The specter of exhaustion appears to dominate our age. A particularly virulent form of cultural pessimism is evident in debates on the future of politics and the sustainability of both our economic and our ecological systems. Depression (which counts physical and mental exhaustion among its core symptoms) and burnout are now frequently diagnosed ailments. Depression affects more than 1 in 10 people in the Western world at some period in their lives and burnout is one of the three most commonly diagnosed complaints in the workplace. But is exhaustion really the bane of our age, a phenomenon intimately bound up with modernity and its discontents, or have other historical periods also seen themselves as the most exhausted? This lecture explores parallels and differences between past and present medical, theological and psychological discourses on exhaustion, paying particular attention to the ways in which theories of exhaustion tend to be combined with critiques of modernity.
Anna Katharina Schaffner is Reader in Comparative Literature and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent. She has published on the histories of sexuality, psychology and medicine; modernism and the avant-garde; David Lynch; and Franz Kafka. Her most recent monographs are Exhaustion: A History (Columbia University Press, 2016) and Modernism and Perversion: Sexual Deviance in Sexology and Literature, 1850-1930 (Palgrave, 2012). She has also published a novel entitled The Truth About Julia (Allen & Unwin, 2016).