Sunday, 2 March 2008

Kierkegaard on Boredom from Either/Or

People with experience maintain that proceeding from a basic principle is supposed to be very reasonable; I yield to them and proceed from the basic principle that all people are boring. Or is there anyone who would be boring enough to contradict me in this regard? This basic principle has to the highest degree the repelling force always required in the negative, which is actually the principle of motion. It is not merely repelling but infinitely repulsive, and whoever has the basic principle behind him must necessarily have infinite momentum for making discoveries. If, then, my thesis is true, a person needs only to ponder how corrupting boredom is for people, tempering his reflections more or less according to his desire to diminish or increase his impetus, and if he wants to press the speed of the motion to the highest point, almost with danger to the locomotive, he needs only to say to himself: Boredom is the root of all evil. It is very curious that boredom, which itself has such a calm and sedate nature, can have such a capacity to initiate motion. The effect that boredom brings about is absolutely magical, but this effect is one not of attraction but of repulsion.

How corrupting boredom is, everyone recognizes also with regard to children. As long as children are having a good time, they are always good. This can be said in the strictest sense, for if they at times become unmanageable even while playing, it is really because they are beginning to be bored; boredom is already coming on, but in a different way. Therefore, when selecting a nursemaid, one always considers essentially not only that she is sober, trustworthy, and good-natured but also takes into esthetic consideration whether she knows how to entertain children. Even if she had all other excellent virtues, one would not hesitate to give her the sack if she lacked this qualification. Here, indeed, the principle is clearly acknowledged, but things go on so curiously in the world, habit and boredom have gained the upper hand to such a degree, that justice is done to esthetics only in the conduct of the nursemaid. It would be quite impossible to prevail if one wanted to demand a divorce because one's wife is boring, or demand that a king be dethroned because he is boring to behold, or that a clergyman be exiled because he is boring to listen to, or that a cabinet minister be dismissed or a journalist be executed because he is frightfully boring.

Since boredom advances and boredom is the root of all evil, no wonder, then, that the world goes backwards, that evil spreads. This can be traced back to the very beginning of the world. The gods were bored; therefore they created human beings. Adam was bored because he was alone; therefore Eve was created. Since that moment, boredom entered the world and grew in quantity in exact proportion to the growth of population. Adam was bored alone; then Adam and Eve were bored en famille. After that, the population of the world increased and the nations were bored en masse. To amuse themselves, they hit upon the notion of building a tower so high that it would reach the sky. This notion is just as boring as the tower was high and is a terrible demonstration of how boredom had gained the upper hand. Then they were dispersed around the world, just as people now travel abroad, but they continued to be bored. And what consequences this boredom had: humankind stood tall and fell far, first through Eve, then from the Babylonian tower.

Is Boredom Always Counter-Revolutionary? On Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent (1989)

Who wants a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?
Raoul Vaneigem

Q. Who wants to watch a film of a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation entails the risk of dying of boredom?
A. The viewer of Michael Haneke’s The Seventh Continent [Der Sebiente Kontinent] (1989).

For the viewer of Haneke’s film supplementary questions impose themselves. If, as Debord and the Situationists contend, boredom is always counter-revolutionary, then should such a film have been made? That it obviously has been made, should we watch such a film? Isn’t a film like Haneke’s, in which we witness the reduction of the family of husband Georg, wife Anna, and daughter Eva, to mere appendages of objects, itself the most obscene ruse of the spectacle? The cynicism of the spectacular society would have reached such a level that it would now ‘entertain’ its audience with the spectacle of its own alienation in all its banal tedium. The studied repetitions of the rituals of bourgeois life, the drawn-out shots, the horror of the banality of consumer culture itself, would all figure that now, in Benjamin’s words, our ‘self-alienation has reached such a degree that [we] can experience [our] own destruction as an aesthetic pleasure of the first order’. Our decadence is such that we no longer even experience that pleasure in the ‘grand’ form of war, but only in the terrible banality of the slowly unwinding self-destruction of bourgeois existence.

Guy Debord’s own final film In girum imus nocte et consumimur igni (1978) – a Latin palindrome meaning ‘We go round and round in the night and are consumed by fire’ – itself films the boredom of bourgeois existence. The film opens with a scene showing a cinema audience, leaving us to face the spectacle of our own passive viewing. Over images of (then) contemporary bourgeois life Debord intones a lugubrious and devastating critique of the misery of the cinema audience, composed of ‘the stratum of low-level skilled employees in the various “service” occupations that are so necessary to the present production system: management, control, maintenance, research, teaching, propaganda, entertainment, and pseudocritique.’ The audience Debord identifies corresponds closely to the class position, and situation, of the family of Haneke’s film; in Debord’s words ‘compelled to reside within a single space: the same circuit of ever-identical dwelling units, offices, freeways, vacation spots, and airports.’ But Debord’s own insulting of his audience of middle-ranking service professionals is broken by the dialectic of the film. These scenes are the opening to be negated by the banal filmic images infused by Debord’s commentary to embody the passions and adventures of the Lettrists and later the Situationists. Although these revolutionary passions have been overcome by the tides of time and counter-revolution Debord’s film is an act of memory posed against the boredom of service to the spectacle that denies any such passions except the passions of consumption.

Haneke breaks off the dialectic of Debord’s film. There is no moment of negation, at least not in any revolutionary form. This is a film of the stalled dialectic, decapitated from any revolutionary memory or hope – a film of 1989. What is retained is only the insult to the audience, not in the form of the insolence of Debord’s commentary but in the test with which we are faced with in trying to watch and make sense of the film. The repetitions of each year force us to an attention at the displacements that take place, the only variation coming in terms of the emergence of various explained and unexplained affects of anguish – Eva’s feigned blindness, the almost psychotic grief of Ana’s brother. The narrative ‘arc’ is here something like that of the Lacanian drive: an idiotic circling around the (absent) ‘Thing’, in which jouissance gains its true sense of pleasure in suffering. Our only ‘advance’ is not towards any re-starting of the dialectic of the negative but the negative of pure (self-) destruction. In this we face the most eerie moment in the film in which Georg reveals to his parents that, despite the seemingly ‘normal’ life with its daily trials we have witnessed, he and his family have lived an existence of utter horror. The negation here is inherent, but finally, and literally, fatal. This is the prelude not to any memory of revolution, but only the erasure of the traces of all the elements of bourgeois life, from money to clothing, fish tanks to the stereo.

The final lengthy sequence of the family’s destruction of their own ‘world’, and finally themselves, itself transforms the harrowing into the boring, and vice versa. As Haneke has commented:

They carry out the destruction with the same constricted narrowness with which they lived their lives, with the same meticulousness as life was lived, so I see this as the opposite of the vision of total destruction in Zabriskie Point. The sequence is portrayed as work. I have tried to portray it as something unbearable. As the wife says, “my hands really hurt from all that arbeit,” so all this hard work of destruction merely precedes the self-destruction.

We are denied even the pleasure we might take in this destruction. Instead Haneke offers us a kind of pure ‘labour of the negative’ in which the negative has become absorbed within the capitalist labour-process without any remainder. At the same time that labour process becomes the planned and methodical act of the taking apart of the world. Here we find a bitter and ironic reversal of one of the Situationists’ favourite quotations, from Marcel CarnĂ©’s film Les Enfants du Paradis (1943–5): the character Lacenaire says ‘It takes all kinds to make a world—or to unmake it’.

So, although the consumption of the scene of alienation is put into abeyance it is obvious that we are hardly left with a way out. Of course this reflects a desire to offer no false utopia, no simple reversibility of signs in which this suffering would be magically transformed into some sense of ‘revolutionary’ agency. The political affect of boredom is one of discomfort and unease against the blandness of the aesthetic of television and against the passive contemplation of suffering, even as we passively contemplate suffering. This equivocal affect is a sign of the non-responsiveness of the film to the alternative of ‘revolutionary’ or ‘counter-revolutionary’ – in the absence of any meaningful capacity to pose this choice. To use the language of Alain Badiou we could say this is the film of the saturation of the sequence marked by the passion for the real in the ‘drama’ of 20th century war and revolution. Not exactly a film of the restoration, this is rather one of the first films of the new pathology of the involution of that ‘passion’ – drained and turned inwards. It is the film of our bad times.

Benjamin Noys

Benjamin, Walter (1968) Illuminations, ed. and intro. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken Books.

Debord, Guy (2003) Complete Cinematic Works, trans. and ed. Ken Knabb. Oakland and Edinburgh: AK Press.

Sharrett, Christopher (2004) ‘The World that is Known: Michael Haneke Interviewed’, Kinoeye 4.1.

Vaneigem, Raoul (1983) The Revolution of Everyday Life [1967], trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith. London: Rebel Press.