule. Also, I hit 500 posts this year since starting in early 2009. Lots of introspection about how my thinking has changed over the years here.

Standout posts for the year include:

Media

53 films

The Force Awakens (second viewing) was my first film of 2016. Rogue One (first viewing) was my last. Well, the first 45 mins of it anyways, since my (not quite) 5 year old got a little too scared and we had to leave. I am sure I will get another opportunity to see it.

In February and March I went on a tear and watched a bunch of Oscar-related films which was just about the deepest, non-Marvel non-superhero, non kids watching I did. Standout films include:

62 books

This year I set out to discover new podcasts and Great courses, so I originally set my Goodreads challenge low, to like 30 books. I was still reading a lot, so I kept having to up the challenge. But now when I look back, 20 of those 62 books were graphic novels (including the 8 volume series on the Buddha reviewed here), which means I actually didn’t hit my final goal of 45 books. Also, only 10 of those 42 books were in text form, making my audiobook ratio 76%, which is pretty high, even for me.

I read a lot on Syria, about Marxism and leftist politics, and a lot about Buddhism this year. It is a reflection of the ever-changing perspectives and interests of someone trying to live the examined life (or write the examined blog at least).

My standout books this year are as follows:

Quarterly review: FY16Q4

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

★★★☆☆ Fight Club

★★★☆☆ The Essential Dogen: Writings of the Great Zen Master

★★★☆☆ Weapons of Math Destruction: How Big Data Increases Inequality and Threatens Democracy

Not a lot of reviews this time round. I would like to plug two books that I thought were really great:

1) The Wicked + The Divine graphic novel. I blasted through the first two volumes. It is deep and beautiful.

2) Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep. I picked this up because Michael Chabon referenced Chandler’s work in his excellent book The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, and wow was it great! I mean, besides all the sexism and stuff. Chandler’s similes are as hilarious as they are peculiarly specific, like seeing your father-in-law get roasted at a celebrity dinner by Dave Chappelle… I dunno, Chandler does it better. ¯_(ツ)_/¯

Film

★★★★☆ The Hateful Eight

★½☆☆☆ Suicide Squad

★★★★☆ Arrival

Buddha, the manga

Historical drama can sometimes be dangerous. Subtle twists of creative license to fit a narrative can give a false impression of the facts. Osamu Tezuka’s massive 8 volume series on the life of the Buddha is anything but subtle.

You may know Osamu Tezuka as the creator of Astro Boy and Simba the White Lion. He is one of the grandfathers of modern manga. In the late 1970s he spent 10 years on a series called Buddha. The series was translated into English and collected into 8 volumes.

buddha_books

Despite being the titular character, the Buddha is just one of a large ensemble cast, featuring many people from the various sutras and stories of the life of the Buddha. In fact, it isn’t until about page 260 of volume 1 that the Buddha is even born!

Tezuka’s genius at character design really shines in this series. Every character is distinct, with one or two simple visual flourishes, a characteristic (flaw), and a distinct voice. Tezuka is irreverent, and often goofy. When Siddartha leaves the palace and meets the ascetics who will one day become his first five disciples, one of the ascetics has taken to hanging upside down as his trial. In every frame he is upside down, his legs out of frame and hanging from something … nothing? It is ridiculous and funny. Characters often make modern references (eg. about movies, or sports) or are often modern themselves. Take for example the doctor who examines the sickly young Siddartha: it is Professor Ochanomizu from Astro Boy!

But it isn’t all silliness. Serious teachings of Buddhism find their way into the pages. Tezuka obviously made a deep study of a number of texts in order to be familiar enough to give it such a spin. And the art can be astounding, especially the landscapes, drawn in painstaking detail.

Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid.
Extremely detailed lush scenery, topped by a naked cartoon kid. (Source)

Similar to the way that watching the TV series Game of Thrones helps put a face to the massive cast of characters in the books, making it easier to follow, Buddha does a great job giving you a simple visualization of characters from one of the greatest stories ever told, from the obscure to famous disciples like Sariputta and Mogallana. That is one of the values of historical drama, and books like this. It certainly makes it easier when reading other, more academic histories like Karen Armstrong’s Buddha, or even the Buddhist canon itself. The one thing to remember is: take the details with a giant bag of salt. Tezuka’s Buddha is not historical document, and it helps that he doesn’t deign to pretend it should be. That said, it is a great introduction to the life of the Buddha and some of the basic tenets, and furthermore, is a masterwork in the medium of manga.

Quarterly review: FY16Q3

Each quarter I do a quick roundup of the book and film reviews that I do on Goodreads and Letterboxd. These reviews are too short and too off-the-cuff to be included with the more in depth reviews I do on this site. Below are the highlights of the quarter.

Books

★★★★☆ Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism

★★★☆☆ Canticle

★★☆☆☆ Zero K

★★★★☆ If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler

★★★★★ The Yiddish Policemen’s Union

★★★☆☆ The Eye of the World (Wheel of Time, #1)

★★★☆☆ The Men Who Stare at Goats

Film

★★½☆☆ The Men Who Stare at Goats

★★☆☆☆ The Good Dinosaur

I didn’t write a review, but I enjoyed Oliver Stone’s new film Snowden and also the Adam Curtis documentary The Trap: What Happened to Our Dream of Freedom which you can see for free online at Thought Maybe.

Nostalgic utopianism — a review of Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus

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Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus: How Growth Became the Enemy of Prosperity  by Douglas Rushkoff

Power corrupts and money ruins everything. These are basically the premises that Douglas Rushkoff starts from in his latest book, a critique of the concentration of power in the digital economy and the inequality it breeds. He uses the protests targeting private Google buses in 2013 to highlight the inequality driven by the US economy dominated by the monopolous forerunners of the digital economy. I was in SF at the time, and commented on what I saw:

I was struck by how conflicted the city is. The chasm between those in tech and those not in tech is nearly at class-warfare levels. Almost daily there are articles about the chasm widening (eg. the recent Google Bus demonstration). To get better sense of the civic strife, read the following link-filled article: Silicon Valley Is Living Inside A Bubble Of Tone-Deaf Arrogance.

Rushkoff has always been writing on the edges of technology and society. Now he tries his hand at technology and economics. His argument is that the digital economy is not a disruption, but merely an extension of the industrial age, with the problematic bits of that era even more acute. He takes great pains to show the monopolistic tendencies of networks and the ill effects of “digitally accelerated capitalism.” The evidence that he provides is damning, but his framework of analysis is not particularly convincing. His mistake is to analyze corporations using McLuhan’s tetrad of media effects, which ends up looking like this:

  1. What does the corporation enhance?
  2. What does the corporation make obsolete?
  3. What does the corporation retrieve that had been obsolesced earlier?
  4. What does the corporation flip into when pushed to extremes?

It is an interesting thought experiment, but ultimately fails where more traditional economic arguments would succeed. The results are muddled. For example in chapter 21 he criticizes mainstream economic education, yet nowhere in the book does he name alternative economic models. The terms “neoliberalism”, “socialism”, “socialist democracy” never appear in the book. “Communism” pops up a handful of times, but only in a defensive matter:

For a business to find its appropriate size even if this means scaling down is not a Communist Plot. [pp. 105]

Rushkoff fears being accused as “communist” above all else, and that ends up undermining his argument. For Rushkoff, there is only Capitalism and Communism. His understanding of political theory comes off as unsubtle, but maybe it is the the limited of understanding of his audience that is influencing him, aka. the big tech CEOs that ask him for advice running their companies or hire him for highly paid corporate speaking engagements. This economic calculus might be the reason for Rushkoff’s lukewarm critique. He is not willing to go to the radical, or use radical language for fear of alienating his audience (née customers). The result is a fuzzy, friendly, plush toy critical theory. He is good at pointing out how damaging capitalism is, but instead of rejecting it, he dreams of a more “conscious” capitalism, a more “humane” capitalism. His solution is go back to a pre-industrial economic model, like the putting out system. Imagine a massive distributed network of makers 3D printing bespoke items for their neighbours out of their handmade cottages. This is how it should have been. Rushkoff is a nostalgic utopian, and this is further evidenced by his analysis of the internet.

Many of the greatest hits of 1990s internet theory are covered in this book, each critiqued and shown how they were not bourne out in the past decade and a half. Rushkoff gives a recent history lesson, showing how terrible things currently are, but then wishes things were like the old theorists thought it would be. Rushkoff is an early model cyberutopian.

However, there is a difference: the saviour of our society is not necessarily technology(!). In fact, Rushkoff argues that it comes down to how we structure our firms and our economy that will save society (aka. politics). That being said, he still thinks that distributed technologies can play a big role in achieving a less centralized system. Thus, Rushkoff’s view might be categorized alongside Steven Johnson’s peer progressivism (see some of my old thinking about PP here).

Throwing Rocks at the Google Bus might not be the final wrench in the gears of our system of unfettered cyber-capitalism, but it is still worth the read. There are some excellent arguments in here against our addiction to growth, some cool examples of alternative transaction systems (local currencies, time dollars, LETS), and a spectacular takedown of startups and venture capital near the end of the book. Despite coming up short in its overall analysis, it is a good book to recommend to a friend who has just started to smell something bad in tech, knows something wrong, but is not quite ready for a full-blown attack on the real underlying problem: capitalism itself.

Listening in — a short review of “Between the World and Me”

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When I think of my long struggle to “try and be a writer”, my confidence is shattered upon reading such a poetic, insightful, heartfelt piece as this. This is writing — the naked intimacy of it. Even if I cannot fully grasp the primordial fear documented in this book, Coates’s excellent writing gives me a peek into a world I cannot — by definition of my class and race — ever truly know.

I cannot know the fear, but I can understand it. And it can move me.

The message of this book will certainly have different effects on each reader. Had I read this in my younger years, I might have had more difficulty in understanding. But after a decade and a half of being married to — and properly educated by — a feminist, living every day in an immigrant family, and being a father to two multiracial girls, I have a much better sense of how those who think of themselves as white are so blind to the system that their ancestors put in place, and that they propagate every day at work, at school, at the supermarket, on the bus, and in their homes. Ever since returning to Canada five years ago, I have struggled with my own whiteness, struggled with the strained politeness of a country that is multicultural by policy yet not by practice, keenly aware of that sickly sweet, maple-scented smugness.

Ta-Nehisi Coates has touched me with this book, likely in an unexpected way. I do not know if this book will touch you in quite the same way, but it is a powerful and beautifully written message that we should all heed and consider, and hopefully some day act upon.

Clausewitz Roundtable released as book

Many years ago I participated in an inter-blog (and very detailed!) discussion of the military classic On War by Carl von Clausewitz. The proceedings of that endeavour have been collated into 553 page book, released this week by Ever Victorious Press.

I submitted three chapters under my alias at the time “Sir Francis Younghusband.” My bio from that time was appropriately ridiculous:

Younghusband_bio

If you are very interested in CvC, you can get the book from all the usual places. Below are the links to my minor contributions:

My thanks to Michael Lotus and Mark Safranski for their work.