Thursday, November 27, 2014

George Simmel: The Individual and the "Dyad"

We think of sociology as the individual and society. But Georg Simmel in The Sociology of Georg Simmel translated by Kurt H. Wolff takes us to a more basic consideration, the individual and the "dyad", or the individual as part of a two-person social relationship.

But first, consider the situation of the "isolated" individual. Actually, we are not talking here about an individual that is "physically alone" as one might be on a walk in the mountains. The feeling of isolation is much more intense
when one is a stranger, without relations, among many physically close persons, at a "party", on a train, or in the traffic of a large city.
In other words, isolation is not the aloneness of an individual; it is the separation of the social individual from the rest of society. "As a conscious feeling on the part of the individual, it represents a very specific relation to society."

But then there is freedom, which seems at first glance to be closely related to isolation, but it is decisively different. On the one hand we can see that society -- as  "the state, the party, the family... friendship or love -- quite naturally... would extend their claims over the whole of man." Against this relentless pressure to conform to the expectations of others, "freedom emerges as a continuous process of liberation" for personal independence and also the right to remain dependent. On the other hand "the individual does not just want to be free, but use his freedom for some purpose", including "the extension of his will over others."

Thus we see that "isolation" and "freedom" are not external to the notion of humans as social individuals, but particular instances of genuinely human "sociation." The "dyad", the relation between two individuals or two groups is equally social. And the dyad has a particular characteristic unlike the isolation or freedom of the individual or a group of three or more people; if one person drops out of the dyad, it ceases to exist. The point is that any large group can be immortal; but the dyad cannot.

Simmel writes at length about the characteristics of the dyad. He starts with triviality. We tend to value things that are unique and rare, and undervalue things that are routine and commonplace. Clearly, a dyadic relationship, with its daily repetition of the commonplace, can descend into triviality, and "the tone of triviality frequently becomes desperate and fatal."

Then there is intimacy. For Simmel intimacy refers to the "ingredients that its participants contribute to [the relationship} and to no other" if they are regarded to be essential, forming the "affective structure" which the two show to each other and to nobody else. It is clear that intimacy is closely related to the exclusive nature of the dyad; intimacy withers as soon as a third element is introduced into the relationship.

Obviously the iconic case of the dyad is a monogamous marriage, and yet is isn't. For marriage typically leads to children, and then the dyad is broken. And marriage does not exist in isolation as merely two people. There is the family in general, the children, and the fact that marriage is "socially regulated and historically transmitted." Men and women are not just confronted by each other in marriage, but by the collectivity itself.

There is another curious characteristic of the dyad. It does not permit the two members to slough off duties and responsibilities to the larger group, as when people expect society to do what is properly their own responsibility. In a dyad there is a "co-responsibility for all collective actions." You can push a responsibility on the other member, but the other member can push right back. You can't hide behind the group or blame the group, because the other person cannot be fooled. In other words, it is hard to be a "free-loader" in a dyad.

Simmel now considers the "expansion of the dyad," or what happens when you introduce an additional member into a two-person relationship. It could intensify the relationship, or it could distract it. And it could provoke jealousy. Once you introduce a third member into a dyad it becomes possible to overrule a member with a majority of the others. This is fine if you are a person with "strong individuality" that wants to fight rather than blend in. It's not fine for the "decided individual" that will avoid groups "where it might find itself confronted by a majority." Also, as soon as you expand a dyad into a group you risk the lowering of individuality to the group level that is particularly evident in crowds.

Thus the decisive change for a dyad is the first additional member: the first child to a marriage, but not the subsequent child. And the same applies to bigamy(!). The addition of the third wife is nothing compared to the addition of the second wife. Notice that in Rome there were two Consuls, not three. Yet there is a different relation between two political parties, where "who is not for me is against me." But when two parties dissolve into a single mass movement there is no room for opposition or disagreement. There is only "yes" and "no" for the whole collectivity.

Next: Expansion of the dyad.

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