Chronic Fatigue

Chronic Fatigue

Steven Connor

Some thoughts prepared for the ‘Bare Life’ panel, in response to a keynote talk given by Alphonso Lingis, in the Research Symposium Civic Centre: Reclaiming the Right to Performance , London, 9-16 April 2003. It has been published in Performance Research, 9 (2004): 54-8.

Life and liveliness abounded in Alphonso Lingis’s evocation of the heroic continuing love affair of two middle-aged AIDS sufferers in an Australian men’s prison. His talk provided invigorating proof of Merleau-Ponty’s insight that though there are reduced lives, deprived lives, cowering, craving and damaged lives, there are no incomplete lives. Every life is a complete life, every world a whole world. Heidegger says that animals are ‘poor in world’, but they are not. Their lives may not have our reach of ours, or be as powerfully appurtenanced as ours, but they are no less full of world. I found myself at the beginning of Alphonso Lingis’s talk in the Spencer Gallery of the Natural History Museum, poised between two sorts of world or forms of life. On the one hand there was the music with its refrain ‘I want to fuck you like an animal’ with which the talk began, pulsing, musclebound and clearly meaning to live for ever. On the other there was the portrait to which my eyes kept flicking of the poor, ridiculous, edible, proverbial, defunct dodo, with its daftly cocky, doomed look. The thoughts to which I have been prompted by Alphonso Lingis’s presentation and by reading through his work concern questions of fullness and emptiness, magnificence and minority, lordliness and falling short.

What is at the end of, on the outside of, every work? What is left when nothing else is left of any work? Exhaustion. Exhaustion appears to be the rim, or the horizon of exertion, to belong to the far edge of things; but it is in fact implicit in its beginnings. Exhaustion is closer to vitality than might appear, since the sign of vigour is that it desires the consummation of exhaustion. Strength consists in the power and the will to be drained to the invigorating extreme of exhaustion. ‘Nothing like breathing your last to put new life in you’, as somebody says in Beckett.

Ted Hughes articulates something of this athletic ascesis in his poem ‘How Water Began to Play’ from Crow:

Water wanted to live
It went to the sun it came weeping back
Water wanted to live
It went to the trees they burned it came weeping back
They rotted it came weeping back
Water wanted to live
It went to the flowers they crumpled it came weeping back (…)
Till it had no weeping left
It lay at the bottom of all things
Utterly worn out utterly clear (1970, 93)

It’s a cheap trick, I know, but I have just done the obligatory divinatory dip into Google via a search on ‘fatigue’ and, as always, have come up with what I needed, in the form of a quack natural remedies site called Why – or rather how – do we feel that tiredness is something to be beaten or overcome? The problem with mounting an assault of this kind on tiredness is that it requires such a fund of energy in the first place. You have, therapists tell us, to want to be well. But for those subjected to the corrosive effects of what the Christian tradition calls acedia , or paralysis of the will, it may be precisely the power to want that is wanting. When I am fatigued, I find it angry or affronted enough with my tiredness to want to shrug it off, like some giant snapping his gyves. Of course, I know I ought to want to shrug it off, ought to want to want to shrug it off, but I don’t, because that is what fatigue is and does.

What we call fitness and youth is an ideal situation in which full vitality communicates directly with absolute exhaustion by a logic of inversion. Alphonso Lingis represents the state of health as a kind of gratuity or spurting superabundance, which seems naturally to include exhaustion in itself: ‘After the morning workout pumping iron in the gym to muscle exhaustion, one bounds up the steps to the street outside babbling How healthy I am!’ (1994, 54). That ‘babbling’ suggests that Lingis will have it slyly in for this brawny self-affirmation, but the criticism never comes. Health, he says really is ‘the feeling of force to squander gratuitously on barbells, on shadow boxing, and on racing the deer through the forests and the zebras across the savannah’ (1994, 54)

In evoking exhaustion, we are clearly in the territory of the negative that has been occupied by Bataille. But, whatever the advantages opened up by Bataille’s promotion of the potlatch principle of glorious loss against the principle of conservation of goods and energies, what he calls dépense is far too heroic and ecstatic to cover what I have in mind in speaking of the background condition of fatigue. You could never hope to manage the gouging and slashing excesses evoked by Bataille unless you were in the absolute peak of condition, just as one imagines Nietzsche’s Übermensch having to put in long hours with the Indian Clubs to be up to all that overcoming.

Gilles Deleuze, one of the few philosophical writers to have lingered on the question of fatigue, has identified in a late essay entitled ‘L’Epuisé’ a will to exhaustion in the work of Beckett. But even this is a characteristic overstatement. Exhaustion – or rather exhaustiveness, which of course requires a lot of energy – does not characterise Beckett’s work very well, which is full of a much more pervasive, less philosophically glamorous state that one ought rather to call weariness, lethargy or, my preference, fatigue.

Exhaustion is not the defeat of the will, but the maniac, clenched persistence of the will into its very extinction. At one extreme of human existence, there is full vigour, able to launch itself energetically outwards into the ‘projects’ which phenomenologists hold so dear. At the other extreme there is utter exhaustion. This is why only the young are truly capable of exhaustion, for to be young is to live catastrophically between intimately-connected extremes. Age does not bring exhaustion. What happens in age is not that one gets dried out, used up. The loss of vigour in age means that one loses the capacity for exhaustion as one comes increasingly to occupy the middle ground between potency and exhaustion, the middle ground occupied in varying degrees by the many forms of fatigue. One dies in and dies of middle age: as you age, you do not get to the end of things, you get closer and closer to the indeterminate, chaotic silted-up middle of things.

Fatigue means the gnawing incapacity to project oneself into the world, to combat its resistances, to encounter its strangenesses. Vigour is the capacity for reach, for exertion; fatigue is the world reaching back into us. I make my fatigue my own, as I do not my exhaustion, for my exhaustion is beyond me. I take fatigue into myself, harbouring it just as I harbour my fantasies of exertion and excursion. I contain and coincide with my fatigue as I contain and coincide with my desire for expense of spirit. For fatigue is not just the discovery that I am not up to some physical effort, it is also the intimation, as it were in the muscles themselves, of this probable incapacity. One’s fatigue is always both prospective and in the background, never quite or quantifiably there, as one’s weakness may be. And yet, where one can think of a weakness as a limit, to be overcome or compensated for, you are always in the midst of your fatigue, in something of the way you are always in the midst of shame (that the great writers of shame, Kafka, Beckett and Coetzee in particular, should turn out also to be the great chroniclers of fatigue seems significant to me.) Fatigue is to be lived with, lived through, rather than overcome.

Even if they do not centre as overtly as Lingis does on ‘those healthy with a superabundant health: the passionate, the sovereign, the eagles, the Aztecs’ (1994, 52), nearly all our theories about art, value, politics, the nature of human interactions, tend to assume a norm of well-nourished, fully-charged, maximally alert beings. Art, and especially the art of drama, has participated in this athletic aesthetic of exhaustion. ‘The office of drama is to exercise, possibly to exhaust, human emotions’, Laurence Olivier reminds us (1982); and of no other art has it so routinely been said that its purpose is to drain us down. To be a citizen is to be able, to wish to be able, to submit to the requirement to wish to be able, to perform. Athletes, actors and (the blending of these two categories) pornstars all have to perform. Very few accounts either of art or citizenship take into account the fact that most of us much of the time subsist in conditions that make adequate performance difficult to deliver. The human condition, most of the time, is one of shambling fatigue, dragging depletion and limp semi-impotence. And yet, as Freud concludes his Beyond the Pleasure Principle by saying ‘it is no sin to limp’ (1984, 338). We have become used to the expression ‘chronic fatigue syndrome’, as though there were something particularly virulent or toxic about fatigue that keeps coming back. I do not doubt the wretched reality of the conditions like myalgic encephalomyelitis (ME), but there is still something rather odd about the popular name for it, since fatigue, unlike exhaustion, which promises and belongs to finality, is always and in its essence chronic. If nothing ever got tired, there would be no time, no change, no refreshment even. Ultimately, the only measure of time in the universe is that of increasing entropy, the measure of the universe’s growing fatigue.

One of the characteristics of Alphonso Lingis’s work is his attention to the constitutive but unacknowledged backgrounds and peripheries of things. His essay ‘The Murmur of the World’ (1994, 69-105) treats the rumble of noise that we must ignore and edit out in order to be able to pick out anything of significance in the world, while yet being unable to do without what we set aside. Fatigue is of this kind. Perhaps it is for this reason, that fatigue is always partial, that it has no obvious opposite – unlike death, or exhaustion.

Exhaustion means the elimination of choice and possibility; but there is something voracious and appetitive in this elimination. Exhaustive logic is logic that systematically goes through all the permutations of a solution to a problem in order to exclude them all. Fatigue, by contrast, remains open, just about, to every possibility. That’s why fatigue is so strong – and so tiring.

One question is: can there be a phenomenology of fatigue? If so, what part might performance play in framing that phenomenology? For this, one would have to feel friendly toward the idea that there could be something like a performance-philosophy in the way that Gilles Deleuze said there was a cinema-philosophy. Certainly, the arts of performance seem to have more going for them than other arts in this respect, since, unlike painting, photography and writing, all of which require a withdrawal from action into the representations of action, performance seems to allow the exploration of what you are doing in the very act of doing it. Furthermore, performance is unthinkable without energetics. It is always, as we instructively say, labour-intensive, requiring the gathering of resources, and the training for what will always be an expenditure of effort. As Alphonso Lingis makes clear in his recent essay ‘Quadrille’ (2000), the energetic cost of a performance always determines its effect. By contrast, the other, more reproducible arts and media nowadays allow for an almost infinite economy of effort. Performance tires you out in a way that other art forms and forms of communication media do not. All this seems to make it apt for performance to inhabit the phenomenology of fatigue, since it cannot in any case not. Interestingly, fatigue has indeed formed the subject of much recent theatre and performance or formed the horizon within which they have worked. If performance has something to do with this general project of disclosing and making thinkable, and so in some elusive way more fully livable, the conditions of our experience, then perhaps it does contribute to the work of cultural phenomenology, as I have, in an amateurish and philosophically unaligned way sometimes called it, when I had to call it something.

So then a further question posed by this week’s events might be: how can such a cultural phenomenology contribute to a richer, more responsive, more versatile ethics of community and citizenship? How might it change or consolidate what Alan Read in the prospectus for this symposium has called ‘the relationship between contemporary performance, civic dialogue and political involvement?’ I am not sure of the answer to that. In principle it seems as though our politics must surely benefit from knowing better and being able to say more intelligibly who we are and what it is we do. More substantially, if fatigue can be thought of, not as a deficit or altogether as a problem, but as the sanative declining of strenuous magnanimity in forms of measured minanimity, there may be some value to be made out in this mode of the minor. Although animals are obviously capable of exhaustion, it is not clear that they are capable of experiencing fatigue. This might be partly because fatigue is associated with a capacity for self-limiting or holding-back which is largely restricted to human beings. To see fatigue as something other than a resistance to be overcome in the pursuit of ever greater reserves of never-expiring energy might be a useful constituent in a less expensive, less sacrificial, less immolatory and less indefatigable kind of politics.

Well, I suppose it might be. But there is no guarantee. I have come to believe that politics is both more important and less interesting than we suspect: and that the more interesting we make politics – by ‘culturising’ it – the less effective it may become. I am no longer among those who believe that it is always a good idea to expand the reach and diversify the forms of politics. So I do not think there is an obvious political surrender-value for the cultural phenomenology of fatigue, or cultural phenomenology of any kind. This is not to say that cultural phenomenology is not political, for everything, as we so uselessly know, is political through and through. It’s just that it may not be politically very valuable, or not as valuable as many of the more tiresome, uninteresting, important things about politics; or if it turns out to be, it may not be as a function of how strenuously and exhaustively we have geared ourselves up for and gone in for it. Perhaps fatigue, in its alliance with the instinct of self-limit, might form a part of a negative politics. That is to say, a politics not based around a strong theory of the nature of the subject, the state, or of the good, nor even guided by something like Vattimo’s ‘weak thought’ (Rovatti and Vattimo 1983) (which has always seemed to me to require a quite debilitating level of vigilance and alertness), but a politics able to bear with a kind of weary thought, a thought weary of cruelty, war, pride, exhaustion, extermination and ordeal.


Deleuze, Gilles (1998). ‘The Exhausted’. In Essays Critical and Clinical. Trans. Daniel W. Smith and Michael A. Greco. London: Verso, 152-74.

Freud, Sigmund (1984). Beyond the Pleasure Principle. In On Metapsychology: The Theory of Psychoanalysis. Vol 11 of The Pelican Freud Library. Trans. James Strachey et. al. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 269-338

Hughes, Ted (1970) Crow: From the Life and Songs of the Crow. London: Faber and Faber.

Lingis, Alphonso (1994). The Community of Those Who Have Nothing in Common . Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
——————— (2000). ‘Quadrille’. Performance Research, 5, 1-10.

Olivier, Laurence (1982). Confessions of an Actor. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson.

Rovatti, Pier Aldo and Vattimo, Gianni, eds (1983). Il pensiero debole. Milan: Feltrinelli.