On Spheres

On Spheres

1999-03-15
Spharen I: Blasen
Spharen I: Blasen
Frankfurt-am-Main: Surkamp, 1999.

Luca Di Blasi reads Peter Sloterdijk straight.
Translation by Chris Thomas

Few recent philosophical publications have been as widely discussed in recent years, few as gleefully torn apart, as Peter Sloterdijk’s long awaited new work: Sphären I: Blasen (Spheres I: Bubbles). This volume makes up the first part of a Sphere-trilogy in which the German philosopher and gnostic attempts nothing less than to rewrite the history of mankind by understanding humans as sphere-producing and sphere-dependent beings.

There are small and large spheres. Some burst straight away, others stubbornly endure through time. Bubbles deals with the small spheres that form between individuals. The idea of “interfacial spheres of intimacy,” as Sloterdijk calls them, resembles conceptions proposed by dialogical philosophers and theologians such as Martin Buber or Emmanuel Levinas. Sloterdijk, who has a predilection for expressions that are at once visual and euphonic, replaces the not very lyrical term “intersubjectivity,” which is widely used to designate the overcoming of a modern monological subjectivity, with the more euphonic expression ” gattungswirksame Zwischengesichts-Treibhaus-Effekte ” (interfacial greenhouse effects that form the human species).

It is useful to consider the general structure of the trilogy. Part II: Kosmen, Globen, Reiche (Worlds, Globes, Empires), which is forthcoming, will contain a criticism of, in the language of Max Weber, “” stahlharte Gehäuse ” (steel-hard encasements). Regarding these “encasements,” Sloterdijk will continue his criticism of totalitarianism, begun already a few years earlier, and expand it to include the entire history of advanced civilization: to demonstrate that the hard “empire-spheres” are false attempts to produce “community on a greater scale.” He sees these attempts as the fateful projection - “fateful” because of its merging into totalitarianism - of small familial spheres onto the social plane. The rise of humanity into the macrospherical formations is thereby synonymous with the “Fall of Man” out of a prehistorical interfacial paradise.

Part III: Schaum (Foam) will be published in time for the third millenium, and it can be assumed that it will present nothing less than a postmodern, or even a post-high-cultural plan, with which Sloterdijk will want to show how small and large spheres can combine to form a nonrepressive, pluralistic whole. In this connection, the expression “foam” sounds like a pleasantly round expansion of Lyotard’s famous “archipelago” metaphor into the third dimension: in the foam, we sphere-forming beings can float and bubble with, over, and across each other, without having to overwhelm each other or let ourselves be overwhelmed. thREAD to critical ecologies

While not wanting to burst these paradisical bubbles of foam too quickly, I would like to suggest that the metaphor of “foam,” just like Lyotard’s metaphor of the “archipelago,” implies a higher vantage point from which the totality of pluralisms can be brought into view. As congenial as the postmodern preference for pluralistic metaphors may be, these metaphors also reveal that reason has hardly given up the task of once more transcending all spheres and of taking up a privileged, bird’s-eye perspective beyond the foam.

As that may be, in his basic thought Sloterdijk is certainly up-to-date. Contrary to first appearances, this also holds true for the content of Spheres I: Bubbles, in spite of the fact that the first chapter already bears ample potential for irritating any semi-educated contemporary. Sloterdijk bravely squeezes himself into the most hidden catholic spheres of intimacy, around which even theologians make a wide sweep. He returns with strange hagiographic reports of the “loss of heart” and the “renewal of heart” and, in his inimitable manner, makes them speak. This similarly holds true for the submersion into seemingly unimportant details of sacral paintings in chapter 2: Between Faces. Here, in fact, one finds beautiful pearl-like gems of thought possessing great heuristic effect. Unworried about scientistic scolding, the tour of the spheres continues through the small and hidden worlds of telepathy, mesmerism, and the “sharers of soul space: angel-twin-double” (ch. 6) and culminates in a subtle exegesis of some of Augustine’s equally subtle trinitarian ponderances (ch. 9). The unconcerned survey of the entire history of civilization - even as it manifests itself in its more obscure lines of tradition, despite all possible objections, represents an advantage of postmodernity over a purist modernity that is both characterized and constricted by its scientism. The view extends beyond the borders of the modern horizon, which have become conventional, and thus discovers treasures of tradition that have heretofore remained hidden for a long time. So far, so good.

Unfortunately, there is no strength that couldn’t turn into a weakness. Sloterdijk’s unconcern regarding the criticism of his colleagues perhaps made him all too carefree, and his strongly developed need for creativity and originality took care of the rest. In any case, in chapter five he lets himself be carried away so that he makes statements that in fact are suited to discredit the book in the eyes of most critics. It is this very fifth chapter then, on which all faultfinding German critics pounce with characteristic glee. The result is that these critics reduce the entire book to little more than the content of this very chapter five.

Following his characteristic tendency to do away with the great mythological and religious narratives of humanity by secularizing them, Sloterdijk set out to find a material correlative to the intuition, existing in many cultures, of an original human wholeness as it is expressed in numerous speculations about primitive man. In the process, he came upon the placenta, which nourishes the embryo and is connected to the mother through the umbilical cord. The placenta can, in fact, neither be unambiguously interpreted as the respective organ of the mother, nor of the child. For Sloterdijk, the placenta presented evidence of a lost human wholeness that, in its beginnings, was constituted dyadically.

Just as according to Aristophanes, contemporary man, in Plato’s Symposium, is the mutilated half of an originally rounded being which is whole; also according to Sloterdijk, humans originally comprised a two-part wholeness this side of the confrontative separation of subject and object. Sloterdijk employs the term Mit (With) to designate this state, which is hard to describe because of its prelinguistic origin. The fetus and its placenta are connected to each other like Orpheus and Eurydice. Every Orpheus is forced to leave his Eurydice. On parting, the latter bestows on him a space, “in which substitutions are possible.” The vacant space that the lost “primal companion” leaves behind in man, becomes the starting point for a consistently renewed search for new companions and new substitute spheres. The Eurydice of the placenta also leaves behind the navel, the bodily trace that points to our original bipolarity, for the Orpheus-like half-human.

For Sloterdijk the problem of the history of mankind begins (as does the problem of Sloterdijk’s version of this history for the reader) with the “excommunication” of this primal companion. Instead of being honoured as the lost half of man, the future of the placenta was either to be utilized by the cosmetics industry, or even, having been turned into granulate, to be used to accelerate combustion in waste incinerators. According to Sloterdijk, a “seamless alliance of silence” has formed, whose aim it is to make humans forget their original companion, the placenta, and to condemn them to an “absence of togetherness” (Mitlosigkeit). At this point, following Sloterdijk’s train of thought, modern individualism enters its hot phase. A “gynecological inquisition” has brought forth the the lonely modern subject. This condition in turn is to have facilitated the formation of totalitarian nations. “The birth of totalitarianism out of the spirit of midwifery? Someone here has apparently taken an overly hot bath in amniotic fluid” (transl. fr. German), as one critic jeered.

Although in the reading of this fifth chapter one can’t help developing the queasy feeling of having fallen victim to a crackpot, the problem rather lies in the nature of Sloterdijk’s method. In his capacity as a gnostic, he awakens imaginings or “sonospheres,” through which he raises himself autopoietically. In the absence of intersubjective capacities that could have guarded him from excess, he easily loses himself in the process.

There exists instead a different question which is more important, because it undermines the main concern of the entire trilogy: Sloterdijk’s basic thesis likens itself to aspects of the communitarian criticism of liberalism. With his thesis of a spherical and originally dyadic make-up, he combats an atomistic conception of the subject. Sloterdijk believes this conception to be the “dominant reality-fiction” of a clearly delimited, autarcical I, a subject, “that observes, names and possesses everything, without letting itself be contained, appointed, owned, by anything.” (transl. fr. German). So far, so good.

The same problem that arises regarding the “foam” metaphor, moreover, repeats itself on the level of the microspheres as well. The subject cannot at the same time let itself be appointed and owned and also cling to its unlimited sovereignty as a “free spirit.” This, however, is exactly what Sloterdijk implies, for example, when he posits:

If mysticism spoke with a moral voice, it (mysticism) would express itself through the demand: warm up your individual existence over the freezing point - and do what you will. When the soul thaws, who would doubt its inclination and suitability for celebrating and working with others? In order to gauge the significance of this insight, it will be advantageous for the free spirit to emancipate itself from the anti-Christian sentiment of recent centuries as from an inhibition that is no longer necessary.

Contrary to the Augustinian term “love,” which Sloterdijk is alluding to in the above, the expression “warm up” in connection with the term “free spirit” implies a capacity for being instrumentalized and fabricated alien to the religious tradition. The religious cardinal virtues cannot be manipulated by humans. Naturally, the radical secularization to which Sloterdijk feels bound also secularizes those realms that traditionally cannot be influenced - and thus empowers the modern age subject that Sloterdijk actually wanted to overcome.

Peter Sloterdijk is influenced as profoundly by the Nietzschean self-empowerment of man through the affirmation of the idea that “God is dead” as he is by (Habermas already took note of this 15 years ago) Fichte’s activistic ideas of origin. This vitalizing and will-affirming mode of thought is compatible with the high points of modern individualism, nationalism, and imperialism but not with their overcoming. The tension arising out of the polarity between manico-magical self-empowerment and regenerative mystical quietism, which has driven Sloterdijk’s entire oeuvre, didn’t seem much out of place while Sloterdijk was acting as “dia-gnostic(-ian)” (Dia-Gnostiker). In Bubbles, however, where Sloterdijk intends to provide orientation, this tension gets in his way. As the servant of two masters, he is forced to point in two opposing directions.