Lars Svendsen. A Philosophy of Boredom

Lars Svendsen. A Philosophy of Boredom

Yasmine Musharbash

Lars Svendsen. A Philosophy of Boredom. Translated by John Irons. London: Reaktion Books. 2005. Pp. 192, references, index. US$24.95 (Pb.), ISBN 1-86189-217-9.

The more I read about boredom, the more confirmation I find for my suspicion that the topic seems a rather continental European obsession, often overlooked in Britain, and somewhat de-historicised in the U.S. Take this book for example: first published in Norwegian in 1999, it became a bestseller in its home country, was subsequently published into a number of languages (the German version aooeared in 2003), and now, six years later, we get the English version. In light of this, I want to examine three questions in this review: (1) How relevant is a book on boredom if the topic is so peripheral on our intellectual horizon? (2) What can a book on the philosophy of boredom contribute to anthropology? (3) What contribution can such a book make towards the way in which we think about what we do (as anthropologists)?

Let me tackle the last question first. This book discusses boredom firmly placed within specific historical and geographical bounds; all examples presented come from a Western tradition, broadly speaking. To name but a few of the philosophers analysed, the range spans from Aristotle and Seneca, via Pascal, to Kant, Hegel, Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and on to Benjamin, Heidegger, Habermas and Adorno. It relies extensively on examples from European and U.S. literature spanning a wide historical breadth, from Paul the Apostle to Holderlin and Mann, from Dostoevsky, Beckett, and Pessoa to American Psycho (Andy Warhol, Iggy Pop, and the movie Crash are also mentioned). In short, this book is firmly about Western boredom. In this, it is not alone. What makes it special is its focus on the philosophical understanding of boredom as a problem of modernity. The English word ‘boredom’ is not found before the 1760s (p.24) and this book contextualises its coming into existence, its subsequent rise and its contemporary ubiquity. This is where it becomes important to us as anthropologists. With extremely rare exceptions, anthropology does not seem to concern itself with boredom. Here is a book that presents boredom as a key mood and sentiment of modernity–surely, this calls for anthropological analyses on at least two levels: cross-cultural examinations of boredom(s) and inquiries into boredom in relation to different forms of modernity.

What can a book on the philosophy of boredom contribute to anthropology? This book presents both a philosophy and a history of the concept of boredom in the West–excellent reference points for the anthropologist interested in boredom. The book is divided into four parts. The first is concerned with The Problem of Boredom, looking at typologies of boredom, and the associations between boredom and a number of related issues: meaning, modernity, work, leisure, novelty, and death. The second part, Stories of Boredom, covers boredom as dealt with in literature (and film), from pre-modern forms such as acedia, via Boredom, Body, Technology and Transgression, to Andy Warhol’s renunciation of personal meaning. The third part, The Phenomenology of Boredom, is a careful outline and a convincing critique of Heidegger’s understanding of boredom. Lastly, part four, The Ethics of Boredom, examines boredom’s own moral. Throughout, the book considers contemporary boredom from a number of different angles but always as linked to modernity through developments set in train during Romanticism. One of the most relevant perspectives to anthropology is outlined in the last part. Here Svendsen ponders the significance of childhood and youth being fairly ‘recent’ social constructs and the effects on a society that emphasises youth over maturity. Arguing that the Western self is inextricably linked to ideals of Romanticism, he says ‘we are suspended somewhere between childhood and maturity, in an eternal adolescence–and adolescence is stuffed with boredom’ (p. 150). This is one explanation for the ubiquity of boredom in modern life I have not come across before, and one giving food for thought and inviting anthropological investigations of ideas of personhood and ideas of boredom(s).

How relevant is a book on boredom if the topic is so peripheral on our intellectual horizon? Apart from being an engaging read, this book touches upon many points which indeed are central to anthropological concerns: historical transformations of ideas of the self; the relationship between self and society; morals and modernity. That the focus is on a phenomenon we have largely ignored only serves to remind us that it is there for us to research. ‘Boredom is first and foremost something we live with, not so much something we think about systematically’ (p.8), Svendsen says, and to me this sounds like an invitation to start doing the latter. Maybe it is my German education that makes me get ‘all excited’ about boredom, but I can think of a large number of people and peoples who are bored at least some of the time, reason enough, I believe, to embark onto an anthropology of boredom. To anybody else interested, I highly recommend this book as a starting point.

Yasmine Musharbash

Anthropology and Sociology, University of Western Australia

COPYRIGHT 2006 Australian Anthropological Society

COPYRIGHT 2006 Gale Group