Boredom as a practice

I was reading through my field notebooks lately and I came across a little ethnographic snippet of description. It is a description of a male French student sitting in a classroom and getting bored. The more bored he got, the more he seemed to invent new ways to exhibit and alleviate his boredom. His boredom became generative, I would almost say. It seemed to try to overcome itself.

What, then, is boredom as a practice?

To stack two pens one on the next.

To roll the pens in the pen case, a Mexican folk art/hippie-esque knit bag with a dark zipper.

To test a pen.

To put new ink in it.

To try to wipe off the ink with a whiteout marker.

To cradle the back of the neck in your palm.

To send an SMS, surreptitiously, keeping your phone mostly still in your pocket.

To sigh and lean back, one arm crossed, in white t-shirt and jeans.

To put one foot up on the chair to retie your shoelace.

To sit sidesaddle in your seat.

To stare intently at the ethnographer’s notebook, looking away when the ethnographer glances at you.

To look at the ethnographer’s notebook again as soon as he lets his guard down…

[Field notebook V, p.35]

Anthropologists have sometimes claimed that when ethnographic subjects “look back” at the ethnographer, that this is almost a political act: a way of challenging the power relationship that normally sets the observer up and over the person being observed. Here I’m not sure that that’s what it was. Here I think that looking over the ethnographer’s shoulder at their notebook was more of an attempt to escape the tedium of a local situation.

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.)

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