Imagine walking mile after mile, never seeing a single indication of human life. After hours or even days of walking, a sign appears on the horizon. Would one's attention not be irresistibly drawn towards it? After such an absence of humanity, this lone artifact would seem incredibly significant. But by itself and without context, we cannot imagine what its meaning might be. It is significant to us only as a mystery.
But what happens when our solitary observer and sign are joined by others? Add to our scene buildings and crossroads. Populate the buildings with both people and our various animal companions. Our lone figure is no longer alone. Our senses reel from the onslaught of impressions. Nostrils are stimulated by car exhaust, restaurants, and garbage. Distant jackhammering competes with motor traffic and the ambient buzz. Alter egos come into view, each of whom is moving through their own quotidian routes and looking through their own eyes. Does such a place sound familiar?
What of our first, lonely sign? Where has it gone in the glut that we are surrounded by? Do we think of it differently than when it stood alone? I think we must. The lone sign has simultaneously become less important while becoming enriched by its myriad associations with other objects - those same objects that diminish its relative importance to the observer.
Living in an environment such as New York makes me wonder how being surrounded by uncountable signs shapes the way we live. How does the metropolitan excess of people and things both change perceptions of our surroundings and our relationships with one another?
Simmel describes for us the metropolitan type. Surrounded by the relentless sensory onslaught living in the city brings, the metropolitan forms a sort of 'protective organ' around itself. The city as the center of the money economy works in concert with what he calls an 'intellectualistic' mindset. This mindset treats people and things as interchangable, quantifiable entities. Whereas emotional relationships depend on the individuality of the actors involved, the metropolitan cannot connect emotionally with everyone they must interact with. Becoming indifferent to the distinctions between things, the metropolitan adapts what Simmel calls a blasé attitude.
Don for a moment the blasé attitude and remember our lone sign. Blasé eyes can see the rich connections between the sign and its context. But these rich connections no longer matter. Whereas thought on the lone sign ended futilely in mystery, contemplation of the sign-in-context might not even begin because of blasé disregard. The metropole shuts out the cacophony of the multitude by adopting the pose of reserve and dulling sensitivity to distinctions.
All of this leads us back to a very old problem. If we are not satisfied with either the poverty of the lone sign or the incomprehensibility of the totality of signs, what if any alternative is there to the grayness of the blasé outlook?