The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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You've got the sickness, I've got the medicine

These two blockquotes, curated by Andrew Simone and Alan Jacobs respectively, arrived in my RSS reader within moments of each other. I liked Jacobs’s adjective, which applies to Simone’s selection, too: “Kierkegaardian.”

The first is from Jim Rossignol’s This Gaming Life, riffing on Lars Svendsen’s A Philosophy of Boredom:

Fernando Pessoa… identifies boredom as “the feeling that there’s nothing worth doing.” The bored are those people for whom no activity seems satisfactory. The problem is often not that there is a lack of things to do in general but, rather, that there is a lack of things that are worthwhile. Boredom can arise in all kinds of situations, but it usually makes itself known when we cannot do what we want to do or when we must do something we do not wish to do or something we cannot find a satisfactory reason for. “Boredom is not a question of idleness,” suggests Svendsen, “but of meaning.” Boredom does not, however, equate to the kind of meaninglessness found in depression. The bored are not necessarily unhappy with life; they are simply unfulfilled by circumstances, activities, and the things around them.

The second is from Walker Percy’s “Bourbon, Neat”:

Not only should connoisseurs of bourbon not read this article, neither should persons preoccupied with the perils of alcoholism, cirrhosis, esophageal hemorrhage, cancer of the palate, and so forth — all real dangers. I, too, deplore these afflictions. But, as between these evils and the aesthetic of bourbon drinking, that is, the use of bourbon to warm the heart, to reduce the anomie of the late twentieth century, to cut the cold phlegm of Wednesday afternoons, I choose the aesthetic. What, after all, is the use of not having cancer, cirrhosis, and such, if a man comes home from work every day at five-thirty to the exurbs of Montclair or Memphis and there is the grass growing and the little family looking not quite at him but just past the side of his head, and there’s Cronkite on the tube and the smell of pot roast in the living room, and inside the house and outside in the pretty exurb has settled the noxious particles and the sadness of the old dying Western world, and him thinking: “Jesus, is this it? Listening to Cronkite and the grass growing?”

Is this one reason why we’re giving up on TV as our primary mode of consuming cognitive surplus? Creating something, even if it’s just a Wikipedia article about Thundercats, seems more meaningful? Or (alternative hypothesis) are people ROFLing at LOLCats mostly drunk?


Betty Ann says…

Loved this post!

Tim Carmody says…

Re-reading this, I have no idea why I refer to Andrew and Alan by their last names. None.

That Walker Percy bit is wonderful, making me laugh even though I’ve never had any bourbon (I’m told this is easily remedied, but still). I read The Moviegoer by him in a class called “Malaise, Melancholy, and the Production of Art” (here), and it’s also about a certain kind of boredom, a kind of malaise; I was quoting part of it on Metafilter a couple weeks ago. It wasn’t my favorite book in the world, but it was one of my favorite classes (and coincidentally, my favorite book is The Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald, which I re-read for that class). Yay!

Tim Carmody says…

Man, Sebald is so good.

(Okay, I know what I’m re-reading next now)

This reminds me of my favorite Baudelaire poem, <Enivrez-vous.

Il faut être toujours ivre.
Tout est là:
c’est l’unique question.
Pour ne pas sentir
l’horrible fardeau du Temps
qui brise vos épaules
et vous penche vers la terre,
il faut vous enivrer sans trêve
Mais de quoi?
De vin, de poésie, ou de vertu, à votre guise.

“Is this one rea son why we’re giv ing up on TV as our pri mary mode of con­sum ing cog ni tive sur plus? ”

I think, yes.

I am sure you have read Shirkey, and I think people choose action over non-action in a heart beat when they can understand the rules.

One thing I would like to add is that seeing all this talk about sharing, and creating, and how we are leaving the inactive TV land to the active internet. People might be asking is it really easy to walk away from TV en masse. When I think about that I am reminded on my first concert going experience, when I was probably 14, or 15. I came upon a mosh pit, literally kids banging up against one another. I thought to my self, why the hell not, and joined in. At some point I fell. I had never met anyone in this pile, but 4 people reached to pick me up, and a couple others communicated to watch out. Quickly, I was set right, and joined the mosh.

What I have always found remarkable, was how quickly a community coalesced around an organizing principal. There was no rule book, but the rules were clearly being virally communicated.

In this manner, maybe that is why it’s easy to leave the TV. The rules of using our cognitive surplus aren’t explicit, but implicit, and easy to understand, and spreading virally.

1. Are people giving up TV in great numbers? When I’m out walking around the neighborhood with my kids at night all I see is flickering TVs in people’s houses. (Granted, this is pretty anecdotal.) I love everything Shirky says in that article you linked to, but I think he and I (and you?) are in the minority there.

2. The first quote reminded me of a book I read last winter called “Simplicity Parenting” — the most profound sentence in that whole book was the one where the author called boredom one of the greatest gifts we can give our children. Because for kids, being forced to create something to entertain themselves with is not only more fulfilling, it’s better for their brains than one-way entertainment such as TV.

I dunno. ‘nother good post I’ll be thinking about all day. Thanks Tim.

Tim Carmody says…

Haha — as it happens, I’ve got a post in draft right now that begins “I casually talked about people giving up TV, but that isn’t really true.”

It would be interesting to talk about all of the non-passive results of tv watching and the internet, actually (as the comment below points out, there are active fanfic communities for any number of shows). Not to mention things like Memory Alpha (a Star Trek fan-created encyclopedia), and many other documentation or criticism activities. I get the point that once we get comfortable with the idea of leisure time, we start making things, but I don’t think our self-amusement options break down neatly into passive vs. active at all.

Some of us are watching tv (or Netflix streaming, etc.) while editing Wikipedia (or knitting socks, in my case). We may even be drinking at the same time (if you get beer on the knitting, it washes out, unlike beer on the laptop).

Tim Carmody says…

This, I think, is one of the really powerful and maybe undervalued things about television — it recedes into the background. We can engage with it ambiently and intermittently while we do other things — talk, cook, knit, sleep, even consume other media.

There’s also the vast swath of young people who watch plenty of TV but then write fanfiction about their favorite shows — re-making passive entertainment into a creative, community-based activity with the help of the internet…

Matthew Battles says…

Lovely post—a sharp & perfect interposing of quotes!

I’m thinking that a lot of the stuff Shirky celebrates as generously shared creativity is actually a way of putting boredom to (someone else’s) use. What is Farmville but an ingenious way to commoditize boredom? Marcuse had a point when he called ennui “society’s most natural ally in maintaining law & order.” I find Shirky’s anecdotes in Cognitive Surplus a bit disappointing for this reason—in the West, it’s all LOLcats and marginal philanthropy; in societies where the politics are more urgent, the cognition that directs political action on the Internet can’t really be called “surplus,” because that flow needs all the stock it can get.

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