- The End of Strangers and the End of Intermediation
Being a stranger is the universal condition of modernity. Simmel, like many of his fellow sociologists and Germans at the end of the twentieth century, was riveted by the question of what the new era of trains, light, cities, and money had in store for humanity; but following his anti-positivism and Weberian tendency to look for ideal types, he grasped this change through the emblematic figure of the stranger. Why was the stranger such a key figure of modernity? One reason may lie in Simmel's biography. Although both Simmel's parents had converted to Christianity, he was not able to secure a stable position at the university, largely because he was perceived by others as a Jew. He was, so to speak, forced to be a stranger. Being an outsider from within was the familiar experience of assimilated, modern Jews, a position that turned them into the observers and analysts of the structures that simultaneously accepted them and excluded them.
The second reason that the stranger has much to do with modernity is connected to the enormous fluxes of immigration at the end of the nineteenth century. Simmel could not have been unaware that by 1908, the publication date of the collection of essays in which "The Stranger" appears, the largest part of the 2.5 million Eastern European Jews who would immigrate from 1880 until 1924 to the United States had started a new life on the continent. To be sure, many or most of them lived in insalubrious conditions and poor neighborhoods, but they found a country in which they could live, trade, and exercise their religion without the threat of pogroms (which is not to say that antisemitism did not exist in the U.S.).
A third reason that the stranger is the key figure of modernity has to do with the enormous development of cities at the end of the nineteenth century. The metropolis—about which Simmel wrote a memorable essay—became a social matrix whose greatness and danger was its capacity to transform people into indifferent strangers to one another, strangers who were no longer [End Page 297] integrated into a psychic economy of hatred, fear, and mistrust. The indifferent stranger has proved to be the main social character of modernity.
Simmel thus implicitly opposed two forms of strangeness: one that was unassimilable to Christianity; and a new form of strangeness enabled by the burgeoning secular (or quasi-secular) cities and nation-states, in which the hard boundaries of groups were starting to dissolve. The nation-state not only tolerated but encouraged the perpetual creation of strangers, as millions of peasants throughout Europe left the countryside and migrated to urban centers and as fluxes of population within Europe reshaped the human landscape of cities. This is why the stranger was a figure of intermediation between the state and other states, as well as between social groups constituting a society.
Such a modern stranger is the synthesis of nearness and distance. The stranger does not belong to the dominant religion, does not speak the local language, may dress differently, or may eat differently; yet he becomes part of the local social fabric through abstract and impersonal modern intermediaries such as money and the city. For Simmel, the trader is indeed the paradigmatic stranger because he is the node for the circulation of money and of commodities that were destined, until the end of the nineteenth century, mostly for city dwellers. At the end of the century, the notion of the "trader" and the "stranger" might have been a code word for Jews. As described by Simmel, the stranger had all the outer appearances and inner characteristics of the Jew.
The Simmelian stranger is an "indifferent stranger," a stranger that was no longer threatening a thick cultural tissue of churches, communities, and tightly bound groups. This is because the modern nation-state was unknowingly promoting three key properties of modernity: abstractness, freedom, and cities—the three key themes of Simmel's sociology. Abstraction of forms of life (bureaucracy, for example), freedom (enabled by the free circulation of goods and money, for example), and...