Mark Kingwell is a professor of philosophy at the University of Toronto, and Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface is his most recent book.
I will openly admit I was punching above my weight class in sparring with this small, but mighty book. As the writer is a professor of philosophy and I have little familiarity in that field of study, I thought that I would, at the very least find some gems of inspired insight into this look at the modern world, written and released prior to the Covid pandemic. I was not disappointed, although I did struggle through the texts at times, and to keep the boxing metaphor alive, frequent retreats to my corner were in order to try and assimilate whatever it was Mr. Kingwell was directing my way from the printed page. As I was to discover, “boredom” is no ordinary word.
“Boredom is, at its simplest, a form of desire turned back upon itself, resulting in the inability to act in any purposeful or happy manner. The hellishness of boredom, the real despair sketched on its countenance, is in large measure a function of the banality of the condition. Why can’t I simply want something?
Why can’t I simply do something?”
There’s an accessible definition of boredom, I thought. He follows it with this example:
We are likely all too familiar with the experience: confronting the shelf of books where there is nothing to read; the enforced stillness of the long car journey with nothing to divert us from the unbroken vista out the window; the time spent waiting in queues, doctor’s offices, or departure lounges; the long evenings that stretch out after one’s lonely dinner without promise of incident or hint of pleasure. Boredom often, if not always, is experienced as a kind of temporal abyss, an acute awareness of time’s passing: it is the existential variant of simple duration, deepening that mundane experience into an apparently endless waiting-for-nothing that suffuses and dominates consciousness. In some ways, as we shall see, boredom acquires the character of an addiction, especially when it is actively cultivated by social conditions that can extract a profit from sustained bouts of boredom and stimulation. There is a danger that such an experience of boredom lowers the subject’s resistance even as it raises the existential stakes.
Such boredom makes us endlessly scroll through Twitter and Facebook feeds, making us the unwitting source of profit. Further, boredom is, according to Mr. Kingwell, “a political crisis of a new order.” It is “intimately related to, and caused by, the background conditions of twentieth-century capitalism. Boredom is now a natural extension of the unease and restlessness generated in the economic sphere, everywhere exacerbated by upgrade imperatives, frenzied claims concerning speed and satisfaction and perhaps worst, a constant generation of happiness-destroying envy for a form of existence that always seems to be elsewhere, enjoyed by someone else, or just past the horizon of the present in a future that never arrives.“(Italics mine) Who of us has ever glanced at a friend’s or an acquaintance’s social media feed and envied their fun vacations, renovated homes, new cars, gadgets and so on? It can destroy your own happiness in a very real way.
Phew! So there, in a very small nutshell is what you are in for if you pick up this plucky 150-page book. Stimulating, thought-provoking, eye-opening; all similar adjectives apply. My advice: hang in there for all twelve rounds. It may come out a draw.
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