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Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Subliminal Mood of Consumer Capitalism

Mariusz Finkielsztein

Abstract

The article poses the thesis that boredom is the main driving force of the consumer capitalist system. Through a sequence of social and cultural shifts and freeloading on natural human predispositions, the system has manufactured a new type of being, homo consumens, who is socialized to be passive, desire- and dream-driven, and addicted to novelty, constant change, a ceaseless stream of stimuli, and pleasure. Boredom enables a smooth functioning of such a system. Bored consumers buy more and are led by desires that promise to alleviate their boredom. Consumer capitalism is devoted to the fighting of the very boredom that it actively produces, amplifies, or invites in consumer socialization. The entire entertainment/culture industry is, in fact, the boredom industry, whose institutions are preoccupied with mitigating the consumers’ situational boredom, but—at the same time—push this light type of boredom into the subliminal realm, where it has time to accumulate and takes root unnoticed, becoming a subliminal mood of consumer capitalism.

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1. Introduction

1The main thesis this paper claims that boredom constitutes the basic mood of capitalism, especially consumer capitalism, and is employed on various levels and in various ways to enable that system to flourish and expand. Some statements presented below might seem exaggerated or unfounded (one can find exceptions to them), and this is why I must start with some clarification. When I write about capitalism, I usually refer not to any particular version of it (historical/national/theoretical) but to the general idea of capitalism as an economic and/or social system. This is why I juxtapose sources from the nineteenth, twentieth, and twenty-first centuries. I want to describe a certain logic of that system, which is universal to it—the logic of constant progress and revenue growth, the exploitation of employees and consumers, and their socialization to the role of disciplined subjects. When I write that capitalism does something, I usually mean that it attempts to do it. I also focus on the discursive part of the system—advertising, marketing, public relations, etc.—which are governed not by a group of individuals (as conspiracy theories suggest) but by a set of principles inherent to the universal logic of capitalism.

2Currently, society appears to be entangled in a paradox: as opportunities for entertainment and consumption proliferate, so does boredom (Winter 15). This is because boredom, as I want to show in this article, has been employed as a basic emotional market mechanism that enables capitalism to expand. We may say that boredom has become a spiritus movens, one of the driving forces of consumer capitalism. Capitalism, through advertising, tries to actively create needs and to invent the means of satisfying them (Williams, The Magic of Advertising 422). Most importantly, it produces a specific mindset that glorifies pleasure and satisfaction as ultimate goals in life and sets novelty as the highest principle. “Consumer society thrives as long as it manages to render the non-satisfaction of its members” (Bauman, Consuming Life 47) and as long as it remains successful in imprinting addiction to stimuli onto them. Arthur Schopenhauer, in his The World as Will and Representation, succinctly describes something that might be interpreted as the essence of the capitalist subject’s existence, which is the transition between a wish and its fulfillment: “the fast course of which is called happiness, the slow course sorrow... showing itself as a fearful, life-destroying boredom” (164). Thus, as Theodor Adorno portrays it, the basic mechanism of consumer capitalism is an endless spiral of passing from entertainment to boredom and back to the next entertainment without a sense of lasting satisfaction (The Culture Industry 98-106). Nowadays, this tendency is even stronger and more overwhelming on a social scale than in the times of Schopenhauer or Adorno.

3Seemingly, boredom in the capitalist narrative is a villain, the main obstacle to human satisfaction and ultimate bliss, but simultaneously, the capitalist system produces boredom in industrial amounts as its basic fuel and driving force. This constitutes the basic paradox of consumer capitalism—it gets power from the very thing it vilifies. Boredom is universally portrayed as the main villain in the story created by numerous advertisements. Their patterns are quite repetitive and rather tedious. We can distinguish at least three of them:

  • 1 For an analysis of a lipstick commercial and boredom, see David Callahan’s “Boredom, Cohesion, and (...)

4(1) Boredom as consumer monotony and lack of choice—ads present the alternative between the grey consumer void vs. colorful abundance of choice (e.g., supermarket ads), between steady everyday patterns and trying something new (e.g., a new ready meal as a remedy for repetitiveness in the kitchen; new eye-liner or lipstick to provide a change in appearance).1 This is the solution by novelty;

5(2) Boredom as a threat that can be easily avoided—the solution to boredom-to-come is an electronic device that is a boredom-repellent (computer) or is boredom-proof (smartphone), various forms of entertainment, for instance, streaming services, such as Netflix, or access to some services, such as unlimited phone conversations offered by a mobile phone operator. This is the solution by entertainment;

6(3) Boredom as a lack of exciting and interesting life—everyone deserves thrill and adventure, which are the opposite of the normal, the banal, and the boring. This type of advertising is based on the premise that boredom is for boring people and is associated with social position: boredom is for losers and adventure is for go-getters. Such ads offer luxury goods, such as cars, which are to provide one with the mark of exceptionality and interestingness that would melt boredom out of one’s life altogether. Such ads provide the solution by positional goods/social status.

7The motifs are repetitive, and their message is quite simple: (a) boredom is an obstacle to a happy and fulfilling life, which is presented as an individual duty and an ultimate aim of human activity (see Ahmed, The Promise of Happiness 10); (b) purchasing goods and entertaining oneself can remedy this problem by preventing or killing boredom, and (c) the act of buying and consuming transforms one’s life from boring to interesting.

8This leads us to the conclusion that boredom can be employed as an effective marketing tool. Bored consumers are receptive and manipulable; they become easy prey for advertisements. In a word, boredom sells. The strong link between boredom and consumerism has been demonstrated by numerous studies on unplanned or impulse buying. Unplanned buying refers to the number of goods put in the basket that are not on the shopping list and impulse buying is defined as “a sudden but powerful persistent urge to buy product offers immediately without due regard to the consequences of buying the offering” (Aruna and Santhi 21). In both cases, boredom plays a significant role. As Malin Sundström et al. note, “When consumers are bored and feel monotony and frustration they are easily triggered by stimulus like price and easy access” (154). A study by Cathryn Studak and Jane Workman finds that university students shop online when bored. Shopping is a coping mechanism through which boredom is replaced with the pleasure associated with the purchasing process. In this way, online buying constitutes a method for “clicking the boredom away” (Sundström et al. 150)

9Thus, although commercial discourse condemns boredom, both the fear of boredom and the state of being bored are its driving forces. For the system to sell the surplus of products, consumers cannot be satisfied (Bauman, Consuming Life 47), should be actively socialized to cherish novelty, and need to have the least possible attention span—in a word, they should be easily and frequently bored (have higher boredom proneness) and have to fear boredom to buy even more goods and services. I would therefore like to advance a controversial thesis that currently boredom is not a feeling that we successfully overcome by consumption and entertainment, but instead, it has become a mood of present-day capitalism that keeps this system going. In a word, boredom is the input and output product of consumer capitalism. An enemy of the consumer, it has become a valuable friend of advertisers, producers, and sellers.

10However, for the system to function smoothly, the spiral of boredom must be set in motion and once begun, it should never be disturbed or stopped. The spiral of consumer boredom contains the following sequence: (1) the emergence of boredom (with a situation, a product, conditions of one’s life, etc.), which is the state of longing and restlessness leading to a desire for desire; (2) directing the unspecified longing and forming a specific desire; (3) the satisfaction of the desire (by consumption, entertainment, change, etc.); (4) satiation/habituation/disappointment/dissatisfaction; (5) the re-emergence of boredom; (6) a quest for a new desire (see fig. 1).

11Fig. 1. The spiral of consumer boredom

12For consumer capitalism to succeed, the sequence cannot be broken. To reach that goal, the system needs obedient and bored consumers. This can be achieved by socializing people to produce a particular mindset characterized by (a) a high valence of artificial desires interpreted as natural and indispensable needs; (b) the addiction to stimuli, novelty, and pleasure, and high boredom proneness/high boredom intolerance; (c) high expectations and dream-driven attitude; and (d) passive attitude, i.e., obedient consumption of what the system manufactures without challenging the principles of that system. I will discuss the above-listed elements in the subsequent sections of the article.

2. Artificial Needs

13The list of basic or natural needs to which all would agree seems to be relatively short and might include nutrition and excretion, sleep and warmth, comfort, sex, procreation (especially at a young age), and social interactions. The rest is at best debatable and even the extent of these basic needs can be controversial (for example, how many hours of sleep is basic and what would constitute an unnecessary surplus of it). Human needs are historically changeable, and whereas the fulfillment of basic needs would satisfy hunter-gatherers, this would not be the case for the modern subject (Suzman, Work ch. 5). And what is even more certain, the limited material needs, typical for the societies of hunter-gatherers, would not be able to sustain modern capitalism. As Emil Cioran aptly notes, if people agreed to be satisfied only with what is truly necessary, civilization, i.e. the capitalist system, would immediately collapse (The Fall into Time 63).

14Significantly, as James Suzman points out, the first Europeans who encountered South African hunter-gatherers in the late fifteenth century were astonished that they were not interested in trade and the acquisition of goods (Affluence without Abundance ch. 3). They did not have either the basic qualities that defined the civilized human being or the predispositions for modern economic life, which Adam Smith would regard as “natural.” Therefore, what present-day consumers interpret as their basic needs is the outcome of a long cultural development, which started with the sedentary and agricultural lifestyle (Suzman, Affluence without Abundance ch. 3). As Zygmunt Bauman reminds us, consumer capitalism is driven not by basic needs but by desires (Consuming Life 28). While the former are relatively concrete and are limited, the latter are vague and basically limitless. The consumer civilization manufactures and multiplies desires incessantly at such a scale that over time they start to be seen and felt as natural needs. Capitalism creates “fictitious, artificial, and imaginary needs” (Lefebvre 161), which disguise themselves as basic needs (Svendsen, Fashion 134). Herbert Marcuse even suggests that capitalism replaces authentic human needs with false ones and that needs are superseded by desires, rather than only supplemented by them (One-Dimensional Man 7).

15Marcuse’s distinction between “true and false needs” (7)—or what I refer to in this article as needs v. desires—can be determined by their outcomes. Actual needs are “absolute needs,” to use the expression of John Maynard Keynes—they are satiable and do not last indefinitely (for instance, if we eat, we are full and no longer need to eat; qtd. in Lonsdale). Artificial needs are “relative needs”—they are insatiable and infinite because after one desire is satisfied, another one, even more ambitious, immediately replaces it. Such needs are linked to a desire for superiority over others (these needs motivate us to work hard, even when our absolute needs have already been satisfied; see Suzman, Work ch. 1). Artificial needs after their fulfillment render us unsatisfied, bored, and restless. According to Schopenhauer, as Jordi Fernandez states:

the reason why securing the object of our desires takes away its appeal is that the object in question was not the real object of our desire. In other words, if we get bored once we achieve what we apparently want, it is simply because we did not really want it in the first place. This would indeed explain why securing the objects of our desires eliminates their appeal and, as a result, we are unable to enjoy their possession. If we never really wanted a certain object that we have pursued and finally secured, then it is not surprising that we are not able to enjoy its possession. (655)

16The distinction between actual and artificial needs is purposefully blurred by commercial discourse, and the interpretation of the latter as the former is necessary for present-day capitalism to survive. The satisfaction of basic needs is quite easy at the current level of technological development, and thus, the manufacturing of desires is now even more essential than the manufacturing of products. Creating the feeling of lack, emptiness, and desire for desire in consumers is a condition sine qua non of late modern capitalism. As Deleuze and Guattari claim:

Lack is created, planned and organized in and through social production.... It is never primary; production is never organized on the basis of pre-existing need or lack. It is lack that infiltrates itself, creates empty spaces or vacuoles, and propagates itself in accordance with the organization of production. The deliberate creation of lack as a function of market economy is the art of the dominant class. This involves deliberately organising wants and needs amid an abundance of production; making all desire teeter and fall victim to the great fear of not having one’s needs satisfied. (28)

17In other words, desire sells the surplus of consumer products. Yet, what is beneficial for the system—the endless pursuit of desires—results in boredom and disappointment exactly because consumption fulfills only artificial needs instead of genuine ones (Gardiner, Critiques of Everyday Life 93).

18Of course, the form of expression of a particular need depends on the cultural context, and thus, it is variable and relative to some extent. Many needs that are perceived by modern subjects as basic or natural are in fact culturally dependent. This obsolescence is crucial for the system—where there is indeterminacy, there is space for interpretation, for the active formation of consumer mindset, and for shifting the boundary between desire and need in favor of the former. Boredom eases this process: as it is a desire for desire, it has no concrete object, which makes one easily seduced. This creates a vast opportunity to direct such a desire towards any concrete materialization, which will likely not satisfy the desire due to its mere indeterminacy. It is hard to satisfy a desire that is essentially without a particular object. This dynamic creates a consumer capitalist perpetuum mobile.

  • 2 For the “tyrannical” and disciplinary aspect of choice, see Renata Salecl, The Tyranny of Choice (2 (...)

19The consumer mindset is a battlefield of the capitalist system, whose ultimate purpose is to impose new desires on consumers and to form a new, “artificial human nature” (Marcuse 7). As Marcuse suggests, consumer society is oppressive. New artificial needs and aspirations are forced onto people by advertising, media, and the culture industry to boost sales. The needs for beach vacations, mall shopping, expensive cars, or pursuing a vocational career are not natural—they are culturally programmed to exploit people, both as employees and consumers (7). Consumers live in an artificial world, which they conceive as authentic and natural—they have a false consciousness. They allegedly have freedom of choice, but it is a forced freedom since “all consumers have to make choices” (Lodziak 3, emphasis added).2 As Marcuse claims, freedom is illusory in the consumer society because people are socialized to desire “freely and spontaneously” what is expected of them (10). They can only choose between various specimens of the same as sameness under the disguise of variety is what is sold to them (cf. Klapp, ch. 6). Consumers are supposed to endlessly follow the narrow path from one desire to another. All the choices they have are predetermined, leaving no room for reflection on the meaning of their life and on the prevailing organization of society. As Marcuse states, “the spontaneous reproduction of superimposed needs by the individual does not establish autonomy; it only testifies to the efficacy of the controls” (10).

20To sum up, consumer capitalism has specialized in manufacturing artificial needs, which on the most general level come down to the needs for constant change, novelty, and busyness, ignoring or even superseding the actual human needs for agency, deep involvement, and meaningfulness. The ceaseless stream of stimuli and constant motion are meant to prevent us from realizing the incongruence between the culturally-prescribed lifestyle of consumerism and natural human predispositions. The addiction to stimuli, novelty, and pleasure is one of the mechanisms that prevent us from reaching the point of satisfaction and instead entrust our happiness to consumer capitalism, which may be an example of what Lauren Berlant defines as “cruel optimism,” a relation that “exists when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing” (1).

3. The Addiction to Stimuli, Novelty, and Pleasure

21For the system to exercise and maintain control, or at least some influence, over consumers even more effectively, they should be addicted to stimuli and novelty and socialized never to be satisfied with what they possess or what they have achieved. Addiction to stimuli and novelty is produced by two supplementary strategies: (1) devaluing consumer products as old or outdated immediately after they have been bought; (2) satisfying current (mostly artificial) needs in a way that engenders successive needs (Bauman, Consuming Life 44-48; cf. Krajewski). The first process is set off by the invention of fashion and the cult of novelty, which automatically make any item less desirable when a new model is manufactured (see next section). The second process makes real satisfaction impossible by postponing it to the unspecified future. Moreover, in late modernity, the consumer’s dissatisfaction is amplified by the philosophy of the constant pursuit of happiness, which grants true value to the pursuit itself, not to any meaningful goal. Boredom becomes “a resented and feared bugbear of the consumer society” because well-trained members of such a society cannot stand “the absence or even temporary interruption of the perpetual flow of attention-drawing, exciting novelties” (Bauman, Consuming Life 130). Nowadays, people are meticulously socialized to be addicted to novelty and constant stimulation. As a result, they can hardly put up with routines and repetitions. They “experience this lack of tolerance as the uncomfortable feeling of boredom, and it is the motivation to reduce this ennui that leads [them] in a never-ending quest for stimulation” (Mann xii). As Bertrand Russell succinctly noted as early as the 1930s, “every housemaid expects at least once a week as much excitement as would have lasted a Jane Austen heroine throughout a whole novel” (60)—and this statement remains relevant today.

22Addiction to a constant flow of new stimuli is a cultural trait of liquid modernity, a consumer society that values instant gratification and instant pleasure over delayed gratification and preconceived pleasure (Bauman, Liquid Modernity viii). As Bauman points out, “A consumer society is a society of credit cards, not savings books. It is a ‘now’ society. A wanting society, not a waiting society” (Work, Consumerism and the New Poor 31). He explains that:

Ideally, the consumer’s satisfaction ought to be instant, and this in a double sense. Consumed goods should bring satisfaction immediately, requiring no delay, no protracted learning of skills and no lengthy groundwork; but the satisfaction should end the moment the time needed for their consumption is up, and that time ought to be reduced to a bare minimum. This reduction is best achieved if the consumers cannot hold their attention nor focus their desire on any object for long; if they are impatient, impetuous and restive, and above all easily excitable and equally susceptible to losing interest. (25)

23Throughout human history, many thinkers (including Seneca, Pascal, Schopenhauer, and Freud to name a few) have observed that satisfaction and so-called happiness are short-lived and unstable conditions. One is content for a brief moment but immediately afterward, disappointment and/or dissatisfaction, at times in the form of boredom, creep in. Bauman suggests that consumer capitalism has solved this problem by:

seeing to it that desires were aroused faster than the time it took to placate them, and that objects of desire were replaced quicker than the time it took to get bored and annoyed with their possession. Not being bored—ever—is the norm of the consumers’ life, and a realistic norm, a target within reach, so that those who fail to hit it have only themselves to blame while being an easy target for other people’s contempt and condemnation. (Work, Consumerism and the New Poor 39)

24I sense a bit of irony in Bauman here, and I suppose that the state of constant satisfaction and the elimination of boredom is purely illusory and discursive (it is a part of the success propaganda). This is allegedly a boredom-proof culture so it puts the blame for boredom upon the shoulders of the bored, as if they had all the necessary tools to fight boredom effectively, and they have failed. I claim that this portrays busy boredom with its nervous running away from boredom. Current consumer culture is what I call a running culture, and we live in a keep-on-running society that cherishes velocity, acceleration, novelty, having, or achieving more and more, which results in shallowness (there is no time to contemplate our surroundings, we just have to achieve the next station on our quest). There is always more to strive for, more to acquire, more to explore, and more to desire. As Fromm specifies, the consumer society is greedy:

Greed is the natural outcome of the having orientation. It can be the greed of the miser or the greed of the profit hunter or the greed of the womanizer or the man chaser. Whatever constitutes their greed, the greedy can never have enough, can never be ‘satisfied.’ In contrast to physiological needs, such as hunger, that have definite satiation points due to the physiology of the body, mental greed—and all greed is mental, even if it is satisfied via the body—has no satiation point, since its consummation does not fill the inner emptiness, boredom, loneliness, and depression it is meant to overcome. (To Have or to Be 92)

25In a “greedy” society, which consists of individuals with such a mindset, boredom plays a significant and very specific role:
(1) boredom begins to be, somehow unconsciously, treated as a norm, a “natural” state of a human being—it is tacitly assumed that human life is intrinsically meaningless and the individual needs entertainment/consumption in order to charge it with meaning;
(2) boredom makes people restless and more receptive to consumerist “mental inputs” such as advertisements so that they spend more time and money on consumption;
(3) pleasure is the remedy for boredom and meaninglessness, and as such it is set as the ultimate purpose of human life. In the consumerist paradigm, pleasure is meant to be derived from consumption/entertainment, and when those fail, larger doses of pleasure are prescribed. The cultural message is clear—people are not supposed to fight with their drives, they should “obey their thirst,” to paraphrase the popular Sprite commercial series from the 1990s. Caught in this vicious circle, people inexorably plummet deeper and deeper into the state of non-satisfaction.

26In that vein, it can be concluded that consumer/entertainment culture causes boredom rather than offers an adequate remedy for it. As Orrin Klapp claims: “the more aspirin sold, the more headaches are being suffered. Likewise, the more Harlequin romances, the more unhappy marriages.... The proliferation of pleasure institutions in modern society could mean growth of the very tensions for which placebos are needed” (152). In pleasure therapy, patients are administered consumption/entertainment as a sedative and a social control method (see soma in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World). In consumer culture, people are addicted to pleasure, which determines the experience of boredom in today’s Western world. Yet, as with any kind of addiction, the law of diminishing returns comes into force and consumers need increasingly intense and numerous stimuli to maintain a steady level of excitement. Namely, they feel compelled to purchase goods and services in ever-growing amounts. The driving need for more and more pleasure is never to be satisfied. However, not only does the consumerist lifestyle prove futile in keeping boredom at bay (pleasure turns out to be ephemeral), but it also amplifies boredom (pleasure fulfills artificial needs). The novelty of subsequent doses of pleasure promptly wears off and one becomes bored with them—one is overfed with new stimuli, blasé, and anesthetized.

27It turns out that too zealous a quest for pleasure paradoxically leads to the inability to be excited at all. One becomes habituated to stimuli and finds them no longer capable of arousing one’s interest and excitement, while consecutive doses of pleasure beget a state that Mark Fisher calls “depressive hedonia” (21). This oxymoronic state is described as an inability to do anything but seek pleasure, which, however, leaves one with a sense of lack of enjoyment. In a way, the pursuit of pleasure leads to depression. People are unable to fully engage with any particular stimulus, to be absorbed by it for a considerable amount of time—they remain in a state of disengaged absorption.

28Subsequent doses of stimuli cannot satisfy people, not only due to their excessive quantity (one cannot engage oneself with all of them) but also because of their repetitiveness. Ultimately, what consumerism represents is an endless return of the same disguised as the new. The new models of products are just their rebranded old versions, and small differences are presented as revolutionary. The change is not qualitatively relevant—the aim is the change itself, the constant flow in an unspecified direction. Overload and over-choice—the inevitable results of consumer capitalism—lead to habituation. As Sandi Mann explains, habituation is an adaptation process protecting us from exposition to already-known stimuli, which saves our attentional resources, directing them to new and cognitively more rewarding ones (32–33). Without habituation, one would be “a perpetual toddler,” who remains in a state of constant alertness and excitement over everything. Yet, the dark side of habituation is boredom, which grows on things that used to be stimulating and perfunctorily satisfactory. In this way, capitalism produces boredom as a side effect of its own pursuit of preventing or mitigating boredom.

4. Change for Change’s Sake: Fashion

29Nothing exemplifies the principle of constant change and novelty better than fashion. Based on the premise that routine and monotony are the main causes of boredom, fashion appears to be a credible remedy. And yet, what it actually provides is just a vain hope since the introduction of a new style is, in fact, the return of an old one. Therefore, fashion has become a matter of cliché-ridden mass reproduction. This point is noted by Klapp when he states that “the new fashion drowns in its own redundancy, becoming as banal as what it replaced” (59). Thus, today’s style is tomorrow’s boredom.

30It is far from a coincidence that the first fashion magazines appeared in the 1770s and 1780s, as fashion is an essential trait of modernity. As Svendsen notes, fashion, similar to modern art, is led by the principle of innovation, change for change’s sake. In pre-modern times, the major rule was to follow the tradition, and the old/ancient signified a venerable and needed point of reference. In modernity, novelty has become the means in itself, not needing a reference to any external concepts. Novelty is a driving and explicatory force of modernity, and this is only more pronounced in late modernity. Things do not have to be improved; it merely suffices that they are changed in some way. As Svendsen explains, fashion:

seeks superficial changes that in reality have no other assignment than to make the object superfluous on the basis of non-essential qualities, such as the number of buttons on a suit jacket or the famous skirt length. Why do skirts become shorter? Because they have been long. Why do they become long? Because they have been short. The same applies to all other objects of fashion.... Fashion does not have any telos, any final purpose, in the sense of striving for a state of perfection, a kind of highest incarnation that will make all future developments superfluous. The aim of fashion is rather to be potentially endless, that is it creates new forms and constellations ad infinitum. (Fashion 28–29)

31In “a constant hunt for originality,” fashion moves in cycles, which last as long as a new fashion is introduced replacing the previous one (Svendsen, Fashion 31). In this, fashion follows the trend of acceleration and the cycles are becoming shorter and shorter, speeding up in a cascading manner. In the nineteenth century, they usually lasted a decade or slightly more, but from the 1970s onwards, they began to have shorter and shorter spans. Currently, they last only a season and are quickly supplemented by new collections. Svendsen suggests that the traditional logic of fashion has changed in the last few decades—the logic of replacement is now superseded by the logic of supplementation, “by which all trends are recyclable and a new fashion hardly aims at replacing all those that have gone before, but rather contents itself with supplementing them” (Fashion 33). This means annihilation of the logic of cycles by the logic of recycling. It is virtually impossible to innovate at such a speed (and produce a totally new and original collection each season), thus, a recycling of former styles has become a necessity and usual practice, and at least since the 1990s, we observe “an endless series of recyclings” and eclecticism (Svendsen, Fashion 31). The fashion industry has also employed subcultures as a source of inspiration and innovation, adding new elements to the mix, which accelerates change even further. Capitalism has incorporated rebellion and made it one of its basic mechanisms— subcultures are commodified because to rebel is to innovate and foster change. Simply put, rebel sells (Heath and Potter 3–11).

32The logic of constant change—despite some attempts to challenge it—seeks to be irreversible within the current economic system. Consumer capitalism employs fashion as a justification for and a basic mechanism of change. Consumers’ expectation of novelty increases the demand for change so the supply side of the system must follow, must produce—or at least pretend to produce—a constant change, not only in clothing but in every sphere of consumer activity. This logic vastly contributes to consumer boredom as the new very quickly becomes the old and loses its appeal at a cascading speed. “The principle of fashion is to create a constantly increasing velocity, to make an object become superfluous as quickly as possible so as to move on to a new one” (Svendsen, Fashion 130). It creates a new, ultimate artificial need of late modernity—the need for constant change itself. The new things are meant to immediately bore us to enable the sale of new ones.

33The ultimate destiny of each object of fashion is to bore consumers and as a result, to persuade them to buy new things. The research on boredom-driven disposal behavior helpfully explains this mechanism. Therese Kwon et al. studied consumers’ behaviors regarding their wardrobes. The enjoyment associated with clothes fades after a while, and consumers feel reluctant to wear them—despite full closets, they feel they have nothing to wear. This UK-based research shows that 22% of consumers get rid of their clothes out of boredom (YouGov). The fast-changing fashion trends and “a throwaway consumption climate” vastly contribute to getting bored with clothing (Morgan and Birtwistle 196). Theresa Anna Kwon et al. identified four main factors inducing such closet boredom, as I would call it:

34(1) The oldness of clothing—the wardrobe is no longer attractive and interesting due to its physical condition or the mere passage of time. One possesses a thing for so long that it seems tedious to wear it;
(2) A change in trends—constant manufacturing of new trends makes older clothes less thrilling and by the same token, more boring. The mere fact that a garment has become outdated seems to cause a lowering of its attractiveness;
(3) The decreased social fit—some clothes become inappropriate or redundant due to changes in one’s age or social status. Clothes that were appropriate for an intern are not so much in place for a junior manager; clothes for a teenager are not fit for a thirty-something, and so on. This cause is not associated directly with boredom;
(4) A purchase of new clothing—the logic of constant change leads in consequence to a very short lifespan of objects. The introduction of the new and its acquisition make already-owned clothes look boring. Boredom results from the consumer’s constant demand for variety and novelty, which results from socialization within or into a ‘running culture (Kwon et al. 3-4).

35Therefore, from the point of view of the capitalist system, boredom is a desirable outcome of the fashion logic. It applies not only to clothing but to all things that succumb to the logic of fashion, be it cars, hairstyles, interior design, self-images, etc. Once again, we see that boredom constitutes one of the basic mechanisms of consumer capitalism that is responsible for its maintenance and growth.

5. The Boredom Industry and the Failure of Re-Enchantment

36Advertising and entertainment attempt to re-enchant the world and revive “mythological elements already present in society” (Williamson 45) returning the magical quality that has been lost due to the increasing rationalization of Western culture. The re-enchantment is supposed to be realized via imaginary or actual consumption of products of the “boredom-preventing industry” (Fromm, The Revolution of Hope 38) or what Horkheimer and Adorno termed the culture industry. Yet, there are several significant reasons for the ultimate failure of consumerist attempts at re-enchantment: (1) rationalization, thus, demagicification of consumption due to the business logic of industry; (2) forced passivity and the lack of agency of consumers—magic is inevitably associated with exercising control; and (3) the inevitable encounter of the imaginary with the reality that engenders severe failure of expectations.

5.1. Rationalization of Consumption

37As George Ritzer points out, all magical places of consumption and entertainment are simultaneously enchanted and disenchanted. People are seduced by the magical aura of, for instance, shopping malls, and they are put in a dream-like state to ease the process of money-spending. Yet, at the same time, for those temples of consumption to function more efficiently, they have to be rationalized, thus, demagicified. Disneyland experience is frequently cited as an example of such a process, as it constitutes an apparent combination of magical and rational elements. People are seduced by the colorful magical world of Disney cartoon characters and bored with standing in long lines and waiting for access to the next attraction. Secondly, Ritzer notes that the idea of magic includes uniqueness, which is contradictory to the logic of mass production. It is impossible to mass-produce magic, as the mere factors of multiplication and repetitiveness, which are essential for profitability, disenchant each object of fantasy. As a result, consumption is rationalized, that is the industry strives to establish a limited number of variants of each object of consumer desire.

38As Horkheimer and Adorno observe, the culture industry is led by standardization and uniformization, which leads to a constant repetition of the same. The manufacturing of culture is industrialized, and mass culture is produced in the same way as cars, clothes, or agricultural machine parts. Products of mass culture are almost identical in their “conceptual armature” and “the contours of their ‘skeleton” (Horkheimer and Adorno 95). The differences between products are non-essential, insignificant, and illusory. Minor distinctions are meticulously debated and accentuated to prove the novelty and originality. The constant return of the old in the disguise of the new begets disappointment, frustration, and boredom. The feeling is also amplified by the inner logic of cultural production. Culture, in order to successfully entertain, must be digested without effort, thus, must be ultimately bereft of real content and move:

strictly along the well-worn grooves of association. The spectator must need no thoughts of his own: the product prescribes each reaction, not through any actual coherence—which collapses once exposed to thought—but through signals. Any logical connection presupposing mental capacity is scrupulously avoided. (Horkheimer and Adorno 109)

39This results in boring entertainment—the entertainment presupposes the feeling that it was meant to exorcize. Yet, boredom is not apparent—it is disguised by vibrant action, high technical quality, and a glimpse of originality here and there. If one learns the limited number of schemes used in cultural production, for instance, in TV series, one finds the majority of entertainment predictable, repetitive, and boring. If one looks for something new to watch on a streaming platform, one finds a set of predefined variants, which can be useful but limit and format consumer choice. If one decides to watch a fantasy series with magic and supernatural creatures, one will realize soon enough that the number of schemes within this genre is also quite scarce (cf. Propp, Morphology of the Folktale). The main character always has a unique feature, ability, or trait and is destined for greatness—goodness is apparently not enough. In the course of the plot, they will undergo an inner transformation to fully embrace and weaponize their potential—to fulfill their destiny, of course. The series that presents more attractive decorations (good acting, realistic special effects, psychology of characters that is at least correct, etc.) for this general scheme, wins the consumers’ attention. The fact that people binge-watch subsequent series is only an indication that the level of their boredom, or of their fear of boredom by the same token, exceeds the boredom inherent in such a series, that the need to escape boredom is more powerful than boredom itself.

5.2. Consumer Passivity

40Another reason the entertainment industry continues to flourish despite the boredom it elicits and the fact it ultimately does not manage to enchant consumer life is the trait of passivity that people are socialized for. I do not mean that all consumers are passive and without agency but that the system wants them that way and actively attempts to make them passive. Real life and creative activity frequently lose the fight with passive forms of entertainment. In the view that consumer culture does not offer actual opportunities for meaningful involvement and thereby prompts “a meaning deficit” (Svendsen, The Philosophy of Boredom 29), homo consumens is usually confined to the passive roles of consumer/observer/recipient, who can only react to external stimuli, unable to execute their agency. The bored only rarely attempt to overcome their boredom on their own. Instead, they expect to be entertained/distracted by some (unspecified) external means. Sometimes they can be oblivious about the fact, taking their busyness as genuine activity, not realizing that they are addicted to externally-acquired stimuli (Fromm, The Revolution of Hope 10). Such an attitude of cluelessness/passivity in making choices may be conceived as a form of learned helplessness, a trait particularly convenient/profitable from the vantage point of consumerism. This is why palliatives to boredom are frequently chosen randomly from those immediately available at hand, and this quick and easy access is often far more decisive than its inherent features.

41The passive personality of the voyeuristic consumer is also a result of fatigue. People are so exhausted with all their responsibilities at work and home, or even extremely fatigued by their boredom—boredom is even more tiresome than many kinds of actual work—that they resign themselves to “effortless and passive forms of recuperation” (Lodziak 101). Moreover, such co-occurrence of fatigue and passive entertainment opportunities may serve as a deliberate or nondeliberate form of social control. As Raoul Vaneigem warns, “Power manufactures the dose of fatigue necessary for the passive assimilation of its televised diktats.... The organisation of work and the organisation of leisure are the blades of the castrating shears whose job is to improve the race of fawning dogs” (55).

42Entertainment and mass media are at the center of what Guy Debord famously called the society of spectacle, which supersedes reality with images that distract and seduce people, using consumption and entertainment. Spectacle is a tool of social control, pacification, and domination, and one of its main functions is to conceal, mask, and distort the true nature of everyday life. Entertainment and mass media provide people with means of escaping from the oppressive reality of their lives, the oppression of boredom included. Yet, in that connection, boredom becomes the new opiate of the people, whose listless part makes itself apparent in passivity and whose restless part is directed towards new entertainments and consumer goals in order to leave no mental room for reflection over the social organization of the capitalist system. Tony Lack made an interesting observation that in the current discourse, boredom is being presented as a psychological problem—for which an individual is to blame—which constitutes a disguise for the fact that boredom is also, or as I would hypothesize, first of all, a matter of the social and economic system in which “those who benefit from maintaining the oppressive structures also benefit from the boredom of the oppressed” (3). The boredom of the employee and the boredom of the consumer are monetized on a massive scale, enabling the smooth functioning of the system, and boredom that is employed as a basic consumer mechanism creates a false consciousness that enables the exploitation of people.

5.3. Dream-Driven Society of High Expectations

43What is also essential for consumer capitalism to last is the disguise of boredom. Boredom should not present itself in a pure form—the product/experience/entertainment should not seem boring at the start. The constant search for something interesting, “the utopian longing for content” (Gamsby 341), should be presented as an exciting quest full of magic and allure despite the inevitable boredom that comes when the initial interest wears off. Advertising and marketing start the spiral of consumer boredom that should be also the spiral of adventure. Consumers are socialized to constantly seek pleasure and satisfaction—i.e., to be hedonists—and the essential example of modern hedonism, at least according to Colin Campbell, is daydreaming (323).

44Dreams are the fertilizers of consumption and the background for boredom, as they produce high expectations and aspirations which are never to be satisfied (which can be a case of cruel optimism described by Berlant). Dreams are usually not congruent with reality; thus, reality will never fulfill dreams. Consumer expectations are shaped by various forms of advertisements and media content in that particular way, never to be fully met. This is why the consumer, incessantly unsatiated and always ready for new products and experiences, continues dreaming. And when the actual product fails to arouse the imagined emotions and pleasures—which is usually the case, as reality always fades in comparison to consumerist simulacra—boredom is a prompt reaction. The re-enchantment fails to be realized. Yet, individuals are constantly encouraged to reject the realities of life in favor of the magical world of consumption/entertainment, and the hopeful dream is just transferred to the new product. Therefore, “the difference between the imaginary and real object creates a ‘continuous desire’ that impels consumption” (Svendsen, Fashion 115)—ad infinitum and ad nauseam.

45Advertising is responsible for the smooth and uninterrupted flow of dreams/desires. As Franco Berardi notes:

the discourse of advertising is based on the creation of imaginary models of happiness that consumers are invited to replicate. Advertising is a systematic production of illusions, and therefore of disillusions, as well as of competition and defeat, euphoria and depression. The communicative mechanism of advertising is based on the production of a sense of inadequacy coupled with the solicitation to become a consumer, in order to feel adequate and to finally realize the happiness that has been eluding us. (92)

46Therefore, by creating adtopias, the advertisements present “a world in which suffering, injustice or even the daily grind of work and routine are noticeably absent, but replete instead with perfect smiles, products and relationships that should, at least according to advertising agencies, leave us utterly fulfilled” (Gardiner, “Henri Lefebvre” 29). In contrast, they actually build “the factory of unhappiness” (Berardi 92). Marketing illusions are the cause of torment and of hope that prolongs the torment. Mass media serve the same function by manufacturing the worlds so appealing that our lives seem even more boring in comparison. This way, high expectations begin to define not only our consumer activity but our lives in general.

6. Conclusion: Boredom as a Fundamental Mood of Consumerism

47As I have attempted to show in this article, boredom, which is presented as the main antagonist of consumers in advertising discourse, is in fact the main driving force and the most powerful ally of late modern capitalism, meticulously employed for the system’s benefit. Through a sequence of social and cultural shifts, preying on natural human predispositions, the system has redefined the relation between human beings and their external environment and has manufactured a new type of human, homo consumens, who is socialized to be passive, desire- and dream-driven, addicted to novelty, constant change, ceaseless stream of stimuli, and pleasure. As a lubricant of the consumerist spiral and both a starting and ending point in the consumer process, boredom enables the smooth functioning of the system. Bored consumers buy more and are led by desires that promise to alleviate the feeling. Bored consumers are obedient and do not challenge the consumer system; they are easier to manipulate and exploit. Bored consumers are restless and cherish a quick transition between a desire, satisfaction, and the next desire. Ultimately, bored consumers are the heart of consumerism, and elimination of boredom equals elimination of consumer capitalism as the whole cultural and boredom-preventing industry is established to alleviate it. Consumer capitalism fights the very boredom that it actively produces, amplifies, or invites.

48Boredom is at the center of consumerism, whose institutions are preoccupied with mitigating the consumer’s situational boredom, but—and this is my thesis here—at the same time—they push this light type of boredom into the subliminal, where it has time to accumulate and take root unnoticed. People consume culture and are provided with the fast fulfillment of their wishes, but after some time, they need higher dosages of the cultural drug to feel satisfied. Most frequently, it is in the latent mode yet coloring our experiences and perception, but sometimes it reveals itself in the form of temporary dejection, disenchantment, and a sense of utter meaninglessness. This produces the unique dynamics between boredom and consumerism. We are situationally bored; we turn to entertainment and consumption; they alleviate the feeling for a time but with overuse, instead of curing the feeling, they push it into the subliminal. Suppressed boredom is not directly visible, but it influences our behavior, leading us to more consumption and frequently shallow entertainment. We end up binge-watching Netflix or mindlessly doing something merely to occupy ourselves, to alleviate the shapeless mood, which, in fact, is chronic boredom, which becomes a subliminal mood of consumer capitalism.

49Boredom is a driving force of consumerism; thus, its elimination is against the best interests of this system. Is it not interesting that the most efficient system in human history cannot effectively remedy boredom, supposedly a minor nuisance, which has grown to a pandemic scale over the last several decades? Consumer capitalism simply has nothing to gain here—boredom is officially fought and unofficially propagated. The entire entertainment/culture industry, the boredom-preventing industry, is in, fact, the boredom industry. As Fromm puts it, the industries meant to stop boredom in fact merely prevent “the boredom from becoming conscious. In fact, they increase the boredom, as a salty drink taken to quench the thirst increases it” (The Revolution of Hope 38–39). Mass production of boredom is undertaken under the auspices of fighting with it. By offering a placebo to remedy situational boredom, the boredom industry propagates sweeping it under the rug and killing time instead of making use of it. As Fromm observes, “Another remarkable thing about our culture is that we will go to any lengths to save time, but once we have saved it, we kill it because we can’t think of anything better to do with it” (“Affluence and Ennui in Our Society” 14). The result is detruding boredom to the subliminal, where it flourishes and patiently waits to reveal itself in the form of fully-fledged chronic or even existential boredom. At some moment, one realizes that it is not a particular situation, object, or person that bores them but the whole sphere of life, a life that itself seems to be utterly boring and meaningless.

50Is there any chance to stop the spiral of consumer boredom and dethrone boredom as a source of consumerist power? In The Happiness Industry, William Davies suggests that the end of the capitalist era is possible when we reach a state of generalized ennui and indifference (qtd. in Gardiner, “A Tale” 301). Thus, the solution for escaping the trap of consumer boredom is to experience boredom to its fullest. Yet, it is not at all certain that utter boredom with capitalism will not be lead to being bored with one’s life, and the remedy should include a total change of the human mindset, the annihilation of the civilized heritage with all its rivalry to excel, accumulation of personal assets, the compulsion to enhance one’s social position, etc. I doubt if it is possible, and without such a change, individuals will still be the prisoners of their ambitions, expectations, and aspirations. Certainly, boredom is not apathy, indifference, and listlessness, it is not an affectively neutral state—it includes a strong restless element that makes it potentially revolutionary. Boredom, therefore, offers an opportunity to break free from the consumerist spiral. Consumers bored with yet another satisfied desire can question the entire idea of desire under capitalism and the imperative of its fulfillment and decide to cease the constant transition between the wish and its satisfaction. Yet, I doubt if it could become a collective mass solution for the problem as the return to a hunter-gatherer’s state of mind is highly unlikely, even after a global atomic apocalypse. We can defy the logic of consumerism, but are we able to defy the logic of boredom that has grown roots in our civilized selves?

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Notes

1 For an analysis of a lipstick commercial and boredom, see David Callahan’s “Boredom, Cohesion, and Transformation in Nick Drnaso’s Beverly.”

2 For the “tyrannical” and disciplinary aspect of choice, see Renata Salecl, The Tyranny of Choice (2011).

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References

Electronic reference

Mariusz Finkielsztein, Consumer Boredom: Boredom as a Subliminal Mood of Consumer CapitalismEuropean journal of American studies [Online], 17-4 | 2022, Online since 26 December 2022, connection on 28 January 2023. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/ejas/18977; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ejas.18977

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About the author

Mariusz Finkielsztein

Mariusz Finkielsztein is an Assistant Professor at the Institute of Sociology, Collegium Civitas, Warsaw, Poland. He is the secretary of the International Society of Boredom Studies, editor-in-chief of the Journal of Boredom Studies, and the founder and organizer of the International Interdisciplinary Boredom Conference. Finkielsztein is the author of Boredom and Academic Work (Routledge, 2021). A qualitative sociologist, he is interested in boredom, the sociology of emotions, work, higher education, and creative occupations (ballroom dancers in particular).

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