The Ethics of Boredom: What is an I? - Lars Svendsen

I am the sum of all transgressions of myself, i.e., of all that I do. What I do is not exterior to who I am; rather, it can be said to be the most explicit expression of who I am. As long as these transgressions function satisfactorily, this is me – so far as I know. If I find a combination I can live with, I will not deviate much from it as long as the outer conditions remain more or less the same. If it is an unsatisfactory combination, or if the outer conditions undergo considerable change, I will seek new transgressions. Life will then become a search for ever-new experiences – and today there are an almost unlimited number on offer. It may also be that I find something unsatisfactory about the perspective of transgression itself and ask why I am doing all that I do.

With this ‘why’ I enter into a new relationship with myself. Why have I sought these transgressions? Why have the transgressions formed the constellation they have? I look for a reason as to why I am the person I am. In doing so, I presuppose that there is a reason I can derive from all the transgressions. But this reason I am simply unable to find. In my disappointment at not finding any reason I will probably return to the transgression. I can, however, continue to reflect on the reason – or rather on its absence. What I then find is not a reason of any sort but an imprecise feeling that appears to be something that has always been with me. It is as if this feeling is me.

When I think about it, I have been aware of this feeling for as long as I can remember, and it seems to give me a different perspective on who I am than the perspective of transgression did. This second perspective, though, does not give me any solid ground under my feet. It is, rather, an experiencing of myself as grounded in something unfounded, something that shows that the reason I initially sought for all the transgressions is an abyss, or non-reason. The fundamental is more contingent that what has been founded. There is no original reason that defines who I ‘really’ am and that can give me any clear answer as to how I ought to live. Clearly, this ‘educational journey’ has not produced the desired result. What is to be done, then? Nothing else than to continue. To return to everyday life. To continue as one has always done. To go on, despite the fact one cannot go on. To go on in now, where neither past nor future seem to offer any basis for where one ought to go. To go on without any history – or reason – that would indicate any unequivocal direction or overall meaning. To go on in a contemporaneity that has neither beginning nor end.

Perhaps there is something fundamentally mistaken about using boredom as a privileged phenomenon for understanding ourselves and the age we live in. Perhaps we are past boredom. Perhaps time now passes so quickly that it will swallow up boredom or make it imperceptible. As Milan Kundera writes in Slowness: ‘Speed is the form of ecstasy that humanity has been given by the technical revolution.’  And in this speed we can forget ourselves, and perhaps forget that we have lived at all: ‘The degree of slowness is directly proportional to the intensity of memory; the degree of speed is directly proportional to the intensity of forgetting.’ And those who become philosophers are perhaps those who are a bit slow, who do not forget so easily, who then remember all too well – or at least believe that they remember. Wittgenstein makes such a connection: ‘In the race of philosophy, the one who wins is the one who can run slowest. Or: the one who reaches the finishing line last.’ Our concepts of reality and experience are unclear because we have defined them negatively on the basis of an unclear idea of a lack. Is there anything at all that has been lost? Have we lost anything essential, whether we talk about what is lost as time or an experience – which is basically one and the same thing? An awareness of a crucial loss becomes undeniably a principal motif of twentieth-century philosophy (in Adorno, Benjamin, Heidegger and Wittgenstein, for example), and for many of us it was precisely such an awareness of loss that caused us to take up philosophy in the first place. This last-mentioned displays a touching faith in philosophy, but do more than a very few of us still believe that philosophy is able to bring about any salvation? Because the longed-for presence in the world is always postponed, it is converted into an absence. It is as if all reflection is spurred on by a sentimental look into a nostalgic rear-view mirror.

It is a Messianism tapped from Judaism or Christianity where one waits for the First or Second Coming of the Messiah – with the one difference that we have replaced the Messiah by more secular entities, such as an experience or a time. This is a hope that is perhaps too great and that therefore creates an absence, an emptiness. We anticipate metaphysical worries, based on an absence we perhaps are just taking for granted. The meaning we seek in the absence of meaning, the experience in the absence of experience and time in the absence of time – are they merely illusions? An awareness of loss does not guarantee that anything has actually been lost, and therefore does not guarantee either that there is something – a time, meaning or experience – that has to be won back. The title of Proust’s masterpiece, À la recherche du temps perdu, presupposes that there once was another time, but that this can obviously be self-deception. Or take such a concept as alienation, which practically no one talks about today. Such an expression is only meaningful to the extent that it can be contrasted with a state of participation, identification or unity, because the concept of alienation itself does not express anything except a lack of such a state.4 Why does no one talk about alienation any more? Two obvious possible answers are: Alienation no longer exists, and consequently there is no use for such a concept; Alienation has become so widespread that we longer have anything with which we can contrast it – the absence of such an absence has become total. What the correct answer is remains unclear. It is, however, clear that a society that lacks social substance, in the Hegelian sense, is not a society one can be alienated from. Are we without alienation and without history? I am not going to assert that history is over once and for all, for it seems to stop and start at regular intervals. But it is no longer any great history that can offer us a monumental meaning into which our lives can be integrated.

If history appears to be over, it is because, like our individual lives, it no longer seems to be moving towards any goal. We feel that if the world had a goal, it must already have been achieved,6 but we do not know what that goal could be. Modernity did, however, manage to wrest itself free of the ‘deadweight’ of tradition and thereby the present was no longer bound by the past. This liberation, though, did not lead to our freely being able to turn our gaze to the future; it meant, rather, that we were left once more suspended in the lack of absent past, in the experience of loss that is not recognized as anything else than loss. The present time replaced history as the source of meaning, but pure contemporaneity, without any link to past and present, does not give very much meaning. Since we can hardly regain the past as a past, and therefore cannot regain the future as a future either, the task must be to try to establish as substantial a relationship as possible to the present. The age of nihilism coincided with the heyday of modern philosophy. Nihilism gave philosophy the greatest possibility to establish a world, or rather to save a world in decline. Precisely the vacuum that nihilism created gave philosophy a space to fill. In an interview in 1993, Ernst Jünger said that he considered nihilism as over and done with. It is possible he is right about that, but it is scarcely a basis for saying that philosophy has conquered nihilism. It would be truer to say that in that case nihilism has conquered itself without any new gods arriving on the scene. The present situation is not a ‘happy apocalypse’, which was Hermann Broch’s diagnosis of Vienna at the turn of the twentieth century. This is no apocalypse at all, rather a ‘brave new world’ – a ‘utopia’ that has been realized. There can hardly be any new utopias. To the extent that we can imagine a utopia, it must already have been realized. A utopia cannot, by definition, include boredom, but the ‘utopia’ we are living in is boring. Oswald Spengler went so far as to claim that boredom, even in a utopia that had only partly been realized, would be so strong that it would ‘lead to mass murder and collective suicide’. On closer inspection, all utopias seem to be deadly boring, because only that which is imperfect is interesting. It is boring to read about utopias, and they all appear to be boring. Novalis asked: ‘How can one avoid boredom in the representation of Perfection?’ And Pascal underlined that it is not a good thing to have all one’s needs satisfied.

The utopia we are living in can satisfy practically any need. The utopia does not lack anything – except meaning. When this meaning is looked for, the utopia begins to crack. In his strange novel Le rivage des Syrtes (1951), Julien Gracq wrote about the disintegration of a stagnating small society and its way towards war, explaining this by saying ‘Ennui descended on everything that for a long time had felt too good’. And Tocqueville wrote about the ‘strange melancholy which often haunts the inhabitants of democratic countries in the midst of their abundance.’  Boredom constitutes a boundary for a utopia. A utopia can never be completely accomplished, for that would be synonymous with boredom – and this boredom would eat up any utopia from the inside. 

About Ikhbayar Urchuud

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