How Byung-Chul Han foresaw the toxic positivity of coaches and the wellness industry
It’s no newsflash that messages of positivity, self-help, or how to make your dream — being it a job, a thinner body, a relationship — are spreading through social networks. The coaching phenomena is recent in Brazil; it arrived here between the decades of 1990 and 2000, but only recently it grew stronger.
Although the practice is already banalized, there is always some new course or professional selling miracles, especially during the pandemic. Humor pages such as Dicas Anti-Coach, for instance, have turned this trend into joke or even into disclosure of possible frauds.
Likewise, Brazil has been following another movement that is already big in the United States — the wellness industry. With Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop and its water bottles with a crystal costing about R$300, we have seen the recovery of ancestral and spiritual practices that, however, are based on a new form of consumerism — from the experiences in the forest with native people costing more than R$6.000 to the selling of crystals originated from slavery enterprises.
In “Burnout Society”, Korean-German philosopher Byung-Chul Han makes an interesting reflection on this. In fact, neither the book or its concept are new, but that doesn’t mean we stopped falling into the traps flagged by Han a decade ago — and it is even worse now, during the pandemic.
The author argues that we live in times of exaggerated positivity, something that could even sound strange considering the current political, economic, and even the health scenario. Han states that interpreting such issues under a positivity light or making them a matter of opportunity is even more toxic than the previous command and control society win which we lived and that was described by Michel Foucault.
What Han suggests is thus that we live in an age in which psychoanalysis makes no sense anymore, because, according to his view, we no longer live in times of repression and prohibition. Yes, this is a controversial statement if we consider that there are rather “shades of freedom” that vary according to variants such as race, gender, religion and financial status, for instance. But, generally, we now have more freedom than we used to, since in other times if we addressed themes that were considered taboos or even if we lived our lives apart from the status quo, we would rather be considered degenerate individuals. What Hans argues is, therefore, that while Freud’s psychoanalysis addressed repressed impulses and had as an emblem the case of hysteria, now we live a crisis of excessive fredom and our main diseases are depression, anxiety and the burnout syndrome.
For women, who need to be good mothers, wives/lovers and professionals, this is nothing new. By the way, by the beginning of the pandemic, the consulting agency 65|10 published a study addressing the disproportion in domestic and family responsibilities that rely mostly on women, thus creating the concept of an “invisible work” or of a “mental burden” since women are not just taken as responsible for executing such tasks, but also plan and delegate them. Of course, we have babysitters and clear services being offered for women who want some extra time to simply be women, after all, more than having your house clean, it is important to have your nails polished, your hair hydrated, your body fit and your libido high. Don’t know how? Buy the course.
“The discipline society is a society of negativity. It is defined by the negativity of prohibition. Its leading modal verb is “cannot.” (…) The achievement society increasingly is in the process of discarding negativity. The increase deregulation is abolishing that. The unlimited “should” is a positive modal verb of this society of achievement. (…) Prohibitions, command and laws are exchanged by projects, initiatives and motivation. The discipline society is still ruled by the “no”. Its negativity fabricates madmen and criminals. In contrast, the achievement society fabricates depressive people and losers.”
Byung-Chul Han does not specifically address the case for coaching or female issues, but rather the idea that everyone is part of this achievement logic. If once we were forbidden to do something, now we are encouraged: it is always possible to achieve a better version of yourself, meaning that, on the other hand, nobody is never good enough, after all, we can never stop our process of improvement. Han mentions, for instance, that during the times when factories worked under Fordism, people (generally men) started to work for some company and there they remained as employees for decades, for the rest of their lives. Later on, this stagnation became something unhealthy or even boring to some people, so we asked for a flexibilization of work hours and legislation, until we reached to the point of the so-called gig economy with all its economic, social, and psychological consequences. On one hand, we definitely solved the problem of “stagnation” found in Fordism, but now we drown in an “excess of freedom” in which the worker has a feeling of control over its work hours and procedures, but it is an illusion.
According to Han, the end of prohibition and regulation (for instance, well-established work times) did not take us to the ultimate stage of freedom, but rather to a state of coaction. “The achievement subject, therefore, donates themselves in this compulsive freedom — that is, the free coaction to maximize their performance. The excess of work and performance increases and turns into self-exploitation. This is more efficient than exploiting someone else, since there is a feeling of freedom in there. The exploiter is also the exploited. The perpetrator and the victim can no longer be distinguished and such self-reference produces a paradoxical freedom that is suddenly turned into violence for the compulsive structures that determine it.”
Han says that we no longer have a command and control system as the one previously diagnosed by Foucault, where there was an administration that was always imposing or determining the amount of hours to be dedicated to work or the goals to be reached (sometimes even illogical, as the author argues by citing Kafka’s work). In fact, now we have offices with ping-pong tables, beer taps and a love for Mondays. Nowadays, we no longer need a boss to be productive, because we already demand of ourselves a lot and we do feel obligated to always overcome our best marks. Sleeping has become a synonym of waste of time, resting generates guilt as if this was an idle moment when you are not making money, as well as the psychic indisposition became an annoyance to be compared with flies over the bed on a warm summer night.
But this is not really a problem. If biohacking once explored biologic and cybernetic technologies as means to enhance human capacities, now it turned into some kind of new trendy diet such as it was the case of the intermittent fasting, the bullet-proof coffee or the Paleo diet. They are not simply new diets to lose weight, but to actually perform better and for longer (longevity). Ritaline and energy drinks became part of the university cafeteria menu and a daily requirement in the life of American professionals, as seen on Netflix’s documentary “Take Your Pills”. We are no longer taking pills or going under therapies that will cure or modulate some disease, but actually using them to achieve a better performance in our task of being “supermen” — not for ourselves, but to power the engine of an economic system that is based on exploitation and that is now inner to us. This is what Han calls the “last men” or the animal laborans: a depressive human that exploits himself, with no external limits and who, consequentely, may turn into a Homo sacer (Agamben), a discardable and invisible individual in society — the factory worker featured in past century dystopias, for instance.
“He is the predator and the prey at the same time. The self, in the main sense of the word, still represents an immunological category. However, depression iludes all the immunological barriers. It overflows at the moment when the achievement subject is no longer able to be able. First and, more importantly, depression is the fatigued creativity and an exhausted ability. The complaint of a depressive subject that “nothing is possible” can only happen in a society where “nothing is impossible”. Not being able to be able generates a self-destructive and self-aggressive state.”
Slavoj Zizek and Frederik Jameson’s phrase that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism”, therefore, gets an additional layer after Han’s considerations: we are too exhausted to even think something that goes beyond capitalism. The wellness industry does not want to make its consumers more productive, but it is based on the toxic positivity addressed by Han, which is another symptom of this era and which contributes to our self-exploitation, self-expectation and self-destruction.
Humor pages such as “Eu não aguento mais o jovem místico” (I can’t stand the mystic youngsters anymore) may tell jokes about the pseudoscience that are often found in this context, but the biggest question raised on “The Burnout Society” is the search for a spirituality or a return to the origins that are typical to a moment in history when God is dead and there is nothing to be faithful of anymore — and here we make a distinction between faith and religion. What we see, in fact, is that different kinds of meditation techniques and yoga practices turned into products and the use of psychoactive substances once reserved to shamanic rituals are available to be purchased and taken as part of a creative process. Likewise, the sacred feminine became a disguise to pyramid schemes. So… what are we actually dealing with?
Something that always made me curious about the Brazilian wellness community is that the people who join it are always seeking for new healing methods or processes, which means they are never really cured or healthy, as well as Han’s achievement subject is never productive enough. In the author’s words, “the achievement society is the self-exploitation society. The achievement subject exploits himself until the point it burns out. In the process, he develops a self-aggressive posture that is frequently capable of escalating to the violence of self-aggression. The project turns into a projectile that the same achievement subject points towards himself.”
Meanwhile, as the proposal to criminalize coaching practices in Brazil is still being evaluated by the Senate, family constellations are still being offered in the Brazilian judiciary system as well as in the national healthcare system, which offers other Complementary and Integrative Practices (PICs) as another option. The previous links offer a deeper discussion on the efficacy of these methods and how much the government spends with this kind of practices in Brazil (in Portuguese), but here I conclude my text with the reflection (or provocation) that Han suggests by saying that, in our excess of positivity, we are no longer capable of saying “no”. How many of the readers have already suffered from the inability to say no, to establish boundaries? Of not being able to ignore a message from work that is sent past the work time? Of not being able to refuse a non-paid job in exchange for exposure, of being unable to charge the correct amount that your work is worth of?
In a way, all these things not only contribute to what we call the “impostor syndrome”, but it also confirms Byung Chul-Han’s analysis that we are achievement subjects that constantly feel challenged to do more, to be everywhere, to join everything, to seize the day at max, after all, “time is money”. But this is the trap: for the author, nothing new can be created in a rush and with the so called “agile methods” (sprints here, SCRUM there); we need idle moments. In Han’s words, sleep is when the body is resting whereas boredom is when the mind is resting, but we feel this almost Christian guilt to allow ourselves these moments, to the point that we even forgot how do we actually find rest without taking meds.