Fillip 10 — Fall 2009

Re: Work and Boredom

Lorna Brown and Matthew Stadler

Matthew Stadler: Recently on Twitter: “What was boredom?” It was among my favorite Tweets—what, 
yesterday? Boredom quickens my interest because it seems real, a real subject. 
So much else doesn’t. So, yes, what was boredom?

I think boredom was the product of literature—of the mind’s ability to stage endless self-reflections in the theatre of the private imagination (engineered by literature). I don’t mean that I am bored by literature; I mean that literature makes us capable of boredom. Boredom is the inevitable noise of the machine called the literary mind; it is the dreck left behind when herbs are distilled into perfume, the smell of the disco the next morning, the gas that leaks from the compost of endless novels.

I mean precisely the opposite of Patricia Spacks when she says “All ‘cultural 
advance’ derives from the need to withstand boredom; literature is a single in-
stance among many.”

On the contrary, literature is not a hedge against boredom, it is boredom’s womb. 
The rise of the novel correlates exactly to the genesis of boredom, both in time and social space. By 1852 Dickens made boredom a prevailing theme in Bleak House. “Jarndyce v. Jarndyce” perfectly delineates the architecture of boredom—an endless struggle of the self against itself within the inscrutable jurisprudence of the imagination. (And didn’t kleptomania, that female affliction, follow hot on the heels of boredom? Emile Zola wrote it into the larger civic drama of The Lady’s Pleasure, 1883, his novel on the rise of the department store and then Haussmann’s boulevardization of Paris.) By suggesting that the solitude of the imagination is a suitable stage for all the world’s dramas, literature builds a home for boredom.

If boredom is primarily the condition of being marooned in the self, then it is a form of loneliness, the loneliness of those rich or powerful enough to cocoon themselves in their own pursuits, desires, and concerns. But, of course, this binary—the self and the world—is unsatisfying because it grants the self its usual petty victory, again preeminent, the subject. But I’d like to leave this place and find a different one, which is why I enjoy groups and chats. Or, as you put it: “the prerequisites for boredom slowly accumulate: an awareness of one’s own existence, material security, and the opportunity to reflect—‘and in all reflection there is a loss of world.’””1 (read footnote)”:#note1

But what if an individual is actually a proposition of the group, a possibility embodied? Anyone can embody many contradictory propositions, as we see in the fecundity of online subjects now and have seen in the complexity of social roles for so long. I relax online because I’m so expansive, nimble, and various; that is, we are. I have five Twitter accounts, which is why I love your intervening poems. They unburden your thoughts from argument and nicely transfer us into the plural pronoun. And your lines make great Tweets. Just try it, really.

I don’t get Lars Svendsen’s gripe that Tweets, feeds, TV, consumerism, or surfing are “social placebos” for widespread and chronic boredom. [2] Are they placebos if they’re working? Who is bored? Mainly those who decry the ubiquity of these sources. “Placebo” is the word pharmaceutical companies give to the drugs they don’t own. In this case Svendsen is fighting literature’s rear-guard action against a world of meanings that lie outside its jurisdiction. And by literature I mean a literature that is rigourously defined, that makes arguments, that has canons which it defends in fusillades of text, that gives us “insight,” that has enemies and must compete. Having posited a subject—the self-regarding self—literature must defend it. Svendsen’s complaint is the sound of a regime collapsing. Indeed, similar complaints were heard when novels first appeared.

As we leave literature behind us, boredom will become forgettable, archaic, novel. Gertrude Stein, you point out, was unconcerned with boredom. She surfed the pleasures of the mundane without irony or critical distance. (Yet she was supremely concerned with the canon and its battles. I make nothing of that, I suppose because she lost most of the battles and her victories prove impossible to build on.) The great repetitive, shifting trivia of the days harboured meanings for her, but naked ones, meanings stripped of their authority and rank. (Her lines, also great Tweets.) There is no 
triumph in Stein’s abundant accounts and no struggle. To found a philosophy on boredom? That would be the work of men. Instructive to see the mid-twentieth century: Stein grandly producing until death, Albert Camus crashing into a tree. Boredom—or ennui in its grander French finery—was the flipside to a coin of meaning called 
“existence” that men fought hard for. Time to forsake that currency and enjoy the 
unregulated swap meet.

Stripped of literature (the mind’s private theatre dismantled by our ubiquitous and unbridled authoring), the air cleared of disco gasses, writing can take its place again in a bigger, not boring world.

That is what we sincerely wish for.

Lorna Brown: You began our shapely correspondence with an enticing hint—“did Madame de Sevigny have word counts?” Given her capital, I’ve always assumed that her only constraints were the sharpness of her nibs. Her audience was initially singular—specifically, her daughter—and when she came to realize that her letters were circulated beyond their intended recipient she began to edit herself accordingly. Beckoning and seducing, censoring and instructional, she mothered through enchanting directives. I understand that she, like your mom Patsy, had a hectic social life and an abiding interest in gardens.

Her gathering together of interesting individuals to create through gossip, food, and wine the content she provided history could be thought work, but work that masquerades as leisure. Take away Le Marais, wig powder, and stays, and this set-up bears resemblance to the delightful post-Dada seminars in your bedsit.

The confusion of writing and work brings to mind another individual most comfortable in Paris, the novelist Chester Himes, noted in part for his series of novels featuring police detectives Coffin Ed Johnson and Gravedigger Jones and the recurring character of funeral director H. Exodus Clay. From an introduction to a collection of his works, one anecdote seems pertinent. His method was to place a ream of paper to the left of his typewriter, roughly equivalent to the length of the novel or short story he intended to write, and start in. As the volume of paper on his left diminished and the pile of text accumulated to his right, he was cued that it was time to introduce another character, or consider the arc of the narrative in relation to the balance of remaining sheets as he went along, feeling the pressure to draw dangling sub-plots to a conclusion as the unmarked stack grew smaller and smaller. His sculptural approach to the process, of course, is as obsolete in our era of endless southerly scrolling and hyperlinking as the index of typewriter keys to fingers. His workman-like approach—considering the product to be built in relation to the resources committed—says something to your longing for limits like word counts (and your resistance to limits like word counts). I am currently at word 381 of 1267, so my work is cut out for me. We, like Chester, must eventually face the material forms of page volume and Bembo Book by Monotype.

In the original print publication of “Don’t Take Any Jobs,” I remember calling your bluff and putting down the broadsheet to go to, but only after finding page 21 to read the submissions you received from your 
Mechanical Turk post. [3] As you may remember, Fillip 6 featured an artist project by 
Micah Lexier, who substituted page numbers with growing partial sentences in which 
the number of words equals the number of the page, a device that seemed really clever 
until one tried to find something.

I must say that in my initial read, and in subsequent reviews of the online issue, I just couldn’t quite buy your Editor character.

one: working from the title and first several paragraphs you have now, retooling the focus of where it goes. i know that i encouraged (suggested?) the focus on what you’re doing with alternative ed, and i think it might still work to have that be the predominant theme, but reading the piece with this section in mind, i think what would work better would be for the piece to progress from the rhythm you establish in the beginning (police station, new job, sex offenders coincidence) into a specific story/anecdote/truth (lie?) rather than a description of the class, even though i like what you wrote about it. maybe it wouldn’t even have to do with the class, i’m open to other ideas as well. i don’t want to seem too abstract here, so would be happy to talk through all of this over the telephone today or tomorrow (or I could call you?) [4]

She is implausible with a lower-case i. Not wanting to seem too abstract, but how might one maybe retool a focus? Wouldn’t even having to do with the class mean that she was not yet open to other ideas as well, however happy to talk she might be, but undecided as to which of you should initiate the telephone conversation, perhaps?

And earlier:

it’s a great and complete piece, but as it stands right now, i’m not sure it’s right for this opening section of our magazine, the tone of which is difficult to convey, but which i’d like to talk with you about, maybe on the phone. i actually think the piece as is has a premise that would work really well for the section, so i have two propositions for you, and am wondering if either of them appeals, as i know you’ve already put time and energy into this draft. [5]

Conversational, certainly, but a conversation the tone of which is difficult to hear, even on the phone, should such a discourse manage to make itself occur. I imagine, in attempting to connect telephonically, a series of mixed phone messages accumulated over a number of months, then were transcribed without punctuation and texted to a cell phone the number of which is out of service. Or gathered into an office phone directory of too many choices: press (1) for what she suggests (encourages), (2) for what she’s unsure about, (3) for what she actually thinks she thinks, (4) for what she wonders.

In fact, she really gets up my nose. Now, if in creating her character, you’ve fed some Gertrude Stein syntax analysis and some teenage blog entries into some free download translation software, you should just come right out and say so and stop goofing around. The inconclusive nature of this project obviously continues to haunt you. I can hear you sobbing right now. No matter what alternate outcomes you glean through outsourcing, I know you will never overcome the resentment you feel for the Editor character, that she doesn’t deserve her high-powered literary magazine editor position, let alone the contempt you feel for the self-enslaving Turk responders. Re-write the Editor character, for Pete’s sake. Clearly, what you long for is discipline—so shorten your leash. Write yourself an Editor that will limit your options. Write yourself an Editor that makes you care what she thinks. Maybe she’s a sword-carrying ninja princess, or a compilation of the over-accomplished girls in your graduate seminars, or perhaps a more maternally gravid ship of state sort. I don’t care, really—clothe her in a catsuit, or tennis whites, or a sensible walking skirt. Whatever scares you the most. She does not dither over who phones who when. She deals only in hard copy, in paper trails. Put her in the study of a true scholar, lined in bookcases containing all the texts you should have read but didn’t—that you know only through secondary sources. Or, a swank minimal “workspace” containing only a streamlined external hard drive with a pulsing blue light.

Close your eyes for a minute and let the image settle. Focus on her eyebrows—set stonily above her steel reading glasses, or perfectly manicured and glistening in an intimidating arch, or drawn together taut like crossbows. Eyebrows are the seat of judgment. Hold this in your mind. Get to work.

  1. Lorna Brown, “To Live Real Boredom, One Must Have Style,” Fillip 1 (2005): 1.

  2. Ibid.

  3. Editor’s Note: For his Fillip 6 article, Matthew Stadler told a story about collaboration gone wrong. It begins when a literary journal asks him to write an essay and ends in tears, when he fails to write an acceptable draft and turns to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service for help. 

  4. Matthew Stadler, “Don’t Take Any Jobs,” Fillip 6 (2006): 12.
  5. Ibid.


About the Authors

Lorna Brown works between studio practice, curation, and writing to explore interests in social phenomena such as boredom, administrative structures and systems, and the dynamics of public spaces. Recent exhibitions include The Chatter of Culture, Artspeak, Vancouver; Threshold (cont.) at the Koerner Library at UBC, and AdmIndex, commissioned by the Audain Gallery at SFU Woodwards. Recent independent curatorial and editorial projects include Group Search: art in the library and Ruins in Process: Vancouver Art in the Sixties, an online digital archive. Brown was the Director/Curator of Artspeak Gallery from 1999 to 2004.

Matthew Stadler is a novelist who also writes about art and architecture for various publications, including Frieze, Artforum, Volume, The Organ, Domus, The Oregonian, and Nest Magazine, where he was the literary editor. He is also the co-founder of Clear Cut Press.

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