Thursday, November 20, 2014

Georg Simmel: Social Humans at Play

If we think of humans as social animals, then our social actions can be considered as a deadly serious part of being human.

Back to start: The Unknown Sociologist.

But Georg Simmel in a chapter on "Sociability" in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated and edited by Kurt H. Wolff looks at social relations without a purpose, occasions when humans gather in social gatherings that have no purpose other than sociability. Simmel analyzes this sort of social interaction as "sociability as the play-form of sociation." You can think of the relation of sociability to sociation as "similar to that of the work of art to reality."

When people are engaged in the serious business of social cooperation with an objective purpose they restrain their personalities in the cause of furthering their interests, and so in business and commerce, rules of amiability, refinement, and cordiality apply.

But where no interest in involved, similar restraint or "tact" is still needed to regulate interpersonal relations. At a social gathering one is expected to leave behind "the purely and deeply personal traits of one's life" and things like "[w]eatlh, position, erudition, fame, exceptional capabilities and merits" are expected to be de-emphasized as a part of good manners.

Sociable man is a curious phenomenon. On the one hand he presents himself "only with the capacities, attractions, and interests with which is pure human-ness provides him. On the other hand, however, sociability also shies away from the entirely subjective and purely inwardly spheres of his personality." Displays of extremes of character are not appropriate. So pure sociability enacts "sociability thresholds," the one where individuals start to interact from objective motives and the other where "their entirely personal and subjective aspects make themselves felt."

There is, thus, an aspect of sociability that makes it a democracy of equals, and something that is played in a game where "the pleasure of the individual is closely tied up with the pleasure of others." It is a game where people act as if all were equal, and each honored in particular.

Simmel reviews specific examples of pure sociability, starting with "coquetry... the play form of eroticism", in which people play at eroticism without ever quite reaching an erotic acceptance or refusal. There is "conversation" where people "talk for the sake of talking" but without an object in view. There is the rehearsal of ethical questions, experiencing the friction between the individual and the collective and also the formation and splitting up of groupings, which can all be done in pure sociability without consequence.

Many social groupings start out with objective purposes and then relax into pure sociability, such as the brotherhoods of knights in the early German Middle Ages, that eventually relaxed into  "purely sociable aristocratic associations." And there was the courtly society of the French ancien rĂ©gime where the once-powerful French aristocracy was reduced at the court of Versailles to enacting a work of art: "imitating the reality of the models, of things outside of art itself."

Pure sociability, or "society," has a reputation of superficiality. 
Yet it is precisely the more serious person who derives from sociability a feeling of liberation and relief. He can do so because he enjoys here, as if in an art play, a concentration and exchange of effects that present all the tasks and all the seriousness of life in a sublimation[.]
No doubt that is why women have in recent centuries organized salons where serious people can go to enjoy sociable interactions without risking the dread consequence of real life.

Next: 18th and 19th century views of freedom

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