Boredom and Art examines the use of boredom as a strategy in modern and contemporary art to resist or frustrate the effects of consumerism and capitalism. This book traces the emergence of what Haladyn terms the will to boredom in which artists, writers and philosophers actively attempt to use the lack of interest inherent in the state of being 'bored' to challenge people. Instead of accepting the prescribed meanings of life given to us by consumer or mass culture, boredom represents the possibility of creating meaning: ‘a threshold of great deeds’ in Walter Benjamin’s memorable wording. It is this conception of boredom as a positive experience of modern subjectivity that is the main critical position of Haladyn's study, in which he proposes that boredom is used by artists as a form of aesthetic resistance that, at its most positive, is the will to boredom.
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About the Author
Julian Jason Haladyn is an instructor at OCAD University. He is the author of Marcel Duchamp: Étant donnés and co-authored, with Miriam Jordan-Haladyn, of The Films and Videos of Jamelie Hassan. In addition, he has published numerous journal articles and book chapters on art and philosophy.
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Boredom and Art
Passions of the Will to Boredom
By Julian Jason Haladyn
John Hunt Publishing Ltd.Copyright © 2014 Julian Jason Haladyn
All rights reserved.
An Eye for Boredom
For although everyone is commonly convinced that the ideas that we have in our thoughts are completely like the objects from which they proceed, I know of no compelling argument for this. Quite the contrary, I know of many observations which cast doubt upon it.
— René Descartes (The World and Other Writings, 3)
Within modernity the question of subjective will manifests itself most powerfully as a visual impulse, both produced by and a product of the representation of the world we experience. The primacy of vision within modern culture is undeniable – popular culture from the 19 century onward representing the most obvious and pervasive example, based as it is on the excessive employment of visuality as a means of attracting and holding peoples' attention, of keeping them perpetually interested. Our lives are mediated through an endless array of visual stimuli, still and moving, obvious and subtle; from advertisements to movies, television to the internet, our consumer-based culture surrounds us with images that define the bulk of our experiences of the world. While a number of 20th - and 21st- century thinkers have been critical of this ocularcentrist view, the fact remains that Descartes' belief that sight is the most comprehensive and noblest of the human senses remains true today. My examination of boredom therefore begins at the source of this visual impulse: the functioning of the eye as a form of mediation that stands between self and world.
The eye's mediating presence is the reason for Schopenhauer's claim that we do "not know a sun and an earth, but only an eye that sees a sun, a hand that feels an earth" (3). I may want to believe that the sun I see is completely like the sun that exists in reality but, to borrow Descartes' words, I know of no compelling argument for this. This modern understanding of vision developed out of the Johannes Kepler's ground-breaking 1604 Optics, in which he proposes a conception of the eye as separate from what it sees, as a willful interpreter of reality – an important model that I will draw upon for articulating the visual framework for will of modern boredom. However, before considering Kepler's accomplishment it is necessary to briefly examine the prevailing optical theories he built upon, which pertain not only to the functioning of the eye but also, and more broadly, to the image of the world made possible through this early model of our vision.
* * *
Since Antiquity all of the major theories of vision, even when contradicting each other in terms of the nature of how we see, generally accepted that the human eye is an unmediated experience of the world. Whether vision is accomplished because the object in some fashion reaches out to the eye (intermission) or the eye is understood as reaching out and grasping the object (extramission), the act of perception is in both cases based on some form of direct contact that links the person looking with what they see. Even when light became the accepted means of experiencing vision, the light rays that traveled from object to eye again are understood as facilitating a one-to-one relationship experienced without mediation, since what we see and what is seen are assumed to be the same.
The most important articulation of this understanding of vision can be found in the monumental Book of Optics by the Arabic scientist Abu 'Ali al-Hasan ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen or Alhacen in its Latinized form). This book represented a significant advancement beyond all pre-existing optical theories, becoming the basis for subsequent approaches to optics up to and including Kepler. One particular feature that Ibn al-Haytham develops is, as David Lindberg articulates it, the "one-to-one correspondence between points in the visual field and points in the eye," the resulting visual pyramid consisting of rays that travel in an uninterrupted line "toward the centre of the eye and hence reach the glacial humour without refraction," except inside the eye itself where the outermost rays "are refracted in such a way as to avoid the achievement of an apex" that would result in an inverted image (73; 85).
This theory of vision was instrumental in the development of linear perspective in the Renaissance. In his celebrated 1435 On Painting Leon Battista Alberti used the visual pyramid as the basis for envisioning the world as 'realistic' – specifically within painting, although the larger conceptual ramifications of this mode of seeing are still being felt today. "Let us imagine the rays," Alberti writes, "like extended very fine threads gathered tightly in a bunch at one end, going back together inside the eye where lies the sense of sight" (40). There is no question in Alberti's text that the rays connect us to what we see, a relationship that is, as the metaphor of the very fine threads indicates, seen in material (object-based) terms. The canonization of this visual pyramid in the methodology of perspective solidified a direct and unmediated relationship of self to world in a readily self-evident manner, consistently employed within Renaissance paintings, by positioning the subject as the primary point of determining the reality of vision. In a vision of the world dominated by perspective the human becomes the measure of all things seen.
The eye's perception of objects in the visual pyramid that converges inside that eye is understood as occurring naturally (without help or intervention) in much the same way as the formation of an image in a camera obscura, which, especially following Leonardo da Vinci, became a well used metaphor for the human eye. This idea of the eye as a camera obscura was popularized in Giambattista della Porta's 1558 (with a second and more complete edition in 1589) Natural Magic, a text of considerable influence on Kepler and other theorists at the beginning of the 17 century. In this volume della Porta makes the important suggestion of adding a lens to the camera obscura in place of a simple pinhole to enhance the quality of the image projected into the dark chamber, a modification that would have lasting consequences to especially the development of the photographic camera.
Athanasius Kircher's 1646 The Great Art of Light and Shadow includes the now famous illustration of a room-size camera obscura that is an ideal visualization of the unmediated eye: inside the optical device the world is delivered to the (miniature) waiting spectator. There is no question that what is seen inside the camera obscura is a reflection of the world outside the device – any deviations, such as the reversal and inversion of the image projected into the dark room, are considered a problem of the camera and not a real difference between the world and its image. And similar to the presence of this metaphorical interiorized perceiving subject, the eye was understood as internally experiencing an image of the correct orientation so that again there is a fundamental one-to-one relation of the eye or self and the visual field of the world. The eye so conceived became the nexus for knowing the world through resemblances. It is the perceived similarities connecting self to world that form the basis of a meaningful existence; or, stated differently, meaning is the experience of seeing yourself reflected in the world around you. Like the world seen in a camera obscura, this conception of vision is predicated on what Alexandre Koyré describes as "the world as a finite, closed, and hierarchically ordered whole (a whole in which the hierarchy of value determined the hierarchy and structure of being, rising from dark, heavy and imperfect earth to the higher and higher perfection of the stars and heavenly spheres)" (2). Such a hierarchical model determined a necessary equivalence between the objects of our vision and how we see them, both limitations representing the point at which similitude rather than providing knowledge simply reflects or folds back our own visions or ideas of the world – compelling us to see what we think we see.
The belief in the eye as a (relatively) passive receiver of an already complete world had been challenged for a number of years before Kepler, although theorists, particularly throughout the Renaissance, went to great lengths to avoid abandoning the eye's direct connection with the world. Kepler's eventual acknowledgment of the mediated nature of vision was the result of a number of factors, most notably the advances in three fields of inquiry:  optical theory that made it increasingly difficult to maintain a one-to-one correspondence between the eye and the visual field;  the development of linear perspective as a visualization of the mechanisms of seeing, by which questions of vision became very significantly connected to optical (or mathematical) definitions of space;  an increased knowledge of the anatomy of the eye, which, beyond a reasonable doubt, made it clear that there was no ocular mechanism to compensate for the merging of light rays and thus no way to prevent the inverting of the perceived images. These interconnected factors again made it impossible to believe in an unmediated vision of the world, which in turn led Kepler to recognize the sense of vision as an undeniably active process of image-making that is, to use his own phrase, a creature of intention.
There are two major points that Kepler makes in his Optics that I want to call attention to here. First, he describes the image produced in the eye as having "an existence separate from the presence of the object seen," which he terms the picture (181). According to Lindberg, "this is the first genuine instance in the history of visual theory of a real optical image within the eye – a picture, having an existence independent of the observer, formed by the focusing of all available rays in a surface" (202). It is important to stress that this retinal picture is the representation created within the eye of what is seen through the eye, the world in a sense being translated from an outer to an inner experience through the medium of our vision – a logic that can easily be applied to the other senses. This separation between eye and visual field is heightened by the second major point, which is Kepler's recognition that this picture is inverted. Optical theorists following Ibn al-Haytham strategically argued around this point because of the assumed absurdity of the claim: if our eyes picture the world upside down and reversed, why do we see it properly oriented? Kepler's claim that "no absurdity is committed by the inversion of the picture" is supported by the increased anatomical knowledge of the eye, which, understood in relation to optical theory and linear perspective, demonstrates the impossibility of avoiding the converging of light rays before they reach the back of the eye (221). This being the case, the image of the world produced in the eye has to be "corrected" or interpreted by the brain in order for us to see properly, for the retinal picture we experience to reflect the world. To accept this optical reversal and correction, as Kepler does, is to acknowledge that our vision is mediated and therefore open to interpretation, the result of which is an almost total questioning of human perceptions of the world – something Kepler himself attempted to reconcile most notably through his imposed distinction "between the optical and the nonoptical aspects of vision," the dividing point being the retina (Lindberg, 203). This division of optics (the science of light) from what becomes visuality (the picturing of the world in the mind) is a crucial distinction that defines modern subjectivity as an internal process by which the world is an interpretable representation, no longer delivered as an in-itself; it must instead be created.
* * *
It is this Keplerian eye that pictures the world as a reality separate and differentiated from our experience of it, vision being a will that mediates this gap. For this reason, I do not believe it is a coincidence that Kepler's optical research stems primarily from problems in astronomy, his Optics in many ways beginning with the question of why the moon looks visibly smaller than usual during a solar eclipse. When observing astro-nomical phenomena, Svetlana Alpers tells us, Kepler discovered an enigma:
the lunar diameter as formed by the rays in the pinhole camera appeared smaller during a solar eclipse than at other times, although it was rightly assumed that the moon had not changed size nor moved father away from the earth. It was this observation, made by Tycho Brahe in Prague when Kepler was serving as his assistant in 1600, that Kepler was able to explain. His radical answer was to turn his attention away from the sky and the nature of light rays to the instrument of observation itself: to turn from astronomy to optics. (33)
Assuming the moon is in reality the same size in both cases, Kepler turned his attention to the nature of light and its illusory effects on the human eye – an area of study that directly relates to the major developments in lens-based technologies at the time, particularly in Northern Europe.
Kepler's excitement over the development of the telescope, first recorded in his 1610 Conversation with the Starry Messenger where he directly responds to the telescopic discoveries published by Galileo the same year, is an obvious extension of his optical interests. Galileo had put an end to a longstanding debate concerning the dark spots on the moon, which had been interpreted in various ways throughout the centuries, most of which attempted to preserve the Aristotelian belief, adopted by Christianity, in the incorruptibility of the heavenly sphere. With the aid of the telescope, Galileo was able to show "with the certainty of the senses," as he writes in The Sidereal Messenger, what was beyond the senses: the lunar surface was rough and uneven, "crowded everywhere with vast prominences, deep chasms, and convolutions" (36). The telescope pictured the moon as having a distinct existence independent of the real moon as perceived with the eye alone. Galileo makes this separation visible by including within his book etchings of this rough and uneven lunar body, based on wash drawings he produced during his observations, which show the moon in various states of light and shade – a visual understanding of form that benefited greatly from his early study of linear perspective with the mathematician Ostilio Ricci. Operating within a comparable or even parallel mode of visual willing, both Kepler's eye and the telescope function as obvious mediators that interpretively represent the world to us. For this reason, I believe the telescope is a more fitting visual metaphor than the camera obscura for this new conception of the eye.
Unlike the camera obscura, which treats our sensing of the world and the world itself as two parts of the same experience, the telescope positions us physically behind and outside the means of experience, allowing us to see a world beyond our senses but only at a distance. This distinction roughly conforms to Foucault's differentiation in The Order of Things between similitude and representation, with the camera obscura being understood as functioning within the play of resemblances and the telescope operating through the imposition of a visual order defined primarily in terms of differences. This epistemological shift, which Foucault situates around the end of the 16 and into the 17 century, is I believe in large part a consequence of seeing the world through Keplerian eyes, which view human life no longer as an interconnected finitude of similarities but instead as a picture among infinite possible pictures that we can never fully realize. Schopenhauer's two poles of life specifically measure the world of representation, in which a profound and even metaphysical wanting emerges out of a desire to experience meaningfulness on an order beyond the mere subjective; when the desired experience fails to be fulfilled we suffer, but when the world remains at an unfathomable distance and wanting appears futile the result is a meaningless boredom. With the eye as camera obscura we look upon a universe that is self-contained and self-containing, whereas with the eye as telescope we see the universe as an extension of our will, not found but created through our acts of vision.
Excerpted from Boredom and Art by Julian Jason Haladyn. Copyright © 2014 Julian Jason Haladyn. Excerpted by permission of John Hunt Publishing Ltd..
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Table of Contents
List of Figures,
1. An Eye for Boredom,
2. Riddle of the World,
3. Art, Aesthetics and Boredom,
4. Manet's The Railway,
5. The Shock, Wonder and Boredom of the Railway,
6. Fascinations and Boredoms of the Modern Museum,
7. The Avant-Garde as No Boredom, Yes Boredom,
8. Breton's Dadaist Excursion to Saint-Julien-le-Pauvre,
9. Late-Modern Aesthetic of Boredom,
10. Psychogeographical Boredom,
11. The Unbearable Duration of Warhol's Films,
12. Akerman's Jeanne Dielman,