This is the first Sloterdijk I’ve read, though I’ve always been attracted to the title of Critique of Cynical Reason because it’s got the word “cynical” in it. This volume promises a similar iconoclasm: has the critique of grand narratives, centerpiece of post-totalitarian Europe, itself “already hardened into a comfortable meta-grand narrative” (4)? His proposal really is grand: a philosophy of globalization divided into a “history” of crazy risk-taking (“disinhibition”) and Western imperial expansion from 1492-1945, and a “post-history” in which electronic simultaneity and decolonization together create a space of “inhibitions,” instant feedback, and the “obligatory contrition” (10) enforced on nation-states by international courts of law.
Anyone who likes Adorno’s aphorisms will enjoy Sloterdijk’s wordplay, and his habit of connecting seemingly random details into overarching stories: the “theory of the pirate,” the excurses on Jules Verne and Rilke, the idea that if we switch to solar power, the “romanticism of the explosion” will look in retrospect like “energy fascism” (231). It’s a delightful book, with weirdly defamiliarizing observations on every page. The book’s most vivid section is its depiction of the risk-taking world of the first European explorers, and their literally delusional belief in their own success. Mutinies (and depressive, self-critical thoughts) must be violently suppressed: “Had the Portuguese Magellan … not overruled the objections of the next men in command, marooning and executing Spanish nobles along with the other rebels, he would not have made it unmistakably clear to his people what it means to be on an unconditional outward voyage” (82). This relentless and quasi-psychotic forward orientation survives in modern business practices: “the crews on the discovery ships were the first objects of naïve and effective group modelling processes that were redescribed in the present day as ‘corporate identity’ techniques” (81).
In this stage of globalization, no one can stop the “unleashed visionary energy of the entrepreneur-charlatans. Today, as yesterday, all of these live off their productive errors … Through their auto-hypnotic talents, practical natures manage time and time again to build up empires around themselves from self-deceptions that succeed in the medium term” (83).
Sloterdijk thinks philosophy has underestimated the conflict between the land-bound and the sea-borne in Western thought: to really build your society and economy around ocean navigation, you have to make your culture portable (so explorers beneath foreign skies can still feel like natives of their country of origin), insure everything, speculate constantly, accept that “enlightenment begins at the docks” (87). The medieval universities and the landlocked countries overestimate the importance of nations, of Boden, of dwelling, and they merely look provincial. But Sloterdijk is so persuasive in his slighting of Heideggerian provincialism and his description of the psychotic-entrepreneurial mindset of globalizing Europe that I found the second half of the book, when he describes life inside the giant Crystal Palace of modernity, a little disappointing.
This Crystal Palace was clearly built by visionary psychotics (though fully insured!), so it’s not clear how life inside got so dull. Sloterdijk’s Crystal Palace is like the spaceship in Wall-E, with its fat entitled humans—though of course far less equitable, since so many people today live outside the world of consumer dream. (Whether the global outsiders are being exploited—whether this economic inequality is in fact necessary to consumer society—isn’t clear.) Inside the dome, modern subjects engage in various security-enhancing projects culminating in the desire to become a global celebrity. Despite the humor here, I’m not a big fan of the implication that modern society is decadent—it flattens out real political gains made in this century by (for example) women, non-European races, and alternate sexualities into mere consumer choices. Ho hum, women can vote now.
If you live in a glass house, you want to throw stones at the glass house. Glass houses are fragile and ridiculous. But what if you think you live in a city instead? Or perhaps a civilization? Maybe civilization is super-violent and unsustainable ecologically, but it’s also been, thus far, the vehicle of all human liberation. I’m looking forward to reading more Sloterdijk: the first volume of Sphären (translated as Bubbles) is already out and the other two are on their way. But is there an apocalyptic death wish in that title, with its suggestion that bubbles gotta pop? What if some of the things in consumer society create genuine pleasure (an argument debated by Mark Fisher and Jodi Dean in Reading Capitalist Realism)? Humans live in society—as Sloterdijk does point out, we cannot survive in the empty void. Maybe humans actually breathe more freely in cities, in connected groups open to the air.