Nihilpolis

by olasvenle

Georg Simmel’s century old text on The Metropolis and Mental Life (1903) offers interesting reflexions on what impact the monetary reward system have on people’s minds. How the system is closely connected to the urban environment ever since antiquity.

His line of argument is intriguing inasmuch as it ranges back and forth from apparent criticism to appreciation of the effects of the metropolis on the human mind. From stating that individuality is subdued in the urban environment since economic scales and quantitative measures are ruling all relations he goes on to state that the individual freedom is considerably greater in the metropolis as compared to small societies. In the latter the groupings of people are small enough for the included members to work as monitors of each other, while in the former this surveillance is rendered impossible. Simmel ties the 19th century concept of division of labour closely to that of the city. Only there the proper conditions can be provided, there the people are forced to develop their own specialties not to be effortlessly substituted by somebody else.

Simmel sees a core shift of essence in the city life as compared to the previous rural one in the new fight for survival. No longer a struggle against nature for the means of living, but a struggle with other humans. Since it is other people who must provide the means of survival in the metropolis, whatever is produced have to make sure to find new and unique needs in the presumptive buyers. Individualization and differentiation as responses to the individual interchangeability. Ultimately for Simmel this individualization of human beings is something artificial, something applied in order to compensate for the loss of the whole personalities that were smashed by the division of labour.

The metropolis makes room for both of the concepts of individuality of the previous periods; that of the 18th century Enlightenment, freeing man from bonds, be they religious, political or guilds, and that of the 19th century romantic movement, looking to the particular, the irreplaceable. Both are housed in the city of modernity.

As relationships in Simmel’s metropolis are quantitative no values other than economic ones survive. The nihilism strikes. So does the apparent conflict with late 19th century seriousness and preoccupation with proper formal expressions.

Simmel’s object of study is the individual, however entirely on a group level. For greater explanatory power on individuals much theoretical input would be needed. Furthermore, different individuals react differently in new situations, based on their upbringings and dispositions, and different individuals are drawn to different environments for the fulfilments of their needs.

Ola Svenle