Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Georg Simmel – The Metropolis and Mental Life – Summary

Georg Simmel's essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903) was originally a part of a series of lectures carried out by Simmel and his associates discussing different aspects of social urban life at the turn of the 19th century. In it, Simmel illustrates some aspects of modern urban culture. In spite of being written at a time in which cities were very different from contemporary megalopolises with the biggest cities approaching one million inhabitants, Simmel's "The Metropolis and Mental Life" remains to a great extent relevant to this day.

"The Metropolis and Mental Life" discusses the individual's position in the big city urban life and his psychological coping with its form of existence. For Simmel, the big city is dominated by objectivism (as opposed of subjectivism, with the individual at the center). Human interactions in the metropolis become short and instrumental, lacking the emotional and personal involvement of small communities. The city's inflation of sensory stimulus coerces man into being rational and instrumental in his social interactions, and he has to screen out much stimulus in order to psychologically be able to cope with its rate. Therefore, the metropolis mental life are essentially intellectual, not emotional. People are enslaved to time, working under the clock. Everything in the city is measurable, qualitative value is reduced to quantitative and this yields what Simmel terms as "blasé" – superficiality, grayness, indifference and alienation.

On the other hand, Simmel describes the metropolis as a place of liberation from the binding mentality of the small community, thus granting the individual more space and freedom to independently define himself.         
Urban indifference is manifested for Simmel in indifference to difference, that is the incapacity to relate to differences between things (object of people). Things have no intrinsic value which would make them more worthy than others, they are only measured by the external objective value of money and time, and are therefore all the same.