Du mußt dein Leben ändern (‘You Must Change Your Life’) is the last book in a trilogy on contemporary capitalism by Peter Sloterdijk. In this, his latest publication, the author focuses on our goal-oriented culture and the manner in which the individual, self-help book in hand, attempts to overcome his/her shortcomings in order to succeed. What role can art play in this over-ambitious, high-performance society?
Was the year 1907 especially marked by crisis? From a contemporary perspective, the data – even if assembled here more or less arbitrarily – seem unremarkable: in Romania in early February, riots broke out and 11,000 peasants were slaughtered when they were put down by force. On March 7th, there was a crash on the New York Stock exchange with severe economic consequences. In mid-August, the 7th Socialist International met in Stuttgart, with Lenin taking part. In Russia, domestic political tensions were exacerbated. Pope Pius X issued an encyclical against reforming the Catholic Church. On November 20th, the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker died, and was mourned deeply by Rainer Maria Rilke. Some of these events were harsh, painful, even dreadful for those who experienced them. Others may have been sources of extreme anxiety. But in hindsight, what are these events compared with those that followed, namely the outbreak of World War I just a few years later, regarded by many historians as the ultimate catastrophe of the 20th century?
Du mußt dein Leben ändern (You must change your life) is the title of the most recent book by Peter Sloterdijk, a broad investigation which attempts to come to terms with the deficits of human existence.1 The title suggests that Germany's best-known contemporary thinker alongside Jürgen Habermas may have switched over to the self-help market, and might now be peddling ideas and theories capable of competing with other recommendations for self-improvement, from muesli, to meditation, to a heightened awareness of the phases of the moon. Sloterdijk turns to religion, indeed popular amongst the self-help genre, which he introduces as a figment of the imagination, much in the vein of the Communist Manifesto.2 He subsequently situates religion within what he refers to as the ‘anthropotechnic turn’. Only after this does he disclose his secret, at which point he refers to Rilke. He cites one of the poet's most celebrated sonnets, one that subjects the title’s ‘Archaic Torso of Apollo’ to a formal examination until the description abruptly culminates in the categorical imperative: ‘You must change your life’.
This is not the first time Sloterdijk has drawn on Rilke, nor the sole instance when he has invoked lyric poetry. When he attempted to sketch out a ‘philosophical theory of globalization’, he adopted Rilke’s seemingly paradoxical neologism ‘Weltinnenraum’ (interior world).3 Sloterdijk drew the term from an elegy entitled ‘Es winkt zu Fühlung fast aus allen Dingen’ (nearly everything summons us to feeling), composed by Rilke during the war, in 1914, and he combined it with the driving element of the modern world. His book Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals appeared in 2005, and a year later, Sloterdijk penned the essay Zorn und Zeit (anger and time), in which he again took up the threads of poetry by thematizing the first word of The Iliad, namely ‘anger’.4 All three works deal with crisis conditions, and in all three, Sloterdijk has recourse to poetry as their index.
Philosophy and Poetry
This approach has earned him a few smug comments: for the Habermas student, Axel Honneth, he is a ‘poetic philosopher’.5 This verdict (the accent being on the attribute ‘poetic’) is probably also aimed at Sloterdijk’s opulent and copious diction, which frees his semantic cosmos to scan around and exhaust itself in all directions – from high to low, from Socrates to Seneca, Hegel or Heidegger, all the way to ‘an amorphous negativity’ whose presence Sloterdijk diagnoses as much on the right as on the left, and which he claims tends toward a ‘mollusc-like effervescence at the zero point of articulation’. 6
He who indulges in poetry perishes there: this is the basic message, not so much to philosophers at home, but to those from home who left and are enjoying greater acclaim abroad. One might invoke Nietzsche here: another linguistic acrobat. And how did he end up? As a Turiner Pferdekopftätschler (literally a Turin horse’s ass), sobbing hysterically.
Sloterdijk’s tone is baroque; his proximity to poetic language is for some a self-evident expression of unobstructed thought, said to be ‘open on all sides to new inspirations and perspectives’ while for others, his poetic language is a medium which allows the author to operate within an infinite universe of thought, where the future appears fleetingly, yet remains too vague to be charted or fathomed with precision. 7 With its flitting tentacles, poetry can go further than philosophy, for it stands at the interstices of the ephemeral and the indefinite. When Sloterdijk cites a sonnet by Rilke, one composed during a critical year, this can be taken as evidence for his subtle and keen sense of crisis.
In this respect, Sloterdijk links philosophy and art. But not from a Hegelian perspective, which situates a supreme, conceptually lucid philosophy above the arts, that will always remain captives of materiality. Sloterdijk allies himself with art, at the same time assigning it an almost forgotten function within his unswerving interrogation of the world: its seismographic qualities.8 Art – and for Sloterdijk’s intellectual praxis, this means artistic language – supplies him with the sensitive antenna he needs to ferret out the fine cracks of a situation and raise them to conscious awareness, long before they have widened to become deep fissures or festering wounds.
This almost pre-analytic capacity for presentiment has been demonstrated impressively in Sloterdijk’s three most recent major publications. When he rattled around in the Weltinnenraum des Kapitals written in 2005, he anticipated something of the change of mood which made itself felt even before the financial crash of late 2008. Already then, Sloterdijk put a damper on the still virulent sense of exuberance which bets on permanent capitalist and consumerist expansion by referencing the explosive social reality that is born from the uneven spread of wealth and work opportunity in the world.9 The psycho-social and political factors responsible for that which Sloterdijk refers to as a capitalism-wide ‘apartheid’ became the fundamental concept in his work Zorn und Zeit.10 Here, Sloterdijk uses the ancient Greek term ‘thymós’ (θυμος), as a tool for deciding criteria. ‘Thymós’ refers to the emotionally-charged entity which is, according to notions held in Antiquity, the root of all vital forces, passions, and other emotions – from the gentle to the explosive. This includes pride and anger, and hence the capacities towards which Sloterdijk’s thought has repeatedly returned.
The ‘thymotic moment’ plays an essential role in Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Because Sloterdijk directs his reflections beyond capitalism and toward the subjects who are subordinated by this form of society, this essay can be regarded as the conclusion of an unintended trilogy. If the drive for success, for fighting to the top, for marketing and selling oneself is indeed a fundamental condition of the capitalist order, then Sloterdijk complements his considerations of the ‘interior space of capital’ by turning now to those who have internalized this drive in the most extreme fashion and have elevated it to life’s purpose. As the most spectacular instance of this existential condition, said to define contemporary humanity as such, Sloterdijk singles out a musician named Carl Hermann Unthan (1848-1929), who in fact marketed himself as an attraction. Unthan was born without arms, but thanks to his enormous willpower, he was able to learn to play the violin with his toes, and he achieved celebrity by virtue of this hyper-specialized virtuosity. With Unthan as his point of departure, Sloterdijk develops an ‘anthropology of the cripple’, one which evolves spontaneously into an ‘anthropology of defiance’.11
Sloterdijk is conscious of the multiple historical burdens stirred up by the term ‘cripple’ – from overreaching, power-hungry political protagonists such as Wilhelm II and Joseph Goebbels (both of whom suffered from physical disabilities) all the way to the racial obsessions of the National Socialists. He sees this in the work of Franz Kafka or in Emile M. Cioran’s renunciation of the world, as well as in the quasi-religious promises of Scientology. This principle assumes its most popular form in athletics: ‘If the times belong to the competitive economy, then competitive sport is the Zeitgeist itself’, says Sloterdijk.12 To generalize, this means that emerging in place of the human being is the acrobat and the ascetic. These figures act from their status as ‘deficient beings’, to invoke the term used by Arnold Gehlen. Differently than as envisioned by Gehlen, these deficient beings do not arrange themselves into a rigidly authoritarian hierarchy, but instead assume control over themselves, become self-directed. Their humanity is defined by the fact that they engage regularly in disciplinary practices. They cultivate renunciation or engage in continuous training, deploying something along the lines of what Sloterdijk has termed ‘anthropotechnics’. It is a question here of measures designed to facilitate the self-modelling of the human individual and hence the overcoming of a nature that is perceived as insufficient (whether as a consequence of biology or of life circumstances).
Conspicuous here is the proximity to Nietzsche’s Superman – or as he is referred to tellingly in Italian, Superuomo. The human being, says Sloterdijk, seeks out ‘vertical tension’, and once this is no longer available through God because He is dead (which is to say, has become irrelevant as a metaphysical authority), then he or she struggles through the oxygen-poor atmosphere of the Himalayas to the summit of an 8000-meter peak, or else engages in self-styling and burnishing until the absolute height of perfection has been attained. But no matter which type of exertion is selected, which strategy of self-perfection, the goal always remains ‘Mount Improbable’. That distant peak which recedes as soon as it has been attained, so that one must locate it anew and begin striving for it all over again. According to Sloterdijk, the human being is a creature of habit – in both the active and passive senses.13
Active training is based on habit, and yet habit has another side, one that manifests itself in the daily grind. Sloterdijk problematizes this ambivalence between the unvarying rhythm of a life that moves forward in dull unawareness of itself and the equally monotonous but deliberate acquisition of skill or the application of self-modelling practices. He takes the side of Nietzsche’s ‘Zarathustra’, making a distinction between the lone individual, characterized by the will or the passion for self-perfection, and the vast mass, composed of people who lack the desire to renounce their complacently repetitive mode of existence. ‘If we calculate the average direction of their desires,’ says Sloterdijk, ‘we must conclude that they want what they already have, only with greater comfort.’ And he opposes this inertial tendency to an ‘art that is applied to the human’,14 one that is recognizable today in the various educational systems.
The Relativity of Art
Given these premises, the traditional arts are reduced to an almost parenthetical relevance, with music enjoying preeminent status because there, the anthropotechnical power of form arrived at via practice is strongly manifest. The avant-garde art of the 20th and 21st centuries is condemned in withering terms, if somewhat sweepingly by this philosophical critic of contemporary life, ‘since by virtue of its triumphant mixture of simplification, irreverence, and intolerance, the ubiquitous infiltration of mass culture is averse to every normative notion of something higher’.15 For Sloterdijk, then, contemporary art is a marginal phenomenon, for with its transdisciplinary projects and deliberately diffuse effacement of boundaries, it cannot operate in a purposeful way. According to Sloterdijk, a theory of art must amount to an art of order – an order directed toward the management of our planet and its civilization via the spontaneously achieved equilibrium of all of its powers, one of which is art.
This means that ‘you must change your art’, to paraphrase the title of Sloterdijk’s essay. But this would, if anything, deprive art of precisely the characteristic quality of openness which Sloterdijk himself exploits with such confidence and elegance. Implied by Sloterdijk’s reserved attitude toward contemporary art is an admonition to avoid becoming lost in arbitrariness, to instead embrace the parameters of a crisis-prone world as a serious and essential challenge. If there is any hope of salvation, art cannot supply it. Only the human is capable of this – despite being, according to Sophocles, the most terrible creature of all, hence requiring continuous civilization.16 Genuine art, then, would be an anthropotechnics through which homo sapiens – the naked animal – would succeed in becoming a total work of art, one compatible with globalization. Humanity’s achievement would consist in developing an ‘immune design’ from its own powers and convictions, which is to say: to secure the preservation of the world as a liveable space – despite its susceptibility to crisis.17
1. Peter Sloterdijk, Du mußt dein Leben ändern. Über Anthropotechnik, Frankfurt am Main 2009.
2. Ibid, p. 9.
3. Peter Sloterdijk, Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals. Für eine philosophische Theorie der Globalisierung, Frankfurt am Main 2005, p. 307.
4. μηνιν αειδε θεα, ‘The anger of the Gods’ are the first words of The Iliad.
5. Axel Honneth, ‘Fataler Tiefsinn aus Karlsruhe’, Die Zeit, September 24, 2009, no. 40, p. 60-61, here p. 60.
6. Peter Sloterdijk, Zorn und Zeit. Politisch-psychologischer Versuch, Frankfurt am Main 2006, p. 329.
7. Marc Jongen, ‘Wir sind nie zur Welt gekommen. Peter Sloterdijks Maieutik der Existenz’, in: Marc Jongen, Sjoerd van Tuinen, Koenraad Hemelsoet (eds.), Die Vermessung des Ungeheuren. Philosophie nach Peter Sloterdijk, Munich 2009, p. 144-162, here p. 145.
8. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, ‘In der Welt sein und auf der Bühne stehen’, in: Jongen et al., Vermessung…, p. 19-28; here p. 22.
9. Sloterdijk, Im Weltinnenraum…, p. 303.
11. Sloterdijk,Du mußt…, p. 69.
12. Ibid., p. 149.
13. Ibid., p. 279.
14. Ibid., p. 278 and p. 519.
15. Ibid., p. 574
16. Sophocles, Antigone, V.332/333.
17. Sloterdijk, Du mußt…, p. 713.