On Being Bored

My research and writing sometimes focuses on subjects and destabilizing subjectivity to create new possibilities. This research interest draws me to psychoanalysis and queer theory because of their ability to intervene into other disciplines notions of subjectivity and question the completeness and foundations of subjectivity. I mention this because of where and when I found the article that I will soon discuss. While completing my Mass Culture field, I read a collection of essays by Siegfried Kracauer and was taken back by his simple, yet provocative essay “Boredom.” Here is a short introduction into the work of a not-read-as-much-as-he-should-be Frankfurt School Scholar.

Siegfried Kracauer positions subjects as under bourgeoisie domination, which overpowers memory and distracts subjects from reality.[1] This domination reveals itself in “surface-level expressions,” which depict how a culture functions, the economic base, cultural hierarchies, dominant ideals, and subjects as alienated and sacrificing themselves to the larger mechanized order (reality).[2] Despite cultural domination, Kracauer does not position subjects as passive, but as a molded and still cognizant. Because surface-level expressions reveal more than they conceal, mindful consumers can see past the spectacle and into the injustices. Capitalists use sentimentalism and spectacle to make the bourgeoisie position amiable and desirable, hindering this revelation.[3]

Kracauer examines a similar potential in his discussion of space. Different spaces position subjects differently; suburbanites move with purpose due to the distance between spaces, while city dwellers move more aimlessly. Both face rising standardization in the experience of time, space, and commodities available, but location alters their experience and time spent on capitalists’ desired routes.[4] The standardization of experience causes alienation from their particularity. Alienation can cause subjects to seek momentary relief through religion, group politics, or commodities, which promise the truth, but ultimately distract.[5] Subjects can avoid these momentary satiations by committing to “hesitant openness,” a position of repose and reflection in a system that creates subjectivities and spectacular spaces that attempt to deter contemplation.[6] Certain spaces and moods facilitate hesitant openness, such as the aimless hotel lobby and boredom.[7]

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He begins “Boredom” with a campy sentence; “People today who still have time for boredom and yet and are bored are certainly just as boring as those who never get around to being bored.” Cultural conditions never allow us to be bored, but certainly allow subjects to be boring. Subjects have nothing to say about anything of interest because they are all occupied by the same mass culture. The subject is lost in a world where he or she must always be busy either doing something (work, child-rearing, or leisure) or fretting over what it is that they must do. When subjects are not “busy,” they occupy themselves with hobbies (such as blogging?).

The boredom he discusses is not the kind achieved through repetitious labor (this crushes subjects and because subjects still have to do something in this process), instead a position of “radical boredom” is where one can just be. We never get to boredom because mass culture occupies us: “One forgets oneself in the process of gawking, and the huge dark hole is animated with the illusion of a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone” (332). He discusses people standing and sitting next to each other, not having boring conversation or wondering if their existence is significant, but engaged with the latest popular trend, looking as if they were not present. Radical boredom creates a space where one pushes out the daily noise and is simply present. Through this position, there lies the possibility to see the world  as dull, predictable, as dead. Subjects could reject this world that was fabricated for them. New ideas would come to them, allowing world-making.

Kracauer offers an interesting approach to creating new subjectivities. Boredom is not the solution to the world’s problems. (Could you imagine a world of people sitting in boredom?) However, what he provides is one position that subjects can occupy. He points out a space that is not available to us and shows its potential. The difficulty and feelings of “wasting one’s time” by being bored will have to be tackled. We have been trained to think that idleness and repose are insufficient ways of using one’s time. Additionally, what kind of politics can be created out of this?  I would have to say that there is no political project in boredom. Instead, it can be a momentary rejection of the world that allows the mind to wander. This wandering allows subjects access to something normally denied— contemplation. No massive movement will start from this, but perhaps it can provide an opportunity to be more engaged with one’s world and being. The only clear objective we can have is to facilitate this through creating spaces that allow for relaxation and timelessness, such as Kracauer’s  hotel lobby.

What is for sure is that boredom will have to be actively sought by subjects.


[1] Siegfried Kracauer “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,” “Photography,” and “On Bestsellers and their Audiences”                                         

[2]Siegfried Kracauer “The Mass Ornament”

[3]Siegfried Kracauer “The Mass Ornament,” “The Little Shopgirls Go to the Movies,” and “On Bestsellers and their Audiences.”

[4]Siegfried Kracauer “Analysis of a City Map” and “Travel and Dance”

[5] Siegfried Kracauer “Group as Bearer of Idea”

[6]Siegfried Kracauer “Those Who Wait,” “Boredom,” and “Cult of Distraction”

[7] Siegfried Kracauer “The Hotel Lobby”

These essays all appear in The Mass Ornament by Kracauer

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1 Comment

Filed under Frankfurt School, Mass Culture, Subjectivity

One response to “On Being Bored

  1. Serendipitously, a friend of mine has also blogged about boredom recently (bit different tack, but maybe useful) http://lookinggoodinpants.blogspot.com/2010/07/bored-is-as-bored-doesnt-or-boredom.html

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