12 January 2013


"What tedium", Beckett (see Brooker 2001)
Bernstein writes that the "former Age of Anxiety has given way to the Age of Boredom" (Bernstein, quoted in Spacks 1995: 3). Today, we attempt to foreclose or avoid boredom, seeking out technologies that enable us to escape the experience of boredom. Whether via entertainment or through the new real-time streaming technologies, such as Twitter, which provide a constant stream of distractions, internet memes, photographs and links, today we live in a world defined by the avoidance of boredom. Indeed, "idleness and boredom represent glitches in the system, glitches that call for increased and accelerated integration of the bored and potentially bored (the idle) into the institutional networks of time management" (Thiele 1997: 514).

Thus there is an attempt to consume the boredom away with new gadgets, technologies, devices and distractions, and hence, accelerating levels of consumption become unavoidable. This raises new problems, as Theile (1997) argues, "the specter now looms that technological potential alone is capable of sustaining our interest. Once the human condition is experienced as insufficiently up-to-date to hold our attention, philosophy necessarily gives way to engineering" (Theile 1997: 516). In a similar vein Adorno conceptualised boredom as the "eversame" (Adorno 1991: 166, 2004: 95). A product of the culture industry in which "is the incurable sickness of all entertainment. Amusement congeals into boredom, since, to be amusement, it must cost no effort and therefore moves strictly along the well-worn grooves of association" (Adorno and Horkheimer 2006: 52).

However, Heidegger himself considered boredom, or what he called "deep boredom" a crucial ontological mood that also enabled the questioning of being through anxiety, but which nonetheless had the danger of invoking nihilism, he wrote,
The man of today has no more time for anything, and yet, when he has free time, it immediately becomes too long. He must kill long periods of time by whiling them away through pastimes ... In this "ennui" nothing appeals to us anymore, everything has as much or as little value as everything else,     our existence to the core. Is this possibly our final condition, that a deep boredom, like an insidious fog, creeps to and fro in the bottomless depths of our existence?...  For the fundamental but hardly noticed mood of deep boredom is probably what drives us into all the time-killing that the strange, the exciting, the bewitching offers us daily in our alienation... What is more, probably this deep boredom – in the form of the passion for killing time – is the hidden, unavowed pull of the homeland, pushed aside but still inescapable: the hidden homesickness... Probably these belong together: the alienation of the technological world and the deep boredom that is the hidden pull of a sought-for homeland. For no technological equipment nor any of its achievements or aids, neither the powers of invention pushed to their limits nor endless activity have the power to give us homeland, i.e., that which sustains and determines and lets us grow in the core of our existence (Heidegger 1973: 50-51)
For Heidegger the fundamental philosophical question is "why are there beings rather than nothing.... The question is upon us in boredom, when we are equally removed from despair and joy, and everything about us seems so hopelessly commonplace that we no longer care whether anything is or is not." (Heidegger 1987: 1). Instead he argued that "anxiety is the mood that brings us 'face to face with Nothing itself.' Heidegger contrasts this to profound boredom, which 'draws all things, all men and oneself along with them, together in a queer kind of indifference. This boredom reveals what-is-in-totality... Yet at the very moment when our moods thus bring us face to face with what-is-in-totality they hide the Nothing we are seeking' (Heidegger, quoted in Theile 1997: 502). Thus, for Heidegger, the danger of boredom is not that it confronts us with the groundlessness of Being, indeed this, Heidegger argues, is its virtue. Rather, the danger of boredom is that it stifles ontological questioning of this groundlessness in indifference, or the real-time stream equivalent of this the "Twitter trance". The question of technology then is a pressing one, more so in our accelerated real-time streaming world of computational devices, computational categories and philosophy as engineering, which elsewhere I have termed Computationality (Berry 2011). Indeed, we are confronted with a world of streamed things, lists, tuples, and sets, which we have to do more than merely describe if we are to engage with it critically. For Heidegger,
Philosophic thought begins with the uneasy and awe-inspiring question: why is there something rather than nothing? The sterile calm of boredom delivers us from such questioning. If a terrible wonder marked the genesis of philosophy in the ancient world, then the postmodern proliferation of boredom may signal its contemporary closure. This growing invulnerability to philosophic trauma signals a flight from the challenge of discovering and cultivating a worldly and timely abode. Heidegger feared that the mood of boredom would be revealed as humanity's final condition, that the water of philosophic life would become too bland for tongues jaded by the taste of constant innovation. Even more, he worried that the technological suppression of all opportunities for the awakening of boredom would destroy the conditions for philosophic thought and undermine the human capacity to discover a home in the world (Thiele 1997: 517).
Today, tongues are jaded by the constant flow of streams of information and data that rush past us in increasing volumes. As we adapt to living in this living stream of data we are increasingly living distracted and "glitched lives", barely able to keep our heads above the rising rivers of information. Now, it is increasingly more difficult to ask the questions that philosophers have traditionally asked. Indeed, the temptation is, instead, to list the things that stream past us in the hope that at some future point our lists may perhaps contribute to a project of understanding, or more worryingly that these lists and litanies offer an aesthetic release for us. This, it seems to me, is a particular aesthetic experience of the sense of control that technology offers us in ordering through listing, and which is in another sense, a bureaucratic process of classification or filing.  Indeed, this aesthetic flight to feelings of technological control and ordering may well be a reaction to the disorientation that is a hallmark of computationality – but a form of control which is itself marked by profound feelings of disconnection and boredom.


Adorno, T. W. (2004) Negative Dialectics, London: Routledge.

Adorno, T. W. (1991) Free Time, in The Culture Industry, Bernstein, J. M. (ed.), London: Routledge, 1991.

Adorno, T. W. and Horkheimer, M. (2006) The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception, in  Durham, M. G. and Kellner, D. (eds.) Media and Cultural Studies: Keyworks, Oxford: Blackwell Publishing.

Berry, D. M. (2011) The Philosophy of Software: Code and Mediation in the Digital Age, London: Palgrave.

Brooker, J. (2001) What tedium: boredom in "Malone dies", Journal of Beckett Studies, 10 (1-2), pp. 29-39.

Heidegger, M. (1973) Messkirch's Seventh Centennial, Listening, 8:50-51

Heidegger, M. (1987) An Introduction to Metaphysics, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Spacks, P. M. (1995) Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Thiele, L. P. (1997) Postmodernity and the Routinization of Novelty- Heidegger on Boredom and Technology, Polity, Vol. 29, No. 4 (Summer, 1997), pp. 489-517

1 comment:

  1. “The truth is that everyone is bored, and devotes himself to cultivating habits.”


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