Peter Sloterdijk on the difficulty of saying what is missing

In the first volume of his Spheres trilogy Peter Sloterdijk suggests the air constitutes our “first partner in the outside world”. It is a transition from floating in amniotic fluid (freely in our undisturbed balance) to being mediated by the air, offering “the incipient subject a first chance at self-activity in respiratory autonomy” without being a thing with which we can have a relationship. It is a mediator rather than an object, a precondition for our existence rather than an element of that existence. It is interesting to consider breathwork in light of this as a reflection of the foundational but elusive relationship which we have to the air around us. To what extent is our subsequent being-in-the-world shaped by this original experience of breathing-in-the-world? I was sceptical of this suggestion for a long time but it occurred to me recently that it can be construed as a simple matter of path dependence, in the sense that our initial experience constitutes the starting point from which future experiences emerges i.e. if we have a difficult start in which we are grasping for support from a medial environment which feels like it does not welcome us then this is something which is going to shape our subsequent experiences. In a broader discussion of the biopsychosocial pathologies of individuation Sloterdijk talks about the stuckness which can afflict the nascent person:

“Now the good world becomes unattainable. No progression can occur with the frustrated infant, and its life, which had ventured this far, is now trapped; it is too late to turn back, and there are no longer adequate transitional aids in sight for it to go forwards. Thus a rigid continuum is inscribed upon its organism; a white point grows in the symbolic field, the pain remains imprisoned in non-linguistic bodily processes, and the pressure to live is incapable of transforming itself into an expressive libido.

Bubbles, Pg 395

If I understand him correctly, the point he is making concerns the relational growth of our psyche. Contrary to the dominant idea of “the radical, imaginary solitary confinement of individuals in the womb, the cot and their own skin throughout society” (pg 384) we grow in a way which is fundamentally open to our environment, mediated by elements such as the placenta, amniotic fluid, the air, care givers which are in an important sense prior to our considered relations with persons and objects. His concern is how this ‘with-space’ is increasingly lost in modernity leaving people torn between a defiant loneliness and ‘devourment by obsession communities’ i.e. we either close ourselves off or lose ourselves in others.

The primordial withness of the placental relationship, the challenging withness of our initial breaths and the dependent withness of our natal care comes to be replaced by much more complex forms of withness as the parameters of our existence expanded; ontological challenges about how we relate to our environment which too easily get shut down as a consequence of the rigidity which has entered into our being through these past encounters. I think he’s talking about ontological security but in a primordial rather than psychological sense: a “prelinguistic hoard of primary impressions that confirm the attainability of the world” accumulated through “a store of good experiences of resonance in the outside world with lifelong effects” (pg 395). This is what lets us remain open to the world rather than collapsing its contours into fantasistic representations, while avoiding the parallel risk of our existence oozing out into collective structures because of an inability to sustain our own boundaries.

These parallels risk are distinguished by Sloterdijk in terms of the over-accompanied soul which “threatens to remain trapped in hermetic communions” and the under-accompanied soul which “withdraws into an uncommunicative, frozen state as a security measure, rendering itself unreachable to all overtures from the outside world” (pg 440-441). In other words what is at stake in our development is how much of the outside world gets inside of us. What’s central to this is the ‘membrane’ which “provides and denies access to the world” and the degree of opening of which “determines whether there is dehyrdation or flooding” (pg 439). His point I think is that living through these successive and nesting experiences of withness we develop something akin to a aperture, constituting our openness or otherwise to accompaniment, our disposition to that which might accompany us, our degree of openness to the world. As we develop the structure of our being-in-the-world becomes more complex, leaving us with the challenge of how to expand the aperture while sustaining the integrity of our being in the way we have become accustomed to. This leaves us with a distinctive view of human existence:

Even what newer philosophers have termed ‘human existing’ is thus no longer to be understood as the solitary individual standing out into the indeterminate openness, nor as the mortal’s private suspendedness in nothingness, existing in a paired floating with the second element, whose closeness maintains the tension of the microsphere. My existence includes the presence of a pre-objective something floating around me; its purpose is to let me be and support me.

Bubbles, pg 478

I find this part of his argument somewhat opaque. But if I understand him correctly, this ‘pre-objective something’ consolidates into concrete people who we relate to as both people and environment. This means that “my intimate patron, accomplice and motivator” can be experienced as both a person and a condition for my own personhood, such that with their loss there is an “impoverishment of the inner world through the withdrawal of the life-giving field of closeness” (pg 461). The ‘therapy’ for this is clear: “strengthening the isolated subject’s potential for a renewed faith in the possibility of mental augmentation” i.e. helping them see that the world expanding role which another person played was not exhausted by that person, helping them believe there can and will be other patrons, accomplices and motivators. This is why saying what is missing can be difficult, as he puts it in the chapter title; to lose someone to whom we relate in this way also feels like it undermines the integrity of our world, leaving us unable to sustain its current parameters without the confidence to establish new ones.

But this is why, as Nick Cave puts it, shattering losses are also terrible opportunities. Even though as Sloterdijk notes “the subject, to its own detriment, yearns to live on in an oversized, illusory, ambiguous and possibly also hate- and guilt-ridden, but certainly immature, proximity to the indispensable object” (pg 465) to understand the loss is not of an object, but rather of a sense of being augmented and accompanied in the world makes it easier to unhook the two. There is an “involuntary soloist, left without a piece, an instrument and the animating force of practice after his separation from the constitutive duet partner” because “the compositions are not differentiated to the point of objectivity and the instruments have not crystallised to the point of being independently playable” (pg 466). But the suddenly silent world is not a world without music, it is a world in which the playing has temporarily stopped. The opportunity comes in the other music which can be made, the more elaborate compositions and the more beautiful coproductions which suddenly become a possibility. As Sloterdijk notes, “If torn out of the rehearsal context, the single player cannot simply continue his part acontextually somewhere else” – there is something profound which is now missing – but other parts can be played elsewhere. That is what a faith in the ‘attainability of the world’ leads us to recognise.

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