The Violence of Positivity

In Byung-Chul Han’s book, The Burnout Society, he discusses how we have transitioned from a Foucauldian disciplinary society to a society of achievement, and the associated violence that comes in the wake of institutionalized positivity. Reading the following passage reminded me of why this Korean-born German intellectual is my favorite living philosopher.

The violence of positivity does not deprive, it saturates; it does not exclude, it exhausts….

Today’s society is no longer Foucault’s disciplinary world of hospitals, madhouses, prisons, barracks, and factories. It has long been replaced by another regime, namely a society of fitness studios, office towards, banks, airports, shopping malls, and genetic laboratories. Twenty-first-century society is no longer a disciplinary society, but rather an achievement society. Also, its inhabitants are no longer “obedience-subjects” but “achievement-subjects.” They are entrepreneurs of themselves. The walls of disciplinary institutions, which separate the normal from the abnormal, have come to seem archaic. Foucault’s analysis of power cannot account for the psychic and topological changes that occurred as disciplinary society transformed into achievement society. Nor does the commonly employed concept of “control society” do justice to this change. It still contains too much negativity.

See Also

Disciplinary society is a society of negativity. It is defined by the negativity of prohibition. The negative model verb that governs it is May Not. By the same token, the negativity of compulsion adheres to Should. Achievement society, more and more, is in the process of discarding negativity. Increasing deregulation is abolishing it. Unlimited Can is the positive modal verb of achievement society. Its plural form–the affirmation, “Yes, we can”—epitomizes achievement society’s positive orientation. Prohibitions, commandments, and the law are replaced by projects, initiatives, and motivation. Disciplinary society is still governed by no. Its negativity produces madmen and criminals. In contrast, achievement society creates depressives and losers. [Byung-Chul Han, The Burnout Society, translated from the German by Erik Butler, Stanford University Press, 2015, pp. 7, 8-9]


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