Bubbles: Spheres, Volume I: Microspherology
(Semiotext(e) / Foreign Agents, 2011)
It could almost be a proverb: The difference between the United States and Europe is that in Europe a philosopher can have a television show. The German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk hosts just such a weekly talk show. It’s also sadly hard to imagine that in this country—despite many virtues over that cultural rival of ours—we could have a real, heavyweight public intellectual, let alone one whose provocations would lead to a national debate on the meaning of the state and democracy. In Germany and France, Sloterdijk’s 1999 lecture “Rules for the Human Zoo”—with its brilliant, biologically-tinged take on humanism—on the framing of philosophy and literature since Plato as a technique for “taming the human beast,” and on the production of pacific citizens, caused a major controversy that was extensively covered in the media. The lecture—which was also published in the newspaper Die Zeit—brought a cry from the critical theory establishment that Sloterdijk had betrayed his leftist roots and become a radical neoconservative, with the inevitable insinuations that his apparent “hatred for democracy” was really treading on more sinister, fascist grounds.
But Slotderdijk’s point was that humanity has been “abandoned by the wise,” that today there remain no humanists who serve to transmit the civilizing literatures of the past. It is a profound point and it should have special resonance in the United States, where Sloterdijk’s work has been relegated to relative obscurity. Only his Critique of Cynical Reason, which diagnoses contemporary culture as being sickly obsessed with the notion of all-pervading self-interest, was something of a 1980s academic cause célèbre stateside. With Semiotext(e)’s recent translation of the first volume of his magnum opus Spheres trilogy, Bubbles: Spheres I (it was first published in Germany in 1998), Sloterdijk’s name in this country ought to become better known.
Sloterdijk’s concern in Spheres is the same as every German philosopher since Kant: What is humanity in the condition of modernity? That is to say: What is humanity without the all-encompassing presence of religion, whose persistence in the modern world is either ineffectually subcultural or violently retrograde, and, in any case, is clearly incapable of offering a satisfying universal? What is humanity without the predictable cycles of the quasi-natural, communal lifeworld, and without the unquestioned legitimacy of the social, spiritual, and aesthetic hierarchies that once regulated that lifeworld? And how should we best offer solace to the lonely, confused, and rootless subject that emerges with the triumph of mass society, capitalism, scientism, technology, the destruction of traditional life, and the disenchantment of the world? (Just to make it sunnier, we can now also add to the list impending ecological crisis.) Sloterdijk describes humanity at the end of this process: “[d]isappointed, cold, and abandoned, they wrap themselves in surrogates of older conceptions of the world, as long as these still hold a trace of the warmth of old human illusions of encompassedness.”
For Sloterdijk, this crisis of modernity and post-enlightenment sketched above is a spherological crisis: it concerns the gradual destruction of those protective—or immunlogical, to use Sloterdijk’s terminology—membranes that mankind dwelled in for millenia, the bursting of the shared spaces that human beings had cultivated to provide meaning, metaphysical comfort, and shelter from the inhuman exterior. This metaphor of the sphere—the preservation, growth, and development of which can be thought of as the sole preoccupation of what we call culture—shares with Sloterdijk’s style in general the quality of being astonishing, strange, and novel, as well as being, at the same time, familiar, intuitive, and even self-evident.
Philosophers are often harsh judges of human nature, and the concept of Spheres is unusually generous, kind, and good-natured: it construes human life through an effort to create conditions of warmth, closeness, and security. Sloterdijk’s patience and his lack of a concern for purity allows him a great deal of freedom and variety in terms of his source material. As learned as he is philosophical, Sloterdijk seems equally comfortable drawing on medieval theology, media theory, sociology, theoretical biology, antique numismatics, psychoanalysis, Roman superstitions and domestic cults, and Buddhist sculpture. And that is only a partial catalogue. The result is that reading Bubbles: Spheres I can at first feel a little like being locked inside a cabinet of curiosities, or like reading a book from the Renaissance, when knowledge wasn’t yet splintered into hundreds of specialist fields, when the universe was a vast system of analogies, and when books on medicine would not be considered complete if they didn’t include extended meditations on alchemy, astrology, demonology, the nature of the soul, and the meaning of the holy trinity. Hannah Arendt once wrote something to the effect of, “Schopenhauer was a charlatan who wrote like a philosopher, and Nietzsche was a philosopher who wrote like a charlatan.” The latter description could equally be applied to Sloterdijk.
Once the dazzling effect of Sloterdijk’s erudition wears off and the arguments of the book come into clearer focus, Bubbles’s place in the entire spherological system emerges. The first volume spells out the most intimate type of sphere—the microsphere or bubble—the original form of being-in-spheres. As Sloterdijk somewhat opaquely puts it, bubbles “constitute the intimate forms of the rounded being-in form and the basic molecule of the strong relationship.” Put in terms of what one might call “ordinary philosophical vocabulary,” Bubbles comprises Sloterdijk’s theory of human subjectivity and the anthropological ground that his theoretical edifice will rest upon. In an attempt to move past the legacy of Heidegger—perhaps Sloterdijk’s main foil and point of reference—Sloterdijk thinks that the traditional philosophical account of the subject—the self-contained, rational, alternately contemplative, and emotional “I” that can either observe or decide to act upon an exterior Nature—is a woefully inadequate description of the human condition that reflects the self-image of where humanity has arrived historically rather than the eternal essence that it purports itself to be. Sloterdijk believes that the modern, existentialist heroic myth of the isolated individual, fighting for its own place and “suspended in nothingness,” obscures more than it reveals about human existence, and cannot offer a radical interpretation of the meaning of human life.
For Sloterdijk, the human subject is always in—at the very least—a dyadic microsphere, with another being that animates it: “Only the ideologia perennis speaks of the mainstream of individualistic abstraction speaks of the unaccompanied single person…. ‘[H]uman existing’ is thus no longer to be understood as the solitary individual standing out into the indeterminate openness.” Instead, “existence includes the presence of a pre-objective something floating around me; its purpose is to let me be and support me.” According to Sloterdijk, “people are ecstatic, as Heidegger says, but not because they are contained in nothingness, but rather in the souls of others, or in the field of the soul of others, and vice versa.”
Probably the most fundamental microsphere that underlies the investigation in Bubbles is the fetus in the mother’s womb. The centrality of this theme allows Sloterdijk to posit a fundamental state for the formation of the human soul that predates any kind of conscious self in an animating and immunizing sphere. To this end, Sloterdijk crafts absolutely beautiful passages about sound coming through the medium of the womb that extends to the songs of the nursery to form an original musicality of the human soul. Sloterdijk presents the womb-state as an original type of human ecstasy that is at the root of subsequent religious, erotic, communal, and political sphere formations.
The centrality of the womb for Sloterdijk also hints at a genetic principle of ever-expanding sphere formation: “All amniotic sacs, organic models of autogenuous vessels, live towards their bursting; with the turbulent waters of birth, every life is washed up on the coast of harder facts. Those who reach it can use those facts to explain what drives the intimate, all too intimate bubbles to failure and forces their inhabitant into transformations.” In other words, bubbles burst, we are born—biologically and ontologically—thrown out of our intimate spheres, and we are ever set about forming new ones.
But what does the theory of the microsphere provide other than an intellectual high? It would be supposing a bit much that something that is frankly so odd could quickly enter into mainstream discourse. But I believe Sloterdijk successfully puts to rest the notion that we are essentially isolated beings in a field of meaningless objects, and puts in its place a way to conceive of human existence as incumbent upon highly convoluted and delicate systems of augmentation, nurturing, and growth. In the process, Sloterdijk is able to find new meaning in the cast aside achievements of past culture. This is particularly true in the case of archaic mysticism and theology, which Sloterdijk does not treat as the ideological relics of backward societies, but rather as containing subtle lessons on the nature of human solidarity and intimacy. And he does this without calling for the uncritical readoption of a pre-modern religiosity or by succumbing to tasteless, New Age pseudo-spirituality (some puzzling words of admiration for the deplorable mountebank Osho in one interview notwithstanding), but by permitting the spirit of the past to breathe into and reanimate the present.
The language-game of spheres leads to an ecological understanding of culture; a term whose etymology in Latin denotes the care of plants and the tilling of the earth. In that light, those involved in humanistic endeavors should concern themselves with the preservation and cultivation of the atmospheres that permit human beings to flourish. It’s easy to see how this could lead quickly into a belief in the necessity of mindless, cloying communal life, or reactionary conservative politics, its ugly political correlate. The other risk with all these horticultural metaphors—one of Sloterdijk’s terms is “anthropogenic hothouse”—is that they could also lead to a philosophical outlook that might tend to replace the inquiry into the being of the human animal with the being of the human vegetable. But there are two volumes yet to be translated, so it remains to be seen for the non-German-speaking English reader how Sloterdijk deals with these problems.
One might wonder also if the sphere as a figure of thought is not a little too good. Sloterdijk writes that it’s characteristic of the old philosophical systems—as the metaphysical correlates of states and empires—to attempt to pull everything into their purview and “round off” the world. Although he expresses doubt about the ability of philosophy to provide such all-encompassing universals in the contemporary period, the relentless certainty with which Sloterdijk deploys his thought might be accused of sharing the same megalomaniac delusions of grandeur. The sphere starts to become claustrophobic at times, and it can become exhausting to think along with Sloterdijk as one’s imagination turns either into an ever-expanding amoeba inexorably sucking everything inside, or a foaming sea of bubbles.
But trying to keep pace with Sloterdijk’s intellectual athleticism is—on the whole—invigorating. This touches on a theme that’s been dealt with in his recent work: the idea of philosophy as a “spiritual exercise,” an idea, which he has taken up from the French historian of ancient philosophy Pierre Hadot. (Hadot was also a major influence on Michel Foucault’s late work about the care of the self.) Rather than taking philosophy as a purely theoretical enterprise concerned with developing a disinterested, complete picture of the world, this conception treats it as a therapeutic method, a way in which to affect change in oneself. As a very ancient technique for the support of human life, it’s unclear whether philosophy can compete with the rapid proliferation of new technologies of human augmentation. If philosophy has a place in this world, it looks like this.