Thursday, January 06, 2005

The etiology of boredom

Boredom strikes me as a highly unnatural state, one virtually synonomous with depression (aren't the depressed simply those who are too easily bored? Those who lack the inspiration to become invested in anything?). It's widespread prevelance in contemporary American society is a sure sign that there's something deeply wrong with the world we've wrought. And that most advances in entertainment technology imply a consumer who is ever more easily bored (which thereby conjures that nitwit with a short attention span into pervasive being -- hence the AAD epidemic) proves that entertainment companies are pure evil.

It's no accident that mass entertainments, with their disposable stories and high-speed editing and their thin solipsism and their rejection of complexity, carefully cultivate the short-attention span. Thinking, the unfortunate result of concentrated periods of attention, is counterproductive in a shopper, whereas boredom suits the consumer economy: No one develops deep attachments to anything and every one is ever restless for novelty for its own sake. Inevitable discontent leads to serial purchases, which are made with spiralling frequency until boredom makes new purchases instantaneously empty upon possession. At that point the act of acquisition becomes the only moment of pleasure, and one must plotting a perpetual buying spree. We may have already reached this stage.

It may be that boredom really first came into being in the 19th century, with the advent of consumer capitalism and urban centers of hyperstimulation (to which boredom may be the only defense mechanism). Baudelaire is usually considered the first poet of jaded, cynical boredom, of ennui, that state of spent superiority that comes from thinking you've already consumed everything and expect to consume something better. Ennui is a state of having accepted passivity as natural, of assuming its not your prerogative but the culture's to entertain you, to inspire you. It's an unwillingness to risk enthusiasm about anything not marketed, an unwillingness to see work as an end in itself, that's so prevelant now it almost seems like human nature.

The work/leisure dichotomy that underwrites that passive attitude toward pleasure is a commonplace economic assumption about human motivation -- that work is a disutility. And scientific managment schemes worked industriously to make that assumption true by rationalizing and de-skilling most jobs in the workplace and timing all aspects of work so that we all became clockwatchers, covetous of reified time as a kind of precious possession. With workers encouraged constantly to work at optimal efficiency, and with the ideology of convenience and time-saving chiming in and reinforcing it at the sociocultural level, one is likely to feel surprised if left with any time to think. We interpret this freedom to think as a species of underutilization, and we almost resent it, as though our bosses have underestimated us. Boredom is the sullen response, since all initiative to think for ourselves, all cultural validation for autodidacticism, has been effaced from our world. We're trained not to value the luxury of free thought early on, and all craft knowledge that derives from it is now dispersed throughout coroporate management bureaucracies, and educational bureaucracies. (Braverman, in Labor and Monoply Capital, explains a lot of this.)

Hence the suspicion and condescension the business world heaps on those who seek higher degrees in the liberal-arts fields -- this sad hopeless lot which refuses to see reason, and treat knowledge as solely instrumental. Their motives are unfathomable, since they cannot be measured in money.

The primary function of the culture industry is to habituate workers to their fate (to routinely expect boredom, and to see the oscillation out in and out of states of boredom as the only kind of joy) under capitalism as capitalism removes all alternatives, ends the possibility of work that is meaningful to the worker and allows her any craft knowledge, and hence a meaningful class-specific culture of which to be proud, from which to derive a satisfying self-concept.

Kipnis, at the end of Against Love, actually broaches this same issue, arguing that marital boredom mirrors workplace boredom, and both are assuaged by easy, routinized consumption. Kipnis points out that love for commodities can ease your inability to love your job or your spouse, and love itself becomes a commodity, malleable and manufactured, a disposable serial substitute to meaningful work and a nurturing social order. One might add that love is now necessarily a commodity in our current climate, as our ability to respond emotionally to anything that's more dynamic than a static object has atrophied. We prefer it as a commodity, which seems more convenient to us than its messier organic forms.

Another interesting corollary: married workers, with their stake in a bad system, will more likely go along with it without complaint. Married people are proven to be meek and compliant by their very assent to such a flawed contract. (And just today on's insipid home page I saw a report of a study claiming married people are more productive than unmarrieds.)

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