The aesthetic foundation of the relational approach: Georg Simmel as a critical thinker

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In the question about the conditions of emergence of a social knowledge with a relational perspective, Georg Simmel takes a very central position. It was him who expressed the need for sociology to address those little threads that are constantly weaving the fabric of reciprocal interdependence that characterizes modern societies dominated by monetary exchange. However, this historical root of the relational feature in his thought does not imply that Simmel’s perspective can be reduced to a mere beautified copy of economic exchange. His particular mode of criticism is neither placed in the court of accusations, nor diluted in a sensitively affected contemplation which reproduces images or copies the social reality.

Nevertheless, saving Simmel from aestheticism does not mean ignoring his aesthetic concern, but relocating it, finding a new way to understand its relation with his sociology. Through another reading of the aesthetic origin of Simmel’s cognitive perspective, it is possible to recover the critical feature from the concepts of the Berlin sociologist which could be missed on first reading like the strokes of a modernist brush, just like the classical interpretation that David Frisby proposes. The difference between this reading and Frisby´s is subtle, but central in order to consider the actuality of Simmelian thought, in a present in which the reticular connectivity of media and aesthetization through consumption have become the new modalities of cultural reproduction of the capitalist economic system.

Certainly, it is a thought that works with images, but Simmelian images always carry a tension, which is also an artistic heritage. This tension is what allows us to distinguish them from both an aesthetic thought and a mere metaphysical projection (which is the way in which Theodor Adorno had interpreted Simmel’s “aesthetic formalism”). In all of his works about paintings or sculptures there is an analysis of them as images that have a special capacity to combine those things which in the modern world are separated, without dissolving the dualisms.

In the essay of 1895, “Landscapes of Böcklin”, a path of unity formed by an interweaving of opposites was already present. The mood – Stimmung – of these landscapes would be given by their ability to both bind their spirit and nature and, at the same time, to make them confront each other. In the later essay about Michelangelo, the ability to find unity in each of his human figures is highlighted as an emphasis of the individuality of the figures within humanity´s general form. His sculptures are compounded in the tension between the physical force of gravity that drives the bodies down and the spiritual force that tends to go upwards. That is why Simmel claims that struggle is the form of unity in these sculptures.

What the everyday eye perceives in fragments is what the artistic image can unite, in the case of artists like Rembrandt or Rodin in the form of vitality of duration or movement. An heir to the romantic tradition, through Goethe, Simmel argues that art makes the promise of wholeness in a world of fragmentation.

However, it is not an ecstatic knowledge about the absolute that art enables, but a knowledge about immanence,     about life as absolute. Art, therefore, assumes this feature: unity that does not undermine antagonism, but is produced through it. In the human faces of Rembrandt, in the sculptures of Rodin and Michelangelo, and in the landscapes of Böcklin, unity is produced, not as a pre-synthetic form, identical to itself, but as an oscillatory movement or, in light of Simmel’s definitive orientation towards vitalism, as tension between opposites.

The value of these artistic images is that they achieve what everyday perception cannot do: they compose a unity between the fragments that modernity keeps separating tragically. Art’s ability to bring together what everyday vision separates is what cognitive images inherit from art. Therefore, the critical character of Simmelian sociology, which seeks to act upon the threatening speed of urban visual exchanges and the tragedy of modern culture behind it, would have an aesthetic origin. The capacity to contain the dualisms and tensions of Simmelian sociological images is inherited from that capacity for artistic images. That capacity is, after all, a productive means of vision that produces units in tension and does not copy or reproduce the historical fragments which it encounters.

In the fields of both knowledge and art, the eye practices its double capacity – passive and active – to receive fragments and shape a wholeness. That capacity is numbed in the experience of individuals in big cities, establishing a very different relationship with the images. Vision is passive in urban life; it only receives the unstopping flow of fragmentary images of the other individuals and the objective culture.

Therefore, a relational sociology with an aesthetic root, like Simmel’s, preserves its critical strength while composing images that bind what society keeps separating. This relational perspective allows, for example, a consideration of the exacerbated individualism and the interconnectivity, which characterize contemporary societies, as related phenomena. A relational sociology would not imply the mere representation of the many relationships in which we are immersed. It would rather imply the composition of an image that allows us to see either the relationship between antagonistic tendencies, or the tense feature of the relations that occur “as if” they were a pre-synthetic unit. Insisting on that tension between individual and society, which exists even in the interconnection of contemporary societies, constitutes the critical horizon of a relational perspective.

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