A theologian would have had no difficulty preserving the mystery… for he can employ contradictions. But since science does not have such a recourse, it is not an exaggeration for me to say that the difficulties of a fantasy writer who sides with science are generally greater than those of a theologian who acknowledges the perfection of God….
– Stanislaw Lem, Microworlds
Robin Mackay in his introduction to Collapse III says that “Deleuze himself told us simply to use concepts ‘like a toolbox’?”1 Such a riposte typifies the most deleterious aspect of the ‘success’ currently enjoyed by Deleuze; for any precision tool must be mastered before it is ‘put to work’, and for this one must understand, in turn, its own workings and its interaction with the rest of the conceptual ‘equipment’ in hand (ibid). Yet, even more than mastering the tool itself, one must understand the use of tools, and even more one must enter into apprenticeship with a Master of the Craft in which these tools are used if one is ever to truly put these tools to work in an effective manner.
Is this the truth of philosophy? Do we need to return to a set of practices, some might say ‘spiritual practices’ that would bind philosophers with their apprentices once again as in the days of Plato, Aristotle, and Epicurus, Zeno of Citium, et al.? Of late we have seen a resurgence in a shadow side of philosophy remerging in our time. By this I mean the need for philosophy to rethink its actual project, to discover once again its purpose and use within the greater socio-cultural complex, to find its reason for being. Pierre Hadot remarks:
For ancient philosophy, at least beginning from the sophists and Socrates, intended, in the first instance, to form people and to transform souls. That is why , in Antiquity, philosophical teaching is given above all in oral form, because only the living word, in dialogues, in conversations pursued for a long time, can accomplish such an action. The written work, considerable as it is, is therefore most of the time only an echo or a complement of this oral teaching.2
This leads me to Peter Sloterdijk’s new book You must change your life which following Foucault’s lead instigates an investigation into certain ‘practices of the self’ (Foucault). Yet, reading Sloterdijk is like entering a convoluted hyperfiction, some form of futuristic sf in which the study of human culture becomes an advanced ‘anthropotechnics’.3 This set of practices he terms ‘psycho-immunological practices’. He has a triad of immune systems which are treated in his three volume Spheres trilogy: the biological, social, and psychological. It is the psychological that is the concern of this new book. In it he analyzes those immunological practices that enable humans to assert themselves against fate through the use of certain imaginary systems. Anthropotechics becomes the central motif of this analysis: it is defined as the mental and physical forms of exercise with which humans have “endeavored to optimize their cosmic and social immune status in the face of vague risks of life and acute certainties of death”(23).4
Sloterdijk acknowledges Focault and Hadot as forunners of such an immunological anthropotechics, but that they did not go far enough in the sense of allowing only the older practices of the ancients a place. Sloterdijk sees such practices everywhere in the world. His idea of life as a form of ‘explication’, an unfolding and refolding of physical and symbolic forms in ever new topologies of exercise. This idea of unfolding and refolding almost seems derivative of Deleuze’s use of the term ‘fold’: indeed, Deleuze adopts a number of neoplatonic notions to indicate the structure of Ideas, all of which are derived from the root word pli [fold]: perplication, complication, implication, explication, and replication.)
In the early chapters Sloterdijk covers certain practices as explicated within the work of Rilke, Nietzsche, Unthan, Kafka, Cioran, and, even, L. Ron Hubbard of Scientology. He tells us that the hero of this book is a creature he terms Homo immunologicus, who must “give his life, with all its dangers and surfeits, a symbolic framework, is the human being that struggles with itself in concern for its form” (10). He defines this as the human in training.
Whoever goes in search of humanity will find acrobats.
Sloterdijk forewarns his readers that they are about to be contaminated, drawn in by the cultural attractors of strange practices, asceticisms, exercises, and that the theorist and ill-advised reader of this polemical tract will encounter not some objectified zone of clarity but rather the inner and surreal landscapes of his/her own inner constitution, beyond affirmation or denial. As he states it:
In truth, philosophy is the mode of thought shaped by the most radical form of prejudice: the passion for being-in-the-world.(14)
True to his roots in Heidegger he sees his cultural stance as passion play, as a deep diver in the heights rather than the depths of being. Neither naturalist nor functionalist he spins his divigations by way of repetition and translation, marshaling religious and philosophical practices into calculated risks of generalized clarification. The statement: ‘You must change your life!’ he tells us, provides a call to everyone and no one. Like a gnostic Archon making a call to all, but knowing ahead of time that only those who can hear will hear the call, he lays out a program of acrobatic asceticism that will entail for the chosen a strict enforcement of regulated athleticism. Like Olympian athletes readying themselves for some ultimate contest those who follow this master of the shadow arts will return not as themselves but as fragments of bygone eras of faith and philosophy amazed that they are still alive at the end of the road.
Whoever hears the call without defenses will experience the sublime in personally addressed form. The sublime is that which, by calling to mind the overwhelming, shows the observer the possibility of their engulfment by the oversized – which, however, is suspended until further notice. The sublime whose tip points to me is as personal as death and as unfathomable as the world. (443)
We will have more to say of this in future posts…
1. Collapse III, ed. R. Mackay (Falmouth, Urbanomic, November 2007)
2. Pierre Hadot. Philosophy as a Way of Life. ed. Arnold I. Davidson (Blackwell Publishers, 1995)
3. Willem Schinkel; Liesbeth Noordegraaf-Eelens (15 February 2012). In Medias Res: Peter Sloterdijk’s Spherological Poetics of Being. Amsterdam University Press. pp. 8. ISBN 978-90-8964-329-2. Retrieved 26 February 2012.
4. Peter Sloterdijk. You must change your life. (Polity Press, 2013)