Academic and religious boredom

I’ve written before about the curious state of academic boredom. Lately, I’ve been reading Henri Lefebvre’s Critique of Everyday Life, and was struck by his comments on boredom in traditional French church services:

The rhythm is slow. The audience is bored to tears by the respectful abstraction of it all. Religion will end in boredom, and to offer boredom to the Lord is hardly a living sacrifice. (Yet as I write these lines, I wonder if I’m not making a crude mistake. Magic has always gone hand in hand with emotion, hope and terror, and still does. But are there such things as religious ’emotions’? Probably no more than there is a ‘psychological state’ – consciousness or thought without an object – that could be called ‘faith’. These are ideological fictions. Surely religion, like theology, metaphysics, ceremonies, academic literature and official poets, has always been boring. This has never been a hindrance, because one of the aims of ‘spiritual’ discipline and asceticism has always been precisely to disguise and to transfigure this living boredom…)

(Vol. 1, p. 220-21. English translation by John Moore, Verso, 1991.)

So the idea is: the boredom of a traditional Roman Catholic service, far from being detrimental to the theological project, is in fact an essential ingredient in it, because the essence of spiritual — or by analogy, academic — “discipline and asceticism” is to take this boredom and turn it into something profound. One might reason, by extension, that when people say that academic literature is deep and important, what’s happening is that an initially boring object is, precisely, being transmuted through spiritual discipline into something that appears powerful to its practitioners.

I’m not sure I would agree with that, because how can there really be a general fact of the matter about whether something is boring or not? People are different; I agree with Lefebvre’s healthy skepticism about imputing psychological states to institutional rituals. Psychological states like faith, as he puts it, are “ideological fictions.” I’m not sure, in fact, that it makes sense to criticize the very idea of a psychological state in an institution and then still talk about boredom, which is also a psychological state…

But I do think that the operation of academic consecration — whether or not it’s analogous to religious consecration — is always worth paying attention to. And we can thus add Lefebvre to the list of French writers who, even before Pierre Bourdieu, were already criticizing church, state and university in the same breath.