BY Erik Morse in Interviews | 01 NOV 09
Featured in
Issue 127

Something in the Air

Peter Sloterdijk talks about the phenomena of chemical warfare, designer ventilation and high-density urban living

BY Erik Morse in Interviews | 01 NOV 09

Soldiers Ready for Gas Warfare, 1916. Courtesy: Hulton-Deutsche Collection/CORBIS

Erik Morse What role do you think literature plays in explicating what you call ‘sphereology’ – the study of the human need for interior space?

Peter Sloterdijk I’ve always felt that there is a split in the European tradition between the language of philosophy and the language of art and literature that is based on the suppression of atmospheric knowledge. Similarly, until recent developments in space photography, conventional maps omitted information about the atmosphere. My ambition was to bring the atmospheric dimension back to the perception of the real. My essay Terror from the Air was extracted from Sphären. It is called ‘Air Trembling’ in German, and is the introductory part of the third volume of the Sphären trilogy. Everything in these works is about the reconstruction of atmospheric perception. 

EM One of the fundamental arguments in Terror from the Air is that classical warfare ineradicably changed with the German deployment of chlorine gas during the second battle of Ypres on 22 April 1915. It is your contention that, with this first use of chemical warfare, a new kind of ‘atmo-terrorism’ has been released upon the world, one in which the environment rather than the body is attacked. However, terrorism as a style of warfare has been present in the West as far back as the first encounters between European armies and indigenous or tribal groups: for example, night-time raids, camouflage and hit-and-run offensives. How are these examples distinct from the use of gas in the battlefields in 1915?

PS It’s ‘only’ a technical difference. As Clausewitz [Carl von Clausewitz, 1780–1831, Prussian military theorist and strategist] demonstrated in his book, Vom Kriege [On War, 1832], in every war there is an element of excess, of montée aux extrême [rising to the extreme] – every war accelerates towards something worse. In all kinds of war, the temptation is very strong not only to fight against the enemy one-to-one but to destroy its environment – to make the fateful step from the duel to the practice of extinction. In the 20th century, montée aux extrême has developed a new technical means, such as chemical warfare. This is what I suggest in my essay on modern warfare. 

EM Who coined the term montée aux extrême? 

PS René Girard. He published a book on Clausewitz, Achever Clausewitz [Finishing Clausewitz, 1997]. I think Girard is the most important theorist on the competitive behaviour of human beings.

EM In his book Le Part Maudit [The Accursed Share, 1949; published in English, 1991], Georges Bataille discusses life originating from the heat of the sun. How do you think the fear of weapons of mass destruction in the atomic age changed our traditional perception of the sun from life-giver to ultimate destroyer?

PS I feel quite close to Bataille when he says that life on earth in general, and human life in particular, depends on this absurd generosity from the sun. However, his theories are affected by a certain blindness – he ignores the positive aspects of the greenhouse effect (which I use here in the original sense of the term), without which the heat of the sun could not be absorbed adequately and the surface temperature of the Earth would be minus 15 to minus 18 degrees centigrade, which is unlivable for most biological life forms. So, emphasizing the positive aspects of the sun alone is an error if it is not combined with a discussion of the atmosphere. On the one hand, we have civilized and cultivated ourselves through the use of atmospheric modifications thanks to modern air-conditioning, but, on the other, employed atmospheric terrorism. The classical study of the sun, or heliology, makes the assumption that there is a strong analogy between God and the sun; the sun as the physical manifestation of God. But we have to take into account that the deepest ambition of the 20th century is the ‘victory over the sun’ – the title of one of the most important works of art, in my opinion, to come out of the Russian revolution – a Futurist opera staged in 1913 by a group of artists called ‘Soyuz Molodyozhi’ [Union of the Youth]. The production team included Aleksei Kruchenykh, Mikhail Matyushin, Velimir Khlebnikov and Kasimir Malevich. The opera explored the idea that the Earth will become a sun and, therefore, independent. This is the end-point of the atmospheric movement of modern times – that as long as the Earth is dependent on an outside source, the dream of human autonomy will never be fulfilled. But if we succeed in creating an artificial sun on the surface of the Earth, then we’ll become independent, a God-like race, the masters of the universe. And, at least symbolically, there is a link between the dreams of the Russian Revolution and the American physicists who managed through the Manhattan Project to create an artificial sun. The fire of the atomic bomb dropped by the Americans on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was the only time this terrible weapon has been employed on the battleground, which proves the 20th century to be the age of atmospheric warfare. Nothing can be like it was before – this is the connection between Hiroshima and Auschwitz and Ypres.

EM Moving from Bataille to another 20th-century theorist who is of central importance to your work, I’m interested in how you apply Gaston Bachelard’s ‘myths’ of air, water and fire into ‘sphereology’.

PS In that he was one of the authors who privileged the rediscovery of the atmospheric, Bachelard certainly played a role in my thinking. In my younger days I read him, but when I wrote the trilogy, aside from a few quotations from his book L’air et les songes [Air and Dreams, 1943], he wasn’t central to my thinking. Although we share a certain predisposition toward the phenomenological tradition and also a combination of the psychoanalytical and phenomenological aspects, the emphasis in my work is very different from his.

EM Do you think the German and French academies have more respect for Bachelard’s work than the American academy, where he is not part of the philosophical canon?

PS Bachelard deserves respect as a classical author. I cannot comment on the politics of the American academy, but his writing should not be missing from the canon. 

EM Many recording and sonic technologies were developed in tandem with military research. I’m curious if you think technologies such as magnetic tape, wireless transmission, radar and sonar contributed to an environment of ‘atmo-terrorism’ where human speech becomes lost in the vast matrix of the airwaves.

PS We have created an artificial sound environment that has no parallel in the history of human societies. Until the 19th century, voices had to be produced and perceived in situ – the source of sound had to be quite close to the receiver. It is only through radio technology that the phenomenon of long-range acoustic communication has been made possible and through sonospheric coherence that Postmodern reality is created. World War I was a print war – the mobilization of soldiers could only be achieved through print technology, which is relatively close to radio technology, in that reading means to hear or hallucinate voices from different speakers – for instance, you hear the voice of the German emperor who sent you to the Front. There is constant movement from the Gutenberg world to the radio world: the world of waves and the world of print are systematically linked by a common feature, which, to put it in classical terms, is actio in distans – action at a distance. 

EM How would you characterize the movement from print to communication via airwaves to the condition that Paul Virilio terms ‘telepresence’ – a set of technologies which allow a person to feel as if they are present, to give the appearance that they are present, or to have an effect at a location other than their true location. Is that yet another progression?

PS It is a kind of chain of causality. The Emperor in Rome will put his signature on a document that will be read on the periphery of the Empire, in, say, Alexandria. The distance from Rome to Alexandria is 2,000 kilometres but the soul of the reader, the receiver of this order, is prepared to perform exactly what the author has commanded. In this way, the world of the written commander prepares for the world of the airwaves.

EM How do we apply these rules for communication in the classical age to the so-called ‘hypermodern period’ when the speed of the message has been accelerated to a point at which it appears omnipresent or telepresent?

PS The power of the message presupposes that the synchronization of the sender and receiver has been pre-established to prepare the receiver for a position of obedience towards the message. Now, the proliferation of communication has resulted in the weakening of the message.

EM Is there a direct link between the failure of the ‘message’ and the way people now communicate in metropolises, apartments and skyscrapers, for example?

PS Certainly. Urbanization is the main feature of contemporary culture. In the third volume of Sphären, I deal almost exclusively with the relationship between urban communication and the luxurious functions of modern life.

EM Do you equate all forms of modern communication in urban space to a kind of advertising à la Walter Benjamin’s Passagen-Werk [known in English as The Arcades Project, Benjamin’s unfinished collection of notes assembled between 1927 and 1940 that reflect on the various lifestyles and dwellings of post-revolutionary Paris]?

PS The Sphären project is about the creation of a specific human interior. On a metaphysical level, the meaning of my theory is that human beings never live outside of nature but always create a kind of existential space around themselves. Urban spaces are a humanized environment where nature is completely replaced by a man-made reality. This can provoke a kind of alienation; a sense of loss within cities that you might normally expect to feel in nature. In the third volume of Sphären, in a long chapter titled ‘The Foam City’, I try to describe these multiplicities of modern life in terms of foam-making – all individuals are living in a specific bubble within a communicating foam.

EM For those readers who are unfamiliar with your theories of bubbles and foams, what do you see as the fate of the traditional house in this larger progression or digression of dwelling in the 20th century?

PS My ‘foam city’ is a theory of living in an apartment. An apartment is obviously a place that contains the means of communication to link you with the outer world, yet it is also a spatialized immune system. It immunizes you against the influences of the outer world but it simultaneously links you to the Mitwelt [‘social world’], which is a form of ‘connected isolation’ – a term coined by Thom Mayne, an American architect, in the early 1970s. ‘Connected isolation’ could be a Heideggerian concept. It is probably one of the most profound concepts that has ever been developed within modern architectural theory because it contains a judgment on the modern way of life. I don’t believe in Heidegger’s hypothesis of modern times as the time of homelessness. What I see is a transformation in all these traditional complaints about modern homelessness into a language of immunology. For me, practical metaphysics has to be translated into the language of general immunology because human beings, due to their openness to the world, are extremely vulnerable – from a biological level, to the juridical and social levels, to the symbolic and ritual levels. We are always trying to create and find a protective environment. The task of building convincing immune systems is so broad and so all-encompassing that there is no space left for nostalgic longings. This is an ongoing task that has to be performed and theorized with every technique that is available. There is no way back. 

EM In this new ‘foam city’ has Benjamin’s classical description of the flâneur been made obsolete? 

PS I have quoted Benjamin in a very positive way. In some of the most interesting parts of Passagen-Werk, he develops the idea that the bourgeoisie of the 19th century created these artificial interiors. And so when the world became globalized, the bourgeoisie in their salons wanted to absorb everything that is exterior into this interiority. According to Benjamin, the art of the bourgeois form of life was, in the 19th century, the effort to neutralize everything that is exterior and to create an interior that contains the totality. And that is what the arcades are all about. In the arcades, in the passage, the whole world of production – the whole world of trading and exploring – is neutralized and re-presented in the presence of the commodity. The commodities bring these outer totalities into the apartment of the bourgeoisie. Between the ocean and the apartment is the passage; the arcade where all these goods can be bought.

EM You have made the distinction in past interviews that between, for instance, 19th-century Paris and late 20th-century Los Angeles, there is a shift from the arcade to the shopping mall and the stadium, in the space of these ventilated hyper-interiors. PS Yes. But between the modern shopping mall and the primitive arcade of the early 19th century, there was a step that is very symbolic. This is the London Crystal Palace, which is for me the major symbol of the Postmodern construction of reality. [A cast-iron and glass building designed by Joseph Paxton to house The Great Exhibition of 1851. It included 14,000 exhibitors from around the world, displaying examples of the latest developments in technology.] Because the power of interiorization here reached a kind of historic maximum, I chose it as the title for my most recent book on Postmodern capitalism: The Crystal Palace. In German the title is Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals [the big interior of capitalism]. Weltinnenraum is a word borrowed from Rainer Maria Rilke who, in a poem from 1914, created a vision of a fantastic space in which everything communicates with everything else. In his vision of pantheistic communication, everything is produced by psychic powers, whereas in the Weltinnenraum of capitalism, the communicative force is money.

EM Finally, when you speak of a symbolic immunology, it’s difficult not to discuss a literal spreading of disease as well, such as the most recent phenomenon of the swine flu outbreak that was defined as a potentially global exterminator, particularly in cities. So you begin to see the results of space becoming more dense and people living in closer and closer quarters, where there is a rising fear of a single strain of disease or one weapon wiping out civilization.

PS That is quite correct. Because people feel very strongly that their private constructions of immunity are endangered by the presence of too many constructions of immune spheres which are pressed against each other and destroy each other. That is why in the United States there is a new type of discourse that encourages obscene forms of speech. For instance, the new term, ‘toxic people’, came from the USA and is invading Europe today. This means things are going wrong and the immune situation of Americans is collapsing.

The most celebrated and controversial German philosopher since Jürgen Habermas, Peter Sloterdijk has established an academic career confronting the darkest traditions of 20th-century European ideology. President and professor of the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe in Germany, his first book, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft (Critique of Cynical Reason, published in 1983 and translated into English in 1988), remains the best selling philosophical work in the German language since World War II, but it was his controversial polemic on the language of genetic engineering and biopolitics in a lecture he gave in 1999, ‘Regeln für den Menschenpark’ (Rules for the Human Park), that brought him to international attention. It also marked the philosopher’s distinctive turn toward a Heideggerian approach to Postmodernity, identifying the question of ‘Being’ as bound up with the technologies of architectonics and anthropogenesis.  Between 1998 and 2004, Sloterdijk composed his magnum opus, the 2,400-page Sphären (Spheres) trilogy. In its three sections – ‘Bubbles’, ‘Globes’ and ‘Foam’ – Sphären narrates a Western history of macro- and micro-space from the Greek agora to the contemporary urban apartment. With the technological advancements of the 20th century – most represented, according to Sloterdijk, in the use of airborne terrorism and interior ventilation – traditional maps of geometric space have been greatly redesigned, unveiling heretofore unexplored strata: atmosphere, environment and ecology. In a show of puffery, Sloterdijk declared that the Sphären project was the rightful companion to Martin Heidegger’s Sein und Zeit (Being and Time, 1927) and the book that Heidegger should have written. With Semiotext(e)’s publication of Terror From the Air in March this year – translated from Luftbeben: An den Wurzeln des Terrors (Air Trembling: At the Roots of Terror, 2002), the introduction to Sphären III – English-speaking readers have had their first glimpse of Sloterdijk’s opus on Postmodern space. This year Polity published God’s Zeal: The Battle of Three Monotheisms, a study on the origins of conflict between Judeo-Christianity and Islam, and Derrida: An Egyptian was published by Wiley.

Erik Morse is the author of Dreamweapon (2004) and Bluff City Underground: A Roman Noir of the Deep South (2012). He is a former lecturer at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, USA, and the 2015 recipient of a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers grant.