Simmel And Benjamin’s Recipe For Sociology

2136 words - 9 pages

Apparently modernity isn’t all that bad – not all doom and gloom as some would have you believe. Simmel and Benjamin think so anyway. Their approach to sociology is a little different to others. Sure, there are still some Marxist and Weberian notions in their recipe, but they throw in some ideas from intoxicated artists, aesthetics, and find significance in the chaos of modern life. This essay will look at these notions, first by examining the formulation of Simmel and Benjamin’s theories and secondly examining how these differ from other approaches.

Of course we cannot begin a discussion of the work of Simmel and Benjamin without mentioning the influence of the poet Baudelaire, whose observations and writings in the mid-19th century on city life informed both Simmel and Benjamin’s perspectives of the modern condition, and resultingly their sociological approach to its examination. For Baudelaire, life in the metropolises of 19th century Europe – Berlin, Paris, London, etc – was an experience informed by the crowd; the masses that flocked to the cities; that filled the streets and walkways; of multifarious shape, form and grade. While some responded with dismay and disdain to such a mass (Engles and Poe), Baudelaire allows the experience to wash over him, refraining from such a critical perspective but observing with interest and describing within his works the interactions and dances between people. The observer watches the dance of variety; of the many; of the mass – he is the flâneur (Benjamin 1973: 128).
The flâneur is the well-to-do gentleman with time on his hands, who strolls, who wanders casually the streets of the city drawing in the display of the crowd – of variety, juxtaposition, of change. These are not great sights or spectacles but merely the small, the common, the everyday. But it is to these that he is attuned to and fascinated – by the numerous and ever changing signs and symbols that have come to constitute his world, the city (Clark 1999).

Both Simmel and Benjamin pick up on Baudelaire’s notion of the flâneur – to them he embodies many facets of the modern condition which illuminate characteristics of modernity itself (Frisby 1985). His concern with what is new marks and important shift away from that which is historically based (ie. classical), towards a focus and fascination with presentness – the experience in the now (p50). Indeed, Habermas outlines four dimensions that characterise aesthetic modernity that are developed in Simmel’s outlook (Frisby 1985: 51).
The first is the notion of a self-renewing spontaneity in aesthetic – a fleetingness of style – ‘indicated by that which is new, that which by virtue of the newness of the next style will be surpassed and devalued’ (Frisby 1985: 51). Secondly, the development of the avant garde – the realm of the unknown and potentially shocking which marks a move to looking towards an as yet unrealized future. This future-focussed...

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