When the subject of boredom comes up, Elizabeth Goodstein gets
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 itand
heran ideal fit for Emorys interdisciplinary Graduate
Institute of Liberal Arts.
There are very few places like Emory, said Goodstein,
assistant professor of European social thought. She joined the ILAs
faculty in 1999 after teaching for two years at the University of
Rochester. Its wonderful to be in a place where the
interdisciplinarity of my work is an advantage instead of something
that has to be explained.
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 peoples 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, isnt true. The term boredom didnt
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. Its a peculiarly modern
way of thinking about thingsits very materialist and
its based on a rationalized world view that comes out of the
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, boredomas
the title of her book impliesis a modernist quality. The study
of modernism and finding new ways to interpret old subjectslike
cultureties neatly into Goodsteins 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
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 thats
weve 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 thats necessary about Simmels
Its 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. Thats one of the things that I am trying to
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 Goodsteins 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
Simmels works and will help Goodstein gain access to unpublished
sources available only in Germany.
Ive 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
researchparticularly into primary researchwith a sense
of openness. So in that sense Im kind of hoping for surprises,
even though I hope that my idea about the book wont be completely
Goodstein said that many of the questions she asks nowabout
culture, self-worth or a persons place in the worldwere
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 dont think [critically]
about their lives, but I dont think that the questions you
ask in reflection are fundamentally different from the questions
professionals ask. Its 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 desirethe sorts
of questions that tend to get treated in very philosophical sorts
of textsis crucial.