Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sloterdijk and His Opponents, Part I

Peter Sloterdijk, who at least in his native Germany has become a celebrity, hosting, for example, along with fellow-philosopher Ruediger Safranski, the television series "Im Glashaus: das philosophische Quartett," seems often to take a positive pleasure in the opposition he arouses. He is without a doubt the most widely-disliked intellectual in contemporary Germany. It's not entirely unreasonable for a German to be proud of such a distinction: Adornowas probably the most widely-disliked German philosopher of his time, Schopenhauerand Nietzschewere practically unknown in their own lifetimes, Heine and Marx and Wittgenstein and Canetti were exiles, Walter Benjamin emigrated to France in 1933, when the Germans invaded France in 1940 Benjamin tried to flee to Spain, was pursued all the way by the Gestapo, and killed himself in the Pyranees rather than let himself be captured... Well, one could extend the list for quite a while. Germany's intellectual life is different than ours in the US. A very large part of the animosity against Sloterdijk, it seems quite clear to me, has to do with his popularity. A philosopher, many or most German intellectuals seem to believe, cannot be simultaneously profound and popular. Sloterdijk comes along and embodies a glorious refutation of this preconception, is at once brilliant and popular, not as popular as J.K. Rowling or, to name another anomalous conflux of depth and success, Cormac McCarthy, but just popular enough to stand out from the other intellectuals, just enough to make it clear that the readership for contemporary philosophy has widened a bit. The intellectual mainstream in Germany, rather than re-examining their belief in the incompatibility of of intellectual seriousness and publishing success, reject Sloterdijk out of hand. One very striking example is Otto Kallscheuer'sarticle "Spiritus Lector. Die Zerstreuung des Zeitgeists," the first and longest piece in the volume, published in 1987, of reactions to Sloterdijk's book Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, which appeared in 1983, sold over 70,000 copies in the first year alone, to give you a more exact idea of the size of the teapot in which this particular tempest has been brewing for over a quarter-century now, and made Sloterdijk famous and extremely controversial. Kallscheuer's essay is extremely difficult. I have nothing against difficult writing. Above, I speculated that Adorno, Theodor W. Adorno, was probably the most widely-disliked German thinker of his time. The scorn which was heaped upon him probably had to do above all, even more than with the fact that he was, from the end of World War II to his death in 1969, by far the most influential philosopher in Germany, and a Jew, with his absolutely unique and extraordinarily difficult prose style. But once I could see past the noise and hysteria surrounding Adorno, I began to appreciate his thinking, and began to eagerly labor through those uniquely difficult sentences of his. Now that he's been dead for four decades, one notices that the negative remarks have largely faded away, and that Adorno has largely been accorded his rightful place in the Pantheon of philosophy, although he's probably actually read as seldom as the other immortals. I love Gaddis' JR and Joyce's Finnegans Wake, too. But difficult is not always the same as good. It is not a praiseworthy end in itself if it does not offer rewards equal to the effort it demands. It can proceed from hopeless confusion as well as from genius. After a long study of the 54 pages of text of Kallsceuer's essay, followed by 85 footnotes over 12 pages, I'm fairly sure that it consists of a deeply confused and neurotic negative reaction to Sloterdijk, based first, last and in between on the sales figures of the Kritik der zynischen Vernunft. It's just possible that I have it all wrong, and that what Kallscheuer has produced here is a persiflage, a merciless satire of those who would refuse to consider a book to be serious because too many people had bought it -- but I have gone to the trouble of reading other of Kallscheuer's writings, and I'm afraid he's just not that funny. Excuse me, I should say: not intentionally. If I must sum up my reaction to Kallscheuer and to others like him in one line, I cannot think of an improvement on Mark Vonnegut's statement to his father Kurt, quoted in one of the latter's prefaces: "You've disappeared up your own asshole and died." (I gather that the Vonneguts, father and son, eventually reconciled.) There are many others like Kallscheuer, see his footnotes. The main reason I'm singling him out is that I don't want to dig through any more attacks against Sloterdijk, I find them deadly dull and dumb, the dozen or so negative articles I've read by as many different authors in a half-dozen popular, mainstream German publications and smaller, leftist intellectual ones, will last me for a long time to come.

Yes, most of the books on the bestsellers lists are crap. All the more reason to be happy when there's an anomaly, when Cormac McCarthy sticks out like a sore thumb between Kevin Trudeau and Dan Brown. If the stench of the masses horrifies you, just tell yourself that all those other people only bought No Country for Old Men to look smart and won't actually read it -- that is, if you're actually going to read it yourself. If not, telling yourself such things might just upset you further, but then again, pain can lead to greater wisdom.

Most people cannot live freely, cannot think for themselves, it's terrifying. Instead, they conform, to religions, for example, to political parties and movements, to academic trends. They obey, they believe, they connect the dots in the same way as others before them, all to distract themselves from an all-too-clear perception of their own existence. Philosophers are no exception, they slog along their dreary academic paths and repeat their mantras: those other authors are hugely successful, but they write trash. We are the keepers of the flame, we are the enlightened ones. Then someone like Sloterdijk comes along, who is truly free and obviously brilliant, and therefore fits into neither this slot nor that. His very existence calls certain assumptions into question. The honest reaction to him would be gratitude for throwing more light onto life. But such honesty is also brave, much more brave than most people can be. Free and brave thinkers must expect more venom than gratitude.

The book about Sloterdijk's Kritik der zynischen Vernunft -- it's entitled quite simply Peter Sloterdijks "Kritik der zynischen Vernunft", and I obtained it quite by accident, wishing to purchase Sloterdijk's famous work itself rather than a book about it, shopping online from across the Atlantic, rather than in a German bookstore -- is published by Suhrkamp, who also publish Sloterdijk himself. Although they have almost a monopoly of the more ambitious German authors, as far as I can determine they have not published any volumes by Kallscheuer alone. I have to wonder, therefore, since it seems not to have been a case of Suhrkamp calling on a writer from its own stable, whether Kallsceuer's vicious, ridiculous attack appeared in the Suhrkamp volume on Sloterdijk's insistence. I would like to think that that is how it happened, that it was Sloterdijk's way of saying, Look, you calf-biters, ("Wadenbeisser" is a beautiful German term of contempt for puny, insignificant critics, who nip at one's ankles and calves like tiny toy poodles.) take a long, 54-page-plus-85-footnotes look at one of your leaders. That it was Sloterdijk's way of saying how little such nonsense bothered him. Or perhaps, as I did, so too Sloterdijk found that Kallscheuer can be very funny, unintentionally. Sloterdijk often seems verschmitzt, an untranslatable German word meaning at once sly, quietly observing, amused, calm.

I've mentioned the 54 pages and 85 footnotes twice now, I should perhaps clarify that there's nothing wrong, in my opinion, with a lot of footnotes in philosophical writing. Almost all philosophers include a lot of footnotes in their works, Sloterdijk is no exception. The only exception I can think of, in the couple of centuries in which footnotes have been commonly written, is Nietzsche, and he may have had no other reason for leaving them out than that he wanted to emphasize how different he was from other philosophers. (As if he needed to.) But Kallscheuer's footnotes are no more inspiring than his main text; they're heavy on obscure contemporary philosophers and critics who toe the same line as Kallscheuer. Obscurantists. Nerdy club members who all know the secret handshake.

PS, 6. June 2015: I've finally figured out that Kallscheuer was mocking Wadenbeisser who have attacked Sloterdijk for ridiculous reasons, not committing such an attack. I'm disappointed. Wadenbeisser don't deserve that much commentary. Like I said in 2009: Kallscheuer isn't very funny. Brevity is the soul of wit. Besides exposing Kallscheuer's lack of it, having someone go on at such length about how ridiculous the Wadenbeisser are mkaes Sloterdijk seem insecure. An actual Wadenbeisser leading off the volume would've been much funnier.


  1. "("Wadenbeisser" is a beautiful German term of contempt for puny, insignificant critics, who nip at one's ankles and calves like tiny toy poodles.)"

    That parenthesis alone validates a long post which focuses way too much on a scathing review by Kallscheuer in my not so humble opinion. Kallscheuer can be interesting, but his review of Sloterdijk's Critique of Cynical Reason is really as irrelevant as a lot of other criticism that is heaped on Sloterdijk and his writing.

    Not that I think that he shouldn't be criticised. But the tones and the undertones and overtones of the criticism of Sloterdijk is often unpalatable.

    A bit more on Sloterdijk on the weekend, hopefully, I like your blog, Steven.

  2. "a long post which focuses way too much on a scathing review by Kallscheuer in my not so humble opinion"

    Perhaps. I'm sometimes guilty of going off on long tangents and making mountains out of molehills.