Peter Sloterdijk
Peter Slotersijk

Against Cynicism

By Adam Kirsch
The New Republic, July 2013

Edited by Andy Ross

Peter Sloterdijk published his Critique of Cynical Reason in 1983. Bubbles, the first volume in a trilogy called Spheres, his magnum opus, appeared in America in 2011. Rage and Time appeared in English in 2010. Now it is followed by You Must Change Your Life. We can begin to come to grips with Sloterdijk as a thinker.

Sloterdijk was born in 1947. As a philosopher, he is 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. The result is cynicism, which he defines in a splendid paradox as enlightened false consciousness.

Sloterdijk's greatest influences are Nietzsche and Heidegger. His goal is to restate our basic quandaries in revelatory new language, to bring them home to us as living experiences instead of stale formulas.

Sloterdijk follows Nietzsche in seeing the plight of humanity after the death of God as a catastrophe the true dimensions of which we do not yet fully appreciate. His impatience with Marxism evolves into a defense of liberal capitalism. He presents communism and Christianity as ideologies driven by resentment and fantasies of revenge.

From earliest times, mankind endowed the world with purpose and time with directionality by means of religion. Then the Enlightenment faith in progress, and the more radical communist faith in revolution, replaced transcendent purposes with immanent ones. The recent crisis of meaning is a crisis of directionality. Sloterdijk thinks we must and can save ourselves. Salvation lies in the realm of technology.

Sloterdijk: "To oppose the cosmic frost infiltrating the human sphere through the open windows of the Enlightenment, modern humanity makes use of a deliberate greenhouse effect: it attempts to balance out its shellessness in space, following the shattering of the celestial domes, through an artificial civilizatory world. This is the final horizon of Euro-American technological titanism."

Human beings need to breathe an atmosphere not just of oxygen, but also of meanings and symbols and practices. The decline of religion meant the fouling of humanity's old mental atmosphere, so that it is no longer breathable. Sloterdijk believes that the only way out is forward. By using technological reason, we have found ways to air-condition our bodies; but we must also find a way to use our reason to build air-conditioning systems for our souls. Only our minds can save us.

Sloterdijk: "Spheres are air-conditioning systems in whose construction and calibration ... it is out of the question not to participate. The symbolic air conditioning of the shared space is the primal production of every society."

In 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. Sloterdijk emphasizes instead that we share our mother's womb with a placenta. The placenta is our first experience of otherness, but a friendly and nurturing otherness, and thus a model for all future spheres of intimacy.

This leads Sloterdijk to the "ovular Platonism" of a preexisting realm to which we long to return. We need to recover, and give to one another, the trust that we once gave our placentas. He says our culture's disregard for the postpartum placenta is both a cause and a symptom of our loneliness: "In terms of its psychodynamic source, the individualism of the Modern Age is a placental nihilism."

The need for meanings, symbols, and contexts is primary for human beings. Sloterdijk reformulates his understanding of religion using the geometric metaphor of the aspiring vertical line. He seizes on the idea of being vertically challenged: "This turn of phrase cannot be admired enough. The formula has been valid since we began to practice learning to live."

For Sloterdijk, it is a mistake to think that people are turning to faith in the divine. The part of religion that still matters to us is its practices: the technology that allows us to reshape our ways of thinking and feeling. Our time is characterized by a widespread embrace of training techniques, physical and metaphysical. "If one looks to the heart of the fetish of religion, one exclusively finds anthropotechnic procedures."

Anthropotechnics combines a technological meaning and a spiritual meaning. Genetic engineering and bionics are one kind of anthropotechnics, a way of working on human beings to improve them. But so too, he insists, are the exercises of Ignatius de Loyola, or the harsh training procedures of Buddhist monks.

For Sloterdijk, when Jesus on the cross cries "consummatum est", we ought to see it as a cry of victory, equivalent to "Made it!" or "Mission accomplished". The conquest of death is the ultimate goal of all spiritual training. Jesus, Buddha, and Socrates won by dying on their own terms.

To identify religion as a form of competitive training is to reimagine history. In the beginning, human beings lived in a swamp of habit and mass mind. A few rare and gifted individuals lifted themselves up and looked back on their old lives in a self-conscious and critical spirit. This is the birth of the subject. Sloterdijk: "Anyone who takes part in a program for de-passivizing themselves, and crosses from the side of the merely formed to that of the forming, becomes a subject."

Humans live on a vertical, with a top and a bottom. Sloterdijk sees the original vertical in the idea of the Übermensch. Nietzsche: "Man is a rope, stretched between beast and Übermensch."

Sloterdijk cites Jesus and Socrates as the supreme self-trainers, at the top of the human vertical. It is central to his vision that supremacy is totally divorced from domination. He imagines that self-mastery is what matters. The image of the stretched rope lives in the absence of the divine. Sloterdijk intuits that the human instinct for verticality can survive the relativizing of space in a godless world.

Sloterdijk: "Even without God or the Superman, it is sufficient to note that every individual, even the most successful, the most creative and the most generous, must, if they examine themselves in earnest, admit that they have become less than their potentiality of being would have required."


AR This is good.