[Introduction: I did not intend for this to be particularly good. In fact, I know that it is flawed and lacking. I just figured that in my morning boredom it would be a good idea to follow my own advice.]
Matt Feeney has a new article on Slate titled “Infinite Attention: David Foster Wallace and being bored out of your mind,” which begins with a brief reflection upon the virtues of boredom and then transitions into a brief commentary on Wallace’s posthumous The Pale King (2011) under this new light. Though I have not read any of Wallace’s more famous work (Infinite Jest, 1996) I can say that I have read one of his lesser-known works McCain’s Promise (2008), a reflection upon Senator John McCain’s 2000 presidential run as a straight-shootin’ maverick, in addition to some of his public lectures and speeches. Perhaps I should read a lot more of his work given his status as, according to the Los Angeles Times’ David Ulin “one of the most influential and innovative writers of the last 20 years”; perhaps you should too. Unfortunately, this will not be an article about David Foster Wallace.
Boredom and the Romantics
I came across Feeney’s article entirely by accident, interested more in the arguments made in favor of boredom – a state that at face value many of us may find absolutely frustrating and annoying. The point that really got me thinking was his commentary on our conception of boredom. Many may disagree with his interpretation of “nostalgia for boredom”, but such romanticzation is appropriate because it stems, coincidentally, from the Romantics:
Our ready nostalgia for boredom shows how deeply our culture—both our actual cultural products and our default ideas about how they happen and what they’re for—remains rooted in the Romantic movement that spanned the late 18th and mid-19th centuries. Technology-anxious and pro-boredom pathos grows from well-wrought Romantic conceptions of freedom, aesthetic experience, artistic creation, and, indeed, technology. The Romantics, seeing the encroaching haste of commerce and industrial production, and people living on a clock set by money and machines, envisioned modes of experience that might partake of a more humane slowness. From Kant’s Critique of Judgment (sometimes called the founding text of German Romanticism), which describes aesthetic pleasure as a “purposeless play of the faculties,” to Thoreau’s solitary puttering around Walden Pond, Romanticism saw people finding moments of freedom through withdrawal and retreat. In this process, we slow ourselves down to experience beauty, and, through this beauty, we might experience a deeper part of ourselves. Or vice versa.
This renewed recognition of the beauty and wonder around the world around us allows us, as Feeney points out, an opportunity to “experience a deeper part of ourselves,” an opportunity to reacquaint ourselves with the self stripped of the label 21st century man and all it implies. Maybe through boredom we are simply casting off the expectation of flash-and-bang, emotional backlash come what may just because we have failed to feed an addiction, and as is the case with any addiction we are reacting with irritation.
Boredom … in part reflects the obvious: that the brain has concluded there is nothing new or useful it can learn from an environment, a person, an event, a paragraph. But it is far from a passive neural shrug. Using brain-imaging technology, neuroscientists have found that the brain is highly active when disengaged, consuming only about 5 percent less energy in its resting “default state” than when involved in routine tasks, according to Dr. Mark Mintun, a professor of radiology at Washington University in St. Louis. (Benedict Carey, “You’re Bored, but Your Brain Is Tuned In“)
Even through the angst the brain still does not rest, as it shouldn’t, and thus the conscious self is demanding relief from this state – so we reach for something, anything. Maybe we check an email, refresh our Facebook page or skim the internet for something to write about. Even though these things may be momentarily stimulating, what we must do is respond with one of the few means we have: creativity and imagination. Often substituted for the frizzle and frill of now now now brought to us by the multitask, the idea that one can create their own entertainment is sometimes treated as madness.
And this treatment is absolutely terrible for where would we be without thesm?
Our Brain: A Return to Childhood?
As a child we are constantly filling our heads with new experiences and thoughts – every day we are truly learning something new about ourselves, our peers and our world. Even more so, we are caressing the dissonant rough but soft edges of these conceptions to produce a stronger understanding of how these interact and relate with one another. Psychologically we are going through the very same processes the species went through that took us from the savannas of Africa to wherever the hell we are now. And because of this intellectual stimulation of the mind our perception of time begins to slow; it’s only when we “learn” these patterns and ideas that the stimuli becomes dulled: the sky is now just a sky, the grass is just grass and I do my thing while you do yours.
Growing up, and I can only arrogantly pretend I speak for my generation, we have found ourselves so fixated on the computer at our fingertips or in our palm that we have failed to appreciate the greatest supercomputer on earth: our own brain. This is truly all we have: a series of folded membranes and neurons firing short bursts of energy between synapses inspired by the gentleness of skin, the appeal of a bright blue sky, the taste of an orange, the sound of wind between the leaves or the smell of a lover’s hair. This is it. Think about it.
Are you thinking anything?
Do you fucking realize how amazing that is?
Imagine, if you can, the earliest of our hominid ancestors looking to the sky, filling their minds with questions without answers. Next imagine these apes, uncertain of their fate (if they even have one) and ability (if they even have it), striving to fill their minds with whatever they can. Through the use of our senses and reason – our brain – we have progressed from the state of nature over thousands of years to reach a point where we can say this with a serious face:
All this coming from our ability to think, to not look to ourselves, our peers and the world around us and accepting parts of it as just sky, just grass, just me. Many psychologists will be quick to point out that this process is absolutely crucial for the intellectual development of a child, but I would try to be quicker that it is crucial even more crucial for ourselves. Hell, the species.