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July 8, 2002

The thrill of boredom

By Eric Rangus

When the subject of boredom comes up, Elizabeth Goodstein gets pretty excited.

So much so that last fall Goodstein taught a class on the subject, “Studies in European Modernity: Boredom in Modern Life.” And recently she put the finishing touches on her first book, Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity, an extension of the dissertation she completed in 1996 at the University of California-Berkeley.

Experience Without Qualities incorporates theories and practices from sociology, literature, history and philosophy, making it—and her—an ideal fit for Emory’s interdisciplinary Graduate Institute of Liberal Arts.

“There are very few places like Emory,” said Goodstein, assistant professor of European social thought. She joined the ILA’s faculty in 1999 after teaching for two years at the University of Rochester. “It’s wonderful to be in a place where the interdisciplinarity of my work is an advantage instead of something that has to be explained.”

But boredom?

The subject, Goodstein said, is a lot deeper than it may appear on the surface. In fact, the discussion of what she called “subjective malaise” uncovers the core of people’s feelings of self-image.

“There are questions about meaning. ‘Who am I? Why am I here,” she said. “Students assume that because boredom makes them feel like they are in a meaningless eternity that boredom has been around forever.”

That, actually, isn’t true. The term “boredom” didn’t enter the English language until the late 18th century and was not widely used until the mid-19th century.

“The way people talk about their malaise has changed over time,” Goodstein said. “It’s a peculiarly modern way of thinking about things—it’s very materialist and it’s based on a rationalized world view that comes out of the Enlightenment.”

For Goodstein, what the subject of boredom comes down to is self-realization, making it relevant to practically everything.

“The easy way to live is to think about yourself and your world as the center of everything and not question the way things are,” she said. “The educated thing to do is to be aware of oneself in culturally and historically specific ways.”

Since the subject is barely two centuries old, boredom—as the title of her book implies—is a modernist quality. The study of modernism and finding new ways to interpret old subjects—like culture—ties neatly into Goodstein’s next project.

Last week, Goodstein packed her things and flew to Germany where she will spend a year doing research for her book, Georg Simmel and the Phenomenology of Culture, which will chronicle the work of Simmel, a late-19th/early 20th-century teacher and philosopher.

Although he has largely faded from memory, Goodstein said Simmel is one of the fathers of modern sociology. A popular speaker, teacher and public intellectual in Berlin, Simmel was a contemporary and friend of groundbreaking sociologist Max Weber and was at the center of the European social science community at the turn of the last century.

Simmel, in fact, was ahead of his time. “He was one of the first people to concern himself with the phenomena of modern culture,” Goodstein said. Other cultural thinkers of his time were geared toward more classical cultural thought, like the Renaissance.

“Simmel was interested in all kinds of things that’s we’ve subsequently come to recognize as very important,” Goodstein said. “Things like fashion, like gender, like everyday structures of sociability.”

One look at the racks of fashion magazines that clutter every corner grocery and bookstore says all that’s necessary about Simmel’s relevance today.

“It’s clear that Simmel had an influence on the way people thought about modern culture,” Goodstein said, “But that influence has been forgotten, buried over, and denied in various kinds of ways. That’s one of the things that I am trying to rectify.”

Simmel wrote more than 20 books. But there are countless articles, correspondence and other written material that which never been released to the public that Goodstein is about to dive into.

To cover expenses for her year of study in Europe, Goodstein was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Research Fellowship from the Germany-based foundation of the same name.

The Humboldt Fellowship is quite prestigious. Just 500 are available each year to scholars worldwide, in all disciplines including the natural and social sciences, as well as the humanities.

While Goodstein’s affiliation will be with the University of Leipzig, she will be spending much of her time in Berlin, where her Humboldt fellowship host, Klaus-Christian Köhnke, is located. Köhnke has edited several volumes in the critical edition of Simmel’s works and will help Goodstein gain access to unpublished sources available only in Germany.

“I’ve been working on this project for quite a while, so I have a sense of what I want to do,” said Goodstein, who has written several papers and given talks on Simmel. “But I think you always have to go into

research—particularly into primary research—with a sense of openness. So in that sense I’m kind of hoping for surprises, even though I hope that my idea about the book won’t be completely transformed.”

Goodstein said that many of the questions she asks now—about culture, self-worth or a person’s place in the world—were once answered in religious terms. Now there is a secular aspect to answering these questions. It is her goal to empower students to answer these questions.

“There are plenty of people who don’t think [critically] about their lives, but I don’t think that the questions you ask in reflection are fundamentally different from the questions professionals ask. It’s just that the sort of apparatus, strategies and methods are different,” she said. “And this is the heart of why the problem of boredom is important. Because I think showing that within very ordinary experiences are enclosed all these deep questions of meaning and of identity and desire—the sorts of questions that tend to get treated in very philosophical sorts of texts—is crucial.”