Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here.
Sophocles, Oedipus at Colonus
First there was a no. The Brexit referendum, nearly three years ago, was an enormous no to something, even if it wasn’t entirely clear what. Immigration, multiculturalism, neoliberalism, bureaucracy, the democratic deficit, the loss of empire, the passage of time both historical and subjective, the zippy newness of everything, merciless, intangible, and the bloating hairy decay of a human body that’s always monstrously here, the impersonal systems that administer our general managed decline, the existence of a teeming world beyond Britain’s grey fag-end shores, the ugliness of life in general, the ugliness of those burgundy passports in particular, etc, etc, etc. All those things congealed into the shape of the EU, and we wanted them gone. The task was to turn this loud and incoherent no into an actual set of governing regulations to manage the future economic and political relationship between the UK and the European Union, which is stupid and can’t be done. The whole thing is a category error; it’s like trying to comfort a dying cancer patient with some new zoning laws to ban cemeteries. No wonder it’s all been going so badly. All the progress made in the three years since has been in the form of various deferrals, backstops and transition periods, levees against the frothing tides of no. And they’ve three times been voted down, including in the most devastating Parliamentary defeat for a sitting government in British history.
This is what Hegel calls abstract negation. As opposed to determinate negation, the negation that propels the dialectic, that ‘cancels in such a way that it maintains and preserves what has been cancelled,’ abstract negation is an action annulling its object, that tries to simply blot everything out, ‘declaring it to be a nothingness.’ But sadly, there is something rather than nothing, and as long as this basic travesty continues, the no that cries out for the abolition of everything will only ever result in more ontological clutter. The pure no of the referendum has to become a no to Commission Regulation (EC) No. 2257/94, and once it’s gone an alternative banana-curvature regime will have to be put in its place.
Obviously, this doesn’t satisfy. This week, Parliament itself tried to break through the stasis by holding a series of ‘indicative votes,’ in which the Commons tried to establish whether it would be easiest to secure a majority for Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, a customs union, EEA membership, a Norway-plus common-market arrangement, a second referendum, a unilateral revocation of Article 50, or leaving the EU without a deal. We should have seen the punchline coming from a mile off. Every single one of the indicative votes was defeated. We don’t want to stay in the EU, we don’t want to leave without a deal, but also we don’t want a deal. It’s not that doing nothing isn’t an option; it is, we’ve just turned it down.
This was probably the funniest thing to happen in politics for a while, and like every actually funny thing, it’s a combination of slapstick and nihilism. Two years of negotiations, two weeks to go before we leave, and we still can’t say what we actually want. We are frenzied. Parliament is a conga line of circus clowns juggling buckets of custard. We are inert. Limp, corpse-like, washing up on the tides, passing over every decision, passively rejecting the whole of the sunlit world, rolling round on Earth’s diurnal course. Theresa May tried to drum up support for her proposals by promising to resign if they passed: she tried to give her yes the dense allure of a no. It didn’t work. Now, she’s hoping for a fourth vote, Sideshow Bob plodding grimly for another rake. It’s obvious which proposal might pass the Commons; it’s just that nobody’s been brave enough to introduce it yet. Evacuate the island. Drill a few holes in the cliffs of Dover. Scuttle the whole country. We can gather at Calais or the Faroes to watch Britain sink into the sea, and then disperse, never to see each other again.
This situation feels new. It’s not. Philosophy has a name for it: boredom.
Kierkegaard describes precisely the dynamic behind the indicative votes debacle in Either/Or. ‘I can’t be bothered. I can’t be bothered to ride, the motion is too violent. I can’t be bothered to walk, it’s too strenuous; I can’t be bothered to lie down, for either I’d have to stay lying down and that I can’t be bothered with, or I’d have to get up again, and I can’t be bothered with that either. In short: I can’t be bothered.’ This is the situation Heidegger gives as the third and highest form of boredom, the Es ist einem langweilig, ‘it is boring for one’: a boredom that is not bored by any specific object, a boring party, a boring film, but in which boredom becomes a Stimmung, an attunement, a way of being with regards to external reality. A boringness that leaks in grey spurts from everything on the earth. After the boring party or the boring film, you might go and have some vaguely interesting sex; but if you’re in the realm of the third form of boredom, that too, and sleeping afterwards, and breakfast, and the sun in the sky, and the European common market, and a no-deal Brexit, will all reveal themselves as unbearably dull. Things, Heidegger writes, refuse themselves, they withdraw into nothingness.
But Heidegger was not a nihilist; he was a Nazi. (This is generally considered to be worse.) He wasn’t content to see boredom as a black hole, the washed-out final truthlessness of a world without interest. He liked mountain-climbing and shiny buttons; something must come out the other side. For Heidegger, the depths of boredom are revelatory; they force us to consider the nature of the Being that has departed from the world. It leads, in the end, to a more profound relation to the temporality of one’s being. His argument for this mostly hinges on an untranslateable German pun: alles Versagen ist in sich ein Sagen; ‘all withdrawing is a telling.’ Kierkegaard, who was not a Nazi, but one of history’s greatest ironists, can’t make the same leap. ‘Boredom,’ he writes, ‘is the demonic pantheism. It is built on emptiness, but for this very reason it is a pantheistic qualification.’ It’s important in and of itself, not because it inevitably leads you somewhere else. Nothingness in its vast full suffocating weight; the dictatorship of an absent god, the inescapable empire of the undone.
And this Kierkegaardian boredom is everywhere. I’m so tired: that’s what people say now, isn’t it? The ruling political affect isn’t really hatred, or righteous anger, which is actually quite hard to fake for extended periods of time. It certainly isn’t anything as rich or as dark – or as strangely, secretly hopeful – as sadness. It’s exhaustion. Industrial society blasts us in the face with a hot stream of lights and colours, and we go ugh, can you not, I haven’t had my coffee. Nanette: ‘I identify as tired.’ Tired of people who don’t share our vague and mostly provisional opinions even though it’s 2019, tired of other people in general, tired of the white supremacist cisnormative heteronormative fatphobic ableist imperialist capitalist patriarchy. To negate something, you don’t have to say that it’s actively damaging or destructive, just that you can’t be bothered with it, that it makes you tired. It’s not that things intrude too deeply; what’s tiring is how they fade away. This is, of course, not the affect of the oppressed. As Kierkegaard – along with Walter Benjamin, in The Origins of German Tragic Drama – points out, the subject exhausted by the nullity of everything is usually a prince. ‘Those who bore others are the plebians, the mass, the endless train of humanity in general. Those who bore themselves are the elect.’
And this is the thing: Brexit is deeply boring. Two years of negotiations, and every day the front pages of the newspapers announce another roadbump, and it’s all so utterly dull. And then, in the last few weeks, it got interesting again. It got funny, as soon as the process abandoned its activist mode and started to do nothing, as soon as Brexit finally entered the third mode, in which it stopped boring the public and became bored with itself. It’s finally been whittled down to that essential core of no. For Heidegger, this would mean that some great revelation is coming, that we’re on the path to a deeper and more authentic engagement with the materials of being. But I’m not so sure it’s possible to pass out of boredom. What would that engagement look like? A return to the Gelangweilt sein von etwas, a dullness without demonic grandeur or insight. Your bananas can be as straight or as bendy as you like; they’ll still taste like mushy nothing in your mouth.