- Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity
Winner of the Modern Language Association's 2005 award for Best First Book, Elizabeth Goodstein's Experience Without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity is a work impressive for its erudition and rigorous analysis. Experience Without Qualities is a genealogical study of the modern "modern discourse on boredom," a phrase referring both to a family of experiences and to the uses of language associated with them. (Although somewhat murkily introduced, a further distinction operates in Goodstein's account of the modern discourse on boredom, a distinction between language of boredom, language that is part of the expression of boredom, and language on boredom, language that is part of the reflection on boredom. It's the difference between saying, "I'm bored, there's nothing to do," and saying, "Powerlessness is the cause of boredom.") Goodstein believes the modern discourse on boredom exemplifies the modern rhetoric of reflection, the way of understanding and interpreting human experience that is historically and culturally specific to modernity. Through her genealogy of the modern discourse on boredom she hopes "to further the historical task of coming to terms with the fragmentation of subjective experience in the face of the dissolution of metanarratives that is the legacy of the Enlightenment." Experience without Qualities is a dense and complex text over 450 pages in length, and the account that follows necessarily fails to capture the richness that is a principal strength of the text.
As an introduction to her genealogy proper, Goodstein examines two contrasting contemporary accounts of boredom. These accounts serve as paradigmatic examples of idealist and materialist accounts of boredom and, by implication, subjectivity generally. Reinhard Kuhn's idealist account treats all social and historical forms of boredom as either incidental to or a manifestation of "ennui," an ahistorical feature of the human condition, an "encounter with nothingness" that is productive of human creativity. Wolf Lepenies's materialist account treats boredom as epiphenomenal, a symptom of "action-inhibition" and a way of legitimating a feeling of powerlessness. On one level, the two accounts provide competing types of explanations, but on another level both are [End Page 257] examples of the characteristic fallacy of the modern rhetoric of reflection, the abstraction of categories of language and their reification into things. Although Goodstein does not use the term, this fallacy could be called the "fallacy of misplaced concreteness." (This is a phrase that Alfred North Whitehead coined in connection with his critique of scientific materialism. Its use suggests the affinities between his critique and Goodstein's account of the modern rhetoric of reflection.)
In the case of Kuhn, the fallacy of misplaced concreteness takes the form of an abstraction drawn from the historically and culturally specific language of boredom that Kuhn and his audience share and its reification as an ahistorical principle that grounds Kuhn's idealist language on boredom. In the case of Lepenies, this fallacy takes the form of an abstraction drawn from the language of boredom and reified as the social practices that ground Lepenies's language on boredom. Neither Kuhn's idealist history nor Lepenies's materialist sociology recognize the historicity of the modern discourse on boredom.
Goodstein faults Kuhn and Lepenies for their failure to think through the relationship between the language of boredom and the language on boredom. The conditions that make this failure possible are addressed in Chapter 3, "Boredom and the Modernization of Subjectivity." This chapter describes the spread of Enlightenment skepticism in an environment of rapid political and economic change. Beginning toward the end of the eighteenth century and continuing to the middle of the nineteenth, a discursive paradigm shift occurs. The result is a rhetoric of reflection organized around a radically isolated subjectivity and a "clocktime" view of temporality, time as a series of empty, meaningless moments stretching forward in linear progression. This rhetoric of reflection maintains a tension between idealist and materialist accounts of experience within a materialist framework that medicalizes subjectivity.
Goodstein's genealogy of the modern discourse on boredom is strongly reminiscent of Foucault's genealogy of modernity...