What does boredom do to us – and for us? – Margaret TALBOT

The New Yorker, August 20, 2020

Humans have been getting bored for centuries, if not millennia. Now there’s a whole field to study the sensation, at a time when it may be more rampant than ever.

Quick inventory: Among the many things you might be feeling more of these days, is boredom one of them? It might seem like something to disavow, automatically, when the country is roiling. The American plot thickens by the hour. We need to be paying attention. But boredom, like many an inconvenient human sensation, can steal over a person at unseemly moments. And, in some ways, the psychic limbo of the pandemic has been a breeding ground for it—or at least for a restless, buzzing frustration that can feel a lot like it.

Fundamentally, boredom is, as Tolstoy defined it, “a desire for desires.” The psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, describing the feeling that sometimes drops over children like a scratchy blanket, elaborated on this notion: boredom is “that state of suspended animation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.” In a new book, “Out of My Skull: The Psychology of Boredom,” James Danckert, a neuroscientist, and John D. Eastwood, a psychologist, nicely describe it as a cognitive state that has something in common with tip-of-the-tongue syndrome—a sensation that something is missing, though we can’t quite say what.

Danckert and Eastwood are hardly alone in their inquiries. In the past couple of decades, a whole field of boredom studies has flourished, complete with conferences, seminars, symposiums, workshops, and a succession of papers with such titles as “In Search of Meaningfulness: Nostalgia as an Antidote to Boredom” (been there) and “Eaten Up by Boredom: Consuming Food to Escape Awareness of the Bored Self” (definitely been there). And, of course, there’s a “Boredom Studies Reader,” which bears the suitably stolid subtitle “Frameworks and Perspectives.”

Boredom, it’s become clear, has a history, a set of social determinants, and, in particular, a pungent association with modernity. Leisure was one precondition: enough people had to be free of the demands of subsistence to have time on their hands that required filling. Modern capitalism multiplied amusements and consumables, while undermining spiritual sources of meaning that had once been conferred more or less automatically. Expectations grew that life would be, at least some of the time, amusing, and people, including oneself, interesting—and so did the disappointment when they weren’t. In the industrial city, work and leisure were cleaved in a way that they had not been in traditional communities, and work itself was often more monotonous and regimented. Moreover, as the political scientist Erik Ringmar points out in his contribution to the “Boredom Studies Reader,” boredom often comes about when we are constrained to pay attention, and in modern, urban society there was simply so much more that human beings were expected to pay attention to—factory whistles, school bells, traffic signals, office rules, bureaucratic procedures, chalk-and-talk lectures. (Zoom meetings.)

Schopenhauer and Kierkegaard considered boredom a particular scourge of modern life. The nineteenth-century novel arose in part as an antidote to the experience of tedium, and tedium often propelled its plots. What was Emma Bovary, who arrived in 1856, if not bored—by her plodding husband, by provincial existence, by life itself when it failed to show the glittering colors of fiction? Oblomov (the eponymous novel by Ivan Goncharov appeared three years after Gustave Flaubert’s) is a superfluous man on a superannuated feudal estate who passes the time with his family in thick silence and bouts of helplessly contagious yawning. Though it was possible in the English language to be “a bore” in the eighteenth century, one of the first documented instances of the noun boredom’s being invoked to describe a subjective feeling did not appear until 1852, in Dickens’s “Bleak House,” afflicting the aptly named Lady Dedlock… [+]

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