[Paleopsych] New Statesman: Review of A Philosohpy of Boredom

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Review of A Philosohpy of Boredom
Monday 21st March 2005

    A Philosophy of Boredom
    Lars Fredrik Svendsen; translation by John Irons Reaktion Books,
    192pp, £14.95
    ISBN 1861892179

    Reviewed by Tom Hodgkinson

    Lars Svendsen's inquiry is a good, solid practical work of philosophy,
    in the tradition of Aristotle's Ethics and Burton's Anatomy of
    Melancholy. He has a light touch and a playful attitude, and draws on
    a wide range of texts, from Martin Heidegger and Samuel Beckett to
    Iggy Pop and the Pet Shop Boys.
    The opening section is particularly strong. I was fascinated to learn
    that boredom was invented in 1760; the word is not found in English
    prior to this, though related concepts such as melancholy and acedia
    did exist. Acedia is from the Greek akedia, meaning "not to care".
    Usually translated as sloth, it meant not so much laziness as a
    betrayal of your duty to observe God. The monk who gave up, who didn't
    care, was committing possibly the most grievous sin of all, because
    not caring about God implied not caring about being lustful,
    avaricious or proud.
    Svendsen does not really go into the historical circumstances
    surrounding the emergence of boredom. The date 1760 is surely
    tremendously significant, because it connects the beginning of boredom
    with the beginning of the industrial revolution. It was in 1764 that
    James Hargreaves invented the spinning jenny and James Watt invented
    the steam engine. These two dastardly machines - Blake's "cogs
    tyrannic" - tore the peasant from his creative self-sufficiency and
    substituted machine-work for handiwork.
    Work in the 19th century duly became unbelievably boring and tedious,
    and has remained so ever since. Modern consumerism provides an arsenal
    of weapons to alleviate boredom. Adverts for Virgin Megastores, for
    example, explicitly claim the shop's products will make you less
    bored. We seek solace from the tedium of toil in manufactured
    entertainment, and fill our leisure time with ever more lunatic
    activities (extreme sports spring to mind).
    I was also fascinated to learn that the concept of "interesting"
    emerged at roughly the same time. Before 1760, we neither categorised
    things as being "boring" nor "interesting"; they just were. Perhaps
    the concept of individualism was not sufficiently developed for man to
    pre-sume to judge one way or the other. For me, however, this
    splitting mirrors the modern division between "work" and "leisure".
    Before the industrial revolution, as E P Thompson argues in The Making
    of the English Working Class, work and leisure were much more
    The punk movement was a nice, juicy protest against boredom; Svendsen
    cites the extreme rocker G G Allin and the Buzzcocks, creators of the
    song "Boredom", with its famous one-note guitar solo. But again, he
    could have gone further. In Lipstick Traces, Greil Marcus places punk
    in the same tradition as Dada and situationism, which were both
    attempts to assert the value of living over the bourgeois ideal of
    mere survival. The situationist Raoul Vaneigem, for example, wrote in
    The Revolution of Everyday Life (1967) that "people are dying of
    boredom". Ten years later, the Sex Pistols created some of the least
    boring music of the modern age out of the experience of being bored.
    In the end, delightful and important though the book is, I found
    Svendsen's conclusions a bit wimpy. Boredom, he seems to say, is just
    something we've got to live with. Some are more prone to it than
    others. Svendsen sees it as principally a psychological condition,
    whereas I would put more of the blame on boring governments, boring
    shops, boring products and the loss of creativity in our daily lives.
    He seems to admire the Warholian response to boredom, which is to say:
    "Who cares?"
    At one point, Svendsen quotes Karl Rosenkranz, who wrote in 1853: "The
    boring is ugly, or rather: Ugliness to the point of the dead, empty
    tautological awakens a feeling of boredom in us." But he does not
    then, like William Morris, relate the rise of ugliness to the rise of
    capitalism. It is surely the inexorable progress of capitalism towards
    an ideal of quantity rather than quality that leads to its stifling
    homogeneity, ugliness and boredom. To become less bored, shouldn't we
    attempt to reclaim our lives from work, and live them freely and
    Tom Hodgkinson is editor of the Idler and the author of How To Be Idle
    (Hamish Hamilton)

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