“I’m so bored. I hate my life.” - Britney Spears

Das Langweilige ist interessant geworden, weil das Interessante angefangen hat langweilig zu werden. – Thomas Mann

"Never for money/always for love" - The Talking Heads

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Defending myself against the materialist attacks of my conscience

Now we're gonna be face to face
As I lay right down in my favorite place



When Emile Tardieu published his book on L’ennui, a reviewer in the Zeitschrift für Psychologie und Physiologie der Sinnesorgane in 1905 reproached him for taking much of his data from the belles letters, which “proves little.” Today’s Tardieus, notably Elizabeth S. Goodstein, in Experience without Qualities: boredom and modernity, also references, besides such writers as Tardieu, of course, the same writers Tardieu mentions, from Senacour to Flaubert and Baudelaire. Goldstein is an infinitely cleverer methodologist than Tardieu, and defends herself by taking up the thesis that if we are to look for affective changes, or changes in the interpretation of effect, in a culture, we should look in the discourse – we should look in the rhetoric, our collective sensorium for the registration of mood.

I, too, am going down this route, and I’m not quite satisfied with the unanchored discourse defense of gathering evidence among the literati. Rather, I think there are good sociological reasons to say that discourse itself changes in modernity – that a greater space is taken up, materially, by the “third life” as a result of urbanization and literacy, which thrust into the everyday life of the people a more crowded and changing visual and symbolic vernacular – books, signs, songs, paintings, vaudeville, and of course the technologies for reproducing the ‘work of art”. In Dostoevsky’s The Devils, there is a joke about the fact that one day, public opinion ‘appeared’ in Russia and became subject to discussion in Stepan Verkhovensky’s little circle. Engels in the Position of the Working Class discusses public opinion, similarly, as a semi-institutionalized force in the advanced countries. Discourse is not some abstract universal, but a form subject to variation and tied down by a thousand Lilliputian strings to everyday life. And as it was commodified, industrialized, massified, there is no doubt that its producers – its clerks – were aware that there was a new power under their fingertips – if they only knew it. Nietzsche was certainly not crazy to think that, in spite of selling a couple thousand books, he was dynamite – the feeling that one has written something that will be read, that bears its audience with it into the future, is in one way a very clear response to what was happening to ‘discourse’.

There is, of course, another aspect to the expansion and entrenchment of the third life. As I have often pointed out – go back to the post on November 21, 2008, for instance – what demographers discovered in the sixties and seventies – the shift in the composition of the Stem-household in Northwest Europe, in which males no longer brought their wives home to the patriarchal manse – created a discontinuity in bio-social time that became “youth”. Look at the aliens in the artificial paradise, so many of them are marked by bachelorhood – Baudelaire, Flaubert, Nietzsche, Kierkegaard. Youth, which becomes, on a large scale, identified with the third life – with learning to read, with reading, with, among the members of the circulation class, reading as a identity shaping event – is both symbol and audience, here. The novel of apprenticeship, Moretti’s central novelistic form, reflected the golden age in which it was to be read.

Happiness, as we have pointed out for the last three years, is a total social fact. To a certain extent, boredom, l’ennui, Langeweile, is too. Tardieu, who we will look at later, found it at the root of modernity itself. I have a more complicated story than that.

The court rests.

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