John Gray

Bub­bles: Spheres, Vol­ume 1: Mi­cro­spherol­ogy by Peter Slo­ter­dijk Globes: Spheres, Vol­ume 2: Macro­spherol­ogy by Peter Slo­ter­dijk Foams: Spheres, Vol­ume 3: Plu­ral Spherol­ogy by Peter Slo­ter­dijk and nine other books by Peter Slo­ter­dijk

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - John Gray

In “The Plunge and the Turn,” the first chap­ter of Not Saved: Es­says Af­ter Hei­deg­ger, the Ger­man philoso­pher, polemi­cist, and some­time tele­vi­sion host Peter Slo­ter­dijk re­calls walk­ing around the cam­pus of Bard Col­lege, “one of the aca­demic in­sti­tu­tions in the state of New York fa­vored by stu­dents from the up­per-mid­dle classes,” and dis­cov­er­ing “al­most ac­ci­den­tally” a ceme­tery con­tain­ing the grave of Han­nah Arendt. At the time, he re­ports, “I was in the process of be­gin­ning to con­tem­plate whether I should take up the ex­pected call for a pro­fes­sor­ship in Ger­many.” These ruminations on his fu­ture ca­reer path led Slo­ter­dijk to con­sider the dif­fer­ent places oc­cu­pied by pro­fes­sors in “the Old World” and “the United States of Amer­ica, the hy­per­bolic Euro­pean colony.”

The ex­is­tence of “a ceme­tery of pro­fes­sors” fills him with amaze­ment: “What Euro­pean pro­fes­sor would today be laid to rest at a univer­sity’s own ceme­tery?” The discovery of Arendt’s grave pro­vokes a con­trast with Hei­deg­ger’s cho­sen rest­ing place:

Pro­fes­sor Hei­deg­ger’s grave is not found on cam­pus but rather in a ru­ral ceme­tery, not in a univer­sity town but rather tucked away in a lit­tle town with a pi­ous name, not in the vicin­ity of lec­ture halls and li­braries where the philoso­pher had been at work but rather not far from the houses and fields of his child­hood, as though the tenured pro­fes­sor at the il­lus­tri­ous Al­bertLud­wigs-Univer­sität re­fused mov­ing to the ur­ban world even in ex­tremis.

The les­son Slo­ter­dijk thinks can be drawn from these graves is not al­to­gether clear. At points he seems to be crit­i­cal of Hei­deg­ger’s choice of rest­ing place, which could be con­strued as re­veal­ing a pref­er­ence for pro­vin­cial qui­etude over en­gage­ment with the his­tor­i­cal forces of his time. At the same time—pos­si­bly bear­ing in mind Hei­deg­ger’s en­gage­ment with Nazism— Slo­ter­dijk seems to de­tect an en­nobling sig­nif­i­cance in this re­treat:

Wasn’t his vil­lage a se­cret out­post of the civ­i­tas Dei? And isn’t this the rea­son why his grave could not be lo­cated on a cam­pus or in a city? This grave be­longs to the coun­ter­world, the non­con­formist, ques­tion­ing church that is con­cealed in the shad­ows of the vis­i­ble, pon­tif­i­cat­ing one.

On bal­ance, it seems that Slo­ter­dijk finds Hei­deg­ger’s choice fit­ting for a philoso­pher “who had no in­ter­locu­tor among his con­tem­po­raries in the twen­ti­eth cen­tury” and en­tered “into a di­a­logue with his only two equals in the Western tra­di­tion,” Plato and Au­gus­tine.

At present Slo­ter­dijk is Pro­fes­sor of Phi­los­o­phy and Aes­thet­ics at the Karl­sruhe School of De­sign. Un­like Hei­deg­ger he has avoided com­mit­ting overtly to any po­lit­i­cal party. Yet through­out most of his ca­reer he has been a prom­i­nent and con­tro­ver­sial pub­lic fig­ure, en­gag­ing force­fully in de­bates about the wel­fare state (he has ad­vo­cated the abo­li­tion of taxes), ge­netic engi­neer­ing (he seems to support hu­man ge­netic al­ter­ation), im­mi­gra­tion (he was a stri­dent critic of Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel’s refugee pol­icy), and other is­sues. In 1999 he clashed with Jür­gen Haber­mas, who at­tacked him for echo­ing as­pects of Nazi dis­course when in “Rules for the Hu­man Park” he used terms such as “se­lec­tion” and “breed­ing” to sug­gest that fu­ture gen­er­a­tions might be shaped by some ver­sion of eu­gen­ics. More re­cently Slo­ter­dijk has been crit­i­cized for ap­pear­ing to give in­tel­lec­tual le­git­i­macy to a ris­ing cur­rent of Ger­man na­tion­al­ism. None­the­less his po­lit­i­cal think­ing—like his phi­los­o­phy as a whole—has al­ways been un­sys­tem­atic, dif­fuse, and hard to de­fine.

Born in 1947, he stud­ied at the uni­ver­si­ties of Mu­nich and Ham­burg, where he re­ceived his doc­tor­ate in 1975. In the late 1970s he spent some years in In­dia as a dis­ci­ple of the In­dian guru Osho, oth­er­wise known as the Bagh­wan Shree Ra­jneesh. In 1983, hav­ing re­turned to Ger­many to be­come an in­de­pen­dent scholar, Slo­ter­dijk pub­lished his first ma­jor philo­soph­i­cal work, the one-thou­sand-page Cri­tique of Cyn­i­cal Rea­son, a best-seller that sold more copies than any other phi­los­o­phy book in Ger­many since World War II. By the early 1980s the world-storm­ing rad­i­cal­ism of the stu­dent move­ments of the Six­ties had in some mea­sure given way to world-weary res­ig­na­tion. Against this “cyn­i­cism,” Slo­ter­dijk rec­om­mended the “kyn­i­cism” of Dio­genes, the an­cient Greek philoso­pher who was re­puted to have shown his con­tempt for con­ven­tional val­ues by pub­licly mas­tur­bat­ing and telling Alexan­der the Great to stop block­ing his light.

For ten years, be­tween 2002 and 2012, Slo­ter­dijk hosted a pop­u­lar tele­vi­sion show, Im Glashaus: Das Philosophis­che Quar­tett (In the Glass House: The Philo­soph­i­cal Quar­tet). Along­side these pub­lic in­ter­ven­tions, he has main­tained a prodi­gious rate of in­tel­lec­tual pro­duc­tion. His Spheres tril­ogy runs to over 2,500 pages, and he has writ­ten nu­mer­ous shorter works, only a few of which— Stress and Free­dom, Philo­soph­i­cal Tem­per­a­ments, and In the Shadow of Mount Si­nai, for ex­am­ple—have been trans­lated into English. Over­all he has pro­duced some fifty books.

For all his pro­lix­ity, Slo­ter­dijk’s con­tri­bu­tion to phi­los­o­phy re­mains elu­sive. One rea­son is his style. Prais­ing Richard Rorty, Slo­ter­dijk has de­scribed the late Amer­i­can prag­ma­tist philoso­pher as a thinker

from whom one could learn why a philoso­pher with an un­der­stand­ing of the times must have the courage to strive for sim­plic­ity: only in a jar­gon-free lan­guage can one dis­cuss with one’s con­tem­po­raries why we, as mem­bers of mod­ern civ­i­liza­tion, may not have en­tered a Golden Age.

It is good ad­vice, which Rorty fol­lowed in his writ­ings. But Slo­ter­dijk has done the op­po­site, adopt­ing a tor­tu­ously com­pli­cated style that ob­scures any clear ideas his writ­ings may con­tain. Con­sider the clos­ing lines of Not Saved: Es­says Af­ter Hei­deg­ger:

To have grasped hold of a ground in the ex­ist­ing du­al­ity: this much au­tochthony or an­chor­ing in the real must also be re­tained, even if phi­los­o­phy con­tin­ues to vig­i­lantly pur­sue its in­dis­pens­able es­cape from the em­pir­i­cal com­mune. For thought, it is now a mat­ter of work­ing through the ten­sion be­tween au­tochthony (ab ovo and in re­gard to the com-

mu­nity) and lib­er­a­tion (in re­gard to death or the in­fi­nite) anew.

What this means is any­one’s guess. The dif­fi­culty is not in trans­lat­ing the text from Ger­man; there is gen­eral agree­ment that English-lan­guage trans­la­tions of Slo­ter­dijk’s works are of high qual­ity. In­stead the prob­lem lies in his mode of writ­ing, in which ar­gu­ment takes sec­ond place to a rhetoric de­ploy­ing ab­struse ter­mi­nol­ogy and self-in­vented ne­ol­o­gisms. The mon­u­men­tal tril­ogy reads more like a con­vo­luted prose poem than an ex­er­cise in philo­soph­i­cal dis­course. The ef­fect is some­times comic. “Dif­fer­ent peo­ple,” Slo­ter­dijk writes, “ex­pe­ri­ence them­selves first of all as dif­fer­ent odors.” He con­tin­ues:

The et­y­mo­log­i­cal kin­ship be­tween the Latin words odor (“smell”) and odium (“ha­tred”) points from a dis­tance to the nasal clash of civ­i­liza­tions . . . . Ev­ery mer­do­cratic space, ev­ery here, ev­ery­thing ours, is a king­dom of its own; it forms an au­ratic monad that catches its in­hab­i­tants in a par­tic­u­lar un­der­ly­ing mood and im­preg­nates them with the whiff of the smellscape. What came to be thought of—some­what wil­fully, spec­u­la­tively and ten­den­tiously—as na­tional spir­its in eigh­teenth-cen­tury Europe are there­fore, ini­tially and mostly, na­tional smells or gases . . . . The pal­ing odor-au­ratic lo­cal mood is re­placed through the es­tab­lish­ment of a na­tional in­for­matic cli­mate sys­tem whose pur­pose is to en­sure the large so­ci­ety’s af­fec­tive, the­matic, toxic and thus do­mes­tic po­lit­i­cal self-ven­ti­la­tion . . . . It would be easy to show that what the ini­tially press-sup­ported, then later ra­dio-sup­ported na­tional cli­mate cre­ators do is, in many ways, noth­ing but a trans­po­si­tion of the com­munes’ la­trinocen­trism to a na­tional and re­gional level.

What is en­ter­tain­ing in this pas­sage is not the sug­ges­tion that na­tional cul­tures are con­structed from “smells or gases,” an as­ser­tion that re­lies chiefly on a “kin­ship” be­tween two Latin words, or ne­ol­o­gisms such as “la­trinocen­trism” and “mer­do­cratic.” In­stead the droll ef­fect comes from the use of the words “there­fore” and “thus,” which in­ject an ap­pear­ance of logic into what is, at bot­tom, an ex­er­cise in word­play. In this re­gard Slo­ter­dijk has some­thing in com­mon with the Slove­nian philoso­pher Slavoj Žižek, an­other pro­lific writer in the shadow of Hei­deg­ger. In both writ­ers a provoca­tive style is used to project an im­age of orig­i­nal thought, when what is be­ing pre­sented is a suc­ces­sion of vari­a­tions on fa­mil­iar Hei­deg­ge­rian themes.1

Slo­ter­dijk re­gards Hei­deg­ger as a thinker of world-his­tor­i­cal stature. He ac­cepts that Hei­deg­ger’s in­ter­ac­tion with Nazism in the mid-1930s poses a prob­lem but thinks it was oc­ca­sioned by a tem­per­a­men­tal flaw: “Hei­deg­ger was car­ried away by im­pe­rial delir­ium and wanted to en­joy be­ing a bigshot.” The im­pli­ca­tion is that Hei­deg­ger’s Nazi pe­riod was not much more than

1I dis­cussed Žižek’s ver­sion of Hei­deg­ge­rian think­ing in these pages in “The Vi­o­lent Vi­sions of Slavoj Žižek,” July 12, 2012. an ill-judged ex­er­cise in op­por­tunism. Never very plau­si­ble, this once com­mon view has been con­futed by writ­ings of Hei­deg­ger’s that have ap­peared since Slo­ter­dijk en­dorsed it in the Ger­man edi­tion of Not Saved in 2001. The pub­li­ca­tion of the “black note­books” in 2014 should have put an end to any sug­ges­tion that Hei­deg­ger’s em­brace of Nazism was un­con­nected with cen­tral fea­tures of his think­ing. Hei­deg­ger’s con­cep­tion of “the world­less­ness of Jewry” demon­strates that his flir­ta­tion with Nazism was not ac­ci­den­tal.2 How­ever, it would seem that Slo­ter­dijk has not found it nec­es­sary to al­ter his view of Hei­deg­ger in light of these dis­cov­er­ies. In a con­fer­ence on “Hei­deg­ger and the Jews” held in Paris in Jan­uary 2015, he ad­dressed the is­sue only to­ward the end of his pre­sen­ta­tion with the ob­ser­va­tion—re­ported and para­phrased by a stu­dent who was there—that “any­thing Hei­deg­ger wrote af­ter Sein und Zeit need not con­cern us much.”3

While he treats it as an er­ror of judg­ment, Slo­ter­dijk al­lows that Hei­deg­ger’s Nazi pe­riod also re­vealed de­fects in the philoso­pher’s think­ing. But rather than sug­gest­ing his com­plic­ity in the de­mo­niza­tion of Jews, whom Hei­deg­ger de­scribed as em­body­ing the worst ills of the age, these flaws had to do with his ne­glect of the spa­tial re­la­tion­ships be­tween peo­ple as es­sen­tial el­e­ments in how hu­mans live in the world. Mak­ing be­ing-in-time the cen­tral fea­ture of hu­man life, Hei­deg­ger had given in­suf­fi­cient at­ten­tion to the fact that hu­mans be­come what they are in an on­go­ing en­counter with other hu­man be­ings. We are not separate in­di­vid­u­als trundling along a soli­tary tra­jec­tory to death, as Hei­deg­ger seemed to sug­gest in Be­ing and Time (1927). From our months in the womb to the mo­ment of our death, we in­habit spa­ces formed by and shared with other peo­ple. Ac­cord­ing to Slo­ter­dijk, ne­glect of this fact played a part both in Hei­deg­ger’s “lapse” into Nazism and in the cel­e­brated “turn” in his later work:

From 1934, Hei­deg­ger knew, even if only im­plic­itly, that his en­thu­si­asm [Bewegth­eit] for the Na­tional So­cial­ist up­ris­ing had been a Be­ing-in-the-slip­stream: here time had be­come space . . . . Hei­deg­ger’s late work dis­creetly draws the con­se­quences of the lapse.

How a sup­posed con­fla­tion of time and space could have in­formed Hei­deg­ger’s “lapse” is not ex­plained. But Slo­ter­dijk’s project in Spheres is an at­tempt to rem­edy Hei­deg­ger’s con­fu­sion: “The project of Spheres can also be un­der­stood,” he writes, “as an at­tempt to sal­vage—at least in one es­sen­tial as­pect—the project Be­ing and Space, which was tucked into Hei­deg­ger’s early work as a sub­theme, from its en­tomb­ment.” Pub­lished be­tween 1998 and 2004, rang­ing from pre­his­tory to the present

2See Peter E. Gor­don, “Hei­deg­ger in Black,” The New York Re­view, Oc­to­ber 9, 2014. Gor­don’s sum­mary of Hei­deg­ger’s in­tel­lec­tual devel­op­ment can­not be im­proved upon: “The banal prej­u­dices of a pro­vin­cial child­hood were not dis­solved through ed­u­ca­tion but only grew more ex­pan­sive and as­sumed the vac­u­ous grandeur of world­his­tor­i­cal gen­er­al­i­ties.”

3See David Kretz, “Hei­deg­ger and the Jews,” Die Bär­liner, March 3, 2015. and freely cross­ing dis­ci­plinary bound­aries, the richly il­lus­trated tril­ogy ad­dresses a wide va­ri­ety of themes. Be­gin­ning with re­flec­tions on Sir John Everett Mil­lais’s 1886 paint­ing Bub­bles, which shows a small boy en­tranced by a soap bub­ble, Slo­ter­dijk goes on to dis­cuss an “erotic-ro­man­tic” four­teenth-cen­tury verse novella, the life of the four­teenth-cen­tury Ital­ian mys­tic Cather­ine of Siena, the Crys­tal Palace in mid-Vic­to­rian Lon­don, Greek fu­neral urns, “neg­a­tive gy­ne­col­ogy,” var­i­ous cul­tural un­der­stand­ings of the um­bil­i­cal cord and pla­centa, the French En­light­en­ment philoso­pher La Met­trie’s con­cep­tion of the hu­man an­i­mal as “an en­light­ened ma­chine,” the role of the Sirens in the twelfth book of Homer’s Odyssey, and Buck­min­ster Fuller’s ge­o­desic domes, along with many cu­riosi­ties of art and de­sign. The two fur­ther vol­umes in­clude re­flec­tions on “the meta­physics of telecom­mu­ni­ca­tion,” in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal shipping and glob­al­iza­tion, the his­tory of head­gear, the na­tion­build­ing func­tions of la­trines, the vial of Parisian air that Mar­cel Duchamp con­veyed to New York, air-con­di­tion­ing and air-war­fare as quintessen­tially mod­ern projects, ro­bots that play ta­ble ten­nis, space sta­tions, hot­houses, is­lands, and a mul­ti­tude of other top­ics. Through­out these lengthy re­flec­tions Slo­ter­dijk claims to be rec­ti­fy­ing Hei­deg­ger’s un­der­es­ti­ma­tion of space as an es­sen­tial fea­ture of hu­man ex­is­tence. He out­lines his project in char­ac­ter­is­tic style:

Un­der the spell of Hei­deg­ger’s ex­is­ten­tial an­a­lyt­ics of time, it has mostly been over­looked that this is rooted in a cor­re­spond­ing an­a­lyt­ics of space, just as the two in turn rest on an ex­is­ten­tial an­a­lyt­ics of move­ment. That is why one can read an en­tire li­brary about Hei­deg­ger’s doc­trine of tem­po­r­al­iza­tion [Zei­t­i­gung] and his­toric­ity—on­tochronol­ogy—and a few stud­ies on his prin­ci­ples of moved­ness [Bewegth­eit] and on­toki­net­ics, but noth­ing—aside from un­quotable pietis­tic para­phrases—on his work to­wards a the­ory of the orig­i­nal ad­mis­sion of space, or on­to­topol­ogy.

Spheres is an at­tempt at such a the­ory. But in what sense does this over­sized scrap­book of thoughts and im­ages of­fer any kind of the­ory? Through­out the tril­ogy facts are se­lected in or­der to il­lus­trate in­dis­tinct gen­er­al­iza­tions, not as ev­i­dence for or against testable propo­si­tions. “Just as ev­ery group in­vol­un­tar­ily brings about its self-iso­la­tion in its own sound world, as if con­cealed by a fence of in­com­pre­hen­si­bil­ity,” Slo­ter­dijk writes, “ev­ery cul­tural unit spon­ta­neously in­su­lates it­self through its modus vivendi or its nor­ma­tive con­sti­tu­tion.” How are such far-reach­ing claims to be as­sessed? In his most re­cent book, The Aes­thetic Im­per­a­tive, Slo­ter­dijk ap­plies his spa­tial ac­count to mu­sic. “Spherol­ogy” en­ables the cre­ation of

an in-depth mu­si­col­ogy that would em­brace both the mu­si­cal art of the past and con­tem­po­rary mu­sic . . . . We could say that the in­di­vid­u­ated or un­happy ear con­tin­ues ir­re­sistibly try­ing to move away from the

real world to­wards a space of in­ti­mate a-cos­mic rem­i­nis­cences.

Is Slo­ter­dijk say­ing that mu­sic is an at­tempt to re­cap­ture sounds heard in the womb? If so he pro­vides no rea­son for ac­cept­ing this claim, or even for tak­ing it se­ri­ously.

Some of Slo­ter­dijk’s as­ser­tions are not much more than ex­pres­sions of Euro­pean cul­tural prej­u­dices. Dis­cussing Amer­i­can re­li­gion, he writes of “the count­less evan­gel­i­cal sects” in which

Christ is trans­formed into a de­mon of suc­cess with strong mon­e­tary skills, as­sum­ing he does not di­rectly in­ter­vene in life, on cam­era, as a mirac­u­lous healer. And this re­lapse is ob­served year af­ter year among Chris­tian pil­grims visit­ing Jerusalem from all over the world, who are oc­ca­sion­ally cast into con­fused states by the sites of the pas­sion and re­quire the em­pa­thy of Jewish psy­chi­a­trists.

How such ob­ser­va­tions could val­i­date any the­ory is un­clear.

Much of the tril­ogy reads like a mon­strously ex­tended ver­sion of a di­gres­sive lit­er­ary med­i­ta­tion of the kind W.G. Se­bald pro­duced in The Rings of Saturn. But Slo­ter­dijk’s foamy ver­bosity has noth­ing of Se­bald’s ex­quis­ite re­straint and del­i­cacy, and he dis­plays none of Se­bald’s mod­esty. Though he dis­tilled a twen­ti­eth-cen­tury sense of up­root­ed­ness that has been rec­og­nized by many of his read­ers, Se­bald did not seek to write from a po­si­tion of au­thor­ity. In con­trast, Slo­ter­dijk rep­re­sents mis­cel­la­neous im­pres­sions gath­ered from his eclec­tic eru­di­tion as el­e­ments in what he claims is a univer­sal mor­phol­ogy of “so­cial forms”—re­la­tion­ships and so­cial ar­range­ments, as he wrote in Spheres, “un­der which hu­man be­ings first of all gather, un­der­stand them­selves, de­fend them­selves, grow and dis­solve bound­aries.”

The large claims Slo­ter­dijk makes on be­half of his the­ory leave one won­der­ing about its po­lit­i­cal im­pli­ca­tions. If Hei­deg­ger “lapsed” into Nazism by fail­ing to in­cor­po­rate space into his ac­count of be­ing-in-the-world, how does a phi­los­o­phy that makes spa­tial re­la­tion­ships cen­tral con­trib­ute to dis­cus­sion of con­tem­po­rary pub­lic is­sues? Through­out his ca­reer Slo­ter­dijk has been adept at ar­tic­u­lat­ing the pre­vail­ing cul­tural mood. His Cri­tique of Cyn­i­cal Rea­son was a book that played to the tem­per of the time, with its at­tack on the pes­simism of the early 1980s. Later, the Spheres tril­ogy ap­pealed to a dif­fer­ent, post–cold war mood in which tech­nol­ogy was in­creas­ingly em­braced as a way for hu­mans to re­shape their lives. For Slo­ter­dijk tech­nol­ogy in­cluded many cul­tural prac­tices, in­clud­ing re­li­gions, which in our time have re­vealed them­selves as “an­thro­potech­nics,” tools de­vised by hu­mans to en­able them to ma­nip­u­late them­selves and one an­other. He pur­sued this theme in You Must Change Your Life, a five-hun­dred-page con­spec­tus of “an­thro­potech­nic tricks,” en­com­pass­ing Greco-Ro­man Sto­icism, yoga, icon paint­ing, the “Parisian Bud­dhism” of the French-Ro­ma­nian es­say­ist E.M. Cio­ran, “neo-ath­leti­cism,” ad­ver­tis­ing, and much else.

Slo­ter­dijk comes clos­est to an ex­tended di­ag­no­sis of con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics in Rage and Time (first pub­lished in Ger­man in 2006). Ar­gu­ing that “Europe’s first word” is “rage,” which ap­pears in the open­ing lines of Homer’s Iliad, the book de­vel­ops an in­ter­pre­ta­tion of mod­ern pol­i­tics in which the cen­tral mov­ing force is “thy­mos.” The word, he writes, “sig­ni­fies the im­pul­sive cen­ter of the proud self, yet at the same time it also de­lin­eates the re­cep­tive ‘sense.’” He goes on to dis­cuss “the pil­ing-up of Jewish rage” in the bi­b­li­cal con­cep­tion of a wrath­ful God, Lenin’s project of har­ness­ing thy­mos in the ser­vice of the Bol­she­vik Rev­o­lu­tion, and the “de­pres­sion of rage” in post–cold war cap­i­tal­ism. The book closes with a dis­cus­sion of the rise of what he calls “po­lit­i­cal Is­lam,” which he de­scribes as a to­tal­i­tar­ian move­ment of “hope­less male ado­les­cents” from “an ag­i­tated sub­pro­le­tariat,” which Slo­ter­dijk be­lieves could none­the­less trans­form it­self and be­come “a re­li­gious ready­made ex­cel­lent for mo­bi­liz­ing pur­poses.” He con­cludes: “It would be ab­surd to claim that rage’s best days are be­hind it.” So far Slo­ter­dijk has pro­duced no sys­tem­atic ac­count of how the ideas of rage and thy­mos ap­ply to the cur­rent Euro­pean cri­sis. But his ideas have been de­ployed by Marc Jon­gen, a lead­ing in­tel­lec­tual light of the na­tion­al­ist, far-right Al­ter­na­tive for Ger­many (AfD) party, who was for a time one of Slo­ter­dijk’s as­sis­tants.4 Founded by economists in 2013 in op­po­si­tion to Ger­many’s mem­ber­ship in the eu­ro­zone, the AfD has de­vel­oped to fo­cus chiefly on a cam­paign against im­mi­gra­tion, par­tic­u­larly from Is­lamic coun­tries. Jon­gen has ar­gued that Ger­many is “un­der­sup­plied” with thy­mos and called the EU a “post-thy­motic” in­sti­tu­tion. What Ger­many and Europe need, it seems, is a re­vi­tal­iz­ing jolt of thy­motic en­ergy.

Slo­ter­dijk has dis­so­ci­ated him­self from his for­mer as­sis­tant’s views. But, as Jan-Werner Müller has noted, the ar­gu­ment that ad­vanced lib­eral so­ci­eties are de­fi­cient in thy­mos is one Slo­ter­dijk has him­self de­ployed on a num­ber of oc­ca­sions. In Rage and Time, he com­mends Fran­cis Fukuyama’s book The End of His­tory and the Last Man (1992) as a “con­tem­po­rary form of thy­mo­tol­ogy” that “pur­sues with as­ton­ish­ing sen­si­tiv­ity the ques­tion of whether the cur­rently suc­cess­ful lib­eral democ­racy is ac­tu­ally ca­pa­ble of pro­vid­ing the com­plete sat­is­fac­tion of the in­tel­lec­tual and ma­te­rial needs of all of its cit­i­zens.” Ac­cord­ing to Slo­ter­dijk, Fukuyama has shown that lib­eral democ­ra­cies “will al­ways be in­fil­trated by cur­rents of free-float­ing dis­sat­is­fac­tion,” since “hu­man be­ings are con­demned to suf­fer from thy­motic un­rest, and ‘last men’ even more than ev­ery­one else.” Now it may be that lib­eral democ­ra­cies fail to pro­vide for some of the psy­cho­log­i­cal needs of their cit­i­zens. But this does not mean that a surge of thy­motic en­ergy will solve lib­eral democ­racy’s prob­lems. Fukuyama stresses that any loss of thy­mos in lib­eral regimes may be part of the price of civ­i­lized govern­ment. Slo­ter­dijk’s reser­va­tions re­gard­ing con­tem­po­rary democ­racy go be­yond its fail­ure to mo­bi­lize thy­mos. He de­tects a grow­ing ten­dency to envy and re­sent­ment, ex­pressed in in­creas­ing pub­lic

4See Jan-Werner Müller, “Be­hind the New Ger­man Right,” NYR Daily, April, 14, 2016.

and pri­vate debt, an overex­tended wel­fare state, and bur­den­some tax­a­tion. In “A Grasp­ing Hand,” an es­say he pub­lished in the con­ser­va­tive mag­a­zine City Jour­nal, he de­scribes pro­gres­sive in­come tax as “the func­tional equiv­a­lent of so­cial­ist ex­pro­pri­a­tion.” As Slo­ter­dijk sees it, “the mod­ern demo­cratic state grad­u­ally trans­formed into the debtor state, within the space of a cen­tury metas­ta­siz­ing into a colos­sal mon­ster—one that breathes and spits out money.” Western coun­tries, he con­tin­ues,

do not live in a cap­i­tal­ist sys­tem but un­der a form of semi-so­cial­ism . . . . The grasp­ing hand of govern­ment re­leases its tak­ings mainly for the os­ten­si­ble pub­lic in­ter­est, fund­ing Sisyphean tasks in the name of “so­cial jus­tice.” . . . Free-mar­ket au­thors have also shown how the cur­rent sit­u­a­tion turns the tra­di­tional mean­ing of ex­ploita­tion up­side down. In an ear­lier day the rich lived at the ex­pense of the poor, di­rectly and un­equiv­o­cally; in a mod­ern econ­omy un­pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens in­creas­ingly live at the ex­pense of pro­duc­tive ones—though in an equiv­o­cal way, since they are told, and be­lieve, that they are dis­ad­van­taged and de­serve more still.

Slo­ter­dijk’s so­lu­tion to this threat of ex­pro­pri­a­tion—one of the few con­crete pol­icy pro­pos­als he has ad­vanced—is that tax­a­tion be re­placed by vol­un­tary do­na­tions. His be­lief that un­der the in­flu­ence of pop­u­lar ressen­ti­ment the mod­ern state has be­come “a colos­sal mon­ster” echoes some of Ni­et­zsche’s at­tacks on democ­racy. In con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics, the view that pro­gres­sive in­come tax­a­tion is a form of ex­ploita­tion is a po­si­tion whose home is in the Tea Party and the free-mar­ket right. In a 2004 in­ter­view in­cluded in the re­cent col­lec­tion Se­lected Ex­ag­ger­a­tions, Slo­ter­dijk claimed that “a large num­ber of poorer peo­ple are ab­so­lutely not ex­ploited; they are peo­ple who no­body has de­prived of any­thing, but who have con­sciously not used their op­por­tu­ni­ties, mainly be­cause they prob­a­bly found no in­cen­tives to rise above their sit­u­a­tion.” It may be a mis­take to take Slo­ter­dijk’s po­lit­i­cal views too se­ri­ously. He might think of them as ap­pli­ca­tions of “spherol­ogy”—the grand the­ory of so­cial forms that he has pre­sented at such in­or­di­nate length—but this “the­ory” is too neb­u­lous to im­ply any­thing very def­i­nite for pol­i­tics. None­the­less, some of Slo­ter­dijk’s con­tri­bu­tions to re­cent de­bates—such as an es­say he wrote in 2016 for the mag­a­zine Cicero in which he de­fended tight­en­ing Ger­many’s borders on the ground that there was “no moral re­quire­ment for self­de­struc­tion”—sug­gest he be­lieves his the­ory can support some ques­tion­able judg­ments about con­tem­po­rary is­sues. De­spite the scorn­ful at­ti­tude to pro­fes­sors ex­pressed in his thoughts on the cam­pus ceme­tery, Slo­ter­dijk be­longs in a Euro­pean pro­fes­so­rial tra­di­tion in his con­fi­dent as­ser­tion of in­tel­lec­tual au­thor­ity. But this is not some lat­ter­day Max We­ber, strug­gling to di­ag­nose the dis­or­der of the age in writ­ings born from pro­longed in­tel­lec­tual suf­fer­ing. Through­out his ca­reer Slo­ter­dijk has been a re­ac­tive thinker, voic­ing the pass­ing moods of the time. Ev­ery­thing sug­gests he will con­tinue run­ning af­ter the zeit­geist, blow­ing bub­bles along the way.

Peter Slo­ter­dijk

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