Monday, October 26, 2020

Ley Lines Monday: Oliver East's Langeweile

Oliver East is one of the most prominent cartoonists whose work resides mostly in the sphere of comics-as-poetry. His walkabout comics in particular have a wonderfully meditative quality to them that captures that same sense of thought that walking can induce. That mix of the body in motion, being temporally embodied, is powerful and restorative. It can generate solutions to problems and spur creativity. 

That's why it was so interesting that for his Ley Lines comic, he didn't choose a work of art but rather a particular philosophical concept: langeweile. It's a term developed by Martin Heidegger which means a kind of extreme, prolonged sense of boredom. Why would this concept be of interest to a philosopher? Because in his most significant work, Being And Time, Heidegger used the philosophical tool of phenomenology to examine everyday living--and in particular, to how we perceived time as human beings. Phenomenology simply asks that we examine things--phenomena--as they are, removing our everyday understanding of them in describing them. It asks us not to make assumptions. It is important because it presupposes that while our understanding of phenomena is incomplete because it is limited to our understanding and observation of them, the whole of the phenomena are objectively real. They exist, and they exist right now. There is no ideal plane that contains the "real" essence of the thing that is only truly known by the divine. 

Time was important to Heidegger because our perception of it affects how we see others and led him to wonder about what we don't think about and why. In essence, he claimed that we avoid thinking about non-existence--death, the void--and pretend that it doesn't exist. In fact, we have based our entire language and conceptual apparatus to do this. To think about non-existence creates angst (in the original sense of the word), and instead we pretend it doesn't exist. To him, this is to engage in bad faith action. 

Heidegger broke all of this down with regard to our actions and how much we think about them in the moment. How much do you think about brushing your teeth? How much do you think about the people you encounter on the subway or the store, other than whether or not they are useful or obstructive? This brings us to langeweile. It's not just being bored, it is a kind of extreme and protracted boredom. Oliver East asked: where is boredom most profoundly felt? Waiting at the airport.

In a series of horizontally-stacked, three-panel pages, East creates a narrative with hazily sketched drawings, all with an orange wash that distorts reality. The story is about "For now, you've three hours to kill. Desk to gleaming gate." Each page is its own little poem, written in delightfully coarse language as mental images and actual images blur. This isn't just any trip to the airport, it's the trip precipitating a vacation trip. East ponders how much work he put in just to get a couple of weeks away, ponders losing money at the slot machines ("As you pump clammy coins past Homer's dictum, 'D'oh!'"), drinks a pint, ambles around the bookstore, and imagines what the airline agents think as they accept tickets. 

East uses a thick, chunky line in panels where he wants form to be more definitive but a finer, more tremulous line in panels where we only get a bare outline of an image. The first and third panel of each page had that thicker line, with the middle panel interrupting that sense of visual continuity just as boredom interrupts our feeling of time passing continuously, instead of in fits and starts. In the notes, East states that each panel represents the three stages of perception: retention, immediate present, and protention (antipation of a future moment). It makes sense that the immediate present should be the sketchiest, because the easiest way to escape boredom is in one's own imagination, but it's difficult to do in this setting. This comic is a natural progression for East, given his status as a deeply contemplative and philosophical artist, but one who writes entirely in common vernacular. 

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