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  • The Stranger as a Threshold Figure
  • Amos Morris-Reich

Given its subject and Georg Simmel's background, one would think that Simmel's excursus "The Stranger" (1908) and Jewish history could easily be brought into sustained conversation. Widely thought to be the most original social thinker of the turn of the twentieth century in Germany, Simmel was of Jewish descent. In "The Stranger," he refers to European Jews as the "classic example" of this social type. The excursus became a landmark in twentieth-century social theory and sociology.

In practice, however, "The Stranger" and Jewish history have developed along two separate intellectual trajectories, and attempts to bring them together are frequently met by indifference or resistance by Jewish historians and Simmel scholars alike. While the former have no need for Simmel's short and indirect account to confirm the association between Jews and strangers, anyone minimally versed in Simmel's writings recognizes the impervious border between the social type of the stranger and actual Jews. Any suggestion to the contrary betrays an elementary misunderstanding of Simmel's perspective.1 Even when contextually expected or required—perhaps due to what each side takes as implied—this barrier remains impenetrable. Bringing the two together can nonetheless reveal a "Spinozist moment" with regard to Simmel and "The Stranger" as a subversive threshold figure.

Possibly more than any of Simmel's other writings, "The Stranger" can be read as a queering of his own sociological theory, revealing a moment [End Page 314] of liminality in Jewish history. "Queering" is a helpful term here because, while the mental image of the stranger subconsciously fixed in the cultural imagination is generally not gender-neutral, the subversive quality of "The Stranger" stands out prominently in light of contemporary discussions of sex and gender.

This liminality is evinced when we read "The Stranger" with the question of Jewish "strangeness" in mind. Of what does the "strangeness" of the stranger consist? Rather than embodying Christian theological supersessionism, racial/antisemitic doctrine, the gaze of the Other and its internalization by Jews, or Zionism's rejection of Jewish exile as an unnatural anomaly, the stranger belongs exclusively to society (in the singular) due to the interaction between individuals. Simmel's epistemology rules out any reduction of Jews as strangers to essentialist, naturalist terms.2

"The Stranger" appears to destabilize this orthodox Simmelian reading, however. Given that Simmel was the first to establish a notion of sociology free from reliance on preexisting collectivities such as nation, race, or ethnicity, Simmel scholars have learned to ignore or explain away moments that contravene this reading. The most famous lines in the excursus, for example, characterize the stranger by contrasting him—and thereby tying him together—with the wanderer: "The stranger is thus being discussed here, not in the sense often touched upon in the past, as the wanderer who comes today and goes tomorrow, but rather as the person who comes today and stays tomorrow."3 These playful, poetic, and deeply ironic lines not only suggest a social "in" and "out" but also hint at organic differences between autochthonous members of society and late arrivers, granting the latter a degree of permanency. They also seem to imply that another society, place, and time exist where the stranger was, is, or could be more naturally at home. From an orthodox point of view, this is pure blasphemy.

Simmel scholars who have noted these tensions and ambiguities tend to explain them in terms of the essay's history. Forming part of the ninth chapter of the Soziologie (1908), it constitutes a short and hastily written detour [End Page 315] in a chapter dealing with space and the spatial dimensions of social organization.4 For no obvious reason, it was translated into English (and other languages), whereupon it gained a life of its own. Reprinted numerous times, it has become a social-theory classic, serving as the cornerstone of the sociological paradigm known as the "marginal man," developed by scholars at the University of Chicago.

The tensions can also be read as puncturing a purified interpretation of Simmel's sociology. Although a social type, organic—racial, biological, genetic—elements irreducible to the formal theory...


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pp. 314-317
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