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

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures 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”?

Ransacking the Western philosophical tradition – Adam Kirsch on Peter Sloterdijk

Posted in Uncategorized by dilettanteventures on 08/08/2013

Against Cynicism: A philosopher’s brilliant reasons for living – Adam Kirsch

Despite its parodic Kantian title, Sloterdijk’s Critique is not a work of theoretical abstraction; it is a highly personal confession of this generational world-weariness. As a philosopher, Sloterdijk is especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as “enlightened false consciousness”: “It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice.”

If we are to break out of this learned helplessness, Sloterdijk argues, we must ransack the Western tradition for new philosophical resources. Such ransacking is exactly the method of Sloterdijk’s thought, first in the Critique and then, on an even grander scale, in Bubbles and You Must Change Your Life. Drawing on very wide reading—wider, the reader often feels, than it is deep—Sloterdijk excavates the prehistory of contemporary problems, and some of their possible solutions. In the Critique, he offers an extended analysis of the culture of Weimar Germany, in which he locates the origin of twentieth-century cynicism—as well as describing the many sub-varieties of cynicism (military, sexual, religious), and doing a close reading of Dostoevsky, and cataloguing the meaning of different facial expressions. The effect on the reader is of being shown around a Wunderkammer, where what matters is not the advancing of an argument but the display of various intellectual treasures.

In Critique of Cynical Reason, Sloterdijk charted a wholly individual path to a familiar spiritual position, a Romanticism of what Wordsworth called “wise passiveness.” This pattern is repeated in Sloterdijk’s later books: he is better at the forceful restatement of old problems than at the invention of new solutions. This might be regarded as an objection by certain kinds of philosophers, who see themselves as contributors to a technical process that produces concrete results. For Sloterdijk, whose greatest influences are Nietzsche and Heidegger, it is not at all disqualifying, for his goal is, as he writes in You Must Change Your Life, “a provocative re-description of the objects of analysis.” Like a literary writer—and he once told an interviewer that he thought of writing the Spheres trilogy as a novel—Sloterdijk’s goal is to restate our basic quandaries in revelatory new language, to bring them home to us as living experiences instead of stale formulas. The prison of reason, the need for transcendence, the yearning for an absent meaning: these have been the stuff of literature and philosophy and theology for centuries. In Sloterdijk, these old subjects find a timely new interpreter.

But if Sloterdijk is not a believer, then where does he think we can actually experience this kind of perfectly trusting togetherness? Where do we find a sphere that is wholly earthly, yet so primal as to retain its power even now? The answer is surprising, even bizarre. In a long section of Bubbles, Sloterdijk argues that the original sphere, the one we all experience and yearn to recapture, is the mother’s womb. This is not, for him, a place of blissful isolation, where the subject can enjoy illusions of omnipotence; if it were, the womb would be only a training ground for selfishness and disillusion. Sloterdijk emphasizes instead that we are all in our mother’s womb along with a placenta. The placenta is what he calls “the With”—our first experience of otherness, but a friendly and nurturing otherness, and thus a model for all future “spheres” of intimacy.

The reader who has no patience for this kind of thing—who finds the whole “With” concept New Agey, or unfalsifiable, or just wildly eccentric—will probably not get very far with Sloterdijk. This is not because placenta-ism is central to his thought. On the contrary, it is just one of the many provocative ideas that he develops and then drops in the course of the book, which reads less like a structured argument than a long prose poem. Sloterdijk’s strength and appeal come from the intuitive and metaphorical quality of his thought, his unconventional approaches to familiar problems, his willingness to scandalize. As a theorem, the “With” is easy to refute; as a metaphor, it is weirdly persuasive. It is another way of describing, and accounting for, the central experience of homelessness that drives all of Sloterdijk’s thought. Deprived of our “With,” he writes, “the officially licensed thesis ‘God is dead’ ” must be supplemented “with the private addendum ‘and my own ally is also dead.’ ”

The word “practice” is central to Sloterdijk’s argument here, and to his understanding of religion. We are living, he observes, at a time when religion is supposedly making a comeback around the world. The old assurance that all societies must inevitably converge on secularism is failing. For Sloterdijk, however, it is a mistake to think that what people are turning to is faith in the divine. Rather, the part of religion that still matters to us, for which we have a recurring need, is its practices: the “technology,” primarily mental and inner-directed, that allows us to reshape our ways of thinking and feeling. With typical bravado, he argues that “no ‘religion’ or ‘religions’ exist, only misunderstood spiritual regimens.

One of the most appealing things about Sloterdijk’s philosophy is that, like literature, it leaves itself vulnerable. It does not attempt to anticipate and to refute all possible objections. And the objections to You Must Change Your Life, as with Bubbles, are not far to seek. For one thing, by conceiving of religion as an elite training regimen, Sloterdijk implies that a religion is justified only by its saints. Anyone who is not a saint is insignificant, and so the average person’s experience of religious meanings—whether metaphysical doctrine or spiritual consolation or tradition or identity or communion—is dismissed out of hand. This is false to the lived reality of religion for most people, and shows how tendentious Sloterdijk’s equation of religion with “practice” really is.

…This is as much as to say that Sloterdijk has not solved the immense problems that he raises, even though he claims to know the way toward the solution. But maybe the philosopher does not need to solve problems, only to make them come alive; and this he does as well as any thinker at work today.