Boredom in the Mind: Liberals and Reactionaries

“Hobsbawm was obsessed with boredom; his experience of it appears at least twenty-seven times in Evans’s biography. Were it not for Marx, Hobsbawm tells us, in a book of essays, he never would “have developed any special interest in history.” The subject was too dull. The British writer Adam Phillips describes boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins.” More than a wish for excitement, boredom contains a longing for narrative, for engagement that warrants attention to the world.

“A different biographer might have found in Hobsbawm’s boredom an opening onto an entire plane of the Communist experience. Marxism sought to render political desire as objective form, to make human intention a causal force in the world. Not since Machiavelli had political people thought so hard about the alignment of action and opportunity, about the disjuncture between public performance and private wish. Hobsbawm’s life and work are a case study in such questions.”

That is another great insight from Corey Robin, as written in his New Yorker piece, Eric Hobsbawm, the Communist Who Explained History. Boredom does seem key. It is one of the things that stood out to me in Robin’s writings about the reactionary mind. Reactionaries dislike, even fear, boredom more than almost anything else. The rhetoric of reactionaries is often to create the passionate excitement of melodrama, such as how Burke describes the treatment of the French queen.

The political left too often forgets the power of storytelling, especially simplistic and unoriginal storytelling, as seen with Trump. Instead, too many on the left fear the populist riling up of the masses. I remember Ralph Nader warning about this in a speech he gave in his 2000 presidential campaign. There is a leftist mistrust of passion and maybe there is good reason for this mistrust, considering it forms the heartbeat of the reactionary mind. Still, without passion, there is no power of persuasion and so all attempts are doomed from the start. The left will have to learn to fight on this turf or simply embrace full resignation and so fall into cynicism.

The thing is that those on the political left seem to have a higher tolerance for boredom, maybe related to their higher tolerance for cognitive dissonance shown in social science research. It requires greater uncertainty and stress to shut down the liberal-minded person (liberal in the psychological sense). I noticed this in myself. I’m not prone to the reactionary maybe because I don’t get bored easily and so don’t need something coming from outside to motivate me.

But it might go beyond mere tolerance in demonstrating an active preference for boredom. There is something about the liberal mind that is prone to complexity, nuance, and ambiguity that can only be grown amidst boredom — that is to say the open-mindedness of curiosity, doubt, and questioning are only possible when one acknowledges ignorance. It’s much more exciting to proclaim truth, instead, and proclaim it with an entertaining story. This is problematic in seeking political victories, if one is afraid of the melodrama of hard fights. Right-wingers might burn themselves out on endless existential crises, whereas left-wingers typically never build up enough fire to lightly toast a marshmallow.

The political left doesn’t require or thrive with a dualistic vision of opposition and battle, in the way does the political right. This is a central strength and weakness for the left. On the side of weakness, this is why it is so hard for the left to offer a genuinely threatening challenge to the right. Most often what happens is the reactionaries simply co-opt the left and the left too easily falls in line. See how many liberals will repeat reactionary rhetoric. Or notice how many on the political left turned full reactionary during times of conflict (e.g., world war era).

Boredom being the comfort zone of liberals is all the more reason they should resist settling down within its confines. There is no where to hide from the quite real drama that is going on in the world. The liberal elite can’t forever maintain their delusion of being a disinterested aristocracy. As Eric Hobsbawm understood and Karl Marx before him, only a leftist vision can offer a narrative that can compete against the reactionary mind

* * *

“Capitalism is boring. Devoting your life to it, as conservatives do, is horrifying if only because it’s so repetitious. It’s like sex.”
~William F. Buckley Jr., in an interview with Corey Robin

Violent Fantasy of Reactionary Intellectuals

The last thing in the world a reactionary wants is to be bored, as happened with the ending of the ideological battles of the Cold War. They need a worthy enemy or else to invent one. Otherwise, there is nothing to react to and so nothing to get excited about, followed by a total loss of meaning and purpose, resulting in dreaded apathy and ennui. This leads reactionaries to become provocative, in the hope of provoking an opponent into a fight. Another strategy is simply to portray the whole world as a battleground, such that everything is interpreted as a potential attack, working oneself or one’s followers into a froth.

The Fantasy of Creative Destruction

To the reactionary mind, sacrifice of self can be as acceptable as sacrifice of others. It’s the fight, the struggle itself that gives meaning — no matter the costs and consequences, no matter how it ends. The greatest sin is boredom, the inevitable result of victory. As Irving Kristol said to Corey Robin, the defeat of the Soviet Union “deprived us of an enemy.” It was the end of history for, without an enervating battle of moral imagination, it was the end of the world.

9 thoughts on “Boredom in the Mind: Liberals and Reactionaries

  1. First and provisional responses: an excellent and interesting post.

    I think “boredom” exists in two forms. artificial boredom is both a product and a tool of The Culture Industry (a term borrowed from the Frankfurt School “postmodern neo-Marxists;-)) which is a kind of postmodern (sic!) gin alley designed to agitate and control the masses. It is an opiate of the masses – addictive and coma inducing.

    This is akin to Huxley’s “soma” in Brave New World.

    This manufactured boredom is ginned up through the controlled media spewing propaganda it insists is “reviews” and “think pieces” about things like “event TV” (HBO, etc).

    Take a look if you can stomach it at the violent views expressed about popular television shows at it is a cross between a revival tent a bund rally and a cult.
    If similar numbers of people were as vexed about politics there would be a revolution tomorrow.

    The second type of boredom is I think a product of intelligence in that as an athlete needs exercise and physical challenge the intellectual requires mental stimulation but crucially the contemporary “advanced” cultures are controlled by “soma” media and corporate goon culture which actively seeks to eliminate passion.

    Nader’s comment is spot on – the left’s antagonism towards Art is both an ideological issue but also crucially a reflection of the use of “boredom” as a tool of oppression.

    Cognitive dissonance as a kind of passion – the embracing of contradiction – is key to Modernism – Baudelaire saying, a man must be allowed to contradict himself – or Walter Benjamin saying there is no record of civilization that is not also a record of barbarism speak to an ability to embrace dissonance – both individually and in society at large.
    A corollary to that is the passion of Art and that is a throw back to the duality of the transition from bicameralism – the Trial of Socrates (again) speaks to an antagonism to “passion” and a result of the reactionary attempt to enforce a non-passion based existence is boredom.

    An example (I think an especially apt example) is from On the Road:
    the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!”

    The issue is not just the content which speaks to the reaction against the reaction but that the book exists as a symptom – The Beat Reaction is evidence of a vast cultural illness – in fact Ginsberg in a famous piece refers to the then current moment as an illness infecting the would be seekers.

    Reaction to Reaction to Reaction and so on – a sign of the Wheel?

    Perhaps.

    • Immediately after writing my thoughts here, I realized that I barely scratched the surface and maybe didn’t write as coherently as desirable. I’m not sure exactly what point I was making, other than to point out that there is something significant about boredom that might allow for a distinction to be made.

      As sometimes is the case, your comment is more substantive than my post. That is fine. You bring up some good points. I’ll have to think about the types of boredom. I sense what some of that means, but I’m not sure I fully understand it. Boredom can refer to many things within society and the psyche.

      Another angle came to mind. Abstract thought has increased over time, such that it has become a social norm. This is a highly unusual situation, from a historical and evolutionary perspective. There is something strange about the extremes of abstract thought, specifically as seen in WEIRD culture (e.g., the liberal class). What seems central is some kind of disconnection and dissociation, and I suspect that has to do with a specific kind of boredom.

      What made me think of this is the fear the political right has long had about abstract thought, what they often refer to as ideologies or “-isms”. It seems foreign and threatening to them, symbolic of the revolutionary catastrophe that ended the traditional world they like to romanticize with revisionist history. Reactionaries are a part of this modern world as much as anyone else, but they represent a specific way of responding to it.

      I wonder also how this might relate to Spiral Dynamics. It would be hard to summarize here. One aspect is how in transitioning to a new value meme (vmeme), it comes to dominate by first attacking and then suppressing the vmeme that was dominant before it. The orange vmeme (science, capitalism, etc) emerged in the Axial Age and finally came to full force in the Enlightenment followed by the revolutionary eras. Almost all of history along with the entirety of modernity has been about the orange vmeme in contest for power over the human mind and society.

      Thinking about Spiral Dynamics might be helpful in that it makes certain things explicit. What preceded orange vmeme was blue vmeme — think of how the Roman Empire became the Catholic Church. There is a dualistic worldview with blue vmeme, the whole good vs evil and such. There is a passion to the faith-drenched mind that is lacking in the cold calculating modern mind. Science and capitalism drained the world of this passion, made the world into something dead to be studied and commodified. What is abstract is lifelesss.

      A central result of this is Cartesian anxiety. The modern mind didn’t quite escape the dualistic worldview, but it became suppressed and expressed in less than happy ways. An anxiety was internalized as the ego boundaries grew stronger and the egoic self became ever more disconnected. Something got lost in the process. And according to Spiral Dynamics, it requires a shift to a yet another vmeme to reintegrate what was lost. But initially there is an allure to simply fall into nostalgia and attempt a regression. So, many people long for the previous era, in this case seeing it as a source of passionate meaning.

      I don’t know. Just some thoughts.

      • Nothing wrong with “first drafts” of ideas:-)

        I’m not sure I agree with Spiral dynamics in that as I (miss)understand it it seems too linear but emphasis on not fully grasping it after a cursory excavation.

        “Boredom” no doubt exists on a spectrum – the two forms I mentione dpreviously and who knows how many others and then each of those probably becomes loose at the edges and flows into other forms of boredom (other form base don distinct causes) but also merges with other conditions which in turn repeat the spectrum.

        I think you nail the reactionary nature of the right wing response to change.

        The emergence of abstract thought and abstraction is fascinating.

        I’ve been dipping back into the Kant v Hume debate and several things emerge – first of course that Hume was paraphrasing the pre Socratics and not admitting it – but more to the point at hand his excavations around cause and effect suggest an attempt to wrestle with a kind of abstract thinking.

        He was arguing that “cause” only appears local (his example being billiard ball “A” strikes billiard ball “B”) because we amputate things (into things) in order to organize the world but crucially the “singular object” is a paradox – it is “singular” and part of a whole (Hume’s notorious Bundles).

        The Cartesian anxiety you speak of is in there – a spark and an answer – the conscious mind fears dissolution but perhaps intrinsically understands that the singular “self” is a kind of provisional suggestion or gesture rather than a fact.

        The Lobster King’s hysteria makes sense in this context – the greater the fear of fragmentation the greater the expression of reactionary ideas to assert order.

        Trump in this context as avatar of a vast cadre experiencing fear of dissolution with multiple flash points from the “Browning of America” to youth surges (AOC as flash point – young, female, Latina, etc) technology, “trans/LGQT” issues, immigration, ginned up fear about hoaxes like “the imposition of Sharia law” and so on.

        Of course such things have been around for a long long time.

        So, more random spit balling:-)

        • I have mixed views on Spiral Dynamics. The criticism of linearity is fair up to a point, but not entirely. That is why the ‘stages’ are referred to as value memes because it isn’t exactly a developmental model in the normal sense. It’s more descriptive than necessarily prescriptive. It largely was formed through synthesizing multiple psychological research and models, combined with some social models, but the emphasis is on the psychological (e.g., observed moral development in children). The early theory behind Spiral Dynamics is nuanced, although what one typically finds is the popularized forms.

          The possible spectrum of boredom. That is really all I was trying to get by bringing up Spiral Dynamics. It just seemed like a convenient way of thinking about it. I’ve sometimes used Jungian/Myers-Brigs typology in a similar manner. It doesn’t matter so much if one thinks it is absolutely true for it to be partly useful as a terminological framework. Sometimes we need a specific language to get at difficult issues. That is my way of saying that I try not to be overly attached to any given theory or model. I hold them as lightly as possible, while making use of them for specific ends.

          About Hume’s bundle theory, I’d mention Arthur Koestler’s holon theory. Ken Wilber borrowed the concept of the holon and extended it into that of holarchy, holons within holons as a sort of chain of being, all the way down (and all the way up). He then applied to this Spiral Dynamics in integrating it into his integral theory with multiple areas of not always and entirely linear development. I bring it up only to give an example of how Spiral Dynamics can be a more complex model. And about apparent local “cause” and the paradoxical “singular object”, there is another direction integral thought sometimes goes in. The integral community often discusses the theory of enactivism that came from Francisco Varela, Evan Thompson, and Eleanor Rosch. It relates to many other theories of embodied mind, extended mind, etc. I’d relate it as well to Tim Morton’s view on hyperobjects. There has been a lot of thinking along these lines going way back.

          That is part of the context for my talking of Cartesian anxiety, as I learned of that idea from integral websites and discussion boards. And I’d point out that the integral crowd is far from limited to the thought of Ken Wilber, although that is the entry point for many, myself included. Anyway, I like your way of thinking about it, as “a spark and an answer”.

          Yeah, the fear of fragmentation. I’ve been following that thread for a while. There was the emerging angst and anxiety that took many forms such as the diagnosis of neurasthenia (involving ennui, listlessness, etc; i.e., a soul-deadening and emasculating ‘boredom’), a mostly bourgeois condition that particularly afflicted American white male professionals, although in Europe it was seen as part of a broader dilemma not limited to mental workers. This was an expression of the mood that set the stage for mass hysteria and madness going into the world war era. That sense of crisis is what a recent post of mine was about:
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/04/15/the-crisis-of-identity/

          It informs much of my reading on the history of diets and health. My grandfather was infected with tuberculosis as a child and the doctor essentially recommended what was sometimes called the “West Cure”, either to literally or metaphorically go West (this was why Doc Holiday, formerly a dentist, went West after also getting tuberculosis). The treatment involved exercise and clean living to rebuild one’s manly vigor and it apparently worked, as my grandfather became a highly competitive athlete in high school. This was part of why In one of the posts I linked in this post, I quoted from Jackson Lear’s Rebirth of a Nation, which discusses neurasthenia and much else:
          https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2018/04/08/violent-fantasy-of-reactionary-intellectuals/

          “During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity. The specter of “overcivilization”—invoked by republican orators since Jefferson’s time—developed a sharper focus: the figure of the overcivilized businessman became a stock figure in social criticism. Flabby, ineffectual, anxious, possibly even neurasthenic, he embodied bourgeois vulnerability to the new challenges posed by restive, angry workers and waves of strange new immigrants. “Is American Stamina Declining?” asked William Blaikie, a former Harvard athlete and author of How to Get Strong and Stay So, in Harper’s in 1889. Among white-collar “brain-workers,” legions of worried observers were asking similar questions. Throughout the country, metropolitan life for the comfortable classes was becoming a staid indoor affair. […]

          “This was the sort of anxiety that set men (and more than a few women) to pedaling about on bicycles, lifting weights, and in general pursuing fitness with unprecedented zeal. But for most Americans, fitness was not merely a matter of physical strength. What was equally essential was character, which they defined as adherence to Protestant morality. Body and soul would be saved together.

          “This was not a gender-neutral project. Since the antebellum era, purveyors of conventional wisdom had assigned respectable women a certain fragility. So the emerging sense of physical vulnerability was especially novel and threatening to men. Manliness, always an issue in Victorian culture, had by the 1880s become an obsession. Older elements of moral character continued to define the manly man, but a new emphasis on physical vitality began to assert itself as well. Concern about the over-soft socialization of the young promoted the popularity of college athletics. During the 1880s, waves of muscular Christianity began to wash over campuses.”

          • Thanks for links and material.

            Koestler and Holons rang a distant bell but had forgotten most of.

            I think it’s interesting how people keep coming around to the same general or specific moddels for explaning how the mind works and percieves both itself and the external world.

            Not sure what i think about SD but will have to read more.

            The “health” push/anxiety is fascinating and still very much with us.

            T.Corgeson Boyle wrote a novel (made into a film) called The Raod to Wellvillve about the “wellness” craze and Kellog but your comments add a wider context.

            Of course health as a coordinate for “being” goes back to the Greeks (crikey, what doesn’t;-)) with assorted “cults” based on aesthetic criteria.

            19/20th century issues are fraught – Eugenics and TB urban v rural and so on.

            Today of course the reguritated hysteria about “cosmopolitan elites” vs “the people” etc. “During the 1880s, waves of musular Christianity…”

            I’m guessing that’s around when the first wave of fraternities began to grip the country. I’m sure many predate that but there’s probably a connection there between the return of a “Greek ideal” and health and class and urban v rural and all the rest.

            There’s an unfortunate impulse for people to operate in strict systems that don’t allow for flexibility so that one is either x or y or espouses this school or that when the truth is almost all systems breakdown at the borders and flow into another regardless of people admitting it or not.

          • I wouldn’t concern yourself with Spiral Dynamics. It’s just something that is part of my personal background in my own intellectual development. There is nothing you’ll necessarily gain by studying it. I doubt it would interest you. There are many people even within integral studies that are critical of it. It’s one model among millions of other models out there on the intellectual smorgasbord.

            I may have seen the film version of The Road to Wellville. Yeah… Kellog, the Seventh Day Adventists, the Unity Church, etc. Lots of sanitariums with all kinds of ideologies and practices. And the sudden rise of fitness gurus in the late 1800s to early 1900s.

            Health and diet going back to the Greeks and whatnot is a fun thing to trace. I’ve pointed out how much present dietary ideology links back to that of previous centuries, from the Middle Ages to the Enlightenment to the Industrial Age, and the original ideas often had their origins among the ancient Greeks (e.g., theory of humors) — you might recall this piece:
            https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2019/01/27/western-individuality-before-the-enlightenment-age/
            Other ancient societies were equally obsessed with such things during the Axial Age. Consider the Indian and Chinese traditions of medical texts, some of which may have influenced the well-traveled and widely-trading ancient Greeks. Certainly, the ideas of the Egyptians had a powerful affect on the Greek mind.

            The urban vs rural is a near endless divide. It’s been a point of conflict probably from the beginning of urbanization in the earliest city-states. And it definitely was creating unrest in the mass urbanization of the Axial Age Empires, such as with the Roman Empire and the mind-boggling diversity that was forced together in such close proximity in various Roman cities. That temporarily reversed course in Western Europe with the fall of Rome and the return of Roman subjects to a more rural lifestyle and a much healthier diet, as shown in skeletons scientists have studied.

            Such observations go back quite a ways. I was looking at one book from the early-to-mid 1800s that was about the study of skulls and teeth from graves in arguing about the decline in health in Britain when the Romans conquered and brought their diet to the local population, and the author correlated it to a greater sense of decline (the same basic argument that Weston A. Price would later make using similar kinds of evidence, although with more access to advanced forms of scientific testing such as nutritional analyses of food). It’s maybe unsurprising that Thomas Jefferson used the Romanized Normans invading Britain as a parallel to the Romanized English monarchy ruling over the colonies.

            All of this has been a thread running through my writings. Jackson Lears’ book has particularly featured often in my thought. It’s a great book because it paints a vivid picture of the world in the decades before and during WWI.

            https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/02/05/juvenile-delinquents-and-emasculated-males/

            Rebirth of a Nation
            by Jackson Lears
            p. 27

            “But for many other observers, too many American youths—especially among the upper classes—had succumbed to the vices of commerce: the worship of Mammon, the love of ease. Since the Founding Fathers’ generation, republican ideologues had fretted about the corrupting effects of commercial life. Norton and other moralists, North and South, had imagined war would provide an antidote. During the Gilded Age those fears acquired a peculiarly palpable intensity.”

            https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/02/11/reconstruction-era-race-relations/

            Rebirth of a Nation:
            by Jackson Lears
            pp. 92-93

            “…the transformation of race relations in the Gilded Age South. The earlier period was hardly an era of biracial harmony, characterized as it was by systematic white efforts to drive blacks from public life. Yet as the lumbermen’s frolic suggests, even after Reconstruction, as white Democrats returned to power, race relations remained fluid among the folk. By the 1890s, the fluidity was gone. Lynching was only the most brutal and sensational example of a concerted white effort to reassert absolute dominance by drawing the sharpest possible boundaries between the races. […]
            “To be sure, the consciousness of racial difference had existed for centuries, at least since the earliest European encounters with the dark-skinned inhabitants of the New World. But there was something profoundly different about the racism of the late nineteenth century—it was more self-conscious, more systematic, more determined to assert scientific legitimacy. The whole concept of race, never more than the flimsiest of cultural constructions, acquired unprecedented biological authority during the decades between Reconstruction and World War I.”

            https://benjamindavidsteele.wordpress.com/2017/05/01/the-right-wing-new-age/

            Rebirth of a Nation
            by Jackson Lears
            p. 237

            “Yet the vitalist impulse itself had larger than utilitarian implications. Its significance, like its origin, was religious. It lay at the heart of a broad revolt against positivism, a rejection of a barren universe governed by inexorable laws, where everything was measurable and nothing mysterious. The real problem for many vitalists (and certainly for James) was the specter of a life (and death) without meaning. It is possible to see all the talk about “life” as a way of whistling past the graveyard of traditional Christianity. But the vitalist ferment was also a genuine attempt to explore new meanings for human existence amid the wreckage of collapsing dualities: body and soul, matter and spirit, this world and the next.”

        • I watched the video yesterday while at work. It’s kind of strange in how common have been the influences on my own thoughts. Douglass Lain and I came from similar intellectual starting points. But I’m not sure to what degree we’ve ended up in similar places. He is more firmly entrenched in Marxism, whereas I’ve gone off more into social science and history. So it’s hard for me to judge to what extent I agree or disagree with Lain.

          • I haven’t watched the video and usually find Zero Books videos to be a bit too doctrinaire but they do make an effort to integrate cultural issues into political considerations and visa versa – i.e., they actually mention Art – films, novels, etc

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