Nigel Thrift on Peter Sloterdijk
Peter Sloterdijk was the focus of a special issue of Society and Space in 2009. He recently gave a lecture at the Tate Modern on ‘Spatialised Immunity‘ as part of their Topologies series. He was due to be introduced by former Society and Space co-editor Nigel Thrift, but unfortunately Nigel was unable to attend. Ralf Rogowski took his place on the day. Thrift did however prepare some opening remarks, which we reproduce with his permission here:
It is both an honour and a pleasure to introduce Peter Sloterdijk today. He is one of the true originals of contemporary thinking with a range that takes in just about every topic known to humanity and a good few that aren’t. I admit to the fact that he is one of my favourite philosophers because he has tried to go somewhere different which is modest and wildly ambitious – both at the same time. So he presents us with a different and intricately labyrinthine cosmology of our surroundings – layered with exquisite detail – and, at the same time, a series of purposely hyperbolic utterances on contemporary societies in a kind of Jekyll and Hyde way. He always strikes me as being rather like a goalkeeper, often times still and composed, confined within a particular sphere of play and concentration, who every now and then makes lunges, saves and kicks, which attempt to push the game in a completely different direction. Anyway, that’s enough of cod metaphors and footballing analogies.
I will begin by spending a few minutes outlining his life and works, concentrating on his intellectual biography. Peter Sloterdijk was born in 1947. He studied philosophy, German studies and history at the University of Munich and the University of Hamburg from 1968 to 1974. In 1975 he received his Ph.D. on the poet Heinrich Heine from the University of Hamburg. In the 1980s he worked as a freelance writer. He published his Critique of Cynical Reason – the book which made his name in Germany – in 1983. He has since published a number of other philosophical works that have been much acclaimed in Germany and elsewhere in Europe, including the three volume Spheres upon which much of our attention will no doubt be focused today. In 2001 he was named chancellor of the University of Arts and Design Karlsruhe, a new media concern founded in 1992. In 2002 he began to co-host “In the Glass House: The Philosophical Quartet”, a programme on the German ZDF television channel devoted to discussing key contemporary issues in some depth.
His books have ranged widely in their concerns and have included disquisitions on topics as diverse as Europe, Rage, Derrida and the Welfare State. Until a couple of years ago, it might have been possible to say that Sloterdijk’s work suffered from a lack of translation into English but that is rapidly becoming no longer true. I count at least nine books to hand with more forthcoming plus a whole series of edited commentaries on his work in book or journal form. Not only is at least the first volume of Spheres now available in translation, but one of his most recent books, You Must Change Your Life, will be published later this year.
And so we come to the nexus of today’s proceedings. The theme of this series has been topology, a notoriously labile term which has the pleasing quality of being both abstract and specific so that, on the one hand, it refers to the study of geometric properties and spatial relations that remain unaffected by a continuous change of shape or size whilst on the other it refers to the topographic study of a given place. It therefore relates well to the theme of today, namely ‘spatialized immunity’, a term emanating from Sloterdijk’s epic three volume Spheres trilogy. Sloterdijk is known for having injected a third horizontal or lateral movement into Heidegger’s account of the world, an insertion of a gathering force which allows him to spatialize Heidegger’s stationary vision, thus producing one of the most original accounts of how the world is that is currently circulating. As a geographer interested in maps, cities and time I find Spheres a particularly powerful account, enlivened by its wonderfully digressive nature which means that it is constantly setting out on new trails. What do I particularly like about Spheres?
First, Sloterdijk provides a theory of an autonomous ‘between’ the internal and the external, howsoever framed, understood as a spatial ‘sphere’ (though this is a purposely inexact term) in which human beings are soluble moments in an ‘elected hollowness’ (Sloterdijk, 2011, p152). In order to stabilize the spaces in which they live and of which they are a part, human beings immunize themselves by constructing bubbles within whose atmospheres there is some certainty of existence but which have their own effects: symbiotic communities are generated complete with a semi- permeable outside and a means of defining psychic interiors both at the same time. It is a kind of spatial cat’s cradle weaving out into an in through the manipulation of space into an ‘environment’ which shows what is possible as a set of practices and routines.
Second, I am quite sure that Sloterdijk’s account of the current densification of place is extraordinarily important: we see place in the modern world being overlaid in all kinds of ways: it is almost as if, having reached the limits of the globe and the consequent idea of an unconnected exterior, humanity is building alternates in different dimensions: new lands. As lateral movement becomes increasingly difficult, an ‘outlandish’ densified global interior is produced in which ‘populations, things and pieces of information interact like air pockets, compressed by [the weight of] the multiplicity of neighbouring bubbles,’ (Morin, 2012, p. 91), generating a foam in which every action reverberates and produces repercussions. One might equally say that everything can become an externality or that there are no externalities left in a permanently active world of synchronization and synchorization .
Third, like Bruno Latour, Sloterdijk breaks out of the tiresome trope of always seeing technology as an alienating and dominating force, artificial and secondary. For him, thought has become part of the culture of will and projects in which ‘the dream of extra-technological existentiality and a purely obedient reflection move towards the side-lines’ (Sloterdijk, 2012, p. 180).
Fourth, I like the fact that he revels in currents of thinking that I do not know enough about: whether that be Eastern philosophy or a German milieu replete with interesting and too little known thinkers. For example, it was thanks to Sloterdijk that I became aware of the work of Heiner Műhlmann, who has been inspirational for me.
Fifth and finally, I like his attempts to write philosophy in a different style. He himself writes about conjuring up an evocative discourse which involves a love of detail and an attempt to give what are often considered as ‘small’ things their due. His style is both literary and scientific.
This paean of praise does not mean that I subscribe to everything in his work. I cavil at the lack of any sense of how certain of the changes that he considers necessary in You Must Change Your Life might be brought about. Like many, I find his critique of the welfare state intriguing but also disturbing, not least in the middle of a recession. I am slightly suspicious of what sometimes seems to be a seer-like stance towards what he calls a ‘dumbfounded epoch’ (Sloterdijk, 2011, p. 155). And so on. But these are small criticisms when set against the overall sweep of his work – as I am sure he will now amply demonstrate. Peter, over to you.
Morin, Marie-Eve 2012 “The Coming-to-the-World of the Human Animal” in Stuart Elden (ed.) Sloterdijk Now, Cambridge: Polity, 77-95.
Sloterdijk, Peter 2011 Neither Sun nor Death, dialogues with Hans-Jürgen Heinrichs, translated by Steve Corcoran, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e).
Sloterdijk, Peter 2012 “The Time of the Crime of the Monstrous: On the Philosophical Justification of the Artificial”, translated by Wieland Hoban, in Stuart Elden (ed.) Sloterdijk Now, Cambridge: Polity, 165-81.