Boredom has fundamentally changed. In her debut monograph The Spiritual Significance of Overload Boredom, Sharday Mosurinjohn convincingly argues that the characteristic feature of contemporary boredom is its disaffecting quality. The abundance of information available to us—which now surrounds us with flashing, vibrating, and beeping flat screens—has flattened our ability to think and feel in the world. The oppressive weight of apparently infinite choice places infinite demands on all of us. Mosurinjohn demonstrates how popular techniques for resolving boredom compound its afflictions. These techniques fail to appreciate that overload, not privation, is the most characteristic quality of boredom among the technologically infiltrated. Overstimulated and overwhelmed, we withdraw into protective numbness in the form of binge watching, repetitive texting, doom scrolling, and other coping mechanisms for our super-saturated selves. Unfortunately, since the coping mechanisms are themselves implicated in overload boredom, our situation only worsens.
Popular therapies, self-help books, and well-meaning researchers make the situation worse by assuming that boredom is the same now as it has ever been, that boredom belongs to an atomistic realm of personal responsibility, and that boredom can be directly accessed by providing people with a quiet and bare space. Mosurinjohn is critical of such studies because “the individual has already been disaffected by the overload boredom of the info-sphere” (37). Putting someone into a bare room and assuming it will induce boredom, and attempting to use such a setting to measure or resolve boredom, fails to even encounter boredom, she notes. Such framing and techniques only exacerbate the issue by forcing people to examine their interior lives, which are already infected with information overload. Instead, Mosurinjohn recommends using object relations, relations, social networks, and the aesthetic-affective encounters to grapple with overload.
The book will not be relatable to every reader, and it gains clarity and credibility by refusing a universal scope. The imagined subject at the center of the book, whom Mosurinjohn at times stands in for, lives in a disenchanted world characterized by extreme speed, especially of communication. This subject uses “the same technologies of work for pleasure” (32) and lacks the spiritual exercises of a community that is united into one life—like those following a monastic rule, for example. This subject is not necessarily an office worker who, at the end of the day, closes their spreadsheets and opens their video games on the same monitor (or one just like it). Instead, the book focuses on writers, artists, poets, and the characters they create (especially David Foster Wallace’s IRS office workers in The Pale King (Little, Brown and Co., 2011))—on those whose distinctiveness is expressed through their engagement with technology.
To explore dealing with overload boredom through aesthetic-affective relations, Mosurinjohn narratively carries the reader through a gallery of art objects, which are also available for viewing on a companion website for the book. The companion website is a wonderful aid to the reader and offers substantially more than the (still helpful) graphics in the book.
By naming overload boredom as a spiritual crisis, Mosurinjohn foregrounds the importance of the study of religion. Drawing widely from affect theory, the history and philosophy of technology, and new materialism, she describes our many retreats from the objects of our lives, and then demands we face the overload that provokes those retreats. In recognizing overload, we also must recognize the multitude of techniques we already employ to avoid its existence and its anesthetic effects.
Overload boredom comes across as a stalking nightmare: those affected by it live in a crisis they cannot even see, because overload conceals its effects. While the way forward will involve complex, intimate experiences particular to the people and objects involved, Mosurinjohn offers us one avenue for addressing the spiritual crisis of overload boredom: the cultivation of attunement. Attunement is Mosurinjohn’s theory of how to practice riding out boredom, as Wallace describes in The Pale King: “In waves, a boredom like you’ve never known will wash over you and just about kill you. Ride these out, and it’s like stepping from black and white into color. Like water after days in the desert. Instant bliss in every atom” (91). The chapter on Wallace’s work is where Mosurinjohn describes how to flourish in a society of information overload. Our lack of meaningful engagement with boredom becomes an opportunity. Mosurinjohn investigates the potential for attunement within an aesthetic-affective approach, whereby we encounter some form of media and the feelings it provokes. Attunement means developing the capacity to perceive the disaffective power of overload boredom. It also entails recognizing overload as something that has to be caught in the moment. Trying to catch overload is difficult because it conceals itself. Overload leads us into lonelier places while hiding from us that we are lonely. Mosurinjohn challenges us to gather allies, in the form of aesthetic-affective encounters, that can create fresh perspective on our use of distracting and immersing technologies.
The Spiritual Significance of Overload Boredom is a wonderful provocation, asking us to engage very seriously with boredom, but not in order to turn it into something else—not to “unbore boredom, to find unexpected joy in repetition and blandness,” but rather to “[come] to terms with the disaffective qualities of overload” (85). Mosurinjohn’s monograph is slender but it identifies an enormous and pervasive problem. It accomplishes much with brevity, and I hope there will be robust and sustained engagement with its arguments. I especially would like to see the author develop the concept of attunement further in the direction of the interpersonal. What aesthetic-affective encounters can be developed between people? How might communities engage collectively with overload boredom?
Jacob Boss is doctoral candidate in religious studies at Indiana University.
Date Of Review:
May 31, 2023
Sharday C. Mosurinjohn is assistant professor in the School of Religion at Queen’s University.
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