One of the most intriguing and provocative pieces on politics and culture this year was We Are All Very Anxious by the Institute of Precarious Consciousness (the essay gained a great deal of attention when it was republished on Plan C’s website*. It argues that the key problematic affect capitalism now faces is anxiety. In an earlier, Fordist era, it was boredom that was the “dominant reactive affect”. Repetitive labour on production lines engendered boredom, which was both the central form of subjugation under Fordism and the source of a new oppositional politics.
It could be argued that the failure of the traditional left is tied up with its inability adequately to engage with this politics of boredom, which wasn’t articulated via trade unions or political parties, but via the cultural politics of the Situationists and the punks. It was the neoliberals, not the organised left, who were best able to absorb and instrumentalise this critique of boredom. Neoliberals quickly moved to associate Fordist factories and the stability and security of social democracy with tedium, predictability and top-down bureaucracy. In place of this, the neoliberals offered excitement and unpredictability – but the downside of these newly fluid conditions is perpetual anxiety. Anxiety is the emotional state that correlates with the (economic, social, existential) precariousness which neoliberal governance has normalised.
The Institute of Precarious Consciousness were right to observe that too much anti-capitalist politics is locked into strategies and perspectives that were formed in an era when the struggle was against boredom. They are also correct both that capitalism has effectively solved the problem of boredom, and that it is crucial that the left finds ways of politicising anxiety. Neoliberal culture – which came to dominance as the anti-psychiatry movement was waning – has individualised depression and anxiety. Or rather, many cases of depression and anxiety are the effects of neoliberalism’s successful tendency to privatise stress, to convert political antagonisms into medical conditions.
At the same time, I believe that the argument about boredom has to be somewhat nuanced. It is certainly true that one could feel almost nostalgic for boredom 1.0. The dreary void of Sundays, the the night hours after television stopped broadcasting, even the endless dragging minutes waiting in queues or for public transport: for anyone who has a smartphone, this empty time has now been effectively eliminated. In the intensive, 24-7 environment of capitalist cyberspace, the brain is no longer allowed any time to idle; instead, it is inundated with a seamless flow of low-level stimulus.
Yet boredom was ambivalent; it wasn’t simply a negative feeling that one simply wanted rid of. For punk, the vacancy of boredom was a challenge, an injunction and an opportunity: if we are bored, then it is for us to produce something that will fill up the space. Yet, it is through this demand for participation that capitalism has neutralised boredom. Now, rather than imposing a pacifying spectacle on us, capitalist corporations go out of their way to invite us to interact, to generate our own content, to join the debate. There is now neither an excuse nor an opportunity to be bored.
But if the contemporary form of capitalism has extirpated boredom, it has not vanquished the boring. On the contrary – you could argue that the boring is ubiquitous. For the most part, we’ve given up any expectation of being surprised by culture – and that goes for ‘experimental’ culture as much as popular culture. Whether it is music that sounds like it could have come out 20, 30, 40 years ago, Hollywood blockbusters that recycle and reboot concepts, characters and tropes that were exhausted long ago, or the tired gestures of so much contemporary art, the boring is everywhere. It is just that no one is bored – because there is no longer any subject capable of being bored. For boredom is a state of absorption – a state of high absorption, in fact, which is why it is such an oppressive feeling. Boredom consumes our being; we feel we will never escape it. But it is just this capacity for absorption that is now under attack, as a result of the constant dispersal of attention, which is integral to capitalist cyberspace. If boredom is a form of empty absorption, then more positive forms of absorption effectively counter it. But it is these forms of absorption which capitalism cannot deliver. Instead of absorbing us, it distracts from the boring.
Perhaps the feeling most characteristic of our current moment is a mixture of boredom and compulsion. Even though we recognise that they are boring, we nevertheless feel compelled to do yet another Facebook quiz, to read yet another Buzzfeed list, to click on some celebrity gossip about someone we don’t even remotely care about. We endlessly move among the boring, but our nervous systems are so overstimulated that we never have the luxury of feeling bored. No one is bored, everything is boring.
Mark Fisher is the author of Capitalist Realism (2009) and Ghosts Of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (2014). His writing has appeared in many publications, including the Wire, Frieze, the Guardian and Film Quarterly. He is Programme Leader of the MA in Aural and Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London and a lecturer at the University of East London. He has also produced two acclaimed audio-essays in collaboration with Justin Barton: londonunderlondon (2005) and On Vanishing Land (2013).