PARTICIPATING AUTHOR: AVIAD KLEINBERG
Aviad Kleinberg is Professor of History at Tel Aviv University and the author of Prophets in Their Own Country: Living Saints and the Making of Sainthood in the Later Middle Ages and Flesh Made Word: Saints' Stories and the Western Imagination (HUP April 2008).
Think of one of those mundane situations we all know too well--you try to read a book that all the critics hail as a masterpiece. You would be happy to join the chorus of applause, if only you weren't so terribly bored. Your mind wanders; your vision blurs; you feel very tired all of a sudden. You're bored silly.
Now think again. Boredom may not be as harmless as it looks on first sight. It is not a conscious critique, perhaps, but its effects can be as devastating as open revolt. Parents, teachers, preachers, party apparatchiks can order us to sit still and behave ourselves. But they cannot keep us from feeling bored. The Bible? Boring. The Talmud? Boring, the Holy Quran? Boring. Das Kapital? Boooring.
Boredom's deceivingly innocuous nature may be its greatest strength. Boredom is a particularly effective weapon of cultural resistance. It is one of the very few that do not cause escalated aggression toward the powerless, but actually induces the powerful to change themselves. Anything to avoid gaping yawns and glazed eyes. The medieval Church, for example, allowed its preachers to season their edifying (but, alas, so boring) messages with amusing stories, full of delicious gore and horror. They coated bitter Church dogma with the sugar of romance and melodrama. They offered their bored flocks entertaining tales of adventurous saints--often barely Christianized folktale characters—and repentant sinners. It worked. Saints' stories became hugely popular. But, as I have shown in my Flesh Made Word, there was a price to pay. Saints' stories conveyed confusing messages. In fact they gradually developed an alternative theology, often at odds with the official one. The consumers may have become interested, but not necessarily in the expected moral. Sometimes the medicine is every bit as bad as the disease.
But if boredom can be a subversive force, it can also be the very essence of conformism. If it can be the spontaneous little iconoclast within us, it can also be the secret agent of the powers that be. For, contrary to our intuitive assumptions, boredom can be artificially induced. One can learn to be bored—bored with old clothes, with old products, with dangerous ideas. The citizen of the post-Gutenberg galaxy learns to be bored. He is carefully conditioned to have a short attention span and to be fed up quickly. If you grew up watching commercial television—the most important cultural conditioner in the post-Guttenberg world—you got used to instant, mostly emotional, gratification.
This does not mean that in the past most people's idea of fun was reading the tomes of Proust's In Search of Lost Time or that nowadays nobody reads hefty works of scholarships. There have always been patient and impatient individuals, lovers of short stories and enthusiasts of epic tales. But as a culture we are becoming increasingly impatient. Hooked on constant entertainment, we need frequent fixes to maintain our high. We get bored faster.
Boredom does not affect only the way we consume entertainment. It affects the way we consume anything and everything. Most significantly perhaps it affects the mechanism that could change things—politics. Democracy requires knowledge, because democracy is about rational decisions. Our channel-surfing culture, however, marks politically-significant knowledge as boring. To make rational political decisions, you must know things that are neither entertaining nor moving. You are expected to listen to and draw conclusions from long arguments about ideology and action. In the past, popular assemblies listened to and debated very long arguments; political pamphlets were eagerly read by the "common" people. No more. It's boring.
The new politicians are well aware of this. Boredom is good for bad politics. Audiences expect a punch line every 5 or 6 minutes. Off the record, decision making goes on. The few who control the market weigh, measure, debate, and decide. In front of the cameras, politicians entertain. All they need are a few good one-liners and a repertoire of touching personal stories. If they also look good (and nowadays they usually do), they're fine. The show must go on. The show does go on.
It's often a good show, but it is rarely good politics. And just like the reshaping of medieval Christianity, it had happened almost inadvertently. The media is no longer the town crier. It educates, it conditions, it shapes our mental world and answers expectations it had itself created. Yet, in spite of its active role in the game, it pretends to be a bystander. It decries any attempt to regulate it as a threat to the freedom of speech. But a society in which speeches are empty and citizens ignorant is not truly a democracy. Democracy requires respect for "boring" things—an interest in processes and a willingness not to jump too quickly to the bottom line. It demands a serious rethinking of the deep consequences of the commercialization of primetime. Beware of boredom. It can make you silly.