An Etiology of Boredom

“The production of too many useful things results in too many useless people.”
— Marx, Philosophical and Economic Manuscripts

From Envy to Ennui
In a culture where the Duane Reade drug store on my corner is selling, of all things, The Great Santini on DVD, you have to wonder whether the tortuous paths commodities take to get to market are even capable of being analyzed. Clearly the whole system has become so huge and unwieldy that the distribution of goods follows its own Byzantine logic. It’s as if the goods themselves seek out sites for profit making, or colonizing new spaces for the market, with Borg-like efficiency. It seems to make no sense to talk about scarcity in such a culture, but it may be that scarcity is most acute in a society that is surfeited with goods, and one of the primary forms in which this scarcity makes itself felt is boredom, a perpetual discontentment, a restless desire for the new.

Scarcity, as economist Marshall Sahlins among many others argues, is not some absolute, ontological condition, universally consistent no matter the context. Scarcity is actually relative, defined, in Sahlins’s words, by “a relationship between means and ends.” (Stone-Age Economics, Aldine, 1972). What one feels she is lacking is determined by what others in society are capable of getting. Scarcity isn’t a matter of deprivation; it’s a matter of cultivated envy. We are well fed, yet we feel deprived in proportion to the amount of stuff those similar to us seem to have. The human need for distinction runs almost as deep as the need to eat (if not deeper, if pathological dieting is any indication). The twin forces of emulation (the tendency of social classes to emulate the consumption patterns of those above them, thus forcing the upper classes to change them) and adaptation (the unfortunate way humans come to take any established level of material comfort for granted) conspire to make discontent chronic. So despite mass production, which was supposed to bring about universal satiety, we have found ways to create symbolic scarcity — scarcity at the level of social or cultural capital, to use sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s terminology — when no material scarcity exists.

This isn’t because we’re naturally vain and capricious. Rather, it’s because social validation is fundamental to our well-being, and increasingly, our only source of social recognition is through the things we own. It’s the commodity of respect — the sense of being socially recognized — that continues to be rationed, even amidst a superfluity of Great Santini DVDs and six-ounce bags of ranch-flavored Doritos and the like. Economist Fred Hirsch argues that what he calls “social scarcity” derives from the inevitable existence of positional goods, that special preserve of rare goods that can confer status, that can serve as a commodified, simplified means for granting the social respect we require. For example, the fashion industry exists, essentially, to manufacture positional goods out of homogenous, unbranded ones. Producing more goods in general can do nothing to ease the feelings of scarcity that come from this; in fact, a greater supply of schlocky 99-cent-store junk may be necessary to lend fashionable goods their air of comparative scarcity. Far from being a cure for social scarcity, mass production may be its precondition.

If this line of thinking is correct, the permanence of social classes, (regardless of the capacity to move between them, despite the egalitarian promise implicit in democracy) renders all striving, all attempts to consume one’s way up the ladder, pointless. The rules are always changing; once you get the SUV, your betters start driving a Prius. And even if you own the right things, your nouveau-riche awkwardness with them will stigmatize you. Only after we’ve taken the bait and chased after the positional goods, do we discover how mercurial the upper-class habitus — the approach to living [elaborated by Bourdieu in Distinction (Harvard UP, 1987)] that only a life-long sense of entitlement can engender, manifest in things like body language and conversational style as well as subtlety of taste — can be. It’s at this point, when the ladder reveals itself as a treadmill, that the pangs of class jealousy are transformed into boredom, and the turning wheel of fashion is reconfigured in the popular mind as not a generator of class distinction but a whimsical cavalcade of novelties for their own sake. The struggle against boredom, then, helps keep us motivated in the face of an intransigent class structure.

Learning Boredom
As someone who’s overwhelmed with anxiety if confronted with a 10-minute train ride with no reading material, I’m always amazed at how very young children can entertain themselves for hours with a Lincoln log, a Lego piece, or a pretzel stick. I’m no child psychologist (I’m not even a parent) but my limited observations lead me to think that a kid’s instinctual impulse is to entertain herself by creating, by engaging with things, by interacting with the environment and with others in order to discover the limits of her understanding and possibly expand that limit while demonstrating a greater mastery over reality and her ability to manipulate materials. In this, she demonstrates autonomy and efficacy, things strongly correlated with individual happiness, according to political scientist Robert Lane’s assessment of recent psychological and sociological research (The Loss of Happiness in Market Democracies, Yale UP, 2001.) So why do children by the age of eight seem so eager to be passive, so willing to stare at screens, waiting to be mesmerized? Why do they suddenly become screechingly bored if they can’t watch Shrek 2 from the back seat on a ride to the grocery store? In other words, how do they inevitably become subject to my predicament?

Something awful seems to happen to American children in front of televisions and in the aisles of big-box toy stores and in movie theaters. The discipline kids learn in the theater, for example, reinforces in a “play” context lessons taught in elementary school: their anxious parents shushing them and demanding them to be quiet, and still and non-vocal, purely interior and self-involved in their responses. They learn passivity, becoming complacent and reliant upon the culture industry for their ability to be distracted from themselves, to be “entertained”. There they are, surrounded by other kids for the sole purpose of reinforcing the message that they should never pay attention to each other but instead to these retarded cartoon animals flickering on the screen in front of them. Pleasure, the message is, comes from products, not from the company of peers. A child’s ability to engage himself in the world is thereby routed through entertainment, and the idea that he would make his own entertainment fades from their world of possibilities. The child has become primed for boredom.

It should be impossible to be bored in a society such as America, with such a boisterous and thriving culture industry that devotes billions of dollars to keeping people entertained with a cornucopia of films, television shows, songs, magazines, books, sporting events, tourist destinations, celebrity award shows, and the like. But entertainment is subject to the same paradoxes of scarcity as any other commodity. 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. In other words, boredom is relative, too. It is a skill that must be learned.

After the childhood years, boredom is taught primarily in the workplace, where scientific management schemes and efficiency experts have systematically made work boring by removing from it every iota of thought and skill. If every movement a worker must make is prescribed in advance, the chance of a worker wasting time is reduced radically, as is the chance he’ll derive any enjoyment from his job. But that’s all right: quashing meaningful work is a good in and of itself (in fact, modern economics is predicated on individuals seeing work as a “disutility”) as it means workers will be forced to rely on post-work leisure-time consumption as compensation for the drudgery of the work day. Satisfying work might hamper the consuming impulse.

In “Labor and Monopoly Capital”, (Monthly Review Press, 1974) Harry Braverman describes how scientific-management practices that were first implemented in factories to maximize productive efficiency — organizing assembly lines, installing time clocks, stripping workers of their craft knowledge (skills learned through experience) and institutionalizing it at the management level, reducing jobs to the simplest repetitive motions — spread throughout the whole of the capitalist economy so that no one’s free from having their work pre-planned and rationalized. So rather than finding work that allows one to discover her particular talents, one is instead forced to reduce oneself to the contours of a restricting job description prepared in advance.

As all aspects of work are rationalized, all workers become clock-watchers, acutely aware of the value of time, and hence covetous of it as though it were a precious object. Any moment not planned for begins to feel wasted, any thought not already directed at some productive end feels like a useless one, until finally one feels startled and affronted if left with any free time to deepen thought or discover new things to think about. We start to interpret the rare freedom to let one’s mind roam unencumbered as indicative of underutilization, and we almost resent such free time, as though our bosses have somehow underestimated us and not given us enough to do. Since we’re trained from childhood not to value the luxury of free thought, and since all initiative to think for ourselves and all cultural validation for autodidacticism has been effaced from the working world, we experience this erstwhile freedom to think undirected thoughts as boredom, as sullen blankness.

Perfecting Disposability
Given this dire scenario, the culture industry’s primary function becomes one of habituating workers to their fate: to routinely expect boredom and to see the oscillation in and out of states of boredom as the only kind of joy. So accordingly, mass entertainments, with their interchangeable stories and their quick-cut edits and their rejection of complexity, carefully cultivate the short-attention span, continuing the cultural work initiated at the multiplex during the children’s movie. Concentration is counterproductive in a consumer, whereas boredom suits the consumer economy: incapable of forming deep attachments to cultural commodities, and spurred by sublimated class envy, shoppers become perpetually restless for novelty, making serial purchases with spiraling frequency until the ever more tenacious habit of boredom renders them instantaneously empty upon possession. At that point, the act of acquisition is the only moment of pleasure, and one’s life becomes a perpetual buying spree.

So one doesn’t become bored with popular culture, boredom is built into it: in the products themselves and the system by which they’re disseminated. Of course, if you could just listen to one album and find lasting entertainment, the music industry would suffer. Hence, the record industry tilts toward albums like Crunk Juice and artists like Jessica Simpson rather then turning out London Calling after London Calling. Planned obsolescence is the popular-culture norm; it’s perverse to expect it to be other than disposable. Disposability may be what marks it as popular culture; it’s popular because it’s accessible to a maximum amount of people for a minimal amount of time, so that over time, the maximum amount is consumed. Not bound by the upper-class habitus that makes social landmines of positional goods, popular culture has no educational prerequisites. And its effervescent transience means you stake none of your identity on it. It requires no commitment. No one ever really remembers that you enjoyed the last Brittany Murphy movie, or that you liked that Tweet single, or that you were tracking the fate of Jen and Brad’s relationship.

Often, cultural critics make the mistake of suggesting that the shallowness of the People magazines and the reality dating shows and the Alone in the Dark‘s of the world is a consequence of the shallow people making it, and with better artists and better material it could be redeemed. But its shallowness is not an unfortunate effect of circumstances or a reflection of its creators. It takes great skill, armies of talented editors and producers, to make it that way. Like record executives, television producers and magazine editors are not out to keep you perpetually fascinated by any one thing they’ve crafted. This would quickly make their jobs superfluous. Actually, the editors seeking bold-faced names and quick-hitting anecdotes to fill the front-of-book sections of celebrity weeklies and lifestyle monthlies, by applying their criteria of immediacy and timeliness and sensuousness, by demanding writing that seems to read itself and that elicits those sugary bursts of fascination that have the unfortunate effect of quickly burning out your attention, by applying the hypersensitivity to boredom that mainly constitutes their craft knowledge, essentially teach you how to be quickly bored.

In failing to presume attentiveness in readers, editors posit by their efforts an ideal reader who is unenthusiastic, tepid, uninterested, shallow. And in reading what they fashion for us, we become this shallow person. And happily so, because this shallow person is everywhere being validated by the culture created with him (or her) in mind, all the flattery inherent in beer and truck commercials, all the solicitous interest paid in cosmetics ads, all the earnest well-wishing in advice columns and horoscopes. With real social recognition more and more scarce, we accept this ersatz validation as substitute.

It’s better to regard the true task of the editor not as discriminating among cultural goods for us but expediting our consumption of them. Editors make our experience of culture faster; they allow us to take in more. So while seeming to refine the quality of culture, editors are actually concerned with quantities. As with shopping, where the pleasure of purchasing is often more salient than the usefulness of what is bought, picking what to read next may give more pleasure than reading itself. Thus, the faster we can absorb cultural objects — book reviews, songs, Tivoed TV shows, restaurants, et cetera — the happier we are, as we get to the pleasure of selecting more and more of them. What has become tantamount, here as in the workplace, is efficiency, maximizing the usage of our consumption time just as we have been taught to maximize our production.

It takes time and effort to consume; it’s as much a job as our job. According to economist Staffan Linder, the wider array of choices of how to spend our leisure time makes every minute of that time more valuable. If we work to enjoy leisure, then consumption time needs to be as concentrated as work time, as full of as much stuff as possible (The Harried Leisure Class, Columbia UP, 1970). Hence, the modern editor and her analogues seek to permit us to read as much of, say, Entertainment Weekly, as we can while sitting on the toilet, or riding the bus, or sitting in a waiting room. In this way, convenience becomes a predominant value in our culture, to the point where ease of consumption trumps the nature of what specifically is being consumed. (It’s better to eat quickly at Burger King than dally over diner food.) If the breadth of our social identity develops through consumption, then convenient consumption makes us bigger people. It gives our lives more throughput.

But just as new highways merely lead to more traffic congestion and cell phone use seems to lead to much more inefficient planning, more conveniently consumable commodities only sharpen the urgency of our consuming need without yielding much satisfaction. The quantum leap in convenience afforded by technology and by our increasingly efficient markets open up unimaginable possibilities for consumption and choice, but we end up overwhelmed by them and the time we need to sort all of them out. Conveniences don’t lead to more leisurely relaxation; they just lead to a heightened need for more conveniences. And these multiplying options do nothing to assuage boredom; they merely cement its status as our default emotion, what we feel in the absence of feeling, what was once known as “peace”.

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For more Rob Horning, visit the Marginal Utility blog.