The Burnout Society

Three things happened over Easter weekend. First, my sambo remarked offhandedly that PewdiePie has started making YouTube videos about philosophy. Then I tried to start reading Cat Rambo’s You Sexy Thing, but after about ten pages was ready to throw the book across the room in revulsion. Finally, a friend of mine was in town over the weekend and wanted to meet for dinner in the opposite end of Stockholm.

These disparate events led to me picking up the slim but impactful Tröthetssamhället: I had a sudden craving for scholarly rigorous philosophy and meaty content, and the small book fit neatly in my purse.

Cover of the Swedish translation of The Burnout Society
Image courtesy Ersatz

The Burnout Society (German original: Müdigkeitsgesellschaft) had probably been on my TBR for a year and a half by the time I saw it on the shelves at Söderbokhandeln in February. Han outlines his points in clear, direct language so it goes down smooth.

There’s not a whole lot in this essay that’s particularly revolutionary for anyone who’s familiar with Arendt, Foucault or Handke. Han’s comparisons and criticisms are certainly interesting, but not mind-blowing. For the layperson, The Burnout Society serves as an excellent introduction to a strain of academic philosophy that’s immediately relevant to their lives and concerns.

I have only one minor criticism. Han suffers from a problem specific to philosophers—attributing existential and abstract causes to phenomena that could easily have material origins and subsequently eschewing any reference to scientific research. There are two instances of this in The Burnout Society. One is only incidental to his claim, but the other is more closely tied with one of his central premises.

Right at the start, Han describes ADHD, depression, and borderline personality disorder as results of an excess of “positivity” in today’s society, as if there’s no underlying brain with its attendant neurological wiring and chemical (im)balances that come into play. However, he doesn’t claim that the prevalence of these conditions somehow irrefutably proves his point. Rather, Han seems to take them merely as examples of the problems he is discussing.

On the other hand, Han seems to build a rather large part of his argument on ideas about the differences between human and animal cognition (focus versus multi-tasking) that lack any reference to contemporary studies or research. It’s a metaphorical leap that I can accept because I’m sympathetic to Han’s ultimate thesis, but as a premise it requires more scientific backing.

At the end of the day, I’d love for Han to replace our current crowd of useless “public intellectuals” but life isn’t fair, is it?

The Best Books of 2021, According to GoodReads

I could have sworn that I did one of these posts for 2019 and 2020, but apparently not? I usually enjoy looking at the “My Year in Books” feature on GoodReads, but they seem to have revamped it and made it uglier so I won’t even bother including it here.

During the fiery hellscape that was 2021, I read 59 books. The most popular book I read was The Art of War and the least popular was a re-read of a Swedish civics textbook that I can assure you is very rough going.  The five-star books of the year were:

I’m excluding from the list books in an extremely selective niche that are of huge personal importance to me and are not a “public” or “objectively” 5-star book the way that these are. (Would everyone benefit from reading The Human Condition? Yes. Would everyone benefit from reading a collection of ghost stories from my hometown? Probably not, no.) I’ve included links to blog posts for books that I wrote about during the year and will provide brief nutshell reviews of the remaining six books here.

Literature

The Deep

This was an Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick. I didn’t care for my first tango with Solomon, An Unkindness of Ghosts, but The Deep was as polished and needle sharp as Unkindness should have been. Genre fiction doesn’t have to use fantastical conventions as a way to externalize complex psychological elements of our lives to justify its existence as a genre qua genre, but it certainly is uniquely equipped for doing so.

Agrippa (A Book of the Dead)

This one’s a bit of an easy title to knock out. It’s not really purely text, or available in any kind of dead tree form—my encounter with it was in a 15? 25? minute YouTube clip, captured footage of the original program being run in an emulator. At the end of the year (or the beginning of the next one), I don’t know that I can remember any concrete lines or images from Gibson’s poetry (I do recall the rather fuzzy, janky sound effect of a single gunshot), but I remember the overall effect and I appreciate the novel approach with form and media. It all felt inherently tied to the content rather than just a cheap gimmick.

A Memory Called Empire

Another Austin Feminist Sci-Fi Book Club pick, this time a more traditional galactic empire intrigues and high-tech tale. I think this one would pair really well with Ancillary Justice as two examinations of empire: one from relatively deep within the beating heart of empire and one from the outside.

Philosophy and Current Issues

Människans villkor

Who am I to review a Hannah Arendt book? Who is anyone to review a Hannah Arendt book? All I can say is: as the years go by, I get angrier and angrier over the fact that we never covered any of her work in my philosophy undergrad career.

Project Censored’s State of the Free Press

This collection is a nice round-up of important but overlooked journalism, sourced from university journalism programs and advised, filtered and vetted by a board of professional journalists. I consider this collection an essential part of my yearly reading.

Who Do You Serve, Who Do You Protect?

Another collection, this time of essays on policing and police violence. Sitting here doing my annual write up, I can remember that it was a compelling read full of new information but none of that new information specifically. This is not criticism of the collection, but rather a reflection of the fact that 1) I read it on Kindle, which doesn’t seem to ever stick in my memory, 2) much of it was (probably) grimmer information that I realized so I think my brain is kind of choosing to forget, and 3) 2021 was, as mentioned, a fiery hellscape, so I wouldn’t be surprised if I was experiencing some kind of stress-induced brain fog.

Surfing With Sartre: An Aquatic Inquiry Into a Life of Meaning

I found Surfing With Sartre during a bookstore meander back in the spring. When it was still there in October, I took it as a sign from the book gods and took it home with me. Oh, there’s nothing like an old-fashioned bookstore browse! Which is probably why Amazon is opening up brick-and-mortar stores.

Surfing With Sartre, Aaron James
Image courtesy Anchor Books

Author: Aaron James

My GoodReads rating: 3 stars

Average GoodReads rating: 3.55 stars

Language scaling: B2 (except the occasional quotes from other, older, deader philosophers or surfing terminology)

Summary: Surfing as a framework for philosophy: how does the physical act of surfing embody philosophical concepts? Do surfers have a paradigm with sound philosophical grounding?

Recommended audience: Surfers, philosophers, socialists

In-depth thoughts: There’s been a tradition of _____________ and Philosophy books: The Matrix and Philosophy, The Simpsons and Philosophy, The Beatles and Philosophy, etc. etc. and frankly I’ve found them dubious, with the philosophical connections to mindless pop culture tenuous at best. But Aaron James is more thoughtful than that, and even though he could have called the book Surfing and Philosophy and thrown it on the pile, this is a much more thorough examination, and with much better grounding.

Sartre was apparently into water skiing. Who knew? (Now you do!)

James has a knack for simple, elegant explanations of knotty philosophical concepts. His writing is conversational but steers clear of condescension. My own quibbles are of the Not For Me variety: leaning more on the surfing framework more than I was expecting (so much surfing terminology throughout that is defined much less clearly than the philosophical terminology) and a needless aversion to singular “they” (“he or she” is so damn clunky!). I’m mostly on board with James’s philosophy, so I don’t have any arguments against his thesis, though I did note the occasional “I’m a white guy doing OK for myself” blind spot and what I would consider contradictions. For example, it’s a bit odd for someone who’s genuinely concerned about climate change and the state of the planet to be so glib about the many long-haul flights they take just for the sake of a hobby, and even to encourage others to do the same. There’s a tension here that I don’t think James really resolves.

That unresolved tension, and the fact that reading the book was essentially preaching to the converted, is why I didn’t rate the book higher. James is an agreeable and lucid writer, so I can imagine in the hands of another person, this might lead to a major paradigm shift. No regrets, though: the book is en route (hopefully now in the hands of?) one of my philosophy nerd friends, so I’m glad I coughed up the money for it.

Currently Reading: Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid

Because one doorstopper isn’t enough, I decided that this was also going to be the year that I read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid. According to GoodReads, it’s been on my “to read” list for ten years.

The cover of Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid
Image courtesy Basic Books

I took a philosophy of mathematics course in undergraduate, which involved a lot of set theory and discussions about infinity and  things I didn’t quite grasp. The only question I could meaningfully wrap my head around was whether or not numbers are real—I spent the rest of the seminar feeling a little outclassed and outsmarted.

One of the readings for that class was an extract from Godel, Escher, Bach, the little thought experiment with the MIU system. I liked that well enough, and I suspect that’s why I put the book on my to-read list (the timing would be about right). It stayed on there because once in a while, people would recommend it to me. And now I’m finally reading it because I’m making a concerted effort clear out my 235-title “to read” list before I embark on another “TIME Top 100 Novels” style reading project.

Current thoughts: this could have used some serious editing.

Having worked on dense, academic texts and abstract subject matter myself, I recognize that it’s a humbling project to edit something you’re not entirely sure you understand. So when I say “serious editing,” I mean something more like peer review: someone else in the know going through the material and suggesting revisions, deletions, and additions.

I don’t mind all of the dialogues, or the Escher illustrations. But sometimes an author goes on a really deep dive into their passion projects and it only ends up being to the detriment of their book. I say this as someone whose favorite parts of Infinite Jest were the loving descriptions of tennis; I have a high tolerance for people’s enthusiasm for things I don’t know or particularly care about.

The difference between Godel, Escher, Bach and Infinite Jest is that Godel, Escher, Bach is very desperately trying to teach and communicate something, whereas at the end of the day, Infinite Jest is just (“just”) a story. There are countless little asides and meanderings that don’t seem to support Hofstadter’s thesis, or clarify it, but are rather amusing consequences thereof.

As if to underline my point, the 20th Anniversary Edition (the one I’m reading) includes a new preface by the author which could be summarized “No one got my point!” If that’s the case, Hofstadter, I don’t think the fault lies with the readership. I assume it won a Pulitzer Prize because it was big and heavy and was about an issue of the moment (artificial intelligence).

I’m 520 pages in and I’m a little disappointed so far, as what prompted me to pick this up was an article Hofstadter recently published about machine translation (translated into Swedish, funnily enough). Nothing that was interesting in that article has turned up in Godel, Escher, Bach. It seems that after all these years, Hofstadter has walked back his estimations of what artificial intelligence can do, or has at least revised it for more nuance. Or maybe I’m just more interested in what he has to say about machine translation than about machine intelligence.

The Internet seems to agree that his follow-up book, I Am A Strange Loop, does a better job of more clearly and concisely explaining the points Hofstadter mentions in Godel, Escher, Bach, so perhaps I’ll add that one to the “to read” list after this one is done.

So much for whittling down said “to read” list….