In the World Interior of Capital:
A Review by John David Ebert
Peter Sloterdijk’s In the World Interior of Capital was originally published in German in 2005, written immediately after Sloterdijk’s completion of his Spheres trilogy in 2004. As its subject matter concerns the Weltinnenraum of capital it must be regarded as a sort of continuation of his spheres theory, in the same way that Terror from the Air, written in between Spheres 2 and 3, was a sort of appendix to Globes. Sloterdijk, it must be said, is at his best when he is discoursing upon spherology, and at his weakest when he steps outside the bounds of this self-created sub-branch of critical theory, since other books which fall outside the domain of spheres theory, such as Rage and Time, God’s Zeal or You Must Change Your Life, are less successful. Sloterdijk’s unique and original contribution will always remain his works of spherology.
Sloterdijk begins In the World Interior of Capital by stating that reports of the death of the grand narrative are greatly exaggerated. Such narratives became discredited because of their typical alliance with Eurocentric colonialist biases which somehow always managed to situate the West at the center of history (though this was most decidedly not the case with Spengler). Sloterdijk insists that such narratives are useful if they can be decoupled from colonialist biases, which he proceeds to do by invoking a grand narrative for his own philosophical theory of globalization, which he sees as having occurred in three morphologically distinct phases.
The first of those phases began with the Greeks and their mental conquest of the planetary orb in the spherological analyses of Aristotle and Ptolemy, an epoch which culminated in Dante’s apotheosis of this vision of the earth at the center of all things cosmic in his Divine Comedy of 1300. Earth, as the heaviest of all elements, provided this ancient ontology with its center of gravity, but this would shift to water with the dawning of Globalization Phase II beginning in the fifteenth century with the terrestrial voyages of the Portuguese navigators. With the gradual conquest of the planetary surface, the West began to realize just how predominant water really was in the earth’s physical constitution, and as the maps were redrawn with each new coastline discovered, the land masses began to shrink in size, while the aquatic element grew proportionately. From 1492 to 1945, the age of terrestrial globalization constituted what Sloterdijk insists was “history” properly speaking (the epoch after 1945 thus becomes, as it did for Vilem Flusser, “post-history,” although Sloterdijk does not tell us what we should call the pre-Columbian epoch).
The age of Globalization Phase II was no mere age of innocent “discoverers” as Daniel Boorstin portrayed it, but an age of colonialist interests with predatory and rapacious conquests. If European scientists sited your country in their scopes, you could be sure that the naming, mapping and raping of your country would soon follow. This, then, was the age of what Sloterdijk terms “perpetrator consciousness,” in which great “heroes” like Napoleon or Cecil Rhodes became nearly indistinguishable from criminals simply taking what they pleased when they saw fit to do so. To be a hero in this age was also to become an engine of destruction a la Cortez or Pizzaro against other peoples. But it was the age, nonetheless, in which the terrestrial orb was conquered and mapped, largely by nautical voyages, and in which “history” properly speaking, was accomplished.
In Globalization Phase III, there are no great men any longer. The disinhibiting mentality of the previous age gave way to the inhibiting mentality of victim consciousness as, after World War II, the colonial powers began to withdraw and be dismantled, while the narratives of the victims around the world were heard, and the crimes of Western man put on trial. Hence, the discrediting of Western grand narratives as inevitably disguised (or not so disguised) narratives of Eurocentrism.
The element of water gives way, in this epoch, to the element of air, and mercantile transactions via ships gives way to the electronic transactions of global caitalism. The old creaking wind-dependent tri-masters give way to airplanes and rockets, while the planet becomes enmeshed in the World Interior of the new global economy. If the previous age was an open air age, Sloterdijk insists, then the age of electronic globalization is the age of being inside the global Crystal Palace, which becomes for Sloterdijk the prime symbol of this age, rather than Benjamin’s arcades (which were too narrow and labyrinthine to become a proper metaphor for the expansive and all-encompassing nature of capitalism in this age). The entire planet is now on the inside of a global Crystal Palace, which becomes a sort of artificial city like the orbiting city of the movie Elysium, a city without height or depth, and ultimately lacking foundations in both the metaphysical and architectural senses. The conquest of the Outside, once completed by the voyagers of Globalization Phase II, has now created a Weltinnenraum (a phrase coined by Rilke) which has swallowed the planet entire (although it is still possible to be on the “outside” if you are stuck in poverty, since access to the world interior is strictly dependent on money).
Sloterdijk’s narrative is brilliant and his penchant for coining neologisms, as I’ve said, is at its best when he is dealing with spherology: terms like “anthropogenic world islands,” “monogeism,” “endospheres” and “perpetrator consciousness” glitter with their innovative properties and potential applications. In the World Interior of Capital, I think, is one of his best books and most satisfying reads.
The book does fail, though, to deal with certain phenomena of this age, such as Agamben’s Homo Sacer and the incursion of concentration camp zones into this World Interior, which seem to function more analogously to a form of global cancer. Such zones, as Agamben has demonstrated in his book Homo Sacer, constitute a local disruption of juridical functioning within such world interiors, as they seem to maximize the entropy content of such zones with their irruption of “bare naked life” in which individuals who have fallen into the Outside are no longer protected by the laws of the World Interior. Agamben’s vision of these entropic pockets suggests that Sloterdijk’s World City is not a permanent structure, but a dissipative one that is subject to erosion, as it were, in which a kind of “rust” and weathering of certain sections of the World City become weak or punctured and give way to the Outside with all its ancient anarchies. It is the Outside, after all, that the West has spent its historical evolution walling out, and which therefore constitutes its greatest threat.
Sloterdijk also fails to situate the threat to his World City posed by global disasters such as tsunamis, earthquakes, flooding and other such Biblical phenomena which render the structural stability of this World City questionable, to say the least. The very inarticulacy of the way in which this World City fits itself into the biosphere suggests that its future is rather more like that of the Titanic, another floating Crystal Palace: gorgeous, impregnable, and utterly doomed.
But Sloterdijk’s emphasis is on the building up of this World City–and here his narrative is spectacularly successful–and not on the inevitable dismantling of it which such threats clearly portend. To understand those threats, one must have recourse to other thinkers like Zygmunt Bauman, Ulrich Beck or Paul Virilio, thinkers who have a better grasp of the world’s Chaos and the ultimate impossibility of Zeus ever fully chaining the Titans down in Hades for very long.
One day, those Titans will get loose.
Count on it.