Friday, September 21, 2007

Living with Boredom

"It is our duty," claims Lars Svendsen, "to live a life that torments us" (A Philosophy of Boredom, p. 146, Svendsen's emphasis). He recommends living with the problem of boredom rather than trying to escape it, overcome it, or solve it. To appreciate what he is saying we have to recognize that in life as this Norwegian academic knows it such things as living with malaria, for example, are simply not on the table.

Boredom would seem to force us to contend with a loss of meaning in life. However, Svendsen questions whether anything has really been lost in boredom. "An awareness of loss does not guarantee that anything has actually been lost, and therefore does not guarantee either that there is something–a time, meaning or experience–that has to be won back" (p. 136). So where does the sense of loss come from if it doesn't come from actually having lost something? Svendsen's explanation begins with the proposition that "I am the sum of all transgressions of myself, i.e., of all that I do" (p. 133). Boredom commences when these transgressions no longer function satisfactorily, and, in a gesture of self doubt or crisis, reflection turns upon the self in search of reasons, or a reason that could explain who one is. The search is in vain, and what one discovers as a reason for one's transgressions is an abyss, a foundation more contingent than what has been founded. This is both an awareness and a feeling. "What I then find is not a reason of any sort but an imprecise feeling that appears to be something that has always been with me. It is as if this feeling is me" (p. 134, Svendsen's emphasis). Svendsen's cultural insights–linking, for example, the emergence of boredom to the emergence of childhood (p. 149)–don't lead him away from taking a philosophical stance towards the problem of boredom. Boredom may be felt, but there is a sense in which he regards thinking as key to its genesis, and also key to the accomodation one should reach with boredom.

Svendsen recommends that we embrace loneliness, not self-centeredness, but loneliness (p. 144). His suggested accomodation with boredom, his tempered amor fati, is not completely grim. "In boredom an emptying takes place, and an emptiness can be a receptiveness, although it does not have to be it" (p. 142). Allowing the emptiness of boredom to become a receptiveness may be a matter of allowing oneself time to accumulate experience (p. 45).

The problem, first and foremost, lies in accepting that all that is given are small moments and that life offers a great deal of boredom between these moments. For life does not consist of moments but of time. The absence of the great Meaning does not, however, result in all meaning in life evaporating. A one-sided focusing on the absence of Meaning can overshadow all other meaning–and then the world really looks as if it has been reduced to rubble. A source of profound boredom is that we demand capital letters where we are obliged to make do with small ones.

(p. 154)

It was important for me to point out that living with malaria is not a concern for Svendsen because he offers a stark critique of utopianism that must be appreciated in the context of what he is not talking about, if it is be appreciated at all. He says, "A utopia cannot, by definition, include boredom, but the 'utopia' we are living in is boring" (p. 137). Further, he states that "all utopias seem to be deadly boring, because only that which is imperfect is interesting" (p. 138). I see a connection between imperfection and doing, or satisfactorily doing. What does it mean after all to do what has already been done? I have the impression that for Svendsen pre-Romantic cultures would have been satisfied to do what has already been done, taking meaning from tradition. I don't quite see it that way. I think meaning can be taken from doing what needs to be done, and it's more the superabundance of late capitalist production than a break with tradition that marks this particular problematization of doing. I question, then, whether doing should be equated with transgression. Many transgressions don't amount to doing, and perhaps under certain circumstances many activities don't amount to acting. Only by blinding oneself to this alienation–which is more than a thought of alienation but rather a broader set of conditions–can one begin to decouple boredom from idleness, as Svendsen has done. Svendsen opines that alienation is no longer an issue for intellectuals, either because alienation has ceased to exist, or because we are already so alienated that we cannot contrast alienation with anything. And he says that one cannot be alienated from a society that lacks social substance (p. 136). He doesn't then really explore the idea that we might be alienated from our own actions. The indifference of existential boredom, and also the sense of living in a "perfect," perfectly boring world suggest to me an alienated condition. But I'm not completely sure of that. I can't deny that Svendsen's skepticism of utopias resonates with me, and yet I think there is an enormous difference between living with imperfections and living with genuine torments. It would be more judicious to say that we have a duty to lead a life that troubles us from time to time, an obligation to jump off the raft of affective flatness and swim in the crowded waters. That we should accomodate some boredom may be sage advice, but a community of the chronically bored could surely do with some stirring up.

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posted by Fido the Yak at 8:29 AM.


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