SECRECY AND ADORNMENT – GEORG SIMMEL

The following is taken from the full text of “the Sociology of Georg Simmel,” translated by Kurt H. Wolff, and first published as “Exkurs über den Schmuck” in 1908

The vast majority of what Simmel says here is still quite relevant… with the exception of one fundament; see if you can find it. 

I pointed out earlier that the secret also operates as an adorning possession and value of the personality. This fact involves 
the contradiction that what recedes before the consciousness of
 the others and is hidden from them, is to be emphasized in their
 consciousness; that one should appear as a particularly note-
worthy person precisely through what one conceals. But this
 contradiction proves, not only that the need for sociological attention may indeed resort to intrinsically contradictory means, 
but also that those against whom the means are actually directed 
in the given case, satisfy this need by bearing the cost of the 
superiority. They do so with a mixture of readiness and dislike; but, in practice, they nevertheless supply the desired recognition. It may thus be appropriate to show that, although apparently the sociological counter-pole of secrecy, adornment has,
 in fact, a societal significance with a structure analogous to that 
of secrecy itself. It is the nature and function of adornment to 
lead the eyes of others upon the adorned. Although, in this 
sense, it is the antagonist of secrecy, not even the secret (it will
 be remembered) is without the function of personal emphasis.
 And this, adornment, too, exercises, by mixing superiority to 
others with dependence upon them, and their good will with
 their envy. It does so in a manner which, as a sociological form
 of interaction, requires its special investigation.

5. Adornment

Man’s desire to please his social environment contains two 
contradictory tendencies, in whose play and counter play in
general, the relations among individuals take their course. On
 the one hand, it contains kindness, a desire of the individual to 
give the other joy; but on the other hand, there is the wish for 
this joy and these “favors” to flow back to him, in the form of 
recognition and esteem, so that they be attributed to his personality as values. Indeed, this second need is so intensified that 
it militates against the altruism of wishing to please: by means
 of this pleasing, the individual desires to distinguish himself
before others, and to be the object of an attention that others do
 not receive. This may even lead him to the point of wanting to 
be envied. Pleasing may thus become a means of the will to 
power: some individuals exhibit the strange contradiction that 
they need those above whom they elevate themselves by life 
and deed, for they build their own self-feeling upon the sub
ordinates’ realization that they are subordinate.

The meaning of adornment finds expression in peculiar 
elaborations of these motives, in which the external and internal
 aspects of their forms are interwoven. This meaning is to single 
the personality out, to emphasize it as outstanding in some sense but not by means of power manifestations, not by anything
that externally compels the other, but only through the pleasure 
which is engendered in him and which, therefore, still has some 
voluntary element in it. One adorns oneself for oneself, but can
 do so only by adornment for others. It is one of the strangest
 sociological combinations that an act, which exclusively serves 
the emphasis and increased significance of the actor, nevertheless attains this goal just as exclusively in the pleasure, in the 
visual delight it offers to others, and in their gratitude. For 
even the envy of adornment only indicates the desire of the envious person to win like recognition and admiration for him-
self; his envy proves how much he believes these values to be 
connected with the adornment. Adornment is the egoistic element as such: it singles out its wearer, whose self-feeling it
em bodies and increases at the cost of others (for, the same adornment of all would no longer adorn the individual). But, at the
same time, adornment is altruistic: its pleasure is designed for 
the others, since its owner can enjoy it only insofar as he mirrors 
himself in them; he renders the adornment valuable only 
through the reflection of this gift of his. Everywhere, aesthetic 
formation reveals that life orientations, which reality juxtaposes
as mutually*alien, or even pits against one another as hostile, are,
 in fact, intimately interrelated. In the same way, the aesthetic 
phenomenon of adornment indicates a point within sociological interaction the arena of man’s being-for-himself and being-
for-the-other where these two opposite directions are mutually 
dependent as ends and means.

Adornment intensifies or enlarges the impression of the personality by operating as a sort of radiation emanating from it.
 For this reason, its materials have always been shining metals
and precious stones. They are “adornment” in a narrower sense 
than dress and coiffure, although these, too, “adorn.” One may
 speak of human radioactivity in the sense that every individual
is surrounded by a larger or smaller sphere of significance radiating from him; and everybody else, who deals with him, is immersed in this sphere. It is an inextricable mixture of physiological and psychic elements: the sensuously observable influences 
which issue from an individual in the direction of his environment also are, in some fashion, the vehicles of a spiritual fulguration. They operate as the symbols of such a fulguration even
where, in actuality, they are only external, where no suggestive
power or significance of the personality flows through them.
 The radiations of adornment, the sensuous attention it provokes,
 supply the personality with such an enlargement or intensification of its sphere: the personality, so to speak, is more when it is 
adorned.

Inasmuch as adornment usually is also an object of considerable value, it is a synthesis of the individual’s having and 
being; it thus transforms mere possession into the sensuous and
emphatic perceivability of the individual himself. This is not 
true of ordinary dress which, neither in respect of having nor 
of being, strikes one as an individual particularity; only the 
fancy dress, and above all, jewels, which gather the personality’s
 value and significance of radiation as if in a focal point, allow the
 mere having of the person to become a visible quality of its
being. And this is so, not although adornment is something 
”superfluous,” but precisely because it is. The necessary is much 
more closely connected with the individual; it surrounds his
 existence with a narrower periphery. The superfluous “flows
over,” that is, it flows to points which are far removed from its
 origin but to which it still remains tied: around the precinct of
 mere necessity, it lays a vaster precinct which, in principle, is 
limitless. According to its very idea, the superfluous contains 
no measure. The free and princely character of our being increases in the measure in which we add superfluousness to our 
having, since no extant structure, such as is laid down by necessity, imposes any limiting norm upon it.

This very accentuation of the personality, however, is 
achieved by means of an impersonal trait. Everything that
”adorns” man can be ordered along a scale in terms of its close-
ness to the physical body. The “closest” adornment is typical
 of nature peoples: tattooing. The opposite extreme is represented by metal and stone adornments, which are entirely unindividual and can be put on by everybody. Between these two
 stands dress, which is not so inexchangeable and personal as 
tattooing, but neither so un-individual and separable as jewelry, 
whose very elegance lies in its impersonality. That this nature
 of stone and metal solidly closed within itself, in no way alluding to any individuality; hard, unmodifiable is yet forced to
serve the person, this is its subtlest fascination. What is really 
elegant avoids pointing to the specifically individual; it always 
lays a more general, stylized, almost abstract sphere around man
 which, of course, prevents no finesse from connecting the
 general with the personality. That new clothes are particularly
 elegant is due to their being still “stiff”; they have not yet adjusted to the modifications of the individual body as fully as 
older clothes have, which have been worn, and are pulled and
 pinched by the peculiar movements of their wearer thus completely revealing his particularity. This “newness,” this lack
 of modification by individuality, is typical in the highest measure of metal jewelry: it is always new; in untouchable coolness,
 it stands above the singularity and destiny of its wearer. This is 
not true of dress. A long-worn piece of clothing almost grows to
the body; it has an intimacy that militates against the very 
nature of elegance, which is something for the “others,” a social
 notion deriving its value from general respect.

If jewelry thus is designed to enlarge the individual by adding something super-individual which goes out to all and is
 noted and appreciated by all, it must, beyond any effect that its 
material itself may have, possess style. Style is always something 
general. It brings the contents of personal life and activity into 
a form shared by many and accessible to many. In the case of 
a work of art, we are the less interested in its style, the greater
 the personal uniqueness and the subjective life expressed in it. 
For, it is with these that it appeals to the spectator’s personal 
core, too of the spectator who, so to speak, is alone in the whole
 world with this work of art. But of what we call handicraft 
which because of its utilitarian purpose appeals to a diversity of
 men we request a more general and typical articulation. We
 expect not only that an individuality with its uniqueness be
voiced in it, but a broad, historical or social orientation and 
temper, which make it possible for handicraft to be incorporated
 into the life-systems of a great many different individuals. It is
 the greatest mistake to think that, because it always functions 
as the adornment of an individual, adornment must be an individual work of art. Quite the contrary: because it is to serve 
the individual, it may not itself be of an individual nature as little as the piece of furniture on which we sit, or the eating 
utensil which we manipulate, may be individual works of art.
 The work of art cannot, in principle, be incorporated into an-
other life it is a self-sufficient world. By contrast, all that occupies the larger sphere around the life of the individual, must
 surround it as if in ever wider concentric spheres that lead back
 to the individual or originate from him. The essence of stylization is precisely this dilution of individual poignancy, this generalization beyond the uniqueness of the personality which, 
nevertheless, in its capacity of base or circle of radiation, carries 
or absorbs the individuality as if in a broadly flowing river. For
 this reason, adornment has always instinctively been shaped in
 a relatively severe style.

Besides its formal stylization, the material means of its social 
purpose is its brilliance. By virtue of this brilliance, its wearer 
appears as the center of a circle of radiation in which every close-
by person, every seeing eye, is caught. As the flash of the precious 
stone seems to be directed at the other like the lightning of
the glance the eye addresses to him it carries the social meaning
 of jewels, the being-for-the-other, which returns to the subject
 as the enlargement of his own sphere of significance. The radii 
of this sphere mark the distance which jewelry creates between 
men “I have something which you do not have.” But, on the
other hand, these radii not only let the other participate: they 
shine in his direction; in fact, they exist only for his sake. By 
virtue of their material, jewels signify, in one and the same act, 
an increase in distance and a favor.

For this reason, they are of such particular service to vanity 
which needs others in order to despise them. This suggests the 
profound difference which exists between vanity and haughty
 pride: pride, whose selfconsciousness really rests only upon 
itself, ordinarily disdains “adornment” in every sense of the
word. A word must also be added here, to the same effect, on
the significance of “genuine” material. The attraction of the
”genuine,” in all contexts, consists in its being more than its 
immediate appearance, which it shares with its imitation. Un-
like its falsification, it is not something isolated; it has its roots 
in a soil that lies beyond its mere appearance, while the un-
authentic is only what it can be taken for at the moment. The “genuine” individual, thus, is the person on whom one can
rely even when he is out of one’s sight. In the case of jewelry, 
this more-than-appearance is its value, which cannot be guessed 
by being looked at, but is something that, in contrast to skilled 
forgery, is added to the appearance. By virtue of the fact that 
this value can always be realized, that it is recognized by all, tha t
it possesses a relative timelessness, jewelry becomes part of a
super-contingent, super-personal value structure. Talmi-gold
and similar trinkets are identical with what they momentarily
do for their wearer; genuine jewels are a value that goes beyond 
this; they have their roots in the value ideas of the whole social
 circle and are ramified through all of it. Thus, the charm and
 the accent they give the individual who wears them, feed on this
 super-individual soil. Their genuineness makes their aesthetic
 value which, too, is here a value “for the others” a symbol 
of general esteem, and of membership in the total social value
system.

There once existed a decree in medieval France which prohibited all persons below a certain rank to wear gold ornaments.
 The combination which characterizes the whole nature of adornment unmistakably lives in this decree: in adornment, the socio-
logical and Aesthetic emphasis upon the personality fuses as if
 in a focus; being-for-oneself and being-for-others become reciprocal cause and effect in it. Aesthetic excellence and the right to
charm and please, are allowed, in this decree, to go only to a
point fixed by the individual’s social sphere of significance. It is 
precisely in this fashion that one adds, to the charm which adornment gives one’s whole appearance, the sociological charm of 
being, by virtue of adornment, a representative of one’s group,
 with whose whole significance one is “adorned.” It is as if the
 significance of his status, symbolized by jewels, returned to the 
individual on the very beams which originate in him and en-
large his sphere of impact. Adornment, thus, appears as the
 means by which his social power or dignity is transformed into
visible, personal excellence.

Centripetal and centrifugal tendencies, finally, appear to 
be fused in adornment in a specific form, in the following 
information. Among nature peoples, it is reported, women’s
 private property generally develops later than that of men and, originally, and often exclusively, refers to adornment. By contrast, the personal property of the male usually begins with 
weapons. This reveals his active and more aggressive nature: 
the male enlarges his personality sphere without waiting for
 the will of others. In the case of the more passive female nature,
 this result although formally the same in spite of all external 
differences depends more on the others’ good will. Every property is an extension of personality; property is that which obeys 
our wills, that in which our egos express, and externally realize,
 themselves. This expression occurs, earliest and most completely,
 in regard to our body, which thus is our first and most unconditional possession. In the adorned body, we possess more; if we 
have the adorned body at our disposal, we are masters over more 
and nobler things, so to speak. It is, therefore, deeply significant
 that bodily adornment becomes private property above all: It 
expands the ego and enlarges the sphere around us which is 
filled with our personality and which consists in the pleasure and
the attention of our environment. This environment looks with
 much less attention at the unadorned (and thus as if less “expanded”) individual, and passes by without including him. The 
fundamental principle of adornment is once more revealed in
 the fact that, under primitive conditions, the most outstanding 
possession of women became that which, according to its very 
idea, exists only for others, and which can intensify the value 
and significance of its wearer only through the recognition that 
flows back to her from these others. In an aesthetic form, adornment creates a highly specific synthesis of the great convergent
 and divergent forces of the individual and society, namely, the 
elevation of the ego through existing for others, and the elevation of existing for others through the emphasis and extension of 
the ego. This aesthetic form itself stands above the contrasts between individual human strivings. They find, in adornment,
 not only the possibility of undisturbed simultaneous existence,
 but the possibility of a reciprocal organization that, as anticipation and pledge of their deeper metaphysical unity, transcends
 the disharmony of their appearance.

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