“While modern capitalism constantly develops new needs in order to increase consumption, people’s dissatisfaction remains the same as ever. Their lives no longer have any meaning beyond a rush to consume, and this consumption is used to justify the increasingly radical frustration of any creative activity or genuine human initiative — to the point that people no longer even see this lack of meaning as important.” - Pierre Canjuers, Socialisme ou Barbarie #27

Friday, 19 August 2016

Freedom, Work and Boredom (Some Disparate Thoughts)

I’m bored.  Every child’s complaint, from lack of stimulation, or just the frustration of having to wait for the next gratification of whatever fleeting whim.  Are we nearly there yet?  You want, and you want it now, whatever it is.  Try to think of a time when you didn’t want anything.  Can you?  Kurt Vonnegut said that every character in a story has to want something, even if it’s only a glass of water.  You’re a character in a story.  You might not be writing it, but you want something.  Right now, you almost certainly want something.  What is it?  Why?

Boredom isn’t quite like wanting something.  It’s different.  I’m bored, as I said, and what I mean by that is something I can’t really articulate.  That seems to be in the nature of boredom, in fact.  Boredom is transcendent.  It’s almost…metaphysical.  Don’t be scared of these words, we’re going to need them.  Boredom isn’t wanting something; it’s more like wanting to want something.  It’s not knowing what to want.  It’s the feeling that you should want something, and if only you could work out what that was, it wouldn’t be so bad.  You could concentrate on that, and that at least would be something to do. Close relative of boredom is despair.  The feeling of having nothing to do, when indulged, over-analysed, leads you on down the path to feeling that nothing is worth doing.  What if I just stayed in bed all day?  Boredom is the event horizon of the abyss.  You know the abyss – the one you'll get into a staring competition with if you don’t stop boring at it.  Don’t get yourself spaghetti-fied.

What’s the point?  Every intelligent person asks this question.  (I think, maybe, that a genius is someone who asks it a little too much).  We need things to do, if for no other reason than to avoid having to think about why anything is worth doing at all.  “All men’s miseries derive from not being able to sit in a quiet room alone”, said Pascal (who, irrelevantly, died at the age of only 39).

In a world where our material needs can be met more immediately all the time, every minute saved meeting them is susceptible to boredom.  Our hunting-and-gathering ancestors didn’t get bored.  No time for boredom when every day is a struggle to survive.  Frightening though that may well have been, it must have been exciting too.  Perhaps this is what makes supermarkets some of the most boring places on earth.  The weekly food shop will never compare to flooring a mammoth with your own-made spear.

Work can fill the void.  Millions of us work at jobs we know are probably pointless, could just as well be performed by a robot, and which very soon probably will be.  But if the alternative is “unemployment” (and by implication, boredom) then most of us would rather get paid for being bored for eight hours a day than have the freedom to fight for our survival outside the economy twenty-four-seven.  “Freedom” and “boredom” don’t rhyme only by coincidence.

It’s easy to dismiss the office drones, the checkout assistants, the call centre operatives, the amazon warehouse workers of the world as boring, as “sheeple", as pathetic slaves to monotony, preferring a quiet life of relative ease to the uneasy life of uncertain, inspirational poverty - not the poverty of today, about which there is nothing inspirational, but the poverty of tomorrow - the poverty of imagination that will blossom as material needs vanish into the background hum of our techno-utopias.  But can we really blame them?  We just don't know how soon the future will arrive.

So from that perspective, perhaps I am inordinately brave; I and others like me who are choosing unemployment and a higher degree of poverty than is really necessary.  Perhaps not, of course.  I spend a lot of time these days just sitting on my arse.  Staring into the abyss.  I really can't help myself.  I don't think the abyss has started staring into me just yet, but you have to be patient.  Maybe I need to do more to attract its attention.  Maybe I'm just too boring.