Simmel


The modern social imaginary is … both active and contemplative. It expands the repertory of collective action, and also that of objective analysis. But it also exists in a range of intermediate forms. In speaking … about the typically modern, horizontal forms of social imaginary, in which people grasp themselves and great numbers of others as existing and acting simultaneously I [mention] the economy, the public sphere, and the sovereign people, but also the space of fashion. This is an example of a fourth structure of simultaneity. It is unlike the public sphere and the sovereign people, because these are sites of common action. In this respect, it is like the economy, where a host of individual actions concatenate behind our backs. But it is different from this as well, because our actions relate in the space of fashion in a particular way. I wear my own kind of hat, but in doing so, I am displaying my style to all of you, and in this, I am responding to your self-display, even as you will respond to mine. The space of fashion is one in which we sustain together a language of signs and meanings, which is constantly changing but which at any moment is the background needed to give our gestures the sense they have. If my hat can express my particular kind of cocky yet understated self-display, this is because of how the common language of style has evolved among us up to this point. My gesture can change it, and then your responding stylistic move will takes its meaning from the new contour the language takes on.

The general structure I want to draw from this example of the space of fashion is that of a horizontal, simultaneous, mutual presence, which is not that of a common action, but rather of mutual display. It matters to each of us as we act that others are there, as witnesses of what we are doing and thus as codeterminers of the meaning of our action.

Spaces of this kind become more and more important in modern urban society, where large numbers of people rub shoulders, unknown to each other, without dealings with each other, and yet affecting each other, forming the inescapable context of each other’s lives. As against the everyday rush to work in the Metro, where others can sink to the status of obstacles in my way, city life has developed other ways of being-with, for instance, as we each take our Sunday walk in the park or as we mingle at the summer street festival or in the stadium before the playoff game. Here each individual or small group acts on their own, but with the awareness that their display says something to others, will be responded to by them, will help build a common mood or tone that will color everyone’s actions.

A host of urban monads hover on the boundary between solipsism and communication. My loud remarks and gestures are overtly addresed only to my immediate companions; my family group is sedately walking, engaged in our own Sunday outing; but all the time we are aware of this common space that we are building, in which the message that cross take meaning. This strange zone between loneliness and communication fascinated many of the early observers of this phenomenon as it arose in the nineteenth century. We can think of the paintings of Manet or of Baudelarie’s avid interest in the urban scene, in the roles of flâneur and dandy, uniting observation and display.

– Charles Taylor. Modern Social Imaginaries. Durham: Duke University Press, 2004: 167-68.

The power of superior intelligence rests upon the communistic character of its quality: because, in terms of its content, intelligence is universally valid and everywhere effective and recognized, the mere quantity of intellectual endowment of the individual confers a more unconditional advantage than can any more individual possession, which, because of its individuality, cannot be universally used or cannot find some domain for itself anywhere in the practical world.

– Georg Simmel. The Philosophy of Money. Trans. David Frisby.  3rd enl. ed. London ; New York: Routledge, 2004: 438.

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 individualizations must be produced and they must be over-exaggerated merely to be brought into the awareness even of the individual himself.

Georg Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life” (1903) in Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson, eds., The Blackwell City Reader (2002), p. 19.

If modern man finds his highest enjoyment of nature in the snowbound
regions of the Alps or on the shores of the North Sea, then this an
hardly be explained solely in terms of the heightened need for
excitement. It is also to be explained by the fact that this
inaccessible world, which actually rejects us, represents the extreme
enhancement and stylization of what nature as a whole still means to
us: a spiritual distant image that confronts us even in moments of
physical proximity as something internally unattainable, a promise
that is never fully kept and an entity that responds to our most
passionate devotion with a faint resistance and strangeness. Landscape
painting, which as an art depends upon distance from the object and
upon a break in our natural unity with it, has only developed in
modern times as has the romantic sense of nature. They are the result
of that increasing distancing from nature and that particularly
abstract existence that urban life, based on the moeny economy, has
forced upon us. This in no way contradicts the fact that it is precisely the
possession of money that has allowed us to take flight into nature.

Simmel, Philosophy of Money (1907 edition) (Tom Bottomore and David Frisby’s translation): 478-479.