the place of women II: A digression

In the Philosophy of Money, Georg Simmel speaks of money as the “absolute tool”. Simmel begins with one of those foundation stories with which philosophy is littered - the baby who sees his mother point, the man on the deserted island, the two men handing each other tools and instructions. In this story, the stress falls upon the disparity between what an individual wants of another individual and what he has to trade for it. What this situation is supposed to show us is that, in the encounter of the two individuals, everything is too personal. They are too much themselves, they are persons whose qualities require some intermediary to make them collaborate, to make them less personal one with the other. In this encounter, the peculiarities and situations of both individuals are highly pertinent – they are, so to speak, rooted in their situations. They are, one could say, the prisoners of their own authenticity. Simmel postulates that what is required, here, is some third, some intermediary, some absolute means that will enable these situations to interrelate. And in so doing, that means will uproot them. This might not seem to be the obvious result of money, the absolute means. It turns out, however, that money does change the situation of the men not only in regards to their relation to each other, but in regards to their identity with their situations. Their places. Which have been constructed so far on the premise of opposition, and which now encounter the social symbol of absolute indifferent. It is this indifference to what it is a means to, this openendedness to ends, that makes money such an absolute and finally subversive means.

As we fall into the habit, then, of thinking not of the ends, but in terms of this means, money begins to penetrate other social niches. It is the “nature of the instrument to persist through its individual applications or to be called into service in a generally not foreseeable number of occasions.” And this, Simmel thinks, is the secret of the dominance of money: “Out of this particular value of money, its complete lack of connection to all things and moments of time, its complete renunciation of any proper end on its own behalf, the abstraction that derives from it mediate character, flows the superior weight of that which money offers over that which the commodity offers.”

Now, it is under the sign of its penetration into all spheres, as a pure instrument, and its domination of commodities, as being disconnected ideally from all situations – from production itself – that Simmel introduces the effect of money on the style of modern life. Of the style of life, Simmel gives an account that emphasizes the ‘circle’ as the essential community form:

"One of the most common images under which the organization of the substance of life is made clear is its assimilation into a circle, in the center of which stands the actual ‘I’. There is a mode of relationship between this I and the things, people, ideas and interests that we can only designate as the distance between both. An as far as we deal with an object it can, remaining substantially unchanged, come near to the center or be pushed back to the periphery of our range of vision and circle of interest; but this doesn’t effect, for instance, the fact that our inner relationship to this object is changed, but just the inverse, we can designate certain relations of the I to its contents only through the intuitive symbol of a specific or changing distance between both.” These distances are not separated for the I from the object, in other words, but “according to its distance from our organs - differences not only of clearness, but of quality and of the whole character of the felt image – it is easy to extend this symbolization therein that the differences even of inner relations to the things are interpreted as differences of distance to it. (My translation)

To get near a thing, in other words, symbolizes a stage in the understanding of a thing. To be “near” a person is to be in a particular relationship with a person. In the world picture given to us by science, Simmel says, this relation of near and far is displaced from its instinctive, or at least traditional, coordinates: our instruments for getting near – like the microscope or the telescope – at the same time tell us how far we are from the objects we are pointing at. How far I am from the piece of skin that, under the microscope, I see is a much different looking thing than the skin that I thought I was as near to as… my own skin. Accordingly, “the anthropomorphizing of nature leaves us, in the subjective perspective, after the side of the feelings and of the, as always, misleading beliefs, a littler distance between men and things that we have at present.” And in this double process, Simmel says, money plays a role.

I’ll return to what that role is after I interpose some excerpts from Rousseau that continue the theme we began to see take shape under Morgenstern’s suggestion about the place of women, or rather, a woman, Julie, in the autarky of Clarens. Though Morgenstern doesn’t mention Simmel, I think the Philosophy of Money gives us an appropriate framework within which to see more clearly why Rousseau’s heroines end unhappily – and more generally, why women, in the moment that they are set in their place, collapse a whole ideology of places.