Fatigue and the fin de siècle
Steffan Blayney

In this chapter, Steffan Blayney focuses on the ongoing tension between the overwhelmingly fast pace of industrial modernity, and the natural rhythms and pulses of the finite energies of the human body. Demands for increased velocity of thought and action inculcated a variety of concerns about modernity and its limits, and about social, political, and cultural decline. Fatigue emerged in the latter decades of the century as a particularly disturbing symptom of modernity, representing both its degrading effects and its immanent limits. Blayney examines constructions of fatigue at the end of the nineteenth century, as both scientific object and cultural metaphor, situating this condition alongside other such fin-de-siècle signifiers as decadence and degeneration. In this context, Blayney approaches fatigue as the bodily manifestation of the second law of thermodynamics, as well as a critical part of the new medical terminology that proliferated in order to designate the exhausting effects of modern life. It was expressive of the inevitable dissipation of energy that accompanied the performance of work in this period. Paradoxically, an epidemic of fatigue appeared both as the main obstacle to the progressive development of industrial civilisation, and as the most indubitable evidence of its ascendancy.

in Progress and pathology