Crescent Nebula and the Soap Bubble, photograph by Adam Evans
by David Beer
Bubbles: Spheres I
by Peter Sloterdijk, translated by Wieland Hoban,
Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 663 pp.
According to Peter Sloterdijk, ‘[a]s a nobject, the vulva is the mother of granite’ (302). Where should we start with a statement like that? Indeed, the question of where to start is likely to confront anyone who attempts to write a review of Bubbles, the 650 page cathartic and unravelling first instalment of Sloterdijk’s newly translated spheres trilogy. Fortunately I’m not alone in my uncertainty. In an introduction to a recent collection of work responding to Sloterdijk’s oeuvre, Stuart Elden (2012: 2) observes that ‘Sloterdijk is a difficult, and even at times infuriating, thinker. His ideas can appear immediately accessible and applicable, only to prove difficult to pin down’. Having read Bubbles it is hard to disagree with Elden’s more general observation about Sloterdijk’s work. This is a somewhat frustrating and often very difficult text, at the same time though it is strangely involving and very readable. It is simply packed with ideas. Yet to uncover these ideas the reader is expected to do some hard work in navigating through vast layerings of concepts and some occasionally bewildering passages of text.
This weighty text is the first part of what is seen as Sloterdijk’s defining and most important intellectual contribution. In this particular text the focus is upon small-scale microsphereology. Volumes two and three build upon this foundational text through a focus upon the macrospherology of globes and the plural spherology of foam (see Couture, 2009). The book itself highlights a genuine openness, resourcefulness and creativity in Sloterdijk’s thinking. He pulls together wide-ranging points of reference in his writing, many of which are unexpected and revealing. His use of art in particular opens up a visual imagination that sits alongside a set of knowing encounters with a number of important philosophical figures. Soterdijk carves a way through the tangential possibilities of bubbles by drawing upon this type of intellectual eclecticism. Actually this is something of an understatement, this book runs-riot as it lurches across the major issues of our time. These issues include globalisation on a small scale, the understanding of the divergence of nature into culture, how history shapes the now, how the individual becomes isolated into social connections, and so on. There is a rhythm at work here, with long takes interspersed with short cuts. There are slowly argued explorations of all-sorts of references juxtaposed with sudden, and sometimes disoientating, blasts of philosophical proclamation.
The book itself then is rich in Sloterdijk’s style of play, but what of the ideas themselves? Clearly the author is an authoritative writer and theorist. The work is historically grounded – although some of the paths of causality in the historical lineage do not always convince – and there are moments of significant analytical insight in the book. Sometimes these moments are a little hidden away, formed as they are within the mass rolling together of content. There are some stand out moments though. For example, the book really comes to life in the punchy ten-page section on the ‘Egg principle’. Here we see how various visions of life emergent from the egg has shaped understandings of creation and birth. This moment of real clarity is then followed immediately by a section that positions the book’s spatial dimensions against Heidegger’s Being and Time, with the argument being that what is missing from dominant readings is being and space. We begin to see here what the objective of the text might be and where it might lead. Reader’s are also likely to find much in the discussions of sirens, which become here a symbolic way of understanding seduction and power. By far the most important chapter of the book is the later piece on sound and the sonosphere. This chapter achieves this kind of small-scale, material engagement with spheres that the book promises. In so doing the focus on sound and spheres opens up a sonic engagement with the auditory forces of modernity that tend to be overlooked by social theorists.
Despite the scope and boundlessness of the text, at the centre is a forceful undercurrent that will ensure that it speaks directly to a very broad audience. Put starkly, this is a book about globalisation and modernity. Themes that are likely to draw in a wide readership. This though is an unconventional account of modernity and globalisation told through some unusual and unlikely resources. The narratives might be difficult and uncompromising but this remains a book about these very mainstream social issues. As we find in the introduction, this book, Sloterdijk points out, is about ‘an age of progressive decentralisations’, it is about the ‘shellessness’ of the modern age. It is an attempt to get to grips with the creation and management of this shellessness. As Sloterdijk (25) puts it, in what is probably the most important passage in the book:
Industrial-scale civilization, the welfare state, the world market and the media sphere: all these large-scale projects aim, in a shelless time, for an imitation of the now impossible, imaginary spheric security. Now networks and insurance policies are meant to replace the celestial domes; telecommunication has to reenact the all-encompassing. The body of humanity seeks to create a new immune constitution in an electronic medial skin.
This then is a book about the way we have used spheres, and the imagining of spheres, to organise life in the modern age. That is to generate or attempt to recover a sense of security through bubbles. I would add though that although the above quote appears in the introduction of this book, it actually describes the end-point of the text. Sloterdijk doesn’t reveal much about the new types of bubbles encountered in the ‘electronic medial skin’, rather this book tells the story of our shellessness and the increasing necessity for these new media spheres to be enacted.
Within a quirky and sometimes disorientating book, this central set of problems and issues will ensure that it contains something for readers across disciplines and even outside of academia – Sloterdijk is after all a very public intellectual. There is a granularity and complexity to the book that might get lost but this overarching set of issues will speak to people. Beyond this, readers will find a plethora of other ideas to latch on to, not least in Sloterdijk’s reading of art, history, myth, natural science and philosophy. The core ideas in the text provide a series of jumping off points for readers to explore their own interests across the chapters. And there is much here to explore.
It seems almost inevitable that this translation will have a major impact. This book has the feel of an event or moment in conceptual thought. Although it is not entirely clear which disciplines this will play out within, the book stretches across so many areas that its influence is likely to play out in non-linear patterns. Despite the difficulties of his work it is certainly beginning to feel like this might be Sloterdijk’s moment. Sloterdijk, so popular already in many circles, is now likely to become a fashionable figure in social and cultural theory and, perhaps, as a point of reference across the social sciences and humanities and beyond. There is some evidence in Bubbles that this coming influence is deserved. There are ideas here that should appeal and that should enable a rethinking of conceptual schema – to shed new light on global modernity and how it understand it. It is hard though at times to find and appreciate the substance of the writing, but where it surfaces it demands to be reflected upon. Sloterdijk has some style. He involves the reader in his eclecticism and resourceful openness. This style and intellectual openness are, along with what is actually a set of mainstream concerns, likely to make Sloterdijk an important and increasingly popular reference point over the coming years.
Couture, J. (2009) ‘Spacing emancipation? Or how spherology can be seen as a therapy for modernity’, Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27(1), pp. 157-163.
Elden, S. (ed.) (2012) Sloterdjik Now. Cambridge: Polity.
About the Author:
David Beer is Senior Lecturer in Sociology at the University of York, UK. He is currently writing a book on the relations between new media infrastructures and popular culture. His previous publications include the co-authored book New Media: The Key Concepts (2008, written with Nick Gane) and articles in the journals CITY, Sociology, Cultural Sociology, Mobilities and New Media & Society. He has tentatively started blogging at thinkingculture.wordpress.com.