Experiential Erosion in the Metropolis

by evagheysen

beeld simmel

In his essay The Metropolis and Mental Life, Georg Simmel discusses the impact of the metropolis and its modern dynamics on the social life of the citizens. According to Simmel, a consequence of the metropolis and its modern lifestyle is the reduction of the individual to a single, negligible entity in a complex system. The metropolis homogenises unique ideas and traditions of diverse groups into a single urban way of life. Simmel points out the contrast between the slower, more habitual and familiar rhythm of a small town in relation to the overload of stimuli generated by the metropolis. In order to protect ourselves from the intense stimuli of the city behavioural mechanisms as for instance indifference, reservation, and rationality eliminate personal and emotional reactions. As a consequence, we no longer feel ourselves acting on the world around us. Simmel indicates a conflict and increasing gap between subjective —individual— culture and objective culture, the modern social relations. In his observation, impersonal cultural elements and existing goods and values of the metropolis suppress personal interests and particularities.

The consequences of metropolitan life outlined by Simmel show direct comparisons with the repercussions of globalisation: the loss of authenticity and personality and the disconnection between the individual and society. Jean-Luc Nancy describes globalisation as an undifferentiated sphere of uni-totality in which everything becomes a commodity. Globalisation leads to dominant cultural world views that weaken cultural subgroups and independencies and thereby an entire order of representations of belonging (Nancy, 2007 in: Janssens). As a counterbalance to globalisation Australian psychologist Jennifer Gidley (2007) proposes ‘planetisation’, an anthropological and ecological stance on ‘world-forming’ that emphasises the more inner oriented development of psychology and culture with respect for the individual and cultural diversity (Gidley 2007 in: Janssens). The different focus and value system of globalisation and planetisation is comparable to the differences outlined by Simmel between subjective culture and objective culture.

The loss of qualitative differences by the transformation of subjective culture into objective culture can be framed as a process of ‘experiential erosion’. Erosion, a term found in Geography, refers to ‘the gradual destruction of something by natural forces’. In my own work I use the physical process of erosion as a metaphor for the phenomenon of an environment that through frequent contact loses experiential qualities. Erosion is a destruction that acts upon the most outward layer of the thing and progresses, rubbing off layer by layer, ever more inwards until finally all matter is worn off. The destruction, which is in fact a repetitious contact between two matters by which the one matter hollows the other, is not a single conversion but is conditioned by frequency (of touch, contact, use) and hence is always a gradual process. The frequent rubbing results in a diminution of the textural inequalities of the superficial layer of the thing. Because of this textural smoothing the thing loses its distinctive features in relation to other things and is in fact homogenised. The frequency of physical contact leads to egalisation and continuity and hence diminishes the intensity and differentiation of experience. Based on Simmel’s observations of modern city life, the metropolis can be considered an environment that entails experiential erosion.

In order to counteract experiential erosion and ‘re-sensify’ existence, the individual seeks for qualitative differences in experience. This can be related to the forms of differentiation (eccentricities, extravagances and self-distantiation) the metropolitan citizen turns to in order to be ‘different’ and become noticeable. Architectural professor Randall Teal talks about a similar need for an ‘extraordinary encounter’ in architecture.  An extraordinary encounter is explained by Teal as “an immersive and embodied encounter that generates an affective experience within a world”, resulting in a unique resonance between the individual and a situation or place. What makes it ‘‘ordinary’’ are the familiar and measurable elements of our world, and what is ‘‘extra’’ is the immaterial wholeness that emerges from the embodied experience (Teal, 2013).

In The Metropolis and Mental life Simmel gives an insight in how citizens of the metropolis have become detached from their environments and intense personal experiences are weakening. What interests me the most however is which tactics can disturb processes of experiential loss, indifference, reservation, and pure rationality; the processes that are at play in the metropolis. What kind of designs might enhance the extraordinary encounters Randall Teal speaks of, and, can these encounters counteract the phenomenon of experiential erosion?

Eva Gheysen

Janssens N., 2012, Utopia-Driven Projective Research: a design approach to explore the theory and practice of Meta-Urbanism, Doctoral dissertation, Chalmers University of Technology, Gothenburg.

Simmel G., 2002 (1903), The Metropolis and Mental Life in Gary Bridge and Sophie Watson (eds.) The Blackwell City Reader. MA: Wiley-Blackwell.

Teal R., 2013, Immaterial Structures. Encountering the Extraordinary in the Everyday. USA: University of Idaho