Interview with Thomas Kemple and Austin Harrington on Simmel

Simmel photo



For the original version of this interview, and other TCS material, go to the TCS Website

To supplement the double-length special section on ‘Georg Simmel’s Sociological Metaphysics:Money, Sociality and Precarious Life’ (TCS 29.7-8, Dec 2012), Simon Dawes interviews the editors on the main themes of the section, and on the importance of Simmel to sociology today.
Simon Dawes: Your section on Georg Simmel focuses on two particular strands of his thought: his metaphysics of the social (or sociological metaphysics) and his ideas about money economies. Could you unpack what these strands entail, and elaborate on the extent to which they intertwine throughout his work?

Austin Harrington:  In Simmel’s time as in ours, money economies have their tendency to turn people back to bedrock.  ‘Capitalist crises’, whether they issue in war or in the pre-1914 imperial scramble or rising nationalist ideologies or mass unemployment, as after 1929, or – as today – mass precarious underemployment: these events force social critics and theorists to consider what’s basic in existence, as they force ordinary people to do so.  Where does mundane paid or unpaid labour and life touch base with questions of existence and its limit-situations of sickness and fragility, chance and misfortune, finitude, temporality, death, and the sense or ‘thought of the outside’, whether God or ‘transcendence’ or nothingness?  This is how we understand the intertwinement of the sociological and the metaphysical in Simmel. All of these issues are matters he returns to with passion and panache in his recently translated last work, The View of Life
SD: In your introduction, you describe how Simmel’s ideas of sociation and individuation were influential among scholars in the 1960s and 1970s, while his importance for urbanism and modernity was more fashionable in the 1980s. But how significant and relevant are his ideas to contemporary research? And why do you think his work on sociological metaphysics and money economies has been neglected until now?
AH:The predominance of functionalism in the 1950s and 60s might explain why most or much interest in Simmel at this time lay in his take on how individuals come to be ‘integrated’ in the social – notably in those parts of his Sociology of 1908 that most impacted on American sociology in the early century through Albion Small’s translations at Chicago. The ‘cultural’ and ‘postmodern’ turns of the 1980s then loosened up matters and illuminated the richness and beauty of Simmel’s myriad contributions on modern metropolitan culture.  But we think there is a third – or who knows, a fourth or fifth – dimension of Simmel’s work that has only recently properly come to light, the metaphysical or trans-social dimension of his thoughts.  This chimes perhaps with the new interest in social theory in questions of religion and theology and the return in some sense of ‘the sacred’. What’s relevant in this metaphysical element to contemporary research?  It’s one way of getting serious again, after postmodernism, about things that might – perhaps – be timeless and absolute even in the midst of flux. Simmel calls this our Heraclitean universe of constancy-in-flux and flux-in-constancy. The new interest in Deleuzian vitalism and neo-Spinozism is another expression of this, as are Zizek’s or Badiou’s neo-Marxism. The more humanist philosophical ambitions of the German traditions of historicism and hermeneutics from which Simmel comes join hands in many ways with contemporary Deleuzianism’s anti-humanist thrust.
SD: Because Simmel wrote not only systematic sociology but also highly nuanced essays on a range of everyday and artistic topics – the Jugend material, for example – as well as more directly metaphysical writings like the now translated Lebensanschauung book which is discussed in the section, to what extent can we consider him a sociologist?
Thomas Kemple: The problem of what counts as ‘sociology’, which still haunts us, reaches back a few generations before Simmel, at least to Auguste Comte who first coined the term and whom few today would consider a true ‘sociologist’! Already in Simmel’s early work from 1890 On Social Differentiation (which dealt with emerging classic themes in social science such as the division of labour, competition, social distinction and so on), and in his 1894 essay, ‘The Problem of Sociology,’ later incorporated into Chapter 1 of Sociology, he was concerned with how one could both observe social life scientifically and participate in it at the same time. Despite the impressionistic presentation of a diverse array of ‘sociological’ topics from the beginning of his career right up to his Fundamental Problems of Sociology of 1917, he remained committed to establishing sociology’s ‘position in the system of the sciences,’ and the legitimacy of its ‘cognitive methods and purposes’, as he states in the ‘Preface’ to Sociology. So it’s remarkable that as he was writing these eclectic pieces in the Jugend he was also writing more systematic sociological essays, despite the fact that the discipline still had no secure footing in the university or its own scholarly association (Simmel joined Weber, Sombart, Toennies and others to form the Germany Sociological Society in 1910).  Nevertheless, by 1908, with revisions for the second edition of The Philosophy of Money complete and with the publication of Sociology, Simmel still could not find a position as an ‘ordinary’ faculty member at a German university, despite Max Weber’s strong letter of recommendation. (His eventual appointment in Strasburg in 1914 was in Pedagogy). As many contributors to our special section point out (especially Levine, Silver and Lee, and Blumenberg), it’s probably more accurate to say that the last ten years of his life represent more a shift in emphasis from sociological to philosophical topics and questions, rather a turnover in disciplinary allegiance, even as he continued to question the scope and focus of ‘sociology’ right up to the end.
SD: Could you say a little more about the academic relation between the humanities and the social sciences in Simmel’s day and where he stood on this relation? How successfully does he blend these disciplinary approaches, and how effectively does he forge a new style of reflection on trans-social phenomena? How problematic is the confluence of empirically investigative sociology and speculative philosophical reflection in Simmel’s sociological metaphysics, and what have been the consequences of this for sociology as a discipline?
TK:  Although Simmel did his graduate studies in philosophy, he took a risk by submitting an empirically based and sociologically oriented thesis on yodeling communities in the Swiss Alps as his doctoral dissertation. Not surprisingly, this ‘psychological and ethnological study of music’, which seems to have been poorly edited and proofread, and was met with astonishment by his supervisory committee, who asked him to submit an essay he had already completed on Kant’s monadology instead, which allowed him to pass. This episode would mark the end of Simmel’s forays into empirical sociology, strictly speaking, as he went on to pursue a more free-wheeling, experimential, and ‘experiential’ line of investigation instead, even as he continued to draw on and be influenced by the social scientific currents prevalent at the time (probably in part through his close friendship with the political economist Ignaz Jastrow, who is featured in the photographs included in our introduction). Perhaps that’s why today Simmel tends to be more warmly welcomed by people in philosophy, cultural studies, art history, and literature, at least in North America, than in sociology, political science, or economics, despite the growing fascination with and interest in his work across the disciplines. Perhaps, then, I should have anticipated the remark made to me by a retired environmental scientist after a talk I gave recently in New York City, that “‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ fails to provide any ‘data’!”; as well as the comment by the Sociology Head at the University of Chicago at last year’s conference commemorating the publication of The View of Life that “Simmel would never be hired here today!” In Weber’s Preamble to the revised version of Economy and Society (subtitled ‘Sociology’), he too criticizes Simmel’s method on methodological grounds for failing to distinguish sharply between ‘subjectively and objectively valid meanings,’ and elsewhere he notes that Simmel’s philosophical and cultural analysis of the money economy can hardly count as a ‘political economy’ of capitalism, even though elsewhere he expresses admiration for Simmel’s brilliance. In any case, even if Simmel’s unique style of reflection on cultural, intellectual, and social problems runs against the current of the scientization of sociology as a discipline, it contributes to that broader, even lyrical sense of sociological thought and investigation that others were trying to foster in his own day and ever since.
SD: Why do you think Simmel has had less impact than Weber and Durkheim on the formation of the discipline of sociology?  And why do you think there has been a revival of interest in Simmel in recent years? Are there parallels here with Tarde and the revival of vitalism / Lebensphilosophie through Deleuze and others?
TK: In the North American academic world these days, when we hear the word ‘impact’ we tend to think of ‘impact factors’ measured by bibliometric indicators reported by the Social Science Index or some other academic auditing instrument.  So by that standard, Simmel’s influence has been at most ‘incalculably diffuse’ (as George Eliot might put it), at least compared to the canonical trinity of Marx, Weber, and Durkheim, whose work continues to be cited in major academic journals, university textbooks, and even in popular and political discussion (think of the currency of terms such as ‘class conflict’, ‘charisma’, and ‘anomie’, for instance). Simmel’s presence in the field of sociology has been much more subtle and silent, but it has been significant and virtually unbroken over the past 120 years. In Simmel’s lifetime, his essays were already being translated in French and published in English in the American Journal of Sociology, and were exerting a major influence on the urban sociology pioneered at the University of Chicago by Albion Small and Robert E. Park, among others. Although Parsons elided Simmel from the ‘group of recent European writers’ that he discussed in his pathbreaking Structure of Social Action of 1937 (a significant move that Levine has examined on several occasions), later he allowed his former student in Canada, Kaspar Naegele, to include substantial selections from Simmel’s work in their monumental two-volume anthology, Theories of Society from 1961. Although Kurt Wolff’s selected translations from Sociology were available in the 1950s and 60s, the recent revival owes much to Donald Levine’s anthology from 1971, David Frisby’s edition of The Philosophy of Money from 1978 and his commentaries in several books and TCS articles, and the collection of translations he edited with Mike Featherstone in 1997. The discussion of vitalism and life philosophy over the past several years, partly a response to Foucault’s studies of ‘biopower’ and ‘biopolitics,’ as well as the recent rethinking of ‘metaphysics’ in sociology and philosophy, have hardly been registered in North American sociology or analytic philosophy, but these trends certainly offer a congenial context for the reception of Simmel’s View of Life and later his ‘Lebenssoziologie’ (as Scott Lash calls it in an important essay published in TCS in 2005).
SD: At one point in your introduction, you say that metaphysics for Simmel refers to how ‘life’ unfolds into ‘more life’, ultimately transcending ‘more than life’. Could you explain what Simmel means by these terms? How helpful a description do you think this is?
AH:  What this means, at least as I understand it, is simply another more elaborate, more metaphysical reformulation of Simmel’s idea about self-formation in the essays on the concept, crisis and tragedy of culture. The subjective search or lust for ‘more life’ – more fullness of life, ‘more me’ – only moves forward in negation of itself, in the encounter with limits, with form, objectivity, civility, distance.  So, ‘more-than-life’ is the effect of ‘objective culture’ of inherited difficult ideas and works of art that force us to keep overcoming ourselves, transcending ourselves. Simmel’s mehr Leben and mehr-als-Leben is this play of positivity and negativity in a life.
SD: Could you explain how Simmel’s approach to art and religion changed from one of seeing them as social forms of relation to one of seeing them as actual forms of consciousness? And why do you think he neglected music in his reflections on art?
AH:  The best insight into how Simmel’s attitudes to both art and religion change can be had from his great monograph on Rembrandt from 1916.  The Rembrandt book is interesting not only for its wealth of reflections on Rembrandt’s painterly imagination but also for what it says about religion and religiosity in early modern European consciousness.  What changes in Simmel’s thinking after the turn of the century is that he becomes less interested in seeing religious life solely in terms of expressions of social relationships.  It’s not misleading to think of his early understanding of religion as quite similar to Durkheim’s in The Elementary Forms of Religious Life.  But later on, in tandem with much of the weight of his writing after 1908 falling on philosophy, art history and cultural criticism rather than sociology in any narrower sense, he comes to view both religion and art more as quasi-apriori dimensions of Life in general, i.e. of all embodied, affective and reflective (human) mind tout court.  Religion and art evolve over time and history into more and more differentiated and autonomous spheres, independent of practical interests and purposes, and stand alongside science/philosophy/intellect as the last in Simmel’s trio of categorial ‘worlds’.  We can see Simmel as here redefining Kant’s three dimensions of reason in evolutionary lebensphilosophische terms.  To read his monograph on Rembrandt, including perhaps especially the last chapter on ‘Rembrandt’s Religious Art’, is to appreciate how brilliantly he works out this thought in terms of art history and general European cultural history.
On music: actually Simmel didn’t neglect this, if we include his fascinating early text, ‘Psychological and Ethnological Studies of Music’ (in English in the collection edited by Peter Etzkorn).  This can be considered one of the very first works of ethnomusicology and it’s an amazing discussion of how rhythm, song, melody and dance articulate different modes of social form in agrarian and tribal societies.  It’s true that Simmel never thematized music at any length after this point but you can find countless intriguing asides in later writings, including for example in the section on rhythm and time in the last chapter of The Philosophy of Money.  He wrote tantalisingly little about photography and cinema and nothing about the revolutionary developments in painting of his own day – nothing on cubism, expressionism or abstraction – but there’s absolutely no doubt he would have addressed these things in depth if he had lived just that little bit longer, dying just six weeks before the end of the war in late September 1918.
SD: You refer to the dominant views of Simmel as a philosophical flâneur, a sociological bricoleur, a relativist or a postmodernist. How do you see Simmel, and to what extent do the papers in this section challenge these dominant views? Why do you feel there has been this rediscovery of a more metaphysical Simmel recently and how do you evaluate this process?
TK: These characterizations of Simmel – as bricoloeur, flâneur, impressionist, and so on — come from the influential piece (which has become ‘oddly canonical’ as Barbour puts it in his essay) by Deena and Michael Weinstein published in the TCS Special Issue on Simmel in 1991, where they take issue with certain aspects of the sketches of Simmel’s method provided by Lukács and Frisby. Although initially useful as a heuristic device, we think these arguments are somewhat misleading insofar as they understate the rigorous methodology and systematic design of Simmel’s scholarly output, especially in the major sociological and philosophical works. To some extent, the image we have of Simmel in the English speaking world – that he provides only fragmentary impressions of modern life which never add up to a coherent theoretical argument – is an effect of the sporadic and spotty availability of his writings in translation, a situation which has now largely been corrected. In soliciting and selecting papers for this special issue, we were especially concerned to stress the methodical and systematic character of Simmel’s work, even when unsuccessfully executed or when he is self-consciously being playful, ironic, or elusive, as in the ‘Momentbilder’ pieces (the ‘Snapshots sub specie aeternitatis’ translated in the special issue). For example, even though Button, Pyyhtinen, and Padoksik focus in on very specific concepts or topics – fate, death, Italian cities – they stress how these particular points offer glimpses into the totality of Simmel’s overall theoretical view. Likewise, while Dodd, Fitzi, and Darmon and Frade are interested in contributing to some recent theoretical debates – about the future of money, post-normative societies, and contemporary subjectivities – they do so by reconstructing pieces of Simmel’s argument out of its larger coherent whole. I think that this ‘synechdochal’ character of Simmel’s method – which becomes increasingly evident as one reads the major works along with the shorter pieces from the Gesamtausgabe – makes the rediscovery of the multidimensionality of Simmel’s work, especially its distinctive ‘metaphysics’, ‘ethics’, and ‘aesthetics’, so productive for scholars today.
SD: Finally, could you tell us about the significance of Simmel to your own writings? How have his ideas helped inform your own work, and will you continue to engage with him?
TK: My interest in Simmel stems from noticing how a ‘sociological canon’ has been formed and continues to be reshaped in ways that are parallel to the process which has been discussed so much in literary studies, insofar as Simmel’s work and the eclectic range of themes it addresses tend to be included or excluded, depending on what criteria are being invoked and enforced, in which institutional contexts, and by whom. His work seems to be a good test case for revisiting or reviving other more or less marginal figures in ‘classical sociology’, such as Tocqueville, Tarde, Mannheim, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Harriett Martineau, W. E. B. Du Bois, Mead, and Mauss, among others, whose writings don’t always sit well with the trinity of Marx/Weber/Durkheim, in part because they range across so many disciplines and genres, including poetry and short stories, lectures and essays, theoretical treatises and empirical-statistical studies. Simmel’s work in particular epitomizes a much broader vision of what sociology once promised to be than we seem to have noticed before, or have since been willing to consider for ourselves, reaching as it does beyond its professional, public, and even critical vocations.
But apart from this ‘disciplinary’ and historical interest, I was first inspired to read Simmel seriously from an essay by my mentor and teacher, John O’Neill, where he takes Simmel’s ‘sociological apriorities’ as a framework and starting point inaugurating a style of phenomenological critique later expanded upon in the work of such figures as Schutz, Merleau-Ponty, Mills, Goffman, and Garfinkel. Taking this creative approach to Simmel as a kind of model, my current research reworks the key concepts of the ten chapters of Simmel’s Sociology in ways that resonate with lost works or underappreciated ideas in the history of sociology, on the one hand, and with recent debates among intellectuals and publics concerning such issues as ‘sustainability,’ ‘cosmopolitanism’, ‘empire’, ‘secrecy’, ‘neoliberalism’, ‘new media’, and such, on the other. 
AH: Three particular aspects of Simmel’s legacy interest me in the work I’m doing at the moment, and all three of these, I think, are not as well appreciated as they should be. The first is Simmel’s political writings from the years of the First World War.  His voice during these years wasn’t simply a nationalist one, at least not after 1915.  It is a voice of protest at ‘the West’ – at the countries of Zivilisation, France and especially Britain – but not a purely inward-looking voice; and my view, which I’ve been trying to set out in a book for quite a while now, is that together with other similar left-liberal German personalities of the time, including those of Troeltsch, Tönnies, Scheler and the two Weber brothers, it looks forward to comparable antagonisms experienced by other countries around the world today toward ‘the West’ with respect to hegemonic North-Atlantic-centred global power. In the famous showdown of Kultur and Zivilisation in German discourse during and after the war, which Simmel prefigures, it’s possible, I claim, to see an early and interesting precedent for anti-Westernist/anti-Eurocentric critique in global social and cultural studies today.
Also important for me is another second aspect of Simmel’s work: his writings on religion.  As I said earlier, there’s something rich and vital about Simmel’s work on religion, which again unfortunately has taken a back-seat over the decades to Weber’s, Durkheim’s and Marx’s, or Freud’s or William James’s, better-known thinking. In some ways like Durkheim, Simmel, even in his later work, thinks of religion as a ‘function’ of life in the sense of a universal emergent mode of consciousness that crosses definite confessional traditions and cultural and historical difference in general.  What’s relevant in his approach today is its applicability to work today on processes of ‘subjectivization’ or ‘individualization’ in religious social history.  Not dissimilar to the way Weber thinks of religious aspects in the experience of unconditional personal callings to stations of life beyond formal religion – to art, science, politics and the nation, etc – so Simmel writes of a modern sense of make-or-break ultimate directedness of individual life-courses in terms of subjectively felt religious ‘atmospheres’, ‘moods’ or ‘colorations’ of life – the sense of a ‘God of one’s own’, as Ulrich Beck has put it.
The last aspect of Simmel that interests me is simply his enormously protean work on art history, only about 30% of which currently exists in English translation.  I’m working at the moment on a volume of pieces that covers the remaining 70%.  Readers of the German Gesamtausgabecan see for themselves how much is there – over two dozen essays on topics from Gothic sculptural form to Michelangelo, Rodin, nineteenth century realism and symbolism, Goethe and Stefan George, to name only a few things.
Simmel cover or frontispiece
Courtesy of Cornelia Hahn Oberlander
(Vancouver, Canada)
Sunday 1914, Open House at the residence of Professor Ignaz Jastrow, 24 Nussbaumallee, in Berlin’s West End
Here are a few of the pieces we’ve alluded to in our responses above:
Goodstein, Elizabeth (2002) ‘Style as Substance: Georg Simmel’s Phenomenology of Culture’. Cultural Critique 52: 209-234.
Levine, Donald N. (2010) “Adumbrations of a Sociology of Morality in the Work of Parsons, Simmel, and Merton.” In Handbook of the Sociology of Morality, Steven Hitlin and S. Vaisey eds. New York: Springer, pages 57-72
Naegele, Kaspar (1958) ‘Attachment and Alienation: Complementary Aspects of the Workd of Durkheim and Simmel’. American Journal of Sociology 63 (6): 580-589.
O’Neill, John (1973) ‘On Simmel’s Sociological Apriorities’. In Phenomenology and Sociology: Issues and Applications. G. Psathas ed. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

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