This post builds on the research article “Cast Aside: Boredom, Downward Mobility, and Homelessness in Post-Communist Bucharest,” which was published in the February 2014 issue of the Society’s peer-reviewed journal, Cultural Anthropology.
Cultural Anthropology has published essays about affect of boredom, waiting, and social exclusion. See João Biehl’s “Ethnography in the Way of Theory” (2013); Kathleen Stewart's "Precarity's Form" (2012); Jocelyn Lim Chua’s “Making Time for the Children: Self-Temporalization and the Cultivation of the Antisuicidal Subject in South India” (2011).
Cultural Anthropology has published a number of articles on post-socialism, including Krisztina Fehérváry’s “From Socialist Modern to Super-Natural Organicism: Cosmological Transformations Through Home Décor” (2012); Erik Harm’s “Eviction Time in the New Saigon: Temporalities of Displacement in the Rubble of Development" (2013); Christina Schwenkel’s “Post/Socialist Affect: Ruination and Reconstruction of the Nation in Urban Vietnam” (2013).
About the Author
Bruce T. O’Neill is an assistant professor of anthropology in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Center for Intercultural Studies at Saint Louis University. His ethnographic research examines the precariousness of urban life, particularly the subjective and affective dimensions of downward mobility in post-Communist Bucharest, Romania. Professor O’Neill’s current project is a book entitled Cast Aside: Bored and Homeless in Bucharest. Framed by the 2008 global financial crisis and the turbulent efforts at post-Communist liberalization, the book explores a widely felt sense of boredom among Bucharest’s new homeless population. How does this affect, the book asks, provide a window into the felt-reality of displacement in a ruthlessly competitive market economy? For more on Professor O’Neill’s work, see his list of publications below, or visit his faculty page.
Other Works by Bruce T. O’Neill
2012. With Dennis Rodgers. “Infrastructural Violence: Introduction to the Special Issue.” Ethnography 13, no. 4: 401–12.
2012. “Of Camps, Gulags and Extraordinary Renditions: Infrastructural Violence in Romania.” Ethnography 13, no. 4: 466–86.
2010. “Down and Then Out in Bucharest: Urban Poverty, Governance & the Politics of Place in the Post-Socialist City.” Environment & Planning D 28, no. 2: 254–69.
2009. “The Political Agency of Cityscapes: Spatializing Governance in Ceausescu’s Bucharest.” Journal of Social Archaeology 9, no. 1: 92–109.
Interview with Bruce T. O’Neill
Darren Byler: The central argument you are making in this essay is that homeless men in Romania experience an everyday affect of boredom rather than mental illness, addiction, and hustling as similarly positioned people have been shown to experience in other situations. What prevents the homeless in Bucharest from sliding from a resilient experience of boredom to depression and melancholy? Why is it important to them to make the distinction between boredom and depression? Is it a matter of a stress on structural violence rather than an “individual failing”?
Bruce T. O’Neil: I do want to emphasize that this struggle with boredom extends beyond the homeless shelter. Boredom is a widely-shared sentiment across Romania. It pops up in advertising campaigns (video 1, below), faux public service announcements (video 3), hip-hop lyrics (video 5), and in the backdrop of what is being called Romania’s New Wave of cinema. It is a particular kind of boredom—one that is tied to a chronically unstable economy that leaves people feeling cut off from the pleasures and possibilities believed to be common elsewhere in Europe, where the euro is stronger, minimum wages higher, shopping supposedly better, and government services more generous. No one experiences this more deeply then those who have become homeless, and it leaves them feeling bored to death. Rather than pathologize their boredom as depression, homeless persons attribute this existential state, as do I, to historical and structural conditions.
DB: Throughout the essay the specter and consumption of Nescafé as an anti-boredom prophylactic is beautifully evoked as a basic agent in the mundane grind of getting-by. What did these men drink before the arrival of Nescafé? How does what they drink track with their life histories? How is it informed by a socialist legacy?
BTO: In the 1980s, during the worst of the communist-era shortages, coffee was hard to find. Romanians had to request coffee from family and friends returning from abroad, or they paid a premium for coffee from professional “trader-tourists” who made their living trafficking scarce goods from Hungary to the Romanian black market. Even when coffee could be obtained, it was saved for special occasions like Christmas and birthdays, or it was reserved for bribing local administrators. To put it simply, coffee was a luxury item under communism, and it was associated with a materially richer quality of life that was widely believed to exist elsewhere in Europe.
Now coffee, and in particular Nescafé, is everywhere in Bucharest. Nescafé machines can be found in every park, Metro station, corner store, and major intersection, and it costs only thirty cents. Nescafé is now a kind of everyday luxury that everyone can afford, including the homeless. And it is a stimulating product. Aside from being spiked with caffeine and sugar, Nescafé also provides a reasonably cheap way to participate in an imagined Euro-standard of living—one, as Nescafé’s own advertising illustrates so neatly, that is animated by the constant consumption of music, stylized cloths, new technology, and of course, coffee.
DB: You end the essay by writing that Nescafé “is pitched as the antidote” to boredom, experienced as waiting to die, “but should be seen as part of the problem” (26). How is the “problem” you see here related to the epistemic violence of longing for a barred object? Is Nescafé symptomatic of what prevents these men from taking up an ethics that refigures the deviant and abnormal not as defective but as a method toward a life-affirming flourishing?
BTO: My argument is that consumption is key to understanding the politics of poverty and belonging in cities like Bucharest. Boredom stings so deeply for the homeless because it registers their non-belonging in the city. As the vignette of Catalin underscores, the homeless can’t afford to participate in the most mundane activities of urban life, such as riding the bus. Even when they can cover the bus fair, they are singled out and humiliated for their inability to afford rent and a stick of deodorant.
Sure, Nescafé provides a reprieve from this kind of boredom. From conversations shared over a warm mug at the homeless shelter to avoiding the appearance of loitering at the train station to the participation in an imagined European standard of consumerism, Nescafé provides a way for homeless persons to get caught up in the world around them. But it does so by buying into the basic premise that belonging is tied to one’s ability to consume. I’m hopeful that a more dynamic right to the city might be claimed.
DB: The city and its institutions, infrastructure, and people provide the context for the men we follow in the essay. What brought these men to the city and prevents them from going elsewhere? How important is the capitalist city itself in producing the boredom experienced by these men? Do underemployed men in the Romanian countryside experience boredom in the same way?
BTO: Many of the homeless men and women that I worked with were not born in Bucharest—they fled even more depressed economic conditions in the countryside, and they came to Bucharest in search of opportunity. They didn’t find it. Most would also like to look for work abroad, but they don’t have the money needed to obtain the right travel documents, much less the trip to Spain, Italy, or France. Romanians also know that even if they could make the journey abroad, their presence would not exactly be welcomed.
I think the process of urbanization in Romania is an important part of the story, particularly with the older generation. A good number of Romanians did not choose to move to Bucharest. Rather than being drawn to the capital city, they were pushed and pulled into it, first during communist-era efforts at industrialization and village “consolidation,” and then as economic migrants trying to navigate a turbulent post-communist transition. Now industry is flat, there isn’t enough housing, and a lot of people who were pushed and pulled into Bucharest are unemployed and wondering what to do next. One fantasy regularly talked about in homeless shelters and squatter camps is to move to the countryside to become a subsistence farmer. Lacking the money to buy a small plot of land, it is an impractical solution, but one that nevertheless speaks to a desire to regain control over the conditions of one’s production and consumption.
DB: Your images in the essay serve as more than mere illustrations. Instead, the first two images display the contours of embodied boredom by showing us the slump of shoulders and backs of homeless men. The third image shows us Augustin returning the gaze of the camera with an unsettling direct honesty. What choices did you make in composing these images and positioning them in the text?
BTO: The project requires a significant rethinking of boredom, one that would have been difficult without photography. Boredom is a problem typically associated with the privileged classes and the solution to this bourgeois sense of boredom is straightforward: change the channel, pick up the phone, or pour yourself some Nescafé. Boredom, in this sense, is a petty and passing kind of problem. When thought about from the vantage of extreme poverty, however, a different picture of boredom emerges. Boredom is no longer passing but persistent, and the continuous grind of boredom wears in traumatic, rather than tedious, ways. Photography illustrates this quite clearly. This is why I placed the first photograph at the introduction next to the extended quote from “Liviu.” I wanted to emphasize upfront that the homeless’s boredom looks and sounds very different then the way boredom so often gets portrayed in literature and movies.
In addition to giving a sense of where the fieldwork took place, the second image of the squatter camp helps to convey that boredom is not about a lack of stuff or the absence of activity. The encampment, the photograph shows, is loaded with (scavenged) things. There are also always chores to be done around the camp. The rub is that none of these objects and none of these activities register as meaningful. Those living in the camp understand themselves quite clearly as discarded people getting by on discarded objects, and nothing about it is exciting; and so boredom abounds.
The third image is a portrait of “Augustin.” I spent a lot of time drinking Nescafé with him and his family at the shelter. It seemed like a fitting image to conclude the piece.