Benjamin and Boredom

ABSTRACT     This article examines conflicting notions of boredom in the work of Walter Benjamin. On the one hand, Benjamin identifies the boredom of the fashionable flâneurs, dandies and gamblers of the city as the quintessential experience of modernity. While this type of boredom is experienced as a form of individual angst, it is in fact deeply implicated in the contradictions of class society. On the other hand, there is a more productive kind of boredom which offers an opportunity for critical reflection in the crowded spaces of the city. Such boredom often centres around the ruins of the modern, showing up the transience and ephemerality of capitalism and revealing traces of a communal everyday life which ordinarily remains invisible. For Benjamin, though, boredom is only useful when it becomes the impetus for ‘great deeds,’ which happens when it is conjoined with its ‘dialectical antithesis,’ revolutionary action.  

One of the reasons that boredom remains so interesting as a subject of cultural criticism is that it cuts to the heart of the complex relationship between everyday life and modernity. Theorists of the everyday have often seen the sphere of day-to-day experience as, in Michael Trebitsch’s words, ‘both a parody of lost plenitude and the last remaining vestige of that plenitude’.[1] On the one hand, the everyday shows that modernity has penetrated into the minutiae of ordinary lives by imposing repetitive and mechanical rhythms on work and leisure; on the other hand, the everyday provides a space for residual experiences which escape co-optation into the homogenizing processes of modern life, precisely because of their supposed boredom and banality. Walter Benjamin’s perennial interest in boredom works productively around this tension. It is significant that he never precisely defines ‘boredom,’ and it is used in often contradictory senses in his work: it is both the ennui experienced by the fashionable dandies and boulevardiers of the city, and a more productive type of boredom which provides access to half-buried memories, missed historical opportunities and revolutionary possibilities.

Boredom and Modernity

The etymology of ‘boredom’ suggests that it is a historically constituted feeling which developed, or which at least was first known and spoken about, with the birth of modernity: the verb ‘to bore’ was first used in the middle of the eighteenth century, while the noun ‘boredom’ dates only from the mid-nineteenth century.[2] Benjamin, too, sees boredom not simply as crucially related to modernity but as perhaps the quintessential experience of modern life. In his most extended discussion of the topic, though, Benjamin’s focus is not on the boredom induced by the regimented linear time of modernity – the deadening repetitiveness of machine-led factory conditions, the rhythm and monotony of administrative procedures and timetables. In the section on boredom in the Convolutes, part of his mammoth Arcades Project, Benjamin focuses primarily on the world of the street rather than the factory, while also ignoring the sphere of domestic routine occupied primarily by women. When Benjamin marks the 1840s as a period in which ‘boredom began to be experienced in epidemic proportions,’ he is referring to a particular kind of boredom afflicting the frequenters of the new arcades, built in the fashionable quarters of Paris in the first half of the nineteenth century.[3]

He focuses especially on the figures of the flâneur, the dandy and the gambler, who are threatened with a new kind of boredom which is paradoxically induced by the accelerated pace of change in the modern city, and the inability to experience it except as a series of fluid and fleeting impressions. Faced with the restless activity and frightening anonymity of urban life, the modern metropolitan develops a blasé personality as a defence mechanism, ‘a screen against stimuli’.[4] For Benjamin, one of the most significant developments of modernity is the replacement of Erfahrung with Erlebnis: in other words, the capacity to assimilate, recollect and communicate experience to others is replaced by the sense of life as a series of disconnected impressions with no common associations. The man who is denied the potential for Erfahrung is a hostage to boredom, since he ‘feels as though he is dropped from the calendar. The big-city dweller knows this feeling on Sundays’.[5]

The sentiment to which Benjamin refers might be more specifically described as ‘ennui,’ a word which he sometimes uses interchangeably with ‘boredom’. Patricia Meyer Spacks argues that, while boredom is usually seen as a temporary and trivial state, ennui is often characterized as ‘a state of the soul defying remedy, an existential perception of life’s futility’ which ‘belongs to those with a sense of sublime potential, those who feel themselves superior to their environment’.[6] As she suggests, this distinction is both class and gender specific, since ennui is more likely to be experienced by those who can delegate the tedium of mundane tasks to their wives or servants, and have the leisure time to dwell on unfulfilled promise. This sense of boredom as a more generalized angst or Weltschmerz is encapsulated for Benjamin in Emile Tardieu’s now forgotten book, L’Ennui (1902), which he defines as ‘a sort of breviary for the twentieth century’ while also dismissing it as indicative of a ‘spiritually barren, petit-bourgeois discontent’.[7]

Benjamin thus seeks to acknowledge the importance of ennui as a culturally significant sentiment while dispensing with its glamour. By describing the repetitiveness of factory labour as the ‘economic infrastructure of the ideological boredom of the upper classes,’ he suggests that ennui can be connected with more mundane types of boredom through an awareness of class struggle.[8] While leisure provides the illusion of individualistic escape from the monotony of life and work under capitalism, boredom in fact threatens the leisure classes as much as it does the workers at their machines. The conspicuous idleness of the dandy or flâneur, taking his tortoise for a walk in the Arcades, only underlines the fact that he has nothing useful to do. Similarly, the games of chance undertaken by the gambler seem to have the capacity to alleviate boredom in an increasingly administered and bureaucratic society, in that they ‘possess the great charm of freeing people from having to wait’.[9] In reality, of course, this frantic search for instant gratification is still under the spell of the commodity, and the spinning of the roulette wheel, while charged with dramatic possibilities for the gambler, is actually as repetitive and predictable as the movements of the factory worker:

The jolt in the movement of a machine is like the so-called coup in a game of chance … Since each operation at the machine is just as screened off from the preceding operation as a coup in a game of chance is from the one that preceded it, the drudgery of the labourer is, in its own way, a counterpart to the drudgery of the gambler. The work of both is equally devoid of substance.[10]

The leisure classes, though, are unable or unwilling to understand that their idleness is the result of specific historical conditions. As Susan Buck-Morss, in her discussion of Benjamin, puts it:

The upper classes do not know, and do not wish to know, that the objective source of boredom is because history is languishing – and the moment of their own overthrow is delayed. They are addicted to boredom, as they are to remaining asleep. The average man – and the poet – blames boredom on the weather. But for the working class, industrial labor shatters the illusion that nature rather than society is to blame.[11]

Benjamin’s understanding of boredom thus anticipates the work of Situationist philosophers such as Guy Debord and Raoul Vaneigem, and theorists of the everyday such as Henri Lefebvre. These critics also focus centrally on the status of leisure time as an apparently autonomous sphere, and the way that this actively conceals its systemic relationship to capitalism as a whole. In the work of the Situationists, in particular, boredom is linked to what Vaneigem calls ‘survival sickness,’ a product of the shift from a society based on mass production to one based on consumption and spectacle. Capitalism has created a ‘universe of expanding technology and comfort [….] a world in which the guarantee that we shall not die of starvation, entails the risk of dying of boredom’.[12] Unlike Benjamin, though, Vaneigem’s emphasis on modern life as a series of soporific distractions concentrates not on the leisure classes in the nineteenth-century city but on the contemporary suburban masses. This translates into a certain condescension about the commuting office-workers who are ‘turning in upon themselves, shrivelling up, living trivial lives and dying for details,’ and ‘who must now rely on subways and suburban trains for their pitiful wanderings’.[13] But the value of the work of the Situationists is that it suggests that the everyday, while apparently divided into separate activities such as work and leisure, is made up of different elements working together to perpetuate a single system. While the increasing comfort of certain sections of society means that they tend to blame their ennui on mundane details, a truly historical understanding of boredom shows it to be the product of much broader and interrelated forces. 

Boredom and Erfahrung

As we have seen, Benjamin also writes about boredom as a kind of survival sickness of the comfortable classes, but this is only part of his argument. The complexity of this argument becomes particularly apparent in the discussion of rain in the Convolutes. As Buck-Morss notes above, one of Benjamin’s examples of the way in which boredom has narrowed the horizons of the upper classes is that the weather has become a frequent topic of conversation and a source of complaint:

The mere narcotizing effect which cosmic forces have on a shallow and brittle personality is attested in the relation of such a person to one of the highest and most genial manifestations of these forces: the weather. Nothing is more characteristic than that precisely this most intimate and mysterious affair, the working of the weather on humans, should have become the theme of their emptiest chatter. Nothing bores the ordinary man more than the cosmos.[14]

In one of the many gnomic statements of the Convolutes, Benjamin suggests that a characteristic feature of modernity is the ‘diminishing magical power of the rain’.[15] The appeal of the arcades is not only that they exclude the undesirable elements of the Parisian population but that they provide shelter in bad weather. Benjamin even unearths an obscure late-nineteenth-century text by Léo Claretie which imagines a Paris of the future entirely enclosed within a ‘crystal canopy’ to protect it from the rain.[16] Bored urbanites have lost the ability to take delight in the world around them, and nature has been wholly anthropomorphized, becoming either a simple hindrance to the artificial pleasures of modernity or a boring topic of phatic conversation. Significantly, Tardieu’s book blames the weather, among other things, for inducing boredom.[17] This emphasis on boredom as an external and temporary annoyance prevents its sufferers from thinking objectively about the deeper reasons for their disquiet. In the same section of the Convolutes, however, Benjamin’s discussion of a rainy day in the city hints at other possibilities for boredom: ‘Rain makes everything more hidden, makes days not only gray but uniform. From morning until evening, one can do the same thing – play chess, read, engage in argument – whereas sunshine, by contrast, shades the hours and discountenances the dreamer.’[18] This seems to be a quite different notion of boredom: the monotony of a rainy day imposes inactivity on the city dweller, temporarily quelling the intoxicating experience of her surroundings and providing a space for reflection.

In some of Benjamin’s other work, he further develops this more constructive notion of boredom in relation to different ways of absorbing experience in modern culture. In ‘The Storyteller,’ for example, he discusses the decline of oral tale-telling in modern culture, and its replacement by merely informational and reportorial forms, so that ‘no event any longer comes to us without already being shot through with explanation’. For Benjamin, the most valuable forms of experience are those that cannot be condensed into an easily transmissible message or gobbet of wisdom. The capacity to assimilate the kind of experience whose ‘chaste compactness […] precludes psychological analysis,’ though, requires a state of silence and contemplation which is becoming more and more difficult to achieve in modern, urban culture. Unlike the ennui of the flâneur or the gambler, there is another type of boredom which allows this state to be attained. For Benjamin,

boredom is the dream bird that hatches the egg of experience [Erfahrung]. A rustling in the leaves drives him away. His nesting places – the activities that are intimately associated with boredom – are already extinct in the cities and are declining in the country as well.[19]

The value of this kind of boredom seems to be that, in itself resisting interpretation or analysis, it offers an opportunity for critical reflection in the crowded and cacophonous spaces of the city. In this sense, Benjamin’s work partly connects with that of the contemporary critic, Adam Phillips, whose writings tend to focus on everyday feelings and experiences such as boredom, flirtation and worrying, which are normally overlooked by what he calls the ‘gothic melodrama’ of the Freudian or neo-Freudian model of emotional development.[20] Psychoanalysis, Phillips suggests, is always trying to turn the ostensibly boring into the searingly significant. Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), for example, suggests that apparently mundane everyday actions or blunders are psychically motivated, ways of avoiding pain or fulfilling repressed wishes which are located within the simmering cauldron of the unconscious. In emphasizing the hidden potency of our inner lives, Phillips argues, psychoanalysis ‘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’.[21] We should not be so keen to transform boredom into something interesting or important, or to interpret experiences whose origins or motives cannot be easily explained.

In another essay, Phillips uses Proust to make a suggestive link between boredom and the processes of memory:

The past that is inside us is not, for Proust, busily and furtively arranging for its own disclosure, is not seeking attention […] And we will probably only come across it when we are doing something else; we cannot organize a quest for the past, nor is the past pursuing us with its essential messages and unfinished projects.[22]

Along with Phillips, Benjamin uses Proust’s work to argue that boredom provides access to memories of the everyday which might remain inaccessible in a more conscious, organized search for the past. Since the shock nature of modern experience produces a kind of erasure of traditional memory processes, the only way of retaining experience is through the Proustian ‘mémoire involontaire’.[23] The home of this type of involuntary memory is the apparently trivial and random act, such as tasting a piece of madeleine soaked in tea, because in order to get a real sense of the lived past, we need to circumvent the intellect or the conscious will to remember. The significance of boredom is that it allows this circumvention to be achieved. Its blankness and elusiveness, its lack of attachment to a clear object of desire, temporarily suppresses the need to interpret and make sense of experience which, for Phillips, usually characterizes psychoanalysis.

Unlike Phillips, though, Benjamin goes on to argue that the value of boredom is that it allows us to move from individual psychology to collective history, a position which becomes clearer in his discussion of Surrealism. The Surrealists also work with the apparently boring, seeking to convert ‘everything that we have experienced on mournful railway journeys […] on Godforsaken Sunday afternoons in the proletarian quarters of the great cities, in the first glance through the rain-blurred window of a new apartment, into revolutionary experience, if not action’.[24] But the Surrealists’ interest in ‘profane illumination,’ in the insights gained through an examination of the unpromising and discarded material of the everyday, is compromised by their flirtation with occult and spiritualism, the ‘histrionic or fanatical stress on the mysterious side of the mysterious’.[25] Along with Freud, they suggest that the ordinary is just a veneer on which we can read the disruptive traces of the unconscious.

The problem with Surrealism, for Benjamin, is that its emphasis on the shock of the bizarre has no real basis in history or community. If boredom is ‘always the external surface of unconscious events […] a warm gray fabric lined on the inside with the most lustrous and colorful of silks,’ within which ‘we wrap ourselves when we dream,’ then it is not so much the home of individual dreams or memories as a kind of collective unconscious which potentially allows for the ‘dissolution of “mythology” into the space of history’.[26] This is what makes boredom a potentially productive form of dreaming, unlike the myths of commodity capitalism, which play on individual anxieties and desires and thus suppress the capacity for collective understanding or action. The ability of boredom to open up repressed collective memories is particularly valuable in a modernity which increasingly threatens to separate public and private space through its covered arcades and sumptuous bourgeois interiors.

In a short essay written for the Frankfurter Zeitung in 1924, Benjamin’s friend, Siegfried Kracauer, also recommends cultivating a particular kind of boredom as a response to the distractions of the commodity in the modern city, where we cannot find the quiet and solitude necessary ‘to be thoroughly bored with the world as it ultimately deserves’. Kracauer argues that we are often caught between ‘the vulgar boredom of daily drudgery,’ which makes us feel that our dissatisfaction will end as soon as a more pleasurable activity comes along, and a controlled leisure time, in which ‘although one wants to do nothing, things are done to one: the world makes sure that one does not find oneself’. By hanging around aimlessly in railway stations or staying at home alone on the sofa with the curtains drawn, though, we can reach a state of personal boredom which escapes the anonymity of a daily life ‘that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone’.[27]

While Kracauer’s argument mirrors Benjamin’s in its attempt to recuperate the more productive aspects of boredom, it arguably reproduces a class-based notion of ennui in its emphasis on a personal sense of alienation which is ‘shrouded in tristezza’. For Kracauer, boredom is not primarily a way of accessing overlooked collective experience, but is a way of recovering one’s self, ‘a kind of guarantee that one is, so to speak, still in control of one’s own existence’.[28] That not everyone has the resources for this kind of boredom is clear from Kracauer’s writings on the Angestellten, the low-status white-collar workers who escape the tedium of their jobs through the bright lights, drinking bars and movie houses of Berlin, a ‘flight of images’ which is also ‘a flight from revolution and from death’.[29] 

Boredom, Memory and the Everyday

Benjamin’s work on boredom is distinct from Kracauer’s, then, in that he stresses that boredom can reveal the traces of a communal everyday life which ordinarily remains invisible. Like Maurice Blanchot, Benjamin suggests that the experience of boredom helps to develop a critical awareness of those activities which are ordinarily too banal or repetitive to merit attention. As Blanchot writes, we are ‘at the same time engulfed within and deprived of the everyday,’ which remains resistant to knowledge precisely because it is so familiar. The value of boredom, or perhaps what is too easily dismissed as boredom in a society based on consumption and spectacle, is that it represents ‘the everyday become manifest: as a consequence of having lost its essential – constitutive – trait of being unperceived’.[30]

Benjamin’s interests thus often centre around the bric-à-brac and marginalia of culture, such as children’s books, old toys, stamps and postcards, because these objects do not use the smoothness and coherence of narrative to obscure the banal details of everyday life. In his discussion of collecting, Benjamin makes it clear that only certain types of collection manage to avoid this narrative patterning. One mode of collecting is suggested by the ‘bourgeois coziness’ of nineteenth-century domestic space, with its beautiful ornaments and curios.[31] For Benjamin, the lavishly furnished bourgeois interior, which, like the Arcades, began to flourish in France during the reign of Louis Philippe, represents a denial of the public sphere in its celebration of fashion, security and comfort, an attempt to bury history in chintz. A certain type of collector who has ‘made the glorification of things his concern’ is ‘the true inhabitant of the interior’.[32] This type of professional collector values an object not for its original function or historical value but for its relation to other elements in a series, so that it becomes enclosed within ‘a magic circle, where, as a last shudder runs through it (the shudder of being acquired), it turns to stone’.[33]

Another, more interesting mode of collecting, though, places objects together not because they are fashionable and collectible but because they are commonplace and ‘boring’. This mode is evident in the ragpicker’s chaotic assemblage of material, the ‘aborted and broken-down matter’ of the junk shops, and the second-hand bookstores ‘in which dusty tied-up bundles tell of all sorts of failure’.[34] Here the absence of cultural or economic capital makes it easier for the object to be invested with a kind of emotional memory. If it is the aim of fashion and novelty ‘to triumph over the dead,’[35] then the value of the boring is that it does not try to conceal death or ruination, the residual life of objects once they have ceased to be fashionable or interesting.

The boredom of the recently voguish reveals the dependence of capitalism on built-in obsolescence and the stimulation of faddish tastes. But it also points to the possibility of a kind of communal remembrance even within the alienated spaces of modernity. An object is fashionable when it is a positional good, new and exclusive enough not to have been widely disseminated or possessed. As Susan Stewart suggests, though, once they are dislocated from their original contexts as markers of individual style and sophistication, the kitsch objects of the recent past provide access not to the privatized world of the bourgeois interior but to a kind of collective memory, ‘institut[ing] a nostalgia of the populace which in fact makes the populace itself a kind of subject […] They are souvenirs of an era and not of a self’.[36] This is also what Benjamin seems to mean when he refers to broken-down matter as ‘the elevation of the commodity to the status of allegory’. The professional collector of fashionable ornaments is the opposite of the allegorist, because he or she is engaged in a ‘struggle against dispersion,’[37] trying to control and order the world by making sense of a small, enclosed part of it. The allegorist, by contrast, opens objects up to concealed and elusive meanings, exposing the fashionable as the soon-to-be-antiquated, a symptom of the collective disappointments experienced under capitalism.

Benjamin’s writings on the city also often focus on boredom as a key to opening up neglected stories and memories of everyday life. This kind of boredom pervades the less fashionable quarters of the city or the ruins of the formerly fashionable. In Marseilles, for example, Benjamin seeks out not the tourist centres but the city’s inner streets, the monotonous rows of houses of people who have lived there for years – those places that ‘give nothing away to the traveller’ and where ‘the whole world shrinks to a single Sunday afternoon’.[38] For Benjamin, the figure of the child embodies the experience of boredom in the city. He imagines childhood as a state which is wholly alien from adulthood, but not in order to romanticize it as an era of Edenic innocence. Instead, he sees it is a period of boredom and estrangement, of waiting for an unknown future and accumulating experiences which cannot be understood until adulthood. This is encapsulated in Benjamin’s description of his own childhood in ‘A Berlin Chronicle,’ as he recalls lagging a half step behind his irritated mother on city walks and being dragged reluctantly around department stores to buy a new suit. The young Benjamin is bored because he is immune to the phantasmagoric delights of the city and the lure of the commodity, and longs to escape ‘the false worship that humiliated our mother before idols bearing the names of [chic designers]’. However, his boredom and melancholy mean that he is open to other kinds of experience, having an ‘obscure awareness’ of ‘moments when [the city] bears witness to the dead’.[39] Unaffected by the deadening nature of habit, the young Benjamin has the time to find interest in what the adult discards as boring – he is the supreme collector in the allegorist mode, accumulating not an ordered series of artefacts but disordered found objects: ‘Each stone he finds, each flower picked and each butterfly caught is already the start of a collection […] His drawers must become arsenal and zoo, crime museum and crypt.’[40] The child’s boredom thus seems to hold out the possibility of a fruitful inactivity and inertia even within the city, ‘where people make the most ruthless demands on one another, where appointments and telephone calls, sessions and visits, flirtations and the struggle for existence grant the individual not a single moment of contemplation’.[41]

If childhood is a privileged form of seeing, then the boredom of the city can also be captured through another form of seeing, the purely mechanical ability of photography to foreground apparently insignificant details, the fleeting and otherwise overlooked elements of everyday life. Benjamin’s interest in the Parisian photography of Eugène Atget stems precisely from its emphasis on what is ‘unremarked, forgotten, cast adrift’.[42] His often unpeopled photographs, of deserted streets and reflective shopfronts with tailors’ dummies dressed in the later fashions, are like ‘scenes of crime,’ vessels of a memory of recent, bustling activity.[43] In Atget’s work, the stillness and boredom of uninhabited sites allows them paradoxically to function as evidence of the communal everyday, as ‘the dwelling place of the collective’.[44]

In this context, Benjamin would have surely have been interested in Martin Parr’s recent books of Boring Postcards.[45] Parr’s collections are made up of cards, produced mainly in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, of mundane sites in Britain, the USA and Germany. Here boredom migrates from the city to suburbia and its routeways in the form of photographs of new towns, motorway service areas, trailer villages, truck stops, motel rooms, toll bridges and interstates. If we read these pictures as amusing kitsch, a reading which may account for the commercial success of these books, then we are only repeating the ahistoricism of capitalism’s endless search for the new and improved. In fact, the boredom of these postcards exposes not only the recently fashionable but, by extension, the currently fashionable as well. If contemporary examples of the dismally humdrum, such as tower blocks and ringroads, were seen only recently as symbols of thrilling modernity, then today’s thrillingly modern is the subject of tomorrow’s boring postcard. This is particularly apparent in the case of the German postcards, where different visions of modernity clash in competing views from East and West. In the East, there are prefabricated apartment blocks and grim Baltic resorts with holiday camps that look like army barracks; in the West there are corporate-owned motorway service stations and the bland frontages of international chain hotels. Both now look equally obsolete, showing how quickly the self-consciously ultramodern can be absorbed into the blandness of the everyday.

But these postcards are also interesting because their boredom opens up a space for histories and memories. ‘Boring’ postcards subvert the conventional visual codes of the noteworthy and picturesque, revealing traces of everyday life which might normally go unnoticed. Embedded in barely noticed routine and insignificant detail, the memories contained in these photographs refuse the consolations of nostalgia or any other obvious meanings. The sadness and decay they communicate cannot be linked to a specific object or moment – a reminder that, in the area of mundane experience, as Benjamin puts it, ‘history decays into images, not into stories’.[46]

The Value of Boredom

For Benjamin, then, boredom is both part of the problem and potentially a way of solving that problem, a symptom of the complacency of the leisure classes and an antidote to that complacency. In a key passage in the Convolutes, he describes boredom as an ‘index to participation in the sleep of the collective’.[47] Boredom is found in shared aspects of the social world, particularly in the forms of accidental community that the city produces such as the commute, the queue and the street crowd. The problem is that ‘the dreaming collective knows no history’: it therefore experiences the common condition of boredom, which is produced by specific historical circumstances, as a form of ahistorical and personal alienation.[48] Spacks traces a shift from eighteenth-century notions of boredom, which saw it as an individual’s personal responsibility or moral failing, to more fatalistic and sociological nineteenth- and twentieth-century notions which situated the sources of boredom outside the self. As Spacks argues, this ‘reflects a state of affairs in which the individual is assigned ever more importance and ever less power’.[49] The danger of this attitude is that hell can become other people, and existential angst can cancel out the opportunity for collective transformation. Boredom’s residual traces of the collective, though, also have the potential to undermine the hallucinatory power of the commodity and awaken us from the ‘dream-filled sleep’ of capitalism.[50]

Benjamin is thus careful not to give way to pure fatalism, as is made clear in his critical interest in Nietzsche’s doctrine of eternal recurrence: the notion that, since existence consists of a finite number of variables occurring within infinite time, any event has already occurred in the past and will recur in the future. In the idea of eternal recurrence, Benjamin argues, ‘the historicism of the nineteenth century capsizes’.[51] Nietzsche usefully challenges the notion of history as a linear narrative of progress occurring within ‘homogeneous empty time,’ which conceals the reality of history as nothing more than a ‘triumphal procession in which the present rulers step over those who are lying prostrate’.[52] But Benjamin also accuses Nietzsche of fatalism in his creation of a ‘magic circle’ of eternal return in which nothing ever changes. For Benjamin, the nineteenth-century confidence in progress and the doctrine of eternal return are complementary: while the former assumes that progress can be achieved without the resolution of the contradictions of class society, the latter believes that these contradictions will never be resolved because the same mistakes will always be repeated. In both instances, the missing element is a dialectical understanding of history.[53]

Boredom is only useful when it makes us realize that the tedium of eternal sameness – capitalism’s endless search for novelty and innovation which is in fact merely an endless repetition because it always takes a similar form – can be broken. Boredom’s revolutionary promise lies in its capacity to dispense with the often mistaken convictions and assumptions which give meaning to our lives, and to require us to face the fundamental question: how should we actually spend our time? As Benjamin writes: ‘We are bored when we don’t know what we are waiting for. That we do know, or think we know, is nearly always the expression of our superficiality or inattention.’[54]

For Adam Phillips, too, boredom is about being shaken out of our certainty that we know what we are waiting for. As such, it can be a way of closing down possibilities, being ‘one of the ways we break our habit of believing in the future’.[55] Boredom, being focused on a kind of mental block in the present which prevents us from moving forward, ‘protects the individual, makes tolerable for him the impossible experience of waiting for something without knowing what it could be’. But being bored is also a way of opening up possibilities, by suggesting that this is not all there is, that there might be alternative states of existence when we are not bored. If boredom is ‘a defence against waiting,’ it is also ‘at one remove, an acknowledgement of the possibility of desire’. There is always a chance that it will develop into a critically reflexive form of waiting, that ‘the individual will become “brave enough to let his feelings develop” in the absence of an object – towards a possible object, as it were – and by doing so commit himself, or rather, entrust himself, to the inevitable elusiveness of that object’. Boredom makes us aware that we are not leading charmed lives, that the linear narratives of development which we construct around our personal histories are often flimsy and provisional.[56]

Within a psychotherapeutic context, Phillips is clearly using his ideas about boredom to challenge a straightforwardly developmental model of the human psyche, and to propose instead a kind of postmodern acceptance of play, pleasure and the present moment. If Phillips’s rejection of developmental narratives finds a parallel in Benjamin’s suspicion of a linear historicism, the latter’s argument is distinctive in its insistence that boredom needs to be transformed into something else. If all that we have is the boredom of the present moment, which will not be dissipated by capitalism’s search for novelty and distraction or the elusive dream of future progress, then we need to use this present moment to bring about change, to blast ‘the now […] out of the continuum of history’.[57] Boredom is thus only useful when it becomes the impetus for ‘great deeds,’ which happens when it is conjoined with its ‘dialectical antithesis,’ revolutionary action.[58] For Benjamin, the value of boredom is that it can form the beginnings of an awareness that the dull monotony of the present will only end with a resolution of the deeper contradictions of society, and the creation of an alternative society based on true creativity and pleasure.


[1] Michael Trebitsch, ‘Preface’, in Henri Lefebvre, Critique of Everyday Life, Volume 1: Introduction, trans. John Moore (London: Verso, 1991), xxiv.

[2] Patricia Meyer Spacks, Boredom: The Literary History of a State of Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995), 9.

[3] Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1999), 108.

[4] Walter Benjamin, ‘On Some Motifs in Baudelaire’, in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn (London: Fontana, 1973), 160.

[5] Ibid., 186-7.

[6] Spacks, Boredom, 27, 12.

[7] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 105, 102.

[8] Ibid., 106.

[9] Ibid., 119.

[10] Walter Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, trans. Harry Zohn (London: NLB, 1973), 134-5.

[11] Susan Buck-Morss, The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1989), 105.

[12] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London: Rebel Press/Left Bank Books, 1994), 159-160, 18.

[13] Ibid., 160, 39.

[14] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 101-2.

[15] Ibid., 102.

[16] Ibid., 109.

[17] Ibid., 105.

[18] Ibid., 104.

[19] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Storyteller’, in Illuminations, 89-91.

[20] Adam Phillips, On Kissing, Tickling and Being Bored (London: Faber and Faber, 1993), 71.

[21] Ibid., 71.

[22] Adam Phillips, On Flirtation (London: Faber and Faber, 1994), 15.

[23] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Image of Proust’, in Illuminations, 204.

[24] Walter Benjamin, ‘Surrealism: The Last Snapshot of the European Intelligentsia’, in One-Way Street and Other Writings, trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley Shorter (London: NLB, 1979), 229.

[25] Ibid., 237.

[26] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 105-6, 458.

[27] Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Boredom’, in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, trans. and ed. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1995), 331-2.

[28] Ibid., 334.

[29] Siegfried Kracauer, The Salaried Masses: Duty and Distraction in Weimar Germany, trans. Quintin Hoare (London: Verso, 1998), 94.

[30] Maurice Blanchot, ‘Everyday Speech’, Yale French Studies, 73 (1987), 13, 16.

[31] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 216.

[32] Benjamin, Charles Baudelaire, 168.

[33] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 205.

[34] Ibid., 203.

[35] Ibid., 112.

[36] Susan Stewart, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, the Collection (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1993), 167.

[37] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 207, 211.

[38] Walter Benjamin, ‘Marseilles’, in One-Way Street, 211-12.

[39] Walter Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, in One-Way Street, 294, 327, 316.

[40] Walter Benjamin, ‘One-Way Street’, in One-Way Street, 73-4.

[41] Benjamin, ‘A Berlin Chronicle’, 318.

[42] Walter Benjamin, ‘A Small History of Photography’, in One-Way Street, 250.

[43] Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations, 228.

[44] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 423.

[45] Martin Parr, Boring Postcards (London: Phaidon, 1999); Martin Parr, Boring Postcards USA (London: Phaidon, 2000); Martin Parr, Langweilige Postkarten (London: Phaidon, 2001).

[46] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 476.

[47] Ibid., 108.

[48] Ibid., 546.

[49] Spacks, Boredom, ix, 13.

[50] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 391.

[51] Ibid., 116.

[52] Walter Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, in Illuminations, 263, 258.

[53] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 119.

[54] Ibid., 105.

[55] Adam Phillips, Terrors and Experts (London: Faber and Faber, 1995), 54.

[56] Phillips, On Kissing, 80, 82.

[57] Benjamin, ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History’, 263.

[58] Benjamin, The Arcades Project, 105.

2 thoughts on “Benjamin and Boredom

  1. holy moly dude! what a fantastic and concise essay, was going down a rabbit hole of people’s “boring dreams” and got stuck on the concept of boredom this really made me interested in looking more into it, thank you!


  2. holy moly dude! what a fantastic and concise essay, was going down a rabbit hole of people’s “boring dreams” and got stuck on the concept of boredom this really made me interested in looking more into it, thank you!


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