Neither Sun nor Death by Peter Sloterdijk:
Reviewed by John David Ebert
Although this book isn’t due out from Semiotexte until November, 2010, I happen to be proofreading it right now and it is fantastic. Any publicity that Peter Sloterdijk can grab at this point in the English speaking world is a good thing, since this theoretician has been writing for decades, and yet only a couple of his books had, up until this past year or two, been made available in English. The Critique of Cynical Reason was a big bestseller in Europe when it came out, but when Sloterdijk shifted into writing a three volume magnum opus entitled Spheres, he immediately fell out of fashion in the world of Critical Theory, since it seemed like he had gone back to recycling the old Euorpean Grand Master Narrative that Lyotard in his Postmodern Condition had pronounced the death of.
But with the recent realization that Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy–which will be available in English soon from Semiotexte–has great relevance to current issues regarding the debate over globalization and its discontents, he is finally now getting some attention with recent translations into English of his books, Derrida, an Egyptian; Rage and Time; Terror From the Air and God’s Zeal. The new book, Neither Sun nor Death, is actually a series of interviews expertly conducted with Sloterdijk by Hans-Jurgen Heinrichs and is structured mainly as a series of commentaries on his major works, including Spheres.
Why is Sloterdijk so important to read?
For one thing, with Spheres, he picks up where Heidegger leaves off (Heidegger may be the single biggest influence on his thinking). For whereas Heidegger had insisted that by “being-in-the-world” he did not mean being-in as in the sense of world as a spatial container, Sloterdijk does in fact mean precisely this: by “spheres” he means the great macrospheric immune systems, built out of symbols, myths and meaning, that have encompassed and encased the human individual, and individual socieites, throughout history. Ontology, as he puts it, is a form of immunology, in the sense that we are always born out of and move from one spatial container to another: from womb to house to civilization, all are immunological extensions of the self. When these macrospheres break down, ontological and sociological crises result, and societies enter into periods of social unrest and anxiety.
His first Spheres book is entitled Bubbles and deals with microspheres, or the intimate dyadic relationships that exist between self plus Other. Sloterdijk insists that in the womb, we all had a twin in the form of the placenta, and that once we are born, a great deal of our social anxieties come from the need to replace and reconstitute this dyadic “other.”
His second Spheres book is entitled Globes, and it deals with macrospheres, especially of those kind that involve the relationship of humanity to the gods.
The third book, entitled Foams, is his interesting take on the results of the rupturing and collapse of the Western macrosphere: in the twentieth century, dyadic relationships and God vs. Self relationships no longer exist in an effective way to structure the society; what now results, instead, is “foam,” in the sense of a huge multiplicity of individual spheres–akin to Leibniz’s monads–that constitue the social and architectural fabric. Apartment buildings are a physical manifestation of this “cellular” foam, while the individual inside his apartment exists in a kind of world-island unto himself. There are now as many spheres as there are individuals and the result, consequently, is social and cultural chaos.
All of this is synopsized in the conversations that are included in Neither Sun nor Death, which thus makes an excellent introduction to the ideas of this brilliant theoretician. As one reads through this book, one who is familiar with Critical Theory will immediately notice that Sloterdijk, as a theoretician, stands out from the rest in some interesting ways: you will never hear any other theoreticians discuss the metaphysics of Hindu philosophy or quote from Spengler, Leo Frobenius and Heinrich Zimmer, as Sloterdijk does.
Sloterdijk, furthermore, points out that the great weakness of Critical Theory is its Eurocentrism and its failure to take into account the validity of the philosophical traditions of other cultures, and here, it seems to me, Sloterdijk has made an absolutely essential point. Theory is provincial and Eurocentric. Consequently, as Sloterdijk has pronounced elsewhere, in a short paper, Theory is indeed dead. It has outlived its usefulness and the Western philosophical tradition is ready for something new.
Sloterdijk’s primary influences are the Frankfurt School (although the account of his antipathy to Habermas is both comically entertaining and thoughtfully enlighteneing), Foucault, Heidegger and Indian metaphysics (he admits to having spent five years living in India and studying under Bagwhan Rajneesh). The unique thoughtfield constituted by his mental phase space alone makes him worth reading, and everyone who wants to be familiar with the cutting edge of Theory–for those who enjoy, as I do, Zizek, Baudrillard or Paul Virilio–Peter Sloterdijk is essential.
You cannot afford to overlook him.