Last week, I introduced a piece called “The Identity Industrial Complex”, which laid out the broad themes of Simmel’s essay on the sociology of metropolitan life. Simmel focuses his analysis of modernity on the city because we can see all the characteristics of modern life – all its peculiarities and neuroses – in their most concentrated and crystalline forms. This essay examines a few key points of Simmel’s sociology at a finer resolution: specifically, that there are strong interrelationships among living in urban environments, the development of the intellect, and the money economy. Simmel spends the early part of his essay comparing city life to life in rural areas to illustrate what is unique about the environment that produces what we’ll call the metropolitan personality type.
The rhythm of rural life is much slower than in the metropolis. It’s circadian, habitual, and the chance for sensory overload is almost nonexistent. It is easier for those brought up in rural environments to have more intense reactions to stimuli. Those brought up in the metropolis, on the other hand, are bombarded with rapid changing sense impressions – traffic noise, 24-hour streetlights, advertisements coming to them from every direction, people shouting… Simmel describes it, “The metropolis exacts from man as a discriminating creature a different amount of consciousness than does rural life.” The metropolitan personality relies more on the intellect to direct itself and manage the cacophony of sense impressions it must live through.
This isn’t to say that the farmer doesn’t necessarily use his intellect – he puts it into his craftmanship, say, if he were to build furniture – but that he does not need to use it to fare well in his environment. The metropolitan man, according to Simmel:
“develops an organ protecting him against the threatening currents and discrepancies of his external environment which would uproot him. He reacts with his head instead of his heart. In this an increased awareness assumes the psychic prerogative. Metropolitan life, thus, underlies a heightened awareness and a predominance of intelligence in metropolitan man.”
The metropolitan personality is sufficiently hardened to the onslaught of stimuli. It is difficult to emotionally move this person. They develop what Simmel calls the “blasé attitude”. The blasé person’s nervous system is already so deadened that they get caught up in a pursuit of novel experiences, especially those that stimulate their swelled-up intellect. When sudoku puzzles don’t satisfy the blasé intellectual anymore, he moves on to less trivial pleasures like arguing about politics.
Money becomes a significant element of the way life in the city operates. Economic activity in the metropolis is based on production for the market – for purchasers who do not have any relationship with the producers. Money is essential in this sort of system because it serves as a medium to sync up the transactions between people who would otherwise not have a relationship with each other. The money economy supports a larger network of relationships that a barter economy could not. “ Through this anonymity the interests of each party acquire an unmerciful matter-of-factness,” Simmel says, “… The matter-of-fact attitude is obviously so intimately interrelated with the money economy, which is dominant in the metropolis, that nobody can say whether the intellectualistic mentality first promoted the money economy or whether the latter determined the former.”
Money is useful to the blasé intellectual because it converts disparate qualities of objects, experiences, and so on to a single quantitative measure: how much? All the transactions of city life are abstracted, making life in the city run more rational, more exact, more punctual.
“Punctuality, calculability, exactness are forced upon life by the complexity and extension of metropolitan existence and are not only most intimately connected with its money economy and intellectualist character,” he writes. “These traits must also color the contents of life and favor the exclusion of those irrational, instinctive, sovereign traits and impulses which aim at determining the mode of life from within, instead of receiving the general and precisely schematized form of life from without.” He goes on to say that “sovereign types of personality” – personalities that will not change or compromise their distinctive attitudes, behaviors and desires – are opposed to city life and must be resisted and detested so as to keep the machine running predictably and rationally.
This brings us right back around to that ultimate problem that Simmel says is central to modern life. Individuals want to feel as though they are distinct. How can one be special in a way that does not attract the negative response of those from everyone around them? The answer, according to Simmel, is fashion. Fashion is how modern people play out their individuality without disrupting the forces of rationalization and social equalization going on around them. As I explained in the previous post, fashion isn’t just about clothes. It’s about how we use every other material and immaterial (ideas, political views, entertainment) artifact that our culture provides us with to dress ourselves up. We are free to be as individualistic as we desire within the parameters that our society has set.
Gradually, this becomes not very satisfying to the individual. He always finds himself bumping up against the parameters his society has set. A conservative fellow who only has liberal friends does not simply state his ideas directly and risk losing all his personal relationships. He rounds off the edges of what he believes and presents himself as what he believes is more palatable to others. This, combined with the growing impersonal character of modern life generates a chasm between one’s personal experience and what Simmel has described as “the hypertrophy of objective culture.” More on that in the next essay.
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