Peter Sloterdijk and the concept of the sphere

I recently finished the first volume of Peter Sloterdijk’s enormous Spheres trilogy. It’s difficult to briefly summarise such a strange and eclectic work but I think it can ultimately be read as an extended conversation with Heidegger’s Being and Time. Sloterdijk sees this foundational work as fundamentally incomplete in its prioritisation of time over space, reflecting Heidegger’s own ambition that it would be part of a wider project. He intends to complete the “existential analytics of being-in” the earlier philosopher began, for example with the Heideggerian concept of attunement, with the aim of accounting for inhabitation as a primary feature of human existence. If Dasein literally means ‘being there’ then what is ‘there’ and how does it relate to our being? This is a question I’ve often wondered about in an entirely different intellectual setting with regards to how Margaret Archer conceptualises social context in the dual sense that we always act within a context, as well as relating to that context reflexively in order to determine courses of action. In this sense I see Sloterdijk as developing a philosophical anthropology built around context rather than the focus on temporarilily which defined the narrow Heideggerian project.

However this is not just a matter of individuals acting alone or together within a context but a more developmental focus on how our reliance upon the milieu we inhabit is the fundamental feature of our unfolding existence. This entails a rejection of the ideology of individualism with Sloterdijk plausibly arguing that the sense of individuals as contained within the bodily envelope is a relatively recent fiction: “The dissecting tables of the anatomists were transformed into the alters of the new science of humans … They taught authoritatively that humans, above all relationships to others of their kind, were firstly and ultimately single, unrelated bodies – bodies that exist in original functional unity and organismic individuality, only secondarily being integrated int social groups” (pg 129). This veils the constitutive interdependence which defines us, from the uterine dependence upon the placenta through to the air which “affords the incipient subject a first chance at self-activity in respiratory autonomy” when born (pg 298) through to the perpetual barrage of cultural claims upon our “ability to reverberate” (pg 479) and the complexity which is co-constructing intimate spheres with those with whom we are entangled. In recovering this too often lost dimension of entanglement, Sloterdijk presents us with a more primordial of being together than is often found in sociological thought. This is not coming together, acting together or identifying together (though these things do of course matter) but rather the more fundamental character of depending on features of the environment, with media ranging from the air we breathe through to the digital networks through which we communicate carrying the same significance as the other people we relate to.

Context in this sense is not necessarily a space, at least not in a geometric sense of a defined area with measurable proportions. It is more a case of being ‘inside’ with the character of this interior shaping how those inside relate to the external. I found it helpful to think about this question in Heideggerian terms but asking what something means for ‘us’ rather than for ‘me’. Take the example of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was lived through co-habiting relationships (or their absence) in a way that reflected the restriction of life to the home during lockdowns but I suggest there’s a much deeper sense in a crisis is lived for ‘us’ in a way which is irreducible to the mundane domestic arrangements involved. To experience a crisis with other(s) as a primary point of reference and locus of solidarity constitutes a micro-sphere in Sloterdijk’s sense. It involves ‘us’ responding to this together ‘in here’ in ways which inevitably shape how we relate to ‘them’ who are ‘out there’. While I’ve tended to conceive of the social transformations brought about by Covid-19 in terms of social networks (i.e. the dichotomisation of strong and weak ties) I find Sloterdijk’s approach extremely productive for thinking about the richer dimensions of crisis. The peculiar characteristics of the Covid-19 lockdowns inevitably foregrounded the micro-spheric in people’s lives, including the confrontation with spheric-disintegration that might have already been underway.

In using this example I’m not trying to suggest that crises create spheres. What I found most compelling about Sloterdijk’s approach is his sensitivity to the continual unfolding of our spheric existence. 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. As he puts it early in the book, “What we call growing up consists of these strenuous resettling of smaller subjectivities in larger world forms … For the child we were, the expanded space of interaction may be the large family for a while: as soon as the familial horizon is exceeded, however, the more developed social forms stake their claim to form and animate the individuals” (pg 57). He also attention to the “sphere-deficient private persons” for whom life “becomes a sentence of solitary confinement” in which they “stare out through the media window into moving landscapes of images” (pg 73).

I’m less clear about the psychological mechanisms he takes to be at work in sphere formation. He states clearly in the opening sections of the book that this is a matter of solidarity and transference, presumably the former extending through the operation of the latter. However this clarity gets lost in long, meandering though (usually) fascinating discussions of mesmerism, psychoacoustics and hypnosis. The point I think is the constant traffic across spheric boundaries in which we encounter claims upon our attention and energy, as well as how these have been sidelined and obscured by the aforementioned ideology of individual loneliness. His chief opponent throughout the book is the idea that human beings are ultimately destined towards an isolated existence, with the spheres project seeking to reclaim the constitutive entanglement which defines us from before birth until after death. Therefore he’s preoccupied by examples which unsettle this individualism and the network of assumptions underlying it. What Hartmut Rosa and Charles Taylor talk about as resonance is a useful way to think about what’s at stake in this discussion. As Rosa puts it, resonance is a “a process of responding, moving, touching” and for Sloterdijk this needs to be understood in spheric terms. I like how Pieter Lemmens describes this:

A sphere can be defined as a shared, intimate, and disclosed inner space, one that human beings inhabit and on which their existence is vitally dependent. This may be the key to Sloterdijk’s conception of anthropology: human life is as much a matter of its various envelopes as anything else. Pace Heidegger, we are never thrown naked into the world.

We relate to the outer world through these inner worlds we inhabit and depend upon, with the constitution of our inner worlds changing as we make our way through the outer world. In this sense I think it can be read in terms of a fundamental problem of sociological theory: in what sense does the social get inside us? As he puts it, “the soul cannot be anything other than a studio for transactions with inspiring others”. He’s offering us a philosophical anthropology and a social psychology of how we are ‘in here’ and relate (together) to ‘out there’. His slightly arcane conceptual vocabulary helps unpick the wider network of concepts which support and embed methodological individualism. This enables us to foreground (a) interdependence (b) intersubjectivity (c) media in how we think about the relationship between the self and the social. The sphere is the concept through which these three elements are linked together which in turn opens up the space in which we can ask about their development over time. There’s also a significant existential insight here:

Heidegger too, if read correctly, no longer invites us … to seek the truth in the inner person; instead, he calls upon us to become involved with the monstrousness of the external. His village is a site of the immense. Like all mouthpieces of the truth, he calls out to the bystanders to come – yet here, coming no longer means entering a divine intimate sphere, but rather going out into a ecstatic provisionality.

Pg 630

This feels important to me because it fuzzes up the boundary between thought and action. It’s not a case of rejecting introspection in order to take action in the world but rather introspectively orientating ourselves towards our place within the world. Earlier in the book he describes Heidegger as having left us with “a lonely, weak, hysterical-heroic existential subject that thinks it is the first to die, and remains pitifully uncertain of the more hidden aspects of its embeddedness in intimacies and solidarities” (pg 341). He’s suggesting that embeddedness is not only constitutive of us in a technical ontological sense but inherent to our capacity to live an existentially rewarding life. These spheres are regarded by him as immunological: “Only in immune structures that form interiors can humans continue their generational processes and advance their individuations” (pg 63). Exactly what protection is needed shifts as human civilisation shifts which calls for newer immune systems adequate to changing reality, such as I’d suggest is taking place with the shift towards platform society. But this is the topic for another post.

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