Getting bored

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Thursday, Dec 30, 2010

I tend to agree with the adage that there are no boring things, only boring people. I wrote a column a few years ago about boredom, building on Marx’s assertion that “the production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.” My not especially original point is that culture-industry products engender boredom; they expect it as a precondition in their audiences as prerequisite to being able to please them. We need to achieve boredom first before we can be entertained by, say, NCIS. Boredom, basically, is relative, not an absolute ontological condition. I argued in the column that “just as the more a society produces, the more potential there is for the feeling of scarcity, for perceiving relative scarcity; the more entertainment options there are, the more we become aware of boredom.” (That’s basically a recasting of economist Staffan Linder’s argument in The Harried Leisure Class.) And as social-recommendations crank up, I suspect so will boredom, and guilt over feeling at once overwhelmed with possible diversions and also too utterly indolent to undertake them all in a systematic way. Boredom starts feeling safer than commitment to one thing, since there are so many competing reasons to keep one’s attention free for something better that might come along. Thus attention becomes more passive, a languid suitor waiting to be wooed. We stand and wait, bored.


The reason I dredge that up is that the WSJ had a vintage A-hed story yesterday about Boring 2010, a conference in England organized by media-company employee James Ward and devoted, unlike so many other ones, to dull presentations.


Proceedings at the sell-out event were kicked off by Mr. Ward himself, who discussed his tie collection at great length, accompanied by a PowerPoint presentation. He noted that as of June 2010, he owned 55 ties, and 45.5% of them were of a single color. By December, his tie collection had jumped by 36%, although the share of single-color ties fell by 1.5%. “Ties are getting slightly more colorful,” he noted. Also, apparently, his taste was improving. By December, only 64% of his ties were polyester, down from 73% in June. Even less stirring was a milk tasting. Ed Ross, an actor, swirled, sniffed and sipped five different milks in wine glasses, commenting on each one’s flavor, finish and ideal “food pairing.” (Cereals got mentioned a lot.)


It sounds like this was less about boredom than an elaborate parody of self-obsession and connoisseurship, that is, about things we fail to find boring about ourselves that bore everyone else. It sounds pretty hilarious, and I imagine the pressure to keep it all deadpan made it more so. It also seems like more evidence that boredom is situational, relational; it doesn’t adhere in subject matter but in relationships. I am almost never bored when alone, probably because I find myself endlessly fascinating but also because I can ricochet between any number of distractions without any negotiation or warning. I don’t have to justify what I am preoccupied with in any given moment. The presence of others conjures the boredom of compromise. 

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