“Nothing Moving, Only Dead Time Passing”: The Politics of Boredom

‘Industrial painting’ by Situationist artist Giuseppe Pinot-Gallizio

The Belgian philosopher Raoul Vaneigem begins his 1963 magnum opus, The Revolution of Everyday Life, with what has to be one of the finest attempts in all of literary history at preemptively blaming external factors for readers’ negative reactions to a work: “If the element of boredom it cost me to write it comes through when you read it, this will only be one more argument demonstrating our failure to live.”[1] Whether or not there was any humor intended in this, a quick skimming of this work makes it clear enough how deadly serious Vaneigem was about boredom being both the default state of bureaucratically managed consumer societies, and the unique form of humiliation that may be most responsible for the occasional insurrections within them (his positive appraisal of the riot as an art form is never in question). The term “boredom,” while appearing just under a dozen times throughout Vaneigemʼs impassioned broadside against endemic inauthenticity, is only slightly outnumbered by watchwords that were never absent from the Berlitz leftist phrasebooks of that era (“exploitation” makes sixteen appearances by comparison). When and where boredom is discussed, it is interwoven into portions of the book, and also Vaneigem’s contemporaneous writing for the Internationale Situationniste organ, that are more or less essential to proving out his thesis that an ounce of self-determined living is worth a ton of bureaucratically managed survival. To that end, boredom is generally always portrayed as a manufactured state rather than merely an intrinsic, “natural” character flaw of certain individuals. In the midst of the worldwide hostage crisis that COVID-19 has precipitated, it is well worth re-considering Vaneigem’s concern that those societies where “we will not die of starvation” are “bought by accepting the risk of dying of boredom.”

The Situationist International, of which Vaneigem was perhaps the unofficial second-in-command prior to his exasperated resignation in 1970, were a not always comradely network of critical theorists who felt the reshaping of the aesthetic landscape was every bit as important as changing the established political order. Having sprung originally from artistic movements like the Lettrist International, all the while calling on proto-Surrealists like Lewis Carroll and Lautréamont as well as the Surrealists proper, the S.I. could be seen as the blowback from a modernity that had put forth a false dichotomy between matters of the spirit and material comfort (the youthful Lettrist Ivan Chtcheglov wrote in his influential Formulary for a New Urbanism of being “presented with the alternative of love or a garbage disposal unit,” and lamented that “young people of all countries” chose the garbage disposal unit every time)[2]. There were many fronts in the Situationist war on an authoritarianism which insisted on segmenting life in this demeaning manner: for Chtcheglov himself, resistance to domination meant re-imagining the solid forms of architecture, developing modular and impermanent variations meant as laboratories for personal growth through chance encounter (a concept that has been revisited by urbanist detachments from Archigram to Metabolism). Meanwhile, in the person of Vaneigem, the group boiled its struggle down to an “infinitely complex war” between the non-programmatic “free language” of poetry and the “captured language” that various authorities used solely for the purpose of conditioning their subjects.

The Situationist insistence upon the inseparability of life’s aesthetic dimension from its political realities has made them only slightly less of an anomaly in the digitally networked age than they were at the time of their formation in the late 1950s. It is somewhat tragic, then, that other characteristics of the S.I. made them a prime target for critical dismantling. Notably, their all-encompassing definition of the capitalist / consumerist Spectacle, being as it was an abstract category, made the fight against it as seemingly futile as other endless wars on abstractions, like the neoconservative campaign against “terror.” The anarchist impulses within the S.I. were also awkwardly conflated with Marxian ideas of historical inevitability, and once the concomitant impatience with lack of “inevitable” results set in, the group was plagued with an all-too-typical doctrinaire inflexibility culminating in the expulsion of nearly two thirds of the group’s original membership. Virtually all of the Situationists invested in artistic rather than political means of expression went to the wall, and de facto movement linchpin Guy Debord would become typified by abruptly terminating public presentations with dismissals like “weʼre not here to answer cuntish questions.” If events such as the despondent retreat of Debord to the French countryside, and his subsequent suicide, were not enough to make fence-sitting observers write off the movement, then incidents like the naming of Debord as a “national treasure” by the culture minister to French president Nicholas Sarkozy tended to seal the deal. And yet, for all of their dour ‘purity spiraling’, and their unverifiable belief that the masses shared a desire for “authenticity” as strong as their need for basic sustenance, the Situationist corpus — and Vaneigem’s contribution in particular — provides as thorough an epidemiology of boredom as much more “respected” public intellectuals’ works. Few cobblestones are left unturned in the search for a culture of serious play, to the point where even the aid of the Marquis de Sade is invoked (see e.g. Vaneigem’s claim in …Everyday Life that “It is high time that revolutionaries were reading de Sade with the same care that they set about reading Marx”).

With that in mind, this elevation of boredom to a fundamental destructive force is rare to encounter among the more orthodox Marxian literature of that time, and it may have more in common with ideological foes of that current such as Max Stirner’s egoist anarchism.[3] Whatever the case may be, it is part of a limited body of insurrectionary literature in that it essentially suggests the full emancipation of oneself before the same can be hoped for others, thus inverting the course of action typically expected of the revolutionary martyr. Vaneigem’s invective shed light on an uncomfortable truth that is probably less exclusive to Situationist thought than most would care to admit: just as Schopenhauer counseled that every tear supposedly shed in an altruistic despair over the sorrows of the world was, in fact, shed for that limited portion of worldly suffering experienced by the weeper, it is at least worth considering that any given revolutionary act carried out in the name of liberating oneʼs fellows is born from a more selfish desire not to drown in monotony. This can be sensed even in notoriously miserable, austere calls to arms like Sergei Necheyev’s Catechism of a Revolutionary, wherein the cruel injunctions against anything that does not hasten the realization of the revolution (e.g. “friendship”, “emotions”) are uttered with a kind of rabid excitement or latent joy: Necheyev’s commitment to the “science of destruction” seems as much an antidote to prevailing boredom as a promise of righteous vengeance. Elsewhere, to the degree that individuals were attracted to the productions of classical “avant-garde” movements, I feel enough evidence exists to show that new adherents were initially brought on board by the promise of a qualitatively new experience than by purely socio-political commitments. The actions of someone like Dada provocateur Phillipe Soupault, whose publicly exhibited artworks included a mirror with the title “Portrait of an Imbecile,” and who made “lived poems” out of activities like swapping drinks with perplexed bar patrons and trying to order sausages from equally perplexed florists, are more accurately viewed as the spontaneous actions of someone trying to evade customary experience at all costs than as a program to “inspire” the bourgeoise (who were, after all, probably more “inspired” to punch the Dada dandy in the face).

Further along the timeline, one of the most influential pop-cultural branches on the family tree of of Situationist theory — punk rock — raged against the indignity of boredom with a wild-eyed persistence before it ossified into an extremely predictable, multi-generational tradition. Just listen to the repeated, parched, and strangled shouts of “BOOOORED” from CRASS vocalist Steve Ignorant that terminate that band’s song “End Result,” and hear the degree to which these marginalized individuals perceived being bored as tantamount to being physically and mentally assaulted. In the punks’ defense, “boredom” generally existed in a vacuum only for the most naïve among them. Political struggle and naked desire for differentiated experience were never mutually exclusive phenomena, though it often felt like the existence of pervasive boredom was always at or near the top of the degradations to be suffered within a fully State-managed existence: just as it was with the Situationists, it was a curse common both to Soviet societies’ deification of labor for its own sake (i.e. Stakhanovism) and market economies’ similarly ritualized attitude towards consumption.

Practically every meaningful subculture to have appeared since the punks’ heyday has realized something that it doesn’t take a masterclass in Situationism to intuit: that is, the realization that consumption-oriented societies, ostensibly designed with the purpose of alleviating boredom, have chosen a path that ironically enhances this condition. This comes about largely because the post-industrial service economy has acted as if simple intensification of known experiences is a suitable equivalent to a qualitatively new experience. This is as evident under the “Netflix and Quarantine” regime as it has ever been (and in case anyone was wondering, Vaneigem is still writing, and has described the coronavirus lockdown with characteristic acidity: “outside: the coffin. Inside: the television, an open window on a closed world!”)[4] The pink plastic limbo of digital pornography, which I’m sure is becoming more and more prevalent in the lives of forcibly de-sexed millions, reveals this fact more unequivocally than most culture industry products. This field is a prime example of the “quantitarian” principle in action: porn scenarios that burden a single actress with dozens of male partners promise extra titillation in proportion to each new heaving body on the screen, but are really no different in what they provoke, reveal, or ultimately lead to in physical reality than more “conventional” scenarios.

It is not that the consumer societies we inhabit have traditionally lacked the means to realize something like the ecstatic visions of Chtcheglov or Vaneigem, but the ruling / managerial class naturally favors a form of boredom therapy which paints them in a positive light rather than rendering them irrelevant. The State in the age of instantaneous communication, if it was not already oriented in this direction, knows that the brutal dystopia of 1984 must at least be balanced by the unrelenting pacification-through-diversion form of governing on tap in Brave New World, and the latter can only really be pursued in a “quantitarian” manner: leisure time spent on genuine experimentation is essentially time spent on self-management and the gradual lessening of dependence on institutional authority. This intensification of the familiar disguised as “new” experience is essentially what Vaneigem refers to when saying that “the servants must [be made to] see themselves as degraded reflections of the master”[5]: that is, their own desires must be molded in accordance with the more-is-better principles that legitimize a managerial elite to begin with. This is why, for Vaneigem and company, “the qualitative is our striking force”.

So how difficult is this “qualitative” state to achieve? In theory (Situationist or otherwise), not very. For Debord, the dérive or “drift” through the urban landscape was sufficient to radically transform daily experience, and had no real cost of entry associated with it: the theory was predicated on the simple identification of the “habitual axes” and “psychogeographical contours” that one’s urban life is entirely based around, and the subsequent avoidance of them in favor of new routes not clearly associated with the city’s organizational logics of either production or consumption. The Dadaistic antics of individuals like Soupault perhaps came from a similar place, aiming to defeat boredom first by defying customary experience as it currently existed, and then by basking in the afterglow of having denied various “experts” and busybodies future opportunities to set the parameters of that customary experience. In fact, a great many of the successes of the avant-garde over the past century have proceeded among similar lines, finding latent possibilities within objects and affects already “at hand” rather than waiting for advanced technology to force change. In more recent years we have seen entire genres of art and music based on, for example, principles like those which occur during bouts of semantic satiation: Jakobovits’ research on the subject revealed that atomized moments of aesthetic experience become duplicated until the point where their semantic content eventually “corrodes” and is replaced by something purely of the viewer / listener’s own imagining. As reported by participants in Ganzfeld experiments and elsewhere,[6] the human brain is remarkably resilient in the face of apparently featureless experiences, eventually throwing out fantastic sensory experiences of its own making when it seems like none are available in the external world. Indeed, theorists like Viktor Shklovsky have suggested this is the primary function of art — “to impart the sensation of things as they are perceived and not as they are known”[7] [italics mine] — and the myriad of ways we can achieve this does provide some hope during our current period of deepening isolated boredom.

Notorious Situationist graffiti from 1963: “Never Work”

I should conclude by saying the following: I am well aware that there is a huge multitude that is perfectly content in the virtual world denounced by the Situationists and their epigones. I realize that untold millions of individuals, even after having been vouchsafed the nefarious workings of the Spectacle, would still collectively shrug and return to whatever the most comfortable lifestyle is attainable by them in their respective circumstances. This world of representation is maybe the only solace that some may enjoy in an otherwise frightening time: one that is now marked by a severe disruption of the surplus commodity regime that the S.I. so often locked horns with. Given the amount of ink that the S.I. spent on decrying voluntary “sacrifices” as a form of exchange that reduces man to an object, they were never in an ideal position to demand others sacrifice a voluntarily chosen life of creature comforts, and that’s before we even bring up issues like Guy Debord’s own conspicuous consumption habits.[8] So I cannot justify my criticism of forces that rule through the manipulation and manufacture of needs by engaging in the same activity; as those not voluntarily signing on to a program of radical spontaneity in all things would certainly need to be manipulated into doing so.

Having said that, the current crisis may yet urge a rethinking of priorities the likes of which would be both completely unanticipated and voluntary. When reading the following passage from …Everyday Life, it is difficult not to think just how much our present lives meet this description:

Everyday life has crumbled into a series of moments as interchangeable as the gadgets which occupy them […] everywhere equal particles vibrate in the uniform light of power […] exchange of nothings, restrictions and prohibitions. Nothing moving, only dead time passing.

I believe that, until such time as the world is finally re-opened, even the least radical among us are going to have a much deeper and more critical view on the origins of boredom than at any point in modern history. As “dead time” becomes the majority of total lived time for those abruptly unemployed, under-employed, or forced into a defeated state of learned helplessness with regards to the external world, we will likely see violent forms of unrest the likes of which would not be inspired by more isolated spasms of social or economic injustice. Trapped in a life of domestic boredom that bitterly contrasts with the self-actualization promised us by almost every campaigning politician, insurrectionary shudders will no longer be felt only by those traditionally prone to activist impulses. We may be close to the real-life enactment of the cynical comic scenario in which the next American Revolution starts when football is banned from TV (in fact, with all major sporting leagues now on hiatus, the situation is grimmer than it even is in said comic scenario). Vaneigem himself has forecasted as much, warning with his characteristic poetic zeal that the current lockdowns “[are] liable to aggravate existential anxiety […] exacerbat[ing] the blindness of impotent anger.”[9] A day of reckoning following the mass release of this anger could, just maybe, lead former consumer societies to return to that ideal condition of fully integrated, non-mediated experience that the Situationists called the “totality”. And yet it may lead to widespread suffering and more random, pathological forms of human conflict than we are currently accustomed to. But, whatever happens — it certainly won’t be boring.

[1] Vaneigem, R. (1983). The Revolution of Everyday Life. Trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. Seattle: Left Bank Books. All other quoted material in this piece, unless otherwise noted, is from this edition.

[2] Chtcheglov, I. (1989). “Formulary for a New Urbanism.” Rants and Incendiary Tracts: Voices of Desperate Illumination 1558-Present. Ed. Bob Black & Adam Parfrey. New York: Amok Press.

[3] Stirner is nevertheless listed alongside Marx in Revolution of Everyday Life in a litany of heroes who “have not yet played their last card in a game which we have only just joined: the great gamble whose stakes are freedom.”

[4] http://www.notbored.org/coronavirus.pdf

[5] http://library.nothingness.org/articles/SI/en/display/11

[6] See Heron, W. (1957). “The Pathology of Boredom.” Scientific American, 196(1), pp. 52–57.

[7] Shklovksy, V. et. AL. (2012). Russian Formalist Criticism: Four Essays. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

[8] Debord on his drinking habits: “Among the small number of things that I have liked and know how to do well, what I have assuredly known best how to do is drink. I have read a lot, I have drunk even more. I have written much less than most people who write; but I have drunk much more than most people who drink.” Debord, G. (1991). Panegyric. Trans. James Brook. London: Verso.

[9] Vaneigem (2020). See note 4 above.

Sound artist, psychopathologist, author of “To Hear The World With New Eyes,” “MicroBionic, ”“Unofficial Release” and “Sonic Phantoms” (with Barbara Ellison).