Simmel's "The Metropolis and Mental Life"

by Rob Horning

16 September 2010


This is not apropos of anything in particular and not in any way conclusive, but I recently re-read sociologist Georg Simmel’s 1903 essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (pdf) and thought of a few things that seemed worth mentioning. That is to say a marked-up printout of it has been sitting by computer for a week or so now, and I want to be able to put it away.

In the essay—a thoroughly turgid read, but essential—Simmel offers a theory of what happens to people when they live in cities, and how it relates to the “resistance of the individual to being leveled, swallowed up in the social-technological mechanism.” Simmel regards this kind of ontological insecurity—the fear in part of becoming so anonymous as to seem to have never existed—as the characteristic modern struggle, the “deepest problem of modern life.” Modernity means having to struggle against determinism rather than revel in it as part of a Providential plan.  Because of industrialization and the romanticism that sprung up in reaction, Simmel writes, “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.”

Simmel highlights city life’s “violent stimuli”—the “swift and continuous shift” of impressions that deplete people’s energy. (This is the subject of this Jonah Lehrer piece that made the rounds a year ago—sort of surprising he doesn’t mention Simmel, actually.) This swirl of stimuli develops a urban “intellectualistic character” that Simmel contrasts with small-town life “which rests more on feelings and emotional relationships.” Simmel argues that people in cities must be able to adapt so often to changing circumstances that their feelings are never engaged the way they are for people in more conservative settings.

Instead of reacting emotionally, the metropolitan type reacts primarily in a rational manner, thus creating a mental predominance through the intensification of consciousness, which in turn is caused by it.

Thus city people react with their heads and not their hearts, and don’t engage the “depths of the personality.” Basically, that’s another way of saying that life conditions in the city prevent the development of customary ways of living, of deeply held traditions that pattern life, allowing people to saunter about feeling deeply about everything since the “rational” response to everyday events is already encoded and has been passed down through generations. All relations are personal, and thus emotionally mediated. Whereas city people must deal with ever-shifting contexts, and therefore they must adopt what in comparison seems a blasé attitude to protect themselves. Their relations are mediated through impersonal means—money.  An upside of this is that no one is nosy about what you are buying; your money is green and theoretically spends everywhere without people asking questions about what you are buying. A downside is that they will draw their own conclusions based on a shallow understanding of what your possible motives could be. Rational behavior appears as that which the economists say it is—utility maximization for yourself only, as your social relationships are not developed to the point where self-sacrifice or concern for another’s well-being can be imagined.  (Cosma Shalizi makes a related point in this post criticizing the rational-actor assumptions of most economic models: “Does any agent in any such model care at all about what any other agent gets to consume? No; it is a matter of purest indifference to them whether their fellows experience feast or famine; even whether they live or die. If one such agent has an unsatiated demand for potato chips, and the cost of one more chip will be to devastate innumerable millions, they simply are not equipped to care”) In cities, our selfishness is presumed as a matter of course, Simmel suggests, because our relations are streamlined and instrumentalized. Money becomes the measuring stick among people and the presumed motivation for people, because anything else would be less universally applicable. A nuanced understanding of motives and status can only come against a less fluid social backdrop, such as is found in, say, sleepy villages. Still, Simmel claims that “the bodily closeness and the lack of space” in cities “make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time”—but it seems that “intellectual distance” is a kind of quantitative difference (measured in terms of fungible, abstract information?) rather than the qualitative differences suppressed or made irrelevant by traditional modes of life.

Simmel claims that the cash nexus and the “psychological intellectualistic attitude” are inextricably linked. There are no intellectuals, one might be tempted to conclude, outside of the urban-capitalist milieu. I wonder whether, when Simmel writes of “intellectualism” and “metropolitian intellectuality”, we should read that today as “mediatization.” Information becomes fungible like money does as it is driven to become mobile and circulate among exchange partners with no social ties. The classic Hayekian idea that prices are information is related to this—market economies reduce knowledge to information, or prioritize the economic ramifications of information and suppress its other aspects. Markets mediatize knowledge, in other words, and technology seeks to make that mediatization more thorough in the name of economic efficiency. Cities were one of the original ramifications of that process. (If I ever get around to reading Fernand Braudel, I suspect I will have more coherent things to say about that.) Also intellectual isn’t just a rough synonym for cosmopolitan, as that implies. Cosmopolitanism—or rather the connoisseurship and cultural omnivorousness that attend it—just becomes the intellectual project for any self-styled cognoscente who is not invested alternatively in doing away with urban-centric capitalism. Nevertheless, the link between money’s fungibility and the proclivity for abstract thought seems interesting to me—seems to lead to a “marketplace of ideas” framework for how we quantify our thought process, prove to ourselves that it is really happening. It also points to how thought develops in the suspensions of the realization of exchanges that money permits. Less cryptically—money opens up a period for goods to circulate and “valorize” themselves, in Marxist jargon; the same process, if I am reading Simmel right, allows for a urbanized intellectualism to flourish. Money makes general alienation possible, and that general alienation allows also for a ferment of thought otherwise impossible—the vaunted creative destruction that capitalism unleashes. Simmel declares: “To the extent that money, with its colorlessness and its indifferent quality, can become a common denominator of all values, it becomes the frightful leveler—it hollows out the core of things, their peculiarities, their specific values and their uniqueness and incomparability in a way which is beyond repair.” This is why he sees it as antagonistic to “real” qualitative individuality, prompting a pseudo-differentiation based on quantities of things and possessions.

Also, Simmel claims that the complexity of city life and the multiplicity of competing interests brings about a rise in time-consciousness and the death of spontaneity.

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. Even though those lives which are autonomous and characterized by these vital impulses are not entirely impossible in the city, they are, none the less, opposed to it in abstracto.

It’s worth considering that claim in light of the increasingly real-time nature of city life, as facilitated by gadgets. Real-time attempts to invert this, so that city life nurtures spontaneity with its many possibilities, which can be seized at whim. Spontaneity is thus set against the traditional, organic way of life with its deep emotionality. That deep feeling once marked a spontaneous nature, but now the urban blasé attitude instead characterizes spontaneity in the form of “keeping options open.” Likewise, real individual idiosyncracies that are replaced with efforts at coming up with contrived ones—attempts to get noticed in the urban world. Because the city is so impersonal and objective—Simmel even sees a “regression of the culture of the individual” in his era—individuals try extra hard to be unique in whatever ways remain open and haven’t been legislated or subordinated to economic efficiency.

From one angle life is made infinitely more easy in the sense that stimulations, interests, and the taking up of time and attention, present themselves from all sides and carry it in a stream which scarcely requires any individual efforts for its ongoing. But from another angle, life is composed more and more of these impersonal cultural elements
and existing goods and values which seek to suppress peculiar personal interests and incomparabilities. As a result, in order that this most personal element be saved, extremities and peculiarities and individualizations must be produced and they must be over-exaggerated merely to be brought into the awareness even of the individual himself.

The internet has made that condition perhaps even more acute; it seeks to automate the ways in which we are stimulated, bringing ever more content before our eyes, giving us an endless stream of novelty and taxing the limits of our attention span more than anything has before. In a sense, the Internet is an extension of the metropolis as Simmel saw it. It becomes the site where autonomy struggles with anonymity, where social recognition struggles to remain uncommodifed. The Internet Metropolis strips away opportunities for individuation and gives us commodities and geegaws and such to compensate for it, keep us distracted. Consumerism’s recent innovations have been geared toward making individuation of products unobtrusive to the system—so we have small batches instead of mass-produced goods, customization options, locavorism, etc. Technology has allowed individuation to be a product sold rather than a personal struggle conducted outside the economic sphere, but this is cold comfort. The Internet milieu prompts us to package ourselves likewise, in an effort to stand out amid the chaos, even to ourselves, so that we ourselves can recognize ourselves as even having a identity. Of course, that is where Facebook comes in.

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