Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘Bubbles’: a theory of connectedness

sloterdijk_bubbles1by Joshua Mostafa

Quoting the poet Jean Paul, German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk remarks at the beginning of his controversial essay “Rules for the Human Zoo” that books are like “thick letters to friends.” Weighing in at over six hundred pages, Sloterdijk’s Bubbles, published in the original German in 1998 and finally translated into English late last year by Wieland Hoban for Semiotext(e), is a very thick letter to a friend indeed. And it is only the first volume to be translated of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy: the other two are due for an English release over the next year or two. Each volume uses the motif of the ‘sphere’ in different yet complementary ways to refer to “spaces of coexistence” between and among human beings. Bubbles is devoted to micro-spheres, the most intimate of originary spaces: the womb; the relationship between lovers; and that between God and the human subject. The second and third volumes deal with other kinds of spheres: the world considered as a single cosmopolitan macro-sphere, and then our contemporary decentralized network of social and cultural spheres, in which the concept of a central, self-structuring totality — religion, myth, science, enlightenment — has collapsed, and we find ourselves living in a complex sea of fragmentary yet contiguous spheres, which Sloterdijk likens to a “foam.”

This last appears to have some affinity with other accounts of the so-called postmodern condition. But Sloterdijk violates the postmodernist contention that, as Jean-François Lyotard famously put it, we are past the age of “grand narratives,” and that overarching, totalizing structures of ideas have lost their explanatory power under the skeptical gaze of the postmodern subject. In his little book Im selben Boot [In the same boat], Sloterdijk refers scornfully to the “relief” of those who believe that grand narratives are no longer possible. Although those who don’t read German will have to wait a little longer to assess Sloterdijk’s grand sphereological narrative, Bubbles leads one to expect that Sloterdijk’s trilogy is nothing if not a giant meta-narrative, wheels within wheels, an heroically immodest exercise in universal history of the most defiantly, monstrously unfashionable kind.

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Peter Sloterdijk

Peter Sloterdijk

In his native Germany, Peter Sloterdijk needs no introduction. Since 2002 until May of this year, he hosted the TV show Das Philosophische Quartett [The Philosophical Quartet], the popularity of which points, perhaps, to the more prominent role that the world of ideas enjoys on the Continent. He is, however, no mere popularizer: in 1983, his first major work, Critique of Cynical Reason, gained him both fame and critical respect, selling more copies than any other philosophy book since the war, while also provoking a serious debate with its attack on what Sloterdijk dubbed “enlightened false consciousness,” or the state of cynical bad faith brought about by our long tradition of unmasking and demystification, beginning with the Enlightenment and reaching its apogee with the critical theory of the Frankfurt School. His prolific writing on religion, culture, politics, media, the psyche, and globalization has drawn both admiration for its cross-pollinating originality, and accusations of dilettantism and lack of rigour.

Sloterdijk has not been shy of controversy. In “Rules for the Human Zoo,” he declares that literature cannot play the civilizing role that it once did; literary texts have become mere “archived things,” no longer “letters to possible friends.” The humanist project has failed, Sloterdijk contends, and he posits biotechnology as a substitute. We should embrace what he calls “anthropotechnics” for the future good of humanity, not shrink away from the bioethical implications. The taboos surrounding anything smacking of eugenics are understandably strong, given Germany’s history, and so Sloterdijk’s suggestion that genetic manipulation and selection were in the human interest caused an uproar not confined to academic journals, but spilling onto the front pages of broadsheets and magazines. A fierce spat ensued between Sloterdijk and Jürgen Habermas, an even more significant figure in contemporary German philosophy, amidst shock, opprobrium, and accusations of crypto-fascism.

More recently, his attack on the welfare state as “state kleptocracy” — which may seem an unremarkable piece of right-wing capitalo-libertarian rhetoric in the ears of post-Reagan America or post-Thatcher Britain — stirred up controversy in Germany, where a broadly social-democratic consensus encompasses the center-right as well as the left. Sloterdijk called for the abolition of income tax in favor of voluntary contributions. We might associate that kind of libertarian stance with a certain ethos of rugged individualism; but that would be a mistake. Sloterdijk begins Bubbles with an explicit rejection of individualism. Before considering the startling ideas he posits in its place, it’s worth briefly considering the radicalism of this move, and why anyone might think it necessary to make.

The conception of the human subject as an individual whose fundamental and essential state is solitude, who is born alone and dies alone (a phrase attributed both to Orson Welles and to Hunter S. Thompson), is pervasive in contemporary thought. In a process beginning with Cervantes — analyzed at length in György Lukács’ Theory of the Novel — the heroic subject of the epic is replaced, in the novel, by the anti-hero, the buffoon, and the loner. This development is most eloquently articulated in the work of Italian scholar Franco Moretti, for whom the ascendance of the novel form in literature is coterminous with the rise of the self-sufficient ideology of the bourgeois citizen. Contemporary ideology has such a strongly individualist outlook that the word ‘individual’ has come to be used almost interchangeably with ‘person.’ This conflation posits our separation from others as an essential quality of being human; it precludes other notions of personhood, in which togetherness, not individuation, are foundational to our humanity. It is therefore difficult to contemplate individualism, as such, when our thinking is so thoroughly steeped in it.

Yet the ground on which individualism stands — the idea of the coherent self, armed with autonomous agency — has been severely eroded on all sides over the last century. Critical theory warns that false consciousness and ideological conditioning blind us to reality; our genes determine our behaviour, according to evolutionary biologists; psychoanalysis has pulled back the curtain on the dark libidinal drives that underlie our ostensibly rational acts; neuroscience tells us that the unity of the mind is an illusion; according to post-structuralists, we are mere ripples in a sea of social and linguistic trends that speak through us. The net result is that we are alienated from our fellows by modern individualism, and alienated from ourselves. Accompanying these ideas is an urgent need to find a way out of this state: for the radical left, the solution is in the future (post-revolutionary collective subjectivity); for the radical right, in the past (nostalgia for simple verities and feudal holism); while centrists of both liberal and right-libertarian persuasions tend to double down and remain enthusiastic about, or at least tacit followers of, the increasingly untenable terrain of individualism.

In Bubbles Sloterdijk begins his attempt to think beyond individualism with a rejection of the idea of essential loneliness: it is not, he says, an inherent characteristic of the human condition. “In nascent individualism the individuals, as living observers — as inner witnesses of their own lives, one could say — adopt the perspective of an outside view on themselves, and thus augment their interfacial spheric opening with a second pair of eyes that, strangely enough, is not even their own.” In other words, individualism requires a kind of paradoxical self-objectification. The individual is created by a division of the self into subject and its own object. The individual’s indivisibility is only made possible by a prior division, a division into the self who sees and the self that is seen. The coherence of the modern individualist mind depends on a foundational schizophrenia.

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The assumption of foundational aloneness, according to Sloterdijk, is a grave mistake, one that prevents us from understanding the true conditions of our existence. Our actual state is one of being together in the world, an “ecstatic entwinement of the subject in the shared interior.” Against the notion of the isolated intellect, thinking its way out into the world — we might think of Descartes’s famously disembodied cogito proving its own existence with nothing but thought — Sloterdijk’s contention is that, as sociologist Bruno Latour paraphrases it, “to define humans is to define the envelopes, the life support systems, the Umwelt that makes it possible for them to breathe.”

That may seem a trivial point to make: who doesn’t think context is all? But, as Sloterdijk is aware, thinking outside of the liberal-individualist paradigm at an ontological level is not without its dangers. Sloterdijk conceives of the Spheres trilogy as companion and continuation of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time, and a corrective to what he sees as its faults. Heidegger’s wrong turn is precisely his insistence on essential loneliness, and his abandonment of “existential spaciousness.” Heidegger’s mistake, according to Sloterdijk, is to try to answer the question of ‘who’ before fully exploring the question of ‘where’. Sloterdijk contends that, by neglecting the spatial dimension of ‘being in the world’ in favor of questions of authenticity, Heidegger gave himself a blind spot that not only left his own philosophically project unbalanced, but himself vulnerable to the political blindness of radical nationalism. Bubbles attempts to remedy that neglect: to think through the implications of existence as ‘being-with’ — that is, as part of a containing sphere.

For Sloterdijk, to speak of the human being’s essential loneliness is nonsensical. We are not born alone; anyone who has given birth, or witnessed that noisy, intensely corporeal event, knows that it could not be further from solitude. The primary loneliness of the human condition is a modern fiction: relationships with others are not “posterior and fortuitous, but rather fundamental and immemorial.” Prior to birth, we are in a “biune” state of total intermingling: the foetus is encased in the mother’s body, sharing her blood, in what Sloterdijk calls a “pre-subjective” consciousness. Criticizing anatomical and psychoanalytic descriptions of this primeval state as objectifying it, Sloterdijk investigates an eclectic range of attempts to name the unnameable — the writings of religious mystics, prehistoric iconography, avant-garde poetry — for insights into what such a state must be like.

There is, of course, a certain pathos that surrounds a man writing on the “womb-immanence of all being.” This is clearest in the lines that Sloterdijk devotes to the mother-child relationship. Women (at least those who become mothers) are links in an intergenerational web of unbroken physical continuity, an unbroken chain of motherhood stretching back beyond the first humans and our distant mammalian forebears into the oceans. While all children are nodes of their ancestors, material avatars of this umbilical bloodline, they do not share in it equally: men are all ends of the line. Fathers or not, they can never be a link in that umbilical chain. Perhaps this is what gives the ethos of rugged individualism its masculine overtone. Despite our heavier, coarser bodies, it is men who are the flowers, springing from the great matrilineal banyan of our species. Attention-seeking, necessary for reproduction but effervescent, impermanent.

The manner in which the newly-born child is detached from the placenta, the most intimate companion of its life thus far, is, according to Sloterdijk, strongly determinative of the child’s future relationship to the world. In a bizarre yet compelling passage, Sloterdijk argues at length that the rise of modern individualism coincides with a “radical devaluation of the placenta” beginning in the eighteenth century. A brief anthropological survey of traditional ritual care for the placenta — burying, drying, burning, hanging on the branches of a tree — is contrasted with the modern disposal of the ‘afterbirth’ as mere mess or garbage. Eschewing anatomical language and the objectification it implies, Sloterdijk repurposes the preposition ‘With’ as a name for the placenta, and suggests that the navel, which once pointed out to a symbolic ‘With-space’ of interpersonal mingling, has lost its meaning; it is to this phenomenon that Sloterdijk ascribes, with disapproval, the modern assumption that navel-gazing is a useless and isolating activity: “the individualism of the modern age is a placental nihilism.” By denying the significance of the placenta, Sloterdijk argues, we deny our fundamental connection to the world around us.

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Those who prefer their philosophy neat and dry will find this level of hyperbole bewildering, at best. Sloterdijk, more bricoleur than logician, weaves his arguments from such diverse strands as the late eighteenth century theory of animal magnetism, the psychoanalysis of Freud and Lacan, Genesis, painters of the Renaissance (Giotto de Bondone) and modernity (René Margitte), the theology of the church fathers, the story of Orpheus and Eurydice. Even for readers who enjoy the excursive style of Bubbles, and find its ideas powerful and resonant, the book is not a pot of unalloyed gold, but rather a mine: there’s plenty of slag to dig through. The volume of neologisms per page cannot be blamed entirely on the Germanic language’s predilection for inventing new compound words. When one follows Sloterdijk on his idiosyncratic path, there are indeed moments of the sublime; at other times, he charges down alleys that lead only to the absurd, such as his claim that rather than language, it is song — the act of singing together in choirs and in groups — that differentiates humans from animals. This manages to be at once both excessively anthropocentric (ignoring the communion of dolphins and whales through song) and demeaning to humankind: since language structures thought as well as communication, a non-linguistic community of humans is literally unthinkable.

Some degree of danger is inherent to a work of such bold interdisciplinarity in an age that has littered the map of human knowledge with booby-traps for the generalist. For instance, when Sloterdijk breezily categorizes the European Neolithic as a shift from nomadic to sedentary life after which “the fascination with the womb could develop into a world power” — whatever we make of this last point, he paints the complex and contested prehistoric record with too broad a brush: the so-called Neolithic revolution was not a single event within an homogeneous cultural landscape, but a series of locally differentiated processes taking place over many centuries, arising out of contact and conflict between societies of radically contrasting culture, technology and ideology. Later, he describes the evolution of the Trinity church doctrine as “inevitable and explosive,” a journey from which “early Christianity…could not retreat even a single step.” Unless one assumes a mechanically determinist view of causality, this account seems to drift towards teleology, or at least, to confer on a contingent process the dignity of an inevitable unfolding. Early Christianity did indeed ‘retreat’ from many positions retrospectively deemed heretical but, as a result of argument, splits and purges among the church fathers, the process of imperial institutionalization under which the Council of Nicaea hardened belief into doctrine, and perhaps (as Edward C. Hobbs and others have argued), the subterranean influence of the tripartite conceptual structure inherited by both Greek and Roman cultural tradition. Not, in other words, as the inexorable unfolding of internal logic.

Yet in the face of Bubbles’s expansiveness, such quibbles seem petty and churlish. When Sloterdijk refers to history it is not as an empiricist does, to test a theory, but as a staging of ideas; if the facts do not fit the theory, as he approvingly quotes Hegel in Im selben Boot, too bad for the facts. Such an attitude may not find a sympathetic reception in a readership more used to the pedestrian logic of analytic philosophy, but to dismiss it in its entirety would be to miss an opportunity. This is a remarkable and valuable book. Even where it does not convince, it provokes; it does not try to get the last word in, but to generate new ideas for discussion. Like the best works of phenomenology, it startles us into recognizing things that we had taken for granted as if we were seeing them for the first time. – Los Angeles Review of Books