Georg Simmel: The Metropolis and Mental Life

georg_simmelI am finally getting around to reading Georg Simmel’s (1858-1918) sociological and urban classic ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (download here) on the relationship between the city and the people within it. As per usual in reading the classic, most of what you thought you knew you didn’t know at all, and it manages to surprise you. This short essay packs quite an intellectual punch as well, connecting space and population density with economics with human striving and human behaviour in ways that many others never manage, even with the benefit of building on such work that does.

The deepest problems of modern life flow from the attempt of the individual to maintain the independence and individuality of his existence against the sovereign powers of society, against the weight of the historical heritage and the external culture and technique of life. (11)

I keep turning these things over in my mind, especially in relation to the things I have been thinking and reading that celebrate our connections to land, to culture, to community. Simmel’s celebration of individuality emerges from such a specific European, male, steeped-in-a-certain-tradition kind of place. This place:

The eighteenth century may have called for liberation from all the ties which grew up historically in politics, in religion, in morality and in economics in order to permit the original natural virtue of man, which is equal in everyone, to develop without inhibition; the nineteenth century may have sought to promote, in addition to man’s freedom, his individuality (which is connected with the division of labour) and his achievements which make him unique and indispensable but which at the same time make him so much the more dependent on the complementary activity of others … in each of these the same fundamental motive was at work, namely the resistance of the individual to being levelled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism. (11)

This  comparison makes even more salient Simmel’s focus on the difference between the city and the countryside, even more interesting that he should make newness and change the foundation of intellect as opposed to tradition and emotion:

The psychological foundation, upon which the metropolitan individuality is erected, is the intensification of emotional life due to the swift and continuous shift of external and internal stimuli. … To the extent that the metropolis creates these psychological conditions — with every crossing of the street, with the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life — it creates in the sensory foundations of mental life, and in the degree of awareness necessitated by our organization as creatures dependent on differences, a deep contrast with the slower, more habitual, more smoothly flowing rhythm of the sensory-mental phase of small town and rural existence. Thereby the essentially intellectualistic character of the mental life of the metropolis becomes intelligible as over against that of the small town which rests more on feelings and emotional relationships. These latter are rooted in the unconscious levels of the mind and develop most readily in the steady equilibrium of unbroken customs. The locus of reason, on the other hand, is in the lucid, conscious upper strata of the mind and it is the most adaptable of our inner forces (11-12)

Fascinating, too, that this translates for Simmel into pure intellectuality, and thus an instrumentality that facilitates a money economy and capitalism itself.

This intellectualistic quality which is thus recognized as a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis, becomes ramified into numerous specific phenomena…. money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one another. They have in common a purely matter-of-fact attitude in the treatment of persons and things in which a formal justice is often combined with an unrelenting hardness. The purely intellectualistic person is indifferent to all things personal…

There are at least two things going on here, I think. The first is the way that the form and crowdedness of the city is both ’cause and effect’ of a certain abstraction and the impersonal relationships of the money economy:

In certain apparently insignificant characters or traits of the most external aspects of life are to be found a number of characteristic mental tendencies. The modern mind has become more and more a calculating one. The calculating exactness of practical life which has resulted from a money economy corresponds to the ideal of natural science, namely that of transforming the world into an arithmetical problem and of fixing every one of its parts in a mathematical formula. It has been money economy which has thus filled the daily life of so many people with weighing, calculating, enumerating and the reduction of qualitative values to quantitative terms. … It is, however, the conditions of the metropolis which are cause as well as effect for this essential characteristic. The relationships and concerns of the typical metropolitan resident are so manifold and complex that, especially as a result of the agglomeration of so many persons with such differentiated interests, their relationships and activities intertwine with one another into a many-membered organism.

This organism, by reason of the crowded and always-changing nature of its spatiality, requires an ever greater temporal organisation:

For this reason the technique of metropolitan life in general is not conceivable without all of its activities and reciprocal relationships being organized and coordinated in the most punctual way into a firmly fixed framework of time which transcends all subjective elements … every event, however restricted to this superficial level it may appear, comes immediately into contact with the depths of the soul, and that the most banal externalities are, in the last analysis, bound up with the final decisions concerning the meaning and the style of life. Punctuality, calculability and exactness, which are required by the complications and extensiveness of metropolitan life, are not only most intimately connected with its capitalistic and intellectualistic character but also colour the content of life and are conductive to the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign human traits and impulses which originally seek to determine the form of life from within instead of receiving it from the outside in a general, schematically precise form. (13)

Separate from this, yet connected, is the manner in which the city’s inhabitants protect their own psyche and space. Simmel writes:

There is perhaps no psychic phenomenon which is so unconditionally reserved to the city as the blasé outlook. (14)

What does that mean exactly? It’s something I recognise as a city dweller, though I am not sure I agree with this description or analysis:

the blasé attitude — in which the nerves reveal their final possibility of adjusting themselves to the content and the form of metropolitan life by renouncing the response to them. We see that the self preservation of certain types of personalities is obtained at the cost of devaluing the entire objective world, ending inevitably in dragging the personality downward into a feeling of its own valuelessness. Whereas the subject of this form of existence must come to terms with it for himself, his self-preservation in the face of the great city requires of him a no less negative type of social conduct. The mental attitude of the people of the metropolis to one another may be designated formally as one of reserve. If the unceasing external contact of numbers of persons in the city should be met by the same number of inner reactions as in the small town, in which one knows almost every person he meets and to each of whom he has a positive relationship, one would be completely atomized internally and would fall into an unthinkable mental condition. (14-15)

That last sentence is interesting. With so much stimuli you are forced to shut down a little bit, forced to create some kind of shell of indifference. There is a resonance to this that perhaps I am not quite ready to grant to the rest, but it has me thinking in ways I find particularly fruitful:

Combined with this physiological source of the blasé metropolitan attitude there is another, which derives from a money economy. The essence of the blasé attitude is an indifference toward the distinctions between things. … the meaning and the value of the distinctions between things, and therewith of the things themselves, are experienced as meaningless. They appear to the blasé person in a homogeneous, flat and grey colour with no one of them worthy of being preferred to another… the correct subjective reflection of a complete money economy to the extent that money takes the place of all the manifoldness of things and expresses all qualitative distinctions between them in the distinction of how much. To the extent that money, with its colourlessness and its indifferent quality, can become a common denominator of all values, it becomes the frightful leveller — it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair. (14)

These two in combination, argues Simmel, leads to the particularities of the city resident as the blasé person — though he pushes it further:

Indeed, if I am not mistaken, the inner side of this external reserve is not only indifference but more frequently than we believe, it is a slight aversion, a mutual strangeness and repulsion which, in a close contact which has arisen any way whatever, can break out into hatred and conflict. The entire inner organization of such a type of extended commercial life rests on an extremely varied structure of sympathies, indifferences and aversions of the briefest as well as of the most enduring sort. (15)

It is from this aversion, this purposeful ignoring of others that leads us to move, to look away that creates what many love most about the city:

This reserve with its overtone of concealed aversion appears once more, however, as the form or the wrappings of a much more general psychic trait of the metropolis. It assures the individual of a type and degree of personal freedom to which there is no analogy in other circumstances. (15)

This is in distinction for other kinds of communities, Simmel sees an evolution from small cohesive circles to whom everyone outside is a foreigner to cities. These small, traditional communities he describes as having:

a rigorous setting of boundaries and a centripetal unity and for that reason it cannot give room to freedom and the peculiarities of inner and external development of the individual. (15)

In contrast to such communities, cities provide the needed room for both perception and development of the intellect — though there is a darker side to such freedom:

The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis, because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time. It is obviously only the obverse of this freedom that, under certain circumstances, one never feels as lonely and as deserted as in this metropolitan crush of persons. For here, as elsewhere, it is by no means necessary that the freedom of man reflect itself in his emotional life only as a pleasant experience. (16)

This, for Simmel, is the meaning of cosmopolitanism. I term I didn’t know he used, one thrown about a great deal these days.

It is rather in transcending this purely tangible extensiveness that the metropolis also becomes the seat of cosmopolitanism. Comparable with the form of the development of wealth … the individual’s horizon is enlarged.

It is curious the way that Simmel ties this back into the economy — not into its discourses or the way it shapes the mindset and commonsense of everyday life as before, but in its materiality. First, through rent, which he does not explore which frustrates me. Maybe in that massive tome he has written about money there is more:

This may be illustrated by the fact that within the city the `unearned increment’ of ground rent, through a mere increase in traffic, brings to the owner profits which are self-generating. At this point the quantitative aspects of life are transformed qualitatively. (17)

There is something in this, I think, about the freedom that this particular kind of profit gives. But he does not forget nature or labour:

Cities are above all the seat of the most advanced economic division of labour. … The decisive fact here is that in the life of a city, struggle with nature for the means of life is transformed into a conflict with human beings, and the gain which is fought for is granted, not by nature, but by man. (17)

All of this grayness, crowdedness, freedom combines so that:

one seizes on qualitative distinctions, so that … the attention of the social world can, in some way, be won for oneself. This leads ultimately to the strangest eccentricities, to specifically metropolitan extravagances of self-distantiation, of caprice, of fastidiousness, the meaning of which is no longer to be found in the content of such activity itself but rather in its being a form of `being different’ — of making oneself noticeable. For many types of persons these are still the only means of saving for oneself, through the attention gained from others, some sort of self-esteem and the sense of filling a position.

And you have such a brief time to make this impression. This seems only an interesting aside, making me think of all the characters I have known, walked past in their colourful bids for attention and differentiation. Making me think of fashion, our increasing aim to be distinctive and unique within given limits. But Simmel takes it further than that, makes it more interesting when thinking about concrete city spaces.

Here in buildings and in educational institutions, in the wonders and comforts of space-conquering technique, in the formations of social life and in the concrete institutions of the State is to be found such a tremendous richness of crystalizing, de-personalized cultural accomplishments that the personality can, so to speak, scarcely maintain itself in the fact of it. (19)

The idea that human beings are actually in competition somehow with the built environment, and the cultural panoply of modern life. This leads to particular kind of person:

When both of these forms of individualism which are nourished by the quantitative relationships of the metropolis, i.e. individual independence and the elaboration of personal peculiarities, are examined with reference to their historical position, the metropolis attains an entirely new value and meaning in the world history of the spirit.

No longer was it the`general human quality’ in every individual but rather his qualitative uniqueness and irreplaceability that now became the criteria of his value. In the conflict and shifting interpretations of these two ways of defining the position of the individual within the totality is to be found the external as well as the internal history of our time. It is the function of the metropolis to make a place for the conflict and for the attempts at unification of both of these in the sense that its own peculiar conditions have been revealed to us as the occasion and the stimulus for the development of both. Thereby they attain a quite unique place, fruitful with an inexhaustible richness of meaning in the development of the mental life. They reveal themselves as one of those great historical structures in which conflicting life-embracing currents find themselves with equal legitimacy. (19)

There is so much packed into this brief essay — only 9 pages. I look forward to coming back to it, and it is definitely the sort of piece brilliant for teaching, as I am sure students would read it in very different ways depending on their experience. This makes me want to return to Weber, Durkheim, the Frankfurt School — there is too little time in life to do everything.

Just two other asides, one on Ruskin and Nietzsche and anti-urban sentiment:

It is in the light of this that we can explain the passionate hatred of personalities like Ruskin and Nietzsche for the metropolis — personalities who found the value of life only in unschematized individual expressions which cannot be reduced to exact equivalents and in whom, on that account, there flowed from the same source as did that hatred, the hatred of the money economy and of the intellectualism of existence.

The second, a delightful commentary on London…

a point which I shall attempt to demonstrate only with the statement of the most outstanding English constitutional historian to the effect that through the entire course of English history London has never acted as the heart of England but often as its intellect and always as its money bag.

[Simmel, Georg (1903) ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in
Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds. The Blackwell City
Reader. Oxford and Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002.]

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