Review: Joshua Mostafaon Peter Sloterdijk

Philosophy in the round: Globes by Peter Sloterdijk

Reading the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk is always enjoyable. Every page of Globes is littered with aphoristic bon mots (adroitly translated by Wieland Hoban), many of which could serve as the central insight of a chapter, or even the whole, of a less rich and ambitious text. This succinct and acerbic put-down of reductionism will suffice as an example: ‘modernity is the self-fulfilment of the analytical myth that gives the smallest parts precedence over their composites’. One might expect that this flair for the micro-unit of literary composition – the sentence – would lend itself to the work of a miniaturist, a writer of essays after the manner of Michel de Montaigne. But Sloterdijk does not confine himself to small pieces, writing books of varying sizes: Globes is probably his largest – over 1000 pages – and is itself only the middle volume in his magnum opus, the Spheres trilogy.

The publisher of Spheres, Semiotext(e), is best known for its English translations of French philosophy. Sloterdijk, though he writes in German, owes at least as much to French thinkers as German ones, and the German philosophers with whom he shows the most affinity are often shunned in Germany itself, due to the tarnishing of their reputations through association with the country’s shameful Nazi past – either directly, as in the case of Martin Heidegger, or by retrospective appropriation, as with Friedrich Nietzsche. To engage with these philosophers has come to be seen as disreputable, but a variety of French thinkers have built on the work of Nietzsche. As Sloterdijk puts it, ‘it was the great stroke of luck of my intellectual life that I encountered these French Nietzscheans at a point when it was inconceivable to read Nietzsche in Germany.’

The Spheres trilogy takes as its starting point Martin Heidegger’s meditations on existence in Being and Time (1927). It pursues a line of inquiry outlined briefly by Heidegger: the spatial conditions of being, the intimate relationships and solidarities that nurture our entry to the world and sustain us through our lives. Heidegger introduces these considerations, but then passes over them in favour of inquiries into authenticity and time. The question of where we are is raised briefly, but then neglected in his pursuit of the question of who are are. This, according to Sloterdijk, is a mistake with grave political implications as well as philosophical ones. He ascribes Heidegger’s notorious complicity with the Nazi regime to precisely this error of judgement:

a quixotic ‘who’ in a confused ‘where’ may have nasty surprises in store for itself if it attempts to anchor itself in the next best collective.

Sloterdijk’s trilogy is intended to interrogate the spatial aspects of existence that Heidegger touched on but then abandoned. He is not alone in this determination to revisit Heidegger’s work. The French phenomenologist Gaston Bachelard, a significant influence on Sloterdijk, criticises Heidegger’s description of the human subject’s first moments as being ‘cast into the world’. Before having any notion of ‘world’, Bachelard argues, ‘man is laid in the cradle of the house’: the primary condition of being is not worldly but domestic. Jean-Luc Nancy calls for a reappraisal of the importance of Mitsein (being-with, or the communal foundation of existence), which he argues should carry equal weight with Heidegger’s concept of Dasein (being-there). ‘It is necessary to rewrite Being and Time,’ Nancy insists – a ‘recomposition in which Mistein would be actually coessential and originary’.

Nancy’s critique of Heidegger, which is closely aligned to Sloterdijk’s, was published in French in his book Being Singular Plural (2000), just two years before the German edition of Bubbles, the first volume of the Spheres trilogy, which emphasises the centrality of ‘being-with’ in the most intimate of relationships: mother and child, mesmerist and subject, and even (at length) foetus and placenta. Despite the fact that Bubbles contains no references to Nancy’s book, it is tempting to read Sloterdijk’s trilogy as a response to Nancy’s challenge to reconfigure Heidegger’s work in such a way as to grant Mitsein centrality. Whether or not that is the case, the work of Sloterdijk and Nancy seems to be driven by a similar impulse. There seems to be something in the air that has given these questions an urgency.

What is that something? Perhaps it is a sense that Mitsein has been weakened and endangered. Liberalism’s emphasis on the freedom of the individual has eroded communal solidarity. Being-with is giving way to being (or bowling) alone: atomisation, alienation and existential loneliness. What has been lost, or is in the process of being lost, acquires the necessary distance to be subjected to philosophical inquiry; the owl of Minerva flies at dusk. The present is harder to analyse. Our thoughts are conditioned by circumstances. One cannot entirely step outside the present world and see it with the eye of an extraterrestrial or a future historian. This would explain why Sloterdijk was able to produce the first two, very large, volumes of his trilogy – both of which deal mostly with historical phenomena – within a year of each other, but a gap of five years preceded the publication of the last volume, Schäume (the English translation will be published under the title Foam), which unlike the other two volumes deals with modernity and the current situation.

The central metaphor of Sloterdijk’s trilogy, the sphere, is deployed in various ways, but primarily as the leitmotif of his own explanatory framework, through which he analyses the strategies human beings use to organise themselves into groups for survival, solidarity, identity, comfort and solace. Spheres contain, but they also exclude. Sloterdijk often refers to ‘immune systems’ that protect the inhabitants of the sphere from the outside world; the integrity of the interior depends on the strength of its periphery, and its ability to repel hostile exterior elements.

It is fitting that Globes, the second and weightiest instalment of the trilogy, should deal with ‘spheres’ that are of the biggest scale. Where Bubbles deals with intimate biune and triune relationships (‘microspherology’), and Foam deals with the interrelationships of many fragmented social groupings in the present-day world (‘plural spherology’), Globes is concerned with much greater structures: ‘spheres’ that purport to encompass the whole world, or the heavens (‘macrospherology’).

Much of Globes is concerned with questions of scale. Human societies are not static in size. What changes or deformations, Sloterdijk asks, must occur in a society when it grows from one of the smallest units – the tribe or clan in which everyone knows each other – into much a bigger grouping: a city, nation or empire? Sloterdijk describes a gathering around a camp fire in a ring. The circle expands to make room for newcomers, so that each person remains equidistant and benefits equally from the warmth of the fire, but

if the egalitarian ring becomes so large that no one profits anymore, the magic fades and all become equal in frosty discontent. As soon as candidates for warmth have to wait in line, however, thermal class society is born.

The effects of scaling up, of ‘spheric expansion’ in Sloterdijk’s terminology, constitute the book’s central problem. The success of expansion depends on the ability of the ‘sphere’ to absorb foreign elements and naturalise them as part of itself: Catholicism’s transformation of local deities into saints, for example; or the ability of capital to homogenise disparate regimes of value using the price mechanism. But such procedures are also dangerous. A failed absorption can be as deadly as the rejection of an organ transplant by a (literal) immune system. One might characterise the Protestant Reformation, for example, and its rejection of much Catholic doctrine and practice – including the use of saints as interlocutors in prayer – as the exercise of an immunity function; whether it was a healthy reaction to idolatrous infection, or an autoimmune malfunction, depends on one’s perspective.

I should mention that this is not one of Sloterdijk’s examples, merely my own riff on his ideas for the purpose of concise illustration. As Willem Schinkel and Lisbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens put it in their introduction to In Media Res (2011), a collection of interdisciplinary engagements with Sloterdijk’s ideas, his work

has a strong evocative character. It is meant to bring about new thoughts and practices.

This is something that sustains interest throughout the length of the book, yet also tends to lead one’s mind away from the text, into tangential thoughts about the implications of Sloterdijk’s theories. The margins of my copies of Bubbles and Globes are teeming with digressive scribbles.

Aside from the straightforward failure of disintegration, the other danger inherent in spheric expansion is catastrophic success. To retain its coherence, a sphere must have an outside. An infinite sphere would have a shell that can never be reached, and effectively become no sphere at all. Just such a fate befell God when he was declared to be infinite and omnipresent, rather than merely gigantic. Without the immune function of the finite sphere, the infinitised God was doomed:

It was the cleverest theologians who killed God when they were no longer able to conceive of him as presently and extensively infinite.

Sloterdijk also warns of dangers inherent in admiration for the ideal orb, the essence of perfect symmetry and rationality, and its implicit ‘critique of empirical, imperfect, un-round reality’. This kind of desire for the ideal, and its concomitant contempt for the actual, threads a line in philosophy from Plato to Hegel, and found violent expression in the utopian excesses of the twentieth century, such as Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Those who seek perfect order, Sloterdijk writes with a customarily hyperbolic metaphor,

find themselves face to face with an oversized, over-beautiful and over-round orb that inevitably rolls over its players. Would it be geometry then, that is nothing but the beginning of terror?

There is a problem here in Sloterdijk’s use of the sphere metaphor – not, as Schinkel and Noordegraaf-Eelens wryly suggest, that ‘one sometimes gets the feeling that everything that has a certain roundness fits into Sloterdijk’s macro-spherological theory’, but rather that he uses the sphere concept in different and sometimes contradictory ways. Sometimes the sphere is Sloterdijk’s overarching metaphor in his revisionist account of history. Sometimes it is a means by which historical actors construct their own view of the world or their place in it. The sphere is simultaneously the vehicle of Sloterdijk’s meta-narrative and a key trope in the discourse of the figures within that meta-narrative. Consequently, when reading a passage about this or that use of the sphere concept, a degree of confusion can arise about what attitude he is taking with regard to it: is this his own construction, or that of the milieu he is describing?

This ambiguity is characteristic of Sloterdijk’s approach. He does not, in the manner of the Frankfurt School of critical theory, attempt to place himself above the fray, to sit in judgement on the delusions of the wrong-headed from a vantage point of enlightenment and moral superiority. Rather, he plunges himself into the intellectual currents he is writing about, and extrapolates his theories as if from within. He made a name for himself with his first book, Critique of Cynical Reason (1983), which diagnoses and enumerates what he sees as the deleterious effects – cynicism, one-upmanship and entrenchment – of the Marxian critique of ideology. This attack – this critique of Critique, as it were – is made all the more ferocious by the fact that Sloterdijk is somewhat of an apostate from that tradition. Trained in the dialectical tradition of Hegel, Marx and Adorno, Sloterdijk’s encounter with the work of the French poststructuralist Michel Foucault affected him profoundly; in his own words, ‘reading Foucault was a bit like having your heart torn out by an Aztec priest with a [blade] of obsidian’. Departing from what he saw as the complacent self-referentiality of contemporary German critical theory, Sloterdijk set off on an orthogonal trajectory, drawing on the work of French thinkers such as Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, and the controversial legacy of Friedrich Nietzsche. This set him on a collision course with Jürgen Habermas, the grand old man of German critical theory, with whom Sloterdijk engaged in a bitter public war of words shortly after the German publication of Globes.

But it would be a mistake to try to place Sloterdijk’s work neatly into a poststructuralist or postmodernist framework. In a 2007 interview, he called for ‘a rapprochement between the post-Marxist and post-Nietzschean currents’ of thought. Such a reconciliation is unlikely, he admits, but necessary to overcome the limitations of each. He is not alone in making such a call. Many efforts have been made, with varying degrees of success, from Jean-Paul Sartre’s attempts to reconcile Marxist materialism with existentialism in Search for a Method (1957), to Jacques Derrida’s post-Berlin Wall reformulations of the Marxian legacy in Specters of Marx (1993). Most recently, there has been Giani Vattimo and Santiago Zabala’s somewhat quixotic effort in Hermeneutic Communism (2011) to reconcile the communist ideal with the anti-metaphysical basis of Heideggerian hermeneutics.

To what extent does Globes, and the Spheres trilogy in general, represent Sloterdijk’s own endeavour in this direction? It is worth returning to the notion of scale: not merely the physical size of the book, which is quite formidable, but the scale of the intellectual ambitions that animate its composition, and Sloterdijk’s attitude to questions of scale themselves. There are some indications of these in The World Interior of Capital (2005), which appeared in Wieland Hoban’s English translation prior to Globes, though it was published in the original German just after Schäume, the final volume of Spheres. As such, it reflects on the Spheres trilogy, as well as expanding on its ideas. With an air of defiance, Sloterdijk defends the pursuit of ‘grand narratives’ – an attitude at odds with the postmodern claim that the time for grand narratives is over. He berates contemporary philosophy for its timidity, poverty of ambition, and paralysis in the face of the greatest changes humanity has known. With a perverse flourish reminiscent of that consummate contrarian Slavoj Žižek, he argues that the grand narratives proposed so far, whether ‘Christian, liberal-progressive, Hegelian, Marxist [or] fascist’ have failed not because they were too great, but because ‘they were not great enough’.

In using such a statement to justify his own ‘spherological’ project, there is, of course, enormous hubris, which may stick in the craw of even a sympathetic reader. But the charge of intellectual megalomania – even if justified – does not automatically disqualify the content of his theoretical work. A more interesting objection is that this valorisation of greatness is disingenuous. Elsewhere, Sloterdijk rejects the universalist claims of both Catholicism and communism on the grounds that their totalising ideologies are a priori ill-founded: ‘Whoever claims to know how the total inclusion of humanity within humanity itself functions, is a charlatan.’

Is this not a rejection of over-ambition – of too much ‘greatness’? Perhaps not. Sloterdijk qualifies ‘greatness’ as ‘closer to the point of excess’. We might recall the cautionary tale of the infinitised God of Christianity, who loses his harbouring function precisely because of a failure of ‘spheric expansion’. If we think of the ‘greatness’ of a meta-narrative in terms of the extent to which it confronts the irreducible excess of the experienced world, then the purportedly infinite or the theoretically totalising have the paradoxical effect of limiting, curtailing, closing off. Universalist pretensions – whether Catholic, communist or capitalist – always leave something out, and thus become insular:

Just as it often happens that the Church cannot distinguish itself from the world it claims to resist, so we can no longer make a clear separation between the multitude of the universe and the capital from which it seeks to distance itself.

What is left out by these universalising structures, Sloterdijk argues, is the excess, the monstrous. It can even be said to produce the monstrous, as in Walter Benjamin’s formulation that ‘every fascism is the index of a failed revolution’. Bubbles concludes with the question: ‘Where are we when we are in the monstrous?’

Globes is full of accounts of monstrous remainders from failed attempts at ‘spheric expansion’. The problem of evil in the Christian grand narrative of divine omnipotence is an obvious example of a monstrous remainder. Sloterdijk teases out the logic of subterranean Hell in the pre-Copernican conception of the structure of the universe:

if the earth is the centre of the cosmos, and Hades is below-ground, then the universe is ‘infernocentric’.

But Sloterdijk goes much further than simply pointing out contradictions. He makes some startling observations that relate implicitly to our recent past and present. In an extended commentary on Dante’s Inferno, he quotes the ominous inscription on the gates of Dante’s Hell – ‘highest wisdom joined with primal love’ – and suggests that these words, used to describe eternal torture for the ungodly, ‘exposes the complicity between trust in God and cynicism, and may have inspired later camp operators to analogous portal inscriptions’. He is referring, of course, to the notorious slogan on the gates of the Nazi concentration camp at Auschwitz: ‘Arbeit macht frei’ (‘work sets you free’).

Less dramatically, but with more relevance to the critique of individualism that is outlined in Bubbles and runs through the whole of the Spheres trilogy, is Sloterdijk’s characterisation of the figure of Satan as being at the centre of his own world (and thus, by extension, of the pre-Copernican universe). And yet Satan is ‘absolutely external and eccentric’ to the divine order. He is consumed with the ‘self-hating self-pity of the First Lost’. As such, he is the first depressive and the first individual. Satan’s plight is the precursor to the modern condition, atomised and isolated in self-referentiality. Individualism, Sloterdijk seems to suggest, is a Satanism. The dominance of individualism in the mainstream of contemporary thought and its legitimising function in the liberal-capitalist world order represent a resurgence of this monstrous, Satanic remainder, once repressed by Christian universalism, but now achieving near-hegemony in intellectual and political terms.

The other remainder or excess is that which is outside the world order, as currently defined. The ideology of universalism, Sloterdijk argues, requires an outside with which to define itself, an outside that it designates as a barbarous wilderness: a place that is primitive, corrupt or otherwise in need of civilisation by conquest. This is why Christianity, despite its initial persecution by the Roman Empire, was such a perfect fit for the official religion of the later Empire: its institutionalisation was already ‘imperiomorphically constituted’. The Gospel is only ‘good news’ so long as it is new to someone – that is, to the remainder of the world that is not yet converted to Christianity: ‘the Christian truth had the ontological structure of a world truth, and for that exact reason an imperial truth …’

Later, in the age of European imperialism, it became possible to speak about world history. World history is not merely the story of an already-existing world, but the story by which the world becomes conscious of itself: it is the becoming-world of the world as such. Yet this process, and its culmination in the establishment of the contemporary global market, undermines the very sense of distance by which we have, in the past, understood the world’s enormity. The adventurism which propelled the circumnavigation of the world by Ferdinand Magellan in the sixteenth century was tamed and domesticated by routine. By the nineteenth century, the explorer had been replaced by the tourist, as in Jules Verne’s novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873). Distance has been virtually eradicated by successive technological innovations: ‘the world as world has become shadowless and nightless’. Contra W. B. Yeats’s famous line, it is not the centre that cannot hold, but the periphery that has lost its meaning, and with it, the notion of the world as globe. Globalisation, perversely, has destroyed the globe.

This sets the scene, of course, for the ‘plural spherology’ of Foam – the final instalment of Spheres. Those of us without German will have to await Wieland Hoban’s translation, but of the two verdicts I have been seeking, one can already be ventured, in a qualified affirmative. The ‘spheric expansion’ of Sloterdijk’s own ‘spherological’ theses in this volume has not, perhaps, validated the full grandiose extent of his intellectual ambitions, but it has succeeded in breaking new ground, and not collapsing under the weight of its extended metaphors. Perhaps more importantly, it rebukes the timidity of contemporary philosophy with regard to ‘grand narratives’ It attempts to think the very large – the gigantic, even – without slipping into totalising thought and ignoring the excess or remainder that eludes inclusion within even the biggest structures.

The other verdict – whether or not Sloterdijk has achieved a ‘rapprochement’ between the Hegelian-Marxian and Nietzschean-Heideggerian traditions – cannot, on the basis of Globes, be determined. It may be that he has rejected too much of one side to be the person to achieve such a reconciliation. Conversely, the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s reappraisal of Heidegger’s work may be too remote in the other direction. Perhaps the rapprochement that Sloterdijk calls for is impossible. I look forward to seeing whether or not Foam will clarify the question.

Works Cited

Eric Alliez, ‘Living Hot, Thinking Coldly: An Interview with Peter Sloterdijk,’ Cultural Politics, 3 (2007) 307–326.
Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space, translated by Maria Jolas (Beacon Press, 1994).
Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx: The state of the debt, the work of mourning, and the new international, translated by Peggy Kamuf (Routledge, 1994).
Jean-Luc Nancy, Being Singular Plural, translated by Robert D. Richardson (Stanford University Press, 2000).
Willem Schinkel and Lisbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens (editors), In Medias Res: Peter Sloterdijk’s Spherological Poetics of Being (Amsterdam University Press, 2011).
Jean-Paul Sartre, Search for a Method, translated by Hazel E. Barnes (Vintage, 1968).
Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason, translated by Michael Eldred (University of Minnesota Press, 1987).
Spheres, Volume I: Bubbles, translated by Wieland Hoban (Semiotext(e), 2011).
In the World Interior of Capital: For a Philosophical Theory of Globalization, translated by Wieland Hoban (Polity, 2013).
Spheres Volume II: Globes, translated by Wieland Hoban (Semiotext(e), 2014).
Giani Vattimo and Santiago Zabala, Hermeneutic Communism: From Heidegger to Marx (Columbia University Press, 2011).