Bubbles

by craigepplin

The word I’m getting about Nonhuman Collectives is this: more Heidegger, more Sloterdijk, more Sloterdijk on Heidegger.

This suggestion makes good sense. Sloterdijk’s thought is at least tangentially related to Latour’s, and the idea of the actor-network is one of the theoretical bases of my manuscript. Both this concept and Sloterdijk’s idea of spheres are premised on understanding beings in tandem within their spatial support systems: bubbles, globes, webs, etc. In an essay I love, Latour talks about the relation of his own thought to Sloterdijk’s, or of the actor-network to the sphere:

The word “network” has become a ubiquitous designation for technical infrastructures, social relations, geopolitics, mafias, and, of course, our new life online. But networks, in the way they are usually drawn, have the great visual defect of being “anemic” and “anorexic,” in the words of philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, who has devised a philosophy of spheres and envelopes. Unlike networks, spheres are not anemic, not just points and links, but complex ecosystems in which forms of life define their “immunity” by devising protective walls and inventing elaborate systems of air conditioning. Inside those artificial spheres of existence, through a process Sloterdijk calls “anthropotechnics,” humans are born and raised. The two concepts of networks and spheres are clearly in contradistinction to one another: while networks are good at describing long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points, spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex “atmospheric conditions”—another of Sloterdijk’s terms. Networks are good at stressing edges and movements; spheres at highlighting envelopes and wombs.

So networks alone don’t effectively describe our ecologies. They draw lines between points, but they don’t explain how beings are enclosed. A sphere, in this sense, is a more apt figure of thought for ecology.

Latour goes on to explain how the two concepts complement each other. He uses the magnificent work of Argentine artist Tomás Saraceno as a point of departure, particularly his Galaxies Forming along Filaments (images here). To integrate the two images, the network and the sphere, is to rearticulate becoming as a complex of points and enclosures.

I’m aiming at doing just that in my book. I’ve just begun reading Bubbles, the first volume of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy. I’m only about eighty pages in, so I can’t review the book as a whole. I can say a few words about where I see it going, and about how it might help articulate the notion of a nonhuman collective.

Sphere theory presents itself as an “anthropology beyond humans” (54). There are various programmatic sentences that might serve as points of departure for the project. “Life is a matter of form–that is the hypothesis we associate with the venerable philosophical and geometric term ‘sphere'” (10). “[W]herever human life is found, whether nomadic or settled, inhabited orbs appear” (11). “I will develop, more obstinately than usual, the hypothesis that love stories”–and Sloterdijk’s philosophy is very much a philosophy of intimacy–“are stories of form, and that every act of solidarity is an act of sphere formation, that is to say the creation of an interior” (12). “[A]nyone who presumes to speak of humans without mentioning their inspirators and intensifiers, or their media, which amount to the same, has missed the topic through their very approach” (42). “Humans have never lived in a direct relationship with ‘nature,’ and their cultures have certainly never set foot in the realm of what we call the bare facts; their existence has always been exclusively in the breathed, divided, torn-open and restored space” (46). “All history is the history of animation relationships” (53). There are others, but this is enough for now.

The promise of sphere theory is to understand subjectivity, the very vocabulary through which humans have referred to themselves, as an effect of spatial demarcation. Thus Sloterdijk reads creation in Genesis as the inauguration of a common airspace between God and Adam. God is a sculptor who creates an empty vessel, which can only become animated through the divine breath. The two, creator and creation, share a sphere, and human freedom begins when Adam is drawn toward other spheres, the sphere of woman for example, or the sphere of the tree of knowledge. This spatial demarcation has numerous historical correlates. In Terror from the Air, Sloterdijk comments on Heidegger, nothing that his notion of homelessness is also a spatial formulation:

[W]e would be wrong to imagine he is merely talking about the bygone naivety of dwelling in rural houses and the moving of existence into urban habitation machines. More profoundly, the term “homeless” also suggests a denaturalization, in the sense of the human being’s banishment from its natural air-envelope and re-settlement in climate-controlled spaces [. . .]. (60)

To exist is to be constantly in transit from one airspace to the next, creating and destroying and entering and leaving different spheres.

Bubbles is an adventure in a philosophical lexicon. I read somewhere (in Neither Sun nor Death, I believe) that his aim is to reformulate philosophical categories on the basis of fragile, intimate relationships–what he calls in Bubbles “intimate absurdities” (63). It is already apparent to me that his work gives us a new vocabulary for thought, a seductive body of terms on par with the great philosophical lexicons of Deleuze and Guattari or Derrida, for example. I’ll keep posting on the book as I make my way through it.