Photograph by Rool Paap
From Radical Philosophy:
With the advent of the global financial crisis in 2008, we would perhaps have imagined that the entire panoply of boosterish rhetoric that subtended it – from aspirational market-oriented self-help guides to outdated theories of rational economic agents – would have vanished overnight, condemned to languish in pools of Marxist tears (of laughter). Of course, while the market may have crashed, the general worry – ‘what next?’ – was left hanging, leaving the response – despite the Arab Spring, despite Occupy, despite mass opposition in the form of global riots and protests – primarily up to an increasingly vicious ruling class to decide. But Sloterdijk – with his whirlwind approach to the history of ideas primarily seen through the prism of complicated relations to Heidegger, Nietzsche and a oft-repeated desire not to be seen as the new Oswald Spengler – has much bigger things on his mind. His thesis in these two recently translated tomes is that no religions exist, only ‘misunderstood spiritual regimens’, that any and all revolutionary responses to the world are doomed to catastrophe because they attempt that which is impossible, and that the only hope lies in understanding that the human sphere consists of three ‘immune systems’: the ‘biological’, the ‘socio-immunological’ (legal, military solutions), and the ‘symbolic or psycho-immunological’ (mental armour). According to Sloterdijk, what human beings do across these different spheres is, above all, practise, in order to ‘optimize their cosmic and immunological status in the face of vague risks of living and acute certainties of death’; a kind of spiritual self-calming across the ages in different formats and with different names, but essentially the same kinds of rituals to which the mystificatory term ‘religion’ has usually been applied.
Sloterdijk’s earlier interventions into debates around eugenics and more recently the welfare state (where Sloterdijk called for tax to be abolished in the name of gifts from the rich) saw him much criticized by Habermas and others (see Andrew Fisher’s account in RP 99), and he is clear that he is not now as interested in what gene therapy and other cutting-edge techniques might permit humanity to do to itself, but rather wants to trace the history of earlier forms of activity relating to self-transformation. Sloterdijk refers to his approach and method, here and previously, as ‘anthropotechnics’, a way of understanding what the ‘practising animal’ does when it does something to itself, and sometimes when it lets something be done to it. (There’s an interesting excursus regarding anaesthetic in You Must Change Your Life which highlights the historical significance of this technique, described as a ‘revolution’.) Sloterdijk is at his most insightful when performing a series of short readings of those earlier thinkers who tackled the question of practice and related concepts such as habit, exercise, repetition – among whom Rilke (after whose poem ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ the larger book is named), Nietzsche, Unthan (an armless violin virtuoso after whom Sloterdijk names a branch of thought, in explicit opposition to the culture of political correctness as ‘cripple anthropology’), Kafka, Cioran, Wittgenstein, Bourdieu – seeing in this literary–philosophical–poetic–sociological lineage a host of useful precursors to his own project.