Derrida, An Egyptian: On the Problem of the Jewish Pyramid by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity) £14.99/$12.95 (pb)
God’s Zeal: The Battle of the Three Monotheisms by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity) £14.99/$19.95 (pb)
Terror from the Air by Peter Sloterdijk (Semiotext(e)) £9.95/$14.95 (pb)
Public philosophers come in many guises: moral voices, political agitators, gloomy intellectuals, rationalist educators, popularisers of ideas. Peter Sloterdijk has a strong claim to being Germany’s foremost public philosopher. In 1981 his first book, Critique of Cynical Reason – originally published in two volumes adding up to a sprawling thousand pages – became a publishing sensation in West Germany, quickly selling over 40,000 copies. He has since written on myriad topics, ranging from Nietzsche’s materialism to “Eurotaoism”. This year, he published a book with an unabashedly self-help title, You Must Change Your Life. Sloterdijk has never shied from the media, and since 2002 he has hosted a pop philosophy television talk show entitled In the Glass House: A Philosophical Quartet.
Sloterdijk has insistently challenged the forms of public philosophy that find their source in the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, whether Theodor Adorno’s vigilant negativity, Herbert Marcuse’s political utopianism, or Jürgen Habermas’s faith in Enlightenment universalism. Habermas, with his public role as Germany’s humanist social conscience, has served as Sloterdijk’s principal rival. The contrast between them reached a polemical pitch in 1999 when a paper by Sloterdijk on Heidegger’s “Lecture on Humanism” set off a heated debate, especially among Habermasians, because of its Nietzschean talk of “breeding” and “selection”, and its proposal of a post-human politics of the “human zoo”. Sloterdijk has continued to court controversy, heaping praise on the explanation of Islamic militancy as the result of population growth (a “youth bulge”) promoted by the right-wing demographer Gunnar Heinsohn, whose dubious theories Sloterdijk has improbably compared in significance to Marx’s Capital.
Though the Critique of Cynical Reason was published in English in 1988, only recently has Sloterdijk’s work garnered much attention in the Anglophone world, with a flurry of translations and a number of public appearances, mostly in an art-world context (Sloterdijk is the rector of the Karlsruhe School of Design). The three books under review are a characteristically disparate sample of Sloterdijk’s concerns: a valedictory essay on a major contemporary thinker (Derrida, An Egyptian), an inquiry into the sources of monotheistic violence (God’s Zeal), a study of gas warfare as a metaphor for the twentieth century (Terror from the Air).
From its cryptic title onwards, the punitively priced short book on Derrida demonstrates Sloterdijk’s propensity to latch onto a particular idea and not let it go until he’s extracted as much mileage from it as possible. The relationship between Egypt and Judaism is used to organise a “constellation” of brief vignettes in which Derrida is read in conjunction with a varied host of thinkers (the German systems-theorist Niklas Luhmann, Freud, Thomas Mann, the historian Franz Borkenau, ex-revolutionary and “mediologist” Régis Debray, Hegel and the Russian art theorist Boris Groys).
Though some of the pairings are intriguing, as when Borkenau’s theory of the “antinomy of death” is used to shed light on Derrida’s critique of philosophies reliant on notions of immortality, the result is inconclusive. Sloterdijk praises deconstruction for its struggles against fanatical one-sidedness, for making possible a kind of decentred postmodern stability and “returning the churches and castles of the immortalist Ancien Régime to the mortal citizens”. Yet one also senses that Derrida is simply not post-metaphysical enough for Sloterdijk’s liking, since the French philosopher is still too preoccupied with transcendent and universal ideals like justice. This is evident in the book’s last section, which promotes Groys’s deflationary notion of “curating”, of philosophy as “museology”, against Derrida’s continued fidelity to an idea of interpretation inherited from messianic hermeneutics and psychoanalysis.
God’s Zeal takes its cue from a particularly extreme statement by Derrida on the “world war” between the religions of the Book and proceeds, by way of potted history and philosophical reflection, to propose ways in which contemporary religious fanaticism could be quelled. Sloterdijk shares with the likes of John Gray a deep hostility to utopian or millenarian thought and echoes the “new atheism” in his disdain for the politics of piety. But his approach is modelled on the Nietzschean vision of the philosopher as cultural physician, diagnosing spiritual pathologies. “At the beginning of the twenty-first century, a time stirred up by new religious turbulence”, he writes, Nietzsche’s “warning to remain faithful to the earth and send the tellers of otherworldly fairy tales to a doctor is even more relevant than it was at the end of the nineteenth.”
To Nietzschean anti-universalism we can add the influence of Cold War polemic: Sloterdijk sees a red thread between Jacobinism and twentieth-century communism, which is reduced to a particularly vicious brand of zealotry, a “fourth monotheism”.
But Sloterdijk’s digressive romp through two and a half millennia of religious and political history wants to move beyond earlier critiques of zealous politics, whether secular or religious. What is needed, he declares, is a new cultural theory capable of explaining the emergence of violent desires for transcendence and of providing therapies against the “fascism of the good”.
To this end, he enlists the work of Heiner Mühlmann, which allegedly provides a psychobiological and evolutionary account of impassioned religious activism, in which fanaticism is explained as a result of individual and social “stress”. Sloterdijk’s paraphrase of Mühlmann is vague and jargonistic, and at worst is reminiscent of a medicalisation of conviction which is closer to Lombroso than to Darwin. His remedies against apocalypticism are hardly original, involving an outdated vision for the “development” of a Third World supposedly steeped in ressentiment as well as a pseudo-scientific invocation of demography. Nietzsche’s philosophy is married with State Department programmes of modernisation in a theory of an ecumenical civilisation that aims at the overcoming of zeal.
The question of culture is also at the core of Terror from the Air, whose focus is on technology rather than religion. In a narrative that bears comparison with the writings of Paul Virilio, Sloterdijk tries to extract a philosophical lesson from what he calls “atmoterrorism”, a phenomenon whose paradigm is World War I gas warfare. For Sloterdijk the twentieth century – whose three main innovations are terrorism, product design and environmental awareness – really begins on 22 April 1915, with the German gas-attack on French and Algerian troops at Ypres. Sloterdijk views this event as emblematic of a modernity in which what was previously in the background is made explicit. The very air we breathe is turned into a weapon. Political Terror, so crucial to Hegel’s philosophy, becomes environmental terrorism, especially at the hands of states.
Sloterdijk follows the “break-up of latency” through a number of examples: the Dresden bombings, US gas executions and atomic warfare, but also Dali’s almost fatal surrealist performance in a diver’s suit and our small talk about the weather. Cultures are accordingly rethought as “collective conditions of immersion in air and sign systems”. The writing in Terror from the Air showcases Sloterdijk at his more engaging, drawing ideas from history and anecdote. But the underlying project remains profoundly unpersuasive.
The idea of modernity as a “process of atmosphere-explication” is openly indebted to Heidegger’s writing on technology, albeit in the mode of pastiche (Sloterdijk writes of “turning breathing-unto-death into an ontically controllable procedure”). As in Heidegger, it neutralises the crucial contexts that make for the difference between air-conditioning systems and gas chambers. More importantly, Sloterdijk’s conclusions demonstrate the moral and political limitations of his postmodern, post-metaphysical thought. Against modernism, which is identified with a “campaign against the self-evident”, Sloterdijk advocates “an ethics of the antagonistic protection of the interests of finite unities”, a new thinking of cultures as immune systems or “spheres” (the title of his three-volume “magnum opus”). Sloterdijk’s post-metaphysical philosophy thus slides from the curating of archives to the patrolling of threatened borders. The price of leaving behind what he scornfully calls “the fantasy of universalism” turns out to be very high indeed.
Alberto Toscano teaches sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. His Fanaticism: On the Uses of an Idea is forthcoming from Verso.