Academic journal article New Formations

The Multitude Strikes Back? Boredom in an Age of Semiocapitalism

Academic journal article New Formations

The Multitude Strikes Back? Boredom in an Age of Semiocapitalism

Article excerpt

In recent years, I've had two occasions to visit the Republic of Ireland, both of which involved a fair amount of automotive travel. What could not be ignored about the first excursion, at the height of the 'Celtic Tiger' boom in 2007, was that much of the driving I witnessed bore only a casual relationship to posted speed limits or rudimentary considerations of safety. The second trip occurred in early 2010, during the extraordinary events of the Eurozone banking crisis, when the Irish economy effectively unravelled in a matter of months. Here, my experience was strikingly different: for one thing, there seemed to be conspicuously fewer cars on the road, and the drivers, almost to a person, transported themselves in a slow, almost mournful fashion, as if they barely had a reason to drive anywhere. Out of curiosity, I asked several of my hosts their opinion as to the cause of this abrupt change. Not only did they immediately know exactly what I was talking about, they all had the same answer: the sudden recession had effectively chilled everyone out, cast a depressive pall over their hitherto over-caffeinated and hyper-acquisitive lifestyle. There was no compelling reason to drive at breakneck speed to the next business appointment or shopping soirée, not only because there were simply fewer such activities, but also insofar as these had lost much of their previous semblance of urgency and significance.

Although anecdotal, my experience chimes neatly with one of the most compelling arguments put forward by the so-called 'autonomist' tradition of Marxist thought: namely, its insistence that virtually every aspect of modern human subjectivity, and more precisely the very affective and emotional registers of our lives, is shaped fundamentally by transformations in the productive process that are now unfolding in the technologically-advanced societies of the global North.1 As such, what we typically think of as dissociated moods, desires and psychological affectations are anything but random or inconsequential, not least because the formation of subjectivity itself has become the privileged terrain of class struggle. 'To a degree unprecedented in any other social system', as Mark Fisher notes, 'capitalism both feeds on and reproduces the moods of populations'.2 Of especial significance in this regard is the epochal shift from 'Fordist' to 'post-Fordist' capitalism, wherein the full gamut of workers' linguistic, cognitive and affective capacities, particularly as they are utilized collectively in digitalised communicative networks of global range, and which were once marginal to the exigencies of production, now take centre-stage. As Paolo Virno, one of the leading lights of the autonomist movement, suggests, there are numerous 'points of identity' between our ethical and emotional life on the one hand, and the productive process on the other, which in turn necessitates a materialist phenomenology.3

For a number of reasons, not least its implacably anti-capitalist stance, autonomism has had relatively little impact on the mainstream academy. As such, a major intent of this essay is to encourage a more thorough appreciation for, and wider application of autonomist ideas. I seek to pursue this objective by focussing on a specific issue vis-à-vis the more general task of comprehending certain key aspects of our 'late-capitalist' subjectivity: namely, that of 'boredom'. We can tentatively describe boredom as a state of emotional flatness and resigned indifference, something that grips us more or less involuntarily, without necessarily having an identifiable cause, shape or object. Although many would dismiss it as a trivial psychological condition, even a cursory glance at the history of ideas demonstrates that boredom has been subjected to considerable scrutiny by a wide range of writers and philosophers in the modern age, for whom boredom looms as an ethical and existential problem of great significance. More recently, the focus has moved away from such essentially philosophical speculations towards a more sustained investigation of the cultural, discursive and sociological underpinnings of boredom, which is evidence of an intense scholarly and even popular fascination with the topic. …

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