Thursday, June 18, 2009

Sloterdijk and His Opponents, Part II

Sloterdijk's footnotes refer to authors from ancient Greece, to medieval, renaissance and modern authors, mostly philosophers, but also psychologists, historians, theologians, natural scientists -- a vast array. Besides Plato and Nietzsche and Heidegger there are frequent references to Nicholas of Cues and to Augustine of Hippo, and to Indian and Chinese philosophers. Sloterdijk's reading list seems infinitely more interesting than Kallscheuer's half-vast repertoire. But then, Sloterdijk is interested in presenting new perspectives on the whole of human history. I can't imagine Kallscheuer ever attempting something like that. I can, however, imagine him proferring reasons why such an attempt is decadant, or passe, or otherwise outside the lines or against the rules of the club.

Of course it is possible that Sloterdijk was not involved at all in the publication of the volume with Kallscheuer's article, and has never been aware of Kallscheuer at all. Certainly, the attacks on Sloterdijk from various German academics and critics have been so numerous that no-one could give serious attention to them all, and clearly, Sloterdijk has had his mind on more interesting things. Regrettably, he has been caught up in a bitter feud with Juergen Habermas. Either Habermas or Sloterdijk is the leading philosopher in Germany today, or perhaps more accurately, Habermas leads one branch of philosophy and Sloterdijk another, and there are probably very few people who admire them both. I have not yet noticed any calls for reconciliation between the two, among the numerous articles praising one at the other's expense. I'm no exception here, I can't think of anything nice to say about Habermas.

The outward, obvious, immediate source of the feud was, depending upon which camp you're in, either Sloterdijk's lecture "Regeln fuer den Menschenpark" ("Rules For the Human Park"), first read in 1999; or a gross mis-representation of said lecture, leading to accusations against Sloterdijk of neo-fascist thought. A journalist, an intellectual lightweight, apparently, in any case he hasn't become a household name, heard Sloterdijk give his lecture, and reported that Sloterdijk was propogating right-wing extremism. Within days headlines were flying, and Habermas had weighed in. This is where I came in: I had heard Sloterdijk's name before, but "Regeln fuer den Menschenpark" was the first of his works which I read. Sloterdijk made the entire text of the essay available free of charge on the Internet -- which again was interpreted in two very different ways: Sloterdijk's opponents accused him of capitalizing on a scandal in order to further his fame; to others, such as myself, it seemed that Sloterdijk felt, quite rightly, that he was being grossly misunderstood, and slandered, and wanted the public to read the text in question and decide for themselves whether he was a fascist.

In "Regeln fuer den Menschenpark," Sloterdijk mentions that genetic technology is creating new possibilities for human life, which will create new choices, and that philosophy has yet to develop the new parameters which will be necessary to to deal intelligently with these new conditions and new choices. That's it, that's the entire bone of contention right there, the basis for accusations that Sloterdijk was calling for a return to eugenics as practiced under the Third Reich. It is apparently taboo among the philosophical mainstream in Germany, or what used to be the mainstream, embodied by Habermas and the traditional Left, to mention genetic technology without condemning the entire field out of hand. This traditional left goes back to Adorno, who in postwar Germany was the leader of the Institut fuer Sozialforschung in Frankfurt-on-the-Main, more commonly known as the Frankfurter Schule, the Frankfurt School. More than just the actual Institute in Frankfurt, the term "Frankfurt School" came to mean the entire dominant school of philosophy in Germany, and kritische Theorie, critical theory, was another name used to describe the whole movement: left-leaning, Marxist or otherwise post-Hegelian, including Adorno, Horkheimer, Herbert Marcuse and others, and definitely NOT including such independent thinkers as , Wittgensteinor Canetti. Adorno and Horkheimer were especially close, and collaborated at times as authors. Juergen Habermas definitely belonged to the Frankfurt School: in the literal sense, Adorno having personally appointed Habermas to a post at the Institut fuer Sozialforschung; and in the figurative sense as well, with Habermas, the last living prominent colleague of Adornos's, embodying in the public mind the continuation of Adorno's tradition.

The problem is that Sloterdijk came from the same tradition, and studied for a time at the Institut in Frankfurt, although he has proceeded in a very different direction. Sloterdijk, as well as Habermas, has a very great reverence and admiration for Adorno. However, Sloterdijk also admires Heidegger, and Oswald Spengler, and Michel Foucault, and Nietzsche, and other philosophers, all of whom the Frankfurter Schule tended either to disparage or to ignore. To the Habermas camp, to the traditional Left, to the Frankfurt School or at least to one narrow-minded stream of that movement, Sloterdijk's preoccupation with such thinkers is at best frivolous, at worst reactionary. They seem to forget that long passages of Adorno, for example in the Negative Dialektik, are devoted to Heidegger, certainly not in a positive way, but by no means dismissive either; and that Walter Benjamin, killed by the Gestapo before there was a Frankfurt School, but none the less one of its intellectual fathers, was a very enthusiastic reader of Nietzsche; and in general they seem to be connecting the dots in an ever-narrower philosophical system, ever more self-referential, ever less relevant to anything outside of itself. Sloterdijk may have begun as one of them, but at an early age he found that he could no longer dismiss all those others: Heidegger, Foucault, Nietzsche and the other bogeymen of the Frankfurt School. All the much worse that he praised Adorno along with all those others, lumped Adorno together with the movement's betes noirs. By the time of the Kritik der zynischen Vernunft Sloterdijk was coloring way outside the lines. Kallscheuer's attack upon Sloterdijk -- again, allowing for the possibility that I have completely misinterpreted it. Some may find this hard to believe, but I hope I'm wrong about Kallscheuer. I hope that there is a brilliance there which I do not see. There is no surplus of human brilliance in the world, any more than there are philosophers who are too popular -- is the attack of a priest against a heretic, and therefore much more bitter, more PERSONAL than it would have been if the transgressor had never been a member of the flock.

I too have serious reservations about Heidegger and Spengler and Foucault and Nietzsche. I feel the closest personal identification with Walter Benjamin, who was both a Leftist and a Nietzschean, but aside from Benjamin and myself there are very, very few Leftist Nietzscheans. Throw in my great enthusiasm for Sloterdijk, and I may very well be a movement of one. I have some reservations about Sloterdijk, but these are far outweighed by my admiration for the way he broke out of the mold of the Frankfurt School. In the course of his feud with Habermas, Sloterdijk has pronounced that the Frankfurt School is dead -- an exaggeration, perhaps, but even if not dead it surely has become deadly dull. We can no longer ask Adorno to choose between Sloterdijk and Habermas. But it seems to me that a truly profound reading of Adorno must lead to an image of him as a stubbornly INDIVIDUAL thinker, who followed no pre-determined path. In this Sloterdijk resembles him, while Habermas, along with hordes, now receding, of other adepts of the Frankfurt School, betrays the example and lesson of Adorno by trying too much to imitate the inimitable, and by repeating the dictums of one who very seldom repeated himself.

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