Collecting Simmel’s Thoughts: Fragmentation, Consistency, Unity
by David Beer
Form and Dialectic in Georg Simmel’s Sociology: A New Interpretation,
by Henry Schermer and David Jary,
Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, 328pp.
As well as being a somewhat interesting character, Georg Simmel is perhaps best described as an eclectic, diverse and unconventional social thinker. His back-catalogue constitutes a vibrant gathering of works that reveal a wide-ranging and almost uncontainable set of enthusiasms. They are rammed with ideas and thoughts that creatively respond to the world he encountered. Simmel’s writings also suggest a powerful personal drive to discover and illuminate the underpinning dynamics and dimensions of everyday life. He died in 1918 yet, as we see with this newly published book by Henry Schermer and David Jary, his work is still being discovered, analysed and debated. This is further illustrated by two recent special issues of the leading scholarly journal Theory, Culture & Society, which both contained essays on Simmel alongside freshly translated pieces by Simmel himself, and the recently published English translation of his last major work The View of Life. In fact, in many ways Simmel exists predominantly as a reduced shadow of himself, a simplified caricature, viewed mostly only in the pages of various textbooks and social theory primers. This is surprising for a thinker who has so much depth and scope to his work, and who has been so influential – admittedly largely indirectly – on the history of social thought. Yet, it should hastily be added that much of his work remains untranslated from its original German form, and there are actually relatively few books and articles that sustain a more detailed and rigorous engagement with Simmel’s writings. At least this is the case when we compare him to other potentially comparable heavyweight social theorists and the types of publishing industries that often surround such figures. For this reason amongst others, Schermer and Jary’s volume is likely to be warmly received.
Georg Simmel is known primarily as a sociologist, but his works roam and lurch between academic disciplines, blurring sociology into social psychology, anthropology and philosophy (and may even be understood in places to be an early type of cultural studies). Simmel had an investment in sociology, but it would appear that he had no intention of being constrained by its conventions. When reading Simmel’s work and his many short essays on various aspects of social life – which cover diverse subjects from fashion, to the senses, to meals, to the stranger, to the spendthrift, amongst many others – what we find is a diverse thinker who is interested in capturing the underlying social dynamics of our everyday lives. The consequence of Simmel’s wide ranging interests and his pursuit of often small-scale phenomena – which he actually opens up as microcosms of large-scale social and structural issues – is the sense that his work is quite disjointed. He is often not seen to have been pursuing a grand and overarching intellectual project. Simmel’s essayistic approach, his diverse subject matter, his eclectic reference points, his varying style and the general sense of an interest in dealing with the aesthetic complexities of the ordinary, have led commentators to describe his work as fragmentary, impressionistic and lacking in a coherent set of principles or analytical drivers. This is even sometimes suggested to be the reason for Simmel’s relative, and we should emphasise relative, lack of success when set against the likes of Weber, Durkheim and Marx. His successes are substantial but are usually not quite seen to be operating on the same scale as such figures. However, it would be true to say that Simmel does evoke a kind of warmth, dedication and enthusiasm amongst his readers that is often only the preserve of a cult figure. His work speaks to those readers who wish to eschew coherence and find value in fragmentary accounts of what is, after all, often felt to be a fragmentary life experience. However, in this book Schermer and Jary argue instead that in amongst Simmel’s apparently fragmentary social thought there actually resides a highly coherent project that is organised around a consistent ‘general method’. As such, they suggest that Simmel has been misunderstood and that there can be found to be a consistent intellectual agenda and approach that underpins and unites his various and diverse works. This general approach is deftly outlined in the first substantive chapter in their book and is then, following a short foray into the context and life of Simmel, illustrated through a series of chapters that attempt to reveal the detail of this underlying approach as it is deployed in the analysis of key examples and other analytical issues. The distinctive contribution of the book arrives in most notable and striking form in the last three chapters which focus in turn on Simmel’s use of fiction and the ‘as if’, on his connections with Darwin and then by concluding with reflections on Simmel’s ongoing influence.
Schermer and Jary have produced a volume that could be described as meaty. Its 328 pages are packed with tight print and densely populated chapters and subsections. Reading it is quite an undertaking. This is probably not a book for those who are completly new to Simmel, unless you wish to be dropped into the deep-end of the debates about his work and methods. Some of these debates have been rumbling on for decades, and we find them competing for space in the pages of this book. The reader gets pulled backwards and forwards in time as the authors draw-back the curtain to uncover the conversations, parallel dialogues and disagreements about Simmel’s work, some of which are separated in their authorship by many years. The experience of the reading the book can get a little disorientating as the authors attempt to weave a narrative through these previously unconnected threads. Yet the ambition of the book is also its great strength. The authors have attempted to manage and negotiate a level of engagement with the work, both by and about Simmel, that defies any reductive or simplistic account of Simmel’s work. Yet, at the same time, they are attempting to look across such accounts and to resist the temptation to accept that Simmel simply accepted and embraced the fragmentation in his work and in his subject matter. Schermer and Jary are keen to find the unifying factors in Simmel’s work and to defend him from the charge that his work cannot be seen to cohere into something close to a final product. They do a good job in this regard. The reader is left in little doubt that the authors are on to something. The authors use of their own translations of works alongside other published translations provide some genuinely original insights and enable the authors to reveal aspects of Simmel’s work that are concealed by the lack of translations of some key pieces.
This is a thorough piece of work. The layering of detail on the pages builds up a canvass of features that push the reader along, whilst at the same time showing the scale of the task that authors are attempting to accomplish. This book looks and feels like it has taken years or maybe even decades of work. These years of work have been used here to build up a compelling wall-of-sound. There is a sense of affection, warmth and enthusiasm for Simmel in its pages. In building these layers of detail, the avalanche of writing can at times be tough to deal with. In some chapters there are lots of quite short sections, which can make it feel a little like a lecture in places and which make the difficult narrative threads hard to keep hold of – but this is a product again of the difficulty of negotiating such detail. The density of the book in this sense is of great value whilst also being a potential barrier for the reader. At times it would have been beneficial to have had a little more narrative in amongst the detail, to help the reader along and to bring the key issues out from the shadows of the detail. However, this is exactly the kind of careful emersion into the work of Simmel that was still needed and which has been used here to carve a place for this book and to complement other works.
As I have mentioned, at the heart of the book is the suggestion that there is a unifying or ‘general’ method in Simmel’s work that is based on a specific conceptual model. On page 44, following some description, this model is organised into a table. The table is complemented by some brief and helpful notes of guidance about its use. The suggestion is that Simmel consistently used the same type of approach in his work, so even when the topics seem disparate he was still pursuing the same types of interests in the same types of ways. In the second part of the book they focus on Simmel’s use of specific examples: fashion, the poor and secrets. Within this model and these examples, they argue, is to be found Simmel’s interest in using dualities, modalities and polarities to illuminate his analytical concerns. In the model they propose the dualities seem to come first, as a priori analytical structures, which are then explored through the examples. But when I read Simmel’s essays I see this process in reverse. Simmel seems more interested in the social issues and the topics that he is observing. He gets drawn in by the topics, he doesn’t appear to start with the analytical model as such. These topics, issues and observations often seem to be the catalyst to the research, with various continua and dualities used in order to develop a sociological appreciation of that particular phenomenon. In his essay on the meal, for example, Simmel seems to find the way people organise meals to be an interesting oddity. He uses different conceptual means to shed light on the way that the meal is organised and thus shows it to be a microcosm of broader social divisions and social ordering processes – and ultimately explores the way that nature and physiological processes become cultural as eating becomes meal-time. I suspect though that this analytical ordering does not present a significant problem for the model offered by Schermer and Jary, but some would read in Simmel’s work an attempt to put the topic or observation first rather then a desire to use particular dualities.
There are also some potential issues with the flexibility of the unifying model that Schermer and Jary propose. The model itself seems entirely fitting, and is actually a really useful way of seeing the different themes and structures in Simmel’s thinking. It could be argued though that this proposed model, or ‘general method’, alone is not enough to suggest that the notion of fragmentation should be radically reduced in our appreciation of Simmel’s thinking. The flexibility of the general model they propose is quite analytically broad in its scope. It covers large dualities that are certainly defining in Simmel’s work, but at the same time they are so broad in their potential use that they don’t really provide a solid hook on which his oeuvre might be hung. The model concludes by linking such dualities to the illustrative examples used by Simmel, but, as we have seen, these examples vary substantially and therefore do not offer a bounded analytical terrain. We might also suggest that the use of examples is not really something that can cohere a body of work. Virtually all thinkers use examples to illustrate and analyse, this does not in itself provide the basis of a method, as such. So, although the model provides a helpful frame of reference that will no doubt assist readers of Simmel in seeing the underlying patterns in his work, there are potential limitations in suggesting that it holds or coheres Simmel’s work together or provides some centralised gravitational pull. Whether or not we accept the arguments of Scherner and Jary, the mere presence of the framework they provide is of significant use and is clear demonstration that there are ordering and unifying principles or themes in Simmel’s work. What might be questioned is how pronounced these are and how much they come to enable us to see beyond or organise the fragmentation in Simmel’s social thought.
Beyond this, perhaps the most important chapter in the book comes, I suspect for many readers at least, with the biography offered in chapter 2. This section explores and reveals, in some detail, the contextual circumstances and conditions that shaped the style, form and content of Simmel’s work. Some of these biographical conditions are covered elsewhere in the existing literature, but they are brought together in a chapter here that synthesises a number of factors in Simmel’s life. This chapter uses these biographical factors to compare his work to other key theorists and to understand, in a number of key ways, how his work was shaped by his biography (which is a kind of sociological take on Simmel’s sociological work). This chapter is particularly helpful in explaining both the conditions that led to Simmel’s eclecticism (his need to deliver public lecture for instance), which has been covered in other places, and the intellectual conditions that shaped his analytical methods, which is a contribution that provides a genuinely original set of contextually informed insights.
Beyond this contextual positioning and the ‘general’ unifying model that Schermer and Jary offer, there are other clear strengths in this book. I’ve noted the links to Darwin. The chapter on Simmel’s use of fiction and the ‘as if’ in exploring the reality of social issues, provides insight into Simmel’s approach that looks beyond its more obvious features and begins to see how his ‘method’ may be seen to be both consistent and in keeping with his intellectual reference points. The authors even explore how the use of dualities and polarities in Simmel’s writings, along with his use of examples and social forms, might also have been a product of this notion of the ‘as if’. Indeed, the chapter on fiction is suggestive of how crucial imagination was in Simmel’s accounts of the social world. Overall, the book attempts to take a unique position, in locating and forging unity in Simmel’s work. In terms of content, it offers close readings of Simmel’s writings and ideas, including some of the more overlooked pieces. And beyond this their book includes some important interventions on the theme evolution and Darwin’s influence on Simmel. Put together, what this book represents is an important attempt to reflect across Simmel’s work. It attempts to find unity in the fragmentation and, most importantly, it gathers Simmel’s thoughts in a way that affords and suggests a range of possibilities for continuing our explorations into his work.
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About the Author:
David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. His publications include Popular Culture and New Media: The Politics of Circulation (2013) and New Media: The Key Concepts (2008, with Nicholas Gane). He is currently completing work on his next book Punk Sociology. You can find his blog at thinkingculture.wordpress.com.