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Dullness as a form of national security

June 28, 2011

‘So heavy is boredom in peacetime armies that, from the Roman Empire on, relief from it has often been a serious enticement on its own to war.’  —Joseph Epstein

I’ve been wondering about the wandering mind. Specifically about the sheer availability of simultaneously open screenal interfaces that offer constant stimuli, satiating two human needs I can identify but not fully diagnose here: nowness and newness. The new and the now are described as a web stream, a ubiquitous flow, but they act more like a whack or a rude thud, smacking you over the head every few minutes or seconds, yanking your sleeve for more and more of your precious attention. But never you mind, this isn’t really about that.

What it is about is the political big sister of boredom—being bored out of one’s mind, politically speaking—and how it breeds a form of national security (for the perimeters of my definition, see here) in (i) conducting domestic affairs, (ii) waging foreign wars, and (iii) in the experience of soldiering.

I. Information jest.

I’ve been reading David Foster Wallace’s The Pale King, off-and-on because some of it has bored me, or because my novel-reading habits have changed such that I take longer breaks in between reading stints, or because the book doesn’t always read as a novel anyway, not least of all because it was published posthumously after DFW’s suicide, its unfinished remains carefully pieced together by Michael Pietsch, his publisher at Little, Brown and Company. I’m on page 111, barely one-fifth of the way in, and I’ve made no promises to anyone to finish it. But like DFW’s Infinite Jest, in which the One Thousand and One Nights cast of characters are all loosely involved in an ultra-fascinating video from which no one can look away, The Pale King offers the fear and loathing of boredom as the plaguing necessity of polity.

The book is about some employees of the Internal Revenue Service in Peoria, Illinois. Try saying the word ‘Peoria’ out loud without being tempted to yawn. And there is a lot of carefully sifted tax code. In short, Wallace cares about monumental dullness. One of modern democracy’s greatest secrets is the fact of its bureaucratic dullness because no one will be interested enough to snoop around the affairs of governing large multitudes of people if the mechanisms of governance are kept sufficiently boring and tedious. And it works.

[T]he real reason for this public ignorance is not secrecy. Despite the IRS’s well-documented paranoia and aversion to publicity, secrecy here had nothing to do with it. The real reason why US citizens were/are not aware of these conflicts, changes, and stakes is that the whole subject of tax policy and administration is dull. Massively, spectacularly dull.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of this feature. Consider, from the Service’s perspective, the advantage of the dull, the arcane, the mind-numblingly complex. The IRS was one of the very first government agencies to learn that such qualities help insulate them against public protest and political opposition, and that abstruse dullness is actually a much more effective shield than secrecy. For the great advantage of secrecy is that it’s interesting. People are drawn to secrets; they can’t help it. [83]

The unexplored bureaucratic dullness this first-person account explores is more troubling than government secrets because dullness impedes secrecy. It is alarming because the achingly dull is Wikileaks-proof.

The vague torment of ordinary boredom, ‘its vaporousness and its torpor,’ is the subject of Joseph Epstein’s ‘Duh, Bor-ing.’

‘I have discovered that all evil comes from this,’ wrote Pascal, ‘man’s being unable to sit still in a room.’ Failing precisely this test, that of the ability to sit quietly alone in a room, brought about acedia, a Greek word meaning ‘apathy,’ or ‘indifference,’ among hermit monks in North Africa in the fourth century c.e.

It’s doubtful that Pascal or Epstein or DFW or the hermit North African monks would argue with the contention that ‘apathy’ is the opposite of security (sine + cura without care). Therefore, general apathy and indifference in the governed population is a smart or maybe genius or evil genius move from the point of view of security. No taxation without bureaucratization!

DFW had tackled the subject before, most memorably in his 2005 commencement address at Kenyon College. It’s a speech I most remember for its critique of the out-of-the-manufacturer’s-box, auto-configured human setting. He argued (whether or not one agrees with him) that education and the how of thinking it imparts were the antidotes:

How to keep from going through your comfortable, prosperous, respectable adult life dead, unconscious, a slave to your head and to your natural default-setting of being uniquely, completely, imperially alone, day in and day out.

Despite this formal caution to position oneself in active battle against auto-pilot, DFW surmised that the root cause of existential anomie involved  ‘whole large parts of adult American life that nobody talks about in commencement speeches—boredom, routine, and petty frustration,’ an inescapable chasm he illustrates with a terrifyingly realistic sketch of a supermarket checkout line.

In a narrated memoir section of The Pale King, DFW embraces that chasm even more seriously, especially as it relates to psychic pain:

Maybe dullness is associated with psychic pain because something that’s dull or opaque fails to provide enough stimulation to distract people from some other, deeper type of pain that is always there, if only in an ambient low-level way, and which most of us spend nearly all our time and energy trying to distract ourselves from feeling, or at least from feeling directly or without our full attention. Admittedly, the whole thing’s pretty confusing, and hard to talk about abstractly… but surely something must lie behind not just Muzak in dull or tedious places anymore but now also actual TV in waiting rooms, supermarkets’ checkouts, airports’ gates, SUVs’ backseats. Walkmen, iPods, BlackBerries, cell phones that attach to your head. I can’t think anyone really believes that today’s so-called ‘information society’ is just about information. Everyone knows it’s about something else, way down.

I don’t know if DFW ever read Joseph Brodsky’s 1989 Dartmouth College commencement address, which Epstein cites, but the privileged weight given to scholastic boredom versus existential boredom is striking:

Brodsky told the 1,100 Dartmouth graduates that, although they may have had some splendid samples of boredom supplied by their teachers, these would be as nothing compared with what awaits them in the years ahead. Neither originality nor inventiveness on their part will suffice to defeat the endless repetition that life will serve up to them, as it has served up to us all. Evading boredom, he pointed out, is a full-time job, entailing endless change—of jobs, geography, wives and lovers, interests—and in the end a self-defeating one. Brodksy therefore advises: ‘When hit by boredom, go for it. Let yourself be crushed by it; submerge, hit bottom.’

Hitting rock bottom has a lot to do with recognizing one’s mortality: what makes you alive and human is the recognition of your eventual death. Much of the philosophical literature respected in both ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ traditions (please note the scare quotes here) rallies around the premise that every man or woman must die his or her own death. Dying your own death and being the proprietor of your own soul/anima/demise are arguably the gifts of care.  By extension, the gift of boredom (according to Brodsky) is the gnawing perception of one’s smallness and finitude. ‘We are all here a short while, and then—poof!—gone and, sooner or later, usually sooner, forgotten. Boredom “puts your existence into perspective, the net result of which is precision and humility.”’

I don’t entirely agree with Epstein that ‘sameness and repetition are among the chief causes of boredom’ for the reasons outlines above, namely the microscopic or epic forms of psychic pain a person might experience, and the institutionalized forms of official business (again, say bureaucracy enough times and a yawn might start to curl at the corners of your mouth). Sure, high doses of rote tedium are destined to screech one into intolerable dullness, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that the emotional fray left from that aching void can’t lead to politicized consequences, namely indifference and invisibility. The consequences are sort of endless: nothing veils secrecy more than number-crunching and mathematical metrics.

On a related whim, it does make you wonder how it is that in the full glory of 2011, which despite being contemporaneous is the most recent era I can remember for major grassroots stirring and action, we got a group like LulzSec. Is security (or rather, anti-security) just not as interesting without the ‘lulz’ or sideline laughter at the governance’s mishaps and the ‘vigilante’ justice or mayhem they induce?

II. Dullness as drone warfare.

Zygmunt Bauman, who because of his book Liquid Life alights my interest every time I see his name mentioned, published an article today called ‘Is this the end of anonymity?’ along with a picture of a military drone underneath the headline. Bauman’s caption to the Getty photograph says that the latest drones will ‘stay invisible while making everything else accessible to view.’ Later he quotes an ethicist who says that the drones will widen the ‘disconnect between the American public and its war.’ The drones will ‘perform another leap (second after the substitution of the conscript by a professional army) towards making the war itself all but invisible to the nation in whose name the war is waged (no native lives will be at risk) and so that much easier—indeed so much more tempting—to conduct.’

People of my generation might retain childhood memories of watching the Gulf War on the evening news. As the foreign policy content of evening news programs has shrunk, the visual rhetoric of war (to the extent that it even exists outside of popular and cultural TV shows) has becoming exceedingly sanitized. 24, for example, depicted extreme scenes of torture, but its heroic visualization served to lessen and tacitly approve of the horrors of the Bush administration’s tactics, not dispassionately depict them.

Since 9/11, the number of hours which air force employees need in order to recycle the intelligence supplied by the drones went up by 3,100% – and each day 1,500 more hours of videos and 1,500 more images are added to the volume of information clamouring to be processed. Once the limited ‘soda straw’ view of drone sensors is replaced with a ‘gorgon stare’ able to embrace a whole city in one go (also an imminent development), 2,000 analysts will be required to cope with the feeds of but one drone, instead of 19 doing such a job today. But that only means, let me comment, that fishing an ‘interesting,’ ‘relevant’ object out of the bottomless container of ‘data’ will take some hard work and cost rather a lot of money; not that any of the potentially interesting objects may insure oneself against falling into that container in the first place.

The coming Drone Age (one could argue we’ve been living it for at least a decade) would couple the bottomless data-gathering of the ‘information society’ with the most quote-unquote sophisticated military weapons available to create an even more creeping and deeper national psychic pain, one that the greater public is unlikely to truly notice for some time. As Bauman writes despondently, ‘No one would ever know when the hummingbird lands on his or her windowsill.’

III. Soldiering.

One doesn’t need to look to drones (I’ve heard more than one army analyst call them ‘death machines’ with a stern face) to isolate the problem of dullness married with invisibility.

Testimony about Israel’s ‘shoot first’ policy given by soldiers in the aftermath of Operation Cast Lead:

You feel like a stupid little kid with a magnifying glass looking at ants, burning them. A 20-year-old kid should not have to do these kinds of things to other people.

Testimony from an unnamed lieutenant stationed at a checkpoint in Qalqilya:

The battalion commander was authorized to say which village would be blocked?

Which areas he could block, preventing people from getting out of Qalqiliya. This was in the Qalqiliya district. And that bulldozer – that was a real chore. Ineffective. They’re not stupid. They know their area much better than we do. And they’d get out to work. So I say he had his instructions. He had the possibility – as far as the brigade was concerned – to block and prevent movement along various roads (…) I think that eventually everything concerning those blocks is simply a result of boredom. Unadulterated boredom.

The battalion commander is bored so he creates blockades?

Yes. To show action.

Testimony (in the form of a ‘homemade’ movie) that depicts battery as a form of humor and amusement among U.S. soldiers in Iraq, perhaps an apt visual metaphor for all of this stuff:

[Related: It's Greek to me: banditry, security, and The Wire]

(Art: ‘Once Upon a Wall’ by Aakash Nihalani.)

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