Told  /  Etymology

Edifice Complex

Restoring the term “burnout” to its roots in landlord arson puts the dispossession of poor city dwellers at its center.

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.