Gates: Toward a Theory of Boredom

So my wife and I recently observed the Feast of Tabernacles with family in the Poitou region of France. I did a bit of writing during the trip. Here’s the first of two essays I wrote thinking about the cultural and social significance of airports and airplane travel.


Sitting at the gate a solid two and a half hours before our flight is scheduled to take off from Cincinnati for Paris via Atlanta, I look straight ahead—near to the very end of this concourse—and can see perhaps a thousand feet down a long corridor of carpet, moving floors, signs, all lined by stores, most closed.
It’s quiet, and the quietness underscores the bigness of the place.

This is one concourse of several, set within a sprawling network of winding and strictly-purposed roads, one false turn leading only to another, punishment for not conforming to the ostensible flow. Coming into such an airport, one gets the feeling that one has entered a cathedral space, full of import, full of patterns and rules and opportunities. It is busy, yet weirdly empty; huge, yet claustrophobic; filled with noise yet silent, concentrating.

Much could be said of airports, their postmodern significance, their contractions and explosions of icons, their liminality, their unique status in the modern litany of transitional spaces.

But are transitional spaces necessarily boring spaces?

It seems to me that airport terminals occupy a unique position among transitional spaces precisely because the highly processual nature of air travel requires ticketholders to arrive so early. Delta Airlines suggests, for example, that international flyers—my wife and I, in this case—arrive at the airport upwards of three hours before the flight’s scheduled departure. This is a general rule of thumb.

Of course while we naturally didn’t plan to adhere strictly to such recommendations, past incidents of cutting it close remind us that if we do, we are liable to regret it.

Hence, we are here two and a half hours early, and not a little glad of the fact. Or at the very least okay with it. Maybe not so okay with it. Anyway we’re here.

Boredom is somewhat of a fraught concept, in my experience. There is a general American cultural antipathy directed toward boredom because it is in some way the opposite of productivity, which enjoys an intensely high cultural valuation. Boredom tends to appear first as inactivity but is born of a certain purposelessness along with an ambivalence about purpose in general. In the severest cases, that ambivalence resembles a purpose dysphoria.

Purposelessness, if not boredom, could arguably be a desirable state, something some people find satisfying. But perhaps the purposelessness associated with boredom is unique in that it is, according to its cultural significance at least, inherently unsatisfying. Those who are bored—at least in the way we’re talking of boredom—do not want to be bored any more than a cat wants a bath.

But we must become bored here. The airport, in a way, demands it.

Those who are not properly bored at the correct times—say, one hour prior to departure and in diminishing intervals approaching terminus—are liable to miss their flight, or at least some bit of ostensibly important information.

Airport practice, if you will, consists of processes in series, each accompanied by relatively complex signs in the form of screens, intercom announcements, and labels of many kinds. These processes generally require significant concentration on the part of the flyer, documents in hand, eyes on the screens (whether they be on a wall or in our hands), ears perked and ready to hear the Department of Homeland Security-mandated, periodical, insipid missives about what to do or what not to do with our baggage, with strange people, with our weapons, with our liquid consumer products.

While the processes demand our attention, the airport leaves us to ourselves in the intervening times. Hence, airport practice is made up of stops and starts. One attention-intensive process (i.e., security screening, the panicked rush to find a connecting flight) followed by its inverse: motionlessness, purposelessness. Boredom.

Which explains all the sundry and price-gauged options the deep airport terminals provide for their stranded passengers: Wi-Fi hotspots galore, restaurants both familiar and strange (and all overpriced), televisions airing major news network programming (that is, very little of substance), as well as other non-sequitur media: giant aquariums (whose specimens need not be native to the local ecology, since as a place-out-of-place, the airport may mix whatever provenances most attract the bored), amusement park rides, modern art incorporated into the meta-transitional conveyances, and the irritatingly anachronistic institution of shoe-shining stations, whose users must always be seen as ludicrously rich and/or stupidly pompous, if they’re seen at all.

The very existence and proliferation of these diversions is an implicit acknowledgement of airport practice’s necessary boredoms.

Boredom does not always depend upon action or inaction. One can be touring the terminal’s eateries and fish tanks and easily be bored. In fact, boredom is quite often accompanied by some sort of activity, or more properly, distraction, whether it be twiddling our thumbs, gluing our eyes to a television screen (if this can be considered activity), or scrolling through Facebook.

Rather, I’d posit that boredom has to do with self-purpose, existing on a spectrum of value whose axis is production. As I suggested before, it therefore exists toward one extreme end of that spectrum. The non-productive end.

A capitalist system of social values must favor behaviors that take active part in the production and acquisition of capital, including work. In terms of cultural values, then, these behaviors are more often normative and evaluated higher; as a result, boredom must appreciate lower on the scale. In other words, people don’t value boredom. It’s not a good thing. It’s something a reasonable person ought to overcome. And from here we could talk about the Christian-capitalist underpinnings of work ethic, a subset of productivity that requires its own essay (which you can find here).

But it seems to me that productivity, while informing the cultural evaluation of boredom, still does not go far in defining what it looks like. As mentioned before, one can be productive (or otherwise active) and still be bored. Otherwise it would be impossible to speak of “boring work,” for instance.

To approach a definition and therefore a theory of boredom, I think self-purpose (a properly vague term, don’t you think?) perhaps comes closest to something of a defining attribute. While we can talk about boring work or boring environments, the discussion of boredom ultimately implicates the subject—he or she who is bored. Boredom is something one is expected to lift oneself out of by one’s own bootstraps; it is the bored person’s own responsibility to overcome boredom. While it’s fairly easy to correlate boredom along an axis of cultural valuation, to say what is or isn’t boring to a given person depends largely, if not entirely, upon that given person. Boredoms are subjective.

Imagine the stereotypical movie teenager at the family dinner table, slouched over her place and picking at her food with a blank expression while the adults try to stimulate conversation with her and with each other. Perhaps there is a guest at the table, so everyone is being a little extra polite and small-talky. The teenager is rebuked for her boredom on the grounds that she should be conversationally engaged and engaging—that is, she should be socially productive.

The teenager finds the situation boring. It’s apparently not boring to the others at table, and these subjects demand of the other to cease the behavior of boredom and come out of it. “Can’t we carry on a simple conversation as a family?” her father says, implying that she should buck up and do the work of social production that is table talk.

Mondo sigh. Roll the eyes. “Ugh—can I be excused?” she says, seeking to escape boredom, to enter a new, self-purposed productivity.

Of course, she is not excused. “You will summon your own self-purpose from within yourself and tell me about your day at school!” her father shouts, perhaps not in so many words.

But perhaps that’s what we do when we rebuke someone for becoming bored with what we and others are interested or engaged in (or at least bucking it up because social norms demand it of us). When we’re bored, we may be doing something, but often the doing of that thing—our assigned purpose—is a function of our environment or of other subjects (our bosses or teachers, say). It’s not a purpose derived from our own will and the exercise thereof. Maybe, in this way, the behaviors of boredom (idle activity, diversion, etc.) are an expression of will, of our own self-purpose knocking, banging, kicking and sometimes screaming at the door. And that self-will chafes particularly hard against group activities such as table talk or college lectures, where the group is supposed to attend to the externally-mandated purpose. The bored subject improperly exercises his self-purpose against the one imposed upon him, and therefore is rebuked in some way, be it a slap on the hand or an annoyed look or a lower grade.

At the airport gate, of course, waiting for the next process to begin, we don’t rebuke each other for being bored, because we’re bored too, and we know how it is.

I’d love to know your thoughts on this. What to you seems essential to you in approaching what exactly is boredom? Do other modern spaces cultivate boredom like airports do?


Published by:

Jedd Cole

Jedd Cole is a writer and scholar of literature, language, theory and philosophy. He studied rhetoric, writing and Spanish at University of Cincinnati. He produces video essays on the Electric Didact YouTube channel: Find his fiction and other recent work at

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