John Berryman’s Dream Song #14
Life, friends, is boring. We must not say so.
After all, the sky flashes, the great sea yearns,
we ourselves flash and yearn,
and moreover my mother told me as a boy
(repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored
means you have no
Inner Resources.” I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature,
Henry bores me, with his plights & gripes
as bad as Achilles,
who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
And the tranquil hills, & gin, look like a drag
and somehow a dog
has taken itself & its tail considerably away
into the mountains or sea or sky, leaving
behind: me, wag.
Ghita Schwarz: “A Case of Boredom” (TALK ABOUT THE CONTEXT – THE MAGAZINE)
Some time ago I discovered boredom. Or rather, boredom discovered me, moving into my body like a happy parasite. Soon boredom took over everything, ate at every action and activity, reading, talking, eating, even sleeping.
There was no knock at the door: BOREDOM HAS ARRIVED. Instead, I noticed one day that nothing seemed worth saying. Not “I LOVE YOU” , not “I’m TIRED” not “TIME TO GET UP” I’d know I was bored in sleep because I’d wake up and have no energy to remember a dream. Before sitting up to turn off the alarm, I’d remember that I was bored, that there was no reason to wash and dress.
For a few minutes, my sense of obligation – go to work, you have so much work! Would battle my desire to stop moving, and the internal struggle iself would provide enough fuel to get me to the coffee machine, to the shower, to my toothbrush, to my clothes, comb, coffe, cup, shoes. I’d start feeling bored again as soon as I touched my coat.
When I exited the subway, I would check my cell phone to see if “something” had “happened” while I was underground. Thus was the phrase my family used for emergenzies. If no message icon soon appeard, I’d call my sister just in case
I could hear the fear in her voice almost before she started speaking. “Has something happened?” she would say, tight and calm.
“no” I would answer… “nothing has happened.”
What does this have to do with this class?
More specifically, why am I talking about Boredom?
Who cares? HOW BORING!
Yet, to bore you would be the greatest transgression I could commit here today in this classroom. who wants to be bored?
For me, as the presenter, the last thing I want to be is labeled a bore (though, I fear that I may be too late on this issue). Cecil Beaton says “Perhaps the world’s second worst crime is boredom. The first is being a bore.”
Who wants to be called boring?
Today, my plan is to do my best to refrain boring you by talking about some very NON-BORING subjects;
Death, Industriousness, Theory, Sex, Shame, Memory, The Inner Ear….
And Pierre Bourdieu. Unfortunately, I am going to be talking about Pierre Bourdieu. A lot.
Now that I have titillated you with the enticing subject matter of death and sex, the reason why I am going to be talking about BOREDOM is to answer (or to attempt ananswer) the question that Dr. Frank has been positing all semester:
“WHAT DO YOU WANT FROM A THEORIST.?”
This question has been annoying to me, because I could not come up with an easy answer. And if you know anything about me at all, you know that there is nothing I like more than easy answers.
What am I looking for in a theory/theorist? (Online dating profile)
I am looking for a theory that is flexible enough to use without collapsing. That is, the overall quality of the theory is such that I can actually use it. The theorist I am using presents a theory with room to build, expand, alter, and do not claim totalizing “this is it!!” knowledge of the social world. The quality aspect, for me, also speaks to the clarity of the theory, as the more clearly a theory is laid out, the less work there is for me to do to uncover the parts that I can actually use. Specifically,
I am looking for a theorist that, when higher level sociologists than myself read my work, (people meaning: defense committee, article reviewers) will not say, for example: “Why in gods name would you be using Bourdieu? On those grounds alone, we are not publishing!” This speaks to the idea that theories are not easily disproved, they rust. How much rust is there on this theorist? Is there a non-rusty theorist saying a similar thing, but in a new, more relevant way?
I am looking for a theorist to provide insight for me, that allow me to see through their eyes. I am looking for answers to questions I did not know I had. Things that were once invisible to me, through theory, become visible. A good theory is good to the extent that you can’t help but to see it everywhere you look. Of course, this gets tricky when sociologists in training increase their theoretical repertoire, as many theories and theorists look at the same social phenomena and tell you completely opposite things about it, and it is left to the reader to choose a side.
Digression: Does anyone here watch the television program HEROES? I am assuming that only a few of us have, so I will give a brief synopsis here: Heroes is a weekly one hour Drama that is about a group of people discovering that they have “EVOLVED,” and now have “Super powers” – the show is set in the “Real world,” and is about people coming to terms with being genetically advanced from the rest of humanity. For example, telekinesis, super strength, invisibility, the ability to fly.
One character (Peter) has the ability to “absorb” the abilities of other heroes he comes into contact with – so when he is with his brother who can fly, he can fly as well… on and on. That is what a good theorist does for me
I am looking for a theorist to help me take my work somewhere. That is, here I am, a new sociologist looking for direction to take my work (and sociology in general). Using a specific theory (or theorist), where can we go? How far can you take me? This is where my prior point becomes important: I am assuming that,
I am looking for a theorist that provides me with inspiration. I want to get excited about what I am learning; I want EUREKA! Moments, epiphanies (or at least moments of extreme clarity), and more than anything hope that my project as a sociologist is worthwhile. If they don’t provide hope for my project, they provide hopeful alternatives – that is a possibility of hope somewhere else.
I am also looking for a theorist who likes long walks, French New Wave cinema, browsing book stores, owns a turntable and who knows the great little hidden cafes.
So what does that have to do with boredom?
Well, the short answer is that Boredom is a good a topic as any to use Bourdieu to think with. If Bourdieu does anything for me, he should be able to explain something as mundane as the topic of boredom..
For example: Going back to Berryman’s poem:
My mother told me as a boy / (repeatingly) “Ever to confess you’re bored / means you have no Inner Resources.” AND Peoples bore me, / literature bores me, / especially great literature, ALSO Achilles, / who loves people and valiant art, which bores me.
When we are thinking with Bourdieu, what are we seeing here? At a very superficial level, what would Bourdieu have to see here? The simple answer is HABITUS (“inner resources”), Distinction (“literature bores us”) and Capital (Achilles has more cultural capital than Henry).
Where the connection between Boredom and Bourdieu (or… as I wrote to someone on an instant message this week “BORE-DIEU”) came to me in the final chapter of Pascalian meditations, “Social Being, Time and the Sense of Existence”
Bourdieu talk about time as something one has, that one gains or wastes, lacks or has on one’s hands; “Time-as-thing” (p. 206). To take an interest is to “temporalize oneself,” to MAKE time, in a relationship to the directly perceived present which has nothing in common with a project.
Bourdieu talks about illusio, ones INTEREST IN THE GAME, or what gives sense to existence by leading one to invest in a game, and what is to be expected in the future when playing the game (what Bourdeiu calls the lusiones) the chances, that it offers to those who are caught up in the game and who expect something from it. (p. 207).
Yet, Bourdieu allows for the fact that not all people are caught up in the game, and he says INDIFFERENCE which apprehends the world as devoid of interest and importance, the OPPOSITE of ILLUSIO.
INDIFFERENCE can spring from many sources; for example, participating in a field when one possesses the wrong habitus, or the wrong forms of capital. For me, one of the symptoms of this type of disconnect is Boredom.
We can take this further in Bourdieuvian terms: I read an article for this paper by MICHEAL CROWLY that relates the story of a former private school teacher, who relates his experience teaching the children of the rich or otherwise successful who were clearly on their way to the Ivy League – now and then one would protest, “I don’t want to read Shakespeare – he’s boring!” Sometimes it was Dickens, or Homer, or whatever was long and complex. He would always reply: “No, this is not inherently boring – things are not boring in and of themselves – and what you are really saying is you are bored.”
What would Bourdieu make of that? Of course, by now Bourdieu’s answer becomes clear – absolutely THINGS ARE NOT BORING IN AND OF THEMSELVES. Things are not “OBJECTIVELY” boring; Shakespear, Dickens or HOMER are only boring in relation to the social distance the individual has from being able to take interest in these works. For BOURDIEU, this is what we should be interested in as SOCIOLOGISTS!!
He writes “social scientists regularly forget the economic and social conditions which make possible the ordinary order of practices.” (p. 221).
This includes the “practice” of boredom. As sociologists, we want to understand the “particular conditions” – for example – the forms of capital these individuals possess, their habitus, the fields they operate in
Understanding boredom in a Bourdieuvian sense is to understand that it does not exist in a social vacuum.
ANOTHER example: In his book “A Philosophy of Boredom,” Svendsen notes the historical circumstances surrounding the emergence of boredom. The date he gives is “around 1760”,
This directly connects the beginning of boredom with the beginning of the industrial revolution. The industrial revolution, Fordization of labour lead work in the 19th century duly became unbelievably boring and tedious, and has remained so ever since.
Svendsen also says the term boredom was invented to differentiate boredom from laziness (sloth), as these were seen as two different things. Anyone of us can attest it is quite possible to work hard, with extreme diligence, and simultaneously be bored to tears. Happens all the time. Yes, much different.
DEATH and BOREDOM
BACK TO SCHWARZ:
Our father was dying. As bored as I was living my everyday life, my father was more bored still in his struggle toward death. He had had a heart attack nine years before, followed by bypass surgery and a rare procedure in which the surgeon cut out the dead parts of his heart. Now he was going through the slow deterioration for which there was, as one emergency-room doctor put it, “only so much modern medicine can do.” He had lasted two years past that pronouncement, a period when I began to muse that he might be the exception to the rule.
“What rule?” said a friend.
“The one about everyone ending up dead.”
But on the last visit to the ER, for internal bleeding following a bad reaction to pneumonia antibiotics, something seemed different. He himself began to believe—rather than just fear—that he would die. He would mutter and call, “God bless you, God bless you” and, on occasion, “Oy, mamme.” A nurse reported that he slept in twenty-minute spurts, waking up each time in a state of shaking confusion, begging for his wife and daughters. “Why is he so anxious?” she said.
We decided to spring him and found an inexperienced resident to sign off on the discharge. We thought he had a couple of weeks. But weeks became months. At home in his bed, he entered a lethargic half-sleep state, interrupted by regular coughing and moaning, frequent shouting at my mother, occasional smiles for a cautious visit from his two-year-old granddaughter. My mother’s life became just as boring as his: focused on his food, his sleep, his medicine, his agony.
“He’s all alone,” she said, lying on the couch, hand over her eyes.
It may seem that boredom makes time pass with an agonizing slowness, that boredom makes time last. But boredom is really the enemy of time. It kills the future and denigrates the past. My father lay in his bed, unwilling to get up and brush his teeth, shave, or eat more than a few bites of food. Everything we asked of him was boring, too much work, and for what? No effort would diminish the futureless loneliness.
What are we seeing in Schwarz’s father is the decline of illusio that comes from the state of limbo he lived in? His sense to existence (waiting to die) leading him to uninvest in the game of life. He was no longer expecting anything out of life.
He was a ghost before death. I read once about a subset of residents of the displaced prison camps after the war, young men and women lying on dirty cots, unable to rise and work, unable to search, moving only to eat or to procure items of donated clothing. These were the severely traumatized refugees who could not see a future, the ones so exhausted from surviving that the ideas of marriage, giving birth, making money, playing cards, seemed like tasks for another species.
Bourdieu notes that time is really experienced only when (p. 208-209) “the quasi-automatic coincidence between expectations and chances, illusio and lusiones, expectations and the world which is there to fullfull them, is broken.”
We FEEL directly when the unspoken agreement of how the world “IS SUPPOSED TO BE” becomes broken; what is anticipated and the logic of the game in relation to which this anticipation was formed….the feeling experienced when the object whose presence is desidred is no longer there, or threatens to disappear,‘we recall the past to stop its too rapid flight” –
In this sense, BOREDOM (OR DISCONNECT) rears its head, when we feel dissatisfaction with the present, Bourdieu says that we to work towards removing ourselves from Boredom.
Indeed, the entire cultural industry of our times tries to ensure that we are NEVER BORED. Ever. We now have video ipods, cellphones that connect to the internet, television sets embedded in car headrests…
Except for the fact that the truly bored are too bored to work towards anything, let alone alleviating their boredom.
“Once I had been a hard worker, with responsibilities and obligations that felt good to fulfill. But, when boredom set in, all I could do was look busy.”
Schwarz was a lawyer, who had a high caseload, and would “wait until the subway ride to familiarize” herself with the facts in the hope that novelty would push me to pay attention during the proceedings… victory in a case often had nothing to do with preparation or “rightness” coherence or strategy. It depended on the hearing officer’s mood, client’s race… The utter randomness of success and failure made success and failure boring…
On Pg 213: Bourdieu notes:
“Investment” is associated with uncertainty, but a limited and, in a sense, regulated uncertainty.”
In order for the relationship between expectations and chances which defines investment, interest or illusio to be set up, the objective chances have to be situated between absolute necessity, and absolute impossibility;
Bourdieu acknowledges what Shwarz is directly experiencing: the agent has to have chances of winning which are neither nil nor total. NOTHING must be absolutely sure, but not everything must be possible. There has to be some “PLAY”
As demonstrated by Schwarz’s telling; one of the outcomes of an overly arbitrary field (of the courtroom -> where it didn’t matter how much she prepared, it came down to a litany of other things) is disengagement from her field;
She notes that “at work I did not work. To make the day pass I surfed the web. Although I was beginning to have some difficulty with the details with the details of my client’s cases, I could retain arcane information from celebrity gossip sites…”
Schwarz: It’s a common assumption that kids turn to sexual activity to relieve boredom, and that the escape into sex in turn fuels more boredom, It is thought that out of boredom, young people will hop from partner, never satisfied, dreading repetition.
But is sexual boredom really the problem of repetition? Don’t a lot of people actually like a rerun? To me, the familiarity of sex with the same person was, at its best, the opposite of boring. I loved it as a child to hear the same story over and over again… If the story speaks to you, notices you, want to hear it again and again, each reading the same but different.
Bourdieu would agree here: (p. 215) He argues that redundancy win the social world, the limitation of the space of possibilities, makes it livable.
For Shwarz, this redundancy – being able to properly orient her “playing strategy” in terms of sexual activity leads to comfort (from which her boredom can play from there).
To quote Aldus Huxley: A true traveler finds boredom rather agreeable than painful. It is the symbol of his liberty – his excessive freedom. He accepts his boredom, when it comes, not merely philosophically, but almost with pleasure. Virginia Wolf “it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”
Though we often associate Boredom in terms of Kierkegaard, who proclaimed it “the root of all evil” we require some repetition to orient our strategies, to discover the stakes.
Shwarz: Once upon a time, there was a shame in being bored. It spoke of indolence and sloth,…. A lot of self blame for boredom has stuck around, though Contemporary boredom remains something to be overcome by one’s industry and hard work. Professional-class parents, fearful that too much open time will lead to drugs of Bertrand Russell’s “empty sex” fill their kids schedules with classes and lessons, activities and sports. Boredom has be come like fat: once thought of as a privilege of the rich, now a problem of the poor and a source of shame.
For Bourdieu, (p. 209)
“Free time does not readily escape from the logic of investment in ‘things to do,’ which even when it does not go as far as the explicit concern to succeed in one’s holidays, according to the precepts of the women’s magazines, prolongs the competition for the accumulation of symbolic capital in various forms; suntan, souvenirs or anecdotes, photo’s or films, monuments, museums, landscapes places to visit or explore or simply to do… “We’ve done Greece…” by implementing the imperative suggestions of tourists guides)
WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR FREE TIME?!!?
This speaks to being a grad student, when we talk about our reading week; “oh man… I feel terrible: I sat on the couch and watched FOOD TV, or I spent it playing video games… I DIDN’T GET ANY WORK DONE!” From a Bourdieuvian point of view, we can alter that statement: “I DID’T ACCUMULATE ANY CAPITAL!” Because we should be constantly accumulating capital in its various guises, we feel shame. “
Schwarz describes the last days of her Father’s life. “Don’t be so shocked,”
I would try to joke, “Wasn’t I here yesterday?”
“I don’t remember” he would say.
His concentration always wobbly, was vanishing altogether. He asked for coffee in the middle of the night. He asked my sister for the last name of her husband of five years, and asked again a moment later. One day he addressed me in Polish. He wanted something , but I couldn’t understand. “I’m sorry Dad” I said, I don’t speak polish, remember?
Rage can keep you going. HE’d had a lot of rage when he first becamse ill, and we believed it had extended his life, forcing him to remember how strong he was, pushing him to recount every instance of youthful prowess.
But now the rage had lost its healing power, and the protest turned inward, destroying everything it found.
My father was so bored of dying that he could not remember his living…. Could he die of boredom?
On page 211, Bourdieu quotes Pascal;
“We are full of things which take us out of ourselves. Our instinct makes us feel we must seek out happiness outside ourselves. Our passions impel us outside, even when no objects present themselves to excite them.”
External objects tempt us of themselves, and call to us, even when we are not thinking of them. And thus philosophers have said in vain “Retire within yourselves, you will find your good there” We do not believe them, and those who believe them are the most empty and the most foolish.”
What happens to us when we look within ourselves and find it lacking? If, as Bourdieu says, the objective probabilities are determinant only for an agent endowed with the sense of the game in the form of the capacity to anticipate the forthcoming of the game.” When we don’t have the ability to anticipate – further, if we don’t care anymore? Further still, one has to wonder if we have the same fortitude, the same “healing rage”
Rob Horning notes in an article titled “An Etiology of Boredom” that Concentration is counterproductive in a consumer, whereas boredom suits the consumer economy: incapable of forming deep attachments to cultural commodities, and spurred by sublimated class envy, shoppers become perpetually restless for novelty, making serial purchases with spiraling frequency until the ever more tenacious habit of boredom renders them instantaneously empty upon possession.
At that point, the act of acquisition is the only moment of pleasure, and one’s life becomes a perpetual buying spree.
So one doesn’t become bored with popular culture, boredom is built into it: in the products themselves and the system by which they’re disseminated. Of course, if you could just listen to one album and find lasting entertainment, the music industry would suffer. Hence, the record industry tilts toward albums like Crunk Juice and artists like Jessica Simpson rather then turning out London Calling after London Calling. Planned obsolescence is the popular-culture norm; it’s perverse to expect it to be other than disposable.
And if we are what we eat, so to speak, we ourselves are becoming disposable, we ourselves are subject to “planned obsolescence.”
Boredom and the INNER EAR
Schwarz: “At work one day, I close the door to my little office and move a few file boxes into a corner. I spread my jacket on the dirty carpet and lay down with my heard inside the coat lining, my hair fanning into the sleeves. The walls are a vomity pink, the ceiling a stained grey and white. My body is still, but everything seems to be moving. I am dizzy with boredom.
Reading Bourdieu for the entirety of my reading week, I can relate to this statement. Though, I would replace “boredom” with “possibility”. Reading Pascalian Meditations, as with much of Bourdieu’s work, can be a battle; for understanding his points, for meeting the challenges he assults us with, for not allowing ourselves to get thrown off by the polemics he throws at us.
In this presentation, when talking about the boredom of Death, Industriousness, Theory, Sex, Shame, Memory, Food, and The Inner Ear… I have attempted to let you look through my eyes (that were in turn looking through Bourdieu’s), and show you how Bourdieu had changed my perception. Because, as I said earlier, this is what I want from a theorist. And this is what I hope that, today, I have done for you.
I also hope that it wasn’t overly boring…