slow motion existential catastrophe (set to music)
Video-game theorist Ian Bogost urges us to Play Anything to avert boredom. Simply put, his new book instructs us to transform the boring into the extraordinary by treating mundane tasks as a game. Bogost gropes for the key to the child-like fascination of our formative years through a gamification of the quotidian, a tactic adopted by sinister corporate group-think to improve productivity through incentives and superficially humourous competition. Pets may win prizes such as extra holidays – oh the pathos, the irony – but losers are penalised with permanent holidays as they are constructively dismissed by swivel-eyed, stopwatch-toting human resource managers in a black avalanche of invasive metrics, Orwellian surveillance and unopened emails.
Setting aside obvious criticism of the myopically priviliged status of Bogost’s low camp in a world torn apart by conflict, famine and preventable disease, let alone the existential anti-matter of his tenured academic status as a video-game theorist, his ironically boring tome on boredom and irony has hit upon something essential. Boredom is attitudinal and its antidote is a matter of attention. Unfortunately, that statement is so general that, while true, is effectively meaningless. Let’s define our terms: what is boredom?
As globetrotting, hipster diplomats and professional dilettantes, the Ambassador and I’s punky-Situationist-Da Da gestalt routinely interprets the giddy whirl of receptions, secondhand secrets and discreet infidelities as de trop. Indeed we all feel bored sometimes, even though adulthood glosses our daily review with a shameful patina of lies. Cultural consensus imposes a redactive filter on our shared history. As busy, responsible grown-ups we are supposed to be above boredom, as if feeling dull were somehow morally deficient, a self-fulfilling prophecy that we do not care to admit. Boredom is a luxury according to conventional wisdom. Despite this revisionist approach, there is a long history of boredom and its causes and effects have been widely studied by many better informed thinkers than the Ambassador and I. Nevertheless, some salient points from the literature are as follows;
Boredom is often considered a so-called ‘secondary emotion’. Primary emotions such as love, anger, sadness and fear are more readily accessible. Secondary emotions are often linked to primary ones by degree: for example, irritation shares an emotional spectrum with anger. According to William Ian Miller’s 1997 book The Anatomy of Disgust, boredom bears the same relation to disgust. So predictable, repititive tasks trigger a sense of surfeit, a quasi-disgust which we are ‘sick of’ or ‘fed up with’ which Jean Paul Sartre eponymously pinpoints with his 1938 existentialist classic Nausea.
Another helpful distinction divides boredom into two main types. Most commonly experienced is the mind-numbing lethargy of monotony. David Foster Wallace has written movingly on boredom and his unfinished masterpiece The Pale King is the ur-text by which all artistic examinations should be judged. The novel is set in a mid-Western tax office whose workers heroically endure extremes of buttock-clenching tedium to support the quiet futility of their lives. Not an overwhelmingly exciting prospect perhaps but Wallace’s hyperreal meditations are transcendent, alchemically elevating his raw material to near-mystical mimetic heights. In a characteristically dazzling narrative flourish, DFW sums up his project in a foreward teleported to Chapter 9 for contractual reasons.
“Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient,low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling,” he ponders while mapping our increasingly frantic attempts to distract ourselves from such a room-sized elephant. Combine this daily grind for survival set against a misdirectional backdrop of muzak, digital friendships and relentless advertising with the certain knowledge “That everything is on fire, slow fire, and we’re all less than a million breaths away from an oblivion more total than we can even bring ourselves to even try to imagine.” And we are beginning to zero in on what is at stake here.
The Ambassador and I’s genteel poverty since losing our last honorary consular position in La Paz, has meant that like many other sensitive souls we have been forced to take a succession of meaningless and demeaning jobs in order to pay the rent. As a telephone interviewer grade 6 at Ipsos Mori, Edinburgh’s modern day workhouse where people go to accept defeat, the argument that boredom is some kind of bourgeoise luxury begins to ring a little hollow. This is soul-destroying, spirit-vaporising, Olympic-standard boredom. Slumped in your pod on auto-dial parroting an inane ‘intro’ uninvited to an unbroken chain gang of therefore pissed off people, DFW’s obscure psychic pain really starts to crystallise. Shifts are broken down to four hour chunks in cynical recognition of this fact, with the standard eight hour stints dubbed ‘suicide shifts’ in a straightforwardly literal acknowledgement of their high attrition rate. Indeed, you begin to meet the same fellow sufferers in the toilets again and again as you pathetically attempt to run down the clock a few minutes more. Interviewers often tuck tiny slips of paper to mask the clock at the bottom right hand corner of their screens in a bid to offset boredom’s physics-defying time-drag. Occasionally you will see flickers of rebellion against this tyranny of tedium with autistically complex and beautiful doodles on discarded scraps of papers or elegant yet incredibly fiddly origami structures blossoming under an interviewer’s headset-shackled glassy stare, but mostly there is just a mute, zombie-like absence. Despite this crushing dullness, no-one ever directly refers to it in a tacitly agreed conspiracy of stoic silence. It’s strange, as DFW points out, boredom actually does seem to inspire courage.
The second generally accepted form of boredom might be better termed existential angst, ennui or melancholia of which the ambassadorial weltschmerz referred to above is an example. The French excel in this and Baudelaire is their poet laureate. The adoption of this knowing, world weary attitude as a necessary adjunct of cool makes it a popular pose. In one of his most readable essays, philosopher Theodor Adorno writes endearingly of a mid-Twentieth Century Free Time when the leisure industry is no longer an oxymoron and free time is becoming a parody of itself. It is the organised freedom of cretinous, commodified hobbies: an unfreedom. Adorno indignantly advocates an autonomous free time where all activities are afforded an equal seriousness, his Marxist reading of society diagnosing a poverty of imagination as well as capital. Boredom is the product, he says.
It is this tension between old world authenticity and new millenium cynicism that confronts us now. In a world where the exponential growth of technology all but guarantees human obsolescence and vast armies of young people are unemployed, leisure and its concomitant boredom become vital issues. The battle lines are being drawn. Irony is the reflexive response of our post-millenial masses; everything is crap and stupid but we know it is, so that’s okay. Serious analyses, earnest appeals, passion or sincerity of any kind is lumped in with the rest of the cultural white noise and instinctively mocked. This knee jerk nostrum is then gleefully co-opted by shadowy vested interests in increasingly hollow, monetised echoes as the whole cycle begins again, boringly.
So how do we pay attention: practise boredom avoidance through hysterical displacement activities, trivial Adornoesque ‘hobbies’ with ever-diminishing returns or do we backhandedly validate it with irony, a depressing consent to the status quo? As DFW sagely observes, irony is the song of the prisoner who has come to love his cage. Situationist Internationalist Raoul Vaneigm’s 1967 tract The Revolution of Everyday Life preaches an active resistance to this trivialisation of modern life and the disaffected alienation – boredom – that is its result. We must create our own ‘situations’, says Vaneigm. Clinical psychology teaches that emotions are instinctive, a kind of evolutionary health and safety. We feel disgust at rotting flesh or an open sewer, beat a hasty retreat and avoid their noxious, disease-ridden influence. As a more mannered cousin of disgust, boredom also prompts us to take evasive action. The noonday demon, the theory goes, compromises our social hygiene, undermining effective communities. When a social x-ray kidnaps you at a party, your discomfort is a selective alarm bell, warning that prolonged exposure poses a risk to your sanity. Thus the ubiquitous and boredom-certifying irony of hipster culture threatens to eat itself, the society of The Great British Bake Off, Strictly Come Dancing and X Factor teeters on the brink of a bloody revolution that will usher in a post-apocalyptic dystopia just for something new to do. Beneath the pavement, the beach indeed.
Or there is always oblivion, a tried and trusted response to boredom. Drugs have long been a solution to existential angst, but the consequences of drug abuse rather discount the benefits. There is a clear statistical link between addiction and boredom with a neurological basis. Apparently, addicts have fewer dopamine receptors than usual, making it harder for them to feel pleasure or let go of unhappiness. And easier to become bored… Frankfurt School psychologist Erich Fromm’s theory of neurosis offers another radical avenue of escape. Neurosis, says Fromm, is a retreat into a form of private religion, an article of faith with its own logic, cosmology, ethics etc. As The Brian Jonestown Massacre’s Anton Newcombe titled their seminal 1996 album: Thank God For Mental Illness
However, The Ambassador and I think we have perfected a more humane tactic. Rather than struggle impotently with this natural emotion, we intend to embrace it. We may even start running boredom workshops, recapturing a rose-tinted childhood when, unlike Ian Bogost, we were almost always bored. Dunbar, a combat-fatigued bomber pilot in Joseph Heller’s darkly hilarious novel Catch 22 cultivates boredom between missions to prolong his life. There is a connect between a zen-like acceptance of boredom and longevity, time will drag but you can learn to love it. If we are to live an authentic life without dead times , as the Situationist graffito demands, then we will have to tune into DFW’s lurking ambient pain without flinching. Start here