EssaysTheory & Practice

Simmel and the Social Condition

Georg Simmel (1858 – 1918) had a very precise and original conception of the subject matter of sociology: the forms, but not the contents, of human interaction. Sociology as a distinct discipline of human inquiry, he maintained, is directly comparable to geometry. As geometry, by studying the forms of “physicochemical” contents “determines what the spatiality of things in space really is,” sociology studies the forms of human interaction of all sorts, what he called “sociation.” The study of sociation, Simmel maintained, is the specific subject matter of sociology, the way to understand what society really is.

Following this path he studied a diverse range of formal subjects: domination, conflict, exchange and “sociability” (sociation as an end in itself, as in a cocktail party) built around considerations of the spacing and timing of social relations. Yet his most extraordinary work combined this formal sociology with the study of the forms and contents of culture: in his magnum opus The Philosophy of Money, along with his magnificent essays on the conflict and tragedy of modern culture, and in many other manuscripts. When he moved beyond his formal sociology, combining it with cultural analysis, I believe, he made his greatest contributions, illuminating what Iddo Tavory and I are exploring as the social condition.

Simmel understood that money changed how we associate and how we make judgments. It becomes possible to make equivalent the culturally distinct: art work a = 10 Mercedes, art work b =100 Mercedes, while unknown art works x, y and z = < 1 Mercedes. The relationship between works of art and cars reveals the abstractness to modern life. Everything can be calculated through money. All human endeavors can be quantitatively compared. In response, Simmel noted, 20th century culture would move against this critically, by exaggerating the abstraction in various directions, or moving against this in radical expressionism and naturalism in more and more innovative ways, from conceptual art to earth art. He understood “the tradition of the new” before it happened, art that has no central principle other than innovation, a completely negative ideal. As modern art was emerging, he understood its directions through his formal sociology.

And as he gave sociological explanations for the texture of modern culture, he gave account of the metropolis and its mental life: blasé and highly individual, lonely and atomized, but also free, with an explosion of creative individuation, opening opportunities for difference. He is often seen as a critic of the metropolis, but he, urbane citizen of Berlin that he was, also celebrated the individual freedom and creative innovation that great cities encourage. He is much less an early 20th century Jane Jacobs, much more a Marshal Berman.

Simmel’s appreciation of how formal social relations shape social types and characters is where his work is most illuminating for developing an understanding “the social condition.” Simmel’s account of the prostitute, fashion and the stranger are telling, as he understands the interaction of social form and cultural pursuit in typical situations, the cultural dilemmas faced, and the ambiguous outcomes of responding actions to dilemmas.

Prostitution combines the most intimate of human relations with the most abstract. It reduces the distinctiveness of both the prostitute and the John to that which they have organically in common with other human beings, i.e. the capacity to engage in sexual acts. Money empties the participants of their individuality. No longer ends in themselves, the prostitution relationship transgresses Kantian ethics. “Of all human relationships, it is perhaps the most significant case of the mutual reduction of two persons to the status of mere means.” Thus “the very close historic tie between prostitution and the money economy – the economy of means.”

Simmel notes that fashion is a simultaneous expression of conformism and individuality. The fashionable person is someone who conforms to the prevailing norms, but does so in a way that expresses his or her individual distinctiveness. “Two social tendencies are essential to the establishment of fashion, namely, the need of union on the one hand and the need of isolation on the other.” Fashion is a developed cultural form that makes possible the simultaneous expression of two strong opposing human tendencies. It certainly presents problems, specifically who can and who cannot be fashionable, but it is a creative manifestation of social life, particularly modern social life, where individuation is most advanced, as are its discontents.

The stranger is both of a community and apart from it, close and remote at the same time. Simmel considers the trader as a key case in point. Because he or she deals with people and goods that are from elsewhere, while in a particular place. This facilitates an objective attitude, free from the confines of the local, more abstract, more general, and more capable of being critical. Viewed by locals, strangers seem to be of a sort, not simply individuals, but of a category of strangers, people who are not quite like we of a specific community. Here Simmel refers to the Jews of Europe.

The fashionable, the prostitute and the stranger in Simmel’s accounts are embedded in sets of conflicting social relations. When people act through these relations, they work to resolve the tensions. The man of fashion works to affect individuality, as he conforms, or affects to conform, as he expresses his individuality. The prostitute works to express intimacy, even as prostitution is defined by money, or money clearly prevails, and the stranger works to appear near, or far, even as she is neither. Difficult forms present challenges that are acted upon, with consequences. Fashion as a cultural form moves forward and back. Types of prostitution develop, as strangers pull away, get close, or work to continue to be somewhere in between. Caught in a web of tensions, there is the texture of social life, but no simple resolution to recurrent problems, and the roads not taken would yield very different results.

These are the dilemmas of very specific, even extreme types, but in some ways the problems faced apply beyond the specific type, reveal important dimensions of the social condition, which need to be illuminated by the analyst, as social actors work to resolve the problems. Prostitutes sell sex, but artists, scientists and many other practitioners are also known to prostitute themselves. Note where prostitution begins and pragmatic action ends is a matter of dispute. Fashion can be about clothing, but it also can be about religion, art, politics and economics and much more, situated between conformism and non-conformism. Being close and remote simultaneously is characteristic of tradesmen and Jews and the like, but it is also the characteristic of intellectuals and their relationship with their compatriots. This was the starting point of my book on intellectuals in democratic societies, Civility and Subversion. The “strangeness” of intellectuals is a key to understanding how they contribute to or undermine democratic society.

From the point of view of theorists studying the social condition, Simmel’s great contribution is in illuminating how social action is constituted by tension and dilemma, how these contribute to what Tavory describes in his piece on existentialism as “the coordinates of … (human] moments of choice.” For the practitioner, Simmel gives account for the terrain upon which existential decisions are made. For the wise political actor, I believe, this suggests the need not only for action, as Sartre emphasized, but also for humility. My idea for my next post: “the social condition and political humility.”

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Jeffrey C. Goldfarb

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