To Live Real Boredom, One Must Have Style
In A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), as in the work of many other writers who are fascinated by boredom, there is a rather sheepish preface to the main text. Svendsen confesses to having been deeply bored while making an attempt to do nothing, a doomed experiment that resulted in his extended essay. He rationalizes his inquiry into boredom by framing the phenomenon as an important problem—social, existential, theological, or psychological—which characterizes modernity. He frames his argument within a “contemporary philosophy where almost everything has become a variation on the theme of epistemology” and carves out his turf since “boredom would seem to be a phenomenon that falls outside the framework of philosophy as a discipline.” Seeking to spend some time in this vacant arena, he takes with him examples of literature, art, popular culture, and philosophy, but not the works of Patricia Spacks or Giorgio Agamben, nor the many elaborate convolutes of Walter Benjamin. Theologians and sociologists are mildly panicked about the antisocial effects of boredom2, and Svendsen inflects his hiatus with a similar urgency, claiming a marked increase in its prevalence in contemporary western culture. He bases this claim on the increasing numbers of distractions, such as intoxicants and the proliferation of popular entertainment. Spacks more rigorously ties boredom’s “enlargement” as a cultural construct to “verbal records” that reveal its coincidence with and reflection of an increasing stress on subjectivity and individualism.3 Her literary agenda imposes a wry distance to the anxious and guilty atmosphere surrounding boredom and its consequences.
A primary difficulty in any project on boredom is its definition. A negative phenomenon, boredom “is a mood which is reminiscent of an absence of mood.” Svendsen maintains that it is possible to be bored without being aware of it and without being able to offer any reason or cause.
Let us pause and chart our symptoms.
We are in a mood.
We may or may not know it.
Others worry about us.
Our vague and elusive symptoms make for a slippery diagnosis. Widespread and chronic, boredom suggests a massive potential for the pharmaceutical industry as well as other agents of mood regulation. In the meantime, we self-medicate with what Svendsen calls the “social placebos” of television, consumerism, and aestheticized violence. Boredom threatens both the unoccupied and the preoccupied: the busy, hyperactive contemporary subject has the “lowest boredom thresholds.” This cusp or immanence is echoed in Benjamin’s Arcades Project where “Boredom is the threshold to great deeds.”4
Spacks notes, “The story begins in eighteenth century England because boredom begins there.”5 Tellingly, the threshold of the English language was breached not by the term boredom, but rather, The Bore: an individual who failed to interest. In this first case, it was a Frenchman who so annoyed the Earl of March in 1766 that he wrote about him in a letter. Boredom itself enters in Dicken’s Bleak House, a malady of Lady Dedlock, closing the loop of the boring to the bored. Boredom has had a moral taint throughout its etymological history. Acedia (apathy and inactivity in the practice of virtue, personified as one of the deadly sins) was an affliction of medieval monks. It was understood to be the worst sin, since all other sins derived from it. Cioran writes that, “Boredom is melancholic stillness, while despair is boredom burning at the stake. They are both born out of disgust with life.”6 Since life was God-given, acedia was a fundamental rejection of Him. (One presumes that those beyond the monastery, with the limited viewpoint that comes from following oxen, were just enduring the effects of their breakfast mead and not indulging in mortal sin since they did not or could not write it down.) Nietzsche held the view that, on the seventh day, God himself was bored, while Benjamin would have insisted that Day Zero was a real thumb-twiddler.
Boredom develops from the French word ennui, which is a differently attenuated mood. Ennui has grander and more passionate associations compared to its tedious, flat-footed English cousin. Spacks asserts that it has a dignity that boredom lacks. It has none of the charm, beauty, and sensitivity of melancholy and is more trivial and vulgar than depression and grief. Benjamin suggests we should look past its slack-jawed countenance, since “Boredom is always the external surface of unconscious events. For this reason, it has appeared to the great dandies as a mark of distinction.”7 Samuel Johnson, however, finds it ripe for class-based satire: “The idle and luxurious find life stagnate for want of some desire to keep it in motion. This species of distress furnishes a new set of occupations, and multitudes are busied, from day to day, in finding the rich and the fortunate something to do.”8 For the Scottish playwright James Bridie, boredom was a sign of satisfied ignorance, blunted apprehension, crass sympathies, dull understanding, feeble powers of attention, and irreclaimable weakness of character—though one suspects that this was a retort for theatre critics rather than an indictment of the privileged classes. Boredom is critical: it implies a lack. Bored monks were an insult to God, bored courtiers were an insult to the monarch, whereas the boredom of modernity, according to Svendsen, is “wide-ranging in its effect and can be said to be a relevant phenomenon today for practically everyone in the Western world” as it has become “democratized and broadly expressed.”
Let us pause and chart our symptoms in history.
We are all in a mood: we may or may not know it.
Others worry about our moral fibre, our productivity, our potential for destructiveness.
We no longer blame God or Class.
We have only our Selves to blame.
Moving from the clergy, to the nobility, to its current ubiquity, 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.” Boredom takes place in idleness or while working hard, despite the common claim that the bored merely lack something to do. Perhaps we seek something worth doing, since the fundamental prerequisite for contemporary boredom is the demand for Meaning. Svendsen identifies a “meaning deficit” in Western society, taking as his central thesis that we are romantics, and therefore require a personal meaning, that has to be realized, created by the individual in the process of world forming. While there is a surfeit of information available in contemporary culture, much of it is irrelevant in our world forming process, and “when everything is always already fully coded, the active constituting of the world is made superfluous.” Since we have lost the romantic’s faith in the transformative power of the imagination, we “positively wade through meaning. But this meaning is not the meaning we are looking for” to support our self-actualizing goals. Svendsen turns to Samuel Beckett, who, by “focusing on a moment that never comes,” aims to break with the romantic/existential conception of the self where the I is able to redeem itself. Beckett totalizes the absence of personal meaning, concerning himself with the vacuum that remains. Whether through the vacuous ciphers of culture or the dearth of socially cohesive meaning, in locating boredom’s emptiness, Svendsen probes it in order to fill it up. He is compelled to consider Heidegger, who sees within boredom a naked encounter with the self, to which we are indifferent, or bored. This is a negative space of potential (a potential that Agamben extrapolates upon in The Open). Svendsen ultimately rejects Heidegger’s concept of Being-as-Such altogether. In so doing, he rejects boredom as a privileged mood, instead filling its emptiness with modernity’s loss.
Let us pause and recap our epidemic.
We are suffering a mood.
We may or may not know that we are bored.
We no longer blame God or Class.
We have only our Selves to blame, but it is not our fault.
We, the bored, are a global minority and have been freed somewhat from the struggle to survive.
We may gather en masse, at an art opening, say, or may be alone, reading a quarterly publication.
We reflect critically upon the world, its systems of belief and the relevance of the meaning it produces.
This may lead us to action or this may lead us to inaction.
Freed from the constraints of a claim to truth, or any ambition to ameliorate the social effects of boredom’s demonized state, Benjamin and Spacks explore boredom through its representations. No stranger to loss, Benjamin filled boredom differently, as “a warm grey fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks. In this fabric we wrap ourselves when we dream. We are at home in the arabesques of its lining. But the sleeper looks bored and gray within his sheath.”9 Gathered under Convolute D: Boredom, Eternal Return, Benjamin’s dossier is equipped to account for the inversion and paradox of absence and presence that boredom and interest demand. In her literary history, Spacks focuses upon boredom’s formal characteristics: repetition, predictability, and the rejection of time’s dictates, the implicit and relaxed criticality of inertia, allowing for a more luxurious investigation of the potential of absence, of the space of the present and the consciousness of the everyday. Svendsen works within a “framework of philosophy” that would stagger to contain Gertrude Stein’s Ida, a woman whose life consists mainly of resting, because she is always tired, of talking to herself and of getting married, time after time.
One day did not come after another day to Ida. Ida never took on yesterday or tomorrow, she did not take on months either nor did she take on years. Why should she when she had always been the same, what ever happened there she was, no doors [Ida dislikes doors] and resting and everything happening. Sometimes something did happen, she knew to whom she had been married but that was not anything happening, she knew about clothes and resting but that was not anything happening. Really there was never really anything happening although everybody knew everything was happening.10
- Emile Cioran, Tears and Saints, trans. Ilinca Zarifopol-Johnston (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 89.
- Richard Winter, Still Bored in a Culture of Entertainment (Chicago: InterVarsity, 2002).
- Patricia Spacks, Boredom: A Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), x.
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999), 105.
- Spacks, Boredom, ix.
- Cioran, Tears and Saints, 100.
- Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 106.
- Samuel Johnson, The Idler 93, no. 30, 11 (1758) in Patricia Spacks, Boredom, 43.
- Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 105.
- Spacks, Boredom, 245.
About the Author
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.