Tag Archives: sociology

Georges Perec: Species of Space

Georges Perec Species of SpaceGeorge Perec is an author whose work fills me with delight, Species of Space and the other pieces found in this collection are wonderful. Insightful. Playful. Everyday. Extraordinary. Not least because he loves lists as much as I do, more perhaps. I read his piece on the  Place Sans-Sulpice, and meant to read this too before going to Paris. So now it calls me back.

I particularly love how Perec is obsessed with space, but approaches it completely differently than would a planner, an architect, an urbanist. He approaches it from multiple directions, but almost none of them overlap with such work. The whole of Species of Space is to be found in this compilation, and excerpts from a few other works. I am almost annoyed at this stolen peek at them, because I loved this so much I shall have to go back and read all the rest.

Species of Space

It opens with this:

Perec map of the oceanHurrah.

In short order you have a wonderful definition of our experience of space.

In short, spaces have multiplied, been broken up and have diversified. There are spaces today of every kind and every size, for every use and every function. To live is to pass from one space to another, while doing your very best not to bump yourself. (6)

There are poems from Paul Eluard, playful drippings of words and letters across the page, plenty of empty white space between black typography.

This is how space begins, with words only, signs traced on the blank page. To describe space: to name it, to trace it, like those portolano-makers who saturated the coastlines with the names of harbours…

Space as inventory, space as invention. Space begins with that model map in the old editions of the Petit Larousse Illustre, which used to represent something like 65 geographical terms in 60 sq, cm., miraculously brought together, deliberately abstract. (13)

I remember my own childhood pouring over something like the English equivalent of such a book, full of maps and descriptions and magic. A memory of being inordinately proud of a map of South America I drew. I feel as though that memory is housed in the trailer, which means I was not more than five.

Perec gives us this, a gift:

Sitting deep in thought at their tables, writers are forming lines of words.

An idealized scene. Space as reassurance. (15)

Is this partly what I love about writing?

From here he starts on the spaces of lived experience. He starts from the inside out so to speak, with the bed itself. An interesting choice, I feel a good one. Each thing he describes, he begins with the most banal and simple of descriptions, but it serves to take something familiar and make it suddenly unfamiliar — and because the time and space between us, what is familiar to Perec is in fact not always familiar to me.

A few other banalities:

We spend more than a third of our lives in bed. (19)

Moves on to the bedroom, notes the curious fact that he can visually reconstruct every room he’s ever slept in. A few observations:


What does it mean, to live in a room? Is to live in a place to take possession of it? …

Placid small thought no 1

Any cat-owner will rightly tell you that cats inhabit houses much better than people do. Even in the most dreadfully square spaces, they know how to find favourable corners. (24)

That is honestly one of the most insightful things I have ever read … because of course cats do. The question is, how?

From there to the apartment.

I don’t know, and don’t want to know, where functionality begins or ends. It seems to me, in any case, that in the ideal dividing-up of today’s apartments functionality functions in accordance with a procedure that is unequivocal, sequential and nycthemeral. (28)

The footnote? ‘This is the best phrase in the whole book!’

I might agree. I had to look up nycthemeral:

Adjective — Designating or characterized by a variation that occurs in a period of twenty-four hours, especially corresponding to the contrast between day and night. (Oxford Dictionary)

From here he proceeds to give an outline in three columns — time | activity | room. Again, the taken-for-granted of French housewife– working husband–child in school becomes estranged, and for me now so removed from such a life, really quite interesting.

The final section:


We don’t think enough about staircases.

Nothing was more beautiful in old houses than the staircases. Nothing is uglier, colder, more hostile, meaner, in today’s apartment buildings.(38)

I suddenly thought what a difference it would make to give modern apartment buildings wonderful, beautiful staircases.

We move on to the apartment building. Then to the Street.

The buildings stand one beside the other. They form a straight line. They are expected to form a line, and it’s a serious defect in them when they don’t do so. They are then said to be ‘subject to alignment’, meaning that they can by rights be demolished, so as to be rebuilt in a straight line with the others. (46)

I can’t believe this is a thing everywhere, it definitely was in LA.

He looks at ‘practical exercises’ for understanding the street —

Carry on
Until the scene becomes improbable.
until you have the impression, for the briefest of moments, that you are in a strange town or, better still, until you can no longer understand what is happening or is not happening, until the whole place becomes strange, and you no longer even know that this is what is called a town, a street, buildings, pavement… (53)


On to the neighbourhood.

Death of a Neighbourhood

What I miss above all is the neighbourhood cinema, with its ghastly advertisements for the dry cleaner’s on the corner. (58)

A curious question, a provoking question that immediately raises in me a great rushing of answers:

Why not set a higher value on dispersal? Instead of living in just one place, and trying in vain to gather yourself together there, why not have fix or six rooms dotted about Paris? (59)

On to the Town. On to the countryside.

I don’t have a lot to say concerning the country: the country doesn’t exist. It’s an illusion.

For most people of my kind, the country is a decorative space surrounding their second home…(68)

That I find rather hilarious. As I do the whole section on the ‘Village Utopia’ (70), where you know everyone, live happily, recognize all the birds. It kind of reminds me of the Stuart Lee sketch about the family who leave London for the country and start by praising the pony and end begging for him to visit and to bring cocaine. This is not nearly as obvious, however. The next section is on the ‘Nostalgic (and false) alternative’ (71) — between putting down roots or living completely rootless. They are interesting posed this way.

On to the country. Europe. Old Continent. New Continent. The World.

In getting to know a few square meters, Perec writes

And with these, the sense of the world’s concreteness, irreducible, immediate, tangible, of something clear and closer to us: of the world, no longer as a journey having constantly to be remade, not as a race without end, a challenge having constantly to be met, not as the one pretext for a despairing acquisitiveness, nor as the illusion of a conquest, but as the rediscovery of a meaning, the perceiving that the earth is a form of writing, a geography of which we had forgotten that we ourselves are the authors. (79)

And on to space. A quote from Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics. I don’t really like Italo Calvino, but I love Lawrence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, which Perec seems to love as much as I do and quotes from often and at length.

Then there is this extraordinary list, already pulled out and set in a blog alone because I treasure it, but repeated again in its context, where perhaps it sits a bit differently:

The Uninhabitable

The uninhabitable: Seas used as a dump, coastlines bristling with barbed wire, earth bare of vegetation, mass graves, piles of carcasses, boggy rivers, towns that smell bad

The uninhabitable: The architecture of contempt or display, the vainglorious mediocrity of tower blocks, thousands of rabbit hutches piled one above the other, the cutprice ostentation of company headquarters

The uninhabitable: the skimped, the airless, the small, the mean, the shrunken, the very precisely calculated

The uninhabitable: the confined, the out-of-bounds, the encaged, the bolted, walls jagged with broken glass, judas windows, reinforced doors

The uninhabitable: shanty towns, townships

The hostile, the grey, the anonymous, the ugly, the corridors of the Metro, public baths, hangars, car parks, marshalling yards, ticket windows, hotel bedrooms

factories, barracks, prisons, asylums, old people’s homes, lycees, law courts, school playgrounds (89-90)

Followed by another disquieting paragraph

Such places don’t exist, and it’s because they don’t exist that space becomes a question, ceases to be self-evident, ceases to be incorporated, ceases to be appropriated. Space is a doubt: I have constantly to mark it, to designate it. It’s never mine, never given to me, I have to conquer it. (91)

Species of Space closes with the best index I have ever seen.

Georges PerecPenser / Classer (1985)

In ‘Notes on What I’m Looking For’, Perec describes four modes of his work, and this makes great sense of Species of Space and the other things I have read — and have yet to read. They are

‘sociological’: how to look at the everyday.

an autobiographical order (141)

The third is ludic and relates to my liking for constraints, for feats of skill, for ‘playing scales’….

the fictive, the liking for stories and adventures, the wish to write the sort of books that are devoured lying face down on your bed. (142)

Then there is ‘Notes Concerning the Objects that are on my Work Table’, a list, a thinking through of all the ways to arrange a desk (he has an ammonite in his desk!).  There is ‘Brief Notes on the Art and Manner of Arranging One’s Books. The stacks of books to read, half read, to be shelved…the constant rearranging by theme, by author. It is such an intimate look at a life so like mine it is uncanny, a  friendship across years and miles.

A little later on you discover in ‘Reading: A Socio-physiological Outline’ that when Perec visits a friends house he raids their bookshelves for all the things he has long wanted to read, then retreats with a stack of them to his room to read through the night.

‘L’Infra-ordinaire’ (1989)

From ‘Approaches to What’, one of my very favourite quotes from the book, one that unexpectedly captures as well as Rob Nixon’s concept of ‘slow violence’ the difference between the spectacular and the everyday:

In our haste to measure the historic, significant and revelatory, let’s not leave aside the essential: the truly intolerable, the truly inadmissible. What is scandalous isn’t the pit explosion, it’s working in coalmines. ‘Social problems’ aren’t ‘a matter of concern’ when there’s a strike, they are intolerable twenty-four hours out of twenty-four, three hundred and sixty-five days a year. (209)

He perhaps captures even better at the level of the individual why these kind of problems are not better understood, better struggled against.

To question the habitual. But that’s just it, we’re habituated to it. We don’t question it, it doesn’t question us, it doesn’t seem to pose a problem, we live it without thinking, as if carried within neither questions nor answers … This is no longer even conditioning, it’s anaesthesia. We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep. But where is our life? Where is our body? Where is our space? (210)

A final, brilliant admonition that shall remain with me forever in the daily rituals of life.

Question your tea spoons. (210)

He wrote an amazing piece on the Rue Vilin — where I am headed next time I am in Paris. The street his family lived on, where he lived until he was five. He returns and describes it shop by shop, building by building, sign by sign, at different times of day (all noted of course) in February 1969, June 1970, January 1971, November 1972, November 1974, November 1975. We witness the death of the street as it was. It is poignant, extraordinary, while it never rises above concrete description.

A collection of postcard messages rendered extraordinary by being grouped together. A puzzle, recurring styles, so many good meals and sunburns.

A list of everything Perec has ‘ingurgitated’ over the whole of 1974. What struck me most? He gives years for each of the wines.

All together, as I say, this was a book combining delight and insight. I also loved that this ended with some of Perec’s (impossible, also slightly problematic) word games constructed for his friends, and a few from the translator.

I will now go read everything else he has written. Except maybe the novel without the letter e.

[Perec, Georges (1997) Species of Space and Other Pieces, edited & translated by John Sturrock. London: Penguin Books.]






Lyn Lofland: Relationships with and within the public realm

lyn-lofland-public-realmThe second among a series of posts on Lyn Lofland’s The Public Realm (part 1 is here) — packed so full of food for thought I don’t even know how many courses this meal will be. I just don’t know where I have been for this ongoing sociological discussion on how we inhabit public spaces. Maybe the room next door. Maybe the wrong side of the tracks. So you’ll forgive me if I catch up a bit through Lofland’s work…

We return to the nature of our interactions in human space, and Lofland’s rebuttal of  what she calls the ‘stimulus overload’ arguments of Simmel (read about those here) and Wirth (coming soon). We return to her favourite quartet of Gregory Stone, Jane Jacobs, Erving Goffman and William Whyte, who countered these arguments by showing the rich interactional life happening in cities. Lofland argues:

… public realm interaction is patterned because, far from “shutting down,” persons in urban space appear to be paying careful attention to what I shall here conceive of as “principles of stranger interaction.” (27)

She gives five such principles, which I have enjoyed pondering as I move about public spaces (and realms):

(1) cooperative motility — ‘strangers work together to traverse space without incident…’ (29) The dance noted by Jacobs. ‘Most of the time our movement through the public realm is simply uneventful, and it is so because humans are cooperating with one another to make it so.’

(2) civil inattention

There is, to me, a mightily perceptive quote from Erving Goffman on race, class, age, disability as exceptions to civil inattention…

for example, the “hate stare” that a Southern white sometimes gratuitously gives to Negroes walking past him. It is also possible for one person to treat others as if they were not there at all, as objects not worthy of a glance, let alone close scrutiny… Here we have “nonperson” treatment, in may be seen in our society in the way we sometime treat children, servants, Negroes and mental patients. Currently in our society, this kind of treatment is to be contrasted with the kind generally felt to be more proper in most situations, which will here be called “civil inattention.” (1963a, p29)

Lofland continues:

Civil inattention suggests that when humans in the public realm appear to ignore one another, they do so not out of psychological distress but out of a ritual regard, and their response is not the asocial one of “shut down” but the fully social one of politeness. (30)

This distinction between civil inattention and dismissal is such an important one, such a slippery one, it’s something I want to come back to.

(3) audience role prominence

An interesting quote of Suzanne and Henry Lennard’s Public Life in Urban Spaces:

Successful public places accentuate the dramatic qualities of personal and family life. They make visible certain tragic, comic and tender aspects of relationships among friends, neighbors, relatives or lovers. They also provide settings for a gamut of human activities. (1984:21-22, p 31)

(4) restrained helpfulness

…requests for mundane assistance and positive responses to those requests are the mundane “stuff” of everyday stranger encounters — so unremarkable that in many studies they are not even mentioned or mentioned only in passing. (32)

(5) civility toward diversity

One of the more interesting aspects of this principle is that it seems to excite remark only in its breach…Only the very few instances of observed incivility made it into my notes.

Interesting how the idea of realms impacts this:

Where the boundaries between the three realms are unclear or disputed or, even more simply, at border points between them, ruptures in the moral order are not only possible but are, under some conditions, probable. (33)

So… Unlike Wirth or Simmel, Lofland writes

Far from being a given, the absence of verbal or visual exchanges must be achieved. In fact and paradoxically, privacy, disattention, and avoidance can only be accomplished by means of principles-guided social interaction. (34)

This provides a strong disincentive for interaction — in polite and meaningful ways that help us all get through the urban tangle every day. What then provides incentive for the opposite in a positive way? The kinds of things you might like to foster as a planner or designer of space?

Lofland lists a few things that ‘either nullify the principles or provide legitimate exceptions to them.’

open persons: individuals who because of subordinate (child, disabled) or occupational (policeman) status or because of situationally specific identities (fellow American in China) are seen as more available for an encounter than others.

open regions: locales (for example drinking establishments, residence lounges of hotels, city streets during carnival, some cafes) in which all the inhabitants are mutually accessible to each other

triangulation: a term introduced by William H. Whyte and defined by him as a “process by which some external stimulus provides a linkage between people and prompts strangers to talk to each other as though they were not [strangers]” (39)

Dogs, children, art…those kinds of things. I remember that from his book.

This is perhaps even more interesting:

Finally, the public realm’s governing principles may be employed to express, to create, to re-create, to fabricate, or to refashion societal or regional or local systems of equality and inequality…. we need to understand that the principles themselves are instruments for communicating equality. To use them is to proffer to surrounding strangers the gift of what Goffman called “ritual deference.” (39)

She continues

In sum, to give other ritual deference via the principles implies that one understands them to possess a basic level of humanness… (40)

This means, of course, that the opposite is also true, ‘that their violation or misapplications are effective in perpetuating systems of inequality.‘ (40) This goes back to that distinction between civil inattention and either the hate stares or not giving people the respect of your attention. It is why I find this such an interesting thing to study and think about in terms of emancipatory practice both in planning and in everyday life…

To shift gears just a little though, the next chapter (The Relational Web in Public spaces: Persons, Places, Connections) contains a good summary of existing literature on the kinds of interactions taking place in public space (though it leaves aside the above question for the most part). Lofland writes:

As a social territory, the public realm is not merely the locus of rule-guided interactions, it is also the locus of a complex web of relationships. Some of these, of course, are created and have their anchorage in the private or parochial realms, as when lovers attend the theater of neighbours sit in the park. To understand what goes on in public realm space requires that we be sensitive to the presence, frequency, and spacial magnitude of such nonpublic relational forms. (51)

We need new vocabularies for relationship types, here are her suggestions:

Fleeting relationships: most representative in terms of sheer volume, of brief duration between strangers — “Can you tell me the time” etc. (53)

Routinized Relationships: often what sociologists refer to as secondary , she prefers routinized ‘because I want to emphasize the relatively standardized character of the interaction in such relationships — the interaction-as-learned-routine.’ (54) Regular customers at a McDonalds etc…

Both fleeting and routinized relationships are probably most fruitfully analyzed in terms of the interactions they produce. Viewed as relationships, they are too brief and/or too standardized to be of any sustained sociological interest. But both are capable of transformation… (55)

Quasi-primary relationships:

created by relatively brief encounters (a few minutes to several hours) between strangers or between those who are categorically known to one another. (55)

Chat between dog-owners for example.

Intimate-Secondary Relationships:

… unlike quasi-primary relationships, they are relatively long-lasting: running the gamut from from a duration of weeks or months to one of many years. Anyone who has done observations in public spaces…has most certainly encountered relationships of this sort, for example, among elderly persons who congregate in and enjoy encounters with the other customers of “downtown” restaurants… (56-57)

There exists a great relational fluidity — it is important to remember that these relationships are fluid, can move and change between between these forms, and not necessarily in a straightforward progression.

Lofland argues (and I have found this myself) that much sociological literature puts primary relationships before secondary, it makes the moral judgement that they are ‘best’. I think that is almost intuitive, at least for me as this makes me pause to examine my own understandings. Interestingly this has been challenged, and I think rightly. Lofland looks at Ray Oldenburg’s (1989) work on ‘the third place’ – “a generic designation for a great variety of public places that host the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of work and home.” She looks at Sennet’s The Uses of Disorder (1970), and The Fall of the Public Man (1977). All of course arguing that public places matter, these encounters matter and alongside deeper relationships they are important for how we relate to both society and place.

There is more in here as well around ‘place’ as opposed to ‘space’, building on Edward Relph (1976) and Yi-Fu Tuan (1977), Lofland writes:

Places are especially meaningful spaces, rich in associations and steeped in sentiment. (64)

For many, (see Firey (1945), Herbert Gans writing about the urban village, Marc Fried’s (1963) work on displaced) place was private or parochial space, but Relph and Yi-Fu Tuan have opened up this feeling of meaning as it is also applied to public realms.

‘Towards a language of Public Realm Space” works to connect some of these ideas to the built environment and space. It tries to find a way to better study and understand

person-to-place connection in its own right and not simply to subsume it as a by-product of human-to-human involvements. (65)

Lofland looks at three different connections in this effort:

Memorized Locales: …small pieces of the public realm that, because of events that happened and/ or because of some object (e.g. a statue) that resides within them, take on, for some set of person, the aura of “sacred places” (65)

This is not so much in a religious sense, as in the way it holds importance — for example a ‘gay monument’ in Amsterdam.

Familiarized Locales: Paths/Rounds/Ranges: …refers to locales that persons encounter or move through on a daily or nearly daily basis and with which they establish a familiar relationship … makes possible the repeated fleeting relationships that transform strangers into “familiar strangers” … but even in the absence of these human links, the physical objects that compose and are visible…can come, with repeated exposure, to seem like old friends. (66)

Hangouts and Home Territories:

This builds on Marvin Scott (1967), arguing they are

…areas where the regular participants have a relative freedom of behavior and a sense of intimacy and control over the area. (69)

These can be public spaces, so in any public space, there may be multiple kinds of use occurring from those occupying it as a home territory to complete strangers and everyone in between. Thus the same space in the same moment of time can have varying feelings of place to different people present.

And of course, all of this sits within a larger context of life and space. The possibilities for different kind of relational webs within spaces depends on larger frameworks — the very different relationships to public space that the medieval city dweller had for example, but also the differences in relationship to space that might depend on other factors such as race or nationality.

There is just so much to think about here, and I am not yet done.


[Lofland, Lyn H. (1998) The Public Realm: Exploring the City’s Quintessential Social Territory. New York: Aldine de Gruyter)

More on The Public Realm

and even more…



Aldon Morris bringing W.E.B. Du Bois to life at the LSE

On Thursday I had the opportunity to go to a most powerful and inspiring lecture from Aldon Morris on W.E.B. Du Bois — a lecture in the language and rolling alliterative cadences of civil rights struggle which was such a pleasure and inspiration to listen to. It was wonderful to feel how language and subject can transform a space, bring a sense of history and movement to fill the air and the soul. Even better that it should be as the ‘British Journal of Sociology 2016 Annual Public Lecture’, best of all to find it in a place become as corporate as LSE.

A shame, as the LSE is no stranger to movement, and still has a number of vibrant scholars.

22493Aldon Morris wrote what may be my favourite book looking at the Civil Rights Movement — it’s hard to limit myself given how much good work is out there, but it may well be true. I have been working through another collection he co-edited on social movement, and I am looking forward to reading more about Du Bois (whose book on Philadelphia published in 1899 made me question everything I knew about the field of urban studies — but not deeply enough I realise) and the men and women who forged an engaged and meaningful sociology with him at Atlanta University — all highlighted in Morris’s latest work The Scholar Denied.

23493879I will save a deep engagement with Morris’s argument for the happy time when I manage to read my newly-signed copy ( I got a hug too! As if my evening were not already awesome). I just wanted to remember the things that most remained with me from the lecture.  First how it struck me that this book is not just about granting Du Bois his rightful place in the canon — important as that is. That alone would surely be too little too late.  The importance of returning to Du Bois lies in his continuing significance in both the substance and method of our own thought and scholarship, primarily — and to paraphrase — in the ways he was about challenging paradigms, disrupting narratives, and illuminating truths. There was such a clarity about the ways in which the dismissal of Du Bois and the importance of his work has led to an impoverished sociology from its beginnings. This is what needs to be challenged so that it is never forgotten — and of course the challenge continues as part of the struggle to increase a diversity of background and experience within sociology — the key to avoiding similar impoverishment today.

What Du Bois did in his own time was to challenge the prevailing, and sloppy, car-window sociology and theorisations based upon the unchallenged fallacies of Jim Crow racism. He set out to challenge and prove that these unquestioned beliefs were in fact myth. I had forgotten that he was a trained historian rather than sociologist, and so he always contextualised his work within the history of the rise of racist mythologies (more and more I think this historical contextualisation is the key to understanding all injustice). To do so he chose to live and work within Black communities, to interview people to bring their voices to bear on these questions, to understand their experiences, and in that way to create a body of evidence through fieldwork to support the absolute destruction of a biological basis for white supremacy in Black inferiority.

Three of Du Bois’s many contributions:

  • the theorisation of the global colour line — not just in the US but as a global phenomenon emerging out of colonialism
  • Idea of double-consciousness, and a prefiguring of intersectionality
  • the importance of standpoint — he turned the whole formulation of the ‘Negro’ problem (still being asked by Myrdal and others decades later) upside down, asking people ‘how does it feel to be a ‘problem?’ He worked to challenge the construction of such ideas and the privileging, the normalising, of the white viewpoint. Such unquestioned normalisation is the essence of shoddy scholarship, is it not?

Then, of course, there is his work for the NAACP, his continuing engagement in social justice movement, his support of students in radical struggle, and their right to be radical and fight as they felt called — the way he continues to be a model for scholars in how they understand and change the world.

This hardly does justice to either the content or the kind of inspiration to be gained that evening — but the podcast from LSE can be found here. The evening came as a crown to a truly lovely, if very long day, and I shared those final hours with Ules, still finishing his PhD on migrants and their relationships with charity. Both of us felt a similar happiness, I think, in hearing a Black scholar reclaim the radical righteousness of Du Bois in LSE’s Old Building. Even if we were shafted in a rather disgraceful organisational breakdown that meant the reception scheduled to take place after the lecture was unexpectedly cancelled at the end of the talk.

I was tired, though. That morning had started with a few hours on the train from Bristol, then a very long coffee then lunch then pastries in Russell Square with friends-who-are-really-family, Geoffrey and Heather from The Circle Works. Some talking about space and community building and care. Then a quick walk up to the British Library to meet with the wonderful Debbie Humphrey for the first time. She was interviewing me for City‘s website and made me feel like my stories and articles had some real value, it was such an honour and a pleasure though I was incredibly long-winded. Next time, of course, I shall have to be the one interviewing her, because her photographs are spectacular and her work fascinating and full of insight on the lived experience of housing and struggle. Some of my favourite things. There is much I miss about London, if only it weren’t eating itself.



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.]



The Philadelphia Negro: A Social Study

The Philadelphia NegroW.E.B. Du Bois ([1899], 1995) The Philadeplphia Negro: A Social Study. University of Pennsylvania Press

Du Bois is unquestionably the father of modern Sociology, the more of this I read, the angrier I became that this is not universally recognized. This book is extraordinary. It doesn’t escape all of the faults of its time (this was published in 1899!), but the level of rigorous scholarship and its depth of insight floored me just a bit. What also floored me was how very little things have changed, and that was heartbreaking. But the key to why Du Bois is not a larger figure in Sociology as a whole, rather than Black studies is here: the incredibly insulting terms under which he was given the work of producing this volume at all:

At the University of Pennsylvania I ignored the pitiful stipend. It made no difference to me that I was put down as an “assistant instructor” and even at that, that my name never actually got into the catalogue; it goes without saying that I did no instructing save once to pilot a pack of idiots through the Negro slums (xvi, quoting Dusk of Dawn, pp 58-59)

His understanding of race as not being monolithic, and his humor:

I shall throughout this study use the term “Negro,” to designate all persons of Negro descent, although the appellation is to some extent illogical. I shall, moreover, capitalize the word, because I believe that eight million Americans are entitled to a capital letter (footnote 1, p 1).

His understanding of the connections between slavery and oppression of all workers:

Very early in the history of the colony the presence of unpaid slaves for life greatly disturbed the economic condition of free laborers (14).

There is a lovely history of African Americans in Philly, what most caught my attentions was the early organizing of the Free African Society in 1787 by Absalom Jones and Richard Allen, which resulted after a split in Allen forming the African Methodist Episcopal Church of America, or A.M.E., first African-American Church in America and such a pivotal part of every African-American community across the country.

Du Bois covers the hope inspired by the Haitian Revolution, the rise of multiple white mobs leading to an actual decrease of African Americans in the city between 1840 and 1850. The rise of the highly paid chefs and caterers, who catered to the very cream of Philadelphian Society and earned good wages until the fashion shifted towards European cuisine, exiling African Americans from the field all together. His detailed maps and house-by-house questionnaires cataloguing occupant details, personal observations, interviews as he knocked on each and every single door in the 7th ward. The maps were particularly interesting as they are based upon the Booth maps, detailing poverty in London in the mid-1800s and using the same moral categories, with the bottom being the vicious and criminal poor.

Having just read William Julius Wilson, it was fascinating to encounter similar findings 80 years apart – and much the same moralizing tone – in noting the high number of women widowed, separated ‘indicating economic stress, a high death rate and lax morality’ (70), and a tendency to late marriages. Like Wilson, Du Bois would find that improved employment opportunities would solve almost all ills. He presents an extensive and detailed study of work, with the methodological note:

There was in the first place little room for deception, since the occupations of Negroes are so limited that a false or indefinite answer was easily revealed by a little judicious probing; moreover there was little disposition to deceive, for the Negroes are very anxious to have their limited opportunities for employment known… (Footnote 1, p 97)

Under male occupations there were some interesting things on the list: huckster listed under entrepreneur, and what is a kalsominer? Paper Hanger, Oyster Opener. Under the occupations for the ladies, he has “politicians” in quotes (2), Root Doctors (2) and a Prize fighter! But only one. Prostitutes are also hidden away in a much bigger table for the whole city, but no pimps—although he describes their existence. Maybe they fall under hucksters? What is most clear is how African Americans were systematically shut out of manufacturing and better paid higher status jobs. Du Bois is smart enough to note not just the losses of income here, but the impossibility of accumulating wealth. The ways that wages are driven down:

To appreciate the cause of low wages, we have only to see the few occupations to which the Negroes are practically limited, and imagine the competition that must ensue. This is true among the men, and especially true among the women, where the limitation is greatest… their chances of marriage are decreased by the low wages of the men… (110)

He doesn’t explore this, but mentions the possibility that such occupational segregation is as much caused by racism as it then in turn causes it to deepen.

The peculiar distribution of employments among whites and Negroes makes the great middle class of white people seldom, if ever, brought into contact with Negroes—may not this be a cause as well as an effect if prejudice? (111)

He notes the existence of ‘the curious prejudice of whites’, their dislike, for example, of being buried near Negroes. He gives the story of the funeral procession of caterer Henry Jones being turned back from the cemetery gates (121). But above all, he sees it as economic:

It is often said simply: the foreigners and trade unions have crowded Negroes out on account of race prejudice and left employers and philanthropists helpless in the matter. This is not strictly true. What the trade unions have done is to seize an economic advantage plainly offered them… white workmen were strong enough to go a step further than this and practically prohibit Negroes from entering trades under any circumstances (126) …They immediately combined against Negroes primarily to raise wages; the standard of living of the Negroes lets them accept low wages, and, conversely, long necessity of accepting the meagre wages offered have made a low standard of living. Thus partially by taking advantage of race prejudice, partially by greater economic efficiency and partially by the endeavour to maintain and raise wages, white workmen have not only monopolized the new industrial opportunities of an age which has transformed Philadelphia from a colonial town to a world-city, but have also been enabled to take from the Negro workman the opportunities he already enjoyed in certain lines of work (127)

Unions – ‘white’ sometimes actually inserted as one of the qualifications, but more generally informally maintained. To come to grips with the problems of the 7th ward, however, is above all providing employment:

…the one central question of the Seventh Ward, not imperative social betterments, raising of the standard of home life, taking advantage of the civilizing institutions of the great city—on the contrary, it makes it a sheer question of bread and butter and the maintenance of a standard of living above that of the Virginia plantation (140).

There is a chapter on health, noting high incidence of disease and sufferance, high death rates, particularly in comparison to other groups. He rarely loses his sustained sarcasm:

Particularly with regard to consumption it must be remembered that Negroes are not the first people who have been claimed as its peculiar victims; the Irish were once thought to be doomed by that disease—but that was when Irishmen were unpopular (160).

There is this startling pronouncement on the social nature of crime and on crime as rebellion that precedes and frames a chapter which in other ways sometimes seems to fall back on a more moral reading more palatable to his employers:

Crime is a phenomenon of organized social life, and is the open rebellion of an individual against his social environment (235).

The chapter on crime is sandwiched between this identification of employment as the primary issue and then telling lists of severe economic hardship house by house, room by room. This is followed by lists of individual’s efforts to educate themselves and failing, to find jobs and failing.

The real foundation of the difference is the widespread feeling all over the land, in Philadelphia as well as in Boston and New Orleans, that the Negro is something less than an American and ought not to be much more than what he is (284)

He notes that African Americans ‘are in the economic world purveyors to the rich’ (296), which forces them to live close, in central areas of the city where rents are higher, and there he pays more for house-rent than any other group. For those venturing outside of certain areas:

The Negro who ventures away from the mass of his people and their organised life, finds himself alone, shunned and taunted, stared at and made uncomfortable; he can make few new friends, for his neighbors however well-disposed would shrink to add a Negro to their list of acquaintances…Consequently emigration from the ward has gone in groups and centred itself about some church… (297)

While within African American areas:

agents and owners will not usually repair the houses of the blacks willingly or improve them. In addition to this agents and owners in many sections utterly refuse to rent to Negroes on any terms…public opinion in the city is such that the presence of even a respectable colored family in a block will affect its value for renting or sale… (348)

He states his optimism that this is changing. Sadness.

He notes the social distinctions between those born in Philly and those arrived from the South, with many migrants trying to hide their origins. Unlike many other coming after him who idealized the original ghetto with its mixture of classes, he also describes the distance between the better classes and the rest despite physical proximity:

…they are not the leaders or the ideal-makers of their own group in thought, work, of morals. They teach the masses to a very small extent, mingle with them but little, do not largely hire their labor. Instead then of social classes held together by strong ties of mutual interest we have in the case of the Negroes, classes who have much to keep them apart… (317)

He also describes the ways in which class intersects with a racial hierarchy that puts Anglo-Saxon on the top, this white privilege is extended with some ‘reluctance’ to the Slav and Celt. ‘We half deny it to the yellow races of Asia, admit the brown Indian to an ante-room…with the Negroes of Africa we come to a full stop’ (387). And within the Negroes, there are distinctions as well, of the ‘better’ classes he writes:

They are largely Philadelphia born, and being descended from the house-servant class, contain many mulattoes (318).

So much contained in that one sentence: the remnants of slavery, the higher social class/caste belonging to lighter skin, the history of rape.

There is a brilliant section on voter fraud. Du Bois has some strange ideas about capitalists, the wealthy, the employers being of a better, more intelligent class more suited to improve society. He flirts with the idea of a benevolent dictatorship to solve some of these problems. Part of me thinks he is playing his white funders just a little here, but he might not be. He certainly became more and more radical over time. But here, he seems to be advocating limiting the right to vote to the ‘worthy’ due to the corruption of machine politics. There is a great transcript of a trial quoted at length, my favourite part:

Philip Brown, a McKinley-Citizen watcher, said that the election was a fraud. He saw Mr. Roberts with a pile of money, going around shouting, “That’s the stuff that wins!” (377)

At the same time, I think Du Bois has a somewhat realistic and practical view of why his people might be in favour of machine politics, noting that they do offer some positions allowing African Americans to advance. These are better than none. The challenge is certainly to the reformers, who he fairly outrightly labels as racists, to prove their reforms will be of benefit. In his conclusions he writes:

If in the hey-day of the greatest of the world’s civilizations, it is possible for one people ruthlessly to steal another, drag them helpless across the water, enslave them, debauch them, and then slowly murder them by economic and social exclusion until they disappear from the face of the earth—if the consummation of such a crime be possible in the twentieth century, then our civilization is vain and the republic is a mockery and a farce (388).

And this is what I think he believed could lie ahead. The report ends on an optimistic note, but given its nature as a study leading to policy recommendations to help solve ‘the Negro problem’ (and I love how this entire book reframes it as a white problem) it does end on a hopeful note.

Also included is another study: ‘Special Report on Negro Domestic Service in the 7th Ward’ by Isabel Eaton. It made me think of Angela Davis’s work on this solidarity sometimes shared between abolitionist figures and early feminists and suffragettes who came together on the margins. Unlike DuBois’s work it doesn’t really get down to much of the lived experience of domestic workers, but is an invaluable data source on a subject too much ignored…the work of Black women.