Tuesday, September 09, 2008

Some thoughts on Simmel and Modernism

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.


Dale said...

I thought Simmel's concept of how people interact in the city leaves a perfect gap for a discussion of the role of communication in city life. Simmel stresses the potential for an individual to be swallowed up in the mass culture of city life, and iterates the tendency of city dwellers to withdraw from emotional and personal interaction with fellow urbanites. But Simmel also says that the assertion of some form of individuality is a necessity. The need for expression is a void communication fills. I can be in a crowd of people I don't care about, yet carry on an individual conversation with MY friend on MY phone. We may all share a media market but I can make individual choices about which media I consume, and then express my individual opinions on the state of the world on a blog. I'm interested to hear if others think that sharing a communications network - like sharing a city - dissolves the individual in mass culture (as I think Simmel would argue) or creates outlets for individual expression.

Chris Rencontre said...

I agree that communication networks allow us to express our individuality. We choose as consumers which outlet or network to pay attention to, which puts us in control of the content and type of communication we wish to engage in.

We can and often do bump past each other, talking on our cell phones as we're swallowed up by the city. But I wonder if it's necessary to know everyone you pass by in order to feel the insideness that Relph talks about in the space of your life, in the place you live?

Sarah said...

I find it interesting that we think of urbanites as withdrawing from other urbanites. I think of it more as a single individual can only interact so much, no matter where they are, city or country. So, in the city, we notice this because there are more people than can be maintained positive interactions. For all we know, people in the country may be less prepared to handle many interactions, lacking practice and expectation, and actually withdraw more when confronted with an urban setting.

I think it might also be important to think about what medium the city dweller is communicating their individuality and the size of the audience. I've noticed that metropolises will have many more modes of physical expression (clothing, makeup, mode of transport etc) than smaller places. These physical modes, like blogs, being published typically to anyone who chances by, and that's a lot of people. In such mediums, asserting your particularity/extremity of identity becomes much more important because of the wider audience to compete with. Finding your own cranny is more difficult. In other mediums, like talking on the phone, or having a small party at home, or on a personal blog, or living in a small town, you're limited to a handful of listeners, and suddenly the particularities/extremity of your personality becomes more important than a constructed identity. Simultaneously, fitting in may also become more important. Maybe this relates more to the ideas of inside and outside. You have an inside identity and and outside identity in the city, and in the country, your outside identity is less developed because there's less outside.

I do feel as though I've made a lot of assumptions about non-city dwellers and may be out of touch.