[17 July 2013]
This is not the Age of Anxiety. This is the Age of Boredom. Auden was wrong; Baudelaire was right.
Boredom is ubiquitous in modern western societies, and especially in the United States, where it may very well be the impetus behind what we see in horror films, pornography, and the violent and absurd headlines of daily newspapers.
Unconvinced? Well, you would be right to be skeptical; after all, so little is said about it.
Perhaps because of its pervasiveness we have failed to give it the attention that it deserves. This is especially true of modern philosophers who, though they have dedicated great intellectual energy to the study and analysis of film, music, television and video games (take a look at, for example, Blackwell’s very successful Philosophy and Popular Culture series), have had very little to say about the problem of boredom.
The Norwegian philosopher Lars Svendsen is a notable exception, and his essays are bound to be of great interest to those who wish to better understand the forces that are currently animating contemporary western culture.
In the preface to A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), the first of three book-length essays to be published by Reaktion Books in the UK, Svendsen explains that his motive for writing the book was “a certain dissatisfaction with contemporary philosophy” and the “boredom-related death of a close friend”. Songs such as G.G. Allin’s “Bored to Death” and Depeche Mode’s “Something to Do”, he realized, “suddenly became real. These songs stood out as the soundtracks of our lives.”
There are, of course, different types of boredom: situative (i.e., situational) boredom is very different from existential boredom, he argues. “Situative boredom contains a longing for something that is desired, existential boredom contains a longing for any desire at all.” It is this latter case that Svendsen is most interested in, and while Svendsen cites many of the usual suspects when discussing it—Beckett, Kierkegaard, Heidegger—he never strays too far from popular art and culture in his attempt to explore boredom and its various guises and manifestations.
Two of the most insightful analyses are of J.G. Ballard’s Crash and Bret Easton Ellis’s American Psycho, which Svendsen considers both as films and as literary texts. In them, Svendsen argues that modern westerners live in a world bereft of “symbolic capital”, a world in which myths and religion are considered of little value; ergo, the birth of boredom is concomitant with the death of God in the West. Indeed, the word boredom, he tells us, is not found in English before the 1760s. The French ennui and the Italian noia have roots in Latin that go back to the 13th century, but the etymology of the word is different. Boredom as we know it, Svendsen argues, represents a crisis of meaning.
In a world without symbolic capital, a world devoid of mythical or religious depth, the notion of transcendence becomes incomprehensible; in its place, we moderns extol transgression, facets of which are explored in books and films like Crash and American Psycho. There, we see that “the crucial thing is whether or not an act is beautiful,” not whether it is ethical. “The ethical is subordinate to the aesthetic.”
This is as disturbing as it is profound and illuminating. One is reminded of the murder carried out by Leopold and Loeb in the early 20th century and immortalized by Alfred Hitchcock in the film Rope. Drawing from an essay by Thomas De Quincey, Svendsen observes in A Philosophy of Fear (2008), that, regardless of what we may think of it morally, “murder creates an aesthetic response in the observer”; the senses are stimulated and the effect is visceral. Edmund Burke, Svendsen notes, argued convincingly that “we find it satisfying to watch things that not only would we be unable to get ourselves to carry out but would rather not have seen carried out”. Shockingly, murder may also be considered an art.
Modern westerners are so afraid of being bored that even fear has become attractive to us. Svendsen eloquently notes that “fear lends color to the world. A world without fear would be deadly boring.” If our lives are boring, then “to see a horror film or play some terrifying computer game are safe ways of experiencing dangers.” Against the existential malaise of boredom, fear may be a palliative, “something that can counteract a boring everyday life.”
The problem is that even transgression becomes boring. This is perhaps more readily evident in the world of fashion, which Svendsen explores in Fashion: A Philosophy (2006). Here, too, the possibility of transcendence has given way to transgression. Even the body has become an aesthetic concern. “Fasting,” Svendsen points out, “was a central Christian practice in the Middle Ages, indicating that the spirit was stronger than the flesh.” Modern dieting, instead, is “motivated by a desire to shape the body, not the soul.” And, if at one time fashion aimed for glamour, it now aims, somewhat futilely, to titillate and shock, because “after a while transgression ceases to mean anything… the atrocious is no longer capable of creating any sort of feeling…” In sum, the attempt to overcome boredom through aestheticism is bound to fail.
Svendsen is overtly pessimistic. In the preface to A Philosophy of Boredom he writes: “This book is an attempt to develop thoughts about what boredom is, when it arose, why it did so, why it afflicts us, how it does so and why it cannot be overcome by any act of will.” Svendsen struggles with this issue in all of these books, regardless of the title. Indeed, although they stand alone, one can easily imagine them as chapters of a single volume. Certainly many of the passages from any one of the essays would sit comfortably in either of the others.
Fortunately, this month has also seen the issue of a hitherto unpublished essay from 1974 by the British existentialist Colin Wilson, titled Notes on Boredom. It is available as a Kindle download, and hopefully marks an increasing interest in the topic by serious philosophers. In the essay, which was written in response to a newspaper article (which is also published in the edition), Wilson discusses boredom and, like Svendsen, identifies different types. Yet Wilson is more optimistic and would disagree with Svendsen, at least on one point. For Wilson, boredom can be overcome by human will. “It is a mistake to say that something is boring,” he claims, “a form of the pathetic fallacy. We allow ourselves to be bored.” “The real cure,” he continues, “is insight.”
This being the case, although Lars Svendsen may not have the cure to our modern malaise, he has perhaps pointed us in the right direction by clearly identifying it. Hopefully, more contemporary philosophers will follow his lead.