Georg Simmel

Thinking about Noise: Simmel and DeLillo


William Hogarth depicts a noisy London in The Enraged Musician (1741).

In the next few posts, I will highlight some of the many ways writers have approached the phenomenon of noise. I begin today by turning back to the beginning of the twentieth century with Georg Simmel’s famous 1903 essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life.”

Georg_SimmelIn his essay, Simmel observes how humans’ senses have adapted to specific environments over time. As people moved from the countryside to the modern metropolis, for instance, they had to develop physically and mentally to withstand the city’s constant external stimuli. Simmel explains that the metropolitan’s body gradually builds a “protective organ” that counters “the profound disruption with which the fluctuations and discontinuities of the external milieu threaten it” (12). In other words, the organ literally shields metropolitans from the external city’s innumerable sights, sounds, and smells.  This organ is necessary in an environment marked by constant sensory overload, for if metropolitans tried to perceive everything they encountered, they’d quickly become overwhelmed (and certainly accomplish nothing).