Simmel’s Borderline Sociology: On Elizabeth Goodstein’s Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary
Reviewed by Mark Featherstone, Keele University
Elizabeth Goodstein’s new study of Georg Simmel’s borderline sociology is a labyrinthine work, situated somewhere between philosophy, sociology, and cultural history, and a valuable contribution to understandings of Simmel’s continuing importance for interpreting the contemporary world. Following her earlier study of boredom and modernity, Experience without Qualities (2004), Goodstein, who is currently Professor of English and Liberal Arts at Emory, has written a book that requires her reader to immerse themselves in Simmel’s thought in order to fully understand his continued relevance. Building upon Simmel’s own view of his likely legacy as ‘cold cash’ for his interpreters, Goodstein’s thesis is that his work has been cut up, understood in terms of fragments, and objectified in such a way that fails to recognise his overall contribution to thinking about the modern world without God. In her view, Simmel’s sociological readers have tended to miss his modernist style, taking up the surface of his work, and failing to take account of the deep structure of his overall philosophical project concerning infinite reciprocity. In much the same way that Simmel’s concept of money involves the reduction of continuous, related quality in the creation of fragments of quantity available for universal exchange, Goodstein’s view is that the disciplinary, and specifically sociological, reception of his work has transformed his essays into cold cash, disparate fragments that can be used here, there, and everywhere, and that this has meant that the deeper philosophical quality running through his work has been largely lost and forgotten about. Since it is precisely this reduction that Goodstein tries to resist in her reading of his work, the challenge for the reader of her book is similarly to try to avoid sacrificing the whole to the part, and instead to seek to understand her overall project through the relationship between individual sections of her kaleidoscopic work, which it is possible to say cohere around the theme of a vision of infinite reciprocity that transgresses any attempt to contain the quality of relationality within the objective limits of either discipline or money.
At the start of her work Goodstein makes the claim that Simmel is a kind of borderline figure in sociology, who is simultaneously regarded as a founding father and marginal thinker, and the rest of her book explains and explores this tension in terms of Simmel’s own work, which becomes a sociological-philosophical model for understanding the history of his reception in the emergent discipline of sociology. The complexity of Goodstein’s project resides in the way in which she constructs and presents this story, moving between an exploration of Simmel’s modernism and philosophy of money and his disciplinary reception and potential future political value, in such a way that creates a kind of parallax effect that requires her reader to hold two stories in tension at the same time. Brought together these two strands of the text’s narrative form a fragmented whole (which resembles the structure of Simmel’s own work where content is always form and form is always content) that sees individual essays contribute to an overall philosophical project focused upon Simmel’s potential value for rethinking discipline in a world defined by relationality. Reading the development of Simmel’s work from the first version of The Problem of Sociology (1894) through The Philosophy of Money (1900) to his later work The View of the Life (1918), Goodstein emphasises the importance of this overall philosophical project for understanding his contribution to modern thought (essentially, the ontological concept of infinite reciprocity), but also the reason he remains a marginal, borderline figure who sits uneasily on the very edge of both sociology and philosophy (on the basis that he falls between the two epistemes precisely because of his expansive coverage). This tendency towards universalism was, of course, present in Simmel’s early Neo-Kantian work, which emphasised the epistemological foundations of inquiry, and also his final works in the field of life philosophy (The View of Life), where the concept of sociation is extended towards the idea of the infinite nature of reciprocity. For Goodstein, this project was never about establishing a rigid formal model for understanding the social world, but rather coming to terms with the endless flux of life in a post-Nietzschean universe without secure foundations. Thus Goodstein’s Simmel is writing in the wake of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra and his relativism is concerned with recognising the way in which the death of God takes away the transcendental signifier that could secure the ground of universal meaning.
Given this nihilistic situation, Goodstein points out that the importance of the fragment in Simmel’s work is that it is able to function as a synecdoche, and a window onto the whole which it is no longer possible to think about in any kind of unified, totalised way. Where the idea of God had been able to unify and create a situation where social relations came together in a synthetic whole defined by belief, Simmel’s modernism recognises that this is no longer possible in the wake of His demise. Against Hegelian synthetics, Goodstein explains that Simmel sought to found a new philosophy for a model of society fragmented by its lack of transcendental foundations. The effect of this recognition of the end of transcendence was that Simmel’s brand of philosophy became immanent and sociological and fractured and perspectival since it was no longer possible to find a privileged viewpoint above society or a particular perspective within the forms of association making up society that would trump all others. It is because of this immanent perspectivism or relativism that Goodstein seeks to correct the standard view of Simmel as the sociologist of modernity (for example, she is critical of Frisby’s (1986) work in these terms), by suggesting that it would be better to emphasise his cultural modernism and explore his contribution to the formation of sociology, rather than simply assert his identification as a sociologist in a straightforward way that ignores his situation on the border between philosophy and sociology. In explaining the link between Simmel’s philosophy and sociology, Goodstein argues that his overall project was always animated by a desire to think philosophically, and understand the ontological relatedness of empirical phenomena under the surface, which could be revealed by phenomenological, sociological studies of particular cases or examples of forms of association.
The value of this strategy for Goodstein is that it was able to make sense of the fractured, complex, nature of the modern social world through individual cases, even though it could never suspend this complexity in some over-arching mechanistic worldview. This is, in turn, why Goodstein thinks her project of rereading Simmel and rethinking his borderline status is valuable in the present. Beyond the scholarly value of her project for philosophers, sociologists, and cultural historians, she suggests that the wider purpose of returning to Simmel, and excavating his philosophical-sociological project, is that his method of reading synecdochally may enable us to start to make sense of our own situation, caught in a rapidly changing world characterised by a maelstrom of apparently disconnected phenomena that seem to offer no final truths. As the modernist thinker of flux, and philosopher of sociological phenomena, Goodstein suggests that returning to Simmel could renew philosophy, but more importantly save sociology from its disciplinary straightjacket defined by quantitative methods and crude empiricism in order to make it more appropriate to the study of a world characterised by interconnectivity and a complete lack of foundations. As the synecdoche of synecdoches that simultaneously connects everything to everything else by virtue of its infinite exchangeability and reduces all quality to quantity in the form of objective, empirical, substance (cold cash), the exploration of Simmel’s masterwork, The Philosophy of Money, sits at the heart of Goodstein’s book. The technological innovation of money, which resides in the way in which it cuts into singular quality in order to translate it into commensurate quantity, takes on such importance for Goodstein because this process also explains Simmel’s discipline (in this instance meaning training or correction) that entailed the transformation of his expansive philosophical-sociological project concerned with plumbing the depths of empirical phenomena into the cold cash of the sociological essayist focused on disparate cases without obvious connection.
In Goodstein’s view this is precisely why Simmel is simultaneously considered a founding father of sociology able to shed light on modern social conditions, but also cast onto the very margins of the subject because of his apparent lack of a systematic vision. Goodstein’s point here is that Simmel’s wider vision, which was by no means systematic in the Hegelian sense, was contained in his philosophy, which is precisely what was lost in his conversion into a sociologist in the early 20th century by a range of interpreters, including the early Chicago School sociologists Albion Small and Robert Park. For Goodstein the problem of Simmel’s readers is thus that they have emphasised the empirical, ontic, dimensions of his work and missed out the deeper philosophical, ontological aspects of his thinking with the result that the sociological Simmel is, in her view, a kind of partial Simmel. This is problematic because, she explains, the experiences of immersion and distancing are deeply embedded in the lived foundations of Simmel’s modernism based in his life in late 19th / early 20th century Berlin. Indeed, Goodstein argues that the experience of living and working in Berlin is at the very heart of Simmel’s work, and that he became a kind of personification of the city through his writings which captured the state of urban fragmentation and endless flux that characterised the period. Akin to Socrates who lived on the margins of Athenian society, Goodstein points out that Simmel never really found a home in the German university because its rigid disciplinary structures clashed with his own approach defined by the attempt to fuse philosophy and sociology which he developed on the basis of his lived experiences. In this respect, she explains that the loneliness of his path, and what she calls his ‘painful marginality’, was representative of his experience of the city.
But while Simmel’s readers have tended to focus on the immersive dimensions of his work and the way he captured the experience of early 20th century Berlin, they have in Goodstein’s view, lost sight of the sense of distance and estrangement that also constitutes his thought, meaning that they have never properly understood the stakes of his philosophical project which concern the ways in which the individual is made or subjectivated in cultural forms that they themselves also produce through their associations with others. In making this point Goodstein follows Levine, Carter, and Gorman (1976a,b) who noted the fragmented nature of Simmel’s reception in American sociology in important papers published in the mid-1970s. Citing this influential work first published in the American Journal of Sociology, Goodstein points out that Simmel’s readers have tended to take particular insights from his work, but never engage with his broader project that represents the modern condition through its complexity. While early readers of Simmel, including Nicholas Spykman (1925 / 2004), are thus criticised for their lack of fidelity to his overall project, Goodstein also takes issue with more recent works, and specifically Gary Jaworski’s (1997) attempt to explain Simmel’s broader thematic influence on American sociology, by suggesting that this ultimately shows how readers have made use of Simmel to support their own views through elastic interpretations, without real concern for the deeper, contextual meaning of his thought. Overall, Goodstein’s view is that readers of Simmel from Spykman to Frisby have tended to attempt to order or systematise his work, with the result that they have lost sight of his modernism that is, in her account, essentially representative of his understanding of the social, economic, and cultural conditions of the early 20th century. This is, for example, how Goodstein reads Gianfranco Poggi’s (1993) study of Simmel’s book on money, which she thinks reduces the complexity of The Philosophy of Money and, centrally, seeks to position his work within a disciplinary logic that cannot really contain it. Although it is possible that Goodstein overstates the extent of Simmel’s subjection to disciplinary structures through her choice of source material, because others, most notably Kemple (2007) and Pyyhtinen (2009), have recently explored his ‘other sociology’ concerned with boundaries and borderlines, her thesis is largely convincing in its exploration of his reception in American sociology and the hegemonic form of the discipline more generally.
In order to account for the origins of this process, and explain why Simmel was ultimately read back into discipline, Goodstein takes up the problem of subjectivation in the late 19th / early 20th century. Here, she argues that without the secure foundations of the theological universe to secure meaning, and organise subjectivity, the classical idea of bildung started to fail, leaving the natural sciences to modernise and materialise knowledge, but also understandings of what it means to be an individual. As a result Goodstein draws a line between the rise of the modern discipline, which represents a response to the death of God and the failure of transcendence, the emergence of the naturalised individual, who is no longer cultivated but simply represents a kind of objective fact, and the money economy, that objectifies and quantifies otherwise deeply embedded, qualitative social relations, in order to construct a vision of modernity that takes in the individual suspended in the objective money economy and that reaches an understanding of the world through discreet, disciplinary forms of knowledge. However, while these processes appeared to liberate the individual, value, and knowledge from their traditional, embedded situation, thus producing the excess of freedom the existentialists would later confront, Goodstein makes the point that Simmel recognised the dialectical negation implicit in these changes which meant that (1) the individual was cancelled by the very excess of individualism within the estranged collective, (2) value was undermined by the translation of quality into quantity that screens out anything incomparable, and (3) knowledge narrowed towards an object produced by a particular way of approaching the world. In each case what is lost, in Goodstein’s reading of the value of Simmel’s philosophy, when sociologists fail to take into account the deep structure of these changes is precisely an understanding of the effect of the abolition of the philosophical, ontological ground that would otherwise form the phenomenological base for individualism, evaluation, and thinking. Thus Goodstein emphasises the problem of failing to recognise Simmel’s philosophical project, and only focusing on his sociological studies, on the basis that science, and by extension social science, cannot think beyond the empirical case in order to understand the ontological relation of everything to everything else without transcendental guarantee that forms the basis of modern social life.
For Goodstein, this failure to recognise the relativity of life is the problem of the contemporary financialised world, where everything is governed by the most abstract form of money (fictitious capital), and the techno-scientific university, where thought and knowledge are understood in terms of metrics which somehow pass judgement on the relationship of thinking to a narrow conception of ultimate truth, rather than the mobile relative vision of the truth that stands in a post-Nietzschean universe without transcendental foundations. Against this process of abstraction of quality into quantity, which ironically also involves a kind of crude materialist reduction of the movement of life into the immobility of the objective thing, Goodstein sketches out a new politics of knowledge through a discussion of Simmel’s philosophy of money and method of sociation. From Simmel’s point of view, working on the edge of the sharp separation of the humanities and social sciences, Goodstein shows how the new disciplinary structure looks like a fetish that is no longer really connected to life. This is, of course, exactly what money also achieves through the way it symbolises and quantifies every object and every quality, which is the reason why it is possible to connect the emergence of the money economy to the rise of the disciplinary imagination in the post-Nietzschean world without foundations. This is also the reason why Simmel becomes such as important commentator on the philosophical conditions that led to both the quantification of value in the form of money and the objectification of knowledge in the shape of the discipline that transformed him into a sociological founding father and philosophical stranger.
Given this borderline situation, the objective of Goodstein’s project is to try to reclaim the full scope of Simmel’s philosophical-sociological thought, in the name of responding to the flux of the present where interconnectivity has become a kind of first principle. The value of this work is that it has the potential of revealing the deep sociological, and potentially ecological, participation of everything in everything else in such a way that transgresses the limits of both the globalised money economy and the disciplinary university. Goodstein’s book itself is divided into three sections, focusing on (I) Simmel’s modernity, (II) his philosophy of money, and finally (III) his liminality in relation to what she calls the disciplinary imaginary. In the first part of the book Goodstein sets out Simmel’s vision of vergesellschaftung or ‘becoming social’ that will be familiar to readers with a working knowledge of his approach. Explaining that this approach constitutes a pure form of sociology based on the study of association, she shows that this methodology never lapses into abstract formalism, simply because Simmel never suggests that there is anything called society beyond the constantly shifting relations between individuals who are made in these connections. In this way Goodstein responds to Durkheim’s critique of Simmel’s ‘bastard speculation’, which revolves around the idea that the focus on association creates a formal abstraction that is more than the sums of its concrete parts, by showing how form is content in Simmel’s work. Although Goodstein never makes this point, it would actually be more accurate to say that Durkheim relies on abstraction (through the idea of the objective social fact), rather than Simmel who never looks to escape the reality of infinite reciprocity. However, Goodstein uses this debate to show how the Durkheimian social scientific approach started to form the discipline of sociology in the early 20th century, leaving Simmel marginalised working on philosophical studies of the social.
Moving into the second section of the book, which focuses on Simmel’s philosophy of money, Goodstein explores Simmel’s borderline methodology and builds a case for its continuing relevance today. Centrally she shows how money represents Simmel’s key idea, the living reciprocity of elements, and follows this through his exploration of the separation of subjectivity and objectivity. Here, money leads to the hypertrophy of objective culture and the atrophy of subjective culture and produces a kind of nihilism of meaningless things. However, since money is a substantial representation of the relativity of life, it is possible to interpret economic culture in order to reach an understanding of the reality of infinite reciprocity or the life process. Paraphrasing Heidegger’s (1954 / 2013) interpretation of the meaning of technology, which is never about technology, Goodstein thus shows that the meaning of money is not money itself, but rather exchange, endless mobility, and the quality of ‘being given away’. By looking through money in order to see its deeper meaning, the focus of Simmel’s work was thus to think beyond objectivity in the name of subjective culture based in thick social relations. Advancing this discussion, Goodstein outlines the meaning of culture for Simmel, which revolves around the way in which social interactions produce worlds. While objective relations produce quantitative worlds, where there is little meaning beyond number, subjective relations produce thicker worlds based in deeper connections, which then provide spaces for the subjectivation of individuals who are more than calculators. It is on the basis of this reading of Simmel’s theory of kulturprozess, meaning the way worlds are constituted through particular ways of relating and thinking about relating, that Goodstein opposes his methodology, which is based in a fusion of the human and social sciences, to the disciplinary imaginary and the social science model that emerged from the end of the 19th century through the 20th century up to the present when the quantitative approach is completely dominant, at least from an institutional point of view. Given that Simmel thought that money was the symbol of the quantitative, objective form of life, Goodstein writes of his phenomenological method of cultural analysis focused on the interpretation on the empirical in the name of revealing the deeper ontological truth of reciprocity in terms of a homeopathic approach, where money culture (geldkultur), or the interpretation of money culture, is the ultimate cure for money culture.
In the third and final section of her book Goodstein extends this interpretation of Simmel’s method through a discussion of his liminality (or borderline status) in relation to the hegemonic disciplinary form of the social sciences. Moving beyond The Philosophy of Money to focus on his 1908 book Soziologie, and in particular his revised version of The Problem of Sociology, Goodstein shows how Simmel clarified his methodological approach to studying historically specific, grounded cases in order to read out to more general, deeper ontological conditions. While the former level of analysis, which we might associate with discipline, produces a partial view of phenomena, Goodstein shows that for Simmel, only philosophy is able to extend empirical or, we might say following Heidegger, ontic insights into ontological understandings. Contrary to the partial view of quantitative social science, this in, from Goodstein’s perspective, how Simmel’s philosophical sociology is able to produce a comprehensive view of the becoming social (what Simmel calls super-individualism) of human and, I would risk the claim in relation to ecology, non-human life. Expanding upon her theory of Simmel as a borderline thinker, simultaneously founder father of and marginal figure in sociology, in the final part of her book Goodstein takes up his case through his own work on the stranger (The Stranger from his Soziologie) in order to argue that the name ‘Simmel’ represents a kind of limit or lack in the contemporary social sciences around their inability to think ontological questions. Noting that Simmel’s stranger is simultaneously intimate and distant, and that the condition of being strange (fremdsein) is at the very heart of what it means to be social (we are never identical, the same, but rather different and therefore always strange), Goodstein suggests that Simmel is in this respect the philosophical sociologist for the 21st century on the basis of his very marginality in relation to the social sciences.
Reading Goodstein’s book it is clear why Simmel matters today. In a globalised society characterised by hyper-connectivity, we are all simultaneously intimate and distant to each other, and in respect strangers. Goodstein notes that society is defined by the experience of the limit or boundary (grenzwesen), and in this way there can be no social system without marginal figures – the enemy, the criminal, the pauper – who in a globalised society are everywhere, simply because boundaries of all kinds have moved inside and become intra-social. The only absolute outsider in a globalised society would come from outer space. Given this situation where global hyper-connectivity has created a kind of hyper-social condition, it is clear to see how Simmel’s stranger applies in the contemporary. As Simmel notes, from the very start the social individual (there is no other kind) is always split between being-with-others and being-for-themselves. The condition of being-social is always defined by the condition of not-being-social. Strangeness has, therefore, always been constitutive of the social condition, but this is surely even more apparent now, in a world which feels smaller and more intimate by virtue of globalising technologies. Of course, the globalised money economy symbolises this condition of universal strangeness, where we are all connected and occupy the same space, but also separate and distant from each other, but it is also not reflexive of this state of being because its base objectivity prevents it from recognising the truth of infinite reciprocity. The same is true, in Goodstein’s view, of discipline, and in particular the social sciences, which tend to focus upon empirical cases to the exclusion of deeper philosophical insights, and for this reason never really get to grips with the ontological condition of universal participation in the whole that processes of globalisation simultaneously reveal and conceal.
It is certainly possible to interrogate Goodstein on this point, which we might capture through her interpretation of Wolff’s (1950) reduction of Simmel’s stranger who is empirically sometimes inside and sometimes outside of society rather than more radically, ontologically caught on the boundary of sociability, and particularly question the extent that this disciplinary reduction has taken place, simply because Kemple (2007), Pyyhtinen (2009), and others have read Simmel in precisely the more expansive philosophical terms she sets out in her work. Although this view suggests that Goodstein may overstate her case about the subjection of Simmel to the disciplinary imagination on the basis of her tendency to focus on his reception in American sociology, and that a ‘still to be written history’ of Simmel in European thought may lead to different conclusions about understandings of his modernism, I am not convinced that this overstatement is significant enough to undermine her thesis and would argue that her work remains an important contribution to thinking about the value of Simmel’s ‘other sociology’ for decentring the hegemonic norm of the discipline that remains on the whole resistant to philosophical, speculative insights. This is ultimately why Goodstein thinks we need to read Simmel today. In order to really grasp and then address global problems produced by states of hyper-social interconnection, we need a philosophy of social relations that can enable us to think beyond the empirical case which occupies the disciplinary imagination. Against this closed model for producing knowledge, we need to be able to think in more expansive, philosophical-sociological ways. We need to be able to think strangeness. We need to be able to think other-wise. In this respect Goodstein has written a truly important book on Simmel and his place on the margins of the discipline of sociology, but beyond this I think she has also produced an equally important work on the need to think differently in a world defined by hyper-connectivity and what Simmel called infinite reciprocity.
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Goodstein, Elizabeth (2004) Experience without Qualities: Boredom and Modernity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Goodstein, Elizabeth (2017) Georg Simmel and the Disciplinary Imaginary. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
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Jaworski, Gary (1997) Georg Simmel and the American Prospect. Albany: SUNY Press.
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Levine, David N., Carter, Ellwood B., and Gorman Eleanor M., (1976b) ‘Simmel’s Influence on American Sociology: II’ in American Journal of Sociology 81 (5): 1112-1132.
Poggi, Gianfranco (1993) Money and the Modern Mind: Georg Simmel’s Philosophy of Money. Berkeley: University of California Press.
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Spykman, Nicholas (1925 / 2004) The Social Theory of Georg Simmel. Piscataway: Transaction.
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Mark Featherstone is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at Keele University. His publications include Planet Utopia: Utopia, Dystopia, Globalisation (2017).