The City: A Discussion of Georg Simmel's 'The Metropolis and Mental Life'
The city has been interpreted as the archetypal modern environment, the realm of modern experience. The 19th century experienced huge urban expansion: cities grew to unprecedented scale and this gave rise to new modes of experience. This article considers some key representations of the urban environment. What do we mean by the term ‘the city’ and how have we responded to its spaces and rhythms?
Literature on modernity and the city
Georg Simmel’s essay ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ (1903) viewed the city as the arena of modernity, a disorientating realm that generated neuroses such as agoraphobia. Exploring the metropolis as a psychological construction, Simmel contended that the city harboured a nervous and feverish population plagued with alienation and a sense of dislocation. In order to cope with the constant bombardment of sensory stimuli, the individual must adopt a blasé attitude or detached nonchalance:
The essence of the blasé attitude consists in the blunting of discrimination . . . The meaning and differing values of things, and thereby the things themselves, are experienced as insubstantial.
Without this psychological defence, Simmel argued that the individual would become catatonic with awe. This gave rise to a new urban figure, the flâneur or stroller, who moves through the labyrinthine streets and hidden spaces of the city, partaking of its attractions and fearful pleasures, but remaining somehow detached and apart from it. The term flâneur was used by Baudelaire in his essay ‘The Painter of Modern Life.’ In Baudelaire’s work the anonymous figure of the flâneur is assumed to be male, and indeed it has been argued that 19th century discourses of the city were inherently masculine.
One branch of feminist writing has argued that only men had unrestricted access to urban space. Griselda Pollock, for example, has examined the experience of Impressionist artists in Paris, arguing that men were uniquely able to access the bohemian, sequestered and sexually-ambiguous spaces that often formed the subject matter of their paintings. Pollock concludes that female artists were denied access to these spaces, and were therefore unable to participate in a critical area of Impressionist activity. This partly accounts for the marginal status of women artists within male-authored histories of art.
Discourses of the city
Our perception of the built environment depends not merely on direct experience of it, but also on the various cultural representations we have encountered. In the book Edinburgh: The Making of a Capital City, Cliff Hague and Paul Jenkins argue:
It is possible to describe a city in many different ways. Books such as this, architectural guidebooks, sets of economic statistics, picture postcards and lists of key dates in its history are just a few examples. To some degree, such sources will be shared and assimilated by residents, visitors, even total outsiders who have never known the city at first hand. Direct experience of a place is usually mediated by stories and images about that place that we hear from other sources.
Focusing on Leith, the authors continue:
By the millennium, Leith had at least four distinctive identities – the traditional, ageing, working-class community with its residual facilities (council houses, tenement flats, pubs, churches): the Leith of Irvine Welsh’s Trainspotting, drug-addicted, with a crumbling social and physical fabric; the Leith of the Asian community, with the Sikh temple and late-night corner shops; and, last but by no means least, the Leith of the loft-living, wine-bar and gym-visiting young professionals, buying into a very different image of Leith from the area’s traditional identity. Thus identity becomes more complex and fragmented as places, and the everyday life that underpins them, are reconfigured and identity itself becomes commodified.
Baudelaire, C. (1995) The Painter of Modern Life and Other Essays. London: Phaidon. Originally published in French in 1863.
Edwards, B. and Jenkins, P. (2005) Edinburgh: The Making of a Capital City.
Simmel, G. ‘The Metropolis and Mental Life’ in Harrison, C. Art in Theory 1815-1900.
For a discussion of women’s experience in the city, see:
Nava, M. and O’Shea, A. (1996) Modern Times: Reflections on a Century of English Modernity. London: Routledge.
Pollock, G. (1988) Vision and Difference: Femininity, Feminism and Histories of Art. London: Routledge.
Wilson, E. (1991) The Sphinx in the City: Urban Life, the Control of Disorder and Women. London: Virago.
Georg Grosz, Metropolis
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