FROM IDLE TIME TO TIME OF IDOLS
Professor T has delivered a finely crafted reflection on boredom as seen through the philosophical prism. He begins by tracing a genealogy of the notion of malaise, which he links to the emergence of modernity. However, T’s main concern is not this concept, which is why its intrinsic link to modernity remains somewhat buried in his argument. If he had used some Foucault, T’s reasoning may have simply set the symptomatology of malaise as immanent to the rise of modernity, instead of being its by-product. But that’s his methodological option, and I respect it.
Prior to establishing the specific linking mechanism between his main topic, boredom, and malaise, T ventures us through the culture of German Romanticism. He converges upon Heidegger as the one to draw out an explicit connection between boredom and the malaise that beset the German spirit. Boredom is posited by Heidegger as an existential category, fundamental to the being in the world of Dasein. The reckoning made by Heidegger of the need to attribute an authentic experience to boredom is sufficient grounds, as far as T is concerned, for connecting such a view of boredom to Nazism, especially when the progression of Heidegger’s own political career is taken into account.
Yet, as T shows, there is an alternative to sliding from boredom into the need for a collective epiphany, which fascist regimes have dramatized and implemented. This has to do with identifying boredom as essentially the outcome of leisure. Now, T’s take on leisure draws less from contemporary accounts of the significance of the “leisure society”, than it does from the perception the ancient Greeks, and especially Aristotle, had of it. But by making this choice, T leaves a key categorical choice unresolved and indeed latent in his presentation, which is that boredom in contemporary society is best explained by referring back to the way boredom relates to modernity. Nothing is less certain than this presupposition.
In his epoch-making classification of the virtues, Aristotle gave a special place to leisure as the precondition for achieving the highest manifestation of virtue. Aristotle’s account of leisure becomes an ethical journey, by which leisure is a condition to be earned and preserved. To be sure, this is far from the way our society considers leisure. T argues that our relationship and conception of leisure is anything but ethical. And he strives to strip aesthetic connotations from leisure as well.
T gives little in the way of debate as to the tie between boredom and time, especially vacant or idle time, when not leisure time. As far as I see it, the omission of a more detailed discussion is symptomatic of a liberal democratic view to restrict boredom to idle time. By contrast, boredom connects to something quite different than leisure, as far as I’m concerned. For boredom is tied to the general types of labor-based options our society and indeed our industry supplies, and entrenched in the division of labor existing in our society.
In that regard, I would argue that it isn’t merely the cultural products favored by most of the public which accounts for the spreading of boredom, notwithstanding distinctions of class. It is the very notion of capitalist division of labor which does. As T points out in his quote from Fukuyama, the way for the modern man and woman to overcome boredom is to engage in the heroics of extreme sports or cutting-edge innovation. Fukuyama gives us the beautiful ideal of creating our own jobs to create our own lives (just see the May 25 issue of Time Magazine, “The Future of Work”, for a variation on this theme: “[…] there’s a world of opportunity. If you can figure out a new path”). But what is the percentage of the public to which such an option is truly available?
In terms of the deceptions cited by Charles Taylor as produced by modern society, none perhaps is deeper and more harmful to the representation of self shaping citizen-consumers than this one. In an increasingly automated world, in which any number of boring jobs is sent abroad, the laboring classes are left with plenty of idle time to contemplate how to turn idleness into the dream of being an idol. If this is pertinent, then it points to a lack of contextualization in T’s discussion.
Now, whatever one might think of an intrinsic link between Heidegger’s phenomenology and his political commitments, there is little doubt about how cutting edge his sensibilities were on the existential moods (Stimmung), regarding being-for-death, care as well as boredom. Yet just like I feel T’s phenomenological rendering of the genealogy of boredom at times lacks contextualization, i.e. we move from the culture industry to modernity with hardly a mention of a plausibly fundamental split between the two, which in other circles would prompt the category of post-modernity, so also do I feel that steeping Heidegger’s existentials in a literal reading of authenticity ends up depriving us of the aesthetic impact his categories otherwise have.
Just contemplate the late Zen-Buddhist composer John Cage’s thoughts on boredom. Cage once explained that “If something is boring after two minutes, try it for four. If still boring, then eight. Then sixteen. Then thirty-two. Eventually one discovers that it is not boring at all.” Here we have a conception of boredom which has little if anything to do with the existentialist finality, and indeed passive fatality, of waiting for a time of redemption, or for that God, whose coming, Heidegger proclaimed in the infamous Der Spiegel interview, was the only thing that could save us. Cage’s commitment to boredom is minimalist to the extreme. But it is a possibility open to anyone doing basically anything. As such, there is no need for the patriarchal Athenian slave-state democracy of Aristotle’s time to render leisure its own authenticity. The boredom-leisure complex need not return to a more authentic relationship to be saved.
This need is something I cannot help but infer as being expressed in T’s paper. Through an alignment with Taylor’s reading of modernity especially, T seeks out, without saying as much, the more authentic conception of leisurely activity, i.e. of leisure untarnished by boredom, which he finds in Aristotle. The title of his paper should have read: let’s go to the Lyceum, instead of to the movies.
The drawback for a minimalist approach, in the Cagein vein, is how it appears to be aesthetic only in the sense of applying to the experience of art. Minimalist aesthetes have gone out of their way to underscore how art appears through a minimalist spectrum to be available for anyone to create. Aesthetics then becomes economics, i.e. a way to govern one’s home, very similar indeed to what led Aristotle to engage in his Politics. Miniminalism, like punk, has stressed every person’s creative potential. And I consider the following statement by Robert Rauschenberg to stipulate just that:
“Boredom and understanding are the same thing: I usually work in a direction until I know how to do it, then I stop. At the time that I am bored or understand — I use those words interchangeably — another appetite has formed. A lot of people try to think up ideas. I’m not one. I’d rather accept the irresistible possibilities of what I can’t ignore.”
This is where the singularity of our time, as opposed to the tensions and dynamics of modernity, once again come to bear. Referring now to the introductory citation to T’s paper, it is often said that Adorno and Horkheimer, despite their Marxist background, were elitist when it came to pondering the specifics of the culture industry. The way Adorno lumped jazz in with the mere entertainment products typical of the cultural industry tainted him forever with the elitist dye. While I don’t believe that elitist is an appropriate description of Adorno – and I’m certainly not referring here to his intellectual, say, “aristocracy”, i.e. culture of being the best, which characterizes all of the great innovators and thinkers – I do believe his conceptions are pre-contemporary. In that regard, even Guy Debord, the Situationist, remains pre-contemporary in certain ways, as when he abides by the notion of an avant-garde literary and artistic movement, no matter how vacant any situationist movement really was, structurally speaking. This is best represented when Debord proclaims that “boredom is always counter-revolutionary.” Leonard Cohen would probably join in this contempt for boredom when complaining of being “sentenced to twenty years of boredom” in “First we take Manhattan, then we take Berlin.”
However, it was Debord, an archetypical artistic punk, who dared, even before Godard, to construct a film around a black image – black on black in the darkness of the cinematic cell. (Is this the movie T has invited us to see?) Godard himself used such a superposition to transcend the lower art form status of cartoons, cut-up editing gimmicks, the Marxist social-realist aesthetic, and cinema itself to make entertainment in a form that, at least in its appearance, is open to everyone to create, and is often “boring” as hell.
So T’s plea that modernity does not have to be boring may be a way of pointing to the great art works that a more virtuous, Greek, sense of the aesthetic life may end up prompting us to consider.
However, once we argue in favor of a radical split between the contemporary and the modern, which some theories and other trendists have called post-modernism, the experience of boredom points to two further analytical options. First, generalized boredom is linked less to idle time than to labor. Here lies the possibility of transcending Debord and one’s atomism. Second, boredom is the tip of creation, the becoming of Andy Warhol’s potential that each and every one may become famous for an instant, in which idleness crosses with a desire for idolatry, idle to idol to conjure away the black on black.
If we are contemporary minimalists, that which comes from it all this homegrown art ought to escape judgment. On the other hand, if we are modernist, it prompts calls for a more authentic conception of the idol and the ideal.
In other words, for a minimalist seeking to be rid of all deceptions including those of the ideals and idols of others, self-assertive boredom is not only healthy: it’s cool.