On Sloterdijk’s Spheres vol.1 – Bubbles

This book is massive, and difficult, and steeped in old, ancient research that, most likely, ten people have ever seen, Peter Sloterdijk being one of them. That said, I was fascinated by the book, and so I am going to try to do my best to present a feeling for it. This isn’t so much a review – I’m sure you can find that on the Amazon page – but rather it is just a space where I’m going to talk through parts of the book that I found interesting. You should really read some of those Amazon reviews, though. One calls the book a “high-octane masterpiece.” That should be all I need to say about that.

In any case, the Bubbles is concerned with what Sloterdijk calls “microspheres,” which are intimate relationships. In true continental fashion, Sloterdijk makes some strange theoretical choices when it comes to what “intimate” means, but near the end of the book we are presented with a list of situations where we could be in a microsphere. They are:

  • in the intercordial space
  • in the interfacial sphere
  • in the field of “magical” binding forces and hypnotic effects of closeness
  • in immanence, that is to say in the interior of the absolute mother and its postnatal metaphorizations
  • in the co-dyad, or the placental doubling and its neighbors
  • in the care of the irremovable companion and its metamorphoses
  • in the resonant space of the maternal voice and its messianic- evangelistic-artistic duplications

To be honest, this probably doesn’t look like it makes any sense, but each of these concepts has a chapter devoted to it. I’m going to go down the list and attempt to define the concept and then make a movement toward what it means for me. This is really just a way to quickly move through the book and give you an idea of what each section is about, and if you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment. This book was big and difficult and took a  long time to read, so I am certain I’m messing some of this up even though I took serious notes.

1. Intercordial space – The literal connected space of lifegiving. Sloterdijk uses womb imagery and his predominate method for thinking through his philosophical concepts, and this is a part of that. I believe that this argument is made in the first chapter, which is actually dedicated to the cardiocentric view of the human animal, and this quote presents the origination of Sloterdijk’s argument:

The dissecting tables of the anatomists were transformed into the altars of the new science of humans; the corpses graduated as assistant lecturers in anthropology. They taught authoritatively that humans, above all relationships to others of their kind, were firstly and ultimately single, unrelated bodies–bodies that exist in original functional unity and organismic individuality, only secondarily being integrated into social groups. This one should also consider an influential anatomical factor among the sources of modern individualism. (129)

Sloterdijk contrasts the intercordial mode to the way that anatomists, and even the body, tells the narrative of human experience. The human, in being a corded, attached being from its very beginning as a lifeform, is not originally a nonconnected, closed system. Instead, humans begin as connected tissue, literally soldered together with bond and blood.

2. Interfacial sphere – The human animal achieves completion in being viewed by another. That is it; it’s a pretty simple concept. Sloterdijk develops this idea, I believe, in order to garner some phenomenological leverage against Lacan “early in the game,” if you will. He evenly contrasts it against the mirror stage late in the chapter — “The game of the individual’s self-completion before the mirror would lose its attraction if it were not usable for the sublime fiction of independence–that dream of self rule which has influenced the model of the wise life since the beginnings of classical philosophy” (203). You can see a continuation of the idea above–individualism is merely a fiction that we like to play at, something that fills a lack in life, but incompletely.

3. Magic binding and closeness – Sloterdijk delves into Germanic tradition and Mesmerism in order to think through the concept of the tree and what a tree means. In short, he calls on the idea that ancient rituals from a number of cultures and post-Enlightenment mystic/spiritual movements all move toward an attempt at psychic together-ness. The tree is important because, and I am paraphrasing Sloterdijk, it becomes a way to “remember” the self in a “mode of ecstatic vegetality” inside  the mother. Premodern rituals of tree worship and Mesmer’s project of sitting under trees and wearing head caps attached to the branches are both communal appeals to a state that each individual felt in their own presubjective time.

4. The interior of the absolute mother and postnatal metaphorizations – Sloterdijk deploys a concept developed by Thomas Macho (an eternally hilarious name) in the rest of the book: the nobject. The nobject is something that causes the “observer” can be “sucked in or de-positioned” to the point that “there is no longer anything concretely present before him” (282-3). Sloterdijk illustrates this with the example of the vulva–it is something that can pull a subject in, become symbolic, become larger than the human animal in effectivness and function–it is, of course, the root of the ego and the subject’s universe. On the other hand, by thinking of the vulva as a pure object, something instrumental in a mere function, it can be demystified and robbed of its nobjective status. Sloterdijk says not to do the latter, and projects that do so are philosophically bankrupt. So by “postnatal metaphorizations,” Sloterdijk is talking about the nobjects that replicate the womb, that pull the subject in, and ultimately create spheres of mediation around the subject. Though we are not given a lot of specific examples, he does suggest that bad “sphere changes” – new metaphors that somehow pervert the subject – are what allowed for things like fascism to take root. I refer you to the text if you want a 150 page explanation.

5.  Placental doubling – This is my favorite concept that Sloterdijk puts forward. The basic concept is that the subject forms with an understanding of the With, which we medically call the placenta, even though that is a limiting term. In life, human animals are constantly attempting to repair the separation of the subject from the With, and so that is the fundamental beginning of communication–the first primal lack. Life becomes a process of replacement Withs–the mother’s breast comes first, and then new fixations. In essence, the With is the primal partner, and the excision of it from our lives in the initial lack from which all lacks then follow. Sloterdijk also does some amazing work in the history of European placental practices that I found fascinating, even though I did not find his final explanation, which is that the key modern problem of isolation comes from a disavowal of the placenta, convincing.

6. The irremovable companion – This is really just an extension of the placental companion–the replacement effect of the With from a placenta to an actual other-subject figure is this concept. If I am wrong about his, please someone correct me.

7. The resonant space of the maternal voice – Sloterdijk makes the argument that a child in the womb is subject to a number of presubjective influences, the first being sound. He quotes some research in which it was discovered that the shape of the pelvis provides a chamber for the fetus to hear higher frequencies than normal, which was used by the researched to argue that the joyous voice of the mother, which is in a high register, was something that a child would hear and feel. Sloterdijk continues along this line of thought and argues that sound and song are able to affect human animals in a particularly efficient way because they tap into this presubjective affective space–it captures us by the pieces of us that existed before organs. He then goes into a long discussion of the sirens and pop stars which culminates in his assertion that songs create affect in human animals because every song is a song about everyone–the ego makes every song about the self, making it the listener’s song, which gives it immense power over people.

*****

So all of these are ways in which microspheres are created. They are ways in which intimate connections are made between subject and subject, which means that they are all, fundamentally, communicative modes. Outside of these points, the book really only takes two more positions. First, Sloterdijk wants to prove Lacan wrong about the formation of the ego, which creates several divergences in several chapters. Second, he wants to make it clear that Heidegger’s philosophy comes second to his own–the concession that Heidegger makes early in his career that “being-in” is important is a demarcation point that Sloterdijk takes and runs with. I am not really concerned with either of these points, being that I don’t really care about either of those projects, but for what it is worth I find Sloterdijk convincing on both accounts.

I can’t imagine that many people are reading still, but if you are, there are two things that bothered me about the book.

1. Sloterdijk makes this argument:

The implantation of the fertilized egg cell in the uterus would then have to be taken seriously as the primal event in a life’s history, even if no one can be sure whether it has an experiencable side and a projective repetition thereof in later experiences. (311)

He says it in a number of ways in several places, but that is the whole thing boiled down. If implantation, the entering-womb of the It, is the primal event, then abortion becomes a profoundly unethical action. I’m not sure that I can get on board with that, both politically and philosophically, but there is something to be said about a implanted egg being a an It that has affect-capability to and from its self.

2. Sloterdijk makes his arguments about ontology and metaphysics from what he calls a “Christian horizon.” This means that most of the complex arguments he makes about subjects and the immanence of communcatory practices are steeped in a Christian paradigm, which I find unconvincing, even if he is critical of the position. I understand there is some subtlety to the argument that he is making, but this is my blog, and if gut reactions to things aren’t allowed, what is?

*****

Anyway, I liked the book. There are a number of ways of thinking through video games in the book, and so I am sure they will crop up in the next few weeks.

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One Response to On Sloterdijk’s Spheres vol.1 – Bubbles

  1. Michael- says:

    Nice post! Thanks for making this available. It provides a place to start for us newbies… Love the blog. Cheers~

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