Thomas Kemple introduces ‘David Frisby on Georg Simmel and Social Theory’

Photo: David Frisby

In commemoration of David Frisby (1944-2010), we have compiled a Special E-Issue of David’s writings in TCS, the Special Issue on Simmel with which he was invloved, and a review of his book Sociological Impressionism. The E-Issue, ‘David Frisby on Georg Simmel and Social Theory’, is introduced by editorial board member Thomas Kemple. You can read the introduction here

Introduction to David Frisby’s Writings in TCS
I know that I shall die without spiritual heirs (and this is good). The estate I leave is like cash distributed among many heirs, each of whom puts his share to use in some trade that is compatible with his nature but which can no longer be recognized as coming from that estate.
Georg Simmel, quoted by David Frisby in his ‘Introduction to the Translation’ of The Philosophy of Money.

Simmel was mistaken in believing that he would leave no appreciable intellectual legacy, or that his ideas would not be acknowledged as a significant source for later thinkers. In large part, we owe this fortunate state of affairs to the life-work of Simmel’s most insightful commentator, meticulous editor, and skillful translator, David Frisby (1944-2010). Frisby did more than rescue Simmel’s work from the threat of oblivion, or protect him from the risk of being remembered only as ‘the most important and interesting transitional figure in the history of philosophy’, as Georg Lukacs judged him. Simmel’s writings might well have lingered at the margins of classical sociology if they had been left in the pages of the American Journal of Sociology, where Albion Small published several pieces in English in the early 20th century, or in the editions and translations assembled by Kurt H. Wolff and Donald N. Levine in the decades after World War II. Summarizing, selecting, translating, editing and interpreting an expansive and surprising array of neglected or underappreciated writings, Frisby inaugurated a new phase of Simmel reception. He invites us to enter into and exit from this vast corpus at various points, and thus to discover the model of intellectual freedom and creativity which guided his own life’s work. Frisby made Simmel speak English to a new generation of social and cultural theorists, but never lost his own voice in the process.

Frisby is the first to appreciate Simmel as ‘the first sociologist of modernity’, as he announced in his first article for Theory, Culture & Society (TCS 2 (3) 1985). The emphasis on characterizing Simmel as both a sociologist and a thinker of modernity is crucial. While drawing from a much broader range of Simmel’s writings in philosophy, social psychology, cultural geography, ethics, and modernist aesthetics than previous commentators had, he nevertheless sustains the line of continuity with the methods of sociology and its classical concerns. At the same time, this disciplinary focus highlights Simmel’s distinctive understanding of modernity not just in terms of a new aesthetic style or popular fashion, but also as a mode of inner experience, sense perception, and knowledge. Frisby’s groundbreaking book on Simmel, Benjamin, and Kracauer, Fragments of Modernity (Oxford 1985), is largely responsible for why we continue to think of modernity – and not just postmodernity – in terms of the discontinuous, precarious, and ephemeral aspects of contemporary existence.

Frisby’s writings in the 1990s have been essential for reclaiming the concept of culture for sociological and philosophical study, rather than leaving it to anthropologists and literary critics. The argument was already sketched in his Sociological Impressionism (Heinemann 1981) and The Alienated Mind (Humanities Press 1983), but then extended in Simmel and Since (Routledge 1992) and in his groundbreaking translations, editorial work, and commentaries for TCS (especially the Special Issue on Simmel, TCS 8 (3) 1991, followed by the translations and commentaries in TCS 11 (1) 1994 and TCS 15 (3-4) 1998). He demonstrates that Simmel’s ‘working program’ for the social sciences at the end of the 19th century has remained unfinished a century later insofar as we have yet to explore fully the cultural dimensions of ‘interaction’ and ‘sociation’ (in Simmel’s lexicon: Wechselwirkungen or ‘reciprocal effects, and Vergesesellschaftung, which the English ‘association’ and ‘socialization’ do not quite capture). Frisby’s introduction to Simmel on Culture (SAGE 1997), the monumental collection he co-edited with Mike Featherstone, offers the most comprehensive overview that we have of Simmel’s still underexplored conception of the tragic tendency of subjective culture to atrophy under the overwhelming weight of objective culture. These problems are manifested in the institutions of the nation-state or capitalist industry (the staples of sociological research), as well as in the mundane features of everyday life. City streets, trade shows, fashions, mealtimes, alpine adventures, subways, bridges, doors, jewelry, and séances: all present us with ways of ‘finding in each of life’s details the totality of its meaning’, as Simmel says in his ‘Preface’ to The Philosophy of Money; they therefore provide what Frisby calls ‘exemplary instances’ for critical reflection and imaginative thought.

It would be misleading to conclude, as some readers have, that these fleeting snapshots of ordinary experience are not organized in a methodical way, or that such fragmentary impressions of modern life never add up to a coherent theoretical argument. Frisby does not leave us with a portrait of Simmel as a philosophical flaneur leisurely strolling through the ruins of the modern metropolis, or of a sociological bricoleur tinkering with the debris of the money economy to project a collection of postmodern perspectives. Frisby’s meticulous scholarship in editing, translating, and introducing The Philosophy of Money (Routledge 1978) demonstrates once and for all that the impressionistic form of a work may be grounded in systematic methods of analysis and synthesis. In his careful examination of Simmel’s attempt to ‘construct a new story beneath historical materialism’, he exposes how the dynamics of reification (Verdinglichung), alienation, objectification, and standardization– the perennial concerns of social and cultural theory in the 20th century – establish the fundamental preconditions of value and meaning in capitalist societies.

In retrospect, we might be tempted to read Frisby’s essay on Siegfried Kracauer (in TCS 9 (1) 1992) as announcing a new phase of his thinking beyond Simmel and prefiguring his magisterial Cityscapes of Modernity (Polity 2001). Kracauer’s creative approach to the detective novel as a kind of philosophical and sociological allegory of modernity’s multiple spheres – high and low, inner and outer, meaningful and meaningless, real and imagined – exemplifies how social theory can explore the forgotten or hidden dimensions of city life. As the elegant chapter titles of Cityscapes indicate, the city can be ‘observed, detected, interpreted, compared, designed, dissolved, and rationalized,’ and yet its meaning can never be exhausted. Of course, these are already lessons learned from Simmel’s ‘Metropolis and Mental Life’, Baudelaire’s ‘Painter of Modern Life’, and Benjamin’s Arcades Project, now applied to the architects, planners, and builders of Paris, Berlin, and Vienna who approached the city as a space to be framed and an experience to be transformed. As Kracauer once remarked, Simmel’s philosophy ‘is not the worldview of a person motivated by powerful ideas, but rather by the incursion of a selfless person into the world’. Frisby’s ‘critical explorations’ of modernity show us that social and cultural theory must be driven by both motivations.

Thomas Kemple, University of British Columbia

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