On Being Bored (Phillips)

On Being Bored” in: On Kissing Tickling and Being Bored: Psychoanalytic Essays on the Unexamined Life (Adam Phillips; 1993)
[..] Every adult remembers, among many other things, the great ennui of childhood, and every child's life is punctuated by spells of boredom: that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains that most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for a desire.
As psychoanalysis has brought to our attention the passionate intensity of the child's internal world, it has tended to equate significance with intensity and so has rarely found a place, in theory, for all those less vehement, vaguer, often more subtle feelings and moods that much of our lives consist of. It is part of Winnicott's contribution to have alerted us to the importance, in childhood, of states of relative quiescence, of moods that could never figure, for example, in Melanie Klein's gothic melodrama of emotional development. [..] But moods, of course, are points of view.
[..] In any discussion of waiting, at least in relation to the child, it makes sense to speak of boredom because the bored child is waiting, unconsciously, for an experience of anticipation. [..] That boredom is actually a precarious process in which the child is, as it were, both waiting for something and looking for something, in which hope is being secretly negotiated; and in this sense boredom is akin to free-floating attention. In the muffled, sometimes irritable confusion of boredom the child is reaching to a recurrent sense of emptiness out of which his real desire can crystallize. But to begin with, of course, the child needs the adult to hold, and hold to, the experience - That is, to recognize it as such, rather than to sabotage it by distraction. [..]
Experiencing a frustrating pause in his usually mobile attention and absorption, the bored child quickly becomes preoccupied by his lack of preoccupation. Not exactly waiting for someone else, he is, as it were, waiting for himself. Neither hopeless nor expectant, neither intent nor resigned, the child is in a dull helplessness of possibility and dismay. [..] How often, in fact, the child's boredom is met by that most perplexing form of disapproval, the adult's wish to distract him - as though the adults have decided that the child's life must be, or be seen to be, endlessly interesting. [..] Boredom is integral to the process of taking one's time.While the child's boredom is often recognized as an incapacity, it is usually denied as an opportunity.

"Inability to tolerate empty space limits the amount of space available."
Wilfred Ruprecht Bion, Cogitations, 1992

[..] So perhaps boredom is merely the mourning of everyday life? [..] But the child's boredom is a mood that seems to negate the possibility of explanation. It is itself unexplaining, inarticulate; certainly not pathological but nevertheless somehow unacceptable. [..] what the bored child experiences himself as losing is "something to do" at the moment in which nothing is inviting. [..]
Clearly, for the bored child nothing is "available for the purpose of self-expression." Instead of "expectancy and stillness" there is a dreary agitation; instead of "self-confidence and ... free bodily movement" there is cramped restlessness. [..] The bored child, a sprawl of absent possibilities, is looking for something to hold his attention. [..] For the child to be allowed to have what Winnicott calls "the full course of the experience" the child needs to use of an environment that will suggest things without imposing them; not preempt the actuality of the child's desire by force-feeding, not distract the child by forcing the spatula into his mouth. [..]

The ordinary boredom of childhood is the benign version of what gets acted out, or acted out of, in what Winnicott calls the antisocial tendency. But as adults boredom returns us to the scene of inquiry, to the poverty of our curiosity, and the simple question, What does one want to do with one's time? What is a brief malaise for the child becomes for the adult a kind of muted risk. After all, who can wait for nothing? [..]
Boredom, I think, protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be. [..] 

Boredom is defined by society as an unwelcome state of mind, and in particular here, by the parents of an idle child. We are conditioned to lend meaning to activity, any activity, while we feel incapable to understand the absence of activity. The idleness of the child generates anxiety in parents because it represents an unfathomable universe that cannot be accessed from the outside. Idleness necessarily spells trouble... in our perverted society, because it is an unspoken territory. Activities could always be interpreted, in the smallest ways, as a tangible proof of consciousness, an active consciousness, evidence of the presence of the child to himself. Just because there is no other way to get this constant reinsurance but with an immediate response to stimuli. Therefore all forms of activities are continually imposed to the child, less to break his boredom than to keep parents comforted in the unending functioning of the child's consciousness.
An adult is able to articulate and communicate a state of intentional idleness, when we want calm, rest, peace. It becomes acceptable to look inactive if it is a voluntary state, unlike the child. We can say out loud : "leave me alone" or "give me a moment" when pressured by an overload of problems and tasks and duties. So this idleness is not as suspect or worrisome. 
Back to Dan Kois who acts as a child even though he's an adult. His parents aren't imposing overactivity onto him... he conditioned himself to think that way, in complete infantile regressive state. Ironically he uses the word "force-feeding" in an opposite way. He feels as though these "slow films" are force-fed on him by the intellectual community, precisely these films that do not force-feed the spectator with formatted responses at every shot. Action films (intensified continuity) are the ones that continuously feed its viewers with a series of appropriate feelings and thoughts, in a calculated order, for the audience to respond at once, as robots. You don't need to worry about feeling lost or falling behind or being unresponsive for a moment... the heavy-handed grammar of these films tell you what to feel at every time. You're never left hanging, with the risk to wonder what to do, what to feel, what to think, they do it all for you. You're on safe rail tracks from beginning to end. Hollywood spectators give up control of their state of mind, mood and thought for the duration of the film, to give in to the satisfaction of not being responsible for boredom, and being comforted by the promise of not having to worry about looking for ways to distract yourself for this little while, a respite from the fear of feeling unable to fill this threatening inner vacuum. An anxiety for idleness probably inherited by the parental injunction to keep yourself busy.

However the negative connotation vested on the word "boredom" takes another meaning when you realize that there is nothing wrong with idleness, quietude, contemplation, silence, immobility and pensiveness. Learning to deal with your inner peace is paramount to access another level of consciousness and perceive the world differently. Being strapped on a wagon where emotions are signposted to you, effortlessly, is NOT the only way to receive storytelling, or even to deal with entertainment and distraction. Where is the room for uncertainty and discoveries when everything is planned in advance? 

What people reject in the contemplative mode of storytelling is the absence of certainty, identifiable activity, conditionned stimuli that are easy to respond to. CCC functions on another level, it is never meant to provide a "plug-and-play" type of distraction to cure you from boredom, on the contrary it invites daring spectators to EMBRACE BOREDOM. Stay away from it if you're not ready to graciously donate two hours of your time without expecting to get a quantifiable dose of entertainment for the admission value. It doesn't work that way. If that's your way of thinking, like Dan Kois, you're obviously going to be disappointed, especially because you will miss the point of this uncharted journey. Blaming onto CCC a failure to entertain does not qualify that film as "bad" in itself, but demonstrates your critical ineptitude to correlate what a certain type of film sets out to do with what we are expecting this intention to achieve. Contemplation does not issue the false promise of keeping your mind occupied at all times during the screening, with a set of predetermined stereotypical reactions that will give you the impression of participating to a lively roller-coaster ride. So you can't blame these films for not doing that. If you really want to find and expose "bad slow films", you will have to deconstruct what "slow films" intend to achieve and demonstrate they didn't deliver that. Films that do not seek to entertain you, are not bad because they failed to entertain you. There is a schism between what you wrongly expected from that film and what the film actually wants to achieve. 

Boredom for film critics is like loss of appetite for food critics. Is great gastronomy meant to wet your appetite? Yes. But when your stomach is satiated, sick or sleepy, the best food in the world cannot make you hungry for more. We don't ask food critics if they are hungry when they judge a dish. The purpose is not to feed your stomach, it's to use your palate to sample food and judge it. Unfortunately, film reviewers don't know any other way but to gaze at their own navel and check if they feel hungry... to feel if they are entertained, whether the films are designed to entertain to begin with. They are not hungry so they 're not even going to taste the food, they take a nap or walk out and the evaluation stops right there... How is that a professional, conscientious, responsible attitude? 

If you don't know what is "boredom", contemplation, minimalist narration, unspoken cinema... please refrain from coming up with half-assed far-fetched interpretations on what should or should not be so-called "slow films". Stick to reviewing the easy movies at your level of understanding : signposted entertainment that can be judged by taste alone and by identifying the conditioned responses you've been trained to conform to all your life.



HarryTuttle said…
James Gleick : "Maybe boredom is a backwash within another mental state, the one called mania-defined by psychologists as an abnormal state of excitement, encompassing exhilaration, elation, euphoria, a sense of the mind racing. Maybe our hurry sickness is as simple as that. We--those of us in the faster cities and faster societies and faster mass culture of the technocratic dawn of the third millennium C.E.--are manic. The symptoms of mania are all too familiar: volubility and fast speech; restlessness and decreased need for sleep; heightened motor activity and increased self-confidence. Of the possible mental illnesses, mania does not sound like the worst. Anyway, without mania, no boredom? These are the time obsessions of complex civilizations, populous nation-states with many technologies. In other forms of human society time passes differently."
in Faster, the acceleration of just about everything (1999)
HarryTuttle said…
(March 5, 2012; Presented by Vicki Bennett)

Radio Boredcast asked a bunch of young people how they felt about boredom...

Thank you – Valerie, Alisha, Ada, Molly, Eve, Holly, Lila, Lia, Babycall Rechargeable

[Listen] 43'