Over the last two thousand years, boredom has gone by many different names – taedium vitae, acedia, sloth, ennui or busy idleness being just some of them – and has played a central role in the way western culture has arranged, explained and organized itself. Yet, if there were times when the world was dreary and uneventful enough to justify the feeling that boredom should become a matter of concern for scholars, it would certainly seem less obvious why and how it should concern scholars today, in an affluent and exciting society. In an age dominated by ‘innovation’, ‘creative industries’, ‘happiness economics’, ‘choice’, and ‘play at work’, it is easy to ignore that the shift of organizational and societal arrangements towards entertainment, self-expression and individuality also results in the global spread of boredom.
In the western history of ideas, man was always thought of as a conjunction of a natural and a supernatural (divine, rational or social) element that set him apart from his more brutish fellow beings in the animal world. As a philosophical reflection of the burden of existence, boredom has the power to problematize this conjunction because of its association with the loss of knowing what man’s nature and his goals in this life are. Whether through an aversion against the divine in man himself or through the dulling of rationality, which may lead to a (sinful) disregard of social norms, boredom has always constituted a fundamental problem to man’s grounding of his own existence – or failure to do the same.
In more recent works that engage with the sociology of boredom in different social classes and in different aspects of social life, a historical assumption is prevalent which presents boredom as a crisis phenomenon that has gained in force through modernity. Reasons for the ascent of boredom in western modernity include the codification and systematic-bureaucratic invasion of life, but also the individualism of man as a subject that has discovered itself as an autonomous and free being and is now forced to ‘shop around’ for different but inauthentic modes of realizing the Self. Especially since the emergence of serotonin-based anti-depressants in the late 1980s, these concerns have been associated with the spread of depression in western societies. In addition, the advent of the so-called ‘experience economy’, in which events are orchestrated, turning memory and the experience of personal transformation itself into a product, has been criticized for leading to a rise in the use of categories like ‘boring’ or ‘fun’ in the assessment of social relationships.
In order to bring the issue of boredom to the attention of a wider academic audience, boredom needs to be stripped of its status as merely an individually experienced and ascribable affect and instead addressed at a conceptual level. At this level, the issue of boredom escapes the danger of being confused with other, similar phenomena, like procrastination, restlessness, impatience, or even hyperactivity. The phenomenon of boredom has travelled through western culture in such different guises as an illness and state of mind (Seneca, Cassian), a sin (Thomas Aquinas), a problem of the grounding of existence (Kant, Pascal, Heidegger), the reflection of an ultimate inability to satisfy vital human desire (Schopenhauer, Freud), and as an important part in the understanding of the organization of urban consumer societies (Fromm, Simmel). The metamorphosis of these guises thus renders the concept of boredom an important prism to analyze the making and re-makings of the Self in society over time.
The historically consistent understanding of boredom has, structurally speaking, a double character. On the one hand, it reproduces in different cultural forms a mode of social perception, in which the world appears void of meaning; a vertiginous and frightening withdrawal from the task of being in the world implied by the burden of existence. On the other hand, this ambiguous negative value seems to contain within itself a kind of dialectical release of affect – a feeling of being fed up – capable of reversing this sense of privation. In this double perspective, then, boredom is not primarily a state of mind but rather a form of life revolving around the need to activate, mobilize and regulate a well-tempered Self. Accordingly, boredom might be regarded as a privileged concept to understand a consumer society that is more and more engaged with the identification, mobilization, organization and valorisation of the immaterial flows around the consumer subject.
This workshop aims at bringing together scholars from various backgrounds to discuss a wide range of disciplinary perspectives on boredom not only as an affect and individual state of mind, but as a culturally created, socially/collectively performed, historically changing, and philosophically reflected phenomenon. Because of the unique place occupied by the concept of boredom in the history of western ideas and in contemporary consumer society, the workshop aims at highlighting the contribution that humanistic studies can make to management scholarship and the social sciences in general. The first day of the workshop will be dedicated to sophia, the general analysis of the state of the world. After an introduction and a contextualizing keynote address, representatives of the four sections of the Department will respond to and challenge the theme from their specific perspectives, i.e. management and innovation studies; politics and public policy; business and economic history; and philosophy. These responses will be accompanied by discussion sessions. The second day will be dedicated to phronēsis, or practical wisdom, and is thus organized around a second keynote address, a practitioner perspective and contributions from organization theory.
Date, Venue and Information: April 12-13, 2012; Copenhagen Business School. A Reader with five to six key texts and the presentations by the keynote speakers will be prepared and sent out to all invited guests and members of the MPPH Department. For further information please download the boredom poster or email Rasmus Johnsen & Stefan Schwarzkopf.