Edifice Complex: "Burnout" Used to Refer to the Problems of the Urban PoorRoundup
tags: psychology, intellectual history, class, work
Bench Ansfield is a historian of racial capitalism and US cities. Their book on the 1970s wave of landlord arson, Born in Flames, is forthcoming from Liveright/Norton.
IF BURNOUT HAS A BIRTHPLACE, it can be found in the tenemented expanse of New York’s East Village. There, in the early 1970s, a psychologist named Herbert Freudenberger made a nightly trek to the St. Mark’s Free Clinic, where he served as a volunteer counselor to the throng of hippie youth who congregated nearby. He’d arrive around 6:00 pm after putting in a full day at his buttoned-down practice on Park Avenue. To get to St. Mark’s, he had to traverse an East Village in the midst of a far-reaching pattern of state and capital disinvestment, its streets and avenues pockmarked with burned-out buildings. Some areas, particularly those home to a sizable Puerto Rican community, lost more than half of their housing to fire and abandonment during the 1970s. The most destructive fires were set or commissioned by landlords, who collected enormous sums in the resulting insurance payouts. Black and brown neighborhoods across the city and nation were ravaged by the arson wave, which was fueled by subprime fire insurance policies that saturated neighborhoods of color after 1968. The peak hours for arson in these years fell just after midnight, around the time when Freudenberger tended to leave the clinic for the night.
In 1971, after putting in a year of 16-hour days, the psychologist found himself unable to get out of bed. When Freudenberger searched for an evocative term to describe his experience of intense exhaustion, he landed on “burnout,” a word he borrowed from his patients. In these early days of the free clinic movement, which began in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury neighborhood in 1967, treatment centers were established primarily to help people in the throes of a bad trip. LSD users who came to the St. Mark’s clinic, and later users of heroin and barbiturates, introduced Freudenberger to the term, slang for the effects of chronic drug use. Neglecting to credit his patients or acknowledge the term’s association with narcotics, Freudenberger instead referenced the ruins surrounding the clinic. “If you have ever seen a building that has been burned out,” he wrote in the opening lines of his 1980 bestseller Burn-Out: How to Beat the High Cost of Success, “you know it’s a devastating sight. What had once been a throbbing, vital structure is now deserted. Where there had once been activity, there are now only crumbling reminders of energy and life.”
Freudenberger was tapping into the spatial zeitgeist: The arson wave terrorizing New York City had already become an iconic symbol for the failures of national urban policy. “Arson is our fastest growing crime,” noted Bill Moyers in a 1977 CBS special. “Once, that smoke on the horizon signified industry, progress, jobs. Now it means someone is burning down a building.” Like any good therapist, Freudenberger translated these signs of the times into psychopathology. “As a practicing psychoanalyst,” he wrote, “I have come to realize that people, as well as buildings, sometimes burn out.” For Freudenberger, burnout occurred when one’s “inner resources are consumed as if by fire.” Not reducible to stress, depression, or exhaustion, Freudenberger’s burnout was a symptom of inflated expectations left unfulfilled. “The American dream is no longer a reality,” he told The Los Angeles Times in 1982, “but many of us are still operating as if it were.” If Freudenberger was looking for a symbol that could evoke those dashed dreams, he couldn’t do much better than the burned-out building.
Burnout can be understood as a product of what we might call the urban crisis school of social science, which grew to prominence by interpreting the large-scale problems of industrial relocation, unemployment, redlining, white and capital flight, and deep-seated segregation through the prism of individual and group pathology. Alongside the “inner city,” the “underclass,” and the “culture of poverty”—terms coined by social scientists who used the decimated urban landscapes of the 1960s and ’70s to ground sweeping theories of society—perhaps the most notorious concept to emerge from this intellectual tradition was the broken windows theory of policing. First proposed in a 1982 article in The Atlantic by social scientists James Q. Wilson and George L. Kelling, the theory posited that small signs of disorder—like public drunkenness or graffiti—work to spur more injurious crime. Based on a bad-faith reading of an earlier study on vandalism by social psychologist Philip G. Zimbardo (creator of the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment), the broken windows thesis weaponized the landlord-torched landscape of 1970s New York, ushering in an extreme new regime of policing. The idea of burnout derived from the same social scientific milieu, and though it veered in a less reactionary direction, it similarly pivoted away from left and liberal analyses of urban crisis, underlining personal pathology as opposed to structural forces. Indeed, Zimbardo’s wife and collaborator, the social psychologist Christina Maslach, became the principal theorist and researcher of burnout alongside Freudenberger. Since 1981, Maslach’s Burnout Inventory has been the primary diagnostic tool for the condition in the US.
Unlike broken windows, burnout has shed its roots in the social scientific vision of urban crisis: We don’t tend to associate the term with the city and its tumultuous history. But it’s actually quite telling that Freudenberger saw himself and his burned-out coworkers as akin to burned-out buildings. Though he didn’t acknowledge it in his own exploration of the term, those torched buildings had generated value by being destroyed. In transposing the city’s creative destruction onto the bodies and minds of the urban care workers who were attending to its plight, Freudenberger’s burnout likewise telegraphed how depletion, even to the point of destruction, could be profitable. After all, Freudenberger and his coworkers at the free clinic were struggling to patch the many holes of a healthcare system that valued profit above access.
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