A little while ago, I read German philosopher Byung-Chul Han’s excellent short book of cultural analysis, The Burnout Society. In it, he argues that the industrialized west is in the midst of a cultural transition, one from what he (following Foucault) calls “disciplinary society” to “achievement society.” Disciplinary society, says Han, organizes itself around prohibition. Individuals are incorporated into the larger whole by what they may not do: they may not engage in certain taboo behaviors, choose particular locations for living, or say certain things. By contrast, the new society organizes itself around unlimited possibility. Achievement society has a “positive modal verb,” namely, “unlimited Can.” Subjects in the achievement society discard the negativity of the old disciplinary society and instead of living lives defined at the edges by “prohibitions, commandments, and the law” they live under the tutelage of “projects, initiatives, and motivation.”
We can see the roots and the fruit of achievement society everywhere. Consider, for example, the old motivational posters with which every classroom was festooned during the 90s and early 00s. We drank in with the milk of public education that mantra not only of unlimited possibility, but of unlimited ability; provided we put in the necessary work. In response we much-maligned millennials became adults with incredible optimism, innovative problem-solving, and a permanent suspicion of the status quo. We became what Han calls “Achievement subjects,” hearkening not primarily to some Other that issues commands, but primarily to the self. Where under the old society, individual maxims were “obedience, law, and the fulfillment of obligation,” under achievement society, the maxims are “freedom, pleasure, and inclination,” which the individual expects to be able to enjoy as the fruit of its own labor.
This cultural shift from disciplinary society to achievement society presents new challenges and opportunities for communicating the gospel, because the wreck of the fall manifests itself in different ways. Disciplinary society, which is “governed by ‘no’” produces “madmen and criminals” as its negative fruit. By contrast, “Achievement society creates depressives and losers.” This is a keen insight: depression in its various forms is perhaps the defining malady of our culture. We live lives of unprecedented plenty and opportunity, and yet many are crippled by despair. Developing the argument further, Han says, “The complaint of the depressive individual, ‘nothing is possible,’ can only occur in a society that thinks ‘nothing is impossible.’” Too many catechized in the cult of infinite possibility are crushed by the finitude of their ability.
Han calls this unique despair of our society the despair of “no longer being able to be able.” To put it in colloquial terms, it is the despair of the one who “literally cannot even” any longer. Omnicompetence is the demand of our culture: you ought to know how to DIY-anything, and if you don’t know how, you ought to be able to google it, then produce an elegantly framed Instagram shot of the completed product. But omnicompetence is a harsh standard; unachievable except in the carefully curated docetist spaces of electronic media. The unachievability of omnicompetence leads to despair.
To achievement society, Christians bring the good news that we are not competent. The gospel is that we are at every point contingent creatures, not capable of curating our lives any more completely than we are capable of guaranteeing our own next breath or serving as our own first cause. Achievement society is one of overwhelming plenty--in both material and data--and it gives us the illusion of our own self-sufficiency. But despair gives the lie to this self-sufficiency and points to the cure: acknowledgement that there is One who is competent; One agent who need reference only Himself; One in whom we live and move and have our being. And this one being competent has shared our incompetency. Being infinite, he joined our finitude. Being sufficient, he became dependent. And in so doing, he opened a way of rest and comfort for all who despair at their own inability to Can.