Time and Boredom
Tied up with the dimension of space is the dimension of time. The boundaries of the visible universe are as much set by distance in time as distance in space. We can’t see the farthest stars and galaxies because their light hasn’t yet had time to reach us. Time is deep. It extends backward farther than we can conceive without a radical scaling down –the cosmic calendar or time line in which all of human history is the last 10 seconds, or half an inch. Our understanding of time is relative to our own lifespans, and based on our personal, phenomenological experience: our heartbeat, our cycles of hunger and sleep, our capacity for attention, distraction and boredom.
Sustained attention does not come to us naturally. We need breaks and intermissions. However, parallel to our propensity for boredom is the potential to become so engrossed in a task or experience that we lose track of time - time flies. Sometimes the line between these two states is very thin. As David Foster Wallace writes, “It turns out that bliss -a second-by-second joy + gratitude at the gift of being alive, conscious - lies on the other side of crushing, crushing boredom.”[i]
Long-distance running is on this cusp. I have been a distance runner since middle school[ii], although over the years what “distance” means to me has grown from one mile, to five, to thirteen (point one, the length of a half marathon), and in recent years to over twenty.[iii] I am slow on these long runs, so twenty miles can mean spending nearly four hours just following one footfall with another. It can be painfully boring, and for me, impossible to do if I let my mind wander forward to coffee, breakfast and a warm bath, or to all of the responsibilities I'm not taking care of because I've taken half the day to go running. The only way I can sustain the run is to keep telling my mind and body, this is what we're doing right now; right now there is only this. Often enough to keep me trying again, I get to that place where it's true - where the present fully exists and I'm no longer waiting for time to pass. As author and life-long runner Haruki Murakami says, “I just run. I run in a void. Or maybe I should put it the other way: I run in order to acquire a void.”[iv]
It's about the void, an emptying and opening of both time and space, leaving room for something unexpected to enter, or for nothing to enter. As Kathleen Stewart writes, “A still is a state of calm, a lull in the action. But it is also a machine hidden in the woods that distills spirits into potency through a process of slow condensation.”[v] Uta Barth also addressees the role of boredom in her work:
“I wouldn't think about those ideas in terms of boredom -boredom has a certain kind of pejorative quality -but in terms of an interest... in this total investment, immersion, in experiencing the non-event, 'boredom' sounds like something you have to escape. I think that the work invests in ideas about time, stillness, inactivity and non-event, not as something threatening or numbing, but as something actually to be embraced. There is a certain desire to embrace that which is completely incidental, peripheral, atmospheric and totally unhinged.”[vi]
Boredom does have a certain pejorative quality. “Only boring people get bored.”[vii] At the same time boredom seems key to something about the Post-Modern experience. Contemporary boredom is thought of as a feeling of emptiness “accompanied by mad pursuit of and /or passive waiting for trivial insubstantial stimulations and distractions that are ultimately unfulfilling.”[viii] But who decides what is trivial or unfulfilling? In a culture obsessed with constant productivity, through turning away from action, boredom can represent a method of transgression or resistance.
Modernity has created a strange paradox. Industrialism and technology have freed us from many of the chores of daily living that used to consume human time. Capitalism and the division of labor have separated free time from work time. These conditions create room for play and idleness in our lives, but they also devalue them. Time that is truly open does not contribute anything to the system; it is not productive or consumptive. Capitalist culture pushes us to fill our free time with organized consumptive activities. In his essay “Free Time,” Theodor Adorno talks about how modern time has been reduced to filling in a schedule: “The rigorous bifurcation of life enjoins the same reification, which has almost completely subjugated free time... Organized freedom is compulsory... Boredom is a function of life which is lived under the compulsion to work.”[ix]
Boredom can serve as resistance in another way as well. It can act as a shield by driving away the uninitiated. David Foster Wallace's unfinished novel, The Pale King, deals with boredom on a number of levels. Centered on the operations of the Internal Revenue Service, the book posits that boredom is intentional and useful. Tax code has been made “dull, arcane, mind-numbingly complex” to insulate the IRS from bad PR, public protest and political opposition. The service can operate however it wants because no one is paying attention. Wallace hypothesizes:
"...the really interesting question is why dullness proves to be such a powerful impediment to attention. Why we recoil from the dull. Maybe it's because dullness is intrinsically painful; maybe that's where phrases like 'deadly dull' or ‘excruciatingly dull' come from. But there might be more to it. Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that's dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us¹ spend nearly all of our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or with our full attention... I can't think anyone really believes that today's so-called 'information society' is just about information. Everyone knows² it's about something else, way down."
¹ (whether or not we're consciously aware of it)"
² (again, whether consciously or not)[x]"
There are different kinds of boredom. There is the boredom of frantic and fruitless channel surfing, but there is also the boredom of the blank screen. Being bored can signify a lack of engagement or concern, or simply a neutral waiting and suspension of judgment. Hiroshi Sugimoto's photographs invoke waiting. They are described not so much as an attempt to define the world, “but rather to reveal it slowly through patient observation and intense perception.”[xi] Deleuze also writes about the act of waiting. In his cryptic and poetic language he invokes pure events, event-phantasms, that “inspire in us an unbearable waiting -the waiting of that which is going to come about as a result, and also of that which is already in the process of coming about and never stops coming about.”[xii]
Sometimes, while running, the top of my head seems to float off and my legs turn over with the momentum of wheels, like in a Roadrunner cartoon. I see everything, the power poles looming and receding, the patterns of dirt left on the sidewalk by the rain, the gleaming asphalt, the nodding pigeons, the jumping up of leaves. And I move past and through, neutral, watching. Other times the experience is different. One hot day, when I didn't carry water, my face went numb. I couldn't move my mouth and my hands began to stiffen into claws. Then the exercise in endurance and patience took on a narrow and frightening intensity - surreal, hyper-real, unreal.
The intensity of experience is what I want to share, not necessarily the intensity of a specific or particular kind of experience, but the intensity of any and all experience, the intensity of the experiencing itself, when it's least expected. Running can invoke it, so can deep stillness. A melancholy day with the blinds drawn reveals delicate slivers of light. Surprising shapes emerge among objects that have been stared at for too long, or else flash at the corner of the eye. Spectra seem to hover at the extremes of concentration and distraction, tedium and inactivity, mania and melancholy.
The thing you are looking for is here. It's also here, and here,[xiii] in spectra and in the real, in the familiar and in the strange, in the empty and in the full, in the boring and in the compelling. The line between these sets of opposites is as precarious as the thin, third side of a coin; but it's much more concrete then it sounds, so grounded in moments and objects that it can be caught with a camera.
[i] Wallace, David Foster. The Pale King. Little, Brown and Company. New York: 201. p. 546
[ii] At Powell Jr. High in Mesa, Arizona I ran the one and two mile races. I also threw the discus until one day in practice I spun around too far, let go at the wrong moment and hit a teammate in the face with the 2 1/2 pound frisbee. After that I was strongly encouraged to stick to running.
[iii] I deeply admire and envy ultramarathoners , who run in races 50 to 100 miles long or in events that last over several days. Caballo Blanco (Micah True) who ran with the Tarahumara people in Mexico, helped organize the Copper Canyon Ultramarathon and was featured in the book Born to Run, is practically a religious figure in my eyes. His mysterious death last year in New Mexico’s Gila Wilderness (a place where I have spent a lot of time) hit close to home.
[iv] Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk About When I talk About Running. Vintage Books. New York: 2009 p. 17
[v] Stewart, Kathleen. Ordinary Affects. Duke University Press. Durham: 2007. p. 18
[vi] Lee, Pamela; Higgs, Matthew; and Gilbert-Rolfe, Jeremy. Uta Barth. Phaidon Press. New York: 2004 p. 22
[vii] Carol Shinnª
[viii] Leslie, Isis, “From Idleness to Bordeom: On the Historical Development of Modern Boredom.” Essays on
Boredom and Modernity. Edited by Barbara Dalle Pezze and Carlo Salzani. Editions Rodopi B. V. New York: 2009. p. 35
[ix] Adorno, Theodor. "Free Time," The Culture Industry: Selected Essays on Mass Culture. Routledge. New York: 1991. p. 190-192
[x]Wallace, TPK 85
Although I am quoting at length from The Pale King, I think it's important to note, out of fairness to and respect for Wallace, that this manuscript was unfinished at the time of his death in 2008, and was compiled and published from “hard drives, file folders, three-ring binders, spiral bound notebooks, sheaves of handwritten pages, notes and more” collected by editor Michael Pietsch in “a green duffel bag and two Trader Joe’s sacks heavy with manuscripts.”ͣ There is no reason to think Wallace would have considered any of it ready to be published or read, let alone referenced. It’s possible he would be mortified.
ͣWallace, THK, Editor’s Note, p. vi
[xi] Sugimoto 15
[xii] Deleuze, Gilles. The Logic of Sense. Columbia University Press. New York: 1990 (1969). p. 210-211
[xiii] Said by artist John Sarra during a visit to my studio.