Calendar 2017 - June

06 juni


Boredom enjoys a truly bad reputation. As a thoroughly negatively connoted concept, it generally describes the sense of empty, meaningless time that sets in during monotonous, under-stimulating tasks or idleness. In German, in its literal sense, boredom means the unpleasant sensation of expanding time (“Langeweile”, literally “a long while”).i It is irrelevant whether this state has a specific cause or not. To the one experiencing it, time seems to go to waste or not pass by at all. In brief, boredom is temporalized meaninglessness.

To the one bored, time will hang heavy on their hands. Why would that be a problem though, in this ever accelerating society in which, as we all know, nobody has time for anything? There are different reasons for this. Beside the subjective perception of meaninglessness, boredom also is an existential imposition. Cast back to oneself, the one bored will have ample amounts of time to listen to the clock ticking, which opens up an abyss into the inescapable insight of their own mortality. During boredom, time will unequivocally confront the self with its limitation and impotence. It passes relentlessly and, with it, the self and the entire world. “Boredom”, says J.P. Hebel, “waits for death”. The one bored is keeping it company.

Not only is boredom a basic human experience, however. It is, to a great extent, also a product of cultural history. Many hours of monotonous, repetitive activities daily, which first and foremost serve to make others rich, as well as the impoverishment of urban and natural landscapes are symptoms of a golden age of individual and collective boredom: that of industrialization. Because time has become a commodity, it has become meaningful to save it, i.e. by being efficient and delivering maximum productivity.

This logic of economization of time extends to the private sphere. As an answer to deprivation of freedom through industrial wage labour, a new economic productive power soon emerged: the arts and entertainment industry. Its products cater to the increasing need for distraction and consumption. As attempts to compensate for and recover lost life time, they have been shaping our everyday lives to the present day.
To this day, it can be taken for granted that meaningful time chiefly has to be productive time utilized at the maximum. This understanding leads to a paradox, however. The more time is “won” via increasing efficiency, the more time will be “lost” because the economic principle of setting time off against time is deeply ambivalent. When we “take the time” to do something, this happens under the implicit premise that we need to take the time from something else where it then will be “missing”, in some peculiar way. That is why people do not work less, nowadays (in view of the gross domestic product) and instead merely more efficiently.

Time is a resource like any other, nowadays. The more time we gain, the scarcer it gets. In order to escape from this scarcity, more and more exotic forms of maximum productive pastimes have emerged in recent decades. Boredom is an accompanying effect of this radicalisation. It sets in as soon as there is nothing to do. It is an impatient call for the next pass-time. This passing of time will see to it that non-passed, freely disposable time will turn into a problem, though.  As Goethe wrote on the subject of time, if you do nothing but spend it, it will often turn into a burden. Boredom is time that has become a burden.

It seems hardly imaginable, nowadays, that non-passed time could be a gain. This is illustrated by a cartoon by German comedian Loriot. The one who only wants to “sit around” for a while without reading, taking a walk, thinking or distracting themselves any other way, will eventually feel the pressure, even in the comfort of their own familiar armchair.1 And yet it is the simple act of sitting around (e.g. in the Buddhist practice of zazen), that constitutes an actual alternative to the progressive economisation of time. The one who wants to save time should best do just that: nothing. To do nothing in order to achieve nothing – that is occasionally boring, but never entirely devoid of meaning. Only the one who has time may eventually be able to make a difference between meaningful and meaningless activities.

Video: Loriot: Feierabend (german)