Should parents scramble to fill the unstructured time of summer for their kids — so they don’t complain of nothing to do (or worse, get into trouble)? Or should they allow children time, perhaps, to be bored?
My study focuses on boredom in Canada following the Second World War into the 1980s. I examine boredom in relation to discussions of capitalism, productivity and emotional regulation, along with historical understandings of the emotion as both negative and positive.
In the period I’m studying, cultural and academic discussions and commentary about boredom popped up in a variety of contexts pertaining to different populations and social groups.
In the post-war period, men and women returned from their respective war roles and back into routines changed through processes of automation or new technologies, both in jobs and domestic life. In the early 60s, advice columnists wrote about boredom in marriage in papers like the Winnipeg Tribune. Many of these columns dealt with the particular boredom and challenges experienced by women in the home.
Yet some also fretted that while leisure time could breed boredom, so could paid employment. Since the early 20th century, psychologists and management experts have been interested in regulating work boredom, and have studied the relationship between boredom, work and personality.
Though less common, western thinkers have also explored boredom as something potentially positive.
In his 1924 essay on boredom, the German writer Siegfried Kracauer presents two distinct forms of boredom. Kracauer was a film theorist who is sometimes associated with the Frankfurt School, a group of intellectuals who addressed modernity, culture and capitalist society.
Kracauer wrote as a response to social changes brought about by industrial modernity, including repetitive factory work, increased technologization and the emergence of mass advertising. He suggests one form of boredom is related to the drudgery of everyday modern life, and a hollowing out of a person’s subjectivity.
The other form of boredom Kracauer discusses — what he calls true or radical boredom — is linked to quiet leisure time where one might recognize the bombardments and oppressions of modern life. Kracauer sees this second form of boredom as a site of radical political potential.
This sense of boredom as a site of potential for change or inspired action also has roots in the western intellectual tradition. In the Renaissance and Romantic periods, writers discussed melancholia as a form of discontent linked to intelligence and creativity that they associated with the sensibilities of poets and philosophers.
If we consider the desire to regulate boredom — the need to avoid or eradicate it — in light of Kracauer’s notion of radical boredom, we might speculate that part of the desire to regulate the emotion is linked to anxieties surrounding what boredom might lead to.