Satan at the Center and Double Rhizomes: Discussing "Spheres" and beyond with Peter Sloterdijk

January 14, 2014   •   By Tom Boellstorff

Peter Sloterdijk, with the Irvine Sloterdijk Reading Group*


This text has an unusual history of formation. It was authored collectively by Peter Sloterdijk and members of the “Irvine Sloterdijk Reading Group.” Peter Sloterdijk is a German philosopher, television host, cultural analyst, and essayist. He is a professor of philosophy and media theory at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design. Between 1998 and 2004 he published the monumental trilogy Spheres. The trilogy has been heralded as a re-elaboration of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time by some authors and as a completion of a philosophical view of biopolitics by others. In 2011, the first volume of the trilogy was translated into English as Bubbles. The “Irvine Sloterdijk Reading Group” was convened by Tom Boellstorff in the Department of Anthropology at the University of California, Irvine from April–June 2013. This informal reading group brought together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to discuss Bubbles, the first volume of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy. Members of the Irvine Sloterdijk Reading Group who contributed to this publication are: Oliver Berghof, Tom Boellstorff, Caitlin Lustig, Daniella McCahey, Matthew Richard McCoy, Elizabeth Reddy, Daniel Robert Siakel, Diren Valayden, Jason Wilson, and Leah Zani. René Gude, a philosopher based in Holland, was also an invited guest at the discussion.

Rather than a verbatim reproduction of what was an informal and wide-ranging conversation, this text alternates between questions asked by members of the group and responses from Sloterdijk, all of which have been edited for flow. There were several topics that our group found especially interesting: the problem of locating God in a Satan-centric cosmos (Satan being at the innermost level of the earth in classical cosmology); theorizing double rhizomes, or rhizomes that maintain verticality; and thinking through technologies as extensions of former magical practices. Section headings mark topical shifts in the discussion.

A new approach to the question of individuality

Sloterdijk began the discussion with the phenomenon of coincidence. He had, after all, unexpectedly visited a group of scholars at UC Irvine who happened to be studying his text. Beginning from this coincidence, Sloterdijk went on to discuss his current project on the relationship between the “miraculous,” with its theological connotations, to the “wondrous,” with its connotations of pure aesthetics. This included a consideration of how, in Medieval Europe, miracles were commonly understood either as the suspension of natural laws or as unbelievable coincidences. The miraculous, Sloterdijk noted, has become stronger in our day.

Encouraged by Wilson to discuss connections between such miraculous happenings and the affective state of ecstasy, Sloterdijk discussed the kind of interiority that affective response implies, via what he referred to as the paradox of interior spaces — as observed from the inside and outside. Boellstorff followed up with a question about the “biune,” a concept Sloterdijk uses to reconfigure our sense of being. In this view, we are fundamentally not one but an intimate two. Individualist approaches in philosophy and psychoanalysis have failed to recognize this. Sloterdijk’s method, which draws on but also challenges phenomenology and depth psychology, includes projecting the individual’s history to the time before birth. In utero, we are intimately involved with “companions” — the placenta, the maternal voice — and subsequently we make substitutions for these companionships in the human work of creating spheres of “immunological intimacy.”

Boellstorff: So, given this issue of interiority, how does your developing project relate to the notion of the “biune” that appears in the first volume of Spheres — this emphasis on the dual, on the double as a condition of sociality and space?

Sloterdijk: The dual is a new approach to the question of individuality. The individual is not really individual, but instead is always a part of a dyad. Dyads have the uncommon trait that they can be formed with invisible partners, with very few limitations. The companion can be substituted but not die. You can hide the dyad by playing at being an individual, through an imagined concept of self. This is the modern form of life: form an imaginary version of yourself, where you live alone in your apartment, but use your address book to maintain a relationship with the outside, surrounded by companions of one form or another. The address book forms a bubble that belongs to your dyadic periphery. It’s one of the reasons the dyads are able to grow from microspherology to macrospherology. It’s the Bildung, the education or individual growth: microbubbles implode, explode, and return reformatted as bigger entities.

The soul as a microsphere can be englobed in a maximal sphere, a cosmos or theological space. Remember, this is what Sigmund Freud would have called a Trauerarbeit(work of mourning) for metaphysics. The classical soul had God, the maximal globe, as its dyadic partner. But in a more primitive vision of the world, to have a soul meant “to be augmentable” — to be a channel through which spiritual visitors might come in and out.

“Primitive” man never committed the modern error of assuming the individual. The obsession of the primitive has been neutralized in the modern world; we now have this assumption that obsession is necessarily a negative concept. But the ancient soul had a channel for spiritual reality. There was nothing like the individual, but instead a psychological medium that could receive visitors. That’s why obsession is such an important category; it has “mediumistic” qualities. The truth of the psyche means that a visitor is there. Thus, a description of structure of individuality resuscitates a certain kind of “primitive” — not an individual, but a “medium.”

Satan at the Center

Zani: This brings us to another topic that was frequently discussed in our reading group. In your work, what’s your theory of the boundary or membrane? Because bubbles have membrane boundaries, but spheres often do not.

Sloterdijk: In the second volume of Spheres, which deals with globes, I try to show how the first members of “high civilization” made an effort to interpret the cosmos in terms of ultimate roundedness: soul and cosmos belonging together, forming a kind of metaphysical diet with the cosmos: they belong together to the extent that the outer boundaries are the maximal conceivable sphere.

If you turn to the vision of the world in the Middle Ages, you find the classical Aristotelian concept of spherology, according to which the earth is included as one of seven layers of cosmic, ethereal substances that carry the planet. The outermost boundary consists of what they call the Empyrean, the crystal heaven — or, according to Dante, the dwelling place of God and the source of light and creation. There is no real beyond.

This creates ample trouble for positioning God, saints, elected human beings, angels, and all those created in the middle, because they had to be located somewhere, in that vision of the world. The horror of a vacuum was so strong that they could not tolerate the idea of emptiness. Consequently, in this vision of the world everything is full. To be a human being means to live on the surface of the lowest sphere. Yet inside the earth, there are still more layers, down to where Satan has his residence. That’s what you learn by reading Dante — a Satan-centric view of the world.

The medieval vision of the world is Satanocentric. You cannot combine the geological and theological visions of the world; there is a profound contradiction between these two construction principles that compete throughout the Middle Ages. On the one hand, it is evident that the vision of the world has to be theocentric. God has to be at the center. But in which center? The best place in the universe is already occupied by Satan. At the coldest point, Satan constantly cries without being able to cry.

At the same time, however, medieval thinkers had to answer the question of locating the divine resident — a question that could not be resolved within classical metaphysics. I have found dozens of medieval representations of this impossibility. If the earth is in the middle, it constitutes the lowest point of the system; and only the happy few will escape to the Empyreum. The location of the divine could thus not be determined in the classical vision. Classical metaphysics failed. Spherology as cosmology failed. Construct the vision of the world from its own principles and you encounter necessary contradictions. The supralunar world is condemned, inhabited by beings who are condemned.

Reddy: It seems as if contradictions within and between cosmological logics (understood as world visions) are important. How do you see this working?

Sloterdijk: The contradiction is between the Platonic and the Aristotelian world visions. In the Aristotelian vision, the world is a given reality, a spherology; but in the Platonic vision, the world has to be explained by a divine emanation. However, it’s difficult to reach the earth in an emanationist system. The Platonic vision involves a “big bang” from a dense, infinitesimal point, namely God — a kind of minimal and maximal point, a dense point of departure for eternal explosion and diffusion, which at a certain point returns back on itself.

Plotinus refers to this departure and the return as the “pro-hodos” and the “an-hodos.” (Hodos is the Greek word for “way.”) The rays perform both the epistrophe and the way back. Electricians use the concept of the an-hodos to name the electrical component we know today as the “anode.” The concept also calls to mind the second cable in an electrical line: the “grounding.” In the Platonic cosmos, the outermost sphere is pure and unqualified matter, matter without qualities, never reaching the earth. Aristotle, in contrast, begins with the earth. Thus the Aristotelian sphere plus Platonic emanations can lead to odd structures.

Double Rhizomes

McCahey: In addition to the figure of the sphere that is obviously important to your work, we noticed that the motif of trees — such as family trees, the Tree of Life, and the Tree of Wisdom, to name just a few — appears throughout Spheres. How do trees figure into your thinking?

Sloterdijk: People do not only identify with animals; they also have brotherly and sisterly feelings toward plants. Trees are, as it were, the first plants to which you can really relate to. There’s an affinity that probably has something to do with this spherical form of the tree. The tree is, as it were, a double rhizome: a rhizome that has preserved the vertical dimension. If you read Deleuze, by and by you feel a little bit uneasy because the resentment against all hierarchical structures is so strong. You feel that it simply can’t be true, because hierarchies just exist. The most beautiful example that nature has given is the tree, with different physical layers of rhizomatic extension (root structure, branch structure). If you remove the resentment, you’ll find your way back to trees. A rhizome has to come out at some point and see the light.

Nature has delivered a double rhizome. Trees show us the coexistence of unity and multiplicity. In the history of ideas the tree has been used as the richest of metaphors for everything concerning differentiation. Deleuze should have spoken more about bamboo than mushrooms! Bamboo does not deny verticality; on the contrary. Deleuze was seduced by the fact that the biggest forms of life on earth are huge rhizomatic structures, hidden in woods.

This was what Deleuze was looking for: a natural structure that announces modernity at the level of organized form. But this is what we can consider to be his “bastardic” form of thinking (a concept I discussed in my Wellek lecture[i]), in the sense that he denied a kind of procreation that could create asymmetries between parents and offspring. For Deleuze, the only legitimate form of reproduction was cloning; and for this reason, he has trouble with the asymmetric relationships that procreation brings about. This is the highest level of bastardic abstraction!

The companion of perichoresis

McCoy: I have a question about your use of perichoresis; in particular, how it relates to the question of death, and also how to have a better relationship with one’s “companion,” with the biune?

Sloterdijk: I don’t think that the companion dies; he disappears. It’s nice that you take up the idea of perichoresis; it is the core term of the first volume of Spheres. Because with perichoresis, for the first time in the history of European thought, logic has made an effort to overcome the elementaristic fallacy that reality is made of atoms. That “at the end of analysis are the last particles that are alone.” Perichoresis is an argument for the opposite assumption; that from the very beginning there are intertwined particles that are never alone. As such, perichoresis provides the first theological theory about how three things can coexist in the same place.

The same idea has been expressed by metaphors of smell, atmospherics. Historically, Europeans found this coexistence of atmospherics astonishing. That the light of three different candles can melt into each other without diminishing one over any other.

McCoy: But your wager is that the companion is always entwined with you — this penetration is always there. What should we make of that; how should we honor that? Is it something we should just live with, or is it something to which we should be faithful?

Sloterdijk: Consider birthdays. In the ancient Roman structure, genius is outside of one; it is shared, transmitted. Censorinus’sthird-century treatise De Die Natali — On the Birthday — is a standard speech that was handed down as a stereotype of well constructed oration. In it, Censorinus explains what a genius is: a well accompanied companion, from the moment of birth or conception. In Latin, one has a genius. There is therefore the possibility that your genius may be someone else’s later, after your death. As such, one should celebrate its birthday differently from that of the embodied, living self.

But Censorinus is unclear about the question as to what happens afterward. The genius is not supposed to disappear. You can’t say someone is a genius — you can only say that someone has a genius. As such, the birthday celebration is not for the individual, but for the genius. The individual does not deserve a birthday; instead, you should console the individual for having lost another year. The Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran spoke of the inconvenience of being born. The good idea is to celebrate the moment when your genius has made a contract with you. Most moderns don’t know what to do with their birthdays. There is only one birthday celebration that preserves something of the ancient structure: Christmas. It gives a hint as to what should happen in all birthday celebrations.

Technology, metaphysics, magic

Lustig: When I think about what constitutes a biune in my own life, I think about different kinds of technology, such as the social network that I carry around on my smartphone or my laptop, and so on. I think it is common for many people to carry around these items with them always, quite literally as companions. This brings to mind your discussion of tape recorders in Spheres. Can you elaborate on the role of technology in the sphere? Can the individual and technology form a biune?

Sloterdijk: My assumption is that there is nothing in technology that has not formerly been in metaphysics, and nothing in metaphysics that has not formerly been in magic. Rationalization takes us from magic, to metaphysics, to technology. The metaphysics of man are condensed into technical devices. Networks are not satisfactory as models of the human, because networks can consist only of points and lines, and this is not enough to create a livable human form of life. Networks are anorexic tendencies that disenchant. That’s why the notion of the human can add a spatial dimension to the notion of network. We are always surrounded by our own extensions, like the address book I mentioned earlier.

Boellstorff: This reminds me of your discussion of the placental relationship. How might we think about contemporary technologies in terms of a technological placenta, the “clouds” of cloud computing with umbilical cords reaching out to us?

Sloterdijk: With the network talk you cannot reach a spatial metaphor. Cloud metaphors are irresistible to us because they include this spatial reach, this magical dimension of our technologically supported reach.

Wilson: Is this your version of media theory — to move from technology back to magic?

Sloterdijk: The essence of magic is tele-activity. That’s exactly what our technology does. Acting on a distant object — the idea of influence belongs to that magical form of thinking. Magic is all about influence, which we now think about in terms of technology. The stars were thought to have influence in magic systems; now “stars,” i.e., celebrities, are thought to do the same. For the first time we can replace the metaphor of influence with a language of media.

Consider waves, which can cause effects at a distance. Waves are realities, and the funny thing is that the postulate that waves should exist was there thousands of years before it was shown scientifically. That is why tele-activity is not only an anticipation of our modern way of life. We have implemented the magical dimension within our technologically supported reach.

Gude: As a baby you have an entire year during which you can make vocal signs that make things you need magically appear. This as an indispensable presupposition for the later art of speaking. If your first experience in life is that shouting does not help, you won't have confidence in communication, whereas if you are successful you will trust communication.

Boellstorff: In your work, the language of closeness and distance is set aside in an interesting way — that seems to be part of what you are getting at.

Sloterdijk: The existence of human ears provides the proof for the existence of sound, and this is the basic form of action at a distance — a primordial reality. Human connectedness has to go through the ear in the first place. We live in a sphere of sound. Being-in-the-world means living in a soundspace; the reachability of the world is experienced first in a psychoacoustic dimension. That is why Sirens are so dangerous: they promise you the irresistible, and you immediately jump from the boat into the sea, where the transfigured image of the self is offered.

The molecular

Wilson: With your attention to the placenta and time before birth, you seek in Spheres to add stages to a psychoanalytic theory of development. Do you think that psychoanalysis went wrong by focusing on the individual?

Sloterdijk: With psychoanalysis, we get the individualistic fallacy, that individuals and atoms are the last particles out of which the world is made. But this goes too far. We need to assume a more “molecular” basic layer. If we go past the molecule to the atom we lose sight of what we sought to analyze. An empty atom cannot tell you anything.

Since our time has ended, let me refer to our opening discussion to say that miracles do happen — again! We have turned from the wondrous to the miraculous in our conversation here at Irvine, and I thank you for it.

[i] After the “Irvine Sloterdijk Reading Group” was scheduled, the Critical Theory Institute at Irvine selected Sloterdijk to deliver the 2013 Wellek Library Lectures.