M&C Art Theory Paper: Simmel

Just a short paper I wrote tonight. I had to point out three important/relevant things in a 1902 essay by Georg Simmel and briefly discuss them. I haven’t done the honors readings yet, but I understand we’ll be reading some very parallel texts.

Simmel, “The Metropolis and Mental Life”

It would be hard indeed, I think, to pluck from Simmel’s article what is not directly or indirectly applicable to contemporary metropolitan culture. However, there were several items that particularly struck me.

First, the differentiation of sensory experience with rural and metropolis lifestyles. In the slow, rural life, one naturally takes the time to become very familiar with one’s surroundings. The “rhythm,” as Simmel says, is more even and consistent, and allows for a greater absorption of detail. But in the metropolis sensations are “the rapid crowding of changing images, the sharp discontinuity in the grasp of a single glance, and the unexpectedness of onrushing impressions.” There are always new faces and new sights that hit us so often that we become numbed to them and we cease to notice things. Consciousness is forced to withdraw into itself to avoid the madness of complete observation; this leads to a fatal indifference.

This relates to another important point, that of the impersonality of the structure of metropolis life paired with a “personal subjectivity.” Everything is perceived equally, “flat and gray,” and in this surface interaction, not only is sensory absorption limited, but so is human interaction. We cannot expose our souls to every cold mask we pass on the street—it is necessary. Those who ignore this rule initially are swiftly jaded. How do we protect ourselves? “A latent antipathy and the preparatory stage of practical antagonism….”

Third, the discussion on how the division of labor hurts the development and expression of individual personality inspired fresh thoughts. Simmel believes that, given such impersonality, the city-machine pours men into molds. In such strata as they are placed or into which they place themselves, they find their purpose. Specialization is efficient, and in some ways allows one to pursue one’s own destiny; but it also can reduce men to ciphers. Each man is at war with his competitors, and this constant struggle to be the best in a field means that the rest of a man’s personal development often goes neglected.

These three in particular seem to highlight what may be the key problem with the metropolis lifestyle: impersonality, which can and commonly does lead to indifference, loneliness, and even a loss of some level of humanity. In our own time we experience this kind of madness, when regularly we hear from the news of “quiet city people” trying the most desperate and insane things to escape the soul-tearing blasé. Already we have begun to look for gods and saviors among men, and it can only be a matter of time before we are willing to make greater concessions for such a hope.

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