Thursday, July 29, 2010

On Boredom, Clyd Drexler

“Boring?! Wasn’t that the period when they cracked the human genome and boy bands roamed the Earth?” Professor Farnsworth’s profound confusion about what and why boredom actually is belies quite a few fundamental questions and interests, comedically articulated in the animated TV show Futurama. Evidently, boredom doesn’t exist in the future, being specific to our era, when ‘boy bands roamed the Earth’. When the show’s protagonist Fry exclaims that his colleagues look as bored in the year 3000 as they did in his time (the 20th century), he is projecting our already culturally developed interests in boredom far into the future. Fry’s analysis of his friends as “boring, like everything from my time” indicates that boredom is exclusively a cultural phenomenon and reified in the media (as well as criticism), and not a trans-historical phenomenon. What the popular TV show hits on is a canonized subject in the post-enlightenment humanities; boredom is rooted in modern society.

The focal point here is not to reveal whether or not boredom has linear attachments to other phenomena like violence, repetition need or the manifold other theories that have been postulated. Neither is it to interrogate whether or not boredom is trans-cultural and metaphysical, as philosophers like Martin Heidegger and Lars Svendsen have done. Rather, I want to ask, Why is it that in this particular moment, we are so obsessed with the concept of boredom. What is the significance of focusing on this concept so exhaustively?

We should be prepared for the worst – that the feeling of boredom does not actually exist. This would be an unfortunate scenario because we seem to have an overt collective interest boredom, by analytically obsessing over it. The word ‘boredom’ doesn’t even exist until the 19th century. That boredom as a constructed concept emerges suggests some type of parallel phenomenon between modernity and the feeling of boredom. For this reason, boredom is often blamed on the industrialization that creates repetitive, dull, behavior. Further support for boredom’s emergence comes from the philosophical field of that era; Kierkegaard attributed much of the evil in the world singularly to boredom, Nietzsche examined it, and Schopenhauer used the concept of boredom as a tool to provoke his readers. But it isn’t until the 20th century that boredom got an exaggerated, romanticized consideration. Martin Heidegger almost single-handedly rekindled the issue of boredom in his phenomenology, and ever since a plenitude of philosophers and cultural anthropologists have continued to explore the significance of boredom (Jean Luc Marion, Elizabeth Goodstein, Lars Svendsen, to name a few). Just as Heidegger’s phenomenology of boredom extended out into the future, it also receded into the past, before boredom qua word or concept existed, and this is the crux of the situation – separating out boredom as a fundamental feeling on one hand, and boredom as a feeling symptomatic of an industrial or post-industrial era on the other.

Heidegger’s philosophy situated boredom as a transhistorical, metaphysical entity. Most problematic in his evasion of boredom as a historically bound phenomena was his conservative postulation that boredom was a necessary state of being-in-the-world which modernity had to get back to, so to speak. Heidegger, however, is symptomatic of a condition that is rooted not only in his specific historical period, but his specific historical place as well. Also writing about boredom at this time and place of Weimar Germany was Sigfried Kracauer, albeit from a completely different set of theoretical principles. Kracauer, in a short rumination on boredom, waxes on the emergence of boredom in bourgeois society, and its advancement into what Theodor Adorno would later call the culture industry. In the new age of capitalism, where labor transforms and mixes with culture, leisure time is dosed out and boredom is awarded a special position as something that is desired. Slightly later, Frankfurt School theorists like Walter Benjamin would identify boredom as a symptom of a regressive era hellbent on disaster through alienating labor and culture. Taken together, boredom is unavoidably seen as the spirit of the age.

Lars Svendsen, in his Philosophy of Boredom singles out ‘boredom’ as a serious problem which plagues our culture, leading en masse a brigade of transgression seeking subjects who will go to violent lengths to see to it that this plague is purged. But what are we transgressing? Which is also to ask, What is it that violence, technology, extreme behavior, etc. as reflexes of boredom, are supposedly attempting to transgress? Since we desire, value, and create boredom, we are not simply running away from it, but intentionally running into it. Still life paintings of fruit, acoustic ceiling tiles, fluorescent lights, a brown painted room with no windows, blank sheets of paper; these are all things that are ‘boring’ to people, or so I was told in interviews. Desperately searching for a connection within these lists of boring objects, I couldn’t grasp onto anything objective at first. But when one zooms out, the connection is fairly obvious: the objects are all man-made or man manipulated. Not once did someone say that sitting in a meadow at dusk or watching a sunset was boring, i.e. that the only boring things occur within a network of social relations filtered through objects.

Not only has boredom become a subject of pop culture, but that subject matter and it’s theoretical field has been appropriated from from philosophy and modernism’s avant-garde literature, such as Madam Bovery, as a prime example of Victorian era ennui-pathology. Boredom was both plaque and fashion in the 19th century bourgeois life. One era-specific problem lies in the collectively-distributed yearning for something more in the promise for freedom in the individual. This might be called a ‘transgressive’ act to Svendsen, or in Heidegger’s philosophy be attributed to the supposedly purely negative effects of technology. A real hindrance though is not that we are either escaping the metaphysical necessity of boredom via technology, as Heidegger would say, but that we confuse technology with being something other than ourselves, and continue to reify it. In reality technology is a form of socializing.

Boredom, as a concept, is often most developed in art and pop culture. I already mentioned Futurama, an animated show that drops the term liberally throughout its run. 2001: A Space Odyssey isn’t too far from Futurama and it amounted in some ways to an experience of boredom and technology which parallels Heidegger’s formulation. The image of the apes staring out into desolation captures the image of boredom perfectly. Its almost as if as soon as they discovered that they were bored, technology was created as an escape route. However, technology seems to be an excuse to develop boredom as well. Boring downtime – the culmination of generations of technological sophistication – is internal to the astronauts in the movie and likewise is also crucial to the viewers watching it. Those involved in the film production describe how the ‘slowness’ of the movie was an extension of the slowness of the technology at that time, which simply couldn’t render certain things fast enough. What is curious is how those technological resources inadvertently led to a result of a boring — but, and here is the payoff, mesmerizing — experience for the viewer. It seems that often technological roads inadvertently lead to boredom.

Likewise, the film Solaris posed similar ideology at the same time. Tarkovsky, the film’s director even wrote exhaustively on the metaphysical hopes for boredom. His adaptation of Stanislaw Lem’s science fiction novel was the perfect opportunity to force viewers into an ‘authentic’ experience of time, via saturating them in boredom. In the 1960’s and early 1970’s, boredom became vogue once again, if only as an avant-garde strategy. If the exalted metaphysical experiences which were supposed to be vested in painting seemed outdated, conceptual artists and theatrical minds like Richard Foreman sought to bring boredom into the aesthetic experience to counteract the falsity of such claims. Early Richard Foreman theatrical pieces intentionally downplayed the performers and actors to mere serialist readers who were put in place to bore the audience into submission or escape.

A friend of mine recently told me that when he was admitted into the MFA writing program at SAIC, he was shocked to find that not only were peers not averse to boredom in theater and performance, but were aggressively seeking long, exceptionally boring pieces. Invoking boredom has been a steady strategy of the avant-garde tendency to deny the autonomy of mass culture. However, much of this strategy has been absorbed by mass culture as well, as the success of 2001 A Space Odyssey has shown. Likewise, David Foster Wallace was investigating boredom at the time of his death through analyzing office life and the banal aspects of bureaucracy. It appears as if the precious obsession with boredom is unceasing, perhaps because the banality of bureaucracy continues to tighten its grip around contemporary subjectivity.

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