“If whatever we do leads to the wasteland, why not just sit tight, do nothing?”—Tom Lutz, Doing Nothing
Boredom, in its widest definition, is a condition of not having anything in particular to do and of being disengaged from one’s surroundings. Boredom is that which happens when nothing happens (Sjørslev 2013: 102). Studies of the relation between marginality and boredom have often focused on the mechanisms by which boredom emerges among certain individuals or groups as they become distanced from a hoped-for life as an outcome of structural, economic, or political circumstances (e.g., Bourdieu 2000; Bourgois and Schonberg 2009; Day et al. 1999; Dunn 2014; Farnworth 1998; Musharbash 2007). Disengagement and “doing nothing” are thus seen as results of individual intentions and desires having been rendered impossible because of certain external forces. In a previous study of unemployed young men in the Republic of Georgia, I have suggested that this contains a temporal aspect in that marginal positions and experiences of boredom, waiting, and having nothing to do may be created by particular temporal disjunctures such as discrepancies between societal and subjective time (Frederiksen 2013). This may, for instance, be a question of experiencing the surrounding society as moving toward the future while oneself is stuck. This article juxtaposes this perspective on time, boredom, and marginality with an empirical description of a group of young nihilists who live their lives in a sphere of disengaged repetition where viewing the future as something that “doesn’t matter anyway” becomes a way of relating to boredom in the present in an inactive manner, thus turning the doing of nothing into a norm and negating the importance of any external factors. Limiting circumstance and marginality in this context is as such a question not of economic constraint but rather of having a perspective that is unrecognized or marginal in relation to the wider society (Frederiksen 2015a; see also Wei-ming 1997). In the case at stake, this perspective entails a negation of whatever direction society seems to going, for instance, by rendering obsolete competing political ideologies or visions, as change is not perceived as entailing change (Frederiksen forthcoming). I use this empirical example to question the analytical tendency within social sciences to view individual subjects as inherently intentional (in terms of “acting” or “wanting”), and I ask how we may include within analyses of boredom, time, and marginality the experiences of people for whom experienced lack of direction and disillusion does not inhibit life but is seen as a basic condition of life.
Lauren Berlant has coined the term “cruel optimism” to convey the widespread existence of unachievable fantasies of the good life in the contemporary world. Why, writes Berlant, “do people stay attached to conventional good-life fantasies—say, of enduring reciprocity in couples, families, political systems, institutions, markets, and at work—when the evidence of their instability, fragility, and dear cost abounds?” (2011: 2). This is a valuable question. Yet, as I argue here, it is just as important to ask, “Why do some people not?” In this article I deploy the antonym of cruel optimism—“joyful pessimism”—as an analytical device to capture an alternative configuration of marginality and boredom. If optimism can be seen as being cruel when that which “ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risks striving” (6), then pessimism or negativity could perhaps be joyful when what is not sought after or what is negated never comes around anyway.
The present article consists of three main parts. In the first part I unfold Berlant’s notion of cruel optimism and relate it to the question of temporal marginality specifically. Following this, I present an ethnographic depiction of a group of young Georgians who in their own perspective “do nothing” and who are bored without really caring about being so. I focus on one individual in particular, Vano, and use him as an archetype throughout the article.
In the final part, I trace the problem of analytically approaching such “people doing nothing” to what often seems a taken-for-granted understanding of the subject as somebody who is acting and somebody who wants something. This understanding of the subject has been prominent in the works of people such as Pierre Bourdieu and his focus on praxis and directionality, which, I argue, forms an underlying premise for notions such as cruel optimism. However, despite its merits, the understanding of the subject as intentional renders it difficult to analyze situations in which people deliberately disengage and “do nothing,” and this in turn means there are certain relations to time and social life that remain unaccounted for. Said differently, some experiences of boredom and marginality risk becoming “marginal within analysis,” as they do not seem to fit into our existing frameworks. It should be noted here that when I refer to “doing nothing,” this is not a question of people sitting in silence staring into a wall. Nihilism in this context, as I have argued elsewhere, is a question of seeing value as something that is in the eye of the beholder and of disregarding intention as an act that includes a potential alteration or change (Frederiksen forthcoming). As I unfold further in the final part of the present article, this means not that nothing happens, but rather that whatever happens is negated. We are thus dealing here with a gravitation toward nothing rather than nothing per se (Frederiksen forthcoming; see also Dolar 2010; Pilling 2010).
This mode of advancing my argument does not imply a complete negation of either cruel optimism or temporal marginality—as will be clear, there are many aspects in which I still very much agree with both Berlant and my own previous work—but it does imply an exploration of alternatives. Hence, I put forth the notion of joyful pessimism not as a general theoretical concept but rather as an example of a form of alterity that invites us to rethink conventional approaches. Said differently, I explore joyful pessimism and the doing of nothing as “alternative figures of thought” (e.g., Biehl 2013) and argue that taking seriously questions of inactivity, disengagement, and meaninglessness as empirical facts may allow for novel ways of approaching and conceptualizing relations between boredom, time, and marginality.
On cruel optimism and temporal marginality
In Cruel Optimism, Lauren Berlant explores the aftermaths of the promises that saw the day of light in the post–World War II period in the United States and Europe, and “the historical sensorium that has developed belatedly since the fantasmatic part of the optimism about structural transformation realized less and less traction in the world” (2011: 3). Economic growth, upward mobility, and political stability were keywords in the political agenda that transmitted particular fantasies of what makes “a good life” in the years following World War II. Yet during recent decades, Berlant argues, particularly since the Reagan era, the present has increasingly come to be experienced as an extended crisis in which such fantasies of the good life have become increasingly hard to realize for a growing number of people. Futurity in this relation “splinters as a prop for getting through life” (19), leaving many individuals and groups to tread water in a world of crisis ordinariness. The optimism residing within fantasies of a good life turn cruel “when the object/scene that ignites a sense of possibility actually makes it impossible to attain the expansive transformation for which a person or a people risk striving” (2).
The history of the Republic of Georgia since World War II has been markedly different from that of Western Europe and the United States, not least in terms of the contents of the respective political ideologies dominant during much of the twentieth century—communism and capitalim. However, despite difference in ideology, ideas of modernity and promise have been central features in both regions, whether as communist utopia, prophecy, or democracy-yet-to-come (Derrida 1994; Frederiksen and Gotfredsen 2017; Guyer 2007; Tismăneanu 2009). There have been substantial differences in content but similarities in form (Frederiksen 2014). What is more, since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s gaining of independence in 1991, and particularly since the revolution in 2003, neoliberal politics have dominated the country. Under the leadership of former President Mikheil Saakashvili, who was a leading figure in the revolution, the government sought to build a new nation and initiated a vast amount of reform processes largely inspired by or directly copied from the United States and Western Europe (Frederiksen 2015b). Furthermore, postrevolutionary politics under Saakashvili were based on a rhetoric of hope; promises of better lives for the population, economic growth, and visions of the future grew grander for each new election. One way of documenting for the public that some of these political visions were in fact being turned into reality was through massive reconstruction projects in several major cities (Frederiksen 2013; Gilbreath 2014; Khalvashi 2014). Included in these was the port city of Batumi on the Black Sea coast, where I carried out fieldwork in 2008 and 2009 among a group of local unemployed young men. These young men had few opportunities in their lives, and for many of them, the future was bleak. Consequently, the more clear it became to them what the future envisioned by the government would (or could) be, the more the young men wanted to be part of this future. Reconstructions would potentially bring increasing amounts of tourists to the city, which could mean jobs and income, and this in turn would potentially enable them to save up money for an education or for starting a family. Yet, they also began to realize they were unlikely to be part of the future envisioned by the government. Despite the hectic construction work taking place all over the city, the pace of their own lives never picked up, no work opportunities appeared, and they continued to spend most of their time walking the streets or sitting at home, bored.
I have previously argued in relation to their situation that in order to understand their sensation of boredom and their marginal position, marginality should be seen not merely as a question of otherness and distinction based on categories such as class, religion, ethnicity, or social status, but just as much from a temporal perspective (Frederiksen 2013: 178). Drawing on Alfred Schütz’s phenomenology of subjective time, I aimed to show how tensions between individual experiences of time and societal ideas of time partook in creating feelings of marginality and sensations of boredom among the young men among whom I was conducting fieldwork (2005: 17). This perspective followed Martin Mills’s call for anthropological examinations of time as a system of power in itself—“as a means of actively integrating individual experience into social time, or, as Schütz put it, of unifying inner durée and outer (social) ‘cosmic time’ within a ‘vivid present’” (350).
As in Berlant’s analysis, the situation in Batumi was one in which political fantasies were alluring in the sense that they propelled people to want a form a relation to the futures or visions of a good life that the fantasies implied. Yet, for many, this optimism led to broken dreams and unachievable futures, and in this way they came to be experienced as a temporally meaningless fit between desired futures and present possibilities. One outcome of such a misfit was boredom—having nothing in particular to do in a situation where very much seems to be happening, where something should be possible but is not. Boredom and temporal marginality may in this sense be seen as intimately related to the cruel optimism described by Berlant. Yet, to reiterate the question raised earlier, what, then, about situations in which people don’t really care about being marginal or being bored? That is, when the meaninglessness of the meaningless fit is lived rather than opposed?
A turn to the negative
Saburtalo, a suburb in the capital Tbilisi, in the spring of 2014. In the middle of a conversation with my old friend Davit, he asked me what I had found over the years, here in Georgia. He meant which “revelations” my research had caused, which new insights it had brought about. It was late in the evening, and I was too tired at this particular moment to engage in any kind of discussion of either anthropology or my research. I was tempted to say, “Nothing.” But instead I took his question as literal and answered, “Vano. I found Vano.”
It was not completely true, though; I didn’t find Vano as much as I was taken to him. I’m the one who, in a sense, was found. It was by Gia, a close friend of Vano’s, in a bar in central Tbilisi in the spring of 2006. The meeting was random, two small groups of friends that very quickly merged into one and started meeting regularly in the months that followed. At some point Gia noted that he actually had another group of friends, more or less unconnected to this one. At the core of this group was a guy named Vano, and around a year after I first met Gia, he took me to Vano’s apartment in the suburb Saburtalo.
“You have to know something about Vano,” Gia told us as we drove toward Saburtalo. “Vano is … a little different.” And this was also my immediate impression of him, which makes Vano a little difficult to describe. His tone of voice is rather monotonous. He does laugh a little now and then, but his main expression is a loud sigh. During that first encounter, he struck me as a man who was slightly depressed, a man whose life could have been different, a man who was perhaps stuck, but oddly also as a man who fully embraced this situation—a man who couldn’t be bothered. And what does he look like? Vano is not handsome, but neither is he particularly ugly; he is neither too fat nor too thin; he cannot be said to be too old but was not too young, either. At least, this is how Gogol might have described him, and how he might have described himself. We watched Peter Greenaway’s Drowning by Numbers that evening, in between sighs and cigarettes. There were no toasts, as is common to the degree of second nature when guests are entertained in Georgia. But there was something to drink. And a lot of Morrissey. And a lot of sighs.
Some years went by—five, to be exact. But in early January 2012, we meet again, at Bude, an underground bar in the center of Tbilisi that was a popular hangout for various alternative subgroups in the city at the time (bude meaning “nest” in Georgian). It is located in a partly demolished residential building, occupying what used to be the downstairs apartment. The day before, Bude held a theme night under the title, “Forever Alone Party: Love Warms You Up, but Vodka is Cheaper.” We sit in a small room, in what is likely to have been the bathroom, on pillows strewn across the floor, gathering around a stump from a tree that serves as a table. Two bottles of vodka are placed on the stump along with some small glasses, an ashtray, and a shared pile of cigarette boxes. We sit and drink for a few hours. People come and go from the room to say hello to us, some sitting with us for a while before leaving again. At some point after midnight, a young man—let’s call him Merab—joins us and sits down next to another young man, Paata, who is a friend of Vano. They sit together while the rest of us continue drinking and talking. After a while, Vano kindly but firmly asks Merab to leave so we can have the room to ourselves, which Merab does.
However, 10 minutes later, Merab returns with a bottle of vodka in his hand. He goes straight to Vano and says, “If you ever tell me to leave again, I will smash this bottle into your face.” Vano looks at Merab with a disinterested expression and coldly utters, “Leave.” As a consequence, Merab smashes the unopened bottle into Vano’s face, vodka and splinters of glass flying in all directions, and Vano falls to the floor. He quickly gets up, though, and throws himself at Merab, hitting and kicking him as violently as he can—and, given the small size of the room, also the rest of us. After a while, we manage to separate Vano and Merab, Paata and Nika (another friend) escorting Merab out of the room while Eka (a friend of Vano’s and mine) assist me in trying to calm down Vano. He sits back on his pillow on the floor, bleeding from several places in his face and on his neck. We do our best to remove the pieces of glass that have slid inside his blouse, and we note that a piece of glass has gotten stuck in the side of his neck. He pulls it out, leaving an open flesh wound, small but still producing a significant amount of blood. Eka and I try to convince Paata and Nika, who soon return, as well as the staff in bar, that they should call an ambulance, as Vano is bleeding quite a lot from what we feel is a relatively unfortunate place. They all refuse however, stating, “It’s nothing,” or, “It doesn’t matter.” Even Vano is determined that there is no problem: “It doesn’t matter, REALLY. It’s nothing.” It takes us around two hours to convince him to get in a taxi with us and go to a hospital. Once there, Vano gets five stitches in his neck. After this he insists that we go to Eka’s apartment and continue drinking, which we do. The following evening we are at Bude once more. “It was nothing.”
We met on an unregular basis during the next couple of years, whenever I was visiting Tbilisi, until finally came a time when we would be able to see each other whenever we wanted, as I moved to Tbilisi in March 2014. I had come in relation to a research project about nothingness and pointlessness that had largely been inspired by Vano and his friends. Unfortunately, Vano caught conjunctivitis (“a bad grammatical virus,” as he called it), which prevented us from meeting up the first weekend. But we soon found a rhythm.
A few phone calls back and forth. We agree on meeting at 4:00 p.m. on Chavchavadze Street in Vake, in front of Vano’s work. Nika is already there, waiting, when I arrive. Soon after Vano comes out, we kiss on the cheeks and start walking. Vano sighs. “A friend of ours just died from liver problems. My boss’s son also just died, from leuchemia; he was only 11. The dog of one of my other friends just got hit by a car. And this fucking wind in the city is driving me crazy. And the situation in Ukraine—and the whole world. And then there’s my eye infection. And I started having problems with my ear as well. And it’s spring!”
We have to go by his doctor, where he picks up a prescription for some antibiotics. He immediately tells the doctor that he doesn’t intend to take it until after the weekend. “Because you’re gonna drink?” she asks and allows him to wait a few days. We jump in a taxi and head to a pharmacy on Vazha-Pshavela. The pills are expensive, over 60 lari. He wonders how people who don’t have medical insurance get by. He’s still working as a translator for a US organization but on a different project now. Work still comes and goes, sometimes there is an income, sometimes not. We jump in another taxi and head toward Saburtalo. In the small shop by his building, we buy vodka, juice, and cigarettes. Vano hates this particular shop. One must go to six different counters to get various kinds of groceries, and it’s much more expensive than other shops nearby. But then, he doesn’t bother walking to those other shops either.
I tell Vano and Nika about the different aspects of my new project on “nothing.” Vano thinks it’s a strange project, but he’s happy that I came. He hadn’t expected us to ever meet again. He never expects that when people leave the country, that they’ll ever come back. He’ll consider going to the art exhibition I’m setting up as part of my project. Maybe. Though probably not.
We enter the apartment and go to the living room, and the first bottle of vodka is opened. “Remind me to make some food,” Vano says, “otherwise I’ll just forget.” We sit down on the couches and watch a live concert with the Cure. Nika goes to the kitchen and prepares some plates with tomatoes, cucumbers, and slices of cheese. The only bread in the apartment has molded. “Lovely. I started saying lovely to everything lately. I don’t know why; I don’t know what’s particularly lovely about anything.” Vano’s parents left the country a few weeks ago and are now in Central Asia in relation to his father’s job. They’ll be away for three to four years. Vano misses them, but at least now he can stay at home on weekend evenings instead of having to go to a bar in the city center. There’s nothing worse than having to go out.
He tells me that if I don’t have any other plans I can just sleep in the apartment that night. That way he won’t be alone, and we can continue drinking all day tomorrow. The Cure is exchanged with a series of Pet Shop Boys videos. “Nothing new has emerged in music since the 1980s,” Vano says with a sigh. I suggest that perhaps it’s just because we’ve gotten old. He challenges me to name just one new original artist or group. I make a few suggestions that are all brutally slaugthered.
He talked to Paata on the phone earlier. He mentioned how I had been hanging out with a man believing himself to be Athos from The Three Musketeers yesterday. Paata said he thought I was mad. Vano reminded him that all his friends are. Paata himself had called Vano at four in the morning to announce that he had just realized that geography is pointless, that it can’t be used for anything. Vano hadn’t quite been able to follow the argumentation, but Paata had insisted. Currently, Vano is annoyed that Paata hasn’t shown up yet. Another friend has arrived, and another bottle of vodka has been opened. After a string of telephone calls, and an increasingly annoyed Vano, Paata arrives. Vano remains discontent, teeth clenched for a good while. Paata, on the other hand, is in a great mood. “Hello, Whiskey!” he exclaims and throws himself onto one of the couches. Vano and Paata have known each other for around five years, Vano and Nika for three.
Vano says we should listen to something other than the Pet Shop Boys, but he doesn’t change the music. Nika leaves around midnight. At some point I dose off on the couch while Vano and Paata talk. They wake me up later on and take me to Vano’s room. Paata makes the bed (Vano claims he doesn’t know how to). They continue talking in the living room until around five in the morning. At some point they get into a fight.
I wake up around 11:00 a.m. the next morning. Vano also gets up, and we go to the kitchen to have beer and soup. The apartment block is at the very outskirts of Saburtalo. We’re on the eighth floor, and from the kitchen window there is a view over the hills. His grandfather bought the place for his parents some 20 years ago. Before that, he and his parents had interchangeably lived with his mother’s and father’s parents. The first time he came here he hated it, but now he’s gotten used to it. The furniture in his bedroom is from his childhood. On the walls are photos of Morrissey, Tilda Swinton, Dean Martin, Vano himself, and a few others. There’s a shelf with books and his computer, and a shelf with CDs, cassette tapes, his medicine, and a series of empty absinthe bottles and various small gifts he’s received over the years. He puts together a grocery list while we’re in the kitchen. He’s glad I came, he says, I’m a dzmak´atsi. For some reason I’m one of the only people he has never deleted from Facebook—a habit he has. He doesn’t remember whether he’s still friends with Gia; they haven’t been in touch for a long time. I had heard rumors that Gia, who is now in Moscow, would come to Tbilisi for a visit in June. Vano hasn’t heard anything about that. He generally deletes his friends as soon as they move abroad—no point in staying in touch.
Paata slowly wakes up. He’s handed the grocery list and sent out for food and cigarettes. Vano tells me how Paata was once national champion in kickboxing and later European champion within his age group. He later tells me that Paata got in a fight at some point with four rugby players and ended up firing a gun at them. He was sentenced to two years in prison, suspended sentence, though. It was in this period he met Vano.
Paata suggests taking a walk in the hills. Vano doesn’t want to. Not at ALL. We smoke cigarettes, have more beer, eat more soup, and go to the living room. We discuss Paata’s appearance. He has big rings in his ears, a slightly overgrown designer moustache, black clothes, and a black beret. I say he looks a bit like a young Stalin, which amuses Vano. Paata reiterates his distate for any kind of politics. We watch most of a documentary about Morrissey while emptying a few more liters of beer. Paata is bored by always watching the same documentary and spends a good deal of time on the balcony. I ask Vano whether he considers himself coming from an intellectual family. He does. He learned how to read at age three. A female friend of his once told him he ought to have children so he could pass on his genes. He doesn’t want to, though, for the very same reason. And also because he doesn’t want to constantly have to worry about someone else.
Paata comes back in, and Vano suggests we watch a movie instead. Paata chooses Peter Greenaway’s Vertical Features Remake, and we stare our way through it. Around 3:30 p.m. one of their friends, Spander, drops by, a short guy wearing a Joy Division T-shirt. Around the same time we switch from beer to vodka and tomato juice. Morrissey plays in the background, “And when I’m lying in my bed. I think about life. And I think about death. And neither one particularly appeals to me.” Paata offers to make me a bloody mary. Paata also made sure I was fed during the day, making us toast. “I think he has a crush on you,” Vano remarks. He’s only been eating a few black olives. He puts on Pet Shop Boys videos again but soon changes it to Placebo. Paata starts playing with some matches. Hours go by. At some point I take a taxi home. Vano and I talk on the phone the next day. He got a phone call late last night with the message that one of their friends had just died of an overdose; he was only 30. Later on he and Paata got into a massive fight again.
Over the next months, this afternoon/evening/night repeats itself (to a degree that you could simply reread the preceeding two to three pages a few times). Everything is negated, and everything is lovely and joyful in all its negativity and pessimism. We could go somewhere else, but we’d be bored there as well or surrounded by pretentious people who’d be attempting desperately not to be bored, and their presence would be not only boring but also annoying. “Do you ever think about what will happen to this country in the years to come?” I ask Vano on one of the final afternoons we spend together before I leave. “Why should I care? I’ll be dead in 10 years anyway,” is his blunt answer. Why care about the future when you won’t have one because you don’t care about having one?
The doing of nothing
Vano was among the very first people to read my book about boredom and youth in Batumi. “I like it,” he wrote me at some point. “It’s depressing.” Yet he also let me know that life was much more negative than what I had described in the book, but in a lovely and perhaps even joyful way. I had written about a search for purposefulness and subsequent feelings of disappointment that he himself couldn’t recognize from his own life. This search for purpose and meaning might have been true in the lives of the young men I depicted, but it wasn’t for him. For him, doing nothing and being bored was the way things were; it was negative and joyful rather than optimistic and cruel. Of course, there are differences between the group of un- or underemployed young men I had been following in Batumi and the group of people I followed in Tbilisi, including Vano. For instance, one might argue that from a socioeconomic perspective, someone such as Vano lived in a more secure position in that he worked for an international organization and had parents living abroad. Yet, as already mentioned in the previous section, Vano’s job was not permanent, and he had oftentimes found himself jobless, getting by only because he could live for free in his parents’ apartment—which was exactly also the case for the young men in Batumi. Despite sometimes having a wage and sometimes having insurance through a particular job, his was still a volatile situation, as was that of his friends. And indeed, as argued by Katrine Gotfredsen, marginality and the related notion of dispossession are heterogenous notions when it comes to contemporary Georgia, in that many varied groups became (and often remain) marginal to the state in the wake of post-Soviet and revolutionary turmoil (2016: 44). But this did not entail that Vano had begun to search for purpose. Tbilisi also shared similarities with Batumi in the sense that both cities had undergone dramatic changes in terms of material reconstruction, and as had been the case in Batumi, the cityscape of Tbilisi had for long also been marked by political visions of a bright future being depicted on grand posters covering currently delapidated buildings. But unlike my informants in Batumi, who related to these future visions in terms of fearing that they themselves did not belong to them, Vano, along with his friends, disregarded the promises of a good life and a bright future that such visions tried to convey.
In many ways, their sentiments of negation and pessimism resemble Nietzcshe’s definition of passive nihilism as a normalized condition in which “the experience of the loss of truth, value and meaning no longer generates a crisis but is … accepted as a matter of fact” (Diken 2009: 23). In his exposé on nihilism, Bülent Diken sees traces of this in the character Pechorin in Mikhail Lermontov’s A Hero of Our Time, a man whose life is devoid of expectations from the future. Consequently, writes Diken, “even though A Hero of Our Time is full of action (duels, romances, spitefull intrigues, and so on) nothing really happens in the book” (24). The same, I believe, can be said about the apartment of Vano. To be sure, there was “action” involved: fights, heavy drinking, things we would count as being activities. Yet, for the people involved in these, they did not count as such. Being in a fight and ending up with a piece of glass in one’s neck “is nothing,” it doesn’t matter. There was, to paraphrase Julian Jason Haladyn (2015), a certain will to boredom present. Similar examples of such a condition is plentiful in literary or semibiographical accounts of boredom and disengagement in modern life, from Robert Musil’s The Man without Qualities (2011) to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov (2004) and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (2000). Boredom, in these perspectives, is a question of nothing happening in the sense not only of no events taking place, but of events taking place that are regarded as nothing (Frederiksen and Dalsgård 2014). Or, put differently, boredom is not necessarily a struggle with disrupted intentions or desires, but can equally stand forth as an acceptance of the meaningless.
But what does it mean to do nothing? As Billy Ehn and Ovar Löfgren have noted, “redefining some activities as ‘doing nothing’ could in the nineteenth century be used as accusations of laziness and inertia directed toward common people, and at the other end of the social scale as accusations of indolence among the idle rich.” Being bored was thus a question of inactivity that either related to having no possibilities of doing anything, or of having enough possibilities to not care about doing anything (2010: 221; see also Nicolescu 2014). This, according to Ehn and Löfgren, has led notions of domination and marginalization to “slip in through the back door” (2010: 220) as means to depict the situation of people who do nothing. Within the social sciences, this has most often taken the shape of analyses that highlight the structural inequalities that render it impossible for individuals to act, that in various ways rob them of their agency. This has been (and still is) a valuable perspective unfolded in various ways, for instance, within practice theory and postcolonial theory (e.g., Bourgois 1996; MacLeod 1995; Morton 2010). Yet, as Deborah Durham has argued, it is to a large extent Western ideas of the active subject that have configured boredom as something that must be a problem. She traces this to the bildungsroman from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, and the context of industrialization, in which the personal growth of young people was linked to social change. “As the young person finds a personal agency,” she writes, “individuality, the ability to choose among options and to exercise an imagination—he also becomes the agent of social change” (2008: 168). Social scientists, not least anthropologists and sociologists, have, according to Durham, clung to the notion of agency as an act of liberation, “restoring to those who seem powerless their individual rights to act effectively upon the world” (151). Or, said differently, they have sought to show that boredom and the doing of nothing is not the fault of the individual but rather, to paraphrase Paul Farmer (2005), a form of structural violence. Durham furthermore highlights how traces of the Birmingham School, where youth agency was seen as resistance and rebellion through cultural consumption or new identity markers such as dress and music, remains inherent to contemporary understandings of youth, agency, and marginality (2008: 165). The problem Durham raises is that this accentuation of (suppressed) agency comes to overshadow instances in which people do not really care what is going on. In terms of the empirical case at stake here, when Spander wears his Joy Division T-shirt, this might be read as an allusion to the 1980s United Kingdom and the punk movement’s resistance to the Thatcher government. But Spander never verbalized it as being so—it was merely a T-shirt with a band he happened to like and nothing more.
What goes amiss in maintaining a focus on youth agency is that questions of deliberate disengagement cannot easily be accounted for analytically. A leading figure in the study of the relation between agency and structure has been Pierre Bourdieu, particularly in his work Pascalian Meditations (2000), in which he unfolds the relation between the notions of “illusio” and “lusiones”—individual hopes and the probabilities of their actualization. Ghassan Hage has recently noted how his personal ethnographic language has become permeated by Bourdieuvian concepts over the years, not least those related to illusio—“investment, directionality and intensity”—and habitus—“capacity, disposition, and habit” (2014: 139). These concepts are central in Bourdieu’s understanding of social life as a struggle to accumulate social agency within a society consisting of productions and distributions of social being (142). Hage relates this to the phenomena of eavesdropping and his own personal experience of losing his ability to hear. Hearing, he writes, is not always a purposeful act, and this simple observation contradicts a central aspect of Bourdieu’s conceptual framework: “Bourdieu’s subject is … an ‘oriented’ subject who derives meaningfulness from having a purpose in life, or to put it differently, a subject that encounters the world purposefully” (155). Thus, if you do not have a purpose, then you are deprived of being, and this will result in a loss of reality. This entails a distinctly temporal aspect—a loss of the future and one’s ability to act toward it, a dark side of hope, the cruelty of optimism. As Hage goes on to argue, “being” is here reduced to purposeful being, and even though Bourdieu sees realities as multiple, there are aspects of reality he cannot account for, as they don’t fit into a modern ontology of purposefulness (157). In a similar vein, Alessandro Duranti (2015) has noted that social scientists must reconcile with the fact that not all societies or groups have recognized intentionality as a central frame of explanation. From the perspective of Vano and his crowd, lack of purpose, nothingness, boredom, and meaninglessness can be “lovely” and joyful in all their negativity, and despite being a marginal position, it is no less real than instances in which life is perceived as having to be purposeful and boredom therefore is seen as a problem.
It is worthwhile mentioning here that this position of negation may be said to carry an ethical dimension. One of the antecedents of nihilism is ancient scepticism, not least in the Pyrrhonist tradition, which argued for a shift from praxis to apraxia, from action to inactivity. This position, argues Richard Bett, should be an ethical one: “a sceptic was someone who suspended judgement, and this attitude of suspension of judgement was something one held on to not merely when engaged in theoretical discussion, but also when engaged in the activities of everyday life” (2010a: 3). One of the benefits of leading a “sceptical life” was the possibility of achieving ataraxia—tranquility or freedom of worry as an opposition to dogmatic outlooks (Bett 2010b: 181). Yet, in later Western philosophical discussions, praxis rather than apraxia has dominated discussions. An example of this would be the work of Hannah Arendt and her focus on vita activa, which, for her, designates the basic conditions of life: labor, work, and action. Out of these, action (praxis) is the activity most closely related to the phenomena of natality: new beginning. Natality, she writes, “makes itself felt in the world only because the newcomer posseses the capacity of beginning something anew, that is, of acting. In this sense of initiative, an element of action, and therefore of natality, is inherent in all human activities.” She further notes that human lives are conditioned by more than the basic conditions under which they were given life, as everything they come in contact with immediately turns into a condition of their existence: “The world in which the vita activa spends itself consists of things produced by human activities; but the things that owe their existence exclusively to men nevertheless constantly condition their human makers” ( 1998: 9). In short, we are born under conditions and ourselves create further conditions of our existence. Hence, we are always conditioned and we are always active, or at least strive to be.
Arendt draws these conclusions from Aristotle’s defition of praxis (action) and lexis (speech) and the political philosophy of Augustine. “To act,” she notes, “in its most general sense, means to take an initiative, to begin (as the Greek word archein, ‘to begin,’ ‘to lead’ and eventually ‘to rule’ indicates), to set something in motion” (177). This does not, however, mean that all acts are possible. On the contrary, because life is intersubjectively constituted, and because of the conditioned nature of being, action does not necessarily achieve its purpose, “almost never,” in fact (184). Yet, although praxis or action does not necessarily ensure freedom, it is through or within praxis and its relation to nativity that freedom has a potential: “The fact that man is capable of action means that the unexpected can be expected from him, that he is able to perform what is infinitely improbable” (177); through praxis, it becomes possible for people to tell their own stories, thereby gaining at least a sense of freedom. There are clear resemblances between Arendt’s focus on praxis and that of Bourdieu; it is the purposeful that potentially leads to freedom. With praxis, in such perspectives, being a central feature of what all people essentially strive toward, it is not surprising that praxis is also what we tend to look for when engaging in a study of social life. Yet, looking back at the ancient sceptics and toward the present-day empirical examples presented here, the purposeless and the inactive may equally be seen as a position of freedom.
Marginal analysis and the alterity of joyful pessimism
In Berlant’s description of cruel optimism, she notes how the impasse induced by crisis may be a question of being that treads water (2011: 10). In the account given here, life is not as much a question of treading water as it is a question of breathing underwater. Vano is bored and marginal not because he has neither too few nor too many possibilities—lack or overabundance of agency—but because he doesn’t care. Vano and his crowd were certainly marginal within their society in terms of their perspective on life. Indeed, politicians had called out nihilism and nihilist tendencies as a potential societal disease spreading among groups of people living on the verge (Frederiksen forthcoming). But they are also potentially marginal in relation to social scientific analysis. By this I mean that some individuals and groups may end up as marginal in relation to taken-for-granted analytical approaches to notions such as boredom and (in)activity, such as that of practice theory. It should be made clear that my intention here is not to replace or dismiss the existing literature and definitions of marginality that are premised on practice theory, but rather to add a complementary perspective.
Throughout this article I have been distinguishing between two types of characters: those who may well fit within, or are marginal because of, a situation of cruel optimism, and those who conversely embrace what I have termed joyful pessimism. That is, people who embrace negation and disengagement over intention. To be sure, it may well be that many people live not in or with either one of these aspects, but rather with both simultaneously or one or the other at different points in time. Berlant herself gives several examples of people who turn away from politics and the political through what she calls “the depressive position,” one taken up “by a subject who acknowledges the broken circuit of reciprocity between herself and her world but who, refusing to see that cleavage as an end as such, takes it as an opportunity to repair both herself and her world.” The cruelty remains present, however, in “the compulsion to repeat toxic optimism” in the hope that things will be different (2011: 259). It is that compulsion, or that hope for difference, that is lacking in the sphere of joyful pessimism, or in the accepted loss of optimism. Indeed, as Mark Fisher (2009) notes in Capitalist Realism, in a world where imagining political alternatives becomes increasingly difficult and action therefore comes to seem pointless, “hedonistic nihilism” is not a surprising phenomena. In this perspective, joyful pessimism may even be seen as a continuation of cruel optimism.
As Tom Lutz (2006) has shown in the context of US cultural history, there have been numerous expressions of “doing nothing” throughout the twentieth century—every period has had its own version: idlers, loungers, romantics, loafers, bohemians, saunterers, flappers, babbits, beats, nonconformists, delinquents, slackers. All these groups in various ways described themselves as being bored (2006: 54), and this is an important point: the variation. If boredom, as Peter Conrad (1997) has noted, is in the eye of the beholder, then which analytical posibilities emerge if we take the perspectives of particular eyes seriously? That is, letting the beholding eye be that of the person who is bored rather than that of the person writing the analysis. Local sociocultural expressions of doing nothing call for individual scrutiny, and although it seems an obvious theme of anthropological investigation, it so far hasn’t been. Anthropology is often described as an exploration of the meaningful life worlds of individuals and groups. It is, however, surprisingly ill equipped to account for situations in which meaninglessness stands forth as an empirical fact alongside inactivity, negativity, and pessimism. Indeed, as Matt Tomlinson has argued, anthropologists often tend to “create an a priori category of meaningfulness in their approach to social life” (2006: 143). To reiterate, what I have argued here is not that a focus on the relationship between agency, boredom, and marginality is altogether flawed, but that some empirical situations and realities potentially slip through our fingers when seeing this relation as the only possible analytical vantage point. We thus need to ask ourselves why some people care while others don’t, and why some individuals or groups, despite living in comparable situations, relate to marginality in markedly different ways. Exploring alternative figures of thought in relation to inactivity and meaninglessness may allow for new ways of approaching and conceptualizing the relation between boredom, disengagement, and marginality.
A number of people have commented on an early draft of this article, including Erik Aasland, Sally Anderson, Elizabeth Cullen Dunn, Christopher Groves, Francisco Martínez, and of course the editors and reviewers of the theme issue. Needless to say, any inconsistencies are mine. The fieldwork on which the article is based was made possible through a grant from the Danish Council for Independent Research, Humanities.
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