The Modern Arts of World-Making

April 6, 2014   •   By Tim Moonen

PETER SLOTERDIJK’S work has received a fitful reception in the English-speaking world — part awe, part puzzlement, part hostility. Until recently, only fragments of the German philosopher’s oeuvre had been translated; while some well-placed observers regard him as a uniquely learned and illuminating thinker, there has been limited critical discussion of his work. But with the quick-fire translation of nine of his books and long essays since 2009, English speakers can now enjoy a wide sample of his provocations. The most recent of these translations is In the World Interior of Capital, first written in 2005, which adds an extravagant footnote to Sloterdijk’s original take on what globalization really means for us.

If a thinker as unruly as Sloterdijk could be said to have a leitmotif, then it is immunity. This underlying concept helps grasp the philosophical and ethical thrust of his writing. Immunity here is not a scientific but a phenomenological concept, in that it refers to the way phenomena show themselves to us in our everyday dealings. We do not have access to a bird’s-eye representation of the world, but instead in each moment of life we are thrown into situations, constantly in the midst of understanding them. From embryo to expiry, humans thus do not, and could not, exist by themselves. Rather they live in conditions of imaginary (and real) embeddedness, embroiled in relationships, habits, and movements out of which meaningful spaces take shape. Resonances with people and objects form a provisional immune layer of normality and reassurance that allows people to dwell and to pursue life projects. This osmotic equilibrium may evolve, amplify, and even rupture in the course of a life. It can also take manifold forms across cultures and epochs. But, for Sloterdijk, it cannot be cast off and must always surround us in some form. Ontologically speaking, we are finite creatures of inhabitation, incapable of infinite or universalistic gestures that incorporate all others into our sphere of affiliation. Self-ascribed cosmopolitans, despite their pretensions to inclusivity, are no less provincial than the rest of us.

The premise of immune self-sheltering pervades In the World Interior of Capital’s absorbing and incisive two-part account of our recent history. Globalization here refers to the five-century process by which humans — Sloterdijk mostly means European men — went from pious pondering about the cosmos, to actually going out into the world and acquiring facts about it. From the book’s sweeping backstory, we learn that earlier scattered and largely closed societies experienced their local context as a symbolic shell that had a stable, eternal, and soothing character. Their native landscapes had a self-reinforcing familiarity that allowed humans to be open toward — and concerned about — the way life unfolds. But for the post-Columbus “pioneers of world-disclosure,” by contrast, each new discovery undermined the globe as a place of security and certainty, filling it with doubt, accident, and unfathomability. These secular missionaries (the merchants, pirates, explorers, scientists, travel writers, and tourists) no longer experienced their local origin as the center of a harmonious whole. Instead, their vernacular origins appeared as just one point within a homogenous “outside” space, monstrous in its scale and often frightening in its fierceness and indifference (not least the inhospitality of the high seas, the wilderness, and the tropical diseases). The world they were discovering, conquering, and, as Martin Heidegger put it, representing “as picture,” was one without an enclosing fortification or final salvation. Such a radically unsettling new perception of the world is, for Sloterdijk, what marked out the anthropology of the modern period more than any other.

Signs of life’s apparently contingent, dynamic, and groundless character were met by an epistemic counter-reaction. In the final chapters of the book’s first half, Sloterdijk vividly illustrates how static, substantial, and earthbound ways of thinking about the planet took hold. An upgraded idea of “truth” emerged as a technical procedure to accompany the new task of researching and uncovering the hidden facts of the world. The boom in maps offered a two-dimensional overview to master the terrain, first conceptually and later by armed force. Groups joined forces to create “nations” — newly meaningful (and periodically obsessive) place-based solidarities in an otherwise indifferent world. Cultures invoked delusional biological foundations to prove their superiority (and then, more recently, their unity). With 19th-century industrialization, capitalism’s capacity to offer experiences and provisions within a controlled environment saw it, too, take on some of the gentle, intimate, immune-boosting properties of religion. 

But perhaps the most powerful and enduring defensive rearguard that Sloterdijk observes is the way humans came to view themselves. In the 15th to 19th centuries, pirates, scientists, and traders had become global campers, whose life could only be existentially digested with the help of palliatives such as Christianity, patriotic loyalty, and empirical documentation. This newfound groundlessness gave rise to notions of humans as subjects — an image of thought that explained human action not as passion or compulsion, but as the self-transparent “voice of reason” with its own sensible and original insight. Sloterdijk draws on Michel Foucault to explain how the moral-philosophical belief in rationality and agency reflected a desire to establish humans as the final authority and secure a foundation for all active, outgoing behavior.

The discovery of the self in the modern period was therefore not primarily an instrument of excessive self-repression, as is often presumed. In this and other respects, Sloterdijk is in agreement with the late Foucault and his arguments against the “repressive hypothesis” in matters of sexuality, and also power more broadly. Instead, individuals deployed habits of selfhood as a platform to justify their actions in the world. Man himself became the master. For Sloterdijk, many of modernity’s most important political manifestations — colonialism, genocidal violence, and emancipatory revolution against nobilities — are best understood as the outcome of people coming to see themselves as actors in an observable and categorizable present. Independent, free-standing selves felt liberated to create better realities, released from medieval restrictions imposed by others. What unites the chief agents of the expansionary modern world — from Columbus to Lenin — is their self-persuasion to roll up their sleeves and to get “out there” and change the defective world, as Timothy Morton has also argued. 

This is not to say that modern extroverts simply willed their actions into existence. External stimuli, apparatuses, and confidants were of critical importance. Sloterdijk claims that money, specifically the credit and debt system, provided much of the affective risk-taking impetus — what he calls the “vertical tension” — for global ventures and intercontinental traffic. Later, other scaffolds arrived to motivate and mobilize us to act. From 1848 to 1968, radical intellectuals provided ample ideological incentives, persuading many to align with iron laws of history to accomplish political goals. Their corporate successors at McKinsey and BCG have since produced their own tools for overcoming doubt and indecision in the competitive marketplace. We may presume that the world consists of self-governing subjects, but each passing chapter shatters another illusion of autonomy with reminders of our surrounding technical and social prostheses.

The end-game of globalization 

Like it or not, says Sloterdijk in the book’s second half, we are globalized and there is no going back. The earth has now been circumnavigated and overlaid by centuries of back-and-forth traffic between distant parts of the globe. All cultures are forced to mediate and negotiate with others on this densely compressed and synchronous orb. We are seen more than we are seeing, more affected than affecting. We are all too aware of our shared co-existence, which exposes us to the uneasy apprehension that our life chances are an arbitrary outcome of location. From rapper Macklemore’s misty-eyed verses against homophobia, to soccer player Anton Ferdinand’s legal recourse against a racial slur, globalized rights politics and moral frameworks are saturated by demands to behave responsibly toward all human others.

Sloterdijk charts a moderate path between critique and affirmation of this state of affairs. We are only just realizing that we are effectively stuck in an indefinite “overtime” at the end of an imperial and unilateral history of pre-emptive strikes. Our shared residency on earth may not mean we live in a global village or in global homogeneity, but we do certainly receive repercussive feedback for any action we take. Grand-scale wars and trade embargoes have largely been replaced by local incidents, conflict management, and disaster resilience. Vigorous democratic politics is substituted by mood fluctuation managers. In a context where the state borderlines have been drawn, the cities built and the identities primed, politics can only be tactical, collaborative, networked, and interest-led, and never too demanding of involved parties. On this basis, one presumes that for Sloterdijk the Crimea furore is merely the exception that proves the norm. 

Our immune microsphere has evolved, too. Our therapeutic surroundings are uniquely and unprecedentedly individualized. In the post-1989 period, people have largely detached their feelings of deep identification from nations, parties, and other political formulae. According to Sloterdijk, we now live in a world of reciprocity, inhibition, and non-committal boredom, in an “individualistic immune order” beset by personal opinions, proudly displayed traits and tastes, and a frivolous “why not?” (#YOLO) approach to life. Our world is hyper-insured. All actually risky or passionate activities are off the table, which results in the perverse stimulation and relishing of those rare moments of uninsured disturbance (from the fate of MH370, to cold weather snaps).

What is to be done?

This situation demands a careful reappraisal of what constitutes a constructive 21st-century politics and ethics. Once again Sloterdijk refuses to endear himself to the remnants of the institutional Left. Like fellow travelers Foucault and Gilles Deleuze, he does not believe that “actually existing socialism” ever offered an alternative to liberal capitalist rule or desire. He sees the 150-year socialist-communist project as more of an underperforming rival branch for consumer needs — the Woolworths of affective insulation. Like philosopher John Gray he insists that the stereotype of the lazy rich is itself lazy and obsolete, given the uncertainty of stock investments and the working hours demanded within high-paying sectors. Beyond the partisan left, Sloterdijk is also disparaging of contemporary academia, much of whose work betrays “the vengeful joy of the melancholic who compiles an archive of evidence to show that the world has gone wrong.” He even regards the cottage industry of subaltern and critical theory as a market provider meeting demand for virtuous anger at “the system,” albeit whose product appeal is set to “run out of steam,” as fellow traveler Bruno Latour has suggested. Concurring with new work by Nigel Thrift and Ash Amin, his long view posits that relentlessly critical outlooks on the world only serve the tribe of “apocalypticists, tragedians [and] defeatists,” who are always less effective in their capacity to make worlds and gain followers.

Sloterdijk’s damning assessments have invited hasty retorts, many of which depict him as an old-fashioned conservative, a covert Christian anti-feminist, a market worshipper, or even a crypto-fascist. These interpretations are wide of the mark. Apparently unaccustomed to work of this disciplinary and anthropological breadth, some commentators have reacted with flimsy ripostes that sometimes verge on willful misreading. Readers of In the World Interior of Capital in search of apologetics for past regimes or for the status quo will be disappointed. A few illustrations suffice: Sloterdijk is never shy to point out that the central event of the last half-millennium was the (often brutal) plundering of the world by mercantile and imperial forces; he has no truck with economistic thinking that justifies its actions in the name of computed future impact; he ridicules the macho aspirations of foreign policy hawks; he warns of the affection political and business leaders feel for Singapore-style authoritarian government; he addresses the extremely high disparity in life chances, including in the developed world, where poverty has ostensibly been rendered invisible; he criticizes the vast rise in industrial animal killing techniques; he takes Nietzsche’s “God is dead!” declaration seriously and argues that the “opportunistic cults” of monotheism have become semi-unemployed relics compared to other modes of belief; he regards American capitalism as an elaborate anti-depressant regime; and his view of globalization fully concedes that a minority’s high-energy travel and excessive comfort needs necessarily excludes the majority from partaking in the spoils. Whatever we may think of these hyperbolic observations, they do not belong to an essentialist or reactionary onlooker.

On the other hand, In the World Interior of Capital does confirm that Sloterdijk sits uneasily on the bookshelf next to advocates of resistance and world improvement. For one, Sloterdijk actually supports the trend of mutual inhibition and modesty where politics is concerned, given that the drama of human and environmental co-existence has barely begun. Misguided terrorists and doctrinal neo-liberal democratizers are just two counterexamples of aggressive messianists who seek to disrupt our inhibited global culture. Both groups are destined to be disappointed in the long run precisely because they haven’t grasped that a fully orbited world cannot be wielded to one’s whim. To critical scholars and security partisans alike, this may all sound unbearably middle-of-the-road. But Sloterdijk is urging us to step back and remind ourselves that on a planet where social democracy has been the exception and totalitarianism the rule, our complacent routines can make us vulnerable to romanticizing harsher or more demagogic times.

Neither does Sloterdijk indulge the crude egalitarian fantasies that implicitly inform the contemporary all-inclusive, “buy one get one free” appetite. He argues instead that the habit ecologies in which people are immersed lend them “different speeds, differing intensities and different paths of becoming,” which afford access to differential knowledge and capability. Those with the faster speeds will inevitably be the first movers in new economic or cultural regimes, setting the terms for the rest to catch up, imitate, or revolt against. This mimetic asymmetry shows up irrespective of our political judgments. Sloterdijk is not saying that first movers ought to be followed or respected as a matter of course because they possess an inherent merit or originality. He is simply making the modest claim that, whether in Pyongyang or Kreuzberg, people will always be training and practicing in discrete modes and at uneven rates, producing hierarchies that can only be resolved by adjustment or elimination. Rather than succumbing to the religious or metaphysical temptation to reject innovation and all things new, the task is to train ourselves to reach new collective heights without the profound sense of guilt and self-hatred that disfigures identity culture. Thankfully, we can no longer embark on unilateral projects in the world, but nevertheless we can embark on adventures that bring us into resonance with a wider bandwidth of the world around us. 

Sloterdijk’s contribution is therefore a profoundly ethical one. His ambition takes us beyond the here and now, but does not hide from the latent shame of “never rebelling enough” against the ills we see all around us. His response to this chagrin is not to try and reinject some drama into our attention-deficient multilateral world, as philosophers such as Heidegger and Slavoj Žižek have attempted in their own ham-fisted ways. Instead, Sloterdijk offers a conceptual roadmap for how to prime ourselves for a more experimental and less resentful existence, aimed primarily at the sedentary middle-class majorities in Western societies, whose plainest condition after the financial crash is neither poverty nor crisis, but a passive and low-grade attachment to the frayed fantasy of the good life. Rather than lose ourselves in trivia, moralism, and simplification, Sloterdijk proposes in the closing passages that we would do better to be creative with our immersion in shared complexity and to overcome our self-obsession. The task of redesigning and recomposing the interiorized immune milieu wrought by globalization may, then, become the real yardstick for living sustainably in the third millennium.

Tim Moonen is a writer, based in London.