World of Feelings: Ghassan Hage, Bruce O’Neill, Magic Steven and the Affective Dimensions of Globalisation

1 August 2017

Bleak house

Jennifer Maiden’s essay ‘The Suburban Problem of Evil’ (1998) investigates the ritualistic relation between domestic objects and illusions in the Australian suburbs, where boredom and violence, according to stereotype, coalesce behind polite veneers. To demonstrate this Maiden dryly informs the reader that Child’s Play was the most rented movie at Australian video stores. The essay’s principle site of contemplation is the Western Suburbs of Sydney, where,

[e]ven though there are statistically more people per house … than elsewhere in NSW, the nature of being in the houses tends to allow strategic isolation – for individuals, long conversations or intimate relationships. There is a courtesy system of locked doors, smaller rooms, verandahs or extensive use of privacy or shared intimacy devices like radios, stereos, books, homework and television. Significantly, all these devices are initially associated with a trigger of boredom. (122)

When we say we’re bored, we destroy the language of intimacy and passion; boredom disavows the grammar of care, concern, and responsibility. But expressions of boredom are often linked to, and reflective of preceding spatial dimensions of boredom. As Maiden suggests, the ‘nature of being’ in suburban houses allows, or perhaps even encourages the ‘strategic isolation’ so closely associated with the psychic entropy of boredom. The isolated subject is of course the paradigmatic situation of boredom; in accordance with this, we often use the language of location when we say we’re bored. For instance, in James Schuyler’s ‘Hymn to Life’:

                                                                                                                                 Quite
A few things are boring, like the broad avenues of Washington   
D.C. that seem to go from nowhere and back again. Civil servants   
Wait at the crossing to cross to lunch at the Waffle House.

It seems possible to map the feeling directly upon one’s immediate environment, and as Maiden suggests, in situations of boredom, ‘one is increasingly aware of one’s body and physical surroundings in an incarnatory way’ (122). Indeed, when bored we might say we are stuck somewhere, or going nowhere. Precincts, towns, cities, even whole countries, are routinely dismissed as boring. Often when we are bored we deploy the language of escape: we’ve got to get out of this place.

Scholars generally make a distinction between boredom and ennui. As a term, ‘boredom’ is the younger, an artefact of the nineteenth century.

Charles Dickens’s Bleak House is often (but falsely) credited as the first publication to bring the word into print. The elder, ennui, is more closely related to the monastic sin of acedia, and implies – broadly speaking – a judgement of the universe. Boredom, on the other hand, represents a response to the immediate. While ennui belongs to those with an eye to the sublime who might feel superior to a local, any local environment, boredom, in contrast appears to be somehow environmentally determined. Furthermore, boredom is often expressed in terms of situatedness: for instance, Roland Barthes describes boredom as bliss viewed from the banks of desire, and Siegfried Kracauer suggests the (bored) salaried masses in Berlin allowed themsevles to be stupified ‘only because they are so close to the truth’ (italics added). In their fashion, each thinker depicts boredom through representations of proximity, aligning the affective state with vacant territory, an evacuated space.

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