Cultural Discourse looks at a broad range of cultural issues.
18th January 2014

On the New Peter Sloterdijk Translation ‘In the World Interior of Capital’

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.

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11th October 2013

A New Book by John David Ebert

A Few Words About the Cover

(Excerpted from Art After Metaphysics)

by John David Ebert

For this book’s cover illustration I have chosen a work by contemporary British artist Chris Boyd, entitled The Book of Darecebu. It is a strange and enigmatic book which Boyd says was inspired by his witnessing of the volcanic eruption of Mount Pinatubo in the Phillipines where he spent a good deal of his childhood growing up. (“Cebu” is located there). The book has a central gaping hole that appears to be crackling with lavic energies that might erupt at any moment. It is a perfect metaphor for Zygmunt Bauman’s “liquid modernity,” the age in which we now find ourselves living, in which all the cultural forms (or what Cornelius Castoriadis called “imaginary significations”) are melting down into a kind of slag heap of broken models, discarded signifiers and retro-fitted artifacts that might characterize the denizen of a Mad Max landscape who constructs his own world out of the debris of the previous civilization like a bricoleur.

But what struck me about the image is its evocation of the great Medieval book-as-work-of-art from the time of Charlemagne’s court library at Aix-la-Chapelle, when huge manuscripts were transformed into twelve pound books with ivory plaques on their covers that were surrounded by expensive gold and various kinds of gems (example shown below). These books were made by the monks at Charlemagne’s court, some of whom were survivors of the various Viking raids of the Irish monasteries – Alcuin was one such individual, for instance – who carried with them to Charlemagne’s court the knowledge of the making of illuminated manuscripts.

Aix-la-Chapelle (which Spengler once compared, brilliantly, to a sort of Mycenaean fortress stronghold like Pylos which borrowed its culture forms from the southern and more cosmopolitan civilization of Minoan Crete, just as Charlemagne’s palace borrowed culture forms, such as the candy-striping on the architecture, from the more cosmopolitan civilization of the Spanish-Islamic Moors of Cordoba) was then a sort of cultural refuge that gathered together the knowledge of the time and began the painful and intricate process of reconstructing Western civilization. (Whereas, today the opposite is taking place, in which the Western tradition reconstructed by Charlemagne’s monks is now being taken apart piece by piece by deconstructionists).

The covers of these books as artworks unto themselves were often ivory-carved images replete with Christian iconotypes such as the Crucifixion or the Assumption of Mary to Heaven, or to one or another of the four Evangelists, which served as a common iconography of the time. The Gospel Book of Charlemagne, or the Epernay Gospel or the Book of Pericopes date from about this time, and the iconotypes lovingly carved into their covers served as the basic structural forms of the entire age. They were transcendental signifieds that anchored all meaning in a concrete system of references that prevented truth from sliding around into semiotic chaos.

But today, all the transcendental signifieds are gone. For the signifiers of contemporary art all refer back to a series of semiotic vacancies like scars on the walls of Being that once used to organize the Western mind, but which do so no longer. Boyd’s Book of Darecebu, with its central rupture where, once upon a time there used to be such grand signifieds as the Apocalypse or the Crucifixion, now features only a semiotic vacancy at the ontological center of Western Being.

Being has been gutted. Its transcendental signifieds have all melted down, and now exist in a magmatic flow of laval forms that are failing to crystallize into any perceivable shape. Boyd’s Book of Darecebu thus points out what the current task amounts to for today’s contemporary artist: namely, to construct new signifieds from out of the melted slag heap of the West’s discarded pile of signifiers.

It is an intimidating task, but we currently have men, and women, on the job, working to fashion new signifiers for the dawning Age of Uncertainty and Anxiety that is now looming over the horizon upon us.

The volcanic reference on Boyd’s book cover, furthermore, suggests the possibility of imminent catastrophe that our age now finds itself currently under (just as the Vikings of Charlemagne’s time constituted a looming threat): a sort of permanent state of emergency in which floods, famines, fires, tsunamis and explosions have surrounded us on all sides.

What catastrophe will take place next and where will it happen?

My backyard?

Or yours?

–Art After Metaphysics will be available for purchase on Amazon in November.

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3rd October 2013

On the Unabomber

The Unabomber:

An Essay by John David Ebert

The Bombings

From May, 1978 to April, 1995, Theodore J. Kaczynski – a.k.a. the Unabomber – sent out a total of sixteen bombs to various individuals who were all affiliated in one way or another with science. The bombs killed three people and injured twenty-three others, although some of them were defused and did not explode.

The first bomb, however, was not sent through the mail, but delivered by Kaczynski himself to the University of Illinois Chicago Circle Campus on May 25, 1978. He dropped the package between two parked cars in the lot near the Science and Technology buildings, hoping that a student would pick it up and take it to the post office or else hand deliver it to its addressed target, one E. J. Smith, a professor of rocket science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York. The package was found by Mary Gutierrez who tried to fit it into the mail box but couldn’t, so she sent it back to the return address, which was listed as Professor Buckley Crisp, Jr., a professor of computer science at Northwestern University’s Technological Institute. When he received the package, however, Crisp thought it looked suspicious, so he contacted campus security, who sent Terry Marker to inspect it. When Marker opened the package, it exploded, nearly blowing off his right hand. He then contacted the ATF, who filed a report, destroyed the evidence and proceeded to forget about it. (Chase, 49)

But another bomb showed up at Northwestern University a year later: this one was found by a graduate student named John Harris in the student meeting room at the university’s Technological Institute. Harris had noticed a Phillies Cigar box on a table and picked it up, whereupon it exploded, causing him some minor injuries. In his private journal, Kaczynski commented: “I had hoped that the victim would be blinded or have his hands blown off or be otherwise maimed…At least I put him in the hospital, which is better than nothing. But not enough to satisfy me. Well, live and learn. No more match-head bombs. I wish I knew how to get hold of some dynamite.” (Chase, 52)

Kaczynski’s third bombing attempt was more ambitious, for on November 15, 1979 he managed to detonate a small bomb onboard American Airlines Flight 444 from Chicago O’Hare International Airport to Washington National. The pilots heard a dull thump and the cabin began filling with smoke, forcing them to land at Dulles International. No one was injured.

This third attempt brought Kaczynski to the attention of the FBI, which began an official investigation with no leads and no clues as to the identity of the bomber. On June 10, 1980, United Airlines president Percy Wood received a package that had been sent from Chicago containing a copy of a book, Sloan Wilson’s novel Ice Brothers. But behind the title page, the book had been hollowed out to contain a bomb, and when Wood opened it, it exploded on him, inflicting minor injuries. (Chase, 53-54)

At this point, the FBI gave the mysterious serial bomber a name, based on his attempts to send bombs to universities and airlines: the Unabomber, as he would be known to the public from henceforth.

Over the following years, six more bombs were sent to various professors of science and computer engineering, but there were no fatalities until December 11, 1985 when, in Sacramento, California, Kaczynski placed a bomb designed to look like a piece of scrap lumber in the back lot behind a computer repair shop. When the shop’s owner, Hugh Scutton, went to pick up the lumber, it exploded, blowing off his hand and rupturing his heart, killing him.

There was an almost identical bombing on February 20, 1987 when another computer store owner, this time in Salt Lake City, picked up a piece of scrap lumber that exploded on him, mangling his left arm, although in this case, he wasn’t killed.

But then six years elapsed with no bombing attempts, while Kaczynski, working in his shack in the Montana woods, tried to perfect his bombs and make them more powerful. The results of these experiments were then unleashed on a geneticist, a Dr. Charles Epstein, who lived in the community of Tiburon, California. On June 22, 1993, Dr. Epstein picked up a small package in his house one morning, opened it, and the resulting explosion knocked him backward. He survived the blast, however.

But it wasn’t until December 10, 1994, that Kaczynski’s second fatality took place, when an executive named Thomas Mosser, who worked for a public relations firm called Burson-Marsteller was killed when he opened a package in the kitchen of his own house. In a letter to the New York Times which Kaczynski wrote under the alias of “FC,” (an abbreviation for “Freedom Club”) in which he pretended that he was a member of an anarchist group, he wrote: “Burston-Marsteller is about the biggest organization in the public relations field. This means that its business is the development of techniques for manipulating people’s attitudes. It was for this more than for its actions in specific cases that we sent the bomb to an executive of this company…”  (Chase, 75)

Kaczynski’s third and final fatality, as well as his last bomb, came when, on April 24, 1995, he mailed a package to the president of the California Forestry Association in Sacramento, one Gilbert Murray, who opened the package, which exploded on him with such force that the blast literally ripped Murray to pieces.

It was at this point that Kaczynski mailed proposals to three different publications, Penthouse magazine, The New York Times and The Washington Post, in which he offered to stop sending bombs if one of the publications would publish his 30,000 word manifesto entitled “Industrial Society and its Future.” The Post took him up on the offer, after conferring with the FBI, which advised them that it might help catch Kaczynski by bringing someone forward who was familiar with the writing.

And indeed, when Ted’s brother David read the manifesto, he recognized his brother’s writing and grudgingly turned him over to the FBI, which arrested him on April 3, 1996.

In exchange for the government’s agreement not to seek the death penalty, Kaczynski plead guilty to thirteen federal bombing offenses, and acknowledged responsibility for all sixteen bombings from 1978 to 1995. He is currently serving a life sentence with no possibility of parole.

The Man of Science

The first thing that strikes us about these bombings is their seriality and repetition. They are a series of identical-but-different situations – like Andy Warhol’s soupcans – in which an effort is made to bomb the Man of Science. It was not sixteen different individuals that Kaczynski was trying to destroy, but rather the one Being which these sixteen individuals incarnated, the Platonic archetype of the Scientific Man. Kaczynski, then, was actually trying to destroy a Platonic Form, and the only way to do this is to replicate a series of attacks. To counter the One, one must resort to the principle of the Many, for it is precisely through the Many that the One makes itself manifest.

Industrial Society survives — indeed, flourishes — based upon the principle of serial repetition through mass production. It is precisely the mass production of basic, undying consumer archetypes which enables it to gain power over the physical world by the sheer force of its swarms of products. Andy Warhol made this clear in his soupcan paintings, which reveal the presence of the Form behind the individual Campbell’s soupcans simply by analyzing their principle of repetition. He did the same thing with Coke bottles, Brillo boxes, etc., which unveil for us the basic consumer archetypes: the Can of Campbell’s Soup, of which all existing cans are mere imperfect copies; the bottle of Coke; the Brillo Box; and so forth. Master copies made manifest through their repetition.

But now it is precisely by his participation in these chains of seriality that the Consumer is created. The Platonic Forms of the consumer society create the Platonic Form of the Consumer simply by the fact of his participation in the sacrament of buying, consuming, and then re-buying and consuming the same products ad inifintum. In the process, the Consumer himself is cloned and replicated. Indeed, now he is everywhere, ubiquitous, omnipresent throughout all time and space. Industrial Society replicates consumers. We are all consumers. You and I; your friends, my friends; everyone. We have all been cloned and replicated, whether knowingly or not, by the mere fact of our obsessive, repetitive consumption of the same products over time and through space.

But now if it were possible to destroy the Platonic Forms of consumer society, then it follows that the individual copies, mass reproduced, would cease. And if the endless seriality and repetition of its products ceased, then the Consumer would cease to exist, for there would be no mass produced products for him to participate in through consumption of them. We would all then be forced to become singularities, capable of regarding ourselves as clones no longer, but forced to become true individuals. We would have to live our own lives, provide for ourselves our own products, messily, each one of us in the process becoming a ragged and worn individuality.

It is precisely the Man of Science, however, who has power over all this magic of production. It is the Man of Science – Nietzsche’s Socratic Man, in fact – the man of reasonableness, logic and rationality who, due to his command over the Platonic Secrets – the universal laws and their mathematic formulae – has command over the principles underlying the phenomenal world. His mastery of those Platonic archetypes enables Industrial Society to come into being, to function at all, for the Man of Science is the priest of the machine whose knowledge of the machines makes it all work. Indeed, without his knowledge, there would be no machines to mass produce the Consumer Forms. Behind the existence of each and every one of these machines, there lies at its ultimate root, just such a Man of Science: behind the automobile engine, for example, there is always a Gottlieb Daimler, a Jean Joseph Lenoir, a Sadi Carnot, men of science, that is, who had mastery over the equations and the secrets which they made possible, the secrets for unlocking the existence of the machines and eventually, of their principles of seriality and repetition.

It follows, then, that if you can destroy the archetype of the Man of Science, then Industrial Society would collapse, taking all of its mass production and its endless repetition of clones along with it. The society would disappear, and along with it, the Consumer as a type. We would all be forced to become singularities, each one of us an unprecedented human event, forced to create our own microcosms.

Just like Ted Kaczynski, who withdrew from Industrial Society, refused to participate in its principle of seriality and repetition, and decided to rely upon himself to produce his own food, his own house, his own life. A complete singularity unto himself; a swerving like Lucretius’ clinamen, in which the atoms suddenly, unpredictably, swerve from their predetermined course to go their own way through the cosmos.

Hence, the media’s caricature of Kaczynski as the bizarre hermit and reclusive loner who, because he did not fit into the seriality and repetition of human forms inside Industrial Society, seems so strange that he must be mentally ill. After all, only a madman would criticize Industrial Society and choose to become a human singularity.

But then in the microcosmology which Kaczynski created, it is precisely the matter of interiors vs. exteriors that counts. Inside Industrial Society, you are a slave; outside it, the possibility of Freedom exists as the fruit of the tree – hence, his obsession with wood — for those who wish to reach for it.

Technological Gnosticism

In order to understand Kaczynski’s principle of interiors vs. exteriors (in which freedom for the individual only exists outside of cosmic containers) it is necessary to glance for a moment at his manifesto, in which he explains his motivations for becoming a terrorist.

Kaczynski states that the human individual, in order to attain fulfillment, must normally go through what he calls “the power process,” in which he initiates and sets his own goals, expends a significant amount of effort toward the achievement of those goals, and is actually able to accomplish at least some of them. A significant degree of autonomy, then, is necessary for the completion of this task. But he points out that industrial society actually inhibits and interferes with this process because it places the modern human being inside a mesh of impersonal bureaucratic forces which tyrannize over him with demands, regulations and constant stresses. Decisions are made by politicians, bureaucrats and technicians over which the individual has no influence and no say, and these decisions decide a great deal of his fate and destiny, which is thus largely robbed from him. The modern individual loses his freedom to control his own circumstances because he is constantly harried by these impersonal technocratic forces upon which he becomes dependent for much of his safety and security. Thus, he has no control over huge portions of his life – such as the guarantee of his own safety, for which he must rely on public officials and government representatives to provide for him (for instance, ensuring safety regulations at nuclear power plants or making sure that no toxins get into the food or water supplies) and as a consequence, he loses the ability to go through the power process on his own. He is always accountable to someone else for his actions – his employer, the government, etc. – and this leads to frustration, anxiety and a sense of unfulfillment. He turns, therefore, to surrogate activities, such as the taking up of a hobby, or a sport like golf or bodybuilding, which are inessential to the needs of his existence.

Technology, furthermore, is constantly forced upon him whether he likes it or not. New gadgets are often introduced at first as conferring new freedoms – such as the automobile, which apparently gave an advantage over the pedestrian – but which soon become mandatory and progressively narrow, and limit, his options (as when the city has to be redesigned to accommodate the automobile, and soon, everyone must have one to survive). Technology imposes its functions upon the hapless individual, who is gradually hemmed in by its demands and soon becomes its prisoner, robbed of his freedoms. The more technologized a society becomes, Kaczynski insists, the fewer freedoms there are. Constitutionally guaranteed freedom is only nominal; in reality, it is the economic and technological structures in a society, not its government, which determine how much freedom the individual has in that society.

Thus, in the cosmology which Kaczynski designs in his manifesto, the modern individual living inside industrial society is actually its prisoner. Freedom is an illusion, for technological determinism binds and captures him on all fronts. It is only outside industrial society, in the state of what Kaczynski calls “wild nature” that the individual becomes truly free to shape his own life. The individual inside industrial society, on the other hand, is fallen and in need of redemption. The only way to rescue him is to destroy and dismantle industrial society, which is long since past the possibility of reforming. It must be blown apart, and can, in no way, be saved.

This cosmology of diminished freedom for the individual trapped inside a cosmic container, and who can only attain any real kind of freedom on the outside of it, bears certain structural similarities to the cosmology of Gnosticism. In the cosmos as it was envisioned by the Gnostics of the first two or three centuries AD, the human individual was also trapped inside a machine, namely the cosmos itself, which had been constructed by malevolent beings known as Archons. Each of these archons was assigned to one of the cosmic spheres containing the seven heavenly bodies which whirled around the earth, a small flat disc which they had created as a prison for human beings. The highest of these archons was a being named Yaltabaoth (the Hebrew Yahweh) whose sphere was that of Saturn, the outermost of the cosmic spheres, and the demiurge who had brought it all into being under the mistaken impression that he was the creator of the cosmos.

The human soul’s fate was controlled by something called Heimarmene, the Gnostic word for Fate, which was exerted astrologically by the planets and their archons, who had helped to construct the physical world and to imprint the human soul with the archetypal qualities associated with each of the planets, such as Fear, Envy, Jealousy, Wrath, etc. Thus, the archons were the enemies of the soul, whose only escape lay in the possibility of attaining gnosis, or initiation into the cosmic secret that one’s true destiny was to attain the realm of Light that lay above and beyond the cosmic spheres, a realm known as the Pleroma, where dwelt the ultimate beings of  Light, Sophia and the Aeons, the true creators of the cosmos. Gnosis lay in the realization that the human soul was actually a spark of light fallen from this realm and trapped inside a mortal human body subject to astrological determinism. Attainment of true freedom lay in escaping the Gnostic cosmos by ascending through the spheres, battling past the Archons (who were in possession of the archetypal Forms by way of which the physical world was constructed) and becoming reunited with the Pleroma.

Thus, in the Gnostic cosmos, too, freedom was a matter of escaping from a cosmic container, in this case, the cosmos itself. Once outside the realm of the spheres, the soul’s freedom could be attained in the Pleroma, a world that lay outside the cosmic machine.

In Kaczynski’s cosmos, the astrological determinism of the Gnostics finds its analogue in the technological determinism of Industrial Society. Freedom, likewise, can only be truly attained outside this cosmic vessel in the state of “wild nature.” Kaczynski’s war against the scientists is directly analogous to the soul’s war against the archons, for the archons, like the scientists, are in possession of the basic archetypal structures that have enabled them to create their respective societies as machines for trapping, and storing, human souls.

Thus, if you can destroy the Man of Science, then the cosmic machine trapping and encasing human souls will collapse in on itself, thus releasing its horde of caged human beings.

In both systems, then, freedom is lost on the inside of their cosmic containers, and regained only in the cosmic wildernesses outside them.

Two Kinds of Strategy For Redemption

The hidden Gnostic structures in Kaczynski’s narrative actually reveal more about the structures of technological society than they do about the structure of Kaczynski’s mind. They show us that modern man is, indeed, fallen – or “thrown” as Heidegger would put it – inside a technological apparatus that has closed up around him and from which he is in need of redemption, but doesn’t know it. There are, however, a number of different strategies available for this Fallen Man to avail himself of in order to escape from the Belly of the Beast that has swallowed him up, and Kaczynski’s approach, a particularly violent one, is only one of them.

Marshall McLuhan, for instance, offered a distinctly different type of approach with his idea of “escape through understanding.” In this case, the individual doesn’t rely on a hero to blow a hole into the side of the Beast for him, which Kaczynski’s approach implies, but rather gives him the tools to save himself. One escapes the clutches of technological determinism on a psychological rather than a crudely physical level by studying the technological apparatus, and learning to understand its mechanisms of manipulation and control. In thus coming to understand the machine, one is able to escape from the possibility of being manipulated by it. Theodor Adorno, with his study of the Culture Industry in The Dialectic of Enlightenment, offers a similar kind of approach.

Kaczynski’s analysis of the manipulative nature of technological society is, I think, accurate. The problem with it, though, is that his technological soteriology is crudely literal. The Gnostics, too, escaped through understanding, for that is what gnosis means, “to know.” There is no need to physically blow up industrial society: it will eventually collapse of its own weight, just like the Roman Empire. In the meantime, the individual must achieve gnosis through understanding how and why industrial society seeks to control our lives.

It is the same as the difference between the paths to enlightenment offered by Jainism and Buddhism. The Jains had said that the soul, the jiva, was infected with karma as the result of every single action one does, for every action, good or bad, generates karma, so the solution to the problem was to cease to generate karma by physically stopping oneself from doing anything at all, including eating food. The Buddha, on the other hand, realized that the problem was psychological, not physical. One needed to attain a state of inward detachment through a shift of psychological attitude in the attainment of release through nirvana. What one does actually makes no difference, as long as it is done with detachment.

Kaczynski’s attempt to rescue the fallen human soul through blowing a hole into the side of industrial civilization is simply a rehearsal of the myth of the solar hero who comes to one’s rescue from the outside. But the approaches of McLuhan, Adorno and Critical Theory are a form of self-salvation which can actually be attained by anyone willing to sit down and do the work of reading the texts.

It’s too bad that Kaczynski’s rage led him to kill people, for his cosmology is interesting to contemplate. Modern man’s predicament, I agree, is enraging, and needs to be discussed.

But his attack on industrial society is only one more example of the kinds of rage that it is inciting against itself all over the world.

There will be more such attacks, as the decades unfold.

Count on it.

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14th July 2013

On Anish Kapoor

Anish Kapoor

An Essay by John David Ebert

Ruptured Worlds

In the post-metaphysical age, civilization is no longer protected by spheres or membranes of any kind. All the boundaries, limes, walls, mandalas and macrospheres which, in the mythical and metaphysical eras, once contained and organized civilizations, have been shattered and now lie in pieces all about us. Of course, when something ceases to function or breaks down, that is precisely the moment when it surfaces into visibility by crossing the threshold of our subconscious awareness into conscious perception. Environmental backgrounds, as McLuhan always liked to point out, are entirely unconscious because of their all-immersive ubiquity. One never notices them precisely because of their banality. But a wall becomes suddenly conspicuous by its absence the moment it disappears or is taken down. Heidegger’s proverbial hammer, likewise, is invisible to circumspective concern so long as it is working and embedded in the mode of being which he terms Zuhandenheit. It is only once the hammer ceases to function, however, that it becomes visible and shifts from its Zuhanden mode to the mode of Vorhandenheit, where it now stands out as a theoretical problem to be solved.

In the history of civilizations, once cosmologies break down or cease functioning, they do not just disappear without a trace, but are retrieved from the ancient midden heap by the artist who catches them, miniaturizes them, and transforms them into works of art in the new environments constructed by new technologies and other modes of Being. Thus, the Renaissance artist retrieves the Laocoon from the midden heap of antiquity and it becomes the inspiration for a David or a Moses, which becomes the constitutive work of art of the new Renaissance world city under Pope Julius II or Leo X.

Thus, in the art of Anish Kapoor, all the ancient containers – mandalas, macrospheres and various uteromorphic cosmologies – which once served during the mythical age as world bounding horizons have reappeared on the inside of the global capitalist anti-world as art objects scaled down and miniaturized for mass consumption. The global ecumene of late capitalism is absolutely hostile to all such world-spheric containers, for it has engulfed all of them, thus neutralizing their ontological efficacy and melting them down into the metaphysical slag heap of ancient cosmologies and lost civilizations that now fill the exhibits of our natural history museums.

All metaphysical walls, membranes and boundaries have nowadays ceased to function – hence, the present anxieties that fuel the building of walls and fences along nation state borders worldwide – and the signifying contents which they once held in place, furthermore, have been disgorged across the planet via contemporary art. The transcendental signifieds, together with their signifiers, which these great global containers once used to hold in place, have escaped capture from their various worlds and come loose, and now they are presently tracing lines of flight through the capitalist ecumene as uncoded flows anarchically rupturing meaning systems everywhere.

The art of Anish Kapoor is a massive reterritorialization of these ancient signifiers onto the global body, or socius, of the late capitalist hypersphere.

1000 Names

Kapoor’s first great work, 1000 Names (above), is a good example of this phenomenon. First exhibited in the Paris studio of Patrice Alexandre in 1980, 1000 Names (which refers in Indian religion to all the names of the god Vishnu) is a display of signifiers torn from the Hindu tradition and littered across the floor of the studio in glowing red, yellow, white and black pigments. The forms are all geometric: circles, squares, domes, obelisks, crescent shapes, etc. and they have been represented in such a way as to suggest their self-emergence from below out of the very floor of the studio itself. The forms are evocative of Hindu signifiers: the obelisks as transformed Shiva lingams; the white domes as miniaturized stupas; the squares and crescents as ancient symbols for the elements of earth and water. One of the forms is a red cone up which a serpentine shape spirals (shown below), exactly like the kundalini serpent in the Tantrika tradition that is traditionally depicted as being wrapped around a lingam. The colors, furthermore, are those associated with Indian thought systems: red, white and black are the colors of the three gunas, or qualities, that matter possesses: rajas, sattva and tamas in the Sankhya philosophical tradition.

According to Sankyha cosmology, the world of matter created itself, for it is a system of cosmic autopoiesis that does not feature the gods as the creators of the world. Rather, the world is thought to have emerged as the result of the interaction of the twin forces of matter or prakriti, and mind or purusa. The three gunas which characterize matter – rajas for fiery passionate activity, tamas for heavy, slow torpor, and sattva for luminous clarity —  were set into agitated activity by the presence of thousands of these purusas which acted upon it in a manner similar to the way magnets cause iron filings to line up. Consciousness, or buddhi, is created first, and then, along a stream of parallel evolution the subtle elements – which are self-luminous, or sukshma forms – known as the tanmatras are created. The first atoms, also subtle, and known as paramanus, are created, and eventually give rise to subtle forms of the first elements. The entire cosmos up to this point is self-luminous and autopoietic: that is to say, it creates itself from out of its own substance.

The subtle elements soon give way to what are known as the concrete or gross elements, the sthula bhutani. Akasha, or ether, which is the first of these elements to emerge, is actually space itself as a humming morphogenetic field that creates forms simply by making a sound. It is associated with the geometrical figure of the sphere. Air comes next, which is associated with the circle, while fire is associated with the triangle, water with the crescent moon and earth with the shape of a square. Thus, the creation of matter according to Sankhya cosmology.

Kapoor’s glowing forms, likewise, might be regarded as self-luminous sukshma forms arising from a kind of akashic field. However: they are deterritorialized forms which have been torn from their original apparatuses of semiotic capture. Such apparatuses are the various mandalas and yantras which the Hindu tradition imagines as the structuring fields within which these signifiers take on their meanings. Such forms would traditionally find their place within a geometric apparatus of semiotic capture such as a Tibetan mandala, where cosmic mountains are, for instance, placed into the center, with gates opening up into the four directions, while the five elements are each nailed down to their proper place within the apparatus, just as is the case, likewise, for an Aztec sun calendar.

But Kapoor’s self-luminous and autopoietic forms have escaped capture by these ancient cosmic apparatuses, for they have been torn loose from the world-bounding horizons of their tradition and set free into the global capitalist ecumene, where they can trace new lines of flight into meaning systems that are totally “other” than what they were originally designed for. Kapoor’s exhibition space is the very opposite of a Tibetan mandala, for in it, the forms have all broken loose from their original world-structuring contexts. It no longer matters much – semiotically speaking – that this or that crescent shape used to symbolize water, or this or that red square once symbolized earth, for in Kapoor’s art all that matters now is that they are self-luminous apparitions that appear to be emerging from some other dimension below the studio floor. They are “thus come” as the Buddhists would say: self revelations of their own mysterious luminosity. They are therefore, to a large degree, semiotically undetermined.

Once the forms have been deterritorialized from the contexts of their original world-bounding horizons and set free into the capitalist anti-world of contemporary art, they are now free of all traditional meanings and can be recoded to perform new functions. The forms can now mutate, change and transform in surprising ways.


In the late 80s, Kapoor’s medium undergoes a shift from forms made out of colored pigment to a fascination with megaliths and megalithic cosmologies. Indeed, just as the cosmology of Sankhya envisions the world shifting from self-luminous and subtle forms into a cosmology of sthula bhutani, or the solid forms of concrete matter inside which the earlier cosmology of light has fallen and become entrapped, so too, it is as though Kapoor’s earlier self-luminous works disappear into the heavy, concrete forms of his megaliths. We can actually see the process happening in the work which he created in 1988 that is entitled Wound, (shown above) which shows a bloody vertical rift in the wall with three long stones set on the ground in front of it in such a way as to suggest that the blood is running out of the wall and pooling into little basins in the stones. In a manner of speaking, the blood running from the wall stands as part for the whole of Kapoor’s earlier cosmology of self-luminous forms now leaking out and draining off into the stone, where it is now captured and imprisoned, as it were, just like the subtle forms of Sankhya cosmology trapped inside of heavy matter.

In the 1989 work known as Void Field, (shown above) the floor of the museum space is filled with large square-shaped blocks as though the ruins of a collapsed temple had been gathered together and arranged neatly for inspection. Each of the stone blocks, however, features a hole in the center, like the bindu at the center of the Shri Yantra in the Hindu tradition, which is regarded as the cosmic origin point from out of which matter, both subtle and heavy, emerges, only in this case, Kapoor has reterritorialized the bindu as a sort of cosmic drain, down into which his entire earlier cosmology has disappeared.

In a number of works dating from the early 1990s, Kapoor is fascinated by drilling holes into huge stones, and with representing monoliths, such as in the 1990 work It is Man, with large black rectangles in their centers. This is a period of Kapoor’s work in which he is concerned with Depths, rather than Surfaces: his monoliths, such as the Adam of 1989 (shown above), represent upright stone blocks as though they were fragments taken from some larger whole, and featuring a black rectangle like the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey on the surface. This is, perhaps, a way of giving depth to the image: the stone block, he would appear to be saying, is not just a stone block – anymore than the human being is just made out of physical matter – but has a depth interior to it, a realm of hidden consciousness that is on the inside of the block.

In the ancient megalith cults of the mythical age which Kapoor’s work seems to be referring to, it was commonly thought that the worshipped stones and lithic forms had fallen from the heavens to the earth, and were therefore worshipped, like the Ka’ba of Islam, as revelations of the descent of heavenly powers to the earth. In the work entitled Angel, of 1990 (shown above), Kapoor represents one of these monoliths with a black rectangle in the center as presiding over a museum floor littered with chunks of blue-painted sandstone. Blue, of course, is the traditional symbol of the sky (especially in the Western tradition), and in Kapoor’s work it is as though pieces of the heavens had broken off from the sky and fallen to earth. Kapoor’s installation, then, shows us the collapse of the blue sky that once formed the ontological canvas of the Western tradition, discovered in the paintings of Giotto in the fourteenth century, who was the first artist to substitute a blue sky for the gold background of Byzantine icons. Thus blue became one of the central and most important colors of the metaphysics of Northern Europe down to Goethe’s day and beyond (he regards blue, in his Theory of Colors, as the signifier of the infinite) symbolizing space itself until, during the falling bombs and V2 rockets of the Second World War the Western understanding of Being collapsed and the sky fell to earth along with it in a rain of bombs, fragments and missiles. The West has suffered ontologically from the lack of a protective and immunizing macrosphere ever since, and has substituted a pulsating grid of electronic signals in its place.

And so Kapoor’s work during this period is characterized by a fascination with the depths of things, which is perfectly exemplified by his architectural work of 1992 entitled Building for a Void, (shown above) in which he has designed a round tower with a spiral walkway like the mosque at Samarra such that, when one walks inside of it, there is black hole in the center of the floor leading to a three-meter wide chasm below, while an oculus at the top of the ceiling is open to admit the light of the heavens into the dim interior. The work thus captures and reterritorializes the ancient three tier cosmologies of the mythical age, in which the earth was imagined as enclosed by a cosmic dome situated above an abyssal underworld and open to the spiritual energies of the heavens located in the realm beyond the dome above.

All through the 1990s Kapoor is concerned with burrowing holes into rocks, monoliths and floor surfaces, as though he were excavating stone in search of his lost cosmology of light. But beginning with Turning the World Upside Down in 1995, and Turning the World Inside Out (shown below) from the same year, Kapoor gives birth to a new cosmology of self-luminous surfaces, for the former work is a convex, gold-colored mirror on a wall, while the latter work is a large silvery sphere with an indentation on the top. These works now begin to radiate light, rather than to absorb it, and they reflect an ever-increasing preoccupation of Kapoor throughout the rest of his career with mirrors and reflective surfaces.


So, Kapoor’s work is structured largely with a central bipolarity of Depths vs. Surfaces. His holes in the floors of museums and in monolithic rocks continue, but with the work of 1999 known as Taratantara, (shown above) they begin to be detached from floors and walls and to expand to monumental size: this is a work composed of 50 meters of red PVC forming a tunnel between two voids at either end of an old Baltic flour mill in Gateshead, England. Thus, Kapoor’s basins of attraction have here been scaled up to an all-encompassing environment that tyrannizes over, and swallows up the human being. This is even more true of his 2002 work Marsyas, also composed out of red PVC, and filling the museum space of the Tate Modern with 155 meters of it stretched across a frame with two funnels at either end. Another monumental work called Dismemberment, Site I in New Zealand, from 2003 (shown below), also constructed out of PVC held together, in this case, with steel cables, and resembling nothing so much as a huge vaginal orifice, simply rests incongruously in the middle of the New Zealand countryside.

The 2008 work known as Memory, (shown below) furthermore, is a sort of giant egg made out of rust-colored Corten steel and set into a hallway of the Guggenheim where an entrance from another corridor gives access to the structure’s single, square-shaped opening. But the culmination of all of these Depth-works comes with the gigantic 2011 piece called Leviathan, which Kapoor had constructed in the shape of a three-chambered, spherical cross in the middle of the Grand Palais in Paris: when the viewer steps inside this work, he is confronted with a mysterious red-colored wombsphere that surrounds, encloses and contains him. It is the “nobjective space” of the embryo in its mother’s womb, as described by Peter Sloterdijk, in which the pre-subjective embryo but dimly perceives various “non-objects” such as the placental blood, the placenta itself, or the soft walls of the uterus.

Thus, the thread of Kapoor’s work that develops into these ever-gigantifying uteromorphic structures points to ancient signifiers of the mythical understanding of being-in-the-world as a being-in-the-Great-Mother: they are attempts to capture, scale down and miniaturize the ancient cosmos of the mythical age, in which the earth was depicted as a central island surrounded by an amniotic sea with an enclosed ceiling of cosmic spheres surrounding it like a womb.

Kapoor’s structures are evocations of the body of the Great Mother – which became the central religious figure of Hinduism – cut into pieces as a series of partial objects that have been deontologized and set into circulation in the capitalist world space of the global anti-world. These uteromorphic cosmologies once held together entire civilizations and formed their bounding world horizons that protected and immunized the human being, locking him in place inside of a reassuringly closed, womb-like cosmos. Now that these cosmologies have disappeared as valid forms for structuring civilizations, they become visible in the capitalist ecumene as works of art, scaled down for mass consumption. The body of the Great Mother, in Kapoor’s art,  has been cut into pieces, deworlded, and scattered across the earth’s landscapes as a series of vaginal and womb-shaped structures that evoke the old experience of the world-as-cavern which formed civilization’s basic cosmology until Giotto pierced it by discovering the blue of the sky of infinite space that lay beyond it.


But Kapoor’s ontology of mirrors is also scaled up in his work at this time, not only to the monumental proportions of a work like Cloud Gate (2004) (shown above), which he had built for a public monument in Chicago, but as an obsessively recurring theme all throughout his work of the 2000s. His various Sky Mirrors (one is shown below), scattered across the earth’s countrysides and civic spaces, are circular disks which capture and reflect bits of the sky, as though to suggest that it has fallen to earth.

Indeed, all the old bivalent ontologies supporting a heaven / earth dichotomy have, in the post-metaphysical age, been dismantled and deconstructed: the horizon line which once separated them has now gone, for this horizon line wasn’t just a line, but functioned as an actual membrane that separated the realm of the heavens and the gods up above from the realm of mortal humans and animals here on the ground below. Kapoor’s various sky mirrors, including Cloud Gate, are indeed pieces of the sky that have fallen to earth, precisely because the horizon-as-bounding-membrane that once separated sky from earth has been ruptured and has ceased to function (along with all the other world-bounding membranes). The laws of the heavens now form a seamless continuum with those of the earth, for it is all one giant, spherical continuum ruled by the four fundamental forces of physics. There are no gods up above, and humans have already demonstrated their prodigious technical-problem solving abilities in sending men into outer space as though to prove that they could exist there just as well as down on the planet below.

The sky, furthermore, was, in point of fact, the first mirror: all ancient cosmologies were reflected onto the heavens as cosmograms. The heavens were giant mirrors that reflected back at us humans our projections in the form of gods, deities, souls and constellations. The sky, then, was once the great mirror whose contents reflected the interior of the human psyche and its deep, unconscious contents.

But Kapoor’s mirrors are part of his ontology of pure Becomings, for he uses them to strip the skin from the surface of the world, as it were, and set it into a parallel dimension of pure events, to borrow from the language of Deleuze in his book The Logic of Sense. In that book, Deleuze points out how the Stoics separated the realm of effects from causes by Platonizing them: events for them were pure Becomings without causes that existed in a kind of flat, surface world that they separated from the concrete world of causes and states of affairs between bodies. The Stoics, in other words, decorporealized effects-as-events from their material substrate, and put them into a realm of pure Becomings.

Kapoor, with his mirrors, it seems to me, is doing something similar: in stripping the skin of the surfaces of things from the world and setting it into a parallel reality inside of his various mirrors, he is decorporealizing events as effects from things as states of affairs, for his mirrors always transform and distort what they represent into a realm of two-dimensional reflected surfaces without causes, for the causes of the distorted images do not lie within the mirrors themselves, but outside them. His mirrors create a realm of pure effects without causes, a realm of pure surfaces without depths. Just as Deleuze points out that Lewis Carroll, in his Alice novels moves from concern with depths (Alice, for instance, falling down the rabbit hole) into a realm of pure surfaces (i.e. mirrors, playing cards, chessboards), so too, Kapoor’s art moves from an excavation of the world’s ontological depths into the construction of an ontology of mirrors as pure surface effects. In doing so, he is paralleling the way in which our electronic video screens and monitors act as mirrors which reflect back at us a two-dimensional surface world of effects without causes, a world of phantoms, ghosts and avatars that is no more substantial than a fleeting dream made out of subtle matter. We, too, like Kapoor with his mirrors, are engaged in the creation of an ontology of pure surface effects without causes.

Red Wax

Now, with Kapoor’s red wax works of the 2000s, he is attempting to create a three-dimensional parallel to his mirror-world of surface effects. Beginning in 2003, with My Homeland is Red, (shown above) in which Kapoor creates a sculpture out of 25 tons of red wax swept in a circular motion by a pestle revolving once per hour, he creates a self-making work that illustrates the pure process of Becoming. Like one of D&G’s plateaus, it is a work without a goal or a telos that never develops into something, but simply illustrates autopoiesis as a pure process of self-making that is indifferent to the nature of the actual thing made.

His work Svayambh of 2007 (shown above) is perhaps the most exemplary illustration of this, for it is a slab of dark red wax set on rails which is moved slowly through the doorways of the gallery such that the wax takes on the shapes of the doorways as it is pushed through them. The thing that is made here, which is simply a huge indeterminate hunk of red wax, is not the point so much as the process of self-making, since Svayambh, according to Kapoor, is a Sanskrit word that means “self-making.” But of course, as we have seen, the narrative of cosmogenesis in the Sankhya system was a narrative precisely of the self-making of the cosmos by the twin principles of matter and consciousness, and so Kapoor’s work bears the vestigial ghost of the Sankyha cosmology along with it. However, the thing that is actually made by this process – in contrast to the Indian philosophical system — is not a specific, determinate thing, for Kapoor has deliberately left it semiotically undetermined. The work is a pure Deleuzian event of the making of a thing that makes itself as the three-dimensional illustration of the process of autopoiesis: what is made is not the point as much as the actual process of self-making that is being illustrated.

The object as it travels along its track through the galleries and doorways does evoke associations, though: birth, for instance. The object, in passing through the museum, transforms its various entrances and doorways into vaginas that are imagined as giving birth to something parthenogenically, which means without insemination by a male. This was precisely the nature of the old self-making models of cosmogenesis of Indian and some early Greek traditions (in Hesiod’s Theogony, for instance, in which Gaia gives birth to the cosmos spontaneously, from out of her own substance). The entire Hindu cosmology is an autopoietic one, and it is also one in which the myth of the goddess is the strongest and most prominent of all the world’s existing religious traditions today. Kapoor’s work signals a shift in contemporary art from an ontology of poiesis (or making, as in the case of Yahweh on the first page of the Book of Genesis) to autopoiesis (in which the cosmos – together with the entities inside of it — grows like a plant from out of its own soils).

Svayambh, then, is a three-dimensional work that illustrates Kapoor’s event ontology, for it is an event that has been decorporealized by being removed from the conditions of the physical world’s specificity, or states of affairs of concrete things. It is semiotically indeterminate, and therefore invites the viewer to complete it by territorializing it with his own signifieds, for it is a work which has no signifieds other than what the viewer ascribes to it.

Indeed, all of Kapoor’s red wax works of the 2000s, such as Up Down Shadow of 2005 (shown above) or Push-Pull II of 2008 (shown below), are depicted as objects making themselves by emerging from another world into this one. The objects of these works are like spinning wheels that emerge spontaneously through the floor or else slice through the museum walls as though they were irruptions of self-luminous forms from another world like those of his early great work 1000 Names.

In carrying all this out, Kapoor is creating a kind of rhizome between the ancient Indian thought systems and the modern hypersphere of capitalism, for just like the viruses that create rhizomes between humans and animals by shuttling genes back and forth between them, so Kapoor, as a transnational artist, is creating cultural hybrids by shuttling the cultural genes of two worlds back and forth to create interesting and novel forms. Rhizomes, as Deleuze and Guattari point out in A Thousand Plateaus, are lateral connections between multiplicities that create new and surprising assemblages between them. Thus, the value of such a deontologizing age as the one we’re living in today is that connections are now open as never before between the various world civilizations for creating unprecedented cultural formations. Homi K. Bhaba is therefore dead wrong when he says, in his essay on Kapoor’s work, that such cultural backgrounds are disposable in considering the work of a transnational artist like Kapoor. Indeed, they are precisely the whole point and essence of what he is up to as an artist in a cosmopolitan age. Other transnational artists – such as Cai Guo-Qiang or Zaha Hadid – are doing something similar: that is to say that their work in contemporary art cannot be fully understood without knowing something about the cultural backgrounds that they carry with them from their own respective traditions.

Worldless Objects

Kapoor’s artworks, then, are deterritorialized signifiers that have been cut free from the bounding horizons of world specificity and let loose into the capitalist anti-world, which has melted down all the traditional bivalent ontologies of heaven / earth, up / down, nature / spirit, light / dark etc. in the very process of creating itself as a scientific superstructure. With the impacts of science on the one hand, and Deconstruction on the other, such ontologies no longer have the world-shaping functions which they once conferred on their local horizons.

Set free from those horizons, Kapoor’s works are like mysterious objects that have thrust through into this world from some other dimension where they might have had specified meanings in their original contexts but which now have come unmoored from their traditions and are encountered as worldless objects unto themselves. It is as though Kapoor transforms us into astronauts in outer space floating in a world without horizons who encounter these strange objects as artifacts from an alien world. They confront us as enigmas to be solved, purely worldless objects in the problematic mode of Vorhandenheit that require completion by the viewer. They have lost all touch with Being (which is always world specific), and so, contrary to Gadamer’s aesthetics in Truth and Method, in which he says that the work of art is an emanation or avatar of Being that takes the viewer up into it and increases the Being of the object in the process, these works have lost all connection to their originary Being-worlds, and so they have to be considered as miniature worlds unto themselves. They are not avatars of Being, but create and generate their own Being-thereness from out of their own presence.

Each of Kapoor’s objects is a self-making entity from another dimension that requires the viewer to actively reterritorialize it. They are deliberately semiotically indeterminate, for in the capitalist anti-world which they inhabit, meaning is provincial and specific to place and therefore, unwelcome. The capitalist world space is full of meaningless objects a la Baudrillard, signs that proliferate like viruses without aim or purpose. Specific meaning – as opposed to the diffuse quantum wave-like meaning function of Kapoor’s works — is world-specific, however, and so it does not fit well within the world order of late capitalism, which deontologizes everything it encounters. Meanings must be left open and semiotically indeterminate in order for the various worlds encountering each other in such an age to translate the various works of contemporary art across cultural boundaries. When meanings are as specific and pre-determined as they were in the mythical and metaphysical ages, they leave no room for dialogue and become authoritarian, generating only friction, tension and, in worst case, scenarios, war. (“My metaphysics are greater than yours, which I will now proceed to demonstrate by decimating your population,” etc. etc.)

So, for a global anti-world, an art full of worldless – although not necessarily meaningless — objects becomes the only art that counts.

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28th June 2013

On Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

You Must Change Your Life

by Peter Sloterdijk

Reviewed by John David Ebert

The main thesis of Peter Sloterdijk’s newly translated 2009 work You Must Change Your Life is that there is no such thing as religion and never has been. (The word “religion” is a recent, post-Christian development, for one thing). Instead, Sloterdijk insists, there is only what he calls the “practicing human.”  And there is nothing specifically or inherently religious about the practicing human, since humans have always been engaged in self-disciplinary techniques of improvement and transformation, whether under the guidance of a master or one’s own ascetic impositions. Writers, farmers, yogis, philosophers, artists, educators, monks: all share in common the fact that they are “acrobats” walking tightropes and performing feats of near impossible difficulty that astonish the rest of us and further the transformation of the human being into something greater than himself.

It was in the latter third of the nineteenth century, moreover, that Western civilization initiated a new, hitherto unheard of development: the somatization of the spiritual or the secularization of the ascetic, which signaled the shift out of the seven or so century long development of the culture of “work” back into the retrieval of the pre-Medieval cultural world of the practicing human for whom, not work, but following a self-imposed discipline was the paradigm. The “somatization of the spiritual” that came in at the end of the nineteenth century tended to crystallize around the cult of the athlete and the completion of the Renaissance in the form of the reinstitution of the Olympic Games in Athens and in Paris right around the year 1900. The cult of the Olympian athlete, Sloterdijk argues, has all the structures of ascetic discipline but without the character of a true “religion,” and so points up the slipperiness of the very designation of just what constitutes a religion and what doesn’t in the twentieth century.

In a little gem of a chapter on Scientology, furthermore, Sloterdijk examines just how easy it is for a self-designated “prophet” like L. Ron Hubbard to create a parody of psychotherapy and simply call it a “religion” for tax shelter purposes. What is the status of “religion” in an age when frauds like Hubbard can simply manufacture one out of whole cloth? Sloterdijk asks, and I have to admit here, that he does have a point.

However: the main problem with the book — and it is a serious one — is that the concept of the “practicing human” is so broad and general that almost anything can be plugged into it. Who isn’t a “practicing human”? And indeed, as a result of this vagueness of the concept, Sloterdijk spends five hundred pages discussing anything and everything, lumping together the most disparate and heterogeneous phenomena into one vast soup of ideas that ends up with little in the way of a unifying paradigm. At one point, the reader will find him discoursing upon five different types of teacher; and then, in another chapter, he will find himself in the midst of a discussion on the advent of anesthesia in the middle of the nineteenth century; or a discourse on witch hunts in the sixteenth century; or a discussion of the “New Human Being” invented by the Soviet Russians. And so forth. This book, I’m afraid, is a mess.

Sloterdijk, furthermore, fails ever to give a definition of what he means by “religion.” If you’re going to deconstruct the term and argue it out of existence, well and good, but you must at least give the reader examples of what you are talking about. But then if you do that, you are tacitly admitting the existence of something which you say has never existed in the first place! Hence, the lack of a definition or any examples.

The problem is that, saying that “religion has never existed, only the practicing human, secular, sacred or otherwise,” is a little like saying that “schools don’t exist, only students exist.” In other words, Sloterdijk has simply performed a figure / ground reversal, in which he has isolated the practicing human from out of the contextual grounds of his environment within the enclosed macrosphere of his religion. Religions are holistic systems that build and structure civilizations, and they do so by providing rituals, liturgies, myths and works of art — as well as ascetic disciplines — which surround, capture and embed the individual subject within them like cocoons in a spider’s web. There is no question that religions exist: they have always existed, since they are the fabric which has woven the various civilizations together like a series of exotic Turkish rugs all laid out for sale in a bazaar.

It remains unclear to me just how the existence of practicing humans invalidates the existence of religion. He might just as well say that there is no science, either, just practicing “scientists.”  Sloterdijk seems to be saying (like Magritte’s painting of a pipe that says “This is not a pipe”), “Here are all the great religions, but they are not religions.” But the truth is, they are not religions simply because Sloterdijk says they’re not. Hence, the return of fundamentalisms which comprises one of the cliches of modernity turns out not to be the return of fundamentalisms because fundamentalisms don’t exist. Only an increase in the spectacle of the practicing human, more and more of them every day, all the time.

In short, Sloterdijk’s book is an unconvincing attempt to argue out of existence something which is obvious to anyone who looks carefully around at what is going on: religions are cultural immune systems that confer an identity upon a people, and these provincial identities are everywhere being threatened by the antigenic force of globalization which has no immune system because it has no religion. It is only a system of technics wed to economics and democracy that does not take ethnic identities as co-immunintary structures into account. Sloterdijk, to his credit, does acknowledge this in the book’s final pages, insisting that we need a General Theory of Immunology to replace metaphysics, but it remains difficult to see whether, and how, such a theory  would solve the problem of expanding provincial cultural immune systems to encompass the solidarity of humanity as a single co-immunitary system.

In short, Sloterdijk’s book is a monumental flop, a sort of philosophical equivalent to Ishtar or Heaven’s Gate. It suffers badly from an out of focus thesis and a murky theme that acts as a catch-all for every subject Sloterdijk feels like discussing. Sloterdijk’s books are normally very good, creative and intelligent examinations of the plight of the contemporary human in an age of mass media and digitization, but this one must be tossed aside into the junk bins of well-meaning, but failed, works of philosophy that attempt to deconstruct traditional ideas.

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    Giant-Humans-Tiny-Worlds book cover




    Catastrophe book cover






    Ebert books
  • Archives

    For more John Ebert books and lectures...Get it on Google Play

  • Archives

    For more John Ebert books and lectures…Get it on Google Play






    Giant-Humans-Tiny-Worlds book cover




    Catastrophe book cover






    Ebert books