Optional Reading: Simmel, The Metropolis and Mental Life
As a school of thought, modernism has, since its inception, hinged on ambivalence and discord, of the sort articulated by Georg Simmel in The Metropolis and Mental Life. Simmel, through his work on the metropolis, articulates a vision of modernity that is open-ended and dissonant, where urban subjects, fresh from the bonds of regressive small town life, nonetheless feel the realities of intellectual distance while in the crowded streets of the metropolis (40). Simmel’s observation that “one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons” (40) should be a foundational truth of modernism, and relates to Simmel’s own vision of the dual nature of urban existence. In this view, a conflict exists between “the objective spirit over the objective” (43), as the forces of material progress march dramatically ahead of the progression of individual culture. This is a result of a growing division of labor coupled with the feeling of an overwhelming material culture, and has led the modern subject to a feeling of helplessness and despair. In a particularly striking phrase, he blames “the atrophy of individual culture through the hypertrophy of objective culture” (44) as the reason for an embrace of “extreme individualism", an understanding of the modern as only that which is destructive.
Simmel, however, is neither optimistic nor pessimistic. Instead, he argues that the only proper course of action is to understand the modern city, not to judge it. Simmel articulates a fascinating conception of place, situating the built form of the urban environment as the premier site for the articulation of a distinctly modernist identity. He conceptualizes two visions of individual culture: that of the cry for justice and equality, and that of the desire, from the romantics and the division of labor, for individuals to articulate themselves as different from one another. Far from existing as an abstract category, the modern metropolis is instead the “occasion and stimulus” (45) for the development of these urges. Cities become “one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy” (45). Simmel’s view brings to mind Michel de Certeau’s observation of the city as “simultaneously the machinery and the hero of modernity” (1984, 95).
Despite writing in 1903, Simmel’s thoughts on the metropolitan environment are still compelling and thought provoking. His insistence on ambivalence, characterized by his dialectic between objective culture and individual culture, allow for an open-ended approach to the city that rejects easy categorization. Questions that come to mind include the idea of an urban attitude within the massive growth of global urbanism in our era, as well as the connection between his mental categories and historical developments like mass communication, global networks, and the repositioning of place within globalization. In particular, how does place as a dialectical category function within the growth of networks and supposed annihilation of space by increasingly networked and interdependent locales? Additionally, Simmel’s use of gendered language and abstract, euro-centric approaches to citizenry open him up to a reread from the standpoint of gender or immigration. Ultimately, it’s a matter of reading Simmel as a model and embracing the particularities of global urban places in their similar and dissimilar ways.