Academic boredom and ambivalence

Always strange what one can find in the more obscure corners of the academic world. I get the impression that there are a lot of academics who have written one or maybe two odd articles on academic culture, seldom as their primary research project, and left them to languish in odd corners of the literature.

In 2005, Amir Baghdadchi of the University of Cambridge published an article called “On Academic Boredom.” His argument proceeded in several stages. Boredom, he said, is an institutionally induced affect in academia. It is “the sense that the seminar is never going to end, that the speaker will never get to the point, that the articles one is reading are proceeding at a glacial pace, that one simply cannot get into a discussion, that one dreads getting into it in the first place” (319). Although he doesn’t phrase it in temporal terms, the gist is that boredom is what you feel when time has stopped and you are stuck in a bad present, with no capacity, for the time being, to picture a desirable or livable future.

He then argues that academia in general wears people down and tires them out. “Boredom is corrosive. I have seen my classmates begin their graduate work with great vivacity and curiosity, and I have seen them slowly ground down into duller, quieter, less omnivorously interested people” (320). So boredom, over the long term, is what happens to you when you are saturated or “corroded” by your bad situation, when you become where you are. Boredom, over the long term, makes people permanently more boring. A sensation, an affect, becomes habitual. A moment becomes a regime.

Boredom, he continues, has more than purely subjective origins, since one is bored by some external stimulus; and yet no outside object, he observes, is ever boring in itself, but only boring in relation to its audience. What kind of relation to one’s academic audience elicits boredom, then? He suggests that “boredom occurs when we are unable to make use of a work” (321). But this boredom, he claims, need not be sheer accident. To induce boredom, on the contrary, is to defend one’s work by precluding potentially hostile engagement with it. You (mostly) give up your chance to criticize me if you are too bored to listen to what I’m saying. “Sometimes,” he continues, “it even seems as if we have a Mutually Assured Boredom pact. I get up and bore you, you get up and bore me, and, at the end of the day, we are all left standing. It would not be hard to find graduate students whose measure of a successful conference paper lies entirely in whether they were ‘shot down’ or not. In this situation, being boring is a very good policy indeed.”

Continue reading “Academic boredom and ambivalence”