In Praise of Boredom

The modern life of a timeless condition

In a culture where fast replies, constant stimulation and the omnipresence of social media rule the day, you might not expect that boredom is a booming business. Yet it is true: scholars from philosophy, psychology, art history, sociology and history—among others—have all tossed in their two cents on this suddenly fashionable subject, and not just by boring their own students. You can tell an academic publishing phenomenon is well and truly arrived when Routledge, that marker of all trends in the world of ideas, publishes a volume called The Boredom Studies Reader: Frameworks and Perspectives. (Full disclosure: I have an essay in this anthology.) Articles in academic trade magazines about the boredom boom have all made the same joke: is it possible that boredom will soon itself become overexposed, and hence boring?

Not yet. The subject keeps shifting its registers and modalities along with cultural and, especially, technological circumstance. The most profound philosophers of boredom—Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger—strove to chart its terrain for eternal metaphysical verities, but the plain truth is that boredom is a condition inextricable from particular circumstance. There may be common features in the experience of boredom itself, the restlessness and “paradoxical wish for a desire,” as the psychoanalyst Adam Phillips put it; but we cannot estimate boredom’s force accurately without bearing witness to social and political context.

The latter feature is mostly underestimated. Boredom is often associated with the expanded leisure time and individualism of the modern era, and that is true as far as it goes—although we should note some of boredom’s more ancient forebears such as acedia, “the noonday demon” of inaction and lack of interest in all things that was said to afflict cloistered monks. This “sorrow of the world,” as Thomas Aquinas called it, involved a state of listlessness about things that relates to both modern-day depression and the cognate sin of sloth. It was considered a failure of duty to the divine gift, possibly a step on the fatal road to suicide, that affront to the Holy Spirit itself.

Secular boredom of the more recent past is at once more common and less serious. It is often considered an affliction of the childish or immature mind, the self with no ability to sustain interest in something. “Only boring people are bored,” many a mother has said to a complaining child, a statement that is idiotic as well as unhelpful. You will likewise hear people say, in tones of pride, that they are “easily bored”—as if this were a mark of mental discernment, an unwillingness to be easily pleased, when it is probably more like a mental defect. But to the bored person, and I assume that means all of us at one time or another, boredom is no minor thing; at an extreme, say as experienced by a long-term prisoner in solitary, it amounts to a kind of torture; less spectacularly, it is dissipating and unpleasant. Our minds, at whatever level of maturity, crave stimulation. Boredom, whatever its degree of severity, amounts to a stall or block in the self’s relation to its world. Foiling this stall or breaking open the block can feel like emerging into sunlight after a long enforced darkness.

Because all boredom is relational in this way, it can be difficult to get the account of it right. A character in one of Kingsley Amis’s novels explains that his wife is very boring, but that she gets angry at the suggestion—for the wife, her being boring is something the husband is doing. This is meant to be funny but it contains an important kernel of truth. Why, exactly, do some of us find others of us boring? Why, by the same token, can the very same activity—listening to opera, fishing, watching a baseball game—count as bliss to one person and as a mental thumbscrew to another?

Part of the answer resides in the tangled undergrowth of taste, that most unreliable of aesthetic and cultural concepts. Since there is no accounting for it, taste will not help us much here—or, at least, it will not help us any more than it helps anything else, including the philosophy of art or late-night discussions of pop music. At such a point, many people would be inclined to look to psychology for a decent account of boredom, and indeed there is now a vast literature on the subject in that quarter alone. The results are mostly unsurprising: boredom is a matter of intolerable levels of underexcitement; it can be “cured” through new stimulus or mental exercises that help avoid this and other “mindtraps” such as procrastination, to which it bears some relation. (Both are conditions in which there is a second-order desire with respect to a missing first-order desire: I wish I wanted to do something instead of just sitting here. I want to want to do my taxes, but I can’t get down to it.)

But however accurate and even helpful, psychological accounts of boredom always seem to miss two crucial points. The first is an old insight, articulated best by Heidegger although also by Schopenhauer. Maybe boredom is not something we should be fleeing; it might be an important symptom of a more general existential malaise that bears thinking about. After all, boredom signals a problem with the world and our place in it. The second point is one best made, to my mind, by Theodor Adorno, whose excoriation of boredom is part of a larger, wholesale critique of modern capitalist society. You can scoff at this, of course, but Adorno was the first to see that contemporary boredom is a function not just of modernity but specifically of the political constructions of work and leisure. Boredom is ideology.

One does not have to share Adorno’s ire about camping, suntanning, television and other largely harmless weekend pursuits to appreciate how he anticipates a central feature of contemporary boredom, namely its relation to addiction. Once we of-the-moment phone-heads appreciate fully that boredom is driven by extra-psychological factors, factors that are beyond the purview of the individual qua individual, we can begin to see the relational, dynamic lines of influence from our screens to our states of mind. This should be obvious but is still denied, or ignored, by those who set undue store by the idea of mental self-control. Since we all have ample evidence of the weakness of the human mind, in particular of the will, when responding to mental excitement this amounts to denial. Thus the most vivid portrait of boredom from our own day is the familiar picture of someone, maybe even several people apparently sitting together, with eyes glued to a smartphone screen and fingers flicking, flicking, flicking. What do those people want? What do they not want?

These people are not in that moment bored, or at least they would likely deny being so if asked. The point is rather that this behaviour is intended to ward off any lurking boredom, to forestall the block before it has a chance to form. There is likewise a kind of anxiety functioning here, even if the outward appearance is calm. People do not want to miss anything, or fall out of touch, or have to rely on their own internal thoughts—to say nothing of having to converse with their like-minded phone-scrolling tablemates, an unthinkable prospect. What we observe here, in short, is a quietly desperate attempt, always doomed to fail, to stave off any encounter between the self and its desires. Boredom is the invisible, because exorcised, spectre that nevertheless haunts the whole scene.

The addictive aspect here resides in the endless quest to find satisfaction from the scrolling. The interfaces of certain devices and platforms are specifically designed to prevent satisfaction, even while promising it. Facebook’s endless feed, Twitter’s unrelenting chirps of messaging, the streams of texts from friends and co-workers, the email inbox that never reaches zero—these are all, philosophically speaking, versions of those feed boxes in rat experiments where an edible pellet drops with every successful push of a button.

Media are like any other drug, in short, and should be treated with due respect for their harmful qualities. They are not neutral, as if there were no in-built tendencies meant to drive us to addictive behaviour. On the contrary, that is exactly what they are meant to do—and what they succeed in doing, as long as we let them. No wonder there is now a thriving counter-industry of articles and books defending silence, solitude, media vacation and the like. These range from the compelling (Andrew Sullivan’s account of his turn away from social media) to the middling (Michael Harris’s argument for solitude, something Anthony Storr, among others, treated with far more nuance) to the banal (Katrina Onstad’s pop-sociology defence of the weekend, for which Witold Rybczynski made a vastly superior argument).

Against this background, let it be said that studying boredom will not solve our problems with respect to desire and its tangles; nothing but death can do that! But Heidegger was right that the correct attitude to boredom is one of rigorous fascination.

It is hard to imagine two more different books that attempt to offer that fascination than these. One is a breezy first-personal account of a writer’s immersion in the subject—although it is really more of a toe-dip. The other is a serious but entertaining anthology of high-level thinking and writing about modern art and its long preoccupation with the condition. I am sure my proclivities will be more than clear in what follows; YMMV, as the kids say.

Mary Mann’s Yawn: Adventures in Boredom reads a bit like Geoff Dyer but without the English writer’s insight, reliable wit and sheer sense of pleasure in encountering the world. Dyer Lite, I guess. Like Dyer in Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It and Out of Sheer Rage, Mann uses her own consciousness as a sounding board for a theme. The early chapters offer some accurate conclusions about Americans’ relation to work—most people are bored by their jobs, yet do not see this as a problem to be solved—but these are not pursued very far. Inevitably, she cites the psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the experience of “flow” as both the cure for boredom and the ground zero of human contentment—claims that are not incorrect, just hackneyed given that Csikszentmihalyi himself has said as much in his writings and much-viewed TED talk.

Unlike Dyer, Mann does not explore a larger intellectual context for her musings, nor does she, despite the high-spirited sound of “adventures” in her subtitle, and chapter headings such as “In a Cubicle with the Desert Fathers” and “Bored in Baghdad,” venture very widely. Barring a trip from New York to Kansas City and various forays from her apartment to her college library, a sex-toy store event or the local cinema, she does not seem to go anywhere at all. She does interview a wide variety of characters, from scientists to soldiers—they were the ones bored in Baghdad—but these figures come and go like ghosts behind a scrim whose front stage has just one player. Maybe even more inevitably, we learn of her family history of depression, her easy irritability and the college boyfriend who cheated on her. (Was he bored?)

Reading about boredom should not, ideally, be itself boring; nor should a writer’s account of her own restlessness make the reader restless in a different way, calling for an exercise of will not to flip through the pages in a fast scan or, worse, fling it across the room. (I did my duty for you, LRC readers, by reading the whole thing.) This is a book so relentlessly personal, yet so unilluminating, that I am tempted to say that the only ideal reader for it is Mary Mann herself, or maybe someone who desperately wants to be her friend. These persons may exist, but I am not one of them, even though she seems a decent sort with a fair sense of humour that happens to stand about three stages below what she imagines. By the end, I felt kind of sorry for her—not because, by her account, she is easily bored and anxious, and thus found herself driven to write about the topic; but rather because she writes about it in a way that turns the profound into the inane.

No mean feat, that, and perhaps an object lesson of some kind. Do not seek insight from middle-range talent when high-level genius has already quartered the field. It might be said of a certain species of wide-eyed, earnest first-person book that it reads as if the intended reader had encountered no other books in the world; this member of the species would add to that passive insult the aggressive desire not to read any more books ever, if this is what all books are like.

The good news is that they are not all like that, and many contemporary writers and artists—not to mention philosophers and social critics—have illuminated the topic with great style. There are a couple of nice (for me) points of contact between Yawn and Tom McDonough’s valuable tome on artists John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Jasper Johns, Donald Judd, Ad Reinhardt, Gerhard Richter, Andy Warhol and others. They help illustrate why the way to take boredom seriously, and so to do it justice, is to take yourself out of the equation, especially if your pose is Mann’s style of “wry,” not-taking-myself-seriously self-regard.

The first such point of contact comes well into the self-absorbed tale, where Mann says this: “So much modern art is deliberately monochrome, slow, or repetitive—even John Baldessari’s declaration ‘I will not make any more boring art’ is presented as a repeating line of text, over and over. I will not make any more boring art, I will not make any more boring art, I will not make any more boring art … more like a meta joke than a serious motto.” Um, yes: it’s a joke! Maybe even a meta joke! Clearly Mary Mann’s little Manhattan world must be a largely irony-free zone; and that is not surprising—she is an American journalist, after all. (Meta joke!) But honestly, if you don’t find Baldessari’s gesture at least a little bit funny, in part because it is being clever about being clever about art and its pretentions, then—well, I suppose Mary Mann might be the new best friend you’ve been looking for.

The second linkage is even more significant. She quotes John Cage, who was offering a serious motto, or manifesto, when he said, “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If it is still boring, try it for eight, sixteen, thirty, and so on. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all but very interesting.” Citing Cage’s 4’33’ as “his most famous example of this strategy,” she warns that this was “a big ask, and one that didn’t always pan out for Cage, who remains a controversial figure in music history.” It sounds as if being controversial were somehow akin to being insane or, worse, incompetent of normal judgement. “How do you bore people,” Mann asks, “without making them hate you?” Because obviously making people hate you is a really, really bad thing to do, even for an artist.

To be fair, Mann does try to deal with art in the last chapter of her book, where she interviews artist Nina Katchadourian, who makes awesome self-portraits in airplane lavatories during long, boring flights, using only her iPhone and memories of 17th-century Dutch painting. Mann also quotes Ernst Gombrich’s canonical “Pleasures of Boredom” essay with what seems like approval, or at least lack of obvious bafflement. But by then, I felt, the jig was up. Mann’s self-description as “a boredom investigator” had become tiresome, her quest a dead end—and not in the good, Sartrean sense.

What I disliked most about this book, I suppose, was its air of too easily assumed importance, as if the personal story (I’ve become obsessed with boredom!) and the slightly smug half-intellectual tone, all too reminiscent of the worst kind of NPR feature, immediately deserved our attention. One then cannot be surprised by the corporate-style acknowledgments, where the first thank-you is to “my wonderful and sympathetic agent,” or the aggressive trade marketing campaign. The author’s bio note includes this sentence that I wish I had never seen in print: “If you’re jonesing for more boredom-related news, art, gossip, GIFs, and all sorts of other detritus that didn’t fit into this book, visit her online at yawnthebook.com.” One has questions. What is “boredom-related” gossip? And boredom GIFs, really? Also why, if it’s worth looking at, did the “other detritus” not “fit” into a book that is not even 165 pages long?

Just the usual cover-copy bullshit, you might argue. But the material inside the covers is ultimately far worse than even the laziest pages of Alain de Botton or Malcolm Gladwell, those smiling brain-servants of the current arrangement. This is popular writing about ideas that is really just middlebrow culture-industry product—the sort of thing, as Adorno wrote of bad Hollywood movies, that has the effect of making you feel “stupider, and worse.”

There are many ways in which modern art has approached, appropriated and deployed boredom. Cage’s dictum about time articulates a classical position. He begins by suggesting that the problem of boredom lies with the perceiver, not the thing perceived. In such a case, demand more and longer. This enjoinder is consistent with Cage’s interest in Zen thinking, the power of the mantra or the incantation, and the penetration of ordinary perception with forms of ritual repetition and extension. He almost undermines the argument by suggesting that the perceived thing (“it”) at some point ceases to be boring, but the real point is that we, the perceivers, reach a point of wisdom at which we no longer perceive it as such. We are the ones who have been changed, not it—for it, after all, is just what it always was, only over and over again.

For the record, I have never personally found a performance of 4’33’ boring in the least, nor have the students for whom I regularly stage or screen these performances. (I am not quite sure how I feel about the 4’33’ app, which you can download for your iPhone at johncage.org/4_33.html, then use to record and share your own “performance” of the piece.)

The point is not to redeem boredom by rendering it inert through interest, but to challenge our perception that something is boring in the first place. Moreover, although some Mary Mannequins may be bored by it, 4’33’ is not really about boredom. It does not deliberately invite that experience for aesthetic and philosophical purposes. Rather, its purview is time, silence and sound—plus the very idea of a musical composition. The key insight about modern art and boredom comes instead, as so often, from Warhol: “I’ve been quoted a lot as saying ‘I like boring things.’ Well, I said it and I meant it. But that doesn’t mean I’m not bored by them.”

That little mini-manifesto merits a whole display page in McDonough’s handsomely designed volume, which has a nice chunky trim size, French flaps and thick uncoated paper stock—features I mention because they render the book something you want to spend time with. Other artists featured in Boredom are even more explicit in their play with the idea than Warhol, including my personal favourites the Situationists (on the dérive, or aimless urban drift) and Georges Perec (on the tedious catalogue of things that happen on one Parisian street corner). Indeed, there is a dizzying array of approaches represented in this book, which is the best I have seen on the subject of modern art’s relation to the subject.

In addition to artists themselves, critics such as Nicolas Bourriaud, David Foster Wallace, Susan Sontag, Simone de Beauvoir, Betty Friedan, Greil Marcus and Dick Hebdige are all present to contextualize the subject and the related artworks. Elders such as Georg Simmel and Walter Benjamin also make brief appearances. The resulting collection is not one to read from cover to cover, however. Like some of the best anthologies—a word whose etymology suggests a gathering of flowers—this book is one you will want to keep close by, to pull down and dip into. McDonough’s editing style is suitable to the age: most of the selections are short, though also well annotated, and this is just as well, given that some are as dense as you would expect.

For some readers, even ones well versed in the subject, there will be happy surprises. I was pleased to see the Invisible Committee, those irascible and hilarious nihilists, included here, complaining about the faux-therapeutic character of contemporary culture. “All those ‘How’s it goings?’ that we exchange give the impression of a society composed of patients taking each other’s temperature,” they grumble in an excerpt from The Coming Insurrection. “Sociability is now made up of a thousand little niches, a thousand little refuges where you can take shelter. Where it’s always better than the bitter cold outside.”

McDonough has been eclectic in his choices, such that the cumulative effect is not just an excellent primer on boredom—better than The Boredom Studies Reader, I am compelled to say—but also a fine handbook of critical social and aesthetic theory. If the book has a fault, it is that the focus on art becomes less important as one goes on. This is compounded by the fact that, apart from section heads that feature full-page type treatment of call-out quotations, there is no graphic art and no reproduced art. (To be sure, some of the art in play is not visual, or otherwise easily captured between covers.) This is thus very much an intellectual’s book about boredom. To paraphrase Miss Jean Brodie, that dedicated (and fascist-admiring) enemy of boredom, for those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you will like. Count me in.

One aspect of boredom and art that is missing from the book—and I offer this as a suggestion for further exploration, not as a criticism of the book—is an appreciation of boredom in fiction and film. Even from the very same cultural context that figures in the book, one might mention the novels of Jean-Patrick Manchette, where bourgeois boredom in post-1968 consumer culture is disrupted by sudden outbursts of criminal violence. Michel Houellebecq’s novels, in a later and bleaker register, make similar arguments. The films of Austrian master Michael Haneke skewer middle class complacency with elements of both sensibilities. These are thrilling, unsettling works of art about the social relations of production and its strongest emergent property, boredom. They are not boring.

Naturally there remains a place for those works that are themselves enervating, making the experience of art its own endgame. When I wrote a book about the Empire State Building, Nearest Thing to Heaven, I considered subjecting myself to a screening of Andy Warhol’s 1964 film Empire, which consists in a single slow-motion shot of the building sustained for eight hours and five minutes. I won’t lie to you: I did not watch the whole thing. This was in part because Warhol himself averred that the unwatchability of the film was part of its point. Not for me to dispute with the master about his own creation.

Speaking of film, lists of top-ten boring films are a cottage industry in listicle-style journalism (Elizabethtown, The English Patient and Kevin Costner’s post-apocalyptic turkey The Postman often appear). But to list Empire with these is to commit a category mistake: they intended to entertain, at least among other goals; Warhol did not. But it is not always easy to say what a work of art wants from us. As a parting note, I offer the following confession. For years, every time I tried to watch Wim Wenders’s acknowledged masterpiece, Wings of Desire, I would fall asleep. No matter how caffeinated or determined, whether midday or early evening, the thing reliably sent me to the Land of Nod. Was it me, or was it the film? Is this celebrated work of art, I wondered, in fact a very boring film?

Here is an answer that may prove a key to future investigation. The movie is dreamy, and so boring in just the way dreams are: revelatory, strange, plumbing the depths of what the conscious, ordered mind cannot appreciate. This is not the only thing art does, nor is it the only lesson boredom teaches. But we should always heed that which makes us feel like we are losing our firm grip on the ordinary world. Call it a text message from the unconscious. TTYL.