Monthly Archives: May 2012

Review: Sloterdijk, Sloterdijk & Sloterdijk

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.

Thank goodness for Dan

Julian Baggini meets the least apocalyptic of the four horsemen, Daniel Dennett

Conquest, war, famine and death. It’s an interesting parlour game to decide which of the new atheism’s “four horsemen” – Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens – best corresponds to their apocalyptic namesakes. More than one is combative, and more than one seeks to conquer religion once and for all, if not to kill it. Less charitably, you might also say that at times, some have a rather malnourished understanding of what religion actually is.

The game lacks a credible conclusion though, because at least one horseman just won’t fit the eschatological mould. Dan Dennett is certainly capable of pugnacious argument, but he’s more of a wrestler than a boxer, a person who truly grapples with his opponent, even as he tries to get them in a headlock and slam them to the floor.

That’s why his major contribution to the recent new atheism debate, his book Breaking the Spell, is often hailed as the most thoughtful and intelligent. Dennett acknowledges the differences, but is at pains to defend those who take a different approach.

“I don’t object to being lumped in with the others. I don’t think, well, I was doing it the moral way and they were doing it the immoral way, or I was doing it the politic way, they were doing it the impolitic way. I don’t think that’s right. I think we all adopted slightly different but defensible strategies. All four approaches are necessary because there are different people out there, different audiences that have to be reached.”

Breaking the Spell‘s central argument is not that religion is wrong or wicked, but that we should study it just as we do any other aspect of the natural world. It should not be in a kind of protected zone, ring-fenced by excessive respect. Having thus opened up religion, Dennett neither tries to be offensive nor shy away from saying things he know will offend some. His strategy is simply to avoid giving anyone an excuse to use that offence as a reason not to engage with his arguments.

“I thought people were still going to throw the book across the room, but I didn’t want to give them an excuse to throw the book across the room. I wanted them to feel a little bit bad about their throwing it across the room, maybe go and retrieve it and think well, hang on, yes, this irritated me but maybe I don’t have the right to be irritated. I doubt that sentiment would occur to somebody who threw Christopher’s or Richard’s book across the room. That’s alright, because there are different spectra of responsiveness out there and you want to cover the bases. For some people I think the shot across the bows from Christopher Hitchens is exactly what they need, what they deserve.

“Let’s take the group that you might think were my natural audience. These are thoughtful, well-meaning, say, Christians, who are believers, are church-goers, who think everything they’re doing is just wonderful. They think religion is good, they know there are some problems, but not for their church, not for their way of being religious. So you might think my book is ideal for them in that I am respectful and get them gently to think about some of the things. But I think it’s very important for them also to read Christopher Hitchens’s book and realise just how bad things are out there in some areas, and see that this man, somebody who knows so much about it, is this angry, and that’s an important fact.”

Dennett goes further, defending his fellow horsemen against the charge that they are rude or intemperate.

“I listen to all these complaints about rudeness and intemperateness, and the opinion that I come to is that there is no polite way of asking somebody: have you considered the possibility that your entire life has been devoted to a delusion? But that’s a good question to ask. Of course we should ask that question and of course it’s going to offend people. Tough.”

Still, isn’t it the case that you can choose your words carefully? Telling someone their faith is mistaken is one thing, saying it’s a delusion quite another.

”Well let’s compare it to some other cases. Think of how horrible it would be to have to go around and tell people they had been taken in by Bernie Madoff. Think of the pain of learning that you’ve been made a complete fool of by Bernie Madoff. Do we have to tell those people? Yes. Do we really? Well, yeah, they’ve lost everything and we have to tell them and no matter how we tell them they’re going to feel rotten. Now why isn’t it like that?”

Because in the Bernie Madoff case, they can’t hide from the facts, they’re going to find out eventually that they haven’t got their money any more. In the case of a religion you have a job of persuasion to do, presumably so believers can moderate their views or give them up. If you say to somebody, you basically believe things which no sensible, objective rational person could possibly believe, I don’t think you’re going to get as far as if you say, look, I can see you’re committed to truth, take a look at your view as truthfully as you can. Now, can’t you see this, this and this? That seems to be the approach Dennett takes.

“Well, yeah, fair enough. I think a better parallel would be what if we could have gone round to Bernie Madoff’s clients beforehand, before the dénouement. There was that accountant who was desperately trying to get the Security and Exchange Commission to blow the whistle. He wasn’t going round talking to individual clients and if he had it would have been extremely painful and they would have probably kicked him out of the house. How should he have approached them? With a sort of brusque wake-up wake-up you’re being made a fool of, or gentle-gentle-gentle? It’s not clear. Some people need a pail of cold water in the face and some people need very gentle treatment.”

But the balance at the moment seems to me to be too far tilted on the side of the bucket of water, and people saying “you’re a deluded fool who’s been taken in by something no sensible person should be taken in by if they looked at the evidence for five minutes,” is not going to be as conducive as saying, “it’s perfectly understandable to be taken in by this but actually, it is a mistake and let me show you why.” I think that the second approach is surely, most of the time, a more constructive one than the other.

“Well, I think that’s right and I think maybe in a way that’s what I was trying to do. But what’s the downside of doing it my way? The downside of doing it my way is failing to galvanise people at all – then it’s a failure.”

The fear I have, as a fellow traveller, is the perception people now have of atheists is the one I thought we were trying to shake off, which is that atheists are very, very self-confident, virulently anti-religious people, who don’t have anything to do in the mornings unless they can wake up and bash a bishop or two, metaphorically. This is not just a tactical matter: there’s also a kind of lack of integrity about it. There’s something inappropriate about an atheist having too much self-confidence in their own ability to see the truth through reason. If you have a commitment to reason, and Hume is one of your great heroes – as he is for many atheists ­– the first thing you know about reason is that it’s fragile thing. Also, you learn just a tiny bit of psychology and you recognise how easy it is for us to co-opt reason to justify what we already think. Given that, isn’t there too much of a desire on the side of atheists to claim reason for themselves and trust they are fully fit to use it?

“Well, since I’ve just debated Alvin Plantinga [the leading Christian philosopher] at the APA meeting in Chicago, you’re not going to find me very sympathetic to this line, because I find the presumption of reasonableness in his work and the other philosophers of religion to be unimpressive, I’ve got to say.”

Or, in a formulation Dennett endorses, you can take the principle of charity too far.

Another criticism of the new atheism is that it places too much stress on the metaphysics. In other words, many find it quite straightforward to show that the traditional religious metaphysics is nonsense, there are no souls, no heaven and so forth. But isn’t it mistaken to think that, once you’ve established that, religion is blown out of the water? Isn’t it the case that actually, in a way, such beliefs may not even be the most important thing about religion?

“I think that’s exactly right. That’s why I spend so little time on the metaphysics. I deliberately spent hardly any time at all on whether there were any good arguments for the existence of God. Fortunately, Richard spent a lot of time on that and I endorsed what he had to say pretty much down the line and it saved me the trouble.

“I talk to religious people and almost everyone I talked to said it wasn’t about proof or disproof in the belief in God. It wasn’t about dogma at all. I took them at their word, I thought that was right. What it was about was, as I call it, belief-in-belief. And that is what it is about: the behaviours, the professing, the going through the motions – that’s what’s interesting, that people still want to do that. Why they do want to do that is not clear, that’s what we have to find out, but we’re certainly looking in the wrong place if we look at arguments for or against of one kind of god or another. I think that’s missing the point entirely.”

But is it belief-in-belief as much as belief in praxis: the life of religion, rather than the thought? That’s what a lot of intellectuals who want to defend religion have argued recently, most publicly and repeatedly, Karen Armstrong.

“That’s a very sophisticated view and it may be too sophisticated by half. It only works so long as there are some people who still really believe in it. If it’s all just praxis, if we’re all just going through the motions, then something’s been lost.

“Last night we were talking about saying Latin grace at high table at an Oxford College. It’s a charming old ritual – that’s all it is. I think we could welcome the evaporation of all the dogmatic steam out of religion, so we were just left with the ritualistic shells. That would be a good thing. But if that happened, then of course the question is, would the ritualistic shells still do the work of binding together communities, and I think it would, actually. I think people may take an oath before they testify and it works, I think it’s important. I don’t think it has anything to do with believing in God, or believing that the book you’re putting your hand on is anything but just a prop. When people say their wedding vows, when they go through graduation ceremonies and commencement exercises, I think all of these ceremonies work without there having to be any real dogma behind them. They are auspicious occasions, they’re formal, they’re official, and I think that the behaviour enjoined at them, the fact that you are not supposed to be flippant, that you’re supposed to be respectful, take it seriously, this is all important.”

But with religion, isn’t it inevitably going to be the case that if you have these rituals, people are going to end up believing them? Pascal famously advocated just getting on with being religious as the best way to end up sincerely believing it. Only the most self-conscious and cerebral are going to be able to have this “it’s just a ritual” thing in their heads.

“Yeah, I’ve just written about this in a review of Owen Flanagan’s new book, which I admire a great deal. He’s a former choir boy, he had a Catholic upbringing and he loves all the Catholic rituals, and he doesn’t believe a word of it, of course. He draws a distinction – which I don’t buy or I’m very worried about – between two kinds of saying: saying it and meaning it, and just saying it in a ceremonial context. He says it’s ok if you say these things in the ceremonial context: that’s defensible in a way in that asserting these things is not. That’s all very well, but, as I point out in the review, what about the naive people, what about the children? They don’t grasp that distinction and you’re not going to tell them the distinction. The minister isn’t going to say ‘Oh by the way, everything I say this morning from this pulpit has got to be understood as in a ceremonial context.’ No, you don’t say that, and I think since you’re not prepared to say that, it isn’t, in fact, entirely defensible.”

There’s a baby and bathwater question too. Surely there are going to be real losses as well as gains in giving up religion. There are certain things which are good and for which there is a very natural mode of expression in religion, and rather less natural modes of expression of them in atheism. Ron Aronson, for instance, has written very eloquently about gratitude. If you look at the secularised culture we have, it seems that with the loss of religious rituals, rituals of grace and prayer, there is more of a sense of entitlement, less of a sense of gratitude. Don’t we have to be very careful when we reject religion that we don’t chuck out the things that are good about it?

“I think that’s true, I think that’s right. Did you see my piece after my heart operation, a piece called ‘Thank Goodness!’? This was after I had a heart operation where I nearly died, and people were wondering whether I’d had any epiphanies, and I said that I did: that when I say ‘thank goodness’ that’s not just a euphemism for ‘thank God’: I really mean it, I mean thank goodness. I’m very grateful. There’s a lot of goodness around me that my continued existence depended on very definitely and God didn’t have anything to do with it. It’s people and institutions, there’s medicine and science, and particular doctors and nurses and hospitals and friends and family and I’m very grateful for them.

“I suppose my favourite line in it was when I said I excused those who said they prayed for me and I resisted the temptation to say, ‘well thank you very much but did you also sacrifice a goat?’ Because did you think that the praying was any more efficacious than sacrificing a goat or any less preposterous? I don’t. You’re saying you prayed for me and I understand you said that with good intention, but if you really wanted to help, there were other things you could have done and the delusion that this somehow helped, I reject that.’”

He may be miscast as an apocalyptic horseman, but Dennett is clearly no avuncular tame atheist either. In a debate hampered by lack of respect or far too much of the unearned variety, Dennett gives as much as is due, and no more.

Julian Baggini is editor of tpm and author of Atheism (Oxford University Press/Sterling Press)