Louis Hector Leroux (1829-1900), Les Danaïdes (1877). Wikimedia Commons.

If action (‘doing’) is—as Hegel says—negativity, the question poses itself of knowing if the negativity of someone who has ‘nothing left to do’ disappears or persists in the state of ‘unemployed negativity’ [négativité sans emploi].

Georges Bataille, “Letter to X, Instructor of a Class on Hegel” (1937) 

In an unfinished letter to his Hegelian mentor Alexandre Kojève, penned on December 6, 1937, the French polymath Georges Bataille inquires after the status of negativity at the end of history. If negativity is fundamentally tethered to work and action, what fate awaits it upon the severance of this binding tie? Does negativity disappear once and for all or does it persist in the shapeless shape of an inoperative, deinstrumentalised négativité sans emploi?1 “Personally, I can only decide in one way, being myself precisely this négativé sans emploi (I would not be able to define myself more precisely).”2 Bataille’s answer is unequivocal. 

Our concern, however, is not with the answer but the sheer force of the writer’s question, which is also our question and the premise of this writing. But first a small amendment is in order. For unlike Bataille, our interest does not lie in the negativity of someone who has nothing left to do, but rather in that of someone who is too tired to do anything. That is to say, our interest lies in the subject of chronic fatigue. 

What happens to the negativity of the subject of chronic fatigue, whose unruly weariness, untethered from the demands of energetic expenditure and the rehabilitative promise of rest and repose, becomes a state of perpetual loss? As a fatigue which does not abate — a lack which is never replenished — so-called “pathological” or chronic fatigue forces us, if we are to engage with it seriously, to cut the umbilical tie between fatigue and its antithetical currency energy once and for all. Unbeholden to energetic allowance, pathological fatigue confronts us with a weariness freed from its dutiful signification as the lack of something — energy, work, vital substance, spoons.3 Its pure fatigue traces the self-emptying of the dispossessed who, while owning nothing, must spend everything. It is kenosis: aneconomic, physics-defying, outpouring. This writing is dedicated to its study. 

Notwithstanding the theoretical nature of its argument, it is our hope that this reflection may bear resonance for anyone caught in the throes of protracted weariness (haphazardly diagnosed by Western medicine — when diagnosed at all — as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome or Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME/CFS)). As weary subjects, Bataille’s question becomes them. Its judicial extrapolation necessitates displacing our locus of theorisation from dominant historical registers of fatigue, scientifically and philosophically distilled from the body of white workers in Nature and industry, toward sites of pathologisation where fatigue roams unruly, unabated and undiagnosable. 

In many respects, this movement is the deliberative oscillation between the normal and the pathological so carefully traced by Georges Canguilhem: should “pathological” fatigue inform and amend its normative physiological understanding or should it be considered an aberrant contingency of the laws governing a fatigue deemed “healthy”? We want to suggest that if ME/CFS remains today shamefully understudied and undertheorised across disciplines, it is because its analysis begets nothing short of the total reimagination of what fatigue is. For this, we must reckon with chronic fatigue not as an error of the normative energetic body, but the grounds upon which this body and its ontological constitution through labour are most readily demystified and, consequently, abolished. 

A Danaidean task, to be sure, not least because “what weariness makes possible, weariness makes difficult.”4 The task of thinking weariness demands we sit with the discomfort of its paradoxes: its immeasurable gift, our incommensurable debt. For “not only does weariness not impede the work, but the work demands this being weary without measure.”5 To encompass an infinite conversation within the finite coordinates of any text is either a tragic or comic endeavour. Let us strive for the latter mode of failure. 

An anatomisation of our theory of chronic fatigue might thus resemble the following. First, we will examine the birth of fatigue as the conceptual underbelly of 19th century scientific materialist notions of energy, Kraft, and labour power. Physiological fatigue will be diagnosed as an apophatic signifier delimiting the threshold of energy within and between organic and inorganic bodies. This will allow us to divest from theories of energetic economy in order to consider economies of fatigue. We will do so in the image of Bataille’s theory of political economy — which spans from “The Notion of Expenditure” (1933) to the essay trilogy on general economy, The Accursed Share (1949). Governed by the rule of expenditure, chronic fatigue will be reconceptualised as a general economy in contradistinction to physiological fatigue’s restrictive one. Amending Bataille’s solar subject of expenditure, whose commitment to spending is contingent upon her infinite energetic wealth, we will posit the subject of chronic fatigue as expenditure’s most rigorous pupil: she who has nothing and spends everything; the subject whose stubborn expenditure of lack renders this lack — to which she has given the name fatigue — sacred. 

In his seminal study The Human Motor, the historian Anson Rabinbach triangulates energy, fatigue, and modernity to tell the tale of the 19th century through the eye of energy — and its meteoric rise to the ranks of transcendental concepts. Through careful analysis, Rabinbach details the substitution of the pre-modern, 18th century Newtonian metaphor of the human machine with its 19th century Helmholtzian counterpart the human motor, whose laws of thermodynamics ushered a Copernican shift in the conceptualisation of work. Ripe for industrialist productivism, the law of energy’s conservation rendered the natural world a vast protean cistern of Kraft awaiting conversion. Consequently, where this conversion took place — whether in organic or inorganic bodies, mechanical or otherwise — mattered not: “The body, the steam engine, and the cosmos were thus connected by a single unbroken chain… an indestructible energy, omnipresent in the universe and capable of infinite mutation, yet immutable and invariant.”6 Under its capacious aegis, energy and its tautologies collapsed the difference between body, nature, and technology by positing work as a universal property of Nature—resulting in what Gaston Bachelard and Rabinbach respectively call a “dematerialised” or “transcendental” materialism: a materialism reliant on an abstract, invisible force that can only be perceived through its effects, which is to say, its labour power. 

Thus Arbeitskraft — a conceptual prosthesis to Kraft, amended by the German physicist and physiologist Helmholtz himself — became the sole measure of energy and, more importantly, provided a seamless conduit for the laws of physics to overspill into the social and political realms. Through its substitution of hitherto moral drivers of labour — work ethic and its poison, idleness — with a purely quantitative energetic economy, the discovery of Arbeitskraft transformed labour into a science mined in the body of the worker. If all energy was tapped from a single universal reservoir, then what mattered was neither the kind nor quality of work, but its quantity. In the words of Helmholtz, “the idea of work [became] identical with the expenditure of energy.”7

It is against this backdrop of wide scale energetic homogenisation that fatigue first appeared in the scientific literature of the mid-nineteenth century. If the energetic motor was the synchronous organising principle of the white working physiological body, the productive social body, and the scientific body of the cosmos, then fatigue was its vilified Other; signifying simultaneously the weariness of the worker, the final frontier of industrialisation, and the entropic drive of the universe. Following its “discovery” by European physiologists, fatigue flooded all disciplines, shadowing energy with the self-fulfilling prophecy of its exhaustion. For insofar as energy is an abstraction, fatigue is a greater one: the negation of transcendental force reified as the universal resistance to work. Fatigue’s emergence at the limit of the energetic body — as the limit of the body’s energetic economy — served to consolidate a plethora of anxieties concerning the modern body’s capacity to bear the civilisational project subtending it. Per Rabinbach, “Fatigue became the permanent nemesis of an industrialising Europe.”8 The historian’s words are void of hyperbole.

Given its historical emergence and theoretical scaffolding, the project of imagining a fatigue severed from energy appears as utopian as the dream of its wholesale elimination. A fatigue untethered from the white labouring body — muscles, nerves, and flesh contracting around the clock of capitalism’s hyphenated postscripts — risks dissolving into nonsense, further gutting an already empty signifier. And yet chronic fatigue begets precisely such a theoretical leap: the categorical surrender of what we take to be fatigue over to loss. Such a gesture of symbolic sacrifice can only be worthy of the Bataillean poet, whose pursuit of bad words frequently leads her to the shadowy outskirts of language.9 May her steadfast poetic expenditure compass our own.

As we have begun to intimate, the concept of fatigue was invented to scientifically delineate, circumscribe, and evaluate the absence of energy, which is itself but the absence of potential work. Fatigue thus demarcates the limit beyond which the working body physiologically and conceptually collapses; it intuits the problem-space of the working body’s finitude. Benevolent and punishing, fatigue both portends this threshold and preys on those who dare cross it. Prophylaxis and pathology, it is what protects the body from the shear of modernity while ailing its utopian drive. 

For fatigue was invented to be destroyed. Conjured as the dialectical counterpart to Arbeitskraft, its destiny was to disintegrate amidst the great march of progress heralding the indefatigable worker. As the desirability of this project began to wane in the mid-twentieth century — and as it continues to erode at the hands of ever-increasing automatisation and unfettered access to precarious migrant labor, perpetually renewed by racial capital’s dual pattern of forced displacement and internalised exclusion — the problem of (the white worker’s) fatigue is today no longer.10 The weary, whose rehabilitation once bore importance to the needs of industry and capital, find themselves, as a result, condemned to their fate. Wretched with weariness, wretched as weariness, they wait: they wait “to be led back to a region where it might be possible to be weary.”11 Such a place, if it is to exist, can only lie beyond the pale of energy. For if fatigue one day hopes to escape the “abuse [its] word… has been subjected to in the language of all epochs,”12 it must reclaim its nothingness from the yardstick of energy’s measure. For this, we must cease to consider fatigue as the structuring limit of energetic economies in order to consider the economy of fatigue itself, its internal laws and logic. 

It remains a mystery why Bataille, that great thinker of impoverishing operations, did not include fatigue among his numerous case studies on the notion of expenditure. Human activity, according to Bataille, could be classified in terms of production, conservation, and — most importantly — consumption, the nature of which defines the Bataillean economy. To useless consumption, Bataille gave the name expenditure, citing luxury, mourning, war, cults, games, spectacles, arts and perverse sexual activity among his examples. In each case, the writer argues, what is lost is lost irremediably; expenditure’s defiance of instrumentalisation immunises it from reuptake within capital’s pernicious cycles of production and accumulation. In his later oeuvre, the intellectually promiscuous trilogy The Accursed Share, Bataille would scale his theory of expenditure to planetary scale. To economies governed by the rites of expenditure in accordance with the indiscriminate benevolence of the Sun, he would give the name general; to those governed by the miserly and calculated rule of the market, restrictive. 

In its dominant physiological and philosophical registers, fatigue is conceptualised as a mode of consumption regulated by the laws of the restrictive economy: an expenditure of the physiological body’s energetic funds in pursuit of utilitarian, productive, muscular Arbeitskraft.13 Abiding by the law of return, wherein every loss is turned into a gain, physiological fatigue secures muscular productivity through a low risk framework upheld by the promise of its own abatement, guaranteed by rest and repose. Even when professedly unproductive, such as in sports or in games, physiological fatigue follows a market logic where “it is only to the extent that stability is assured and can no longer be compromised by even considerable losses that these losses are submitted to the regime of unproductive expenditure.”14 The expectation of fatigue’s circadian ebb surrenders its nature qua loss and turns it into an investment.

In contrast with physiological fatigue’s restrictive economy, chronic fatigue begets a pecuniary physiology that ignores homeostatic principles of economic balance and is instead driven by the principle of loss. This is a general economy of fatigue — fatigue as a bodily general economy — wherein expenditure overspills the domain of rational utilitarian consumption. In chronic fatigue, the energetic calculus “x activity amounts to y fatigue quelled by z hours of rest” is indefinitely suspended. Unforetold by muscular activity and unredeemed by rest, fatigue becomes sovereign. As far as the body can fathom yawns its endless abyss: “The weariness grows insensibly; it is insensible, no proof, no sign altogether sure; at every instant it seems to have reached its highest point — but, of course, this is a lure, a promise that is not kept.”15 In the preface to Maurice Blanchot’s The Infinite Conversation, one witnesses the silent thrashing of a general economy of fatigue desiring to be born, only to loyally lapse back into the weariness of speech. This, however, does little to deter its interlocutors; theirs is a conversation borne because of — not despite — its futility: “You work, but at what is in vain. I leave you to work, then, since it is the only way for you to realise that you are incapable of working.”16

In its guise as endless expenditure, chronic fatigue gives the lie to restrictive economies of energy. For the subject of chronic fatigue has long usurped her energetic stores; for years, decades, she has been running on empty. Yet she still runs. Such is the lure of weariness — its unkept promise metaphorically portrayed by Roland Barthes as a deflating tyre in his musings on the Neutral:

We easily reconstruct the image: “burst,” by blow or pressure, following which a slow, progressive deflation; fullness that empties; walls whose tension slackens… In the very image, an idea of duration: what doesn’t stop leaning, emptying itself. It’s the paradoxical infinity of weariness: the endless process of ending.

Roland Barthes, The Neutral : Lecture Course at the Collège de France (1977-1978)(New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), 16.

In true Bataillean fashion, fatigue begins to adorn real meaning — sacred meaning — as the loss subtending it grows. This is to be expected according to Bataille’s syllogistic rationale of sacrifice: if sacrifice is both an operation of loss and the production of sacred things, then “sacred things are constituted by an operation of loss.”17 Chronic fatigue is one such operation, wherein the weary subject must learn to sacrifice what she no longer has and will never again own. Here, the subject of chronic fatigue stands in stark opposition to its Bataillean counterpart. For if the latter is steadfast in her commitment to unproductive expenditure, it is because she knows her input to be infinite: she is made rich by the Sun. The subject of chronic fatigue, on the other hand, must engage in pure expenditure whilst knowing that both she and the Sun — as Oxana Timofeeva remarks in her repurposing of Bataille for the era of solar debt — have nothing left to spend.18 If this seems like an impossible ask — to continuously spend everything, while owning nothing and being prohibited accumulation — it is because of the equally irremissible nature of its binding contract. As Emmanuel Levinas describes in Existence and Existents, which he began writing while detained in a Nazi forced labour camp, the abjuring of expenditure is futile under the contract of being, which insists not only that we continue being ourselves — in which case resistance might conjure a fatigue d’être soi — but that we continue being tout court

What wearies then is not a particular form of our life… the weariness concerns existence itself… in weariness existence is something like the reminder of a commitment to exist […and] the impossible refusal of this ultimate obligation. In weariness we want to escape existence itself, and not only one of its landscapes.

Emmanuel Levinas, Existence et Existents (1978) (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1978), 24–25.

Faced with the relentless injunction posed by bare existence, the subject of chronic fatigue has no other recourse than to spend the only thing she has: her weariness. In the ultimate sacrifice, weariness itself is expended, becoming both subject and object of expenditure — its infinite loss given over to an infinite operation of losing in a process of recursive sacralisation. To be clear, this is not the positive redemption of weariness’ negativity but the protracted indebtedness of the subject who has long relinquished the promise of its alleviation. For if it is indeed a debt, fatigue must be considered a primary one: a debt escaping all measure. Among the first to draw this distinction, Nietzsche differentiated the primary debt — whose active expenditure is born out of ethical responsibility — from the secondary one — whose expenditure is merely a pendulum reaction to having received. The primary debt obeys an injunction to spend which always already predates repayment or its expectation. In the words of Alain Milon, it “has no materiality. It [the primary debt] is a pure fiction that gives sense to life.”19  

Chronic fatigue is one such pure fiction. Bereft of materiality yet immanently enfleshed, it is a symptom, illness, and life that can be neither bartered nor appropriated; measured nor evaluated; diagnosed nor cured. Stubborn and gratuitous, it is fatigue rendered as a gift — an insurgent insolvency threatening energy’s economic supremacy with aneconomic visions of the body. Call it a physiological potlatch, bestowing its beholder with the precious incentive to grow their weary fortune through its unreserved loss. Bataille once more: “At no time does a fortune serve to shelter its owner from need. On the contrary, it functionally remains — as does its possessor — at the mercy of a need for limitless loss…20 Throughout this text, we have given this mercy the name fatigue. May we bend to its will so as not to break, like the reed caught in the squall…

Let us end by returning to our opening question concerning the nature of fatigue as négativé sans emploi. Throughout this analysis, we have gone to great lengths in order to strip and dispossess fatigue of its physiological — which is to say, economic — utility and legibility. We have excised fatigue-as-expenditure from — and prevented its re-enclosure within — the energetic whole, drafting its histological report with the worried care of a benevolent pathologist. This has resulted in a general economy of chronic fatigue abiding by the Bataillean principle of unrelenting expenditure. In this process, the subject of chronic fatigue has reared herself as a worthy vessel for this Danaidean self-emptying, her fate sealed by its flood.

This work has mostly been without relish. If we have drawn a theory of fatigue steeped in loss, sacrifice, and négativité sans emploi, it is not to adopt a tragic posture or to bathe in the incurability of weariness’ pathos. If we have undertaken this vexed work, it is quite simply because both our experience as a subject of chronic fatigue and our research of its scientific, literary, and philosophical manifestations have left us wanting. Indeed, so little has the discourse on chronic fatigue shifted over the years that to read case studies of nineteenth century neurasthenics is often to be confronted with its uncanny sameness to the narratives of ME/CFS patients two hundred years their senior (insert joke on all the things you could be if you were the son of the father of the writer of In Search of Lost Time). This is not a commentary on the technical advancement of medicine, nor is it one on the Manichean distribution of fatigue syndromes along the somato-psychic divide. It is an observation of the stubborn persistence of fatigue as the void around which the medically legible body has, throughout history and into the present, formed and informed itself. 

Fatigue as the originating wound of the medical body. (Perhaps illegibility shall forever remain the fate of fatigue, it being the symptom not of any singular illness but of illness itself). If this is the case, the delicate and dialectical work at hand requires that we neither suture this wound shut nor leave it exposed to atmospheric assault. Instead, our task might better be understood as that of revealing in fatigue “its insufficiency that is so radical that it affects all forms of divinity that could attempt to stabilise it.”21 Ultimately, by extrapolating fatigue’s negativity without redeeming it as an organised pathophysiology or structuring syndrome, this text performs a Bataillean sacrifice similar to the one it documents. The hope, then, is that this sacrifice will render our fatigue if not useful — which it is not; if not salvageable, which it is neither — at the very least, sacred.

  1.  Throughout this text, we will be using the term négativité sans emploi in its original French as opposed to its common translation “unemployed negativity,” which holds the connotation of redeemability (ie. that the negativity in question could potentially be employed).
  2. Georges Bataille, Guilty, trans. Stuart Kendall (New York: State University of New York Press, 2011), 111.
  3. A reference to spoon theory, an influential framework of bodily capacity among people with chronic illness as well as disability advocates, developed by Christine Miserandino.
  4.  Maurice Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation (Minneapolis: University Of Minnesota Press, 1993), xiv.
  5.  Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, xvii.
  6.  Anson Rabinbach, The Eclipse of the Utopias of Labour (Fordham Univ Press, 2018), 6.
  7.  Anson Rabinbach, The Human Motor : Energy, Fatigue, and the Rise of Modernity (New York: Basic Books, 1990), 60.
  8.  Rabinbach, The Human Motor, 4.
  9. “The term poetry, applied to the least degraded and least intellectualised forms of the expression of a state of loss, can be considered synonymous with expenditure; it in fact signifies, in the most precise way, creation by means of loss.” See Georges Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, ed. Allan Stoekl (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008), 120. See also Ilse Aichinger, Bad Words (Seagull Library of German, 2022).
  10. The absence of race as an analytics of energy and fatigue is an important shortcoming of our thinking and would require its own separate, lengthy analysis. For now, let us share some preliminary unpolished thoughts that we hope to deepen in a near future. Firstmost, the utopian project of social energeticism born in the heart of European empire — with its dreams of an indefatigable white working class — was itself borne on the back of “indefatigable” Black slave labour. If fatigue could be scientifically dreamed up in order to (unsuccessfully) be destroyed, it is because this operation — the elimination of fatigue, or, rather, the preemption of its birth altogether — had already taken place in the colonies, at home and abroad. For the reproduction of the plantation simultaneously relied on both the ennervation of the slave and the disavowal of her somatopsychic reality. The slave could not be afforded weariness; theirs could only be a physiological economy of weathering and exhaustion. It is also worth mentioning that much of the conceptual labour attributed to energy in terms of collapsing the distinctions between the inorganic and organic body was already at work by the forces of antiblackness which ushered the transatlantic slave trade. Tracing the porousness of the human/inhuman divide to the laws of thermodynamics readily effaces racialisation’s role in creating intimacies between Blackness and inhuman matter—a process wherein Black flesh could be offered up for energetic extraction in much the same way the mineralised land—for which it was traded and which it served to mine—was. One must also examine the legacies of sugar; the consequences of industrialisation within the plantation (what some have termed second slavery); the deeply racist concept of energetic slaves abounding in the energetic humanities and its discussions of carbon footprints and much, much more. For an extremely preliminary overview of these matters, see Nicholas Fiori, “Plantation Energy: From Slave Labour to Machine Discipline,” American Quarterly 72, no. 3 (2020): 559–79,; Françoise Vergès, “On the Politics of Extraction, Exhaustion and Suffocation,” L’internationale, November 7, 2021,; Kathryn Yusoff, A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None (U of Minnesota Press, 2018).
  11. Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, xx.
  12. M. Carrieu, De La Fatigue et de Son Influence Pathogénique (Paris, 1878), 3.
  13. This is a generous description of the dominant paradigm of fatigue, which, despite framing fatigue as the depletion of energy, at the very least considers fatigue as the subject of energy’s depletion: the cause, not consequence, of energetic expenditure.
  14. Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” 123.
  15. Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, xix.
  16. Blanchot, The Infinite Conversation, xx.
  17. Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” 119.
  18. The Bataillean general economy is indeed a solar economy: “We are but an effect of the Sun… The Sun’s rays distinguish themselves by their unilateral character: it loses without counting, without counterpart. The solar economy is founded on this principle… The solar energy that we are is an energy that is spent.” See Georges Bataille, “L’Économie à La Mesure de L’univers,” in Oeuvres Complètes Volume VII (Gallimard, 1976) (translation my own). See also Oxana Timofeeva, Solar Politics (John Wiley & Sons, 2022).
  19. Alain Milon, “La Dette Est Un Gain Non Quantifiable,” in Leçon d’Économie Générale : L’expérience-Limite Chez Bataille-Blanchot-Klossowski, ed. Alain Milon (Nanterre: Presses Universitaires De Paris Nanterre, 2019) (translation my own).
  20. Bataille, “The Notion of Expenditure,” 123 (emphasis my own).
  21. I borrow here the methodological movement traced by Alex Dubilet’s study of the self-emptying subject, which has greatly influenced this piece. See Alex Dubilet, The Self-Emptying Subject (Fordham Univ Press, 2018), 157.