why do we feel free only in small social circles? why is the global society such an uncomfortable place? and how should thinking about words and images help? let’s look at one word and some images.
the german word Gemütlichkeit has a questionable status of describing something specific german, or being a descriptive term that the german language came up with that has too many materialist preconditions to be translatable. it is a word that establishes a concept of feeling comfortable with others.
one should maybe not associate too much positive potential with it, since the existence of a most specific german expression for comfortable co-existance could be seen in the light of the historic german way of feeling comfortable with other humans: the exclusion of everything that felt other and the reduction of humanity to those of own identity, of the collective of the german volk. the dialectic of enlightenment means here, that while human culture claimed to be on a certain way to equality with its progress of culture, in germany it came up with a total negation of freedom, with the exclusion and murder of everything not-german. the german word Gemütlichkeit doesn‘t come from this time, but certainly it illustrates the split in human culture very well: while the germans felt comfortable in their houses, their neighbours were deported. one could identify Gemütlichkeit with this blindness towards excluded groups, as long as the own group remains untouched. the word itself predates to the 13th and 14th century though, before the epoch of enlightenment. whilst the concrete freedom of the germans that used this word needs special condemnation, this text shows that any idea of exclusive freedom needs to be condemnd, and that maybe a word that describes social freedom is a good starting point for thoughts on the global society.
the preconditions that make it seem untranslatable can be summed up easily. it is a word that holds in itself the material conditions of the social and links them to the realm of sentiment. it’s not only feeling comfortable, but feeling comfortable in conditions. in that sense it’s less than feeling comfortable as such, it’s having a concrete postive feeling of the surroundings, the feeling that the surroundings are, almost actively, comfortable towards one. so it’s a conceptual word. yet, all words are conceptual. and this is what this essay strives on, to work with a word, that seems to be so complex, like an image, that it resists translation.
some images should show a certain ambivalence that this concept includes. a viewing:
this first image shows the social connotation of Gemütlichkeit. while these rocks don‘t look too comfortable to users of chairs, we see that these people have their individual spaces and still are able to communicate. space is shared.
this second image shows the ambivalence of the social. society doesn‘t automatically mean comfortable communication. the competition of isolated individuals means some feel free in their identity and others get lost in the process. to dissolve the identities into post-individual collectivity is not the only negation of these competitive processes. there also remains a space between, not collaborating and not competing, to denounce the idea of productivity and to claim an agile association with the association itself as the only aim. to have a collaborative existence not for having a profit, but for having existences and collaborations outside the idea of profit. also this image brings up the idea of deviance, to act outside the norm can claim comfort, even if the act itself seemed to aim at finding adventure. people who are bored seek entertainment, and will find lots of it without deviant behavior in mass culture. but people who feel uncomfortable with this mass culture will find their comfort in deviant communities, something that seems adventurous. so the initial decision was not so much to seek adventure, but more one of seeking social comfort, of Gemütlichkeit.
the community for itself, outside society, that can easily be felt in these images, is also a trap. a politics which defends something just because it feels good is itself guilty of not speaking of the surroundings of the comfortable community. the process that was mentioned before, that individuals succeed in competition and liberate themselves on the costs of others, can be transported also to the actions of collectives. the degree of them feeling good marks in the same time how much they won in the competition. it’s a luxury to feel good in a competitive society, and it feels even better in companionship. and since it is not possible under present social conditions to feel good with the global human society, we found a limit of the concept.
while one part of humanity gets presented with a competitive concept of individuality and cooperation, the others are denied even these (e.g. workers still under slave-like conditions without workers rights). this injustice of course has to be dissolved in one direction: claim the luxury of comfortable togetherness for all. this legitimates working with these concepts, it makes the most sense to talk about freedom when it is denied.
Gemütlichkeit doesn‘t mean collectivity and also not freedom. maybe it is a useful concept to use, in order to find in an image what we can associate as a social context. social context meaning: in abstraction of particular social events, with humanity. this then would mean, that it is not a precarious status outside society or ahead of competition, but an anchor in a precarious society. some examples of such constellations could be: sharing a space and feeling a status between alone and together, to help each other without aiming at reward or even any action in trade, to feel close without having the feeling to loose oneself (in the sense of opening up completely) or without asking for others to open up completely (which is in any ways a strange and illusionist idea), to deny the idea of absolute understanding, and to reclaim the idea of communication from those that think that free communication is possible under the doctrine of market competition.
Gemütlichkeit also denounces other doctrines of society, for example the doctrine of the primacy of sexuality and reproduction. the only primacy of Gemütlichkeit is the consensus of comfort. this once again show the limits of the concept, it is limited to more or less immediate presence. the absent are excluded, which easily leads to exclusive communities. but to reflect on the limitations of the concept in the way that is done here would mean to reinclude the absent as the precondition of any social event. talking about social groups that feel Gemütlichkeit in contrast to humanity, which is not able to feel this, leaves us with a pretty exact idea of this concept and the limits of social events or presence.
what is touched in us when we feel comfortable with other humans is our sense of being part of humanity. which sounds simple and obvious. but don‘t forget that often we have to feel part of humanity by feeling uncomfortable, in competition, feeling guilty for victims of competition or getting declared superfluous for the social process by loosing in the competition. the feeling is linked to the presence of one, two or more others, but not to an immediacy with each other human, with whole humanity. this limitation can be transformed into an ambivalence: feeling together, but not unified. to feel the concrete connection with the abstraction as something comfortable is what shall be grasped with this text. these precarious moments of feeling alone in presence, or connected in moving ambivalence, free association instead of collectivizing unification.
the concept of Gemütlichkeit refers to a feeling. this feeling can be defined as presence of something diffuse, that becomes concrete in the liberation of identity. not to see oneself as strictly bordered from others anymore, but also not loosing oneself into the abstraction. it’s not yet the conciliation of these two poles, but a metaphor for it. in finding a poetic metaphor, we also accredit the limitations of this mode of freedom. and through that we make the deficit of any positive reference to the idea of freedom tangible.
in doing this we also get to grasp the hope for other conditions, that would allow other more far-reaching conciliations of the whole and the particular. what we found now is not a norm to judge the quality of social events, but to find the limits of one image of sociality. what constitutes these limits?
the ratio of social experiences is marked by the rationality by which the members of society cooperate and cultivate, how they communicate its culture. which means under present conditions of the primacy of profit that society organizes itself in markets. other doctrines were mentioned in this text before (like the one of reproduction, sexuality), we want to sum them up as ideologies and identities all leading astray of the primacy of humanity. ideologies like productivity or industrial progress, or more specific ideas like the invisible hand of the market. they replace and overlay the primacy of the well-being of all humans, the test which all these ideologies and identities have to pass. Gemütlichkeit is presented as an ideological identity of social particularity that bears in itself means of contradiction that give us room for thinking outside of it. this is presented to give momentum to this way of thinking, and not to present a normative description of potential retreats of freedom.
the conditions of the whole don‘t disappear when focusing on a partiality. this also means that we cannot envision a concept of freedom that is not touched by the totality of society and its rationalities. by focusing a word that is an image, a concept, we do so to show what the limitations of that concept are. when we search for the limitations of a concept, we recall the history of the concept and find the boundary of history itself, which means finding history. or in other words: when we find the limitation of freedom, we find the historical development of freedom. in putting the image of Gemütlichkeit next to other forms of association, we denounce those who are even more far of freedom. this is what we set in this sense: in a gathering around burning books, all positive potential of Gemütlichkeit is lost, when we can read from books to each other, it gets comfortable in a way that is interesting for our debate.
so while images let us loose time and mediate a feeling of immediateness, we can use these conceptual images to enframe the perception with history. this process grasps the moment when we find a phrasing for what points out of an image. neither forward nor backwards to an ideal, but back towards an idealized experience. this moment that makes think, not on the social conditions of the crafting of the image, but on the social conditions of the thought and the conditions of the formulation and through that the social condition of the moments that we remember and idealise through reimagination.
this text is meant as an experiment in opening up a concept. we take a term with all its history, put it in the context of todays global society, find it’s ideological meaning and through that it’s limitations in comparison to freedom. this formation of thought is then reflected on to find concepts beyond the criticism of the initial concept. it would be easy to say: Gemütlichkeit is a luxury of those in the trap of a neither really cooperative nor really individualist freedom in a competitive market society. but this would be to reduce antagonisms in society to the pure idea of exclusion and inclusion, contrary to which this text claimed that the antagonisms go through everything, even our thoughts.