Make Up Blog: Boredom Remains the Same

I find this essay interesting concerning the effects and importance of boredom, and am with Priest for many sections, of the essential conceit that a society of ceaseless media must be based on a foundation of boredom; and of boredom’s ability to “bore a hole in us” (37). But in the middle Priest loses me. I don’t know that the experience of boredom is ontologically different now than it was in Cage’s time, and the neo-liberalism in particular has dramatically altered how a subject (a person) experiences boredom. It seems in Priest view, that neo-liberalism has severed boredom’s connection to the sublime, and now is only ever capable of delivering us to a thing called stuplime, a word coined by Ngai (36). The concept of the stuplime is interesting, and I wish I had read in full the Ngai’s essay discussing it, because I get the feeling that the stuplime is being misapplied here. Boredom is anti-capitalist, and has been since Cage’s time. Filling space with minimal cognitive or physical activity rebukes the factory floor model of the west handed down from the industrial revolution. Beyond the initial experiencing of the void of the moment, “the sense of senselessness” boredom returns us to the body, as sensation begins to enlarge, stupliminty, may be one more step towards the pay-off promised by Cage. Maybe Boredom hasn’t changed in an intrinsic way in sixty years, and Priest just isn’t waiting long enough.

It seems that Priest wants to problematize difference. Instead of understanding them as discrete modes, or entryways into boredom, Priest wants us to view boredom in a lineage, as having been mutated over the years by our cultural choices. The section “A less promising boredom” is the biggest offender for me. On page 76, as Priest takes the way artists use boredom as a symptom of depression, as a way to simulate boredom for an audience. In his examination of the work of Christine Ross, Priest begins to confuse depression for boredom. While boredom can be an entry point (or exit point) to depression, depression is not “reaching for nothing in particular” or “a sense of senselessness.” From the way, Priest discusses Ross’ work, she seems to understand the difference. On “how slow time in art suggests the way depression interrupts the hermeneutic impulse of perception and revalorizes the domain of sensory appreciation” (76). My problem is the way he concludes the boredom-depression connection, “In this view, boredom no longer forms a dialectical relationship with intensity that Higgins took its contrast with excitement to mean. Where boredom once served ‘as a means of bringing emphasis to what it interrupts,’ it now functions in this ‘culture of individualized independence’” (77). What I don’t quite understand is not that artist are finding new ways of accessing boredom, which would seem like the type of thing art should be doing, but why this other older type of boredom is no longer available. It’s not like the tyranny of individuality is new.

There were other parts of the essay where Priest seemed to be disagreeing with his own text. I was fascinated by the part on 82 where the piano player Barone describes playing the piece Piano Installations. Barone describes the actual playing of the piece to be so endlessly repetitive that it began to simulate being on “magic mushrooms” and that “nothing made sense” and that his own body was “utterly foreign” (85). And yet, Priest tells us, “The expressions of sublime transduction are clearly absent from his description” (85). Really? Playing this piece of music can induce a psychedelic hallucination, but isn’t sublime? How sublime does the sublime have to be for Priest?

So, I was surprised then, in the final section of the chapter, when Priest quickly takes a lot of what he said back. “Obviously, boredom today is not wholly distinct from the boredom of the 1960s and 1970s; the formal and conceptual similarities, as well as the discursive figures that are used by artists to describe and justify the boring things they do, are more than apparent” (96). I’m with Priest here, and many of the other assertions of this sections, including the necessity of the death of the avant-garde in order to preserve the avant-garde, but, considering that last statement above, I wonder if all of those middle sections were necessary.

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Escaping the Impasse: finding footing by forfeiting the foot? (Capture the Tag: Non-Normative and resistance).

In her blog post, Vanessa summarizes Halberstam’s vision of masochistic passivity, describing it as a form of refusal that resists the seemingly impossible situation of escaping colonial and gendered subjecthood. Halberstam’s description of the impossibility of escaping the “trap” of colonial subjecthood (you’re screwed if you do, you’re screwed if you don’t) seems to me to suggest something like Berlant’s “impasse”. In Jamaica Kincaid’s Autobiography of My Mother, Xuela, “escapes the hereditary inscription by not only severing the ties of mother and daughter—refusing both the relationship and the roles—she “refus[es] to be anything at all” (Halberstam 131). Vanessa also suggests that, the “refus[al] to identity as African American, or simply passing as a white women,” by Clara and Irene of Larsen’s Passing (a book I myself have not read), is a refusal to be that throws off the yoke of colonially assigned identity.

If we consider the not being, or failure to struggle of Xuela, Clara, and Irene as methods of resistance that have traction because they signify a willingness to turn away from the entire machine of patriarchy and colonialism, is this method of resistance available to the members of Berlant’s “Precariat” as well?

In her blog on the subject, Calextrose identifies in Time Out’s Jean-Michel a figure of a neoliberal subject who has managed to navigate the “impasse.”  She writes: “Jean-Michel’s method of optioning upward mobility is less than honorable but effective. As Berlant mentions, Time Out manages to show how ‘different kinds of people catch up to their new situation’ (192).” This suggests that Jean-Michel’s modest empire of imitation can be read as “footing” found in the depths of the impasse, a sign that he has caught up, has negotiated the abyss of neoliberal precarity. I am inclined to (perhaps this fits the theme) half-agree. I think there is a way of reading the counterfeiting business as the ultimate neoliberal adaptation. The counterfeit merchandise, unlike the “real deal,” is never fixed to the ebb and flow of brand popularity. Unlike the true Reebok, in the event of a devaluation of the brand, the counterfeit item can always morph into an imitation of the new “winners” of the fickle market share. All while avoiding any assumption of the precariousness of the legitimate market. In the era of the “recession grimace” the counterfeit commodity, by existing outside the system of brand signification, is by the very flexibility of its nature virtually recession-proof.

However, one of the primary arguments of Berlant’s essay was that the precariousness made ubiquitous by the neoliberal dismantling of both labor regulations and social welfare programs is not new, but rather is revealed to be the reality that has always existed beneath the fantasy of infinite growth and upward mobility. For the working class, the minority, the mentally ill, the near entirety of the global south, and the criminal, precariousness has always been evident. Furthermore, as Jean-Michel belongs to that last class, the threat of a sudden, rupturing loss of stability and income is just one police officer away. Perhaps the counterfeit item is the perfect product for the neoliberal age, but the neoliberal state knows this well, and in an effort to protect their interests has often made draconian legal consequences for those who would forge. In abstract—as a hydra-headed industry that corporations must simply accept as one of the costs of doing successful business—the forger may escape the threat of capricious market forces, but the actual person who forges always runs the risk that the legal forces shaped by market forces will sniff and snuff her out.

So, if a vision of impasse-navigation is not complete in Jean-Michel, can we find sketch a vision of successful impasse-navigation by asking what Vincent does wrong?

For Calexrose, Vincent’s return to the precarious dependency of the job-market is the ultimate signal that Vincent has failed to negotiate the impasse that is afforded him outside the realm of employment. In a certain way, her reading of this turns accepted notions of precariousness on their head. In the prior configuration employment is what shields the employee from the precariousness of joblessness. In Calexrose’s reading there is something about the dependence of employment that precludes the ability to “find footing” within the neoliberal void. If this is true, what is it about unemployment that allows the member of the precariat to access “the learning curve” of the impasse, or find new footing in a way that employment prevents (Berlant 202)? Is it a question of sovereignty? By depending on a job is one not free or unattached enough to find a new way of life? This would suggest that unlike the previous model (of employment as a shield against precariousness), in the neoliberal void employment both defers the impasse and makes it impossible to truly experience the loss of bearings. This deferral/inaccessibility would prevent the employee from truly learning to adjust to the void of the impasse. If this is correct, the impasse appears fundamentally more akin to a psychoanalytic problem of maturation, one in which the employee is unable to become wholly adult or achieve neoliberal sovereignty because of their unwillingness or inability to let go of the corporate apron strings. To find footing in the void, one would have to let go of the ladder.

While I do have the feeling that if precariousness is as wide-spread a phenomenon as Berlant argues that it is, the precariousness of employment comes to be functionally equivalent to unemployment because of the way the non-permanence of the position of either creates a similar orientation towards the future. The grimace seems, to me, as much a mask of tensing for tomorrow as it is a reaction to the events of today.