A few thoughts on Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres

I’m reading Peter Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy with Milan Sturmer at the moment. It’s proving an interesting read and I wanted to record some initial thoughts:

  • There’s an intoxicating vastness to the account Sloterdijk is developing here. It encompasses the ontogenesis of the organism and the historical unfolding of the species through the lens of the sphere. By this I take Sloterdijk to referring to the intersubjective spaces which human beings construct and deconstruct at all levels of the social world. The focus on space I think highlights that intersubjective relations always unfold spatially, emerging from people who come together in particular places in sequenced ways. In doing so we constitute an interior which is in some sense ours, with the space facilitating the circulation of passions which might have an impact on the exterior world. He frames these as relations of solidarity in the sense of the mutuality which they facilitate.
  • I felt there were strong Pierpaolo Donati vibes here in the sense that both argue relationality has been studied in its aspects but has escaped investigation as an object in its own right. I think Donati is stronger on the social mechanisms which generate solidarity which, as far as I can see so far, Sloterdijk’s instinct is to construe in narrowly psychodynamic terms. However there’s clearly a lot of divergence between their accounts as well so I want to pursue this comparison as I read on.
  • What I found particularly interesting as a philosophically-minded biographical sociologist is his developmental account in terms of spheres. At one level this is the anthropological truism that ‘we’ comes prior to ‘I’, with individuation taking place against a background of social relations (viz of dependence) which are in an important sense given. However I think he’s say something much more interesting that in so far as he offers a development analysis in terms of movement through and beyond spheres. I took him to be talking about the expansion and contraction of our world in terms of our movement through spheres, with each point of entry being shaped by the accumulated expectations and experiences of dwelling together in past spheres.
  • He talks specifically about transference as the mechanism responsible for these trajectories. By this I think he means our affective orientation towards each sphere determines the range of ways we can relate to novel spheres, in the literal sense of what we bring to these dwellings being shaped by the prior psychodynamics we find ourselves enmeshed within. I assume he’s going to cover this in much greater detail than he has in the first 100 pages and I’m looking forward to it.
  • I wish I’d read Sloterdijk’s Spheres during my PhD. It’s such a thought-provoking exploration of the question of interiority. As he puts it, “the soul cannot be anything other than a studio for transactions with inspiring others”. I tried (and failed) to say this in 80k words! Vandenberghe frames Margaret Archer & Bernard Lahire as heterodox inheritors of Bourdieu orientated to “how groups, large and small, behave within in the individual mind” rather than “how individuals behave in small groups”. This fits Sloterdijk as well. This interface between psychological and sociological was mutilated by the (classical) disciplinary formations of the human sciences. Lots of thinkers trying to rebuild that interface conceptually and methodologically without a coordinating meta-theoretical conversation. The basic question is a simple one: in what sense does the social get ‘inside us’? The basic question is a simple one: in what sense does the social get ‘inside us’? How do ‘I’ form in relation to ‘we’? We rightly reject a liberal individualism which offers simplistic answers to these questions but often reject the category itself. The ‘individual’ is a problem.
  • He argues for the anatomical origins of the modern conception of the individual in the sense that singularity was constituted as a medical fact, seeing human beings as “firstly and ultimately single, unrelated bodies – bodies that exist in original functional uniquely and organismic individuality, only secondarily being integrated into social groups”.

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