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Money and modern life

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Georg Simmel was born in the heart of Berlin in 1858. That city epitomised the tensions of Germany’s special path to modernity. Rapid urbanisation and financial speculation propelled Berlin to the world stage. An avant-garde cultural elite flourished uneasily alongside central Europe’s aristocracy while a young proletariat fought the state and the bourgeoisie for rights, political and economic. A proliferation of modern technologies generated power and wealth while eroding the landed Prussian Junker nobility, the foundation of Bismarck’s united German Reich. The Hohenzollern dynasty – one of the oldest in Europe – reigned over a volatile empire, intoxicated by the most modern ideas.

The University of Berlin, which gave Simmel his education, was saturated with neo-Kantianism’s critical, historicist spirit. Yet Simmel found it hard to conform to Germany’s staid academic culture. His first dissertation, on ethnomusicology, was failed as too ‘speculative, aphoristic and stylistically careless’. Although he earned his doctorate in 1881 and his habilitation in 1885, his examiners perhaps had a point: his published articles often omitted references and refused scholarly narrowness. As Gustav von Schmoller, one of Simmel’s contemporaries, wrote of his style: ‘he prefers to provide more caviar than black bread, to illuminate with a firework than a study lamp.’

Not at home in the treatise, taxonomy or monograph, Simmel was foremost an essayist. As his fellow German scholar Theodor Adorno wrote of the essay form, thinking of Simmel, it ‘does not let its domain be prescribed for it … The essay does not play by the rules of organised science and theory …’ Instead of fashioning a comprehensive system, essays lightly gesture towards hidden depths and the connectedness of phenomena, often to greater effect. The impression is of a temporarily illuminated whole that fades rapidly, leaving one with the sense that there is more to be discovered, provided another flash of brilliance. Take the opening lines of Simmel’s essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903):

Simmel effortlessly establishes a rich framework of enquiry. But more than this, we don’t just hear the individual in general, but also this individual, who struggled to find a place in a hostile world. Yet Simmel also loved his world. ‘Perhaps I could have achieved something that was also valuable in another city,’ he reflected later, ‘but this specific achievement, that I have in fact brought to fruition in these decades, is undoubtedly bound up with the Berlin milieu.’ This is why Berlin found its self-consciousness in his essays.

The analysis in ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ centres on two interlocking social forms: money and the city. As they become dominant, they erode natural rhythms of production and traditional social bonds. This is liberating: cash doesn’t care about birthright, it is ‘concerned only with what is common to all: it asks for the exchange value’. Yet, there is a hidden cost: money reduces what is uniquely valuable to a number, a price. In the right ratio, fine hand-crafted goods are equal to mass-produced junk. This devalues commodities – nothing that can be bought is unique – while simultaneously accelerating the search for whatever is truly unique and incomparably valuable.

The city accelerates the calculable logic of money, encroaching even on our experience of time. As Simmel wrote:

Time is no longer governed by the seasons or celestial bodies, but is abstracted and measured. The city also compresses space, social and geographical. Diverse classes, strata, cultures, linguistic groups and vocations are brought into close proximity. This is why, as Simmel observed, the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche preached against the city bitterly: it threatened to subsume his noble individualism into a mass.

While Simmel was a deep reader of Nietzsche and shared his romantic attraction to ‘an endless succession of contrasts’, he took an urbane distance from the latter’s aristocratic radicalism. Instead of seeking extremes in the mountains of Sils Maria, Simmel found them in the metropolitan crowd, where one can feel the uniquely modern loneliness of passing a thousand faces without recognising a friend. Nietzsche’s peaks and valleys produced noble heights and abject depths. Simmel’s metropolis instead cultivated blasé citizens who, afraid of being subsumed, distinguish themselves with externally cool indifference.

The salon he cultivated around his house was as important to his work as the library

Disillusioned by advertising and overstimulation, Simmel suggested that blasé individuals search for quality in their last refuge – personality:

Simmel knew such characters well because they regularly came over for dinner. The salon he cultivated with his wife, Gertrud, around his house was as important to his work as the library. Margaret Susman, a regular guest at the Simmel household, writes:

Simmel’s guests included Stefan George, the symbolist poet, and Lou Andreas-Salomé, psychoanalyst, author and one-time apple of Nietzsche’s eye. In return for their patronage, Simmel held a mirror to this cultural elite. His public lectures were acclaimed, and attracted the best of central Europe’s intelligentsia. For a brief period prior to the First World War, figures as diverse as Leon Trotsky, Siegfried Kracauer, Karl Mannheim, Georg Lukács, Karl Jaspers and Emil Lask bumped knees at Simmel’s lectures.

His international impact was easily equivalent to that of Simmel’s contemporaries, Émile Durkheim and Max Weber, finding an audience in Chicago as early as the 1890s. Nevertheless, he was perpetually denied academic promotion. As his father had died while Simmel was young, he was appointed a guardian who owned a music publishing house and who left Simmel a considerable inheritance, financially securing his intellectual pursuits. From 1885 to 1900, Simmel remained a Privatdozent, a........

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