Special Issue on Boredom, Pleasure, Narrative

deadline for submissions: 
January 11, 2017
full name / name of organization: 
Papers on Language and Literature
contact email: 

Papers on Language and Literature Special Issue: Boredom, Pleasure, Visual Narrative

6,000 – 11,000 words, plus abstract 150 words

To be bored is to be without pleasure, inattentive; to bore is to deny pleasure, fail to be interesting. The etymology of boredom remains unknown, although its first use in English is cited by the Oxford English Dictionary as referring to one of the quintessential bored ladies of the Victorian novel: Lady Dedlock and her “chronic malady of boredom” as described in Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. Before the form of the novel began coalescing in the eighteenth-century as the dominant narrative form, the ballad and the epic were there to entertain; nineteenth-century serial novels took the suspense and sensationalism of narrative to new extremes and took the pleasure of novel-reading away from bored, bourgeois women and into the hands of the people. Today, thousands of TV channels and traditional, satellite and internet radio stations have given rise to a seemingly limitless number of options to occupy our free time; social media, video streaming, and podcasts and the ubiquity of cellular and smart phones provides us with sources of entertainment to stave off boredom that can be accessed from anywhere with cellular service or wireless access. To be a narrative text in the contemporary moment – visual and otherwise, popular or unpopular – is to frantically engage the relationship between boredom and pleasure, working under the compulsion to be “endlessly interesting.”

The proliferation of seemingly endless entertainments and mechanisms of delivery have not, of course, resulted in the end of boredom. The easily-consumed emptiness of pastiche that has replaced formal or political experimentation in popular culture, to recall Fredric Jameson’s theorization of post-modernism, has not made boredom less frequent; it has resulted, for some, in a desire for “endless interest” in the form of “the new.” We witness such concerns in questions such as “What claims on our interest can the novel make now?” that associate “interest” with experimentation; a deviation from the repetitive, unoriginal, and re-made narratives, forms, and styles that, some suggest, over-saturate our cultural present-tense. While we might typically associate boredom with a lack of things to do and those efforts to forestall, interrupt, or eliminate it, it is important to remember, as music critic Simon Reynolds notes, that “Today’s boredom is not hungry, a response to deprivation” but rather a “response to the surfeit of claims on [our] attention and time.” Although boredom has been theorized in relation to the tedium of repetition, this boredom also may give way to pleasure: we might consider here the pleasure of binge- or re-watching a television show or movie, re-reading a favorite novel, or listening to a song on repeat. Ongoing debates regarding the fidelity of adaptations suggest a desire for repetition and the pleasures to be found therein.

Boredom as a condition of tedium and fatigue—“I’m tired of this!”—and pleasure as a sensation of excitement and gratification—“How fun!”—have particular manifestations when posed through questions of difference, and this special issue is interested in the particularities of boredom and pleasure as they can be understood and complicated by considerations of gender and sexuality. Boredom and pleasure are a central relation of bourgeois culture and the “good life,” and when taken to textual analysis, open up a complicated terrain in which to understand the relationships among and between texts, audiences, and cultures. A consideration of boredom and pleasure also complicates gender and sexual politics. Patricia Meyer Spacks, for example, makes a classed and gendered distinction between ennui and boredom, the former being an existential leisure distinct from the tedium of tasks assigned to wives, servants, subordinates. We might consider here the oft-repeated narrative of the “bored housewife,” a figure that has been deployed not only to undermine the significance and hard-work that must go into domestic and affective labors but also to expose feelings of dissatisfaction with the mundane reality of an idealized heteronormative family life, challenging the notion of “domestic bliss.” Guilty pleasures may be a source of shame and embarrassment not only due to matters of “taste” but also due to those pleasures we gain from texts and objects that may seem incongruous with our politics and identities.

Theories of boredom are numerous and often contradictory. Yet what many of these theories make apparent, intentionally or not, is a recurring connection between boredom, pleasure, and narrative. Walter Benjamin’s theories of boredom, temporality, and commodity culture are useful in thinking about when/if we consume narrative texts in order to pass/fill/kill time. Roland Barthes’ classic formulation of the text of pleasure as one “linked to a comfortable reading practice” is differentiated from the text of bliss that “discomforts (perhaps to the point of a certain boredom), unsettles.” Laura Mulvey’s objective “to make way for a total negation of the ease and plenitude of the narrative fiction film” and its gendered visual pleasures not only gives expression to a desire for a feminist visual culture but also a frustration and boredom with the politics of patriarchal looking. Jennifer Doyle calls our attention to boredom because it troubles the concept of the “detached observer,” whose “body [is] both less committal (always ready to walk away) and more promiscuous (or go straight to bed).” Adam Phillips defines boredom as “that state of suspended anticipation in which things are started and nothing begins, the mood of diffuse restlessness which contains the most absurd and paradoxical wish, the wish for desire” and argues that the imperative to be endlessly interested “is one of the most oppressive demands” made on us because boredom is essential to the crystallization of “real desire.” And Sianne Ngai writes that “astonishment and boredom ask us to ask what ways of responding our culture makes available to us, and under what conditions . . . prompt[ing] us to look for new strategies of affective engagement and to extend the circumstances under which engagement becomes possible.” Ngai’s attention to what is made available to us in relation to “new strategies” is particularly useful in thinking about expressions of boredom and pleasure as they relate to texts, audiences, and cultures; that is, rather than searching for “the new” we might consider how boredom may prompt a search for what is “new to us,” the exposure to which may be minimized or prevented by, but also made available through, the popular.

We solicit scholarly submissions that engage this complicated relationship between boredom, pleasure, and narrative as inflected by questions of gender and sexuality in visual narrative. What can popular and unpopular, visual narratives—in the form of film, television, video and computer games, and online media—tell us about the gendered and sexual desires of audiences, players, and readers: the pleasures they pursue or long for, the boredom with the normative “good life” that might inspire such pursuits and longings, and the boring-for-some, exciting-for-others, articulations and representations of pleasure we consume? Possible topics and themes, derived from the above question, include but are not limited to:

  • Boredom/pleasure as a topic/theme in narrative content
  • Boredom/pleasure as a structuring relationship of narrative forms
  • Texts that are boring/bore
  • Boredom/pleasure in narrative as particularized by gender, sexuality, and normativity: “mommy-porn,” the tear-jerker, the bromance, etc...
  • Representations of boring sex or the results of boring sex: infidelity, open-marriages, swinging, lesbian bed-death, gay male consensual nonmonogamies
  • Excesses and saturations of pleasures that bore
  • Tangents, descriptions, catalogues, monologues, mechanics, repetitions, the predictable
  • Shocks, surprises, cliff-hangers, suspense, happy-endings, the unpredictable
  • Commonplaces: bored to death, at your pleasure, etc...
  • Revisiting major theories of boredom through analyses of contemporary narrative
  • Reader-response and phenomenological approaches to boredom, pleasure, narrative
  • Connections between historical and contemporary representations of boredom/pleasure
  • Guilty pleasures

Submit essays to coeditors Mary Ann Davis (madavis@antiochcollege.edu) and Alex Wescott (wescottusc@gmail.com) by January 11, 2017. Essays should be sent as Microsoft Word attachments with subject heading “Boredom, Pleasure, Visual Narrative” Special Issue. Submissions must not be under consideration elsewhere. Articles should fall between the ranges of 6,000 and 11,000 words; images count as 450 words. Please include a 500 word abstract at the beginning of your submission. To maintain anonymity in the review process, put names, affiliations, and mailing addresses on a separate title page. Citations to an author’s own work should be made in a way that does not compromise anonymity. PLL uses The MLA Style Manual (2008). For inquiries about the content of the issue, please contact Mary Ann Davis and Alex Wescott.