Saturday, December 3, 2011
Georg Simmel's "The Stranger"
Hilary Philips has pointed out to me the similarities between my last post and some ideas in Georg Simmel's 1908 essay "The Stranger," which I had not read before. Simmel writes of a stranger who does not come and leave, but rather one who comes and stays. He continues:
"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..."
Further, "The stranger, like the poor and like sundry "inner enemies," is an element of the group itself. His position as a full-fledged member involves both being outside it and confronting it".
Speaking of the nature of trade, which involves contact with the outside from a fixed point inside a society, Simmel notes that, "the classical example is the history of European Jews. The stranger is by nature no 'owner of soil'--soil not only in the physical, but also in the figurative sense of a life-substance which is fixed, if not in a point in space, at least in an ideal point of the social environment. Although in more intimate relations, he may develop all kinds ofcharm and significance, as long as he is considered a stranger in the eyes of the other, he is not an owner of soil."
But, it is just this strangeness which determines his power in the society, the stranger's "objectivity" and freedom: “Another expression of this constellation lies in the objectivity of the stranger. He is not radically committed to the unique ingredients and peculiar tendencies of the group, and therefore approaches them with the specific attitude of "objectivity." But objectivity does not simply involve passivity and detachment; it is a particular structure composed of distance and nearness, indifference and involvement...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. The freedom, however, which allows the stranger to experience and treat even his close relationships as though from a bird's-eye view, contains many dangerous possibilities. In uprisings of all sorts, the party attacked has claimed, from the beginning of things, that provocation has come from the outside, through emissaries and instigators. Insofar as this is true, it is an exaggeration of the specific roleof the stranger: he is freer practically and theoretically; he surveys conditions with less prejudice; his criteria for them are more general and more objective ideals; he is not tied down in his action by habit, piety, and precedent.”
From Kurt Wolff (Trans.) The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950, pp. 402 - 408.