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Bored Again: Acceleration, Anxiety, and Boredom in Late Modernity

Anna Pochmara

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The war between being and nothingness is the underlying illness of the twentieth century. Boredom slays more of existence than war. (Mailer 164)
[We are] bored not only when there is nothing to do, but also when there is too much. (Clive qtd. in Jarski 67)
These days . . . you never step in the same live stream twice. And yet the digital river is tediously familiar. (Pettman xiii)

  • 1 For a relationship between boredom and modernity, see Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom (2005 (...)

1As the above list of quotations—which could be continued for many more pages and could bore you straight away—illustrates, the notion of boredom has changed its significance with the advent of modernity. Many studies devoted to this ambivalent and elusive phenomenon posit a close connection between boredom and the Enlightenment. Predominantly focusing on the historical and philosophical aspects of this affective state, scholars such as Lars Svendsen, Elizabeth Goodstein, or Michael Gardiner show that boredom can be instrumental in facilitating a better understanding of the emergence and development of modern selfhood. As the premodern divine order was displaced by the belief in human progress, earthly happiness, and self-fulfillment, and simultaneously, the feudal economy was dethroned by the Industrial Revolution and the capitalist economy with its alienated labor, leisure, mass entertainment, and the chronometer, the boring and the interesting became central ideas in the human experience. Modern notions of selfhood, agency, and self-determination burden us with the task of constructing ourselves as meaningful, engaging, and interesting subjects. As Gardiner puts it, “we are compelled to transform... cosmic randomness into a semblance of willed destiny, as opposed to the pre-ordained ‘fate’ that marked life in the pre-modern world” (236). We have to invent ourselves effectively and quickly, hurried by “the ticking away of real time minute by minute, the dread underlying irrevocable reality of the meter running” (Jameson 75). Referring to the works of key modern thinkers (such as Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Benjamin, and Adorno to cite the most frequently recurring names), many researchers have analyzed the political, ethical, and phenomenological possibilities of boredom, from its function as a coping mechanism that preventively shuts off affect (Jameson 71; Thiele 502; Gardiner 241) to a state that may provide epistemological insight (Svendsen 115–66).1

  • 2 For a detailed analysis of consumer boredom and the function of boredom in this issue, see Mariusz (...)

2Although boredom has always been a crucial factor for the capitalist economy and modernity, in the late twentieth century, its experience has been further modified, and its significance has grown even more markedly. In the age of instant communication, new information technologies, all-encompassing media culture, and non-stop consumption, boredom has become a serious obstacle to happiness, at least in the more affluent parts of the planet. More than twenty years ago, Zygmunt Bauman argued that liquidity is the new cultural dominant and that we have entered the era of constant alteration and instantaneity, defined by “immediate, ‘on-the-spot’ fulfillment—but also immediate exhaustion and fading of interest” (37). The cycle in which the desired commodity goes from interesting to boring has been compressed into a fleeting instant. Already in 1915, Amy Lowell, an apostle of modernism, suggested that modern objects date faster. There is “nothing so uninspiring nor so old-fashioned,” she wrote in her poetic manifesto, “as a four-year-old aeroplane.” Today’s world of fast capitalism is saturated with devices that not only seem dated after several years but actually replace “themselves with newer, more invasive, more accelerated versions,” as Ben Agger contends (49). Jonathan Crary adds that the unrelenting pace at which novelties are produced “prevents any significant period of time elapsing in which the use of a given product... could become familiar” (35). This, in turn, has considerably changed the experience of boredom: today we are bored not only with products or media productions that are too familiar but also with commodities that become dispensable immediately after purchase.2 For the vast majority of people, such perpetual replacement of products results in an anxiety-ridden and estranged relationship to objects of consumption, be they material or virtual. Apart from this emotional estrangement and disengagement, people struggle with environmental anxiety, as the process of perpetual displacement and disposal of commodities is inseparable from environmental catastrophe. At least since the signing of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, the problem has become generally recognized, and people have gradually started to acknowledge personal responsibility for climate change, which resulted in what psychologists refer to as eco-anxiety and eco-guilt (Ágoston et al. 1–4). The close connection between consumer boredom and environmental catastrophe was poignantly expressed in the photographs from the Atacama Desert of Chile, covered in mountains of fast fashion discards, which grabbed the headlines last year (“The Fast Fashion”). Analogous affects of the Global North’s eco-guilt and anxiety are evoked by the familiar images representing piles of electronic garbage shipped to developing countries (fig. 1). Overall, the accelerating speed of consumption, affectively driven by boredom, results in new anxieties afflicting late modern subjects.

3Fig. 1. Joost de Kluijver, Closing The Loop project, Ghana, 2014 © Fairphone. Courtesy of Fairphone.

  • 3 For a relationship between boredom and trauma or dread in this issue, see Anna Ferrari, “Not Moving (...)

4Already in 1986, Orrin Klapp argued that in contemporary society, information turns to noise and results in boredom and disengagement because people reached a point of saturation that “exceeds the ability of the individual to process information” (102). Examining how capitalism continues to speed up since then, Agger claims that the acceleration and instantaneity, which define today’s experience, result in the erosion of the boundary between personal and public life (17–18). “The Internet,” he explains, not only accelerates time and compresses space but also “dismantles barriers or boundaries between private and public, home and work, in ways that profoundly affect our identities and intimate lives” (18). In a similar vein, Crary argues that in a society where work and consumption can penetrate every single moment of our private lives, “the highest premium is placed on activity for its own sake” (13). In the regime of 24/7 capitalism, even “sleeping is for losers” (12). Many critics point to the anxieties that underlie human experience with new technologies. Referring to our era as the age of distraction, Dominic Pettman points to a paradoxical dynamic that drives today’s social media: “The world is demoralizing, depressing, and stress-inducing,” so people “seek distractions from it,” yet those distractions never succeed at their task (124). Instead, they further aggravate the sense of displacement and alienation, the bleak underbelly of modern existence, early or late. Furthermore, new technologies create new anxieties, such as the fear of missing out or of being ghosted, which were unknown to the alienated workers represented by Marx. In the age of nonstop and instant communication, the wisdom “No news is good news” is no longer applicable. Both receiving and not receiving news breed anxiety as well as boredom because, as a character from a popular 2022 TV show states when impatiently waiting for a message, “There is no reason nowadays not to respond to a text” (“The Retreat”). As a result, today boredom appears more frequently and at shorter intervals, and it is closely interrelated with velocity, restlessness, and anxiety rather than inactivity or stability. It does not provide cohesion or security, but to the contrary, it results in restlessness or apprehension, and, as some contributors to this issue argue, is related to trauma and dread.3

  • 4 For an analysis of the possibility of self-reinvention in this issue, see David Callahan, “Boredom, (...)

5The changes in our experience of boredom are registered not only by sociologists or philosophers. Many of the stimuli that the new technologies bombard us with are cultural commodities. With a plethora of activities to choose from, such as binge-watching, playing freemium games, or following sporting events, our time is a battlefield for the entertainment industry. According to Nielsen, in 2010, the average American consumed video content of various kinds for approximately five hours a day (qtd. in Crary 65). Characteristically, these hours coincide with other activities, and more often than not, the videos are distractions rather than objects of our undivided attention. Like other commodities, cultural products help us present ourselves as interesting. According to Svendsen, the preoccupation with being an interesting person is a relatively new human need, which gained significance in the nineteenth century (142–43). In the age of acceleration, this need has transformed into what Gardiner names “a feverish ‘entrepreneurialism of the self’” (239). As Eldritch Priest argues, contemporary boredom expresses the ambivalence towards “contemporary neoliberal culture’s promise of endless self-invention” (36). Faced with hyperstimulation and information overload, with so many options to pick from, we often fail to find satisfactory cultural commodities and end up feeling bored as well as boring.4

  • 5 For a discussion of televisual aesthetics and formats in this issue, see Anna Pochmara, “‘I Don’t T (...)

6On the other hand, many products of the entertainment industry today try so hard to be interesting that they epileptically overwhelm us with hyperstimulating images, evoking the boredom of satiety. Whereas traditionally perceived as the opposite of excess, today, boredom frequently stems precisely from excessive aesthetics. As one of the epigraphs states, we are “bored not only when there is nothing to do, but also when there is too much” (Clive qtd. in Jarski). This aesthetic overkill may take various forms, from the overload of special effects, to hyperdynamic pace, to extreme vulgarity, to tedious technical perfection. Whereas early modernity perceived boredom as related to emptiness (hence horror vacui, for example), paradoxically, today, it is more often than not linked to overstimulation. This sensory overload leads to boredom manifested as numbness, callousness, and apathy (cf. van Leeuwen 177–78). Thus, the acceleration characterizing the age of instantaneity is visible also on the aesthetic level of cultural commodities, whose relationship to boredom will be discussed in the articles that close the issue.5

7What neither Agger nor Bauman or Crary (or even Pettman writing about social media in 2016) knew was the way the changes they described, frequently with awe, would further intensify in the relatively brief period of the COVID-19 pandemic. A novel virus identified in 2019, SARS-CoV-2, spread worldwide in the first months of 2022, causing 6.53 million deaths. In September 2022, the WHO tentatively suggested that the world was moving to the endemic stage of COVID-19, citing the decline in reported deaths (Mishra). In less than three years of the pandemic, most of the world experienced social and economic upheavals. From the perspective of late modernity and boredom studies, voluntary and mandatory lockdowns or quarantines led to unprecedented virtualization of everyday lives (remote work, virtual education, telemedicine, online shopping), which further eroded the public/private, consumption/production, work/home, and real/virtual boundaries. As many as 59% of US employees whose work can be done work from home have chosen to work remotely in 2022, which is two and a half times more than before the coronavirus outbreak, when the figure was only 23% (Parker et al.). As a result, today more people can relate to Agger’s statements that our “home, time, and even thoughts are invaded as the virtual world streams through them” and the “job site has metamorphosed from factory to office to home” (156, 19) because, since early 2020, many of us were forced to turn our homes into camera-ready workplaces or classrooms suitable for professional streaming. Agger warns us not to see such the shift towards working from home as an increase in leisure; “labor simply dons a different uniform” (19), even if the uniform consists of such pandemic home office dress code essentials as pajamas or sweats.

8Analogously, Crary’s claim that the spread of new technologies of information and communication leads to the “annihilation of the singularity of place and event” is much more relevant after the COVID-19 outbreak (25). During the pandemic, most of us have both blessed and cursed the fact that there are “almost no circumstances now that can not be recorded or archived as digital imagery or information” (25; emphasis in original).  After an initial excitement about the possibilities for connection and technosociality offered by videoconferencing tools, people started to suffer from Zoom fatigue, technostress, and information overload. As sociologists explain, “Increased workloads, overtime, and irregular working hours have led to the deterioration of the daily routines,” and many employees were “not able to disconnect from work and work-related issues in their leisure time” (Şentürk et al. 42). The dissolution of the boundary between work and home was further exacerbated by a change that can be aptly depicted using Crary’s words on the unprecedented impact of television: “Hundreds of millions of individuals precipitously began spending many hours of every day and night sitting, more or less stationary, in close proximity to flickering, light-emitting objects” (62). Accordingly, the increase in remote work during the pandemic led to a significant increase in sedentary screen time (Şentürk et al. 42, 49). Finally, the pandemic lockdowns were characterized by a mixture of anxiety and boredom that echoes the anxiety-ridden and estranged relationship between the consumer and commodity or anxieties related to new technologies and boredom, which I mentioned earlier. Thus, the three years of the COVID-19 pandemic can be used as a microscope lens, in which we can clearly see the structure of feeling that underlies late modernity: the monotony of waiting for an expected disaster, which combines anxiety and boredom.

9In this special issue of the European Journal of American Studies, the authors contribute to the recently emerged field of boredom studies and extend the existing, predominantly historically- and philosophically-oriented research into another direction. The Boredoms of Late Modernity examines the experiences of boredom from the perspective of literary criticism, cultural studies, sociology, and art history. Such focus on culture, art, and literature promises to be fruitful because, as Fredric Jameson argues, “boredom with a particular kind of work or style or content can always be used productively as a precious symptom of our own existential, ideological, and cultural limits, an index of what has to be refused in the way of other people’s cultural practices and their threat to our own rationalizations about the nature and value of art” (72). The issue opens, however, with a sociological perspective, and the first article, “Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Subliminal Mood of Consumer Capitalism,” provides the necessary context for cultural analysis that the following articles offer. In the paper, Mariusz Finkielsztein, one of the founders of the International Society of Boredom Studies, argues that boredom has always been one of the main forces driving the capitalist economy. This mechanism becomes particularly visible in today’s consumer society, which values novelty over tradition, and as a result, today’s consumers have higher levels of boredom proneness than people in the early modern era. As Finkielsztein demonstrates, the dominant discourse of consumer capitalism condemns boredom as the main obstacle to a happy and exciting life and, at the same time, it actively produces it by marketing new products that make even slightly older commodities seem outdated.

10The following article, “A Jacket Not Worth Looking At: Shipboard Boredom aboard Herman Melville’s Neversink,” focuses on different facets of shipboard boredom in White-Jacket (1850), a relatively unknown naval novel by Herman Melville, which, as Arturo Corujo argues, continues to be relevant for today’s understanding of boredom, especially during the pandemic, when many felt stranded and isolated. He explores the paradoxical situation of navy soldiers, whose tedious, routine lives are far from the romantic expectations for sea adventures or the war effort. Throughout the novel, the male-only crew of “the man-of-war” is engaged in repetitive and domestic tasks, which denaturalizes the ideology of militarized masculinity and exposes its performative character. Corujo shows that in the case of the narrator and his eponymous jacket, boredom takes on a more existential meaning. In the course of the novel, the protagonist becomes identified with the garment that marks him as the white other in the blue-uniformed crowd. Corujo persuasively reads this obliteration of the difference between subject and object—visible already in the title of the novel, which refers both to the narrator and his jacket—as an example of existential boredom. Seemingly the very opposite of the estrangement between the consumer and the commodity that Crary discusses, the lack of difference also breeds anxieties. Such total identification with the object poses a danger to the protagonist’s identity and leads to depression and solipsism. In the end, the narrator manages to free himself from the oppressive jacket. He transcends the existential crisis and joins the community of his fellow sailors in their shipboard boredom on the Neversink. In the next article, “Acedia and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King,” Zuzanna Ladyga analyzes the ultimate postmodern novel on boredom. She positions it in the American literary tradition of dissent against the ethic of obsessive productivity, which can be traced back at least to Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener,” thus indirectly supporting Corujo’s claim regarding the significance of Melville’s works for the modern experience of boredom. Ladyga demonstrates how Wallace uses the figure of boredom to challenge the regime of productivity in fast capitalism and its erosion of the boundary between personal and public life. Focusing on the concept of the “feedback glare,” a blank, amorphous look signifying disengagement, she argues that boredom can serve as protection against the system’s intrusions into our intimate lives. Thus, in the novel, Wallace exposes the mechanics of biopower and shows that the mode of boredom serves as an effective tool of resistance against it.

11The theme of existential boredom in literature continues in the following article, entitled “Not Moving While the World Falls Apart: Living in Quotes in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket.” Anna Ferrari analyzes numbness and immobility in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket (1989) as an example of existential boredom, which results from the trauma experienced by the gay community during the 1980s AIDS epidemic. Ferrari argues that the ceaseless stream of deaths was an ongoing traumatizing factor for male homosexuals of the day and shows that the protagonist’s paralysis is a reaction to the epidemic. The paradoxical situation of an almost totally immobile character living in the age of acceleration exposes the restless boredom, which is underlain with anxiety and alienation. The next paper, “Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One,” also discusses the relationship between boredom and trauma. In his analysis, Mark Pedretti demonstrates that the traditional division into chronos—boring, repetitive, and meaningless time—and kairos—meaningful and eventful time—breaks down in Whitehead’s postapocalyptic novel. The constant dread, tension, and eventfulness of the postapocalypse are habituated, and the repeated horror becomes a source of boredom. As Pedretti demonstrates, the novel speaks to the late modern predicament, in which repetitive hypermediation coexists with the latent possibility of absolute violence. The relationship between boredom and violence is continued in “‘Boring Photography’: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post Soviet Deadpan Photography,” Victoria Musvik article on post-Soviet trauma and photographic expression. She shows that this dominant stylistic in Russian photography of the twenty-first century is frequently read in terms of aesthetic boredom. Musvik traces the roots of the Russian deadpan to the American New Topographics exhibition and compares the two projects. Referring to the invasion of Ukraine in early 2022 in particular and to the postcolonial context in general, she shows that the Russian photographs express collective trauma, repressed aggression, violence, and resentment but also manage to voice dissent against the Putin regime.

12The next article, “Boredom, Cohesion, and Transformation in Nick Drnaso’s Beverly” also explores boredom in contemporary visual culture. In his close reading of Drnaso’s 2016 graphic novel, David Callahan discusses several questions central to boredom studies, such as whether boredom can lead to transformation and whether its correlation to familiar routine and cohesion can be regarded as positive since it saves us from the shock of the extraordinary. Callahan puts Drnaso’s representation of boring suburbs in Beverly in the context of US American mythologies as well as other comic books, a genre frequently associated with dynamic action and excitement. He concludes that in Drnaso’s novel the characters who attempt to break with the fixed patterns of boring American suburbs are marginalized and fail to achieve any meaningful connection with others. The examination of American suburbs is continued in the next article, in which Anna Pochmara analyzes the boredom of overstimulation in Euphoria (2019), a recent teenage drama created by Sam Levinson. She juxtaposes its representation of the suburbs with literary portrayals, which emphasize sameness and emptiness, as well as with sitcoms, which frequently express a nostalgic yearning for the good old days of carefree suburban life. Levinson’s drama steers far from such idealized images of comfortingly boring suburban adolescence. The show depicts teenage life as drenched with boredom, but it is anxious and restless rather than repetitive and comforting.

13The last two articles also analyze recent streaming and television productions. In “The Un/Bearable Lightness of (Slow) Watching: Audiovisual Boredom as Stimulation,” Beata Zawadka explores the aesthetics of three twenty-first-century films and TV shows from the perspective of boredom studies. She argues that their use of slow-cinema aesthetics evokes spectatorial boredom and stimulates the viewers, expanding their cultural experiences. The issue ends with an analysis of last year’s major media event, or pseudo-event, as Łukasz Muniowski argues. In “Oprah, Meghan, Harry, Pseudo-Events, and a Quick Fix to Boredom,” he discusses the Oprah with Meghan and Harry television special and explains why its hardly exciting format is accepted as a cure for boredom. Muniowski traces the history of newsmaking and shows that nowadays the media produce events and present them as a solution to leisure boredom even though there is nothing remarkable about them. Such pseudo-events are as interchangeable as the displaced commodities, whose analysis opens the issue. The closing three articles aptly illustrate Jameson’s claim that boredom is not “an objective property of things and works” and “what is boring can often be very interesting indeed, and vice versa” (71–72). Any aesthetic or cultural analysis of boredom must take into account extratextual factors.

14As the authors in this issue demonstrate, to understand boredom in contemporary culture, we cannot stop at a formalist analysis, and we need to take into account factors that define today’s experience. A lot has changed since Theodor Adorno criticized—with utter disgust—sunbathing as the ultimate image of boredom and as an example of exploitation in free time under capitalism. Today, the “physically unpleasant” and mind-impoverishing act of “dozing in the sun” (191) no longer constitutes the emblematic experience of boredom, which has been complicated by factors such as the instant exchange of information and goods, immersion in the incessant flow of content enabled by new technologies, the mechanics of power and desire in fast capitalism, and the anxieties that they all evoke or are related to. Those anxieties primarily stem from our anticipation of the next outburst of violence perpetrated by unpredictable global forces. During the last twelve months (December 2021–November 2022), we have witnessed a pandemic, a war that threatened to go global, the beginning of a worldwide economic crisis, and more and more signs of the imminent climate catastrophe. As late moderns, not always consciously but ceaselessly, we wait for the next information about a disaster, refreshing our screens (rather than dozing in the sun), locked in a stand-by mode of anxious boredom.

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Notes

1 For a relationship between boredom and modernity, see Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom (2005), Elizabeth S. Goodstein’s Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity (2005), Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani’s Essays on Boredom and Modernity (2009), and Michael Gardiner and Julian Jason Haladyn’s Boredom Studies Reader: Frameworks and Perspectives (2019).

2 For a detailed analysis of consumer boredom and the function of boredom in this issue, see Mariusz Finkielsztein, “Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Subliminal Mood of Consumer Capitalism.”

3 For a relationship between boredom and trauma or dread in this issue, see Anna Ferrari, “Not Moving While the World Falls Apart: Living in Quotes in John Weir’s The Irreversible Decline of Eddie Socket”; Mark Pedretti, “Tedium and Terror: Dreading Narration in Colson Whitehead’s Zone One”; and Victoria Musvik, “‘Boring Photography’: American New Topographics, Socialist Boredom, and Post-Soviet Deadpan Photography.” For existentialist readings of boredom, see Arturo Corujo, “A Jacket Not Worth Looking At: Shipboard Boredom aboard Herman Melville’s Neversink” and Zuzanna Ladyga, “Acedia and David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King.”

4 For an analysis of the possibility of self-reinvention in this issue, see David Callahan, “Boredom, Cohesion, and Transformation in Nick Drnaso’s Beverly.”

5 For a discussion of televisual aesthetics and formats in this issue, see Anna Pochmara, “‘I Don’t Think I Have an Attention Span for Real Life Anymore’: Excessive Stimulation, Sense of Meaninglessness, and Boredom in Sam Levinson’s Euphoria”; Beata Zawadka, “The Un/Bearable Lightness of (Slow) Watching: Audiovisual Boredom as Stimulation”; and Łukasz Muniowski, “Oprah, Meghan, Harry, Pseudo-Events, and a Quick Fix to Boredom.”

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References

Electronic reference

Anna Pochmara, Bored Again: Acceleration, Anxiety, and Boredom in Late ModernityEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 28 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18973; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18973

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About the author

Anna Pochmara

Anna Pochmara is an Associate Professor at the Institute of English Studies, University of Warsaw. She is the author of The Making of the New Negro: Black Authorship, Masculinity, and Sexuality (Amsterdam University Press, 2011) and The Nadir and the Zenith: Temperance and Excess in the Early African American Novel (University of Georgia Press, 2021). She edited a Polish companion to James Baldwin (University of Warsaw Press, 2021) and co-edited On Uses of Black Camp, a special issue of Open Cultural Studies (2017, with Justyna Wierzchowska) and CosmopolitanismsRace, and Ethnicity (De Gruyter Open, 2019 with Ewa Luczak and Samir Dayal). Currently, she is working on the anthology The African American Novel in the 21st Century (Brill).

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