“And all the news just repeats itself
Like some forgotten dream we’ve both seen”
—John Prine, Hello in There
As a motivating force in human affairs, boredom is hard to beat. Hatred, envy, lust, love, anger, jealousy: these are some of the alluring emotions that are often emphasized. But boredom—it is so boring! Why go there? It seems too simple an explanation for human behavior.
Boredom is like sex once was—the unspoken. To admit one is bored is to confess to the modern equivalent of a mortal sin. I think there is an unacknowledged agreement to deny the truth of boredom.
Since it is hydra-headed, its truths are many. It is the flip side of the constant agitation and false excitation of modern life. Conversely, modern manic high-tech busyness, while aimed at repressing boredom, simultaneously serves the function of boring through intense repetition, numbing those who seek to use it to escape boredom. The solution becomes a problem worse than the presumed initial one. One is trapped, even if one doesn’t know it.
If you can keep yourself busy and preoccupied with trivia and shopping; if you can consume news, entertainment, and social media 24/7; if you can embrace all the weapons of mass distraction offered, then you can deny that boredom is speaking to you, even when these methods of avoiding boredom are themselves monotonously boring. Self-deception and social control are conjoined tricksters.
Boredom has many voices, but the most feared message it utters may be: “You are trapped on the merry-go-round of the living dead, bored to death, repeating yourself.”
For an essential element of boredom is repetition and monotony; knowing that day follows dusty day and you are going to read, hear, or experience the same thing again and again. In a terrifying take on this idea, Nietzsche suggested, through his idea of eternal recurrence, that we best be very careful how we live each moment since they are eternal, and that after death we will have to live our lives over and over again down to the slightest detail, while remembering that we are doing so. Eternal repetition sounds a bit boring, wouldn’t you say? Now that’s a thought to rouse one from lethargy.
Interestingly, modernity has forced upon modern people the necessity for choice. Constant choices are demanded of us, and the more choices we have in a high-tech consumer culture, the more boring repetitions we encounter. One reason for this is the need of the corporations and the media to offer us something “new” every hour of every day. Pseudo-events and “news” are manufactured non-stop. And the “new” is updated, with the “new” so often turning out to be old, a variation on a theme across all forms of media and the consuming life. Having to fill up the space and their pockets, these corporations are experts at repetition
Have you noticed that when you go to your favorite television station or website, you will encounter endless repetition? If you switch channels or websites—from liberal to conservative, etc.—you will see that most are beating the same drum, flipped to one side or the other. These days it’s Trump-Trump-Trump, Clinton-Clinton-Clinton; endless droning on today about what was droned on about yesterday. Soon the subject will change, and be repeated until something else is manufactured to keep people occupied and bored. You can easily fill in the blanks.
But why do people subject themselves to such boring repetition? Could the engaging writer William Saroyan’s flippant remark shed some light on this phenomenon? Regarding the claim that smoking causes cancer, he said, “You may tend to get cancer from the thing that makes you want to smoke, not from the smoking itself.” Could wanting to flee existential boredom by embracing the culturally proffered means to do so, be the real problem? What is it about boredom that so frightens people? Does boredom scare people to death? Is getting as far away from death the goal? But is not the flight from death the flight from life?
I think the quest to seek a solution to existential boredom is the problem. Walter Benjamin said it beautifully: “Boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience.” Maybe in a mediated world where direct experience is becoming more and more uncommon—as we live in a world of screens and filters—we are afraid of existential boredom because it may force us to consider living. And since living is change, and change is always new, it frightens us. But without embracing change we cannot make social change. We may think we are, but we will be doing the same old boring thing and strengthening the existing system.
Boredom seems so rock-like, changeless and circular. It’s a favorite of the living-dead.
Let Alan Watts have the penultimate word. “To resist change, to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist, you kill yourself.”
What a boring way to go.
Edward Curtin is a sociologist and writer who teaches at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts and has published widely.