Screened Out (screenedout) wrote,
Screened Out


William Leith's article in last Sunday’s Observer Magazine offers an interesting take on
exhaustion and its relation to work and consumption. His investigation into the contradictory
state of insomnia and tiredness, which can contribute to the medical condition known as
'chronic fatigue', has useful parallels with ideas about cultural movement and inertia and
the sense of being trapped in an endless circuit of virtual images and interchangeable

Leith's method is to approach the subject of exhaustion (or the exhausted subject) through
a combination of biographical and autobiographical material and detailed physiological
description, importing medical and scientific ideas. The article has quotes from doctors,
scientists and sociologists, while his case histories are supposedly normal, healthy,
functioning people: a counsellor, a writer (Leith himself) and an office worker, who wear
this sense of desperation and extreme tiredness like a lead-lined suit, a hidden weight they
can't shake off.

Through its various examples and expert testimonies the article identifies debt, overwork,
consumerism and above all capitalism as causes of this widespread affliction, which finally
takes the form of an energy breakdown:

Everything around us – the phones and the clocks and the computers and the hand-held
emailing devices – makes us busier. After a certain point we become overloaded.
The modern world, then, makes us work too hard and sleep too little. It’s also full
of advertising, which is designed to make us feel needy and incomplete. It makes us
into predatory producers and hungry consumers. It promotes individualism. It erodes
community spirit. It exhausts us.

These statements brilliantly and ironically describe how our dependence upon ‘labour-saving’
devices tires us out, and how the plethora of communicative gadgets leads to social
fragmentation and an acquisitive isolation. Society becomes a digital network; we become
nodes. The energy is drained out of us by these pressures of ‘networking’ and competition, by
following handed-down schedules and targets, by enduring constant reorganizations and
reconfigurations and sifting through continuous streams of mediated information for the
slightest particle of any value. We are always looking to top up, refresh, re-fill, re-fuel.
We have created for ourselves and each other a culture of managed incompleteness.

For supporting extratextual evidence, one need look no further than the surrounding pages of
this issue of the Observer magazine, writhing with celebrity ‘body and soul’ columns, a
look 'behind the scenes at Vogue, Vanity Fair and the New Yorker', advertisements for cars,
furniture, sat-navs and business courses (the Open University attracts Business and
Management recruits with the almost mockingly Ritzerian tagline: Fast food gave me an
insatiable appetite for learning
. 'Running a McDonalds franchise is not easy - trust me - but
now I have an MBA I can really see the bigger picture.' Sure you can… would you like fries
with that supersize order of bullshit, Sir? And no, I don’t trust you), and a whole 'Life &
Style' sub-supplement full of designer food, divine wine and Hampstead hideaways; not to
mention all the different unopened sections of the paper itself, which in its sheer stupid
weight and waste prompts instant resentment and weariness in the non-reader. Of course such
promotional bilge funds the actual journalistic content, if you can find it. This does not
compromise Leith's argument, but rather illustrates how trapped we all are, incidental
characters folded away in the midst of a huge impersonal lifestyle guide.

There is one blind spot, however, which this article shares with the media industries in
general: the invisibility of the precarious workers who are coerced into upholding this vast
migraine-inducing stage-set of informational culture. Where are the people without
challenging interpersonal or creative jobs, without regular hours, sick pay, medical
insurance or ‘an understanding employer’, without the pressures of mortgages, career
development or over-consumption, but who nevertheless live in a state of perpetual debt and
permanent instability, in constant fear of physical/psychological/economic collapse, and for
whom such a frazzled state is perceived not as an obstacle to effective performance, but as a
necessary incentivizing threat pre-programmed into these very patterns of flexible

Such workers might be patched up with antidepressant and anti-inflammatory drugs, but they
cannot afford to stop and be properly ill. Besides, there are some jobs where being half-
awake is not such a problem, where it is, if anything, an advantage not to be fully aware of
where you are or what you are doing, so long as you can sleepwalk through the next task.
Some workplaces are arguably even designed to accommodate this sort of unawareness. These
people are not addressed here: yet it is they who are required to maintain the call centres,
hotels, restaurants, supermarkets and coffee chains which service the alienated
professionals, they who stand unnoticed in the background as their customers sigh over their
BlackBerries, unobtrusively wipe the tables while they gaze mournfully into their lattés.

This conspicuous absence inadvertently delineates a vertical seam running through the culture
of exhaustion, and aligns this article with the target readership of the magazine's
advertisers. This is not to say of course that Leith or his colleagues endorse this system of
exploitation, any more than supermarket shelf-stackers are personally responsible for
propagating a myth of consumer choice, or to suggest that their problems are not serious
or ‘real’; they obviously are. Rather it is to suggest that the ultra-visible illusion of a
fluid society of endless opportunity and choice in fact relies on a class structure hidden in
plain sight, in which we are each assigned our place and our duties, and in which some voices
are more easily heard than others. While it names capitalism as the culprit, Leith’s analysis
does not widen its (auto)biographical focus sufficiently to explore the full social and
economic implications of this culpability.

Also, there is a slight tone of complacency in the speech of exhaust specialist Dr. Frank
Lipman. His catchy diagnosis is that we are ‘spent’, and his prescription involves a release
from the claws of money and debt (if only such a prescription were possible; again, one has
to have money to be free of it) and a return to the ‘rhythms of nature’, away from the
overlit commercial realm of the city and towards a simpler and in effect poorer life,
reminiscent of old-fashioned rural communities. This jars because: a) poverty under global
capitalism is, by all accounts, not a romantic or fulfilling experience; b) most people have
no choice about where they live or what job they do, a fact frequently overlooked by such
remote lifestyle healers; and c) it is not technology itself which is the problem, but
directing it towards individualistic, immaterial ends. As if to prove this, Dr. Lipman
himself delivers his calm caring words to Leith over a mobile phone from a South African

Nevertheless, the piece presents an engaging personal perspective on what cracks us up, and
raises various areas of further enquiry. For instance, might the dreams which these
insomniacs are seeking turn out not to be a refuge from their mundane nightmare reality, but
rather a vivid unconscious (re)vision of it, a return of the repressed? And do the self-help
imperatives to 'slow down' and ‘get back to nature' which sit on bookshelves and in magazines
beside the CV-building textbooks and property updates really prepare the corporatized subject
to confront the underlying meaninglessness of a life papered over with commodities and false
choices, its awful stillness blurred by sales targets and spiritual narratives? It might be
that ‘natural’ life is after all as devoid of salvation as it is of artificial light and clock-time,
more exhausting in its sheer terrifying emptiness than an entire packed diary. Is the culture
of managed incompleteness in fact a way of channeling ontological insecurities into the
network, diverting away the painful reality of being human, a condition which no amount of
virtual communications or therapeutic interventions can ultimately repair?
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