Boredom

The first post in a series on The Affective Cycle of Popular Culture on Boredom.

General disclaimer: It is the basis for a lecture on the topic. It is note-based without substantial examples and without any context-setting work for the readings (e.g. who is Kracauer and what was the intellectual context of his article?).

The two main readings for this fortnight are Siegfried Kracauer’s 1924 article “Boredom” espousing a ‘radical boredom’ and Paul Corrigan’s 1975 chapter in Resistance Through Rituals “Doing Nothing”.

Siegfried Kracauer’s 1924 “Boredom”
Kracauer is concerned that “the world makes sure that one does not find oneself”:

[O]ne’s spirit — which is no longer one’s own — roams endlessly out of night and into the night. If only it were allowed to disappear! But, like Pegasus on a carousel, this spirit must run in circles and may never tire of praising to high heaven the glory of a liqueur and the merits of the best five-cent cigarette. Some sort of magic spurs the spirit relentlessly amid the thousand electric bulbs, out of which it constitutes and reconstitutes itself into glittering sentences.

Kracauer raises the brief examples of the movie theater and radio as examples of activities whereby participants are occupied, but do not occupy their own will. “Silent and lifeless, people sit side by side as if their souls were wondering about far away. But these souls are not wandering according to their own preference; they are badgered by the news hounds, and soon no one can tell anymore who is the hunter and who is the hunted.”

Kracauer’s logic is thus: If you find yourself the object of boredom, forever trying to occupy yourself with something or another, to ward off boredom, then you are the subject of interests that are not your own. This is not an ideological struggle, although it may be expressed as such, it is primarily an affective struggle over one’s interest.

The only proper response then is to welcome boredom through an act of patience, “the sort of boredom specific to legitimate boredom”. Then, Kracauer argues, “one experiences a kind of bliss that is almost unearthly”. The world is transformed and you begin to notice that the landscape is populated in ways that you had not previously perceived. As a result your soul swells with a “great passion”.
Kant would’ve called this a mode of the aesthetic sublime and a product of supreme disinterested interest; an affect when joined with the idea of the good, or ‘enthusiasm’.

Paul Corrigan’s 1975 “Doing Nothing”
Corrigan’s chapter in Resistance through Rituals begins with a different set of problematics. During his fieldwork he discovered that the principle activity of ‘British subculture’ is in fact ‘doing nothing’. There are a number of components of “doing nothing”:

1) Talking. Firstly, the most common form of talking is the story. Stories are recounted following one of Sartre’s definitions of ‘adventure’ (from Nausea), where an adventure is defined not merely by the randomness of events or the level of excitement induced by participation in particular activities, no the criterion of adventure is that you do something worthy of talking about as a story afterwards. Most consumers are convinced that the world is full of such ‘adventures'; hence with the advent of social media such ‘talking’ has migrated online and we are inundated with regular people offering a running commentary on their everyday lives.

Secondly, Corrigan argues, the purpose of the talking is not so much to communicate, but to communicate the experience of talking. It is the act of telling the story that is important, not the subject of the story (which of course matters, but it is secondary). In Theodor Adorno’s infamous essay about the Culture Industry in which he attacks Jazz, he also notes a similar shared dimension of consumption that was not so much about being linked to a specific commodity, but more about ‘sharing good times’. The burden of exchanged-based valorisation versus aesthetic efficacy implicit in his infamous critique of commercial jazz – that “it is fine for dancing and dreadful for listening” – needs to be inverted by combining it with another of his observations in the same essay. He writes that in “Amercian conventional speech, having a good time means being present at the enjoyment of others, which in its turn has as its only content being present”. Adorno acknowledges, albeit in a dismissive fashion, the necessary role of affect in its movement across the bodies of others as being colloquially realised as ‘having a good time’. The more interesting observation is the relation of alterity implicit in the experience of a ‘good time’, that is being present at the enjoyment of others.

To shift registers from the interesting to the critical, the point is that through story telling the people taking part of the story telling event experience a sense of belonging; they were within this virtuosic dimension of the story telling and witnessed this virtuosic dimension mediated through the reactions and implication of other bodies in the event. It is what Brian Massumi calls becoming-together.

Notice how there does not have to be a commodity present here? One of the current functions of the marketing industry is to implicate commodities in the everyday adventures of consumers so consumers will tell stories about them, ie Word of Mouth advertising.

2) Weird Ideas. That major component of ‘doing nothing’, Corrigan (following his research subjects) calls ‘weird ideas':

It is the ‘weird idea’ that represents the major something in ‘doing nothing’. In fighting boredom the kids do not choose the street as a wonderfully lively place, rather they look on it as the place where there is the most chance that something will happen. […] The weird ideas then are born out of boredom and the expectation of future and continuing boredom, and this affects the sort of weird ideas they are. A good idea must contain the seeds of continuing change as well as excitement and involvement.

Like Adorno’s consumers who ‘have a good time’ by ‘being present at the enjoyment of others’, Corrigan’s working class kids told stories to pass the time. Time, when “doing nothing”, is a burden as it populated with the expectation of future and continuing boredom. They go out looking for interesting things to occur — “we are not talking about boys going out on a Saturday night looking for milk bottles to smash, rather it is a purely interesting thing that occurs.” What is the relation then between interest/interesting things and the qualitative dimension of time? How interested do you have to be to have a good time? Or is it simply a case of being able to experience another person’s interest that makes the time good?

For Corrigan’s working class kids the alternative to ‘doing nothing’ in the street is staying at home with “Mum and Dad in the front room” or going to a venue like the Youth Club. In other words, activities that are sanctioned as morally appropriate by adults. Unlike Kracauer’s proto-consumers of the culture industry, Corrigan’s working class kids do not have access to cultural commodities that would be of interest to them. Undoubtedly, if there were interesting things to do then kids would not be hanging out in the streets. And yet, they do, because there is nothing else. They are not constrained by a cultural landscape saturated by advertising, which sends consumers off on a maze constructed by the expectations of others’ enjoyment; rather, their maze is overdetermined by their material conditions of existence.

4 thoughts on “Boredom”

  1. Glen, I liked this so much! I especially liked the idea that the working-class kids are both freed and constrained by their material conditions. Also, I can’t decide if it is ironic that even when we attain sublime boredom, we must resist the impulse to make ‘stories’ of the little things we experience so joyfully – to photograph them, or report them on Twitter/Facebook.

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