Experience Without Qualities. By Elizabeth Goodstein


Pp. 420 , Stanford CA , Stanford University Press , 2005 , $58.00 .

Goodstein provides a fascinating study of boredom as a phenomenon in the contemporary world and traces related concepts, such as malaise, ennui, melancholy, and acedia. She ties together threads from philosophy, history, religion, and the arts to absorb her audience in the problem of boredom. She argues that the ‘rise of the discourse on boredom is a symptom of the dissolution of the ‘intact sensibility’ in modernity’ (p. 398). She believes that boredom is a form of reflective consciousness that is part of a distinctly modern rhetoric about subjective malaise (p. 399). Relying on a dialectical understanding of historical development to provide the structure of her analysis, she believes that boredom cannot be identified with the older conditions of melancholy or acedia because the failures of the Enlightenment era have left modern humanity in a uniquely reflective position. Specifically, the traditional frameworks of meaning have failed and left a ‘hollow emptiness of self’ (p. 398). This cannot be equated with cynicism, but is related to a kind of skepticism that results from the failure of the Enlightenment claims about reason to produce meaning.

It is this dialectical methodology that makes the book engaging. Goodstein demonstrates her scholarly ability in bringing to her audience's attention important thinkers and constructs of boredom, as well as her analytic abilities by offering criticisms of these. I was especially interested in her analysis and critique of Critical Theory. Although rejecting religious interpretations of the world that posit fixed notions of the self, Critical Theory relies on an anachronistic vision of human existence as fixed, and therefore unintentionally perpetuates an idea that it claims to reject.

The modern phenomenon of boredom arises from the collapse of the meta-narratives that are the legacy of the Enlightenment (p. 400). This began with the Romantic shift away from the Enlightenment's view of self and reason, to a subjectivity and intuition that reject earlier traditions. Goodstein argues that where religious ideas of boredom, such as acedia, indicate a problem with the self, modernity's boredom is located as a problem with the world and its failure to excite through experience. In this sense, boredom came to be a sign of spiritual distinction, of metaphysical despair. As the nineteenth century became increasingly democratic, this experience was no longer limited to an artistic elite but trickled down to the public as well: ‘the bored poet was Parisian; Emma represents the arrival of ennui in the provinces’ (p. 173). Boredom became a sign that one has ‘seen through’ the affectations of society, has identified the problems that others cannot see.

Relying on Hegel's dialectical methodology to understand the historical movement from traditional religion to Enlightenment rationalism, to Romanticism and then to modernity helps her audience appreciate the flow of history in relation to ideas and the human need for meaning. As the need for meaning challenges a worldview narrative (thesis vs. antithesis), the synthesis is a new narrative that relies on the previous stages, and yet through critical self-reflection seeks to respond more adequately to the goal of making sense of the world. The suggestion that in modernity we are at the end-point of this interaction is, I believe, correct, but perhaps for reasons different than what Goodstein suggests. It is not that the modern world is past understanding due to its complexity, but that the fracturing of metanarratives indicates a significant misunderstanding of the role of reason in finding meaning that must be challenged and then moved past through critical reflection.

Contemporary boredom represents a kind of terminal point to this series; it is a skepticism that attempts to see through all metanarratives. Goodstein thus concludes by noting that today the problem is to live meaningfully in a world which surpasses understanding (p. 420). Quite the opposite of Hegel's end point of full self-knowledge and rational expression, this represents an existential contradiction in human being, one that Kant described through both our desire to find meaning and our inability to have comprehensive understanding (Goodstein indicates her departure from Hegel here in a footnote on p. 404). The inadequate explanation is supposed to give rise to the next synthesis - yet there is none. This is in fact what gives rise to modernity's boredom.

Interestingly, an alternative explanation is that Kant and Hegel themselves constitute a thesis that must be challenged and then surpassed. The posing of the problem by Kant and Hegel, that humans cannot know anything comprehensively, is a pseudo-problem on which their systems depend. Of course humans cannot know anything comprehensively, but it does not follow that we cannot know some things sufficiently. Specifically, it seems we must be able to know basic things sufficiently in order to know anything else. Basic things include distinctions between God and man, good and evil, meaningful and meaningless. Indeed, the very conclusion of her book requires that humans can distinguish between what is and is not meaningful. The complexity of the modern world should not be thought of as a threat to understanding, but instead as a deepening of the richness possible for human understanding: we know some basic things sufficiently, and the complexity of the world guarantees that if we so desire we can be absorbed in meaning as we seek to grow in understanding without limit – in this pursuit there is no room for boredom.