Austin Gross

On “Boredom is Counter-Revolutionary”


Alternative libertaire, May 2008 magazine cover, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic, via Wikimedia Commons

La vie s’écoule, la vie s'enfuit
Les jours défile au pas de l'ennui
Parti des rouges, parti des gris
Nos révolutions sont trahies

Le travail tue, le travail paie
Le temps s’achète au supermarché
Le temps payé ne revient plus
La jeunesse meurt du temps perdu

Life slips away, life runs out
The days march to boredom’s drum
Party of reds, party of greys
Our revolutions are betrayed

Work kills, work pays
Time is purchased at the supermarket
Paid time never comes back
Youth dies of lost time

Boredom is counter-revolutionary. Do you know the slogan? Boredom is always counter-revolutionary. Graffiti from Mai ’68. Before that, a proposition of the journal Internationale Situationniste (1962; also 1959 according to Raoul Vaneigem’s Traité de Savoir-vivre). Every single part of this slogan is awkward today. Certainly, after a century of the infidelity of the avant-garde, leftists are trying to instill duller virtues in the young bourgeoisie, in hopes that its fervor might finally become reliable. Fall in love with hard work. For these, its Marxist partisans, boredom has been revindicated by a critique of bourgeois self-spectacularization (which is ironic, since this term was itself a Situationist contribution), that is, still from the point of view of the revolutionary and the counter-revolutionary. This first defense of boredom has joined forces with a second, which it obscures: that, even as a metaphor, revolution has no monopoly on the history of feminist, gay, genderqueer resistance and invention. New solidarities, new familiarities, new estrangements, new ethics, new asceticisms… Creativity is the calendar of such resistance, and the question of its source achieves new practical and philosophical interest. What’s remarkable is that, in this context, boredom has been affirmed as a source of invention. The microscopic, the private, the banal, and the apolitical have proven unexpectedly fertile.

*              *              *

A slogan which is, despite its awkwardness, so contemporary: it is not just an evaluation of boredom on the basis of revolutionary politics. It is already the introduction into politics of affect. The predicate, “counter-revolutionary,” no longer means what it did before. Such a détournement is justified by the fact that revolution, by ’68, was boring: “Party of reds, party of greys / our revolutions are betrayed.” The problem wasn’t that revolution wasn’t big or dramatic enough. Something else was demanded.

*              *              *

Boredom was privileged because of its special relationship to wage labor. Another beautiful slogan: “Live without dead time.” This critique mobilized a heritage even more surrealist than Freudian. At its heart was the idea that wage-labor killed in you the ability to create, the ability to make poetry. It featured a typically surrealist identification of such creativity with desire as such; unlike the Freudian critique of work which identifies work and art as sublimation, which, in both cases, represses and recuperates the drives. So sometimes the slogan was extended: “Live without dead time / enjoy without inhibition.” A critique of dead time meant simultaneously a determination of “living” as desiring, creating, and enjoying. That is, politics would be desire’s programme. This is not a completely new idea; indeed, already with Sade’s famous treatise framed by Philosophy in the Bedroom, liberty is determined as the self-annihilating submission to desire’s nightmarish imperatives: “Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains!” In some ways, everywhere in the ’60s politics was desire’s program; that’s why we credit Mai ’68 with a “cultural revolution,” as consolation prize. But what would be desire's program? Today it does not resemble that of the ’60s and ’70s. Lauren Berlant asks about the “celibacy epidemic”—the loss of interest, among otherwise radical young people, in sex and sexual liberation (“Starved”). Is it because a radical and stimulating liberal arts “theory” curriculum has, ironically, consolidated attachment to rational/critical subjectivity, without being able to instill a taste or toleration for loss of control? Because “there is no emotional habitus for being queer and building a world for it”? Perhaps because, in this respect, the easy work has already been accomplished, the taboos have been lifted wherever the infrastructure for such world-building could be easily borrowed from existing institutions—so now we have, outside of marriage, a very similar institution. The distinction between desire’s programme and what Berlant remembers or proposes as, simply, “sex,” remains a theoretical tangent to this discussion. But the concepts of sex and desire have in common a certain affinity to the surrealist kind of liberty, a certain fullness of life, a certain vitalism of the unconscious, and, relatedly, a certain danger. They also have in common their lack of privilege in contemporary political projects. “Enjoy without inhibition” isn't on anybody’s picket sign.

*              *              *

At the end his 1967 Treatise on Savoir-Vivre for the Use of Young Generations, Vaneigem explicates the 1962 thesis, “Boredom is always counter-revolutionary.” He contrasts boredom to “[love’s] intensity, its here-and-nowness, its physical exaltation, its emotional fluidity, its eager acceptance of precariousness, of change: everything indicates that love will prove the key factor in recreating the world.” Such praise of resilience in emotional fluidity, such injunction to “eagerly accept precariousness,” would raise eyebrows in 2009-2011. But the paradox of Occupation is how exposed, precarious, and anarchic it is. The occupiers are resilient, and do possess—in stark contrast to the young generation's “epidemic celibacy”—the courage of formlessness. This contradiction is, in part, native to a modal tension around austerity, that is, a dispute over its necessity. Austerity measures are justified as “necessary,” “unavoidable.” Unrealistic levels of comfort for certain industries, certain countries, naturally cannot be sustained. All leftists should oppose this rhetoric; it is usually bullshit. But like many lies, it draws its plausibility from something universally felt to be true, so that, although protestors deny the necessity of austerity, they also prepare themselves for it. It is this briskness, with which a generation is already adapting to austerity, that forebodes. But the paradox has a second sense. If austerity is opposed, this is no longer in the name of the old alternatives—the “good life” as promised in America up till now: 40-hour workweek, TV, family, car, weekend, vacation—that have become both impossible and unappealing. Something else is demanded. The young opposition to austerity is, therefore, “avant-garde.” So is the formlessness of occupant life, which combines precarity and care, testing a third way between the stale old “good life” and the cold new freedoms.

*              *              *

Sadness, like boredom, articulates onto time and work. Here we enter into the curious polyrhythms of unemployment that characterize the Occupation in its diversity. Great numbers of involuntarily unemployed present at the Occupations have never had a choice outside life-draining work and poverty. But many are on a different cycle; especially because the movement is predominantly urban, and, depending greatly on the city, many of the participants are young people who have not only never been habituated to 40-hour work weeks, but have in fact been offered a kind of bargain that responds in its way to the Situationist critique of the conditions of labor, granting to a select few a different arrangement: freedom, rawness, employment only according to initiative and invention. The life of the freelancer. Comfortable precarity, whether supported by lucky sectors like tech and tutoring or by family provision, has even been extremely productive and successful. At the same time it is very conducive to depression. Generally the two responses to this depression follow the paradigms of the talking cure or of ergotherapy, depending, inter alia, on how discursively disposed the kid is. In some respects the Occupy movement gathers force from the possibility of experimenting with a different kind of activity, neither work nor talk; something might be learned about depression; a kind of community that works might be discovered.

*              *              *

In contrast to a general strike, which is a pause in work, the Occupation is overwhelmingly a pause in the absence of work. What this pause means is different according to the particular type of unoccupation, or better, disoccupation, interrupted. But the pun from occupation to “keeping yourself occupied” is not at all misleading; nor the double-sense of “occupation” as activity in general and as burgeoning movement. If it is unclear what kind of activity is found in the Occupation, whether it will someday be remembered by the name “work” or by some other name or not by a name, it is clear that what is occupied is lost time, unused bodies; or, in the case of those who leave off their freelance industriousness to join, used bodies and used time are reoccupied, and perhaps something is given that was missing. But the nature of this lostness of time, the sense of this unhappiness, and the fantasies born in Occupy have not yet consolidated. They can still be provoked, and they cannot yet be inventoried.

Coda on a Kind of Sex

Above we noted what follows “Live without dead time”: “Enjoy without inhibition.” Vaneigem’s Treatise proposes a similar opposition: against ennui are love, desire, and pleasure, all mixed-together. The “model” of all three, in these pages, is the couple. The couple’s privilege follows from Vaneigem's erotic ideal of “utter transparency,” of “the orgasm [as] the total fusion of two separate beings.” The couple is “clearly the simplest model of the erotic… Two people live their experiences as transparently and as freely as possible. This radiant complicity has all the charm of incest. Their wealth of common experiences can only lead to a brother-and-sister relationship.”

Humor the following thought experiment. We are going to ask some questions to Vaneigem, but we are going to imagine that desire, or “sex,” is at the heart of our political moment, that it is live, that it is tall red graffiti in our cities. We will have to ask: To what extent does union remain desire’s programme? Must union remain union with someone?

We will recall other couplings, some of which Vaneigem (polemically) excludes—father-child, mother-child—and others still out of mind—pupil and teacher, master and slave—all opposed by fraternal parity for political reasons. Could we expect politics to propose new relations as well?

We will observe the absence here of roles and their reversal; whereas fiction and invention, theater and mise en scène, quotation and irony, serve eroticism everywhere! So, how far can union outpace transparency?

It is claimed, perhaps prematurely, that a new “erotic potentiality” has emerged at the Occupation. Not the absolute transparency of voice, but the murky, enjambed refrain of the pack of what Adam Weg calls “readers” at the people’s microphone. But where sex is concerned, the premature is the byproduct of anticipation.

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