Introduction

Rethinking the class politics of boredom

in Focaal

Abstract

Nearly a decade after the global financial crisis of 2008, this thematic section investigates one way in which marginalization and precarization appears: boredom. An increasingly competitive global economy has fundamentally changed the coordinates of work and class in ways that have led to a changing engagement with boredom. Long thought of as an affliction of prosperity, boredom has recently emerged as an ethnographically observed plight of the most economically vulnerable. Drawing on fieldwork from postsocialist Europe and postcolonial Africa, this thematic section explores the intersection of boredom and precarity in order to gain new insight into the workings of advanced capitalism. It experiments with ways of theorizing the changing relationship between status, production, consumption, and the experience of excess free time. These efforts are rooted in a desire to make sense of the precarious forms of living that proliferated in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and that continue to endure a decade later.

Nearly a decade after the global financial crisis of 2008, this thematic section investigates one way in which marginalization and precarization appears: boredom. Until recently, the topic of boredom has been treated more as an object of philosophical or literary, rather than ethnographic, concern, even as anthropologists readily admitted that boredom pervades the experience of conducting fieldwork (Malinowski [1922] 2003: 4). Much of this ethnographic reticence is no doubt owing to boredom’s classic association with both privilege but also an absence of activity. Boredom, in this sense of the word, is characterized by troublingly long bouts of time where nothing appears to be happening, which are endured by those fortunate enough to not have to work (see Dickens 1853). Boredom marks the low-energy moments of privileged life that either drag in between or float above the more clearly agentive and meaningful events where social conflict grinds. Considered as such, it is not entirely surprising that the boredom of the informant or of the ethnographer tends to drop out of the ethnographic record to foreground instead those events that animate everyday life as well as narrative and analysis.

An increasingly competitive global economy, intensified all the more by the financial crisis, however, has fundamentally changed the coordinates of work and class in ways that have led to a changing engagement with boredom, one that holds implications for ethnographic inquires into time, space, and marginality. Contracting labor markets arrested career trajectories, stymied the development of home life, and curtailed social relations mediated by consumer practices, for example. Rather than a plight of the privileged, boredom impacted the most economically vulnerable. And instead of affecting the passing downtime between moments of activity, boredom and a sense of “doing nothing” emerged as a predominant characteristic of the precariousness of everyday life for millions of people across the world. A changing economic landscape recast boredom from a humanistic concern to an ethnographic problematic: What does it mean to be bored, and what insight does boredom provide into a modernity noted for its precariousness? What social practices and meanings get produced, and at times lost, in settings defined by boredom? How does one record the nonevent when participants insist they are “doing nothing,” and what sort of narratives can be constructed around social worlds defined more by the absence of activity than by its progression? Drawing on fieldwork that thinks “between the posts” of postsocialist Europe and postcolonial Africa (Chari and Verdery 2009), the discussion of boredom in this thematic section reveals a qualitatively different kind of humanistic quality than is traditionally posited within literature and philosophy. As is so often the case, the ethnographic engagement prompted a rethinking of boredom as a changing social and political relationship.

As the articles that follow make clear, the crisis-accelerated restructuring captured by “the posts” of postsocialism, postcolonialism, and post-Fordism requires a rethinking of the relationship between status, production, consumption, and the experience of excess free time. In cities across the world, increasingly sophisticated modes of global production and the rise of financialization has led to rampant downsizing (Ho 2009), the closure of industry (Ferguson 1999), and the formation of permanently unemployed people (Jeffrey 2010). In addition, those with work find less security with their position, propelling the ranks of the precariously employed to grow (Lorey 2015; Standing 2011). This special section claims, therefore, that inactivity and boredom are fundamental features of the postcrisis economy in which precarization is normalized (Lorey 2015). Rather than previous economies’ aims for full employment, in which work for many was more or less continuous, activity and inactivity are, following the recession, “organized through the temporal logic of the event” and more productively conceptualized as “part of a continuum of productive moments” (Adkins 2012: 622). For many, however, these events are rare, leaving them bored for most of the time. And because social belonging and public worth are still so intricately tied to employment and work, being displaced leaves many with the desire to be exploited (Berlant 2007: 281).

This emergent form of boredom is tied to a new economy, but it has clear historical roots. Boredom has always been an everyday affect born out of a crisis of meaning within a modernity that appears as both overfull and hyperstimulating, yet seemingly empty (Goodstein 2005: 5). Boredom is inextricably linked to a cruelly optimistic modern expectation of life as a project of constant change and improvement. Boredom takes hold as the underside of modernity and exists as a site of modernity’s critique. Boredom drones in the gaps and fissures of modernity’s story of progress, registering on the body the inadequacies, constrictions, and failures of everyday life to measure up against individual and collective expectations (Majumdar 2013). Rather than as a static condition, the following articles approach boredom as a complex, dynamic, and ambivalent phenomenon (Gardiner and Haladyn 2017). This is because the contours of boredom constantly evolve alongside modernity itself, providing critical insight into the changing dilemmas of modernity across time and space.

Talk of boredom first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century alongside industrialization, which produced not only goods at once unfathomable rates but also a growing bourgeoisie that no longer needed to work (Spacks 1996). This sense of upper-class boredom, Walter Benjamin notes, was founded on the economic infrastructure of factory labor. While workers wore their bodies down in grueling conditions performing routinized motions, the bourgeoisie became bored as they struggled to give structure and meaning to days freed from the necessity to do much of anything. The more generative the factories were, the more profound was the potential for boredom. “No other city in Europe,” Benjamin continues, “displays such a dearth of satisfied, cheerful, lively faces at its soirees as Paris does in its salons … Moreover, in no other society so much as in this one, and by reason of fashion no less than real conviction, is the unbearable boredom so roundly lamented” ([1988] 2002: 106). The plight of bourgeois boredom recorded in Paris and London also resonated from Russia (Chekhov [1916] 2011) to the edges of Europe’s colonial outposts (Majumdar 2013). Across the humanities, a perceived division of affect, as much as labor, surrounded boredom, where boredom became understood as an elite experience of superfluous time and means made possible by the drudgery of others.

While spared the sweaty and backbreaking fate of manual labor, the bourgeoisie quickly found workless life to be its own kind of struggle. “The discourse on boredom,” Elisabeth Goodstein notes, is “wrought with ambivalence toward the effects of modernization, in which the celebration of human triumphs in the form of scientific and technological advances was paired with growing malaise in the face of the rationalization of the world wrought by those changes” (2005: 101–102). The philosopher Awee Prins frames boredom as the downside of prosperity itself: “Those who are tormented by grief will not experience boredom; nor will those persecuted, nor those who suffer from illness or poverty” (2007: 439). As an experience of “displeasure” and of a “painfully long duration of time” (440), boredom follows from having the privilege of being superfluous, of not having to suffer the “debasing” activity of labor (Veblen [1899] 1994: 24). In a European history of thought, indeed, boredom is an “elitist disease” (Rousseau, quoted in Prins 2007: 31; our translation) or an “invention of the aristocracy” (Dostojewski, quoted in Prins 2007: 31; our translation). To be able to “do nothing,” to “be” without “doing,” then, is the ultimate performance of status. Elisabeth Wilson (1991: 59) wrote of a twentieth-century longing for this experience: “The bourgeoisie, or at any rate its men, had to work for their wealth, yet longed to be like the leisured aristocracy who owned the ultimate luxury of consumption: time.” In social science, Thorstein Veblen ([1899] 1994) famously wrote of “conspicuous leisure” as one of the demonstrations of wealth. The “leisure class,” in his view, consisted of those that were able to occupy themselves with “worthy” forms of activity, eschewing participation in the production process. The leisure class could abstain from labor but was involved in intellectual affairs, government, art, and other nonproductive activities. The working masses, meanwhile, continued to toil on through the day and into the night with only the briefest of moments to wonder if they too might have “the right to be lazy” (Lafargue 1973).

Owing to this intellectual history, social scientific interest on boredom has largely centered on the efforts of the leisure bound to convert this nonproductive consumption of time into evidence of status (Douglas and Isherwood 1979). Rather than resulting in any material traces, boredom and leisure produced immaterial goods such as artistic accomplishments, decorum, and knowledge of style, dress, and furniture (Bourdieu [1984] 1987). Refined tastes and manners require time: they are therefore “the voucher of a life of leisure” (Veblen [1899] 1994: 31). This line of inquiry has its origins in another century, one in which the expansion of industrial production hungrily absorbed labor (Gramsci 2000), while apparently leaving only the comparatively privileged struggling to preoccupy themselves.

As the effects of industrialization and urbanization spread, scholars tracked the democratization of boredom into the middle classes. In this moment, boredom implied not only the problem posed by expanding leisure time but also a disenchantment with the consumer-oriented practices that industry had posited as its solution (Lefebvre [1991] 2008). As theorists heralded the start of the consumer society (Baudrillard 1998), boredom captured the blandness of the postwar “new towns” and suburbs where city planners organized a material order seemingly designed to flatten the spontaneity and passion of everyday life (Lefebvre 1995). Boredom lurked over the middle class in the bureaucratically administered environment of the office (Wallace 2011), the routinized factory floor (Seeman 1959), as well as on train station platforms and tedious dinner engagements that awaited at the end of the day (Heidegger [1995] 2001). While consumer stimulation was marketed as the antidote, consumption did not alleviate boredom so much as aggravate it. Each burst of consumer stimulation acted as little more than a way station between new cravings and desires (Berlant 2011). Though these philosophical and literary explorations of boredom varied in their analysis, they shared a class perspective that linked boredom to the underbelly of rising prosperity.

The twentieth century and the advancement of modern industrialization brought new efficiencies to production that fundamentally changed social relations in many parts of the world. While important differences have been noted (see, e.g., Stenning 2005), twentieth-century Fordism in the West and socialist governments both aimed at full employment and guaranteed jobs. Even the brutality of colonial capitalism put forward a social system that was hungry to incorporate able-bodied people into labor (Ferguson 2015). The security of available work, as well as concomitant social securities found in welfare states and in socialist Europe, however, now appear as a historical exception, one that has been rapidly dismantled after liberalizations and privatizations. Insecurity in labor and life is once again, as Isabell Lorey (2015) puts it, the norm. The disappearance of these twentieth-century securities creates new modes of being (O’Neill 2014) that are nonetheless haunted by the “ghostly presence” of twentieth-century expectations (Muehlebach 2012: 62): the affective attachments to labor are still in place. While precarization touches many across the world, these social arrangements have, as Andrea Muehlebach puts it, an “afterlife” (2011: 62), especially in the sense of an affect that links social belonging to waged labor. To be of worth and, importantly, to be active, therefore, for many still means to be involved in labor and consumption processes in a time in which these involvements have become increasingly difficult to access. This “affective afterlife” creates opportunities for “activation” policies in workfare (Adkins 2012; Van den Berg 2016, 2017), as it does the particularities of the experience of boredom. Much of contemporary globalization is based on almost instant turnover, as much of the transactions are in the service sector. In regimes of flexible accumulation, relationships in production processes are fundamentally reconfigured. This new “space-time compression” (Harvey 1990), in which turnover is immediate, is especially apparent in the growing service sectors of the economy. As a result, in interactive service labor (McDowell 2009), where the one offering the service and the one receiving it are co-present, aesthetic and emotional qualities of workers gain importance, leading to wholly different preferences of employers for types of employees. Workers whose value was once exploited by industry are now deemed no longer worth exploiting (Denning 2010). However much precarization may be a form of government impacting us all (Lorey 2015), precarity and boredom are still unequally distributed. In fact, in Lorey’s conceptualization, precarity is “to be understood as a category of order, which designates the effects of different political, social and legal compensations of a general precariousness. Precarity denotes the striation and distribution of precariousness in relations of inequality” (2015: 12). Indeed, while most of us, following the great recession, are less secure than in recent history and are presently governed through insecurity, the articles in this special section show how boredom is part of the experience of being “cast aside” (O’Neill 2014). Post-Fordism is characterized for many by moving in and out of formal employment, but some are left struggling more than others to make the next productive event happen. In the words of Lauren Berlant, those at the bottom of class society are no longer “lucky” enough to “get to be exploited, in a scene that hails and ejects you when it is your time to again become worthless” (2007: 281). Contemporary economies leave many isolated, as collectivity in precarity is no longer possible in quite the same way as it was in the labor movements of the twentieth century, instead feeding a “politics of inferno” in which the most precarious place blame with each other (Standing 2011). This precarity is thus “a scene of mass but not of collective activity” (Berlant 2007: 280), isolating most into a private search to refashion ourselves to become the entrepreneurial and flexible subjects that this economy needs and further marginalizing those without the means to do so.

A growing population of would-be workers, therefore, became superfluous after 2008 in a very different sense than their aristocratic counterparts of previous reflections on boredom (O’Neill 2015). Idle days spent doing nothing are no longer the province of the privileged few. “Inactivity” is now the predicament for precisely those who were previously associated with activity and productive labor: male working classes (McDowell 2009; Standing 2011). While the adagio “time is the ultimate luxury” still holds true for the elites, the inactivity and excess of time of those populations condemned to a “wageless life” is quite intensely problematized (Denning 2010). This is as true in the Global South (Mains 2013; Ralph 2008) as it is in Eastern Europe (Frederiksen 2013; O’Neill 2017) and across the West (Muehlebach 2012; Van den Berg 2016). The 2008 global financial crisis swelled the ranks of the (near) permanently unemployed and brought their plight into clearer relief.

In this emerging present, boredom is not only a humanistic concern but also one of policy, politics, and economy. In the European Union, for example, “activation” of the “inactive” is one of the main shared policy goals. Originally designed as a policy term in programs to counter unemployment that recast unemployment as individual responsibility, “activation” is now used to describe a range of other policies, such as social work programs (Van den Berg 2016, 2017) and volunteering programs in care work (Muehlebach 2011, 2012). The logic is then that by being “inactive,” certain groups “lag behind” in another time and rhythm, unable to keep up with contemporary capitalism and the latest “time-space compression” (Harvey 1990). Individualizing responsibility for pre-cariousness and forms of space-time politics (Van den Berg 2016),1 then, “activation” policies proliferate throughout former welfare states (Adkins 2012). Meanwhile in the Global South, experimentation with basic income grants seeks to turn those with little hope of ever becoming regular producers into active consumers (Ferguson 2015). Lorey (2015) argues that precarization connects the industrial West to the “socio-geographical spaces of the periphery” in important ways. And indeed, as Jan Breman put it, “now, it seems, it is the West that is following the Rest when it comes to the growing insecurity of work conditions” (2013: 130). Precarization is a global phenomenon, therefore, as is the proliferation of policy efforts to responsibilize and “activate” those who are bored.

This thematic section draws on case studies from Eastern Europe and the Global South to theorize ethnographically boredom from the perspective of precarity rather than privilege. If a conventional marker of status is indeed the abstention from labor, then how do we understand the “inactivity” and boredom of contemporary massive “surplus populations,” especially those who were made superfluous in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis? Amid contracting labor markets and government austerity programs, everyday social and material worlds dissolved for millions of people across the world. So how can we grasp the suffering that comes with just “being” and not “doing” (Prins 2007), if “not doing” is the result not of wealth but of austerity and the aftermath of the crisis? In this thematic section, we aim to shed light on how those outside of labor internalize and interpret boredom and having “nothing to do.” The theme section investigates boredom as a temporal experience of precarization in times of crisis. In contrast to looking at elite boredom, this set of articles explores boredom’s precarious dimensions. We develop a perspective on how “having time” can be a cause of social suffering and how “doing nothing” can, in fact, be a characteristic of life on the margins.

The articles that follow investigate boredom among those experiencing a crisis at the level of the ordinary. Based on ethnographic engagements with precarious groups in Romania, Georgia, and Ethiopia, all three look at boredom as more than the absence of activity. When looking with an ethnographic eye, boredom appears not only as passive suffering but as creative too and at times even willful. For the Georgian nihilists in Martin Frederiksen’s article, for example, “doing nothing” becomes an active way of coping with boredom. Instead of attachments to fantasies of the good life, these young people turn doing nothing into the norm and the future into something that “doesn’t matter anyway,” creating joy out of pessimism. This enables them to understand “doing nothing” as life instead of that which inhibits it.

Bruce O’Neill’s article grapples with boredom and the doing of nothing at the level of method. It follows a crew of parking attendants hustling in a lot outside of Bucharest’s main railway station. Although the ethnographic record is poised to represent this crew as active and entrepreneurial subjects, the crew nevertheless insists that they are bored and inactive. Their claim to boredom, importantly, is not a performance of “joyful pessimism” as it was for the Georgian nihilists in Frederiksen’s article, raising a different kind of ethnographic problematic. O’Neill argues that the ethnographic record’s tendency to foreground productive agency, even amid moments defined by inactivity, obscures deeply felt emic concerns about a growing set of practices that are not, or are no longer, happening, particularly among the economically vulnerable. Boredom and inactivity, as a result, become thinkable within the ethnographic record primarily as a form of production rather than as the troubling foreclosure or absence described on the ground. Taking inspiration from photography, O’Neill develops “the negative” as a technique for bringing the impress of absent activity into ethnographic view.

For the Ethiopian young men in Daniel Mains’s study, too, boredom is not primarily about the absence of activity or action. Instead, their concern is that whatever actions there may be, they are not leading up to any progress and are therefore not meeting their expectations of life. In both Bucharest and Jimma, boredom is the experience of not actualizing such (gendered) expectations of living: having a home, starting a family, and being able to provide for it through waged labor. The reproduction of life, this shows us, is threatened here by the absence of engagements in productivity and waged labor. While Frederiksen’s nihilists refuse attachments to fantasies of the good life by joyful pessimism, therefore, Romania’s and Ethiopia’s precarious seem to be bored precisely because of such affective attachments. In all ethnographic cases, however, boredom is never simply inactivity but always the experience of “doing nothing” in relation to (whether through desire or denial) affective attachments to ways of living that are no longer in place. To look with an ethnographic eye at boredom and to conclude that there is creativity and agency in apparently inactive scenes, is, the articles show, failing to grasp the suffering that comes with feeling left outside of the space-time compression.

Far from being evidence of status, then, for many, boredom is the experience of precarization and of capitalism’s dissolution of ways of life. Long-held routines and relationships are replaced by continuous insecurity and the “doing nothing” that it necessarily entails. Ethnographically, this takes the forms of lost autonomy, prolonged waiting, or a diminished capacity to produce and to consume. Rendered superfluous at a variety of scales, those thrust to the margins are bored not because labor is unnecessary but precisely because they are left outside of it. Our aim in this section is to experiment with ways of theorizing the changing politics of inactivity. These efforts are rooted in a desire to make sense of the precarious forms of living that proliferated in the aftermath of the global financial crisis and that continue to endure a decade later.

Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the organizers of the 2014 European Sociological Association (ESA) conference, especially Gerben Moerman.

Note
1

Cf. Johannes Fabian ([1983] 2014) for his account of chronopolitics.

References

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Contributor Notes

Marguerite van den Berg is an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Amsterdam. Her research is positioned where urban studies, gender studies, and sociologies of culture overlap. She has published on paternalism, sexualities, policy practices, urban revanchism, city marketing, immigrant “integration,” and genderfication. Her most recent book is Gender in the Post-Fordist Urban: The Gender Revolution in Policy and Planning (Palgrave, 2017). E-mail: M.A.vandenBerg@uva.nl

Bruce O’Neill is an assistant professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and in the Center for Intercultural Studies at Saint Louis University. Since 2006, he has been conducting fieldwork in Bucharest, Romania, that explores the social and spatial dimensions of urban inequality. He is the author of The Space of Boredom: Homelessness in the Slowing Global Order (Duke University Press, 2017). E-mail: boneill1@slu.edu

Focaal

Journal of Global and Historical Anthropology

  • AdkinsLisa. 2012. Out of work or out of time? Rethinking labor after the financial crisis. South Atlantic Quarterly 111 (4): 621641.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • BaudrillardJean. 1998. The consumer society: Myths and structures. London: Sage Publications.

  • BenjaminWalter. (1988) 2002. The Arcades Project. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

  • BerlantLauren. 2007. Nearly utopian, nearly normal: Post-Fordist affect in La Promesse and Rosetta. Public Culture 19 (2): 273301.

  • BerlantLauren. 2011. Cruel optimism. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • BourdieuPierre. (1984) 1987. Distinction: A social critique of the judgment of taste. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

  • BremanJan. 2013. A bogus concept? New Left Review 84: 130138.

  • ChariSharad and Katherine Verdery. 2009. Thinking between the posts: Postcolonialism, postsocialism, and ethnography after the Cold War. Comparative Studies in Society and History 51 (1): 634.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • ChekhovAnton. (1916) 2011. The duel: The art of the novella. Brooklyn, NY: Melville House.

  • DenningMichael. 2010. Wageless life. New Left Review 66: 7997.

  • DickensCharles. 1853. Bleak house. Ed. H.K. Browne. London: Bradbury and Evans.

  • DouglasMary and Baron Isherwood. 1979. The world of goods: Towards an anthropology of consumption. New York: Routledge.

  • FabianJohannes. (1983) 2014. Time and the Other: How anthropology makes its object. New York: Columbia University Press.

  • FergusonJames. 1999. Expectations of modernity: Myths and meanings of urban life on the Zambian Copperbelt. Berkeley: University of California Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • FergusonJames. 2015. Give a man a fish: Reflections on the new politics of distribution. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • FrederiksenMartin D. 2013. Young men time and boredom in the Republic of Georgia. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

  • GardinerMichael E. and Julian Jason Haladyn eds. 2017. Boredom studies reader: Frameworks and perspectives. London: Taylor & Francis.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • GoodsteinElisabeth. 2005. Experience without qualities: Boredom and modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • GramsciAntonio. 2000. Americanism and Fordism. In A Gramsci reader: Selected writings 1916–1935 ed. Hannan Hever and Eric J. Hobsbawm275299. New York: New York University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HarveyDavid. 1990. The condition of postmodernity: An enquiry into the origins of cultural change. London: Wiley-Blackwell.

  • HeideggerMartin. (1995) 2001. The fundamental concepts of metaphysics: World finitude solitude. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • HoKaren. 2009. Liquidated: An ethnography of Wall Street. A John Hope Franklin Center book. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

  • JeffreyCraig. 2010. Timepass: Youth class and the politics of waiting in India. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

  • LafarguePaul. 1973. The right to be lazy and other studies. New York: Gordon Press.

  • LefebvreHenri. (1991) 2008. Critique of everyday life vol. 1: Introduction. Trans. John Moore. London: Verso.

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