I wanted to swerve back to the notion of mutual construction and devote another entry in the blog to it ( I plan to do this a number of times). This entry could be read as an elaboration of some aspects of my first entry on mutual construction posted on September 28.
As I mentioned in the earlier post, we had read two important essays as preparation for our discussion that week: Walter Benjamin’s chapter, “The Flaneur,” from Charles Baudelaire : A Lyric Poet in the Era of High Capitalism, in tandem with Georg Simmel’s landmark essay, “Metropolis and Mental Life.” A couple of citations from the texts will help thicken the concept of mutual construction.
In the Georg Simmel text, we see some reflection on the antagonism that emerges from attempts by the individual to maintain individuality in the face of rapidly changing stimuli as cities burgeoned. Developing his thesis that the massive migration of rural peoples towards burgeoning cities at the height of industrial modernity requires more mental energy than slower, more habitual rhythms of rural small town, and thus creates within the neophyte urban subject the sensory foundations for a mental life, Simmel writes:
This intellectualistic quality, which is thus recognized as a protection of the inner life against the domination of the metropolis, becomes ramified into numerous specific phenomena. The metropolis has always been the seat of the money economy because the many-sidedness and concentration of commercial activity have given the medium of exchange an importance which it could not have acquired in the commercial aspects of rural life. But the money economy and the domination of the intellect stand in the closest relationship to one anther. (p 326)
Furthermore, this psychological intellectualistic attitude and the money economy are in such close integration that no one is able to say whether it was the former that affected the later or vice versa. (p 327)
I view this as a start to developing the concept of a mutual construction in urban terms, as Simmel is articulating the co-rising of persistent representation of the medium of exchange, or the money economy, in the city AND structures of experience that interiorize the urban subject’s response to such. The level of anonymity granted the citizen of the burgeoning industrial city was responsible for the development of a largely internalized way of coping with the newly experienced closeness between strangers and the corresponding market-driven bombardment of advertising and other forms of desire construction. Individuals no longer simply approached the tailor, for example, for a customized set of measurements of their particular body and a resulting tailored garment. Rather, in Simmel’s metropolitan experience there are for the first time racks of garments made in advance of actual need for those garments standing in place of the intermediated, personal, and custom engagement with the tailor. A corresponding calculability stands in between citizens now as the terms of exchange and monetized incentive lubricate the relationships between individuals in ways that tradition and narrative once did in the rural settings and economies he is contrasting.
The elliptical or circular diagram here posits these two developments as co-requisites. They rely on one another and mutually enable one another. The money economy and the domination of the intellectual response to it “stand in the closest relationship to one another.”
Simmel’s assertion that London has always been the intellect and the money bag of England, and never its heart (p 327) underscores his sense that cities are the seats of commerce for territories beyond and that as the modern city is amassed so too is the sense that the purchusabilty of things can have the effect of drowning the individual’s feeling of value and self worth. As the metropolis thrust upon the subject the messages of calculability and purchusabilty there is a blasé attitude that is developed within the individual as a function of protection. Not to be confused with mental dullness or stupidity, the blasé attitude is a form of calculated indifference that has the effect of lowering the level of contrast between competing stimuli the results of which perceptions of the environment that are grey and flat. Simmel writes,
“The mutual reserve and indifference, and the intellectual conditions of life in large social units are never more sharply appreciated in their significance for the independence of the individual than in the dense crowds of the metropolis because the bodily closeness and lack of space make intellectual distance really perceivable for the first time.” (p 334)
So, we begin to see something in these quotations from Simmel’s essay that Walter Benjamin’s chapter on the Flaneur takes on directly, and that is the relationship between the spatial configuration of the city, the status of the crowd, and the urban subject. Benjamin’s invocation of the flaneur, to be efficient about this, is as a subject that is mutually constructed by the Parisian arcade in the most direct sense. Indirectly, there is a larger relationship between the terms of capitalism and the production of a leisure class that is also at work. The triangulated relationship between the industrialization of the city, the particular configurations of space enabled by that industrialization, and the subject of the flanuer is of great interest to me, not only as a way of understanding the Baudelairian invocation of the fleeting, the contingent, and the noncommitted forms of agency possible in the crowded city, but also as a way of approaching the myriad relationships deeply imbricated in processes of urbanism.
Benjamin, writing on Baudelaire’s conception of the crowd as a criminal element (and the city as a scene of a crime), animates the sense of the crowd and speaks to its narcotic effects on the flaneur. He writes,
The crowd is not only the newest asylum of outlaws; it is also the latest narcotic for those abandoned in the crowd. The flaneur is someone abandoned in the crowd. In this he shares the situation of the commodity. He is not aware of this special situation, but this does not diminish its effect on him and it permeates him like a narcotic that can compensate him for many humiliations. The intoxication to which the flaneur surrenders is the intoxication of the commodity around which surges the stream of customers. (p 55)
We get here a more or less blatant alignment between the flaneur, which I am taking as a stand in for the urban subject more than as a historically constructed persona, and the commodity.
To close this blog entry, I might ask for permission to begin crossing some of these wires…
I might assert that as Simmel is describing the racks of clothing garments awaiting the eventual buyer, he is also describing the urban subject who is susceptible to all the constructions of desire that urbanism has calcified or solidified in the form of the crowded city. And those desire engines berth images and messages that swirl around both the racks full of clothing garments and the eventual buyers of those garments with equal incentive. And as these systems of production change so might the forms of urbanism change alongside them, thus producing new types of urban subjects. And all of these mutual constructions are prone to durational shifts and the preponderance of time based agency more than they are fixed and enduring.
Benjamin, in his analysis of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story, “The Man of the Crowd,” articulates this temporal and durational sensibility. He writes,
If the arcade is the classical form of the interieur, which is how the flaneur sees the street, the department store is the form of the interieurs decay. The bazaar is the last hangout of the flaneur. If in the beginning the street had become an interieur for him, now this interieur turned into a street, and he roamed the labyrinth of the merchandise as he had once roamed the labyrinth of the city. It is a magnificent touch in the Poe’s story that it includes along with the earliest description of the flaneur the figuration of his end. (p 54)