Bubbles (take two)

by craigepplin

About halfway through Bubbles, Sloterdijk tells us what it’s all about:

The present project, Spheres, can also be understood as an attempt to recover–in one substantial aspect, at least–the project wedged sub-thematically into Heidegger’s early work, namely Being and Space, from its state of entombment. (342)

This is to say: Being and Time is really a book about space. Or rather, its meditation on time is inextricably linked to a subterranean, almost unacknowledged meditation on space. Sloterdijk quotes extensive evidence of this moment in Heidegger, which I won’t go into fully here. This is simply to avoid rehashing his own quotations, and because in that case the task at hand would be to pair his reading with a broader reading of Heidegger, which is not the point of this post. What I’ll do, then, is talk a bit about how this rescue mission (of space, from time) has happened in the first half of Bubbles.

The big themes can be summed up in a list: figurative heart transplants, the face-to-face sphere of intimate relations, a psychology of enchantment, and finally, most controversially, a complex womb-space that is not a pure interior from which we emerge and to which we symbolically return. The impulse that brings these distinct moments together can be summed up as a desire to exceed and transform the modern supposition of unique, autonomous individuality by way of encountering moments in western intellectual and aesthetic history that take, rather, intimacy as a foundation for understanding human subjectivity. (Hence the unmentioned (here, at least) affiliation between Sloterdijk’s project and Bruno Latour’s insistence on the nonmodern embeddedness of all being or becoming.)

1. Heart Transplants

This chapter begins with a linguistic observation: “The heart, even in the age of its transplantability, is still viewed as the central organ of internalized humanity in the dominant language games of our civilization” (101). The heart lies in the depths of ourselves; the “cordial” and the human are inextricably linked. Sloterdijk finds various counterexamples in which the heart is rather the scene of an exchange, a sharing, a life in common. The most interesting to me is the case of Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth-century nun who once exchanged hearts with the Lord. Her mythical experience began with a prayer, one that Sloterdijk describes by quoting from a biography of the saint:

Once, when she was praying to the Lord with the utmost fervour, saying to Him as the Prophet had done, “Create a clean heart within me, O God, and renew a right spirit within my bowels,” and asking Him again and again to take her own heart and will from her, He comforted her with this vision. It appeared to her that her Heavenly Bridegroom came to her as usual, opened her left side, took out her heart, and then went away. (110)

That is the beginning of the episode. The end also revolves around a scene of prayer and goes like this:

Finally she came out of her ecstasy and got up to go home. All at once a light from heaven encircled her, and in the light appeared the Lord, holding in His holy hands a human heart, bright red and shining. At the appearance of the Author of Light she had fallen to the ground, trembling all over, but He came up to her, opened her left side once again and put the heart He was holding in His hands inside her […]. (112)

Sloterdijk takes this experience seriously, even if not literally. What it represents is a scene in which the heart is no longer the marker of individuality, but rather of an exchange. “Man [sic] suddenly becomes the comrade, co-subject, ecstatic accomplice and same-aged partner in crime of the absolute” (112). And also, I would add, if the heart is often seen as the font of feeling, here that individual expression is lacking, replaced rather by an affect beyond the subject that indeed constitutes the subject as always one-that-is-many.

2. Face-to-face

The subsequent chapter moves from the heart to the face, in particular to the encounter between faces. The face is never one; it always implies an interface: “its agent and medium is above all, among other elements, the interfacial space or sphere” (164). Here is a reprisal of the exchange of hearts: this sphere is constituted by the exchange of glances.

Something interesting happens, however, when the human sees itself. A sphere emerges that is not between two humans, but rather between a human and its material, glassy or watery representation. Interestingly, Sloterdijk underscores the historicity of this material phenomenon: “until recently, the quasi-totality of the human race consisted of individuals who never, or only in highly exceptional situations, saw their own faces” (192-197). Mirrors, that is, only became widely consumed objects in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This material development bore important consequences for the way humans conceived their place in the world:

Only in a mirror-saturated culture could people have believed that for each individual, looking into one’s own mirror image realized a primal form of self-relation. And only in a population defined–across all classes–as mirror-owners could Freud and his successors have popularized their pseudo-proofs for so-called Narcissism and the supposedly visually transmitted primary auto-eroticism of humans. Even Lacan’s tragically presumptuous theorem about the mirror stage’s formative significance for the ego function cannot overcome its dependence on the cosmetic or ego-technical household inventory of the nineteenth century […]. (197)

This attack on psychoanalysis, as I see it, suffers a couple flaws, one being the divorce of Lacan from Hegel, from whom the idea of an identification outside oneself comes; the other is that this purportedly empirical understanding of Narcissism commits the same sin as Freud’s theory: it offers a “pseudo-proof,” remaining as speculative as the discipline it attacks. Those reservations aside, it also represents a brilliant understanding of the relationship of the concrete characteristics of the spaces we occupy (“a mirror in each room belonging to each individual” (203)) to our understanding of ourselves, which is to say our subjectivity. The sphere of subjectivity can encompass other faces or a glass one peering back into our eyes, but it cannot not be a sphere.

3. Enchantment

Sloterdijk begins the following section with a further attack on the illusion of subjective autonomy:

Long before the axioms of individualistic abstraction established themselves, the psychologist-philosophers of the early Modern Age had made it clear that the interpersonal space was overcrowded with symbiotic, erotic and mimetic-competitive energies that fundamentally deny the illusion of subject autonomy. (207)

The way this becomes visible is through the “enchantment of humans through humans” in early modern Europe (207). Sloterdijk traces the lengthy lineage of this idea, which in many cases revolves around two (non-etymologically related) terms: magic and magnets. As for the first, it was, for early modern European thinkers, “a cipher for the art of conceiving things and living beings as enclosed and pervaded by specific interdependencies” (220). That is, magic referred to the field of resonances and commonalities that linked living and nonliving beings. Magnets represented a more directly observable figuration of this sort of affinity. The word in English comes from “magnesium,” but it is French and Spanish that conserve their vibrant and vital attractive capacity in the word: aimant in French, imán in Spanish. This understanding of the spheres of collective becoming took on, in the Romantic period, another guise: “Romantic organism philosophies” aim at the goal of understanding “the mediatization of humans within comprehensive totalities of life” (242). Thus we find in this discussion a hint at what I consider to be the fundamental task of Spheres: a rearticulation of subjectivity through the lens of media theory. In this way, it is in line not only with Heidegger, but also with theoretical bodies of work like that of Marshall McLuhan.

4: The Womb Complex/The Complex Womb

Sloterdijk’s fourth chapter, which follows on an excursus and introduces a few more, centers on the “retreat within the mother” (269). He lays out a theory at odds with the notion wherein “the womb becomes a place of truth” (272). The idea that death is a form of “regress” is a common one in modern western thought (279); for Sloterdijk, however, this notion of the womb as an undifferentiated space–and for that same reason a space of ultimate truths–is too simple. The inhabitation of the womb is complex; it is a spherical place of exchange between the fetus and the mother. If there is communion in the womb, it is of a material, and indeed mediatic, nature: “In reality, the fetal modus vivendi can be described as a fluidal communion in the medium of blood” (295). The error lies in breaking up this blood-complex into subject and object relations. This revision demands a shift in the psychoanalytical understanding of the fetal stage–and all stages thereafter:

Only through a revision of its basic principles could psychoanalysis–which in its theoretical and therapeutical potential, is still the most interesting interpersonal practice of closeness in the modern world–present itself in a suitable language of closeness. Then it could state only that every animation is a media event, and that all psychological disturbances are distortions of participation–media sickness, one could say. (298-99)

The closeness characteristic of the womb, that is, should be understood not as an experience of the inert, a death that precedes birth, but rather as a sphere of mediations that give way to animation.

There is more, much more, to be said here, and again I’ll offer the caveat that a further post is forthcoming. This one is getting long, however, so I’ll end it here.