…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.

4 thoughts on “…boredom &c.

  1. Very nice! I remember from one of my philosophy professors (a student of Levinas himself), discussing the various ways that events in a person’s life could “shift” the way of seeing/thinking they have — death (of a loved one, or just the acknowledgment of its existence) was one, but the other was boredom for the reasons you’ve set out. A man sits in a room, listless, and then goes “what am I *doing*?”

    1. robert,

      …thank you for reading this (on dad-rock night)! as of lately, I’m back to deleuze & trying to examine his concept of the virtual as it’s related to bergson’s duration. meanwhile, this has me paging though many of deleuze’s books. in the book what is philosophy (with guattari) they open with the obvious question: “what is philosophy?” & among other things I found a quote that feels much like the points we’ve made here with boredom. where d&g write (asking about the question of philosophy) “it is a question posed in a moment of quiet restlessness, at midnight, when there is no longer anything to ask.” in others words, when we are bored, we then are ready to do philosophy.

      …& yes, as for levinas, we should always be aware of his sharp critiques of heidegger’s political affiliations & the unavoidable ethical problems that arise thereof (see: http://mythosandlogos.com/Levinas.html ) we’ve talked about this before & it’s still something to explore i.e. levinas’ ethics of the other &c. yet, as I’ve always asked, is any of this reason enough to cast off heidegger’s genius & his impressive contributions to philosophy? probably not. still, we should always keep these valid questions open & at the ready.

      …anyway, none of this should be pushed aside & all that can be attended to should be, given the time & energy one might have…when we’re bored enough to turn to finding a possible answer, while looking to those who came before us, & asking of ourselves when there’s nothing more to ask, “what about this nothing?”

      1. When it comes to the ethical failings of Heidegger, I am reminded of Christ teaching His disciples on the failings of the Pharisees/Rabbis — do as they say, not as they do. While recognizing Heidegger’s personal failings, we can see whether his philosophy by necessity entails such horrors (which some, like Rene Girard, have understood it as), or whether it is a personal failing, like my own gluttony — a bad thing, sure, but not *directly* related to my thought.

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