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  • Editor's Introduction Rethinking Georg Simmel's "The Stranger" in an Age of Strangeness
  • David N. Myers

In the uncertain days in which we live, as pandemic rages, temperatures rise, and authoritarians seethe, the "stranger" has reappeared with full force around the world. The United Nations counts nearly 80 million forcibly displaced people in the world today1—individuals who are in places where they are not welcome and do not feel welcome themselves. Over the last few years, the list of those held responsible for the woes of the world has grown long: immigrants, people of color, Muslims, Syrians, Afghans, Eritreans, Mexicans, and LGBTQ people. They are often deemed strangers to societies in which they, in fact, are indigenous or at least natively familiar with the local language and culture.

This status of proximate strangers is quite familiar to students of Jewish history, for Jews have often assumed this exact role. They have felt compelled to prove their antiquity in countries in which their forebears lived for centuries, even millennia. Even in today's world of illiberalism, plague, and natural disaster, the accusation of Jewish disloyalty and strangeness has been revived. Jews are rootless, beholden to their own, devoted only to Israel, or loyal only if they vote Republican.

In light of the current moment, it is propitious to revisit the famous 1908 excursus of Georg Simmel in this forum. Akin to Kafka's "Before the Law" (1915), Simmel's meditation "The Stranger" was a brief fragment that became part of a larger book. And similar to Kafka's piece, "The Stranger" is filled with competing sensibilities that call to mind the Maimonidean aphorism that the gates of interpretation always remain open. Part of the interpretive intrigue in "The Stranger," as in "Before the Law," is to ponder how equivalent Simmel's notion is to the Jew, who is mentioned in passing on but two occasions (in the latter case, in a discussion of the irony that the most [End Page 289] impermanent residents of medieval Frankfurt, the Jews, were uniquely levied a fixed tax).

The excursus begins with this formulation: "If wandering is the liberation from every given point in space, and thus the conceptual opposite to fixation at such a point, the sociological form of the 'stranger' presents the unity, as it were, of these two characteristics." It is important to recall that Simmel was among the founders in 1909 of the German Society for Sociology (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie), along with Max Weber and Friedrich Tönnies. Tönnies had already gained renown for his 1887 book Gesellschaft und Gemeinschaft, in which he compared the organic nature of premodern, family-based society to the more atomized, technologically advanced modern world. Simmel shared with Tönnies a desire to analyze the alienated universe of modernity, symbolized by the stranger caught between wandering and fixation, between "nearness and remoteness." He shared with Weber an attempt to capture, in the form of the modern stranger, an ideal type that would become a fundament of German sociological research of the early twentieth century. And he, whose parents had converted from Judaism, shared with Kafka a deep engagement with the modern condition of liminality of which the Jew was emblematic.

Unlike the wanderer of the past who "comes today and leaves tomorrow," Simmel's stranger is "the person who comes today and stays tomorrow." The import of revisiting this figure is, at least, threefold: first, it allows us to piece together a genealogy of the stranger in modern society in order to remind ourselves that while the scale and pace of human alienation may be different today, its presence and form are not; second, it offers us an opportunity to explore, as Paul Mendes-Flohr did forty years ago, the method for studying those whom Isaac Deutscher memorably called "non-Jewish Jews";2 and third, it is an invitation to revisit important concepts and apparent antinomies that have stimulated, challenged, and provoked modern sociological, philosophical, and historical discourse since the early twentieth century.

The forum opens with Vivian Liska's staging of the tension between "proximity and distance" in Simmel's "Stranger." In attempting to apply his insight to...


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pp. 289-292
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