Ira Wells, “To Be Unborable”: A Response to Mark Kingwell’s Wish I Were Here: Boredom and the Interface [2019 C4eJ 30] (Book Forum)

[☛ watch the video | read the rest of the book symposium]

Ira Wells*

Since feelings are at the centre of Mark Kingwell’s Wish I Were Here—most obviously, of course, the feeling of boredom, but also the feelings of restlessness, loneliness, frustration, despair, and dreaminess that emerge in the author’s “mood reports” that preface each chapter—I’d like to begin my response with a description of a certain feeling—That Uncertain Feeling, as rendered by Kingsley Amis in his 1955 comic novel of that name. Halfway through the novel our first-person narrator describes his futile efforts

in defending myself, presumably, against a certain feeling. Such defence was never easy, because of its habit of confusing itself with the feeling. How to define this feeling? Depression? Not a bad shot. Boredom? Oh yes. A slight tinge, too, eh, of uneasiness and inert, generalized lust? Yes indeed. The centre of it might be called boredom, but not the same sort as the boredom which was fond of attacking me in slack periods in the Library. That sort was bemused, trance-like, even vaguely pleasurable, like the drowsiness it so often merged into; this, to-night, was restless. It had already stopped me from starting to read, it would shortly drive me to the window again as if I expected someone to call (though I didn’t and no one would), it would, later on, make me want to go out to the pub, at the same time informing me that it wouldn’t be worth it, that I shouldn’t like it there and would at once start wanting to come home. (86-7)

This particular mood report comes from John Lewis, a librarian in a small Welsh town whose marital boredom has impelled him into an adulterous relationship with the wife of a local grandee. John is not exactly “waiting” for his lover in the sense implied by Roland Barthes in A Lover’s Discourse, where he describes “attente / waiting” as the “Tumult of anxiety provoked by waiting for the loved being, subject to trivial delays (rendezvous, letters, telephone calls, returns)” (37). Amis’s “uncertain feeling” is closer to the stalled, self-cancelling, self-consuming desires that Kingwell investigates in Wish I Were Here: Lewis doesn’t so much yearn for the presence of his lover as he does for the presence of his own self, a self with desires that might identified and acted upon. Kingwell’s book changes the way I read the above passage of Amis: I now notice how the narrator tries to escape his boredom through various interstitial thresholds or “interfaces,” such as they were in 1955: staring out the window, escaping into a book, escaping into drink. Alcohol was of course Amis’s habitual antidote for boredom: in his introduction to Amis’s book Everyday Drinking, Christopher Hitchens defends the practice precisely on the grounds that “it makes other people, and indeed life itself, a good deal less boring” (x). Of course, if the above scene were rendered by a contemporary chronicler of existential despair, a Sally Rooney or Kristen Roupenian, there would be no thought of reading or staring out the window or going to the pub: instead, the bored subject would pick up her phone and start scrolling.

Wish I Were Here is very much interested in the dyadic structure of boredom, the question of whether boring things exist in the world independently from our bored and boring selves, as well as the relationship between boredom and addiction. But Wish I Were Here is about a specific and contemporary species of boredom, one tied to the neoliberal attention economy that structures our shared understanding of work and leisure, and reproduced by what Kingwell calls the “Interface”: not one particular platform or medium but rather “the complex and often invisible set of relations that conjoins individuality, longing, technology, and structural interests” (6). Others have written about particular facets of that Interface—arguments for deleting your social media accounts right now, and so on[1] —and philosophers from Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Heidegger have explored the ways that boredom may be instructive of our shared existential condition or even serve as the wellspring of philosophy itself. Kingwell’s achievement here is not only to synthesize those discourses but to reveal the ways in which they are now inextricable and mutually constitutive: to consider the enervating effects of the Interface in the absence of deeper understandings of boredom, it now seems, is to profoundly miss the point. Amis’s narrator bemoaned the fact that our psychological defenses against boredom are easily confused with the feelings of boredom itself, and Kingwell’s book attempts, in a much more ambitious way, to unravel the symptoms from the underlying social affliction.

While Kingwell recognizes the timeless and universal condition of boredom—our internal experience of the airport lounge at Pearson is perhaps not so different from the Heidegger’s experience of “dead time” at a train station—his provocative claim is that our own unique boredom represents an urgent political crisis. As Kingwell puts it: “Boredom is now a natural extension of the unease and restlessness generated in the economic sphere, everywhere exacerbated by upgrade imperatives, frenzied claims concerning speed and satisfaction, and perhaps worst, a constant generation of happiness-destroying envy for a form of existence that always seems to be elsewhere, enjoyed by someone else” (42). The claim is not that our experience of tweaking out in the Interface is itself boring (although it may be addictive and happiness-killing), but that a specific and contingent economic apparatus has posited a mechanism engineered for the arousal of desire as a means of the satisfaction of desire. As Kingwell observes and our own experiences confirm, the feed never stops; there is no bottom of the scroll. From the perspective of the Interface, swiping is an end in itself.

I first read Wish I Were Here during the Toronto Raptors’ 2019 playoff run, and was struck by a television advertisement that played frequently though the NBA finals. Perhaps you’ve seen the ad featuring a bored couple on a couch, scrolling through their social media feeds, who decide to go on a spontaneous camping trip: the scene then cuts to the same couple sitting on camp chairs in a forest, but the couple are continuing to scroll listlessly through their feeds. The symmetry between the two scenes is obviously intended to be comic—why has the bored couple retreated into this bucolic sanctuary only to continue doing exactly what they were doing at home? But the explicit point of the advertisement is that this telecommunications company really does have the best cell-phone coverage in remote areas—and who wouldn’t want to continue to have access to Twitter and Instagram when stuck in boring nature? The advertisement encourages us to dispense with the sentimental chestnut that traditional leisure activities like camping can offer respite from the boredom endemic to late-capitalist consumer culture, while encouraging us to identify, in a fairly straightforward and unironic way, with the screen-addled addicts in the woods. Kingwell’s intervention allows us to recognize the ways in which “boredom” has become an essential part of the product that is being sold to us.

Wish I Were Here applies its philosophical pressure on precisely these questions: first, what has a culture abandoned when it uncritically accepts the Interface as the necessary and only antidote to “natural” boredom—boredom which can and should be avoided. And second, what have individuals within that culture lost by accepting these self-alienating propositions? Kingwell draws elegantly from Schopenhauer and Heidegger to clarify the stakes of our personal and cultural flight from boredom: boredom can be difficult, it can be a torture, but to eliminate boredom is to foreclose the possibilities of imagining the world as it might be—it is to foreclose the possibility of philosophy itself. Kingwell has no doubt considered the etymological accident that links “boring” experiences with our intellectual capacity to bore in, to drill into the substrate of consciousness and reflect on the meaning of our own condition.

Kingwell’s political critique of neoliberal boredom prompts me to wonder about the role of boredom within the rise of the professions and the “democratization” of higher education—specifically how the professions have weaponized boredom as a strategy for maintaining their own monopolies on particular forms of knowledge. “For several decades,” the lawyer Daniella Murynka observes, “legal communities around the world have been calling on their members to move towards plain-language, reader-oriented writing in all aspects of the law.”[2] The legal network Clarity, for instance, whose membership includes judges, lawyers, government officials, and scholars, now has representatives in 30 countries and hundreds volunteers who “advocate locally for the use of plain legal language in place of legalese.” While Clarity and similar organizations are certainly correct to insist that legal language is too technical to be understood by non-professionals, the non-professional’s experience of reading “legalese” (and other forms of professional jargon) for extended periods of time is not so much bafflement but rather a kind of unendurable boredom. This is the boredom that prevents us from actually reading the user agreements and privacy statements that supposedly signal our informed consent with surveillance capitalism. (After all, we all click the same box at the end—there is no authentic “choice” to be earned by spending an hour bored out of our minds.) But the broader point is that contemporary “professionalization,” in virtually every form, consists in cultivating tolerance for boredom: professional training involves acquiring particular forms of knowledge, but it simultaneously involves psychic conditioning, devising strategies for managing one’s relationship to boredom. “The key is not efficiency, or probity, or insight, or wisdom. It is not political cunning, interpersonal skills, raw IQ, loyalty, vision, or any of the qualities that the bureaucratic world calls virtues, and tests for,” David Foster Wallace writes in The Pale King. The key, he says, is “to be, in a word, unborable…If you are immune to boredom, there is literally nothing you cannot accomplish” (437-8).

“Boredom,” as Kingwell writes in the final chapter of Wish I Were Here, “is experienced as an affliction. We most often seek to flee or destroy it. Our efforts are doomed to fail. Worse, they entangle us in economies of desire and attention that may prove actively harmful to selfhood and happiness” (148). The question is not whether we’ll be bored, but what we’ll do with the boredom that afflicts us all. Wish I Were Here urges readers not only to re-frame our own subjective experiences of boredom, but to understand the ways in which current political and economic imperatives serve to reproduce boredom as a perpetual emergency from which to escape. The only part of this timely book that didn’t ring true, for this reader, was Kingwell’s final mood report. Heading into the concluding chapter, the writer certainly may have felt “gnostic, ironic, reflective, and dreamy,” but to read Kingwell’s final chapter is to experience a voice that feels passionate, outranged, sincere, energetic, and alive.

* Victoria College in the University of Toronto.

[1] Jaron Lanier, Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. New York: Henry Holt, 2018.

[2] “The Rise of Lucid Writing in Canadian Law,” The Walrus, Jan. 12, 2017.