29 May

Make it louder, do it faster

Category: What We're Reading
By: Ken Myers
Published: 05/29/17

Michael Hanby on the nihilism that drives the quest for spectacle

Michael Hanby

In my conversation with R. J. Snell about his book Acedia and Its Discontents: Metaphysical Boredom in an Empire of Desire (on volume 129 of the MHA Journal), he explained how his thinking on the subject of acedia had been initially inspired by Michael Hanby’s essay, “The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of Joy” (in Communio 31, Summer 2004). Snell said it was one of the best journal articles he had ever read. I share Snell’s enthusiasm, and recently found an occasion to re-read Hanby’s bracing diagnosis of how the modern understanding of freedom presupposes a meaningless universe (and meaningless selves), the terror of which gives rise to a restless and relentless drive to distraction. Here is a key passage:

“[I]f one considers many of the more garish artifacts of this culture — Las Vegas, Disneyworld, gnostic, digitalized forms of community and sexuality, a virtual arms race of violent spectacle and vulgar celebrity expressionism — or even the increasingly isolated character of entertainment through ever more personalized electronic devices, they seem less the expression of a celebration of the self, the pleasure principle or a will to power than the expression of an opposed and more fundamental pathology: boredom. 

“The advent of this concept of boredom coincides, tellingly, with the rise of bourgeois society and the triumph of industrialization. There is no etymological record of the word or the concept prior to the eighteenth century. Boredom differs in important ways from such antecedents as ennui or acedia. The diagnosis of these maladies traditionally contained within them a moral judgment of the subject, whose melancholy was understood as a moral and spiritual affront to a true and meaningful order of things. Boredom, by contrast, names a twofold failure of an altogether different kind: a failure of the world to be compelling to a subject ostensibly entitled to such an expectation and a failure or incapacity on the part of the subject to be compelled. In this, boredom is closely aligned with hopelessness, and there may indeed be a more profound relation between the excesses of consumer society and the sense of helplessness that leads an increasing number of citizens of that same society to despair of social and political involvement. It is this double nullity of both subject and world, I contend, that underlies entertainment culture and the numbing array of cultural choices produced by it. The very notion of entertainment presumes the state of boredom as the norm, which means that a culture increasingly fueled by this notion assumes that our lives are innately and intrinsically meaningless without the constant stream of ‘stimulation’ and distraction, a stream inevitably subject to the law of diminishing returns. This nullity on the side of the subject is matched by a similar noughting in the world, for latent in this assumption is a corollary denial of form, objective beauty, or a true order of goods that naturally and of themselves compels our interest. As a consequence, according to this cultural logic, all such choices can only be indifferently related to one another. None is intrinsically good or bad, and indeed no good approaches that of choice itself. Hence most citizens of the modern West, almost of necessity, live lives of profound fragmentation and internal contradiction, and yet these contradictions too frequently make no real competing claims on lives and loyalties and cause little pain or anguish to those who are subject to them. Yet the effect of many of these choices is less to please than to stupefy, anesthetize or distract us from the failed festivals, broken communities, and otherwise empty existence imposed by a formless goalless world. Long before the advent of tasteless fast food, fat free cream, and an array of other products offering endless consumption without much discernible pleasure, Eric Gill foresaw these developments in his criticism of the Leisure State, which incarnates ‘at best, an impossible angelism, and at worst, an impossible aestheticism, the worship of the pleasure of sensation.’

People won’t really love the “good things” they enjoy in such plenty. They won’t love them in the sense that they will see them and use them as holy things, things in which and by which God is manifest. In reality they will despise everything. Things will be made only for passing enjoyment, to be scrapped when no longer enjoyable.”

— From Michael Hanby, The Culture of Death, the Ontology of Boredom, and the Resistance of JoyCommunio 31, Summer 2004

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