Hybridity, Alterity and Beyond – A Simmelian Perspective on Ebruesque Identity

Kardeşin duymaz, eloğlu duyar

Hybridity and alterity are concepts that feature highly in cosmopolitan critiques of culturalist (including multi-culturalist) projections of homogeneity in a drive against classificatory thinking (e.g. Çağlar 1997). Cosmopolitanism can be characterised as a universalist-liberal project opposed to a more communitarian multiculturalism. Cosmopolitanism tries to evade the danger of reifying racial, ethnic or religious and political identities, thus leading to alterity rather than difference and hybridity rather than reified identity. Multiculturalism is debated mainly around the collective cultural, religious and political representation of minority communities and ultimately as a question of citizenship (e.g. Modood 1995 – and even in the case of the ‘banal multicultures’ advocated by Amin 2002). Proponents of multiculturalism have therefore resorted to a (partial) defence of “essentialism” (Modood 2000, Werbner1997). While multiculturalism emphasises diversity and difference of identifiable (ethno-religious) cultures (e.g. Modood 2000), cosmopolitanism favours alterity. This concept is understood to denote otherness that cannot be captured as difference of clearly defined identity categories – rather by a noted and confusing absence of such categories (Sennett 2002, also cf. Iveson 2006). Sennett goes back to Simmel’s famous essay on the stranger – and I will propose that Simmel has more to contribute to this idea than just the etymology of this notion.

To illustrate, in his photo essay book Ebru Atilla Durak (2006) presents a series of ludicrously beautiful photographs of people from or in Turkey of different ethnicities (Turkish, Turkmen, Azeri, Kurdish, Laz, Zaza, Armenian, Jewish, German, Pomak etc.), faiths (Sunni, Alevi, Assyrian Christian, Jewish, Nusayri, etc.), location (İstanbul, Kars, Mardin, Van etc.), different age and gender, modern, urban, traditional etc. As he classifies the pictures by ethnicity, religion and location, the book has the feel of an old anthropological catalogue, using a quasi-Linnaean botanising categorisation. At first sight Durak, therefore, could be accused of a painting a picture of ethno-religious cultural diversity for the discerning and knowledgeable cosmopolitan consumer (Hannerz 1996: 103) whose cultural capital feeds on benevolent but nonetheless Orientalist stereotype (e.g. Tekgül 2012 for the consumption of literature), referencing ethnic identities as simultaneously authentic and immutable. For the (still multiculturalist) “cosmopolitan”, Hannerz (1996: 111) says, ‘there is value in diversity as such, but they are not likely to get it, in anything like the present form, unless other people are allowed to carve out special niches for their cultures and keep them.’ For the consumer of diversity the blurring of ethnic identities risks ‘depleting the imaginary resources of the exotic’ (Kaplan, 1995: 59, also cf. Varul 2008).

But the careful selection of texts that accompany these photos and the photography itself(see here for some of them) thematise this as problematic and act as constant reminders that each individual is defined not just by an intersection of collective classifications but by their own personal history and individual experiences within and without the groups they belong to, and their own decisions regarding how they relate to the collective identities they are born into. Çetin (2006), when talking about her discovery of her Armenian heritage and the notion of being a melez/hybrid, protests against a notion “belonging” that she sees as a straightjacket, while vehemently rejecting violations of any components of that hybrid identity. And in the introduction Altınay (2006: 24), drawing on various theorists and using the metaphor of the ebru – the art of water drawing or “marbling”, emphasises the continuity and pervasiveness of hybridisation in which stability of identity is ephemeral, a temporary fixation of something that otherwise is always in flux. He therefore suggests replacing the bounded ‘mosaic multi-culturalism’ with a fluentebruesque one.  – advocating a cosmopolitanism in which – as the Devon based artist Pery Burge introduces her paintings in thermofluids – “the  pattern is new in every moment” .

The idea of hybridity has been surpassed by the concept of alterity, partly because the concept of hybridity can be (mis)taken to imply the recombination and mixture of pureforms, i.e. as implying the very thing it is meant to undermine (as in the consuming “cosmopolitanism” criticised above). But my point here is that not even that fully captures the implications of hybridity as foundation of alterity. It does not capture what some of the texts (e.g. Elif Şafak’s story ‘E’ about a little girls reflections on the Atatürk portrait in her class room) and in fact that photographs themselves imply – and what Simmel declares to be a condition of the possibility of society as such: The fact that there is always some part of the personality that is not fully socialised. And crucially, this is not just a trivial observation about the incompleteness of the socialisation process, it is something that in itself contributes to sociality:

‘Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else.That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

In other words: in order to be a viable member of a society, one must be less, which ismore, than just a member of society – society is only possible if the individuals have something they can, as it were, “hold back” and in fact, do hold back. This despite the fact that as social beings, according to Simmel, we are constituted and determined by our place in history and our position in the social reciprocities that history has placed us in, we are ‘thrown’ into this ‘being with’ in a way, that makes it inevitable that we are a reflection of those social forces that reflects back on them. In contrast to Heidegger’s (and his postmodern followers’) anti-social aristocratic defiance against the “They”, das Man, the masses that stifle authentic selfhood (cf. Weiner 1992), Simmel shares Marx’s (1953: 6) socialist individualism that holds that as ζοων πολιτικον the human is not just ‘a sociable animal but one that can only indivdiualise within society’.  Simmel goes further than this and sees at least a minimal degree of individualisation as nigh inevitable and sociality and individuality as concomitant:

‘…between individual and society the Within and Without are not two determinations which exist alongside of each other – although they may occasionally develop in that way, and even to the degree of reciprocal enmity – but that they signify the whole unitary position of the socially living human being. His existence is not merely, in subdivision of the contents, partially social and partially individual, but it stands under the fundamental, formative, irreducible category of a unity, which we cannot otherwise express than through the synthesis or the contemporariness of the two logically antithetical determinations – articulation and self-sufficiency, the condition of being produced by, and contained in, society, and on the other hand, of being derived of and moving around its own center.’ (Simmel 1910: 387)

A minimum of individualisation is owed to (as much as it is the cause of) a minimum degree of alienation. As the biological anthropologist and sociologist Helmuth Plessner notes against the longing of the existence-philosophical longing for unreserved encounters of authentic selves:

‘No matter how many times – in accordance with the idea – that ineffable individual uniqueness is comprehended by the ground of being of community and, by all of its members, persons never penetrate through to the ground, as the latter is not definitely determined because it is eternal potentiality. As a being of spirit and soul, humans have the enormous consciousness of the ability to deviate from the path of their own individual law, or, at least, the right to rebel against their own definitions.’ (Plessner 1999: 105)[1]

I will argue that generalised hybridity and alterity are but accentuations of a human condition – hence my reference to the biological and philosophical anthropology of Helmuth Plessner which provides the bridge from Simmel’s concept of necessarily incomplete socialisation to his notion of the stranger (to whose strangeness, Fremdheit, the concept of alterity is much akin – see Sennett 2002). I am also turning to Plessner as the submersion of his work in the 1920s and 1930s illustrates the counter-intuitive character of the acceptance of alienation as condition of freedom at a time of search for authentic selfhood and total (or rather totalitarian) effervescence in real community. A time when the drive for nationalist homogenisation in the Turkish Republic was at its most enthusiastic – and in a place (Germany) where it would become far, far more extreme. The highest philosophical expression of the common intuition that happiness is to be found in rooted and bounded community and that the alienation associated with urbanity, civilisation and commercial culture is a curse, is to be found in Martin Heidegger’s concepts of Being-with (Mitsein) and the They (das Man) already mentioned above. And here we also find the contradictory nature of this intuition, namely that on the one hand authentic selfhood is prevented by the process of socialisation and pressures to conform that come with it – but that on the other hand these pressures are particularly strong where sociality entails distance and indifference.

‘But this distantiality which belongs to Being-with, is such that Dasein, as everyday Being-with-one-another, stands in subjection [Botmäßigkeit] to Others. Dasein’s everyday possibilities of Being are for the Others to dispose of as they please. These Others, moreover, are not definite Others. On the contrary, any Other can represent them. What is decisive is just that inconspicuous domination by Others which has already been taken over unawares from Dasein as Being-with. One belongs to the Others oneself and enhances their power. “The Others” whom one thus designates in order to cover up the fact of one’s belonging to them essentially oneself, are thos who proximally and for the most part “are there” in everyday Being-with-one-another. The “who” is not this one, not that one, not oneself [man selbst], not some people [einige], and not the sum of all of them all. The “who” is the neuter, the “they” [das Man].‘ (Heidegger 1962: 163f.)[2]

This, of course, is a typically Heideggerian sleight of hand in which he situates himself ‘always beyond the beyond, unite and reconcile opposites verbally, in paradoxical, and magical, propositions’ (Bourdieu 1996: 61f.). As mentioned in my previous post: The situation in which the distanced being-with-others implies a danger of falling under the domination of others (and most feared by the proto-antisemitic conservative revolutionaries from Tönnies to Jünger: of public opinion) only because it uniquely affords freedom. It is the non-distant being-with-others, “authentic” community that stifles the anthropological potential of developing an unaffected self behind the roles and its opposite, the existence as a stranger in the Simmelian sense that makes authentic selfhood most likely to occur. Both Plessner and Simmel acknowledge that one can fail to realise the potential of an existence beyond what Heidegger calls the “They”, but crucially, this potential only arises in society – and the abhorred distantiality is functional in this realisation. Again, both acknowledge that there is a price to be paid, the loss of warmth and certainty through alienation. But the prize to be won is individual freedom and opportunities for human development – which is why Plessner calls for an outright heroism in defence of alienated sociability which affirms ‘the entire essential complex of society for the sake of the dignity of the individual and the social whole’ (Plessner 1999: 69f.). He vigorously defends the much reviled alienation and reification (which are unavoidable constituent components of the condition of alterity) as basis of our social nature:

‘Imitation and reification, on which rests the acquisition and use of language, share the same root, namely the human ability to disregard oneself and put oneself into the position of others.’ ‘Humans are able to differentiate their position as “here” from a “there”, which in inverse direction turns from a “there” into a “here”. The ability to separate out one’s own hand or an uttered sound is the basic condition for their instrumental treatment and imitation in fixed artefacts. Reification hence is a legitimate aspect of the human being and not at all a degenerated mode of existence…’ (Plessner 1976: 43)[3]

For Plessner as for Simmel this is a potential that can be realised to different degree – as Simmel puts it, ‘individuals, like callings and social institutions, are distinguished by the degree of that In-addition, which they possess or admit along with their social content’ (Simmel 1910: 382). And different forms of societisation afford the realisation of such different degrees of in-addition. For Simmel, metropolitan life, and in particular the commercialisation of life, the monetary mediation of social relations, is most conducive to this individuality-enhancing alterity (Simmel 1950, Simmel 1990). Plessner links it to the very metaphor of inauthentic social life – to acting in  roles:

‘The role as set of social functions and expectations of a performance is faced by the individual as an objective fact. For this reason, one allows, under the role concept, for a distance between the person and their social existence, which can be consoling: The human being, the individual, never is completely what he or she “is”. As employee or doctor, politician or tradesman, husband or bachelor, member of  a generation or of a nation, he is always “more” than that, a possibility  which does not exhaust itself in such modes of existence or merges with them. The wide range of the role concept, which comprises both the ascribed and achieved status, i.e. that which one is by birth and by circumstance in the social field, and that which one makes of oneself, makes possible the reserve of anindividuum ineffabile, a social sanctum, a sphere of privacy, intimacy and personal freedom. In so far the role concept safeguards respect for the indivdual as individual and shields them from their public existence.‘  (Plessner 1976: 66)[4]

Once role existence is generalised, as it is in the “They” of the modern world, alienation – estrangement – becomes the prevalent condition of social existence. In the city all are strangers in the sense Simmel uses the term – as someone who is simultaneously within and without society:

‘If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptional opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the “stranger” presents the unity, as it were of these two characteristics. This phenomenon too, however, reveals that spatial relations are only the condition, on the one hand, and the symbol, on the other, of human relations. The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow. He is, so to speak, the potential wanderer: although he has not moved on, he has not quite overcome the freedom of coming and going. He is fixed within a particular spatial group, or within a group whose boundaries are similar to spatial boundaries. But his position in this group is determined, essentially, by the fact that he has not belonged to it from the beginning, that he imports qualities into it, which do not and cannot stem from the group itself.’ (Simmel 1950: 402)

This mode of being can be understood, against the background of the partial non-socialisation as condition of sociality postulated by Simmel and the anthropological constitution of humans as eccentric diagnosed by Plessner, as a mere radicalisation of a universal human potential. Individuals, as Simmel (1910: 382) says, – ‘are distinguished by the degree of that In-addition which they possess or admit along with their social content’, and his stranger is the individual who has managed to maximise their In-addition as far as possible without relinquishing completely their membership in (metropolitan or cosmopolitan) society. The reification Plessner talks about is radicalised into a general attitude of objectivity as detached mode of engagement.

‘Objectivity is by no means non-participation (which is altogether outside both subjective and objective interaction), but a positive and specific kind of participation […] Objectivity may also be defined as freedom: the objective individual is bound by no commitments which could prejudice his perception, understanding, and evaluation of the given.’ (Simmel 1950: 404f.)

So there is a price to be paid for the individual freedom of ebruesque existence in the community of strangers – the loss of certainty and the anxiety that comes with it.  But against this stands the freedom to find each other in new commitments, in self-chosen communities. The kindness of strangers may be less intense and less reliable, but it for many it compares well with the cruelty of one’s own kind. And then there’s the love of strangers. The above mentioned novelist Elif Şafak

‘recounts with some pride being approached at a book signing by an undergraduate girl wearing a headscarf and her very unreligious, urban chic boyfriend. “We met in the pages of your book,” they told her.’ (Finkel w/o. year)



Altınay, Ayşe Gül (2006): ‘Ebru: Reflections on Water’, in Durak 2006, pp.19-25

Amin, Ash (2002): ‘Ethnicity and the Multicultural City: Living with Diversity’, Report for the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions, and the ESRC Cities Initiative.

Ariès, Phillipe (1962): Centuries of Childhood, London: Jonathan Cape.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1996): The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity.

Çağlar, Ayşe (1997): ‘Hyphenated Identities and the Limits of “Culture”’, in: Tariq Modood/Pnina Werbner (eds): The Politics of Multiculturalism in the New Europe, London: Zed Books, pp.169-85.

Çetin, Fethiye (2006): ‘Hybrid Lives, Assumed Identities’, in Durak 2006, pp.58-9.

Durak, Attila (2006): Ebru: Reflections of Cultural Diversity in Turkey, Istanbul: Metis.

Finkel, Andrew (w/o. year): ‘Portrait of Elif Şafak’, Turkish Culture Portal, Turkish Cultural Foundation http://www.turkishculture.org/literature/literature/turkish-authors/elif-safak-258.htm?type=1

Hannerz, Ulf (1996): Transnational Connections: Culture, People, Places, London: Routledge

Heidegger, Martin (1963) [1927]: Sein und Zeit, Tübingen : Niemeyer

Hoggart, Richard (1958) [1957]: The Uses of Literacy, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Iveson, Kurt (2006): ‘Strangers in the Cosmopolis’, in: J. Binnie/J. Holloway/S. Millington/C. Young (eds): Cosmopolitan Urbanism,London: Routledge.

Kaplan, Caren (1995) ‘“A World without Boundaries”: The Body Shop’s Trans/National Geographics’, in: Social Text, Vol.43, pp.45-66

Marx, Karl (1953): Grundrisse der Kritik der politischen Ökonomie (Rohentwurf), Berlin: Dietz

Navaro-Yashin, Yael (2002): Faces of the State: Secularism and Public Life in Turkey, Princeton:PrincetonUniversity Press

Modood, Tariq (2000): ‘Anti-Essentialism, Multiculturalism, and the “Recognition” of Religious Groups’, in: Will Kymlicka and Wayne Norman (eds): Citizenship in Diverse Societies,Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp.175-95.

Plessner, Helmuth (1981): „Grenzen der Gemeinschaft: Eine Kritik des sozialen Radikalismus“ (1924), in: Gesammelte Schriften V, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Plessner, Helmuth (1999): The Limits of Community: A Critique of Social Radicalism, New York: Humanity Books.

Sandıkçı, Özlem/Ger, Güliz (2007): ‘Constructing and Representing the Islamic Consumer in Turkey’, in: Fashion Theory, Vol.11, No.2/3, pp.189-210

Şafak, Elif (2006): ‘E’, in Durak 2006

Sennett, Richard (2002): ‘Cosmopolitanism and the Social Experience of Cities’, in: S. Vertovec/R. Cohen (eds): Conceiving Cosmopolitanism: Theory, Context and Practice,Oxford:Oxford University Press.

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’, in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

Simmel, Georg (1950): The Sociology of Georg Simmel, Glencoe, Ill.: Free Press

Simmel, Georg (1990): The Philosophy of Money, London: Routledge

Tekgül, Perihan Duygu (2012): Around the World in English: The Production and Consumption of Translated Fiction in the UK between Cosmopolitanism and Orientalism, PhD Thesis, Sociology, University of Exeter.

Varul, Matthias Zick (2008a): ‘Consuming the Campesino – Fair Trade Marketing between Recognition and Romantic Commodification’, in: Cultural Studies, Vol.22, No.5, pp.654-679.

Weiner, James F. (1992): ‘Anthropology contra Heidegger – Part I: Anthropology’s Nihilism’, in: Critique of Anthropology, Vol.12, No.1, pp.75-90.

Werbner, Pnina (1997): ‘Essentialising Essentialism, Essentialising Silence: Ambivalence and Multiplicity in the Constructions of Racism and Ethnicity’, in: Pnina Werbner/Tariq Modood (eds): Debating Cultural Hybridity,London: Zed Books

[1] „Mag hundertmal nach der Idee das Ineffabile individueller Eigenart vom Seinstgrund der Gemeinschaft und damit von allen ihr Angehörenden mit erfaßt sein, tatsächlich durchdringen die Menschen sich doch nie bis auf den Grund, der gar nicht festliegt, weil er ewige Potentialität ist. Als geistig-seelische Wesen haben sie das ungeheuere Bewußtsein, selbst von den Bahnen ihres individuellen Gesetzes abweichen zu können oder wenigstens des Rechtes, sich gegen seine Definition aufzulehnen.“ (Plessner 1983: 59)

[2] ‚In dieser zum Mitsein gehörigen Abständigkeit liegt  aber: das Dasein steht als alltägliches Miteinandersein in der Botmäßigkeit der Anderen. Nicht es selbst ist, die Anderen verfügt über die alltäglichen Seinsmöglichkeiten des Daseins. Diese Anderen sind dabei nicht bestimmte Andere. Im Gegenteil, jeder Andere kann sie vertreten. Entscheidend ist nur die unauffällige, vom Dasein als Mitsein unversehens schon übernommene Herrschaft der Anderen. Man selbst gehört zu den Anderen und verfestigt ihre Macht. „Die Anderen“, die man so nennt, um die eigene wesenhafte Zugehörigkeit zu ihnen zu verdecken, sind die, die im alltäglichen Miteinandersein zunächst und zumeist „da sind“. Das Wer ist nicht dieser und nicht jener, nicht man selbst und nicht einige und nicht die Summe Aller. Das „Wer“ ist das Neutrum, das Man.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 126)

[3] My translation of „Imitation und Vergegenständlichung, auf denen Erwerb und gebrauch einer Sprache beruhen, haben die gleiche Wurzel, nämlich das dem Menschen gegebene Vermögen, von sich absehen und sich in anderes versetzen zu können.“ „Der Mensch vermag darum seinen Standort als ein Hier von einem Dort zu trennen, welches in umgekehrter Richtung seinen Sinn vertauscht und aus einem Dort zu eiem Hier wird. Die eigene Hand oder den ausgestoßenen Laut als Sache wie in einem Dort vom Hier trennen zu können, ist die Grundvoraussetzung für ihre instrumentale Behandlung und Imitation in fixierten Gebilden, auf die sie zurückgreift und über die sie wie über Dinge verfügt. Verdinglichung ist mithin ein genuiner und legitimer Aspect des Menschen und keineswegs ein entarteter Modus seiner Existenz…“ (Plessner 1976: 43)

[4] My translation of „Rolle als gesellschaftiches Funktionselement[…] steht mitsamt den von ihr ausgehenden und ans sie geknüpften Erwartungen einer Leistung dem Individuum objektiv gegenüber. Daher billigt man unter dem Begriff der Rolle dem Menschen einen Abstand von seiner gesellschaftlichen Existenz zu, der etwas Tröstliches haben kann: der Mensch, der einzelne ist nie ganz das, was er ‚ist’. Als Angestellter oder Arzt, Politiker oder Kaufmann, als Ehemann oder Junggeselle, als Angehöriger seiner Generation und seines Volkes ist er doch immer ‚mehr’ als das, eine Möglichkeit, die sich in solchen Daseinsweisen nicht erschöpft und darin nicht aufgeht.

Gerade die weite Spannung des Rollenbegriffs, die den ascribed status und den achieved status zusammen umfaßt, also das, was einer durch Geburt und Umstände im sozialen Felde ist, und das, was er aus sich macht, ermöglicht das Reservat eines individuum ineffabile, einer sozialen Unberührtheit, einer Zone der Privatheit, der Intimität, der persönlichen Freiheit. Insoweit gewährt der Rollenbegriff Achtung vor dem einzelnen als dem einzelnen und schirmt ihn gegen sein öffentliches Wesen ab. Als ein unbestreitbar anpassungsfähiges Mittel zur theoretischen Bewältigung sozialer Getriebe wird der Begriff damit zugleich zu einer moralischen Erinnerung an das persönliche Reservat des einzelnen, an seine Privatexistenz.“(Plessner 1976: 66)


Becoming vs Being – Towards an anti-Heideggerian and post-Platonic Ontology of Fashion – A Preliminary Note


[footnotes at the end of this post – links don’t work…]

As Simmelian/Bermanian Marxist, Plessner fan and antifascist, I have a deep aversion against the protagonists of the proto-fascist “conservative revolution” (konservative Revolution) in the Weimar Republic – people like “jurist” Carl Schmitt, the essayist and “novelist” Ernst Jünger, the “historian” Oswald Spengler … and best known and annoyingly popular among social scientists today, the philosopher Martin Heidegger. In my personal notes I tend to refer to him as “Heidi” for sake of shortness and ridicule – which until recently I thought of a merely phonetically based slur gesturing to the sense that he was a bit of country pumpkin (I’ve grown up with the Japanese TV anime version of Johanna Spyri’s Heidi). But on reflection, there is more to that mere slur (which I think is adequate nonetheless, given that much of Heidegger’s philosophical texts consist in plays on phonetic suggestiveness). I am referring here to the cliché story promoted by Heidegger himself about how he consulted, in the early years of Nazi reign, an old Black Forest peasant on whether he should take up a professorship in Berlin and give up his residence in the mountains – and the taciturn old man signals his disapproval of his friend’s idea of leaving the mountains for the city with nothing more than a nod.[1] It’s a cliché because, a good half century before, the scene was played out between Spyri’s Heidi and her grandfather, the Alm-Öhi – a mountain recluse in the Swiss Alps – when she was to be taken to Frankfurt by her aunt Dete who found a position as a maid in respectable bourgeois household (Heidi goes to the city in the end, but not voluntarily)[2]

Rudolf Munger, Illustration to Heidi (from wikipedia under creative commons)


The parallels will have reverberated immediately with a German language audience who have grown up with the Heidi books: the authenticity of the mountainous forest life among simple folk firmly rooted in their Heimat versus the alienated city folk – merchants and intellectuals. To give credit to Johanna Spyri: her portrayal of the bourgeois of Frankfurt (especially Herr Sesemann, a businessman, and the family doctor only referred to as “Herr Doktor”) is much more benevolent than Heidegger’s generalised contempt for the alleged superficiality of urban professionals (characterised by ephemeral curiosity Neugier, idle talk Gerede[3] and noncommittal ambiguity Zweideutigkeit) – to put it blandly: with Heidegger it is the Germanic Blut und Boden open air country life versus the decadent city life. What he rejects is not the move to the capital of Nazi Germany – it is the move to the Jewish city (Frankfurt and Berlin being interchangeable in the antisemitic outlook).

As a Simmelian I intuitively take sides with the city here. Let me pick out the most superficial phenomenon associated with metropolitan life – the one that is used as an adjective to signify that something is ephemeral, unessential, and vacuous: fashion – to propose an anti-Heideggerian ontology of social life. Heidegger is often credited with making temporality central to our understanding of human existence, Becoming as the core of Being. I think this is a misconception. As Heidegger ontologises time and Becoming, de-historicises history, he still places Being before Becoming. As this is about fashion, curiosity as Neugier (which is a composite of neu “new” and Gier “greed” – Heidegger’s account plays to these meanings) is central. In the verdict on curiosity Heidegger affirms that true Being can only be had in arresting Becoming. He counters Neugier with Altgier(not his term – I couldn’t resist the temptation to come up with a Germanic neologism of my own): greed for the old. The acknowledgement of temporality and historicity is given the lie by the explicit contempt for all notions of moving away from one’s place (hence the hypostasis of rooted simplicity and immobility – Bodenständigkeit). Temporality and becoming are a threat to Being, the curious person as changing person always runs the risk of getting distracted (and seeks distraction in the exciting world of the metropolis). The term Heidegger uses is Zerstreuung which alludes not just to distraction, but also dispersal. One’s identity is at stake when one is distracted.[4] While many social scientists today celebrate Heidegger for his philosophical assertion of the importance of immanent being-in-the-world which they mistake for recognition of the ordinary everyday life, what follows from his ontology is the imperative to close oneself off from the world (or rather, from all of it which isn’t dull routine, as his Black-Forest paper suggests).

Decades before, Simmel’s theory of fashion does the opposite: in an implicitly post-Platonic inversion he suggests that in fashion change, constant becoming constitutes an ideal Being (both individual and social) that has reality as a vanishing point towards individuals and societies aspire and develop, but that neither precedes that aspiration and development, nor exists independently of it. The Platonic forms/ideas secularised – the Weberian ideal type realised. To overstate my case-to-be-made – even the ontological outlook promoted by Heidi Klum is more profound than that promoted by the Heidi of the Mountains. Needless to say that it is also much less prone to lead into totalitarian dreams of authenticity as promoted by the likes of Heidegger on the Far Right and Lukács on the Far Left and more conducive to the commitment to civilised/civilian social progress stubbornly defended on the Centre Right by the likes of Isaiah Berlin and Karl Popper and on the Liberal to Actually-Quite-Far Left by the likes of John Dewey, Marshall Berman and Leo Kofler.

To quickly summarise Plato’s take on Being and Becoming – Plato was confronted with the problem of how the identity of the person, the state and in fact the cosmos as a whole was to be thought when there evidently was constant change. According to Parmenides only the unchanging has the status of being, what isn’t always what it is has no existence at all. According to Heraclites, all things do not just change, they are change – including seemingly unchanging objects such as stones. If you accept both these claims (as did Plato), you either have to accept that nothing exists at all or (as did Plato) find a way of anchoring the ever changing in something that never changes. The never changing, the eternal for Plato was the world of forms or ideas which is only accessible in philosophical contemplation, and of which the world we live in, ourselves included, is but an imperfect image. Plato illustrates the relation between the world we live in and the world of ideas with a creation myth in his Timaios.

A creator figure (imagined as craftsman) looks at the eternal being and takes this as a model to form out of the pristine matter that is in such chaos that even the concept of time is applicable to it into an image of being. As eternal being cannot be created (else it would have a beginning, i.e. there would have been a time it is not and according to Parmenides’ argument would not be at all), all that the divine craftsman can achieve is to recreate an imperfect image, depicting eternal being in temporal becoming.[5] I think a good way of envisioning this is if you try to create a complete two-dimensional image of a three-dimensional object: you will dissolve the image into a sequence, ideally a film, i.e. you translate a being into a becoming in which an unmovable object is laid out in a moving image. The world (and in it all identity – that of human beings, and that of communities and societies) is constituted in every single moment, so even apparent immobility and continuity – from a very steady character to a stone – is reconstituted every single moment. So all worldly “being” as in fact “becoming” – and even what appears as continuous unchanging being is, as Plato imagines it, changing into the same thing, i.e. recreated as the same or rather: something very, very similar all the time. Identity as developing is the constant construction of similar, but not identical versions over time. For Plato this sense of continuous existence in and through time is only possible by matter being oriented, looking at, aspiring to the eternal being. He uses the image of Eros as son of poverty and plenty, constantly aspiring of plenty and perfection but constantly drawn down into chaos.

A secularised version of this would be to think the ideal forms as Weberian ideal types or as a Freudian ego ideal – i.e. to turn around the sequence: not the orientation of temporal becoming towards an idea constitutes identity through time, but the self-organisation of the world into temporal order postulates, suggests ideas as vanishing points towards their becoming is oriented. A conclusion from change (as opposed to chaotic movement) to the something that changes and thus remains identical.[6] The anticipatory nature of human action encourages an intuitive interpretation of the sum of all actions, expressions, intentions as more or less successful aspiration to ideals/forms.[7]

The most radical secularisation of the old question of Being and Becoming is suggested by Georg Simmel with respect to fashion – the very essence of superficiality and (in the world of Heidegger and his fellow conservative revolutionaries) inauthentic flight from being. And Simmel does point out the absence of inherent meaning and content in fashionable clothing, contributing to the notion that it is all about distinction and emulation. He develops a dynamics of aesthetic innovation as escape from emulation that is similar to what Veblen lays out at about the same time (1899) in his Theory of the Leisure Class. While Simmel is therefore often cited alongside Veblen, what is often forgotten[8] is his idea about fashion is a specifically modern way to allow the reconciliation of conformity and individual self-expression. With fashion, as with more traditional modes of clothing, we simultaneously show belonging (there are others wearing what we wear – and we tend to share some sense of collective identity with them) and difference (distinction from those who belong to other classes, status groups, lifestyle communities, tribes etc.).[9]The innovation that comes with modern fashion is that we also make differences within groups – to the extent that fashion never can become uniform. The very sense of belonging to a group is mediated through individual self-expression. To comply with a particular style it is not enough to just copy what others are wearing – one has to copy the generative grammar of that style, i.e. appropriate the taste (a process Bourdieu had much to say about much later in his Distinction), and that can only be done if the chosen outfit differs from everybody else’s while still being within the collective canon of taste, i.e. is a truly individual expression of that style. This, alongside the flight from emulation (which is the weaker of the two arguments), entails constant aesthetic change and leads to the paradox that in fashion (as opposed to traditional dress and to uniforms) individual and collective identities are expressed in and through change. Identity cannot rest on the reproduction of the always-same – or at least not if it is not to turn out one-dimensional, a cartoon character. Simmel points out another achievement of fashion: the threat of disintegration of identity through change is turned into an opportunity in which identity is deepened through change.

The result is a literally more superficial identity in the very trivial sense that there are more surfaces and a stronger interest in surfaces. But by means of temporal sequentialisation and transcendent reference to past and future this increase in surface also allows for greater depth – the depth Andy Warhol alluded to when he said about himself that he is ‘a deeply superficial person’.[10] The task of maintaining personal identity becomes a more demanding one, now that the Heraclitean truth becomes ever more obvious that we cannot step in the same river twice not just because the water won’t be identical, but because we ourselves never are identical. So personal identity needs much more work than it used to, and it is a much more complex thing. This insight has led to a common belief among theorists in the 1980s that we will end up with “multiple personality disorder” becoming the common form of identity. This postmodernistic anticipation, too, has some roots in the konservative Revolution as it builds on the notion of a out-of-bounds, disorderly world of media and advertising where sensual overload (Arnold Gehlen’s Reizüberflutung)[11]leads to distraction as Zerstreuung – dispersal, disintegration.  This didn’t happen, despite MTV and internet. To the contrary, the increased visibility after the microelectronic revolution increased the burden for bothvariety of expression and consistency in style. So neither the one-dimensional always-the-same-suit-and-tie character of Mr Bean, nor the constant personality switch of David Bowie are viable options. For Simmel the fact that fashion (and of course a forteriori and individual style)[12] connects past and projected futures in a present point, joins up nostalgic and aspirational moments, it constitutes a strong presence of an integrated self.[13] Especially for individual styles, this is borne out by anthropological research (e.g. Woodward 2005). Thus, change itself no longer is a threat to identity – full acknowledgment of the Heraclitean insight that all is Fire leads to the recognition that embracing change is our only chance to achieve some durability[14] without collapsing into one-dimensionality. Fashion (like other modern modes of self-expression) provides us with masks[15] which not only fall short of offering authentic selfhood, but through this shortfall, as Simmel implies and Plessner explains,[16] creates the opportunity of being more than one’s social role, to go beyond social existence and find authentic selfhood through and beyond the masks. Against the Heidegger’s radicalisation of Rousseau’s yearning for pristine authenticity before socialisation they posit a radicalisation and delimitation of Hegel’s assertion that authentic selfhood is an endpoint, not a beginning. Both assert that what Heidegger will lay out as the threat of mass society, of the They (das Man) is indeed a potential outcome: that one loses oneself in social role performance, gives over all responsibility to convention.[17] However, there is a twist.

In response to the mortal threat of mass society and its fashions Heidegger alongside other post-Rousseauvians seeks refuge in the simplicity of country life and – but what Heidegger and other seekers of rustic authenticity mistake for an escape from the flimsy changeability of the metropolis is no closer to Being than the fashion cycle – they repeat a misunderstanding that we already find in Plato: that the self-reproducing object that moves in one place – above all the fixed stars – is closer to the Forms than the circling, spiralling, perambulating parts of the cosmos.[18] Here philosophy is guided not by reasoning but by conservative mood and aesthetic preference for stability and calm. To go back to our metaphor of the 2D imaging of three dimensional objects: The long still shot may aesthetically communicate a more profound sense of full being – the moving shot will always capture more of the three-dimensional reality by adding the dimension of time to the two spatial dimensions it our visual perception is confined to. What Plato in does his favouring of the seemingly unmoving (but in his own account self-imitating same-moving)  is akin to what Heidegger does in his portrayal of the old farmer who, solely on account of having been in the same place all his life, aging but otherwise unchanging, is attributed with greater depth.

And of course, Heidegger’s own sartorial claim to depth and constancy (the famous existential suit) is no less an act, a self-stylisation, than is the dandyism of an urbane artist.[19] But it is a more dishonest one – the assertion that he does not give anything on the recognition by academic philosophers and other intellectuals and everything on the judgement of the people of Todtnauberg is given the lie by the mere fact that he publicises his life in the woods.

So while the famous existential suit, the insistence on expressionless basic clothing was intended to signal spiritual, ontic depth that can do without surface. Whatever the depths of his philosophy – as a human being sitting in his hut on Todtnauberg he has no claim to superior depth over the city dweller, no claim to a more valid life. Whatever the contribution to metaphysics or to its deconstruction, his philosophy quite obviously was not a guide to moral responsibility or even to consistent personhood. In an apparent anticipation of mass abdication from personal responsibility in under the Nazis in Being and Time he sees mass society, the They (das Man), as temptation for a flight from accountability (the justification for one’s own doing being that others do the same) – and Simmel acknowledges that one function of the sharing of stylistic principles in fashion is alleviating the burden of responsibility.[20] But that is only necessary because fashion reflects a social situation in which individual responsibility, the ascription of identity to individuals’ decisions and actions, has become the default assumption. What Simmel, in his writings about money, about the city, about sociability, has shown is that such responsibility increases in mass society – while the longing of Heidegger and associates for a more authentic selfhood amounts to the opposite. While in his critique of Heidegger’s political ontology Habermas is quite forgiving about Heidegger’s involvement with the Third Reich, it is his inability after 1945 to take responsibility  for his own actions in the run-up to and during Nazi rule that he highlights as unforgivable sin for a philosopher of authenticity and responsibility.[21]

At least the fashionable person achieves consistency and continuity in and through change that is more likely to safeguard enough personal integrity that cannot be easily broken by complete reinvention such as that of Heidegger after his ‘turn’ (Kehre – NB the allusion to the act of cleaning with a broom kehren, indicating a the cathartic and hugely dishonest cleansing of all past identity; or at least a rather dishonest re-invention). It is symptomatic that the champion of true authenticity neither abhorred uniforms nor was able to maintain a coherent moral biography, while the multiplicity of inauthentic masks offers the opportunity of an identity in and through change – or rather: as complex societies require both specialisation in functional context and continuous personhood, the multiplicity of roles as well as the sequence of sartorial change stipulate authentic selfhood[22] while the self-imitation of incurious Altgier forgoes that chance in favour of a shallow pretence to hypothetical roots.


Bosworth, David (1997): ‘Echo and Narcissus: The Fearful Logic of Postmodern Thought’, in:Georgia Review, Vol.51, No.3, pp.409-37.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1996): The Political Ontology of Martin Heidegger, Cambridge: Polity.

Dux, Gunter (2011): Historico-Genetic Theory of Culture: On the Processual Logic of Cultural Change, Bielefeld: transcript.

Gehlen, Arnold (1986): Urmensch und Spätkultur, Wiesbaden: Aula Verlag

Gronow, Jukka (1993): ‘Taste and Fashion: The Social Function of Fashion and Style’ in:Acta Sociologica, Vol.36, pp.89-100.(1)

Habermas, Jürgen (1989): ‘The Heidegger Controversy from a German Perspective’, in:Critical Inquiry, Vol.15, No.2, pp.431-56

Heidegger, Martin (1963) [1934]: ‘Schöpferische Landschaft: Warum bleiben wir in der Provinz?’, in: Martin Heidegger: Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens 1910-1976, pp.9-13

Heidegger, Martin (1963) [1927]: Sein und Zeit, Tübingen : Niemeyer

Heidegger, Martin (1962): Being and Time, (transl. John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson) New York: Harper Perennial

Miller, Daniel (2010): Stuff, Cambridge: Polity Press

Plato (1977): Timaeus and Critias, Harmondsworth: Penguin

Plessner, Helmuth (1976): Die Frage nach der Conditio humana, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Popper, Karl R. (1958): ‘Back to the Pre-Socratics: The Presidential Address’, in:Proceedings of the Aristotelian Society, New Series, Vol.59, pp.1-24

Simmel, Georg (1957): ‘Fashion’, in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.62, No.6, pp.541-58.

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’ , in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

Spyri, Johanna (1998): Heidi , Project Gutenberg e-text #1448http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/1448/pg1448.html

Woodward, Sophie (2006): ‘Looking Good: Feeling Right – Aesthetics of the Self’, in: Susanne Küchler/Daniel Miller (eds.): Clothing as Material Culture, Oxford: Berg


[1] ‘Neulich bekam ich den zweiten Ruf and die Universität Berlin. Bein einer solchen Gelegenheit ziehe ich mich aus der Stadt auf die Hütte zurück. Ich höre, was die Berge und die Wälder und die Bauernhöfe sagen. Ich komme dabei zu meinem alten Freund, einem 75-jährigen Bauern. Er hat von dem Berliner Ruf in der Zeitung gelesen. Was wird er sagen? Er schiebt langsam den sicheren Blick seiner klaren Augen in den meinen, hält den Mund straff geschlossen, legt mir seine treu-bedächtige Hand auf die Schulter und –schütteltkaum merklich den Kopf. Das will sagen: unerbittlich Nein!‘ Heidegger, Martin (1963): ‘Schöpferische Landschaft: Warum bleiben wir in der Provinz?’, in: Martin Heidegger: Aus der Erfahrung des Denkens 1910-1976, pp.9-13 Frankfurt am Main: Vittorio Klostermann, 12f.  ‘Recently I got a second invitation to teach at the University of Berlin. On that occasion I left Freiburg and withdrew to the cabin. I listened to what the mountains and the forest and the farmland were saying, and I went to see an old friend of mine, a 75-year old farmer. He had read about the call to Berlin in the newspapers. What would he say? Slowly he fixed the sure gaze of his clear eyes on mine, and keeping his mouth tightly shut, he thoughtfully put his faithful hand on my shoulder. Ever so slightly he shook his head. That meant: absolutely no!’  Heidegger Martin (1981): ‘Why Do I Stay in The Provinces? (1934)’, in: Thomas Sheehan (ed/transl): Heidegger: The Man and the Thinker, Chicago: Precedent, pp.27-9

[2] “Be silent!” thundered the Uncle, and his eyes flashed with anger. “Go and be done with you! and never let me see you again with your hat and feather, and such words on your tongue as you come with today!” And with that he strode out of the hut. “You have made grandfather angry,” said Heidi, and her dark eyes had anything but a friendly expression in them as she looked at Dete. “He will soon be all right again; come now,” said Dete hurriedly, “and show me where your clothes are.” “I am not coming,” said Heidi.’http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext98/heidi11.txt

[3] NB the anti-cosmopolitan reference to Bodenständigkeit, whose reference to the rurality is lost in translation ‘Das Gesagtsein, das Diktum, der Ausspruch stehen jetzt ein für die Echtheit und Sachgemäßheit der Rede und ihres Verständnisses. Und weil das Reden den primären Seinsbezug zum beredten Seienden verloren, bzw. nie gewonnen hat, teilt es sich nicht mit in der Weise der ursprünglichen Zueignung dieses Seienden, sondern auf dem Wege des Weiter- und Nachredens. Dase Geredete als solches zieht weitere Kreise und übernimmt autoritativen Charakter. Die Sache ist so, weil man es sagt. In solchem Nach- und Weiterreden, dadurch sich das schon anfängliche Fehlen der Bodenständigkeit zur völligen Bodenlosigkeit steigert, konstituiert sich das Gerede.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 168) ‘The Being-said, the dictum, the pronouncement [Ausspruch] – all these now stand surety for the genuineness of the discourse and of the understanding which belongs to it, and for its appropriateness ot the facts. And because this discoursing has lost its primary relationship of-Being towards the entitity talked about, or else has never achieved such a relationship, it does not communicate in such a way as to let this entity be appropriated in a primordial manner, but communicates rather by following the route of gossiping  andpassing the word along. What is said-in-the-talk as such, spreads in wider circles and takes on an authoritative character. Things are so because one says so. Idle talk is constituted by just such gossiping and passing the word along – a process by which its initial lack of grounds to stand on[Bodenständigkeit] becomes aggravated to complete groundlessness [Bodenlosigkeit].’ (Heidegger 1962: 212)

[4] ‘Die freigewordene Neugier besorgt aber, um zu sehen, nicht um das Gesehene zu verstehen, das heißt in ein Sein zu ihm zu kommen, sonder nur um zu sehen. Sie sucht das Neue nur, um von ihm erneut zu Neuem abzuspringen. Nicht um zu erfassen und um wissend in der Wahrheit zu sein, geht es der Sorge dieses Sehens, sondern um die Möglichkeit des Sichüberlassens an die Welt. Daher ist die Neugier durch ein spezifischesUnverweilen beim Nächsten charakterisiert. Sie sucht daher auch nicht die Muße des betrachtenden Verweilens, sondern Unruhe und Aufregung durch das immer Neue und den Wechsel des Begegnenden. In ihrem Unverweilen besorgt die Neugier die ständige Möglichkeit der Zerstreuung.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 172)  ‘When curiosity has become free, however, it concerns itself with seeing, not in order to understand what is seen (that is, to come into a Being towards it) but just in order to see. It seeks novelty only in order to leap from it anew to another novelty. In this kind of seeing, that which is an issue for care does not lie in grasping something and being knowingly in the truth; it lies rather in its possibilities of abandoning itself to the world. Therefore curiosity is characterized by a specific way of not tarrying alongside what is closest. Consequently it does not seek the leisure of tarrying observantly, but rather seeks restlessness and the excitement of continual novelty and changing encounters. In not tarrying, curiosity is concerned with the constant possibility of distraction.’ (Heidegger 1962: 216)

‚Die beiden für die Neugier konstitutiven Momente des Unverweilens in der besorgten Umwelt und der Zerstreuung in neue Möglichkeiten fundieren den dritten Wesenscharakter dieses Phänomens, den wir die Aufenthaltslosigkeit nennen. Die Neugier ist überall und nirgends. Dieser Modus des In-der-Welt-seins enthüllt eine neue Seinsart des alltäglichen Daseins, in der es sich ständig entwurzelt.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 172f.) ‘Both this not tarryingin the environment with which one concerns oneself, and this distraction by new possibilities, are constitutive items for curiosity; and upon these is founded the third essential characteristic of this phenomenon, which we call the character of “never dwelling anywhere” [Aufenthaltslosigkeit] . Curiosity is everywhere and nowhere. This mode of a Being-in-the-world reveals a new kind of Being of everyday Dasein – kind in which Dasein is constantly uprooting itself.’ (Heidegger 1962: 217)

The affinity to antisemitic prejudice is palpable here – the stereotype of the “wandering Jew” is there in all but name whenever Heidegger touches on the metropolitan and cosmopolitan life he so detested.

[5] ‘The nature of the Living Being was eternal, and it was not possible to bestow this attribute fully on the created universe; but he determined to make a moving image of eternity, and so when he ordered the heavens he made in that which we call time an eternal moving image of the eternity which remains forever at one.’ (Plato 1977: 51)

[6] ‘For all change is the change of something: change presupposes something that changes.  And it presupposes that, while changing, this something must remain the same.  We may say that a green leaf changes when it turns brown; but we do not say that the green leaf changes when we substitute for it a brown leaf. It is essential to the idea of change that the thing that changes retains its identity while changing.  And yet, it must become something else:  it was green, and it becomes brown; it was moist, and it becomes dry; it was hot, and it becomes cold. Thus every change is, in a way, the transition of a thing into something with opposite qualities (as Anaximander and Anaximenes had seen).  And yet, the changing thing must remain identical during change. This is the problem of change.  It led Heraclitus to a theory which (partly anticipating Parmenides) distinguishes between reality and appearance, (Popper 1958: 12)

[7] ‘Anyone who conceives of an action, conceives of it in such a way that he mentally allows the action  to run its course to its goal, in order to then put the plan into action, or not. Planned actions are, as Alfred Schütz puts it, conceived in modo futuri exacti. In Chinese Sophism, it was held to be one of those irritatingly, overly subtle statements of argumentation to say: “Today I will set out for the South and I am already long there.” Not all action is action conceived in modo futuri exacti. A large part of everyday action takes place in a much less dramatic fashion. But even routinized actions have a precursive character. And anyone, who in the midst of an action, gives it a specific turn, by doing so objectifies himself in what he does. The reflexiveness of action is a reflexiveness that objectifies the subject in action, controllable through the reflexive form of self-perception. As such it is the basic form of daily practices.’ (Dux 2011: 78f.)

[8] A notable exception is Gronow 1993

[9] ‘Fashion is the imitation of a given example and satisfies the demand for social adaptation; it leads the individual upon the road which all travel, it furnishes a general condition, which resolves the conduct of every individual into a mere example. At the same time it satisfies in no less degree the need of differentiation, the tendency towards dissimilarity, the desire for change and contrast, on the one hand by a constant change of contents, which gives to the fashion of today an individual stamp as opposed to that of yesterday and of to-morrow, on the other hand because fashions differ for different classes – the fashions of the upper stratum of society are never identical with those of  the lower; in fact, they are abandoned by the former as soon as the latter prepares to appropriate them.’ (Simmel, 1957: 543)

[10] quoted in Bosworth 1992: 411

[11] Gehlen makes a similar move as does Heidegger in that he on the one hand fully acknowledges plasticity and openness of human temporal existence, but as a consequence calls for order and structure to fend of the dangers of disorientation in mass society.

[12] In the extreme case of stylisation observed by Daniel Miller on Trinidad a complete move to the surface and disjunction from any “inner self” in the end opens a road to independent and strong selfhood: ‘In stark contrast to this depth ontology Trinidadians seem to have almost a horror of things becoming interiorized, rather than kept on the surface.’ (Miller 2010: 17) ‘There is a version of madness called tabanca. This afflicts people not because they have lost a relationship, but because they then discover that they allowed that relationship to get inside them, and when it ended they became distracted and disorientated. One of the most common expressions heard in response to any misfortune, from a passing insult to the break-up of a relationship, is doh (don’t) take it on. In other words implying don’t take it in. Most Trinidadians would certainly assert humour and wit as central to their self-definition and would see it as contributing to their sense of cool and style. A person without a sense of humour, who can’t take insults, is seen as ignorant and prone to violence, a label Trinidadians use of their Caribbean rivals, the Jamaicans. This keeping things on the surface also means the freedom to construct oneself and not be categorized by circumstance.’ (Miller 2010: 17)

[13] ‘… peculiar attraction of limitation, the attraction of a simultaneous beginning and end, the charm of novelty coupled to that of transitoriness. The attractions of both poles of the phenomena meet in fashion, and show also here that they belong together unconditionally, although, or rather because, they are contradictory in their very nature. Fashion always occupies the dividing-line between the past and the future, and consequently conveys a stronger feeling of the present, at least while it is at its height, than most other phenomena. What we call the present is usually nothing more than a combination of a fragment of the past with a fragment of the future.’ (Simmel 1957: 547)

[14] ‘The fact that change itself does not change, in this instance endows each of the objects which it affects with a psychological appearance of duration.’ (Simmel 1957: 557)

[15] ‘Fashion insists, to be sure, on treating all individualities alike, yet it is always done in such a way that one’s whole nature is never affected. Fashion always continues to be regarded as something external, even in spheres outside of mere styles of apparel, for the form of mutability in which it is presented to the individual is under all circumstances a contrast to the stability of the ego-feeling. Indeed, the latter, through this contrast, must become conscious of its relative duration. The changeableness of those contents can express itself as mutability and develop its attraction only through this enduring element. But for this very reason fashion always stands, as I have pointed out, at the periphery of personality, which regards itself as a pièce de résistance for fashion, or at least can do so when called upon.

It is this phase of fashion that is received by sensitive and peculiar persons as a sort of mask. They consider blind obedience to the standards of the general public in all externals as the conscious and desired means of reserving their personal feeling and their taste, which they are eager to reserve for themselves alone, in such a way that they do not care to enter in an appearance that is visible to all. It is therefore a feeling of modesty and reserve which causes many a delicate nature to seek refuge in the leveling cloak of fashion.’ (Simmel 1957: 552)

[17] ‘Weil das Man jedoch alles Urteilen und Entscheiden vorgibt, nimmt es dem jeweiligen Dasein die Verantwortlichkeit ab. Das Man kann es sich gleichsam leisten, daß „man“ sich ständig auf es beruft. Es kann am leichtesten alles verantworten, weil keiner es ist, der für etwas einzustehen braucht. Das Man „war“ es immer und doch kann gesagt werden, „keiner“ ist es gewesen.‘ (Heidegger 1963: 127)

‘Yet because the “they” presents every judgment and decision as its own, it depreives the particular Dasein of its answerability. The “they” can, as it were, manage to have “them” constantly invoking it. It can be answerable for everything most easily, because it is not someone who needs to vouch for anything. It ‘was’ always the “they” who did it, and yet it can be said that it has been “no one”.’ (Heidegger 1962: 165)

[18] ‘And he gave each divine being two motions, one uniform in the same place, as each always thinks the same thoughts about the same things, the other forward, as each is subject to the movement of the Same and uniform; but he kept them unaffected by the other five kinds of motion, that each might be as perfect as possible. this is the origin of the fixed stars, which are living beings divine and eternal and remain always rotating in the same place  and the same sense; the origin of the planets and their variations, of course we have already described.’ (Plato 1977: 55)

[19] As Bourdieu emphasises – and in general: ‘Historians of philosophy too often forget that the great philosophical options which mark out the space of philosophical possibilities, such as neo-Kantianism, neo-Thomism, and phenomenology, are embodied in the palpable forms of people, who are themselves perceived in terms of their life-style, behaviour, and speech, their white hair and heir Olympian looks, and that these philosophical options are associated with moral tendencies and political choices, which give them a concrete physiognomy.’ (Bourdieu 1996: 51f.)

[20] ‘The charm of imitation in the first place is to be found in the fact that it makes possible an expedient test of power [zweckmäßiges und sinnvolles Tun – “expedient and meaningful action”], which, however, requires no great personal and creative application, but is displayed easily and smoothly, because its content is a given quantity. We might define it is as the child of thought and thoughtlessness. It affords the pregnant [??] possibility of continually extending the greatest creations of the human spirit, without the aid of the forces which were originally the very condition of their birth. Imitation, furthermore, gives to the individual the satisfaction of not standing alone in his actions. Whenever we imitate, we transfer not only the demand for creative activity, but also the responsibility for the action from ourselves to another.’ (Simmel, 1957: 542f.)

[21] ‘He is absolved from all personal responsibility, because error itself objectively befalls him. A mistake could be ascribed only to an intellectual, an unessential thinker. in the “case of the rectorate [in] 1933/34,” which “in itself” was “unimportant,” Heidegger sees, even after the war, only “a sign of the metaphysical state of the essence of science”. For him, “it is as unimportant as teh barren rooting in past attempts and measures taken, which in the context of the entire movement of the planetary will to power are so insignificant that they may not even be called tiny”’ (Habermas 1989: 450)

[22] This is what Simmel must have had in mind when saying: ‘‘We know ourselves on the one side as products of society. The physiological series of progenitors, their adaptations and fixations, the traditions of their labor, their knowledge and belief, of the whole spirit of the past crystallized in objective forms – all these determine the equipment and the contents of our life, so that the question might arise whether the individual is anything more than a receptacle in which previously existing elements mix in changing proportions; for although the elements were also in the last analysis produced by individuals, yet the contribution of each is a disappearing  quantity, and only through their generic and societary merging were the factors produced in the synthesis of which in turn the ostensible individuality may consist. On the other hand we know ourselves as a member of society, woven with our life-process and its meaning and purpose quite as interdependently into its coexistence (Nebeneinander) as in the other view into its succession (Nacheinander). Little as we in our character as natural objects have a self-sufficiency, because the intersection of the natural elements proceeds through us as through completely selfless structures, and the equality, before the laws of nature resolves our existence without re|mainder into a mere example of their necessity – quite as little do we live as societary beings around an autonomous center; but we are from moment to moment composed out of reciprocal relationships to others, and we are thus comparable with the corporeal  substance which for us exists only as the sum of many impressions of the senses, but not as a self-sufficient entity. Now, however, we feel that this social diffusion does not completely dissolve our personality. This is not because of the reservations previously mentioned, or of particular contents whose meaning and development rest from the outset only in the individual soul, and finds no   position at large in the social correlation. It is not only because of the molding of the social contents, whose unity as individual soul is not itself again of social nature, any more than the artistic form, in which the spots of color merge upon the canvas, can be derived from the chemical nature of the colors themselves. It is rather chiefly because the total life-content, however completely it may be applicable from the social antecedents and reciprocities, is yet at the same time capable of consideration under the category of the singular life, as experience of the individual and completely oriented with reference to this experience.’  (Simmel 1910: 385f.)

Consumer eccentricity and subjectivity fetish

As I am gearing up to re-working my paper on Plessner’s notion of eccentricity and Campbell’s analysis of romantic consumer selfhood I notice that a reference to Sennett’s Fall of Public Man is not quite contemporary enough to highlight the concerns about the dissolution from ceremonial division of (mostly public) roles and the (mostly private) person behind the mask of the roles (which appears as the authentic subjectivity behind and constrained by the roles – but in fact is the realisation of an opportunity afforded by the existence as mask-wearer, role-performer).

The existence online, the more or less public display of authentic selfhood in social networking sites which – as Daniel Smith shows – culminates in the public existence of the celebrity vlogger: a persona who seems to exist, entirely, as presented and constructed for his or her audience on YouTube and whose (social as much as commercial) value is determined by the number of hits and subscribers.

My response to the concerns (not the phenomenon itself) around this consumer virtuality as de-civilisation and collapse of the difference between role and person was as follows:

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence:

‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141).

Such objectification (e.g. as a Facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality. This implies a higher degree of integration of self in style, not as alternately bemoaned and celebrated, dissolution into “multiple personalities”.

But of course the potential loss of eccentricity is not to be dismissed out of hand. A well constructed authentic selfhood nowadays can be as important as functional role-specific capabilities. The presentation of individual selfhood in social media can have economic consequences when employers check applicants’ or current staff’s Facebook pages. Political scandals that thrive on the erosion of privacy – such as the MPs expenses claims scandal in the UK 2009 – are further signs of such a collapse of the separation of the mask of the role performer and the performer as a person (Thompson 2011). It can be argued that it is the importance of this difference as argued by Helmuth Plessner that makes it a matter of concern for so many. As Thompson (2011: 64) puts it:

For it is precisely because we continue to value this distinction, precisely because what is made public and kept private really does matter to people, that the blurring of the boundaries has become the source of such intense concern. The ability of individuals to exercise control over the territories of the self and to restrict access by others is constantly challenged and in some contexts  compromised, by the capacity of others to avail themselves of new means – technological, political and legal – to gain access, acquire information, exploit it for their own ends and, on some occasions, make it public. the shifting boundaries between public and private life become a new battleground in modern societies, a contested terrain where individuals and organizations wage a new kind of information war, using whatever means they have at their disposal to acquire information about others and to control information about themselves, often struggling to cope with changes they did not foresee and agents whose intentions they did not understand, a terrain where the established relations of power can be disrupted, lives damaged and reputations sometimes lost.

Something is at stake here – personal autonomy. The paradox of individualism: that being different is to be socially recognised (Popitz 1987: 642), seems to move from recognition of the fact of difference as such to recognition of a specific, desirable difference. While postmodern writers used to speculate about the coming of a multiple personality as norm, the danger here is that we are witnessing a re-centring of the subject around the advertised personality performance. A wide consensus in exists not necessarily among students of consumer society, but among the liberal media analysts that there is a cult of the self that seeks expression in consumption and now primarily in social media. Bauman condenses this view to a formula of commodification of subjectivity.

‘“Subjectivity” in the society of consumers, just as “commodity” in the society of producers, is (to use Bruno Latour’s felicitous concept) a faitishe – a thoroughly human product elevated to the rank of superhuman authority through forgetting or rendering irrelevant its human, all too human origins, together with the string of human actions that led to its appearance and was the sine qua non condition of that appearance. In the case of the commodity in the society of producers, it was the act of buying and the labour capacity of producers that, by endowing it with market value, made the product of labour into a commodity – in a way not visible in (and hidden by) the appearance of an autonomous interaction of commodities. In the case of subjectivity in the society of consumers, it is the turn of the buying and selling of the tokens deployed in the construction of identity – the allegedly public expression of the “self” which is in fact Jean Baudrillard’s “simulacrum”, substituting “representation” for what it is assumed to represent – to be effaced from the appearance of the final product.’ (Baumann 2007: 14f.)

Now it is important to insist that this idea of the subjectivity fetish is overstated in the same way in which, at least in the Baudrillard-informed reading, that of the commodity fetish is. As Rosen (1996) has forcefully argued, the interpretation of the commodity fetish as a complete and inevitable distortion in which people cannot see that commodities are products of human labour is just absurd. Only very deluded individuals do not know such things as that clothes are made in factories (and most likely by underpaid workers in Bangladesh, India, Turkey etc.). And even less does production disappear as completely as suggested by Baudrillard. Similarly, I would argue, the commodification of subjectivity may well be a fact (or rather: an apt metaphor), but that does not mean that the denizen of the world of material and virtual consumer goods falls for the illusion of authenticity of the selfhood on display. To the contrary: the general suspicion is that people are not really as they present themselves on Facebook. Facebook is not the Matrix.

The artistic performance of individuality as a role in itself, the aesthetisation of self in the pursuit of a consistent style still is a role performance, be it one twice removed. The self itself becomes a mask – and a mask affords the non-identity of its wearer. Of course – as Plessner says, this is only an opportunity and the wearer does not need to realise this potential. So just as there indeed were and are one-dimensional persons who manage to achieve nigh complete identity with the ceremonial roles they perform, so there will be an performer who is not identical with the performed, exceeds the personality on display and takes incommensurability to a new level.

If the individuality/subjectivity that exceeds one’s roles is transformed into something that is displayed rather than something that is lived out in the retreat of a Habermasian Lebenswelt, then the question emerges if not a new level of agency behind that performed individuality role which now has become a subject to recognition. The person maintaining their Facebook profile from their bedroom or kitchen table will carefully control what kind of information about their everyday activities makes it onto the Wall or is tweeted away. Just as the diaries of 19th century novelists must not be mistaken as revelation of unfiltered private life because the authors wrote them with posthumous publication in mind, so of course it is only the not quite savvy user of such sites who will fail to make a difference between the person typing away and the person presented online. And thus, of course, there is now a much wider awareness that authentic subjectivity is produced rather than a natural given to be expressed. The difference between the presented/represented and the presentation/representation remains – and it is not at the cost of the former. Baumann suggests just that (and expresses a common sentiment):

‘In the carnivalesque game of identities, offline socializing is revealed for what it in fact is in the world of consumers: a rather cumbersome and not particularly enjoyable burden, tolerated and suffered because unavoidable, since recognition of the chosen identity needs to be achieved in long and possibly interminable effort – with all the risks of bluffs being called or imputed which face-to-face encounters necessarily entail. Cutting off that burdensome aspect of the recognition battles is, arguably, the most attractive asset of the internet masquerade and confidence game. The “community” of internauts seeking substitute recognition does not require the chore of socializing and is thereby relatively free from risk, that notorious and widely feared bane of the offline battles for recognition.’ (Bauman 2007: 115)

This of course is highly contestable – the prediction of a society of loners glued to the screen has not materialised and the myriad of (social-network induced) rendezvous, raves, riots and revolutions indicates that face-to-face is a thing of the past.

Throughout the anthropological fact of eccentricity remains – it is impossible to capture or trap human subjectivity for long. As the collapse of totalitarianism has shown, “greedy” sociality cannot even be enforced for very long even with the most violent and ruthless means. And it can also not be achieved through entrapping authentic expression in a consumer society. The eccentric consumer moves behind the publicised private persona. The persona becomes a mask in its own right (but a more elaborate one) and the subject exceeds their social existence even further. As Simmel emphasises: every socialisation produces a way in which the members of society is not socialised, beyond society – and the way that they are not socialised co-determines the way they are socialised  (Simmel 1992: 51).

Baumann, Zygmunt (2007): Consuming Life, Cambridge: Polity

Popitz, Heinrich (1987): ‚Autoritätsbedürfnisse: Der Wandel der sozialen Subjektivität‘, in:Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Vol.39, pp.633-47.

Rosen, Michael (1996) On Voluntary Servitude. Cambridge: Polity.

Simmel, Georg (1992): Soziologie, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1992

Thompson, John B. (2011): ‘Shifting Boundaries of Public and Private Life’, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Vol.28, No.4, pp.49-70

PS (21st September 2011)

The slightly uncouth translation of Simmel’s statement on the non-sociality within the social in the AJS has:

‘Another category under which men (Subjecte) view themselves  and one another, in order that, so formed, they may produce empirical society, may be formulated in the seemingly trivial theorem: – Each element of a group is not a societary part, but beyond that something else. That fact operates as social apriori in so far as the part of the individual which is not turned toward the group, or is not dissolved in it, does not lie simply without meaning by the side of his socially significant phase, is not a something external to the group, for which it nolens volens affords space; but the fact that the individual, with respect to certain sides of his personality, is not an element of the group, constitutes the positive condition for the fact that he is such a member in other aspects of his being. In other words, the sort of his socialized-being’ (Simmel 1910: 381)

Simmel, Georg (1910): ‘How is Society Possible?’ , in: American Journal of Sociology, Vol.16, No.3, pp.372-391

The Ancient Mariner Goes Hollywood

(this is a follow-up to my last post on Kierkegaard and romantic consumption which ends on a reference to Coleridge’s Ancient Mariner)

Yesterday I listened in to the “Vox Project” on Radio 4, a programme on voice over artists, one of whom mentioned Don La Fontaine as the inventor of the “In a world…”  phrase. This phrase, as has his obituary on CNN, was ‘used by seemingly dozens of movies determined to create an otherworldly atmosphere’. It is telling: For those in that world it is the world and hence inescapable; they have to act within its iron laws of causality – while for the viewer/listener it is just a world, not the world. Actually it’s not so difficult to imagine Don La Fontaine doing a trailer for the Ancient Mariner. Imagine a

‘world of a hard moral law. There exists a ruthless code of justice, under which a trivial act – like shooting a bird or eating a piece of fruit – can earn a dreadful punishment.’ (McDonald 1964: 547)

Coleridge’s sailor despairs under, as literary critic Daniel McDonald put it, ‘too much reality’. His narrative is “epic” in Bakhtinian terms as it has no open future, is final, fixed as opposed to the openness to the future, the potentiality of the novel.

‘As he carries this message of reality through the world, the Mariner acts in the tradition of Old Testament prophets who invaded civilized societies with a message of savage truth.’ (McDonald 1964: 549)

This is in stark contrast with the Wedding Guest who is, basically, a consumer.

‘He is the archetype of one living a frivolous, surface existence, ignoring the deeper realities. The wedding is a key symbol here. First, it is a formal convention, a means of masking the several mysteries of sex, instinct and animality – mysteries which the Mariner faced in seeing the rearing water-snakes and the thousand slimy things. Second, a wedding is a religious ceremony, a means of masking the fearful reality of supernatural presences – a reality which the Mariner faced in his relation to Life in Death, “a troop of spirits blest,” the Polar Spirit etc. Significantly, the surface nature of the Wedding Guest is emphasized even more. He is not a part of the wedding, only a guest. He is not at the religious ceremony; he is going to a gay party which follows it.’ (McDonald 11964: 550)

By consuming a narrative the Wedding Guest/Moviegoer avoids the despair of the superficial ritualised existence of the philistine, by anchoring his imagination in realisticworlds he avoids the despair of the fantasist, and by not being deeply touched and temporarily totally absorbed – but remaining outside the epic reality, he avoids the tragic despair of having a destiny. The romantic technique of imaginative hedonism makes sure that the move from “ceremony” to “art” in constructing masks and selves (Plessner) does on collapse in one-dimensional immediacy. He can reconnect to all those “mysteries” of animal existence, without being reduced to it. Such immediacy would be intolerable – which is why for the Mariner

‘even death would be welcome. He cannot bear any more reality.’ (McDonald 1964: 553)

The Wedding Guest gains depth, is affected, changed – but not trapped in a world. He has many worlds (precisely because he has less reality). He therefore is envied by the Mariner who

‘rather than coming proudly and courageously to challenge the Wedding Guest’s superficial philosophy, the Mariner says explicitly that he would prefer it.’ (McDonald 1964: 553)


McDonald, Daniel (1964): ‘Too Much Reality: A Discussion of “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner”’, in: Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900, Vol.4, No.4, pp.543-54

the eccentricity of the romantic consumer: campbell, simmel, and plessner

(Paper presented at the 4th International Plessner Conference, 16th to 18th September 2009, Erasmus University, Rotterdam, The Netherlands)


Consumer culture has few defenders and there are even fewer who dare to argue that consumer culture may in a sense make us broader and deeper personalities. In this talk I will try to make the case for a sociologist who does claim just that, Colin Campbell – with his “Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism”. I will argue that his theory of the “romantic consumer” – particularly if underpinned by Simmel’s analysis of the psychological implications of the money economy – can account for a simultaneous increase in flexibility/complexity of contemporary selves and their persistent integrity as autonomous persons. To argue the latter point I will recur on Plessner’s work, especially his adaptation of role theory and his critique of the ideology of community (Gemeinschaft).

Plessner is a likely ally for the unpopular defence of the popular culture of consumption. There is more than only an elective affinity between consumer culture and Plessner’s defence of society (Gesellschaft) as consumer culture significantly contributes to what he calls the “increasing possibilities of play that civilization makes possible” (1999: 78)[i]

Such Gesellschaftlichkeit throughout the twentieth century has had more intellectual critics than defenders… and hardly any admirers. Notably, one of the prime targets of those critiques always was consumer culture (even though it wasn’t often called that). It was seen as a major threat to occidental culture, dissolving and corrupting the very essence of European man. Prominently, Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit denounces everyday trivial sociability manifested in curiosity, idle talk, and ambiguity as the pinnacle of inauthenticity. For Plessner, in contrast, it is this very ambiguity that is the deep ontological trait (1999: 109; 1981:63) To take another example, Arnold Gehlen, bemoans the sensual overload (Reizüberflutung) of the mediatic consumer society as fundamental threat to the ordering power of tradition and routine. In contrast Plessner explicitly asks us to embrace such sensual overload as civilisational achievement, sees strength in the embrace of ‘the refinement of life, and the intensification of possibilities for stimulation’ (1999: 69).

In his 1924 Limits of Community Plessner indicates a specifically human form of desire for the imaginary that seems to me to be at the heart of a developed consumer culture – a desire for the unreal, dreamlike rather than the material and immediate. He asks:

‘Is there deprivation (excluding naked hunger) that urges not towards that unreal satisfaction, that demands satiation more with the magic of indeterminate promises than with what actually can be had?’ (1999: 114)

This seems to fit into 1920s big city life – but hardly strikes us as something “universally human”. Here Colin Campbell can help out as he focuses on this particular element in consumer culture – understanding it as an historical achievement, a novel intellectual/emotional skill developed in the Romantic Period – rather than something that’s just human. At first sight a contradiction, this ties in with Plessner’s assertion that for the most of human history the infinity of the psyche is something that is reconciled by giving it space behind, but also hiding it behind, ceremonial orders: Masks that do not give off anything of the personhood they facilitate.
Campbell’s (1987) starting point is the conundrum of the insatiability of the modern consumer – an insatiability that cannot be fully explained by the generalisation or trickling down of aristocratic luxury consumption. Such luxury in “traditional hedonism” typically is not innovative but merely a quantitative excess over need satisfaction. Having moved beyond necessity the traditional hedonist tries to recreate the pleasure of need satisfaction by intensifying and refining the sensual stimuli involved. But in relying on sensations such hedonism still remains bound by the absolute limits to possible physical arousal. Its central function of asserting social rank (Veblen’s conspicuous consumption) also militates against the possibility of achieving genuine pleasure.
To allow insatiability, Campbell argues, the link to sensual stimuli must be severed and pleasure seeking must shift to emotions instead. Pleasure then no longer is a property of external objects but of internal “spiritual” processes, gained by conjuring up emotional states through a mastery of the imagination, by indulging in daydreams. While these daydreams are facilitated by the use of commodities, the pleasure is not in the immediate sensual effect of those goods on the consumer but in the consumer’s self-illusionary engagement with them. Campbell speaks of autonomous imaginative hedonism. The imaginative hedonist enjoys involvement in fictitious worlds, shares the adventures of invented characters, or dream him/herself into a semi-fictional identity by, for example, adopting a certain style of clothing, driving a particular car, or creating an online avatar.
The imaginative hedonist not only uses consumer goods as launch pad or aide for daydreams, but also is able to anticipate the pleasure to be had from objects not yet acquired. Thus not only the desired object is a source of enjoyment, but desire itself becomes an object of gratification. This leads into a dynamics of longing in which the acquisition of the desired object nearly always must disappoint as daydreams will be more perfect than any reality they anticipate. This frustration then triggers new longings which fuel demand for novel products and thereby accounts for fashion as “most central of all institutions of modern consumerism”.

“Modern hedonism presents all individuals with the possibility of being their own despot, exercising total control over the stimuli they experience, and hence the pleasure they receive. Unlike traditional hedonism, however, this not gained solely, or even primarily, through the manipulation of objects and events in the world, but through a degree of control over their meaning. In addition, the modern hedonist possesses the very special power to conjure up stimuli
in the absence of any externally generated sensations. This control is achieved through the power of imagination, and provides infinitely greater possibilities for the maximization of pleasurable experiences than was available under traditional, realistic hedonism to even the most powerful of potentates.” (Campbell 1987: 76)

Self-illusion here does not lead to a loss of reality in a world of simulacra (as Baudrillard famously claimed) since it is performed in an emotionally involved yet intellectually detached mode: the illusions are “felt to be true” – but “known to be false” (or as Coleridge calls it: performed under a “willing suspension of disbelief”). It is a skill that we consumers unthinkingly employ when we open a book, watch a movie or a football match, flick through a fashion magazine… entering other worlds, stories, struggles – while often remaining firmly attached to our sofas.

As the title of his book suggests, Campbell constructs the Romantic heritage of consumerism as a parallel to how Max Weber construed the Protestant legacy of capitalism. Written as a companion book to Weber’s Protestant Ethic it goes about in the same three step logic. As you will know Weber’s strategy was to first identify the “spirit of capitalism” (disciplined work towards the sole aim of profit and re-investment; “inner-worldly asceticism”), then secondly to trace the historical roots of this mentality (an ironic turn in Calvinist teaching of pre-destination) and thirdly to show how the economic system “selects” this type of character into leading positions and hence establishes new cultural heroes, leading to a self-perpetuation of the capitalist spirit beyond Calvinism itself)

Campbell’s strategy accordingly is to identify the “spirit of modern consumerism” (autonomous imaginative hedonism), then to trace its historic roots (the “other Protestant ethic”, leading to Romanticism) and finally find out why this mentality is “selected” even after its original source has dried up. Campbell mainly investigates the historical roots. These are interlinked with those of the protestant ethic of capitalism.

Campbell tracks down a transformation of optimistic, emotionalist, sentimentalist streams of Puritanism into the Romantic movement of the late 18th century. The latter retains a doctrine of signs in which feeling and taste, vision, imagination, expressiveness, creative energy, and unhappiness with the status quo replace economic success as vindication of the individual soul.

While Campbell, over the last 20 years or so, successfully defended his historiography, the third step (to which he dedicates only one or two pages), is problematic: How does the Romantic Ethic survive the fall of Romanticism? Like Weber for his Protestant Ethic

‘… there is no part in this thesis to suggest that the Romantic Ethic still persists or indeed continues to perform any such vital role.’ (Campbell 2003: 796)

But while Weber can enlist capitalist competition and in particular the labour market as selection mechanism: What selects the romantic consumer over the utilitarian? (after all: the latter as saver and investor will end up with greater economic resources…)

Campbell falls back on the Parsonian nuclear family for an explanation:

‘… middle class families successfully transmit both rational utilitarian andromantic values to their offspring, the father and the mother having a different responsibility in this respect. The “romantic” values are likely to be given expression first probably under the mother’s overall guidance, and the more “puritanical” ones imposed later (when the father becomes more important).’ (1987: 226)

This, at least at first sight, does not look very convincing – mainly because it presupposes a stability in the assignment of “instrumentality” and “expressivity” to “masculinity” and “feminity” that may or may not have been plausible in the 1950s – but certainly no longer is.

I will come back to this, as there actually is some use in a Parsonian reference to the family and the position of the middle class mother and wife.

For now, however, I complete the Weberian parallel by going back to the economy.

With Simmel one can argue that money – having become the central medium of social exchange – is in two ways structurally romantic: in a negative and in a positive way. Money mediates, distances people and things and removes the person from the felt immediacy of more direct traditional relations.

‘as an intermediate link between man and thing,’ Simmel says, money ‘enables man to have, as it were, an abstract existence, a freedom from direct concern with things and from a direct relationship to them, without which our inner nature would not have the same chances of development’ (1990: 469)

This alienation means that, I quote:

‘… our whole life becomes affected by its remoteness from nature, a situation that is reinforced by the money economy and the urban life that is dependent upon it.’ He suggests: ‘the distinctive aesthetic and romantic experience of nature is perhaps possible only through this process.’ (ibid)

So money opens a gap, a space that entices a longing for that which is now no longer directly at hand. But it does not only distance things – it also brings the distanced things within reach. Money encourages daydreaming: everything is possible, everything is available. While creating distant longings, it also is the means of acting on those longings, of realising some of them. As Simmel put it

‘The mere possibility of unlimited uses that money has, or represents, on account of its lack of any content of its own, is manifested in a positive way by the restlessness of money, by its urge to be used, so to speak.’ (1990: 212)

Crucially, while for the money owner possibilities represented by money disappear when spending it on a concrete option, money as such keeps representing those relinquished possibilities as not yet chosen, as still available at a later point in time. While, with every choice we make the horizon of possibilities (against we choose) shrinks, the consumer lives under an impression of a horizon of opportunity that can’t collapse – and that’s a further characteristic of their romantic mentality: what Carl Schmitt dismissed as romantic occasionism. He sees Romanticism marred by an unfulfillable yearning to be and create everything:

‘In commonplace reality, the romantics could not play the role of the ego who creates the world. They preferred the state of eternal becoming and possibilities that are never consummated to the confines of concrete reality. This is because only one of the numerous possibilities is ever realized. In the moment of realization, all of the other infinite possibilities are precluded. A world is destroyed for a narrow-minded reality.’ (Schmitt 1986: 66)

While consumers (following the romantic example) therefore deny or ignore death as limit to infinite choice their opponents tend towards necrophilia.  Death as ultimate commitment (for Schmitt in his agonistic concept of politics as well as in both German and French existentialism – for Sartre the proving pudding always is affirmation of fundamental choice in death…) – the committed, genuine self can only proven in death. The survivor can always go on to become a traitor. In this respect consumerist ambiguity may be shallow – but at the same time life-affirming. Decisionism, radical choice, fundamental irreversible commitment (religio) stands against indecisionism… or rather against micro-decisionism, radical reversibility of casual choices.

Of course, choice always has irreversible consequences – but in a consumer culture they are systematically denied – hence the Romantic obsession with childhood, and the consumerist obsession with youth: the commitment to an open future – the celebration of openness to the world as infinite potential.

A potential that is not nothing (or “nothing yet”), but a valid aspect of being. As Simmel put it:

“The potentialities of a being are not just hovering intangible prophecies of a future actuality, but something positive, a characteristic presence which exists not only as a candidature to another, future form.” (“Die ‘Möglichkeiten’ eines Wesens sind doch keine ungreifbar über ihm schwebenden Prophezeiungen einer einmal eintretenden Aktualität, sondern schon jetzt etwas durchaus Positives, eine charakteristische Gegenwart, die keineswegs nur in der Anwartschaft auf eine andere, zukünftige Formung besteht.“ Simmel 1919)

Instead of seeing it as an existential threat and closing it off in traditionalisation and regulation, as under an ancien régime, the culture of modernity creates, according to Plessner, social arrangements that allow and foster individuality that dwells in potentiality. The vehicle for this development is the existence in roles.

Evidently there is an affinity between the structural romanticism of money and this central element of societal life (Gesellschaft) – as Plessner says:

‘The distance the role creates, in the life of the family as well as in that of work, occupations, office is the detour to the other which characterises human beings, the mediation of their immediacy.”

Such distance, Plessner argues, is not just necessary to facilitate social contact beyond close community – it also enables or even demands the emergence of a personhood behind and beyond the mask of the role.

In simple cases, and under strict ceremonialisation, a role set may define person and the role functionary may mistake themselves for nothing more than a function in a social organism. Even then, it’s difficult to construe oneself as nothing more than that – and once (to apply Merton’s terminology) a multiplicity of role-sets are combined into a (always slightly contradictory) status-set autonomous selfhood becomes nearly unavoidable

Selfhood is not submerged under the superficiality of the role existence – superficial role existence precedes authenticity, makes it possible in the first place. As we play a role, accept an existence that is not intrinsically our own but one that conforms to the normative expectations that are part of the role set. It is as if we

‘change our existence’ – thus creating – I quote – a ‘distance to our social existence which can be consoling: Man, the individual never entirely is what he is. As office worker or doctor, politician or shop owner, husband or bachelor, member of his generation and his people, he is always more than that, a possibility, which does not exhaust itself in such modes of being, cannot be subsumed under them.’ [ii]

Against this background – should we not see the selfhood that is constructed through consumer choices as a similar mask, a development that goes beyond the more formal, clearly defined roles of occupation as the more clearly defined roles in public office, professions and occupations? While they on the one hand are communicated as expression of an underlying authentic self, the reversibility and the fact that the immediacy of the expressed is commercially mediated makes that underlying authenticity a role/mask in its own right.

Ceremonial roles are insufficient in an individualistic culture – they remain necessary! – there is a shift to prestige in a trivialised artistic, creative existence

‘The rigid masks of an arbitrary and interchangeable office, which imparts to the most different personalities the same aura, gives way here to a counter-picture appearing in the unique work brought to permanent form of the person who created it.’ (Plessner 1999: 141)

Such objectification (e.g. as a facebook entry) necessarily creates a distance – and hence establishes a subject that is not to be defined by the sum of their performances. The struggle for prestige as “struggle for a true face” hence still constitutes an “unrealisation” – the true face just as another role. This is not a repetition of the medieval situation where “man never was alone” – it is a performance of a private self that is detached from and thereby constitutes a subjectivity ‘behind’ the private self, thereby realising even further the potential that lies in the anthropologically given eccentric positionality.

This implies a higher degree of integration of self in style, not as alternately bemoaned and celebrated, dissolution into “multiple personalities”. In order to enact ourselves in a convincing way, we need to have distance. As Plessner in his reflection on Huizinga’s theory of play says about the actor:

‘The submersion into our selves – mark of personality – corresponds to an exteriority in relation to our corporeal figure which enables us to make our body the medium of expression (and by this a threat to its authenticity, the authenticity of feeling, which it conveys). The observation that an actor who gives himself over to his genuine feelings in order to make his part convincing loses evidence reflects how our ability to experience refracts on the communicability of our emotions.’[iii]

Consumer culture offers the opportunity to play out the potential to be actors of ourselves. I would venture to claim that, because consumers are so good at that nowadays, that they managed to convince quite a lot of academic researchers of their unmediated genuineness.

Some civilisationist (or pro-Gesellschaft) theorists have expressed grave concerns about a culture of emotional expressivity leading to the erosion of distance and formality that – as Plessner argues – is essential in the emergence and perseverance of independent personhood most prominently maybe Richard Sennett – currently most vociferous being Frank Furedi who directly links this to a feminisation of culture.

This concern brings us back to the part the bourgeois wife/mother plays in romantic consumerism. Concerns about feminisation of culture seem to (secretly) rely on the picture Georg Simmel presented of the bourgeois wife in his Female Culture: While division of labour and specialisation is the realm of the man, woman resides in an undifferentiated world in which she leads a holistic existence in which intellect and emotion, reality and unrealised potentiality still form a unity.

In one respect Simmel does have a point in that the situation in which the bourgeois mother and wife lived is one that deprives her of (or – from Simmel’s point of view spares her) the existence in differentiated role sets, role complexity that, in Rose Laub Coser’s terms, is a “seedbed of autonomy”.

If consumer culture were a generalisation of such reduced differentiation Furedi may be right that such holism, emotionalism, domesticism are a threat to the autonomous individuality that the existence in formal roles afforded.

I would suggest a different take. The holistic existence Simmel celebrates was already a broken one – and that brokenness is closely related to Romanticism. The legitimacy of the bourgeois marriage is romantic love, love between autonomous and equal subjects. But the result denies women precisely this precondition of romantic love: autonomous personhood. To quote the least likely theorist to confirm this, here’s Parsons:

“Put very schematically, a mature woman can love, sexually, only a man who takes his full place in the masculine world, above all its occupational aspect, and who takes responsibility for a family; conversely, the mature man can only love a woman who is really an adult, a full wife to him and mother to his children, and an adequate ‘person’ in her extrafamilial roles.” (1956: 22)

But, of course, there are no real extrafamilial roles for her. So she finds herself in a structurally hypocritical position where the feeling that ‘this can’t be all’ is inevitable. The urge to consume is the urge to ‘be more than that’.

I would argue that in this situation the apparent lack was compensated for by imaginary means, commercially mediated worlds beyond which partly made good for the denied role complexity – and partly became a vehicle to the outside, was utilised as a means of building personhood by mediating immediacy, by unrealising the presentation of the “true face”.

This is why the novel was so central in the development of consumer culture as they allow the bourgeois subject, in Tenbruck’s (1986: 271) words, to ‘habitually unlock and extend inner spaces of experience’ (my translation mzv). It was only a question of time that this fed into a desire to unlock outer spaces of experience as well. What they take outside is not a replication of the un-detached absorption into a one-dimensional domestic role – it is also not a de-centred uprooted self; rather, I suggest, it is a skillfully ex-centred privacy that has become a major element of our consumer culture.

Campbell, Colin (2003) ‘On Understanding Modern Consumerism and Misunderstanding the Romantic Ethic Thesis: A Reply to Boden and Williams’, Sociology 37 (4): 791-7.

Campbell, Colin (1987): The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, Oxford: Blackwell.

Parsons, Talcott (1956): ‘The American Family: Its Relations to Personality and to the Social Structure’, in: Talcott Parsons, Robert F. Bales (Eds.): Family. Socialization and Interaction Processes, London: Routledge, Kegan & Paul, pp.3-33

Plessner, Helmuth (1999): The Limits of Community, New York: Humanity Books

Plessner, Helmuth (1983): ‚Der Mensch im Spiel’ (1967), in: Gesammelte SchriftenVIII, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Plessner, Helmuth (1981): „Grenzen der Gemeinschaft“ (1924), in: Gesammelte Schriften V,Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp.

Plessner, Helmuth (1976): Die Frage nach der Conditio humana, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp

Schmitt, Carl (1986) Political Romanticism, Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press

Simmel, Georg (1990) The Philosophy of Money, London: Routledge

Simmel, Georg (1919): Philosophische Kultur Leipzig: Alfred Kröner.

Tenbruck, Friedrich H. (1986): ‚Bürgerliche Kultur.’ In: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie, Sonderheft 27: Kultur und Gesellschaft, pp.263-85

Update 12th November 2009 : Women’s Romanticism…

I am currently reading Kari E. Lokke’s Tracing Women’s Romanticism: Gender, History and Transcendence (London: Routledge 2004). It is mainly an analysis of Germaine de Staël, Mary Shelley, Bettine von Arnim and George Sand who, according to Lokke

all envisage self-transcendence, both artistic and spiritual, as participation in historical process. (2004: 1)

I am not even half through the (slim) book, but I’m already quite enthusiastic about it – this really seems to confirm the point about “female culture” at the heart of romantic consumerism not being one of diffuse emotionality and a collapse of role-distanced autonomous personhood. To the contrary, Lokke shows how in those novels

disappointment with Romantic passionate love becomes a catalyst for the cultivation of heightened political, spiritual and historical awareness (2004: 7)

In the chapter on de Staël Lokke demonstrates how detachment – which women cannot achieve otherwise as they are excluded from public roles – is central for her in a way that calls for a full realisation of the potential that lies in our “eccentric positionality”. Detachment and emotional expression are no detrimental opposites, as

Staël is not advocating insensitivity to or a numbing repression of pain and feeling. Rather, she suggests focusing a clear and self-conscious eye on one’s passions and desires, thus acknowledging their power and then, through an act of will, freeing oneself from them. “In a kind of pleasurable abstraction, we rise some distance above ourselves, watching ourselves think and live … We are now placing ourselves in relation to our own consciousness, instead of fate” (p.168)[1] (2004: 26)

This is the core skill of the romantic consumer – and it is, I think, more than plausible that it is refined if not in reading and writing novels as parallel universe into which the reader can immerse herself (as till today, the majority of readers of novels are women) – but in a way that she can observer herself doing this from an eccentric vantage point.

Lokke also shows that de Staël’s Corinne – in whom she realises the enthusiastic eccentricity she theorised in the Influence of Passions – maintains detachment beyond the formalistic role in an passionate way (along the lines that Plessner saw as the move from ceremonialism to art). Like Diderot, de Staël’s Corinne rejects the total identification of actor and dramatic character, is all for a double-existence of person and role, but

it is the doubling of self that results form the exaltation that she believes  art alone can inspire rather than the more calculated repetition of coded gesture that characterizes Diderot’s pragmatic actors. (2004: 42)

This is important as it is evidence against Simmel’s notion that “female culture” is one of non-differentiation. While this is to an extent true (due to the exclusion from occupational role existence), it is also true that in Romantic culture, women have found innovative forms of detachment that may, in the end, prove to be fuller realisations of our anthropological potential than the ceremonial role existence of the modern occupational system. For Simmel, the fact that dramatic acting was, in his time, the most prominent field for female artistic expression, is just further proof of his non-differentiation thesis:

There is no art in which performance and totality of the personality is forged into such close unity (Simmel 1919: 279)[2]

Whereas, in fact, as Plessner points out (I repeat from the quote above)

an actor who gives himself over to his genuine feelings in order to make his part convincing loses evidence.

Finally, I also very much like the way Lokke delineates Romanticism by going back to Schiller’s notion of sentimental poetry in which, in her words

the appeal of the sentimental or the sublime is its ineffability which is that of the infinitely receding horizon (2004: 19)

… i.e. the occasionism Schmitt bemoans… (and that escaped Campbell’s attention).

[1] Lokke quotes de Staël’s 1776 The Influence of the Passions on the Happiness of Individuals and Nations from An Extraordinary Woman: Selected Writings of Germaine de Staël, New York: Columbia University Press 1987

[2] Es gibt keine Kunst, in der die Leistung und die Totalität der Persönlichkeit zu so enger Einheit verbunden sind.

[i] „Gesellschaft bejahen um der Gesellschaft willen, die ihr eignes Ethos, ihre eigene, der Gemeinschaft überlegene Größe hat, und einsehen lernen, daß eine unendlich zu steigernde Anspannung des Intellekts für die immergrößere Souveränität gegenüber der Natur verlangt ist, die Maschinen bejahen, an deren Sozialfolgen die Gegenwart leidet, die ganze Pflichtenlast der Zivilisation, wie sie das Abendland erfunden hat und ausbildet, um der wachsenden Spielmöglichkeiten, die sie bringt, auf sich nehmen, das ist die wahrhafte Stärke, auf die es ankommt.“ (Plessner 1981: 31f.)

[ii] „Daher billigt man unter dem Begriff der Rolle dem Menschen einen Abstand von seiner gesellschaftlichen Existenz zu, der etwas Tröstliches haben kann: der Mensch, der einzelne ist nie ganz das, was er ‚ist’. Als Angestellter oder Arzt, Politiker oder Kaufmann, als Ehemann oder Junggeselle, als Angehöriger seiner Generation und seines Volkes ist er doch immer ‚mehr’ als das, eine Möglichkeit, die sich in solchen Daseinsweisen nicht erschöpft und darin nicht aufgeht.“ (Plessner 1976: 66)

[iii] „Der Versenktheit in uns selbst, Kenn-zeichen der Personalität, entspricht eine Exteriorität im Verhältnis zu unserer leibhaften Figur, ide es uns ermöglicht, unseren Körper zum Mittel des Ausdrucks (und damit zur Quelle der Gefährdung seiner Echtheit, der Echtheit des Gefühls, das er vermittelt) zu machen. Die bekannte Erfahrung, daß der Schauspieler, welcher sich seinem echten Gefühl überläßt, um eine Rolle überzeugend zu machen, an Evidenz verliert, spiegelt die Gebrochen-heit der eigenen Erlebnisfähigkeit an der Mitteilungsfähigkeit unserer Gefühle.“ (Plessner 1983: 311)