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.

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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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