Simmel's Ambivalent View of Modern Culture

Perhaps nothing soclearly reveals Simmel's profound ambivalence toward contemporaryculture and society as his view of the drift of modern history. Thisview is a compound of the apparently contradictory assessments ofliberal progressivism and cultural pessimism, as revealed in thewritings of Herbert Spencer and as reflected in German idealism sincethe days of Schiller or Nietzsche.

The trend of modern historyappears to Simmel as a progressive liberation of the individual from thebonds of exclusive attachment and personal dependencies in spite of theincreasing domination of man by cultural products of his own creation. In premodern societies, Simmel argued, man typically lived in a verylimited number of relatively small social circles. Such circles,whether kinship groups or guilds, towns or villages, tightly surroundedthe individual and held him firmly in their grip. The total personalityof the individual was immersed in this group life. Thus, medievalorganizational forms "occupied the whole man; they did not only serve anobjectively determined purpose, but were rather a form of unificationenglobing the total person of those who had gathered together in thepursuit of that purpose." Associations in premodern societies were notfunctionally specific or limited to clearly articulated purposes; theybound the individual through undifferentiated dependencies andloyalties. Moreover, subordination in premodern society typicallyinvolved domination over the entire personality of the subordinate. Thelord of the manor was not only the political overlord of the serf; hedominated the total person of the serf--economically, juridically, andsocially. Dependence, therefore, was al encompassing.

In suchpremodern societies, the individuals were organized, as it were, in anumber of linked concentric circles. A man could be a member of aguild, which in turn was part of a wider confederation of guilds. Aburgher may have been a citizen of a particular town and this town mayhave belonged to a federation of towns, such as the Hanse. Anindividual could not directly join a larger social circle but couldbecome involved in it by virtue of membership in a smaller one. Aprimitive tribe does not consist of individual members but of clans,lineages, or other groupings in which individuals participate directly.

The principle of organization in the modern world is fundamentallydifferent: an individual is a member of many well-defined circles, noone of which involves and controls his total personality. "The numberof different circles in which individuals move, is one of the indices ofcultural development." Modern man's family involvements are separatedfrom his occupational and religious activities. This means that eachindividual occupies a distinct position in the intersection of manycircles. The greater the number of possible combinations of membership,the more each individual tends toward a unique location in the socialsphere. Although he may share membership with other individuals in oneor several circles, he is less likely to be located at exactly the sameintersection as anyone else.

Human personality is transformed whenmembership in a single circle or in a few of them is replaced by asocial position at the intersection of a great number of such circles. The personality is now highly segmented through such multipleparticipation. In premodern societies, for example, locality or kinshipdetermined religious affiliation; one could not coexist with men who didnot share his religious beliefs, for the religious community coincidedwith the territorial or kinship community. In the modern world, incontrast, these allegiances are separated. A man need not share thereligious beliefs of his neighbors, although he may be tied to them byother bonds. It does not follow, however, that religion loses itsforce; it only becomes more specific. Religious concerns aredifferentiated from other concerns and hence become more individualized;they do not necessarily overlap with a person's kinship or neighborhoodties.

Multifaceted involvement in a variety of circlescontributes to increased self-consciousness. As the individual escapesthe domination of the small circle that imprisons his personality withinits confines, he becomes conscious of a sense of liberation. Thesegmentation of group involvement brings about a sense of uniqueness andof freedom. The intersection of social circles is the precondition forthe emergence of individualism. Not only do men become more unlike oneanother; they are also afforded the opportunity to move without effortin different social contexts.

The forms of subordination andsuperordination also assume a novel character in the modern world. Nolonger can the individual be totally dominated by others; whateverdomination continues to exist is functionally specific and limited to aparticular time and place. As compared with the lord of the manor, themodern employer cannot dominate the entire personalities of the workersin his factory; his power over them is limited to a specificallyeconomic context and a specified number of hours. Once the workersleave the factory gates, they are "free" to take part in other types ofsocial relations in other social circles. Although they may besubordinate in some of these relations, they may well be superordinatein others, thus compensating for their inferiority in one area bysuperiority in another.

It should be clear that Simmel, in hisoriginal manner, is retracing the liberal view of historical patternsthat could be found in such otherwise diverse thinkers as Spencer andDurkheim. Differentiation, in this view, involves a shift fromhomogeneity to heterogeneity, from uniformity to individualization, fromabsorption in the predictable routines of a small world of tradition toparticipation in a wider world of multifaceted involvements and openpossibilities. The drift of western history leads form status tocontract, form mechanical solidarity to organic solidarity, fromsocieties in which custom is so rigid that it militates againstindividuality to those in which the multiplicity of involvements andcontracts allows the emergence of uniqueness and individual autonomy.

This is only one of the two perspectives Simmel used to consider thepast and present cultural situation. His other view owes more to Marxand to German cultural pessimism than to the optimism of British andFrench progressive thought. From this perspective, Simmel writes of theineradicable dualism inherent in the relation between individuals andobjective cultural values. An individual can attain cultivation onlyby appropriating the cultural values that surround him. But thesevalues threaten to engulf and to subjugate the individual. Morespecifically, the division of labor, while it is the origin of adifferentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugates and enslavesthe individual. More specifically, the division of labor, while it isthe origin of a differentiated cultural life, in its way also subjugatesand enslaves the individual.

The human mind creates a variety ofproducts that have an existence independent of their creator as well asof those who receive or reject them. The individual is perpetuallyconfronted with a world of cultural objects, from religion to morality,from customs to science, which, although internalized, remain alienpowers. They attain a fixed and coagulated form and tend to appear as"otherness" to the individual. Hence, there is a perennialcontradiction "between subjective life, which is restless but limitedand time-bound, and its contents which, once created, are . . .timelessly valid."

The individual needs and science and religionand law in order to attain autonomy and to realize his own purposes. Heneeds to internalize these cultural values, making them part of himself. Individual excellence can be attained only through absorption ofexternal values. And yet the fetishistic character that Marx attributedto the economic realm in the epoch of commodity production constitutesonly a special case of the general fate of cultural contents. Thesecontents are, particularly in more developed cultural epochs, involvedin a peculiar paradox: they have been created by people and they wereintended for people, but they attain an objective form and follow animmanent logic of development, becoming alienated from their origin aswell as from their purpose.

In passages that may express morepathos than analytical understanding, Simmel sees modern man assurrounded by a world of objects that constrain and dominate his needsand desires. Technology creates "unnecessary" knowledge, that is,knowledge that is of no particular value but is simply the by-product ofthe autonomous expansion of scientific activities.

As a result ofthese trends, modern man finds himself in a deeply problematicalsituation: he is surrounded by a multiplicity of cultural elements,which, although they are not meaningless to him, are not fundamentallymeaningful either. They oppress the individual because he cannot fullyassimilate them. But he cannot reject them because they belong at leastpotentially to the sphere of his own cultural development. "Thecultural objects become more and more linked to each other in aself-contained world which has increasingly fewer contacts with thesubjective psyche and its desires and sensibilities." Simmel, likeMarx, exemplifies this process by reference to the division of labor. Once this division is highly developed, "the perfection of the productis attained at the cost of the development of the producer. Theincrease in physical and psychical energies and skills which accompaniesone-sided activities hardly benefits the total personality; in fact itoften leads to atrophy because it sucks away those forces that arenecessary for the harmonious development of the full personality." Thedivision of labor severs the creator from the creation so that thelatter attains an autonomy of its own. This process of reification ofthe cultural products, accentuated, though not originated, by thedivision of labor, causes increasing alienation between the person andhis products. Unlike the artist, the producer can no longer findhimself within his product; he loses himself in it.

The culturaluniverse is made by men, yet each individual perceives it as a world henever made. Thus, progress in the development of objective culturalproducts leads to an increasing impoverishment of the creatingindividuals. The producers and consumers of objective culture tend toatrophy in their individual capacities even though they depend on it fortheir own cultivation.

Although committed in one facet of hisWeltanschauung to the progressive liberal vision of those Frenchand English thinkers who influenced him deeply, Simmel is equally boundto a tragic vision of culture. He combines in an original, though notfully resolved, way the uncomplicated evolutionary faith in theperfectibility of man of a Condorcet with the metaphysical pathos of aSchiller or a Nietzsche. Unable to relinquish the vision of aprogressive liberation of the individual from the bonds of tradition andsubjugation, Simmel yet foretells, with a sense of impending doom, "acage of the future" (to use Max Weber's term), in which individuals willbe frozen into social functions and in which the price of the objectiveperfection of the world will be the atrophy of the human soul.

From Coser, 1977:189-193.


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