The ecstasy of boredom

by Rob Horning

19 May 2007


Having previously offered a theory of boredom I read this post by blogger A White Bear with great relish. AWB claims to love boring art and cites slow and spare Antonioni films as examples of what she is talking about. I usually think of boredom as a character flaw, as a quality in the subject rather than the object, a kind of impatience with reticent, lulling things. But AWB suggests an aesthetics of boredom that hinges on a lack of “narrative necessity.” So-called boring things don’t provide that ready path for one’s mind to rush down, instead they perplex and retard the imagination, force the mind back on itself and make it do a lot more work to remain engaged. Boredom opens up a space for languid speculation, for productive frustration, for conceiving several concurrent hypotheses about what the hell the point is. Works that supply “excitement” often close off the speculative space, hurrying consumers along to largely predictable outcomes that nevertheless are experienced as suspenseful. No one doubts that the killer will be killed in a film like, say, Disturbia,yet nonetheless this pass as suspense. Something truly unpredictable—Antonioni’s L’Avventura, for example—can often seem boring in its aimless meandering. Boredom, then, stems from the absence of familiar genre conventions or recognizable rhythms.

AWB argues that the suspended nature of boring works gives them an erotic quality—the jouissance of the endlessly deferred climax transfered to a text that denies closure, that refuses to put forward a organizing principle that allows you to put everything in place. The unstructured material forces you to contemplate it for its own sake, in the moment, and that inspires a sensuality that comes to the surface when we starve the rational, puzzle-solving side of our brains. AWB sees this as a minor pleasure, dubbing it masturbatory—“satisfying without satiating.”

I don’t think I would describe masturbation that way. But is it true that details become more erotic as they become more arbitrary? In another post, AWB defines pornography in a similar way, as “a rhetorical mode” that lulls readers into vicariousness with its repetition and details for details’ sake. The danger of vicarious experience—what makes pornography immoral in AWB’s view—is that it supplants a reader’s direct experience of the world with texts, simulations. Here, I become skeptical, as I’m not sure how you distinguish authentic experience from simulated experience in our recursive world of late-capitalist consumerism. Most of our experience is already mediated, already in a sense secondhand, vicarious. Thus vicarious experience is virtually indistinguishable from lived experience, which if we encountered it, we’d probably reject as “boring” since it comes free of an interpretation, free from having been slotted into some pseudo-glamorous niche after having being represented elsewhere as entertainment, as worthy of rapt attention.

I would argue that the vicarious experience from texts prepares us to conceive and process our lived experience in certain prepackaged ways—it makes our own experience legible to ourselves, give it forms that are amenable to being stored as memories. Vicarious experience through entertainment also reinforces patterns of emotional satisfaction serviced by consumerism. I would define the pornographic not in terms of its arbitrarity but its instrumentality, how it facilitates the most convenient route to a precisely delimited goal. It makes emotional responses rote in a way that pleases us, the same way genre conventions keep us from being bored. Porn is sort of the ur-genre, I think, not a suspension of narrativity. It does aspire to a transparency that effaces textuality—the formal qualities and the careful word choices and the other things that make us pay attention to the medium itself; boring things force us to contemplate the nature of the medium, halting mediation.

I completely agree that consumers prefer what AWB calls the rhetorically pornographic because it protects us from the messiness of actual experience, which involves other people. (I make the porn=convenience argument here.)

I don’t want to moralize here about these aesthetic aspects of pornography, although a great deal of my dissertation is about the social and political issues that arise when readers begin to confuse texts for experience, and to privilege fictional characters’ experiences over their own, which partly happens because of the near-pornographic rhetorical nature of scenes, for example, in Pamela. But what is obvious, over the past three hundred years of mass print culture, and then mass art, music, and film cultures, is that the public always craves the rhetorically pornographic, especially when it does not explicitly offend a prudish sexual sensibility.
There is a fine line, in fact, that “pop” tends to walk now, between providing the pretense of an unmediated experience of something sensory and representing actual sex. My very prim, religious students are reduced to puddles by passages like the one from Dracula above, which gives them something almost like an experience without any of the messy complications of consequences or interpersonal relations, which is why, I think, they place such an outlandish value on their ability to experience along with every text…. What bothers me most is that they seem not to know the difference between reading and doing anymore.

I don’t think rhetorical porn—material that invites vicarious absorption—promises unmediated experience; I think it promises the pleasures of the precisely mediated. The transcendence (being above the action, it having been designed for you) compensates for the apparent passivity of vicariousness—whether or not the interpretative effort is passive, whether it is not a kind of activity to suspend disbelief and let yourself be absorbed by a text, is a different question. (This question reminds me that I should probably re-read Michael Fried’s Absorption and Theatricality.) This doesn’t efface the personality of the reader so much as remove it from the field of play, where it can take on the illusion of completeness, of being untouchable, of not being altered by experience.

Our relations with texts (be they films, books, crap bought at the mall or whatever) have the potential not so much replace our experience of reality, of other people, but format it so that it becomes instrumentalized. Reading and doing become the same thing, and not merely because so much of social existence is about interpreting signals and signs. Rather, the reader/doer presumes himself to be at the center of his own drama, with everything occurring around him seeming to have been designed solely for his amusement. This has the effect of granting identity to the reader, when seductive texts call out for one’s attention, interpolating the reader as an individuated subject, as Althusser argues in his essay about ISAs. The protagonists in pornographic literature may become interchangeable, but in so becoming they protect the reader from the fate of anonymity; the reader becomes the stable center around which the dance of anonymous entities and the highly detailed sensations recorded through them are choreographed.
(Hence compulsive self-revelation on the internet as a means to extend self-dramatization; a new tool to further a goal as old as print. Incidentally, my big research topic when I was a graduate student was about how vicarious experience was developed and systematically commercialized in 18th century novels. AWB’s dissertation sounds like one I would want to read, especially if it is as well-written as her blog is.) The way our entertainment patronizes us prepares us for life in this hermetic bubble. When entertainment bores us, that’s because it is forcing us outside of that bubble. (Porn is never boring in this sense; when clicking through channels randomly, while marooned in a hotel maybe, I never fail to pause when I hit porn; it’s compelling as the most concentrated form of mediation, perhaps—the most instrumental of entertainments, which all aspire to manipulate us with ease.) All that to say that I think what AWB is noticing in her students is the expectation that life itself shouldn’t ever transcend the level of vicarious experience, that life should never be anything more than entertaining.

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