“the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry” – Keith Ansell-Pearson on Peter Sloterdijk

Posted in Uncategorized by Randall Szott on 09/09/2013

Philosophy of the Acrobat: On Peter Sloterdijk – Keith Ansell-Pearson

The thesis that religion has returned after the alleged failure of the Enlightenment project needs to be confronted, Sloterdijk argues, with a clearer view of what we can legitimately consider as “spiritual facts.” Such a consideration shows that the return to and of religion is impossible since, so goes Sloterdijk’s initial contention, religion does not, in fact, exist. Instead, what exist are only misunderstood spiritual regimens. All human life requires the cultivation of matters of body and soul, and all philosophies and religions have attended to this fundamental feature of our existence. By this view, any clear-cut dichotomy of believers and unbelievers falls away. In place of this dichotomy, we should distinguish between the practicing and the untrained, or those who train differently.

…He wishes to give a new truth to the insight developed by Marx and the Young Hegelians in the 1840s that contends that “man produces man”: in short, the human being is never given to itself or to anything else, but produces and reproduces its own conditions of existence and as a project of personal development, even an adventure. Sloterdijk, however, differs from Marx and the Hegelians in not wanting to place the stress on labor or work as the key category by which to understand this self-forming process of man. He proposes that the language of work be transfigured into that of “self-forming and self-enhancing behaviour.” We need, then, to go beyond both the myth of homo faber and of homo religiosus and to understand the human being as a creature that results from repetition. As he notes, humans live in habits, not in territories. If the 19th century can be viewed as standing under the sign of production, and the 20th century under the sign of reflexivity, then we need to grasp the future under the sign of the exercise. None of this refining and purifying work is without significance for our understanding of the human animal, since it holds the potential for unlocking anew the secrets of the human animal, including a reinvigoration of the key words by which we understand our so-called spiritual life, words such as “piety,” “morality,” “ethics,” and “asceticism.”

For Sloterdijk the human being is above all a creature of repetition and artistry, the “human in training” as he puts it, or which we could call shaping and self-shaping. Not only is the earth the ascetic planet par excellence, as Nietzsche contended, it’s also the acrobatic planet par excellence.

Sloterdijk contends that human beings are always subject to “vertical tensions” in all periods and in all cultural areas: “Wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes.” I take Sloterdijk to be referring in general terms to the self-surpassing tendencies of the human animal, or its perfectionist aspirations. Thus, he recalls at the outset the Platonic Socrates, saying that man is the being who is potentially superior to himself. He takes this to indicate that all cultures and subcultures rely on distinctions by which the field of human possibilities gets subdivided into polarized classes: religious cultures are founded on the distinction between the sacred and the profane; aristocratic cultures base themselves on the distinction between the noble and the common; military cultures establish a distinction between the heroic and the cowardly; athletic cultures have the distinction between excellence and mediocrity; cognitive cultures rely on and cultivate a distinction between knowledge and ignorance; and so on. There is thus in humans an upward-tending trait, and this means for Sloterdijk that when one encounters humans, one will always find acrobats. One great modern “myth” of our time that captures this, and the idea of verticality in general, is that of Nietzsche’s tale in Thus Spoke Zarathustra of the being that is fastened on a rope between animal and superhuman. What model of vertical perfection and “progress” is encapsulated in this idea?

This is where matters get controversial in Sloterdijk’s study since he is dealing with matters such as training in the sense of “breeding” that have a highly dubious history. However, here he endeavors to be dexterous in his appreciation of projects that aim to fashion new human beings. On the one hand, he takes seriously Nietzsche’s seemingly fantastical ideas about the ?bermensch; on the other, he is severely critical of the “Soviet” attempt to create a new human and a new society by means of large-scale social and technological engineering. In reading Nietzsche, Sloterdijk does not find a biological or eugenics program (in spite of all the talk about “breeding” in Nietzsche), but an artistic and acrobatic discourse in which the emphasis is on training, discipline, education, and self-design. As Nietzsche has Zarathustra say, one builds over and beyond oneself — but to do this well one needs to be built first “four-square in body and soul.” The human subject needs to be seen as a carrier of “exercises,” made up of, on the passive side, an aggregate of individuated effects of habitus, and, on the active side, a center of competencies that allow for some minimal sense of self-direction and self-mastery. Should we thus not calmly agree with Nietzsche that egotism is but “merely the despicable pseudonym of the best human possibilities”?


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