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Politics and Boredom

January 13, 2011

In my previous post, I tried to describe the “News” as a spectacle, an escape from reality. A few insightful commentators in that post pointed to the general obsession with the spectacular as something that seems to be deeply entrenched in our humanity. I think this is important to note, yet I do think there are degrees of difference that are not trivial. In other words, there are different degrees of spectacularity.

In the case of the current spectacle we are facing: I think the objectification of the event—and the persons of that event—is particularly and violently present. But I cannot deny how well it captures my imagination; it seems to demand a response from all the (un)important characters from the “News.” Some of the most unimportant ones, to be sure, are those of us who blog: us the writers at Vox-Nova. Me.

As a contributor here, I have tried to wonder why I write about spectacles and, to a broader degree, why politics is so effective at creating spectacles of all kinds—politics, it seems, can take just about anything and turn it into “News,” 24 hours a day. After some thought about this, I have come to this: in our (anti)culture, politics is a palliative cure for boredom.

I suspect the reason people read these things—including the commentary here at VN—is because they are bored. Now, you may object saying that you choose to read or write here for principled reasons. You may in fact have a busy life, full of things to do, and come here for reasons that seem unrelated to boredom. But, I ask (myself first and foremost): What is boredom but loneliness, alienation, lovelessness, and the desire for something to occupy the time in a way that puts those stark realities at a distance? What is boredom but not quite feeling at home in the place you are?

At the basic, descriptive level: I log into Vox-Nova, e-mail, and other websites because I am not doing anything else, literally. This is obvious, but it points to the descriptive fact that when we are here, we are not elsewhere. Depending on where “elsewhere” might be, we can begin to see how—and perhaps why—this place is not a place at all: it is an anti-place, a site of virtual reality that exempts us from the real. In other words, time spent online in a virtual reality seems to be particularly oriented towards the spectacle. No wonder we see such a proliferation of politics online.

But I also suspect that what many people (myself included) righteously call political “activism,” “ministry,” “advocacy,” scholarship,” and more is really just a way to kill time, literally—a way to escape the boredom of dwelling with others in real communities, real streets, real rooms, real daydreams, real conversations about real things. Real prayer.

I am sure that is this not the total truth. I suspect there is more in political commentary and discourse than the objectifying effects of the spectacle. But, if I am honest with myself, I also know that boredom is not irrelevant. I spend too much time escaping boredom online. (Am I doing it now? Is this a cathartic way to keep doing it without feeling responsible for it?)

Avoiding a phone-call to a talk to a friend or my extended family or even a stranger, perhaps you? Avoiding a cup of coffee and a random conversation with genuine questions about random things—certainly not the “News”?—Is this what I, what we, are really doing here?

As a thought experiment, imagine for a moment that the entire spectacle of politics is simply an attempt to escape the boredom of modern life: a life that has more to “do” than ever, but less to be. What would this (re)vision of politics mean? What effect would it have on how we see and interpret our daily lives and the spectacle of politics that saturates it?

And, finally, how many of these imaginary thoughts might actually be true?

I fear to say it and I have little idea of what to do about it but, at least for the moment, I must admit that the more I am here, writing about the “News”—albeit in sly, “intellectual” ways—the less I am elsewhere: with my family, my students, myself, a stranger, with God. And that “elsewhere” is much more important. But, despite its obvious import, value, and beauty: it is boring, ordinary, and real.

So I seek the idol, the spectacle instead. And the real, iconic God feels absent.

Embrace the absence, God is there!

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6 Comments
  1. John Henry permalink
    January 13, 2011 12:23 pm

    After some thought about this, I have come to this: in our (anti)culture, politics is a palliative cure for boredom.

    This is an important insight, Sam. About our culture at large and particularly about the blogosphere.

  2. Ronald King permalink
    January 13, 2011 2:13 pm

    Sam, I liked what you wrote. You hinted above that boredom goes much deeper, to the preconscious feeling of alienation. This connects with the existential crises all human beings face–death, freedom, isolation and apparent lack of meaning. As someone said, I forget who, “When we know why we are here, we will know how to live our lives.”
    To discuss the spectacle of politics is to vicariously and perhaps neurotically attempt to resolve these existential crises rather than face the reality of our powerless and meaningless existence we are programmed to live.
    If we are truly living a meaningful life it seems it would be Christ-centered and giving up everything that creates distraction from the real task at hand. What is the real task? Uniting the entire faithful under one mission to provide healthcare for mothers and their children, the poor and the disenfranchised. However, I believe we do not do this because we mirror what our leaders do. They are fragmented in their missions and overfocused on particular aspects and have no global vision. This is a tendency related to dominance of the left brain.
    Being bored will continue as long as our passion for the adventure of the unknown risk of faith is never taken. We tend to stay in the safety of the known and our dopamine levels drop while our norepinephrine levels rise in the neurotic fear of a life not lived.

  3. January 13, 2011 9:52 pm

    So blogging is then necessarily tied up with the sin of sloth?

    I agree with this to a point, but I do think there is so good work to be done in both building each other up as Christians and providing a Catholic voice to be heard in our public square.

    • John Henry permalink
      January 14, 2011 12:23 am

      Zach, I agree in principle. But in practice I have a hard time describing most of what happens in the blogosphere (Catholic or not) as work towards “building each other up as Christians and providing a Catholic voice to be heard in our public square.”

  4. January 13, 2011 10:16 pm

    Yep, this post is true.

  5. January 16, 2011 10:09 am

    As someone who’s become addicted to online news, analysis, opinion, bloviation, I feel the force of this critique. I am reminded of Samuel Johnson’s contention that people don’t care about politics – they think they do, but they don’t; when leadership changes hands they go about their business unaffected. I have liked to think that perhaps this is less true in a democracy, but it’s certainly true to a degree. And I have always associated the claim with a private analogy about sports: we follow our party as a team, we get engaged in the same way. The difference of course is that we can “play” in our politics to whatever degree inclination and capacity allow — but back to your point, for introverts in particular, is reading/writing online a substitute for real engagement with real people?

    Perhaps, to a degree. On the other hand, you can say that about any scholarly engagement or any engagement based mainly on solo experience. If you’re in any endless dialogue with various dead and living theologians, is that any less a displacement? Is the distinction mainly between hobby and work? If I were to spend my spare time reading about the Civil War, and perhaps engaging with other ‘buffs,’ and maybe participating in reenactments, would I be less lost in spectacle, substitutes for reality?

    Regarding the prior post, and our processing news as “spectacle,” I feel the force of that too — primarily in displacement of the horror of the event with a kind of delight in the President’s performance in its wake, on the heels of a week of fearsome ideological combat — which, you could say, the President pierced in terms similar to your critique here, calling on each of us to respond personally to the event as we would to a personal loss. And that brings me to the other side of my reaction: I believe that in some ways I was imaginatively immersed in something like the event itself — trying to imagine being there, but chiefly in feeling the kind of terror that any parent might feel that one’s child might go off the rails like Jared Loughner — that any parent could be the Loughners. I imagine that many in the country did have some kind of similar imaginative engagement, whether with the parents of the child killed, or the Loughners, or whomever. Also, to circle back to the President’s speech, I think it did occasion some kind of communitas, and there’s a real value in that too.

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