Tuesday, December 23, 2014

Georg Simmel: The Metropolis and Mental Life

Back in the old days primitive man fought like mad just to provide for his bodily existence, writes Georg Simmel in George Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff. But now modern man must take arm against a sea of troubles "to preserve the autonomy and individuality of his existence in the face of overwhelming social forces, of historical heritage, of external culture, and of the technique of life."

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

The 18th century commanded each individual to take arm against the old hierarchies in state and religion and economics; the 19th century commanded us to seek "functional specialization" in our work and compare ourselves with others. Nietzsche saw life as a ruthless struggle between individuals; socialism saw the complete suppression of all competition.
[I]n all these positions the same basic motive is at work: the person resists to being leveled down and worn out by a social-technological mechanism.
What we have, in the metropolis, is "the intensification of nervous stimulation... and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions." It requires an intellectual response to life different than the tenor of rural life "which rests more upon deeply felt and emotional relationships."

This intellectuality is symbolized by the money economy. In the exchange economy of the metropolis everything "is reckoned with as a number."
Money is concerned only with what is common to all: it asks for the exchange value, it reduces all quality and quantity to the question: How much?
 In rural affairs, producer and consumer are acquainted.
The modern metropolis, however, is supplied almost entirely by production for the market, that is, for entirely unknown purchasers who never personally enter the producer's actual field of vision.
 The calculating nature of metropolitan life tends "to transform the world into an arithmetic problem" even to the necessity of promptness and "the punctual integration of all activities and mutual relationships into a stable and impersonal time schedule."
These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign trains and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without.
It is precisely this that thinkers like Nietzsche and Ruskin hated.

The neverending stimulation of metropolitan life has provoked a defense mechanism, the "blasé attitude," which deals with stimulation by refusing to react to the turmoil and intensification of experience of the urban experience. Thus, to the eyes of "small town people", the city dwellers seem "cold and heartless."

Against this is the fact that the metropolis "grants to the individual a kind and an amount of personal freedom which has no analogy whatsoever under other conditions." Small-town life sets up external and internal barriers against individual independence and expression that can only be overcome in the larger stage of the metropolis, its division of labor, and its geometrical expansion of horizons.

The objectivating spirit of the metropolis has yielded up amazing advances "in things and in knowledge, in institutions and in comforts" but also a "retrogression" of the spirit. This provokes some to extremes of individuality, "summoning the utmost in uniqueness and particularization, in order to preserve his most personal core... to exaggerate this personal element in order to remain audible even to himself."

Thus the metropolis provokes both "individual independence and the elaboration of individuality itself". There is a conflict between these two, the 18th century "general human being" and the 19th century "qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability."
The external and internal history of our time takes its course within the struggle and in the changing entanglements of these two ways of defining the individual's role in the whole of society. It is the function of the metropolis to provide the arena for this struggle and its reconciliation.
Next: Wrapup

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