Are these bubbles anarchist? Peter Sloterdijk's Spherology and the question of anarchism.

Author:Janicka, Iwona

In her contribution to The Continuum Companion to Anarchism entitled 'Where to Now? Future Directions for Anarchist Research', Ruth Kinna pointed out a gap in anarchist literature concerning the question of solidarity (Kinna 2012, p316). Little has been written about anarchism with a key focus on solidarity and virtually nothing can be found on a philosophical concept of solidarity in relation to anarchism. In this paper I will attempt to fill in this gap in anarchist literature and discuss solidarity from the perspective of Peter Sloterdijk's work.

His Spheres project (1998-2004) and his You must change your life (2009) are the key foci of this paper. (1) I will examine selected features of Sloterdijk's theory of spheres that are relevant to anarchism. Here I will work with Uri Gordon's definition of contemporary anarchism in practice that he elaborates in Anarchy Alive! (2007). My claim is that Sloterdijk's spherology can be useful for thinking about solidarity in the context of anarchism, and in particular for eco-anarchist movements. Sloterdijk's work also allows for a theoretical support of the anarchist idea of slow, everyday transformation that is often contrasted with the model of social change achieved through the means of a revolution. As his description of society is based on the concept of mimesis and training--defined as a bodily repetition of available models--Sloterdijk's ideas can be useful for thinking about anarchist collectivities. These collectivities try to introduce alternative, daily practices into their micro social structures as a way to permanently change the surrounding world. I will show that this is where Sloterdijk's mimetic concept of training can be used as a valuable conceptual tool towards understanding anarchist collectives. My claim throughout this paper is that contemporary anarchism in practice is an effective form of harnessing mimesis towards a more habitable world. What is more, Sloterdijk's theory of spheres offers an alternative structure to the usual philosophical model that anarchists use in order to describe anarchist collectives, that is, Felix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze's rhizomes (see Gordon 2008). Although rhizomes are a powerful image, they emphasise the network links between entities rather than the spaces in which these entities are embedded. I wish to argue that spaces, which anarchists create through their practices and which they inhabit, are crucial for understanding contemporary anarchism in practice. Sloterdijk's structure has a form of bubbles and foams and is based on the concept of immunity that we share not only with other human beings but also with the environment, the plants, the animals, architectural structures, meta-narratives, technology. I wish to demonstrate that although Sloterdijk himself is not an anarchist, (2) he provides a valuable theoretical framework to understand and think about contemporary anarchist movements.

Before we begin, it is relevant to describe briefly Sloterdijk's position both in the Anglophone academic world and in Germany. Peter Sloterdijk, besides Jurgen Habermas, is the most important contemporary German philosopher, yet he remains less well known among the Anglophone academic audience. This is partly because only few of his books have been translated into English. Among the works that I am going to discuss here, only the first two volumes of his trilogy Spheres are available in English and the translation of Du muft dein Leben andern (2009) (You must change your life) was published in 2013. In Germany, Sloterdijk does not receive the scholarly attention he deserves even though he is the most widely read philosopher by the German general public. On the one hand, this might be due to the fact that he blurs the distinctions between philosophy and literature in his style of writing and his style of thinking. This makes it particularly challenging for academic scholars to engage with him on a strictly philosophical level. On the other hand, the scholarly silence around Sloterdijk among his German colleagues might be due to the infamous 'Sloterdijk-Habermas' scandal at the end of the 1990s. (3) Since then the philosophical sides have been picked, scholarly war zones established and for the time being it seems that Habermas has the upper hand in German academia. Sloterdijk however has a strong following in a philosophically-engaged non-professional readership: he is the most commercially successful contemporary philosopher in Germany since the war and his Critique of Cynical Reason, published in 1983 is a European bestseller. In the discussion that follows, I will focus on two aspects of his work relevant to anarchism: the question of solidarity and the everyday, 'slow' social transformation in anarchist collectivities. (4)


The tacit assumption of this paper is that in order to think properly about anarchism at the philosophical level, one needs to rethink the concept of collectivity and, together with it, collective social transformation. In order to do that, in turn, one needs to completely rethink conceptual points of departure. Instead of thinking about human beings as individuals who try to make connections with the outer world--a standard assumption in the Western philosophical tradition, one needs to start thinking about humans in terms of pluralities that run the constant risk of becoming separated. Sloterdijk does that because he conceptualises the human being as originally a dyadic structure always nestled in a sphere. That is why, as it will become clear, Peter Sloterdijk's work can be valuable to anarchist rethinking of collectivity and social change. The sphere is a key notion with which he attempts to describe both human beings and human space in a new way, combining topological, anthropological, immunological, and semiological aspects. This is to emphasise the rarely considered idea of the 'interior', which is created between two human beings and the space around them in an intimate 'being-with', which Sloterdijk calls a microsphere or a bubble (SIII, pi 3). He characterises the microsphere as a sensitive, adaptive and moral (seelenraumlich) immune system.

For Sloterdijk, humans cannot exist without an immune system, which means they cannot exist beyond 'the wall-less hothouses of their closeness relationships' (S II, pi35). They create various worlds together with other people, animals or things, which are called spheres. A sphere is 'a place of strong relationships' where one establishes a 'psychical relation of reciprocal lodging' (S III, p302) with people and objects nearby. In his grand meta-narrative, Spheres, Sloterdijk presents human beings from the point of view of intimacy and relocation and is interested in forms of collectivity and, most importantly, in 'the collective forms of individuality' (Schinkel & Noordegraaf-Eelens 2011, p7). In what follows I briefly outline how Sloterdijk conceptualises a system in which humans originate from plurality and are inextricably connected to the surrounding inorganic world. This is crucial for understanding solidarity from Sloterdijk's perspective and connecting it to ecoanarchist movements.

In order to understand how Sloterdijk thinks about spheres it is useful to consider the first sphere which a human inhabits. In Spheres I Sloterdijk considers the smallest possible form of sociality. His point of departure is one anterior to the habitual Freudian conceptualisation of a human being. Sloterdijk focuses on the time before the birth: the nine months after conception, where a human being begins to exist only in and through a relationship with another human being--the mother. His initial assumption is that human being starts as a co-existence, rather than a metaphysical autonomous one. 'Being-a-pair', he claims, 'precedes all encounters [...] it always takes precedence over the two single units of which it seems to be "put together"' (Sloterdijk & Funcke 2005). Human space is from the beginning bipolar, and it is co-subjectivity that is a basis for subjectivity. Therefore, being is always primarily being-with and 'there can be no I without us' (Thrift 2012, pl40). It is therefore only through being in a pair and in the act of habitation that a subject comes into existence and continues existing. From this perspective, individualism and loneliness come chronologically after being-with: 'With this we enter the terrain of a radicalized philosophical psychology that departs from the general faith in the priority of individuality' (Sloterdijk & Funcke 2005) and this philosophical gesture accomplishes a radical critique of subjectivity.

For Sloterdijk, humans are first and foremost 'human locators' in that they are 'subjects only to the extent that they are partners in a divided and assigned subjectivity' constituted by space (S I, p85). Existence starts with inhabiting a mother's body and proceeds to inhabit closed interiors, apartments, and houses. This transfer from space to space is accompanied by recreating protective envelopes, which constitute immunity, using technological means. For Sloterdijk humans have no choice but to build spheres. They need protective or immunising systems to survive. In order to exist they need to be 'continually working on their accommodation in imaginary, sonorous, semiotic, ritual and technical shells' (S I, p84). They are, in that sense, interior designers. Sloterdijk defines a sphere as

[t]he interior, disclosed, shared realm inhabited by humans--in so far as they succeed in becoming humans. Because living always means building spheres, both on a small and a large scale, humans are the beings that establish globes and look out into horizons. Living in spheres means creating the dimension in which humans can be contained. Spheres are immune-systemically effective space creations for ecstatic beings that are operated upon by the outside (ibid., p28).

The name...

To continue reading