…boredom &c.

franz west chair

…in memory of franz west (click image for nyt-obit)

Now that digital technology has sufficiently infiltrated our lives, it’s easy to find countless ways to distract ourselves from ourselves. Look up from what you’re doing, if there are people around there will be someone engrossed with a mobile device, or another such screen. By extension, a good percentage of our online meandering fills hours of random thoughts, pointless searches and perpetual dissatisfaction. Each way to find another distraction to satiate our hunger moves us away from a nothingness we can’t place. But, is technology to blame? Haven’t we always been afraid to face our lives apart from the day to day situation of having to do this or that? Without these things we have our existence laid bare. When we’re not in the pixilated haze of our everyday circumstance—we have what we affectionately think of as boredom. Philosophically speaking, boredom shows itself as a transitional stage from distracted living to authentically being alive.

What is boredom anyway? How can we know it when it’s perpetually avoided? To be bored, boring, or to be a bore is a modern day evil. One must never be any of these things. In our everyday logic, boring is worthless. Everything must be entertaining, newsworthy, exiting, sexy etc. There is big money in fighting boredom. In our everyday war with boredom, we rarely, if ever, stop to ask of its value, not as something to rid ourselves of, but as a way to know ourselves better. Boredom, in the absence of constant entertainment, is a way to ruminate on time’s certain passage. It’s a way to think about a tiresome ennui that effectively drags though time. Time becomes dulled down, and if we’re attuned to this grey mood we can consider our finitude as a defining characteristic for us as living human beings. The tedium of boredom offers us our own possibility.

The philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889-1976) was known for many things, most notably he’s known for his term Dasein (being there). Less well known is his extensive treatment of the concept of boredom. In a recent book on the study of boredom, Experience without Qualities, Elizabeth S. Goodstein devotes a chapter to Heidegger’s unique way of thinking about boredom and its profound effects on modern man. She shows us how the “fundamental mood” (282) of boredom has transformed into Heidegger’s mature view of the concept. This is exemplified in his 1929 lecture: What is Metaphysics? and in other sources.

Aside from his multiple complexities, Goodstein does position Heidegger’s arguments as important with respect to how we can become ‘attuned’ (primordial understanding) with the ‘mood’ of boredom to situate our lives within a context of Heidegger’s urging to get us to start doing the essential work of philosophy in the first place—to philosophize. She demonstrates this with his words “Philosophy is philosophizing” (299). She also shows us that Heidegger, “…argues that being is obscured in a distinctive way by the emptiness lived in profound boredom” (308). This is tricky since it is in the mood of boredom where we are not in despair, nor in the heat of pleasure. Remember that this kind of boredom is to be distinguished from the kind of boredom that one might have while reading a tiresome book, or by watching a movie that’s too long. There is a kind of in-depth non-incidental boredom that’s enough to bring about a critical anxiety for Heidegger’s concept. This in turn helps us to wholly experience our being and then to comprehend that being is to be held out against the backdrop of nothingness only if we’re open enough to it to begin with. A boring book only hints at the entrenched undercurrent of boredom and nothingness that Heidegger wants us to think of and become attuned to it first hand.

Yes, nothingness! Heidegger’s question of metaphysics rests on a confrontation with the nothing. I’ll spell this out in more detail later. Meanwhile I’d like to illustrate a little more about the way we need to think of boredom as differentiated from this everyday notion of simply being bored with a book you’re reading. Goodstein explains that to be bored with something, in the sense that a book ‘bores’ you, implies a causal relationship that is only one way to think of boredom (i.e. the book is causing my boredom). A more existential and philosophical boredom needs to be a bored ‘attunement’ (a primordial understanding). We are, when in this latter mood, no longer simply bored by a thing (object), rather we are bored over and beyond a particular situation. Goodstein identifies this as the “…nihilistic dynamic of boredom though which the modern subject’s quotidian discontents spiral into negative revelations of the meaninglessness of existence” (314). Incidentally, this leads to the universality of the mood of boredom that blurs the distinction between objective and subjective states of mind. To be bored because of a specific circumstance is different than being bored in spite of the circumstance. The two are similar and one can ultimately lead to the other to reveal our personal temporality as a subject in a universal way.

We usually become overly concerned with time when we’re bored in both instances. However, when we become indifferent to a situation and become bored over and beyond it, only then do we start we see what Heidegger’s trying to show us. When we are bored in this way, we become acutely aware of the passage of time with respect to our lives and our own finitude. An event can just be passing before us, boring us as just another event in time, accelerating faster toward our own eventual death.

In a strange way, Heidegger is suggesting that boredom is an ‘attunement’, a mood to attune us to grasp our individual being, our particular Dasien. As promised, I wanted to spell out his metaphysical question and how this relates to boredom. Heidegger’s concept of anxiety gets more press then does his work on boredom. While both are classified by him as moods, they are not mutually exclusive. In fact, as I hinted at earlier, boredom will lead to anxiety. Heidegger also thought that science gets in the way of philosophical thinking and I wholeheartedly agree that it does. One way he shows this is in his lecture: What is Metaphysics? Here, he basically shows us that science doesn’t bother to concern itself with nothing, since its ‘logical’ focus is always on something. Science “irrupts” (invades, overcomes, infiltrates) being (95). With this said, it becomes obvious that scientific thinking has ignored the ‘nothing’. It is in the very confrontation, Heidegger believes, between being and nothingness where metaphysics emerges. Aside from how Heidegger presents this, I’ll be quick to acknowledge the powerful connection between religion and metaphysics. The implications of nothing therefore precede this connection. If we didn’t have the effects of boredom we wouldn’t find it within our lives to start anxiously confronting life. First we’re bored, then we’re anxious, and then we face nothingness and then we do philosophy! “This boredom reveals beings as a whole.” (Heidegger 99) and then “Anxiety reveals the nothing.” (Heidegger 101).

Okay, okay, but isn’t it easier to check my incoming messages, and to fritter away my free time like everyone else? And why put myself through the misery of this seemingly over-thought-out concept of boredom presented by some old redneck German guy back in the 30’s? Then we’re back to the obvious question again: why philosophize in the first place? This, more or less, is what Heidegger wants to demonstrate, that it’s in our distracted everydayness where we find these moods that can press us into the deep of our own existence. Everydayness hides our existence from us, but access can only be found in the day-to-day. Our everyday world is where we find these things. The effect of boredom is the work of philosophy. We wouldn’t discover this were we not frustrated and bored enough to begin with.

Works Cited:

Goodstein, Elizabeth S. “Heidegger’s Existential Grammar of Boredom” Experience without Qualities. Stanford, CA: Stanford U. Press. 2005. (281-333). Print.

Heidegger, Martin. “What is Metaphysics?” Basic Writings. Ed. David Farrell Krell. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 2008. pp. 90-110. Print.

ferneyhough’s kurze schatten ii

“For knowledge, like the sun at its zenith, identifies things strictly.”—Walter Benjamin [1}

The British composer Brian Ferneyhough (1943- ) wrote this avant-garde piece for solo guitar back in the 80’s (1983-89). The specific performance I’m analyzing was played by the Belgian guitarist Kobe van Cauwenberghe (1970 ?- ) in Darmstadt, Germany in 2010.[2] Ferneyhough writes[3] that this seven movement suite was directly inspired by a series of seven short writings titled Kurze Schatten[4} (short shadows) by the philosopher/literary critic Walter Benjamin (1892-1940). [note: the above video only features movements 1-4.]

Ferneyhough notes that Benjamin’s text is about the noon-time sun “…which, as it approaches its zenith casts shadows that become progressively shorter and darker until, at noon, that they are so perfectly united with their objects that the latter stand uniquely and completely themselves, naked, without residue.”[5] To this allusion Ferneyhough adds that this imagery of the noon sun’s compressing shadows corresponds to his composition with the “physically delimited ‘text’ of the guitar.”[6] We can certainly sense this abbreviated effect when we listen to the piece. The generous use of silence, snapped pizzicatos, rigid arpeggios and irrational rhythms show this idea by the way the music is brought together in a style that’s tight and restricted. This tense sense of anxiety characterizes all the seven movements. The initial surprise with the snapped pizzicatos and severe staccatos in the 1st movement present an image of the hot noon sun almost in a literal way. For example, the abruptly snapped strings would have to have a much higher frequency wavelength than would a long low droning note, compare this to the noon sun’s actual radiating light frequency which would also be measured at a higher wavelength than in the late afternoon. Another odd specification of Ferneyhough’s is found on the score. Here we find the instruction for changing scordaturas, meaning to re-tune the guitar in a specific way, in this case strings are slackened then are tuned for specified movements. This slackening and gradual tuning back to a ‘traditional’ attunement throughout the seven movements also symbolizes an alignment with the sun’s rays. The hot sun directs us into contemplation as it’s our lifelong reference point. High noon is the peak of radiance only if we notice it as such. The mood of this music is anxiously hot.

All of this is brought together in a strange atonal composition. To be sure, it lacks a tonal center and there’s no overall key signature. One has to make listening adjustments for this, as we’re usually listening for the customary evenly timed melodies in a designated key within a simple uncomplicated meter. If the noon-time sun confines shadows, then Ferneyhough’s piece forces us inward to a more disciplined listening. As a matter of fact, the insistent snapping of the strings is reminiscent of a lion tamer’s whip snap. For this peculiar music we have to become ‘tamed’ into appreciating its many nuances with its pressured dynamics.

The constant fluctuation of irrational rhythms and bizarre intervals feels choppy and discordant because we typically demand a rational structure for our music more than we think. Yet, we’ve grown accustomed to hearing discordant sounds all the time. Think of the sounds of a city street. Certainly Ferneyhough may not have had a city street in mind, but we still get a polyphonic ‘collage’ of almost familiar resonances from the guitar. A few of the sudden arpeggios recall a momentary Flamenco strumming. Also the way van Cauwenberghe thrums the face of the guitar with his hands evokes a youthful devil-may-care spontaneity that’s carefully written into the piece as a gesture of whimsical organized randomness (if that’s not a contradiction in and of itself). These elements add a reserved flare and drama to the piece.

To think of the many difficulties this piece presents, we have to then challenge ourselves to understand it better if we are drawn in enough. When our midday shadow becomes closer to our person we can imagine the threshold of ourselves. As we listen to this music we can imagine the challenges it presented for van Cauwenberghe, just take a look at the elaborate score to get feel for the prowess he must have to even read it properly—let alone to perform it. But if we can take this idea of constraint and drawing inward as a method of rigor and studious listening, then I believe we’re getting closer to cherishing Feneyhough’s overall aesthetic intent: transcendence.[7]

aurelio madrid


[1] Benjamin, Walter. Selected Writings, Volume 2: 1927-1934. ed. Michael W. Jennings. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard University. 1999. pp. 268-274.

[2] See: www.kobevancauwenberghe.com

[3] Ferneyhough, Brian. Kurze Schatten II (intro. to the score). London: Peters Edition. 1983-89. www.editionpeters.com

[4] Benjamin, Walter. op. cit.

[5] Ferneyhough, Brian. op. cit.

[6] Ferneyhough, Brian. op. cit.

[7] See Ferneyhough’s bio on Edition-Peter’s website: http://www.edition-peters.com/composer/Ferneyhough-Brian