Patrick Roney & Andrea Rossi

John Hopkins/Koc University

Original article here

The works of Peter Sloterdijk (b. 1947) have become more readily available in recent years to the English-speaking world, 1 and so too has the recognition that his thought represents a major contribution to the ongoing discussions about globalization and its discontents, some of which are becoming increasingly catastrophic, particularly at this moment in time. Although often identified as philosophical or theoretical in nature, a survey of Sloterdijk’s corpus reveals a voluminous writing with a far wider scope, one that includes among its foci art and aesthetics, ecological concerns, most notably climate change, religion and its history, the crisis of liberal democracies and the political overall, an extensive attempt at Nietzschean-inspired diagnoses of the ills of modernity and modernization, and the development of a new topological history of human in-dwelling or “en-housing” [Ge-häuse] that goes by the name of Spherology (BubblesGlobesFoams; see Rashof). This list of subjects here does not even touch on Sloterdijk’s multifarious styles of writing. Oftentimes philosophical and interrogative but also very often oriented around the construction of a narrative, some which are quite grand, Sloterdijk’s styles are interspersed with polemical, playful, and provocative elements. 2

Nonetheless, there are clear elements of continuity and lines of thought within this oeuvre, one of which is without a doubt the notion of anthropotechnics (see especially Sloterdijk, You Must ChangeArt of PhilosophyNach Gott 210–28; “Anthropo-technology”). It is our contention that far from being one of several occasional topics found in Sloterdijk’s work, anthropotechnics is central to his ever-expanding diagnoses of modernity and its history – a history that now finds itself in a profound crisis. Our aim in this issue is to foreground and to initiate what we hope will be a deeper engagement with the many aspects and implications of this problematique.

Like most of Sloterdijk’s key terms, anthropotechnics defies easy conceptualization. As a first approximation, it refers to that cluster of phenomena pertaining to the technological modification of the human at both the physical and psychological levels. Its scope, however, encompasses a much broader set of issues and perspectives that are at once sociological, anthropological, ethical, philosophical, and political, and which in fact aim to cast light – a different, a diagonal light – on the history of human culture as a whole. The contours of anthropotechnics emerge in Sloterdijk’s work through a patient, if seemingly unsystematic accumulation of historical analyses and a multiplication of theoretical viewpoints elaborated over more than two decades, most of which would be impossible to reconstruct here. 3 Instead, our aim will be to outline a general horizon of concerns that will begin, following Sloterdijk’s own suggestion, with the characterization of anthropotechnics as a “manoeuvre” (You Must Change 4), one whose purpose is to actively intervene into the current Western and indeed world situation where, under the pressure of modernization, peoples are increasingly and “dangerously” exposed to the deterritorializing forces of globalization, of ecological crisis, and of technologies such as genetic engineering and artificial intelligence. Anthropotechnics is as much a practice and a provocation as it is a theory, something that we would like to explore, in particular, in relation to three of its central theoretical moments, which are also the ones around which most of the essays in this issue revolve. These are respectively, the technological, the ascetic, and the immunological constitution of humanity.

Sloterdijk’s first mention of the term “anthropotechnics” occurred in the late 1990s, in a piece that created an immediate controversy, “Rules for the Human Park” (Not Saved 193–216; Couture 77–84). The text was meant in part as an intervention into ongoing debates over the new technologies of genetic engineering and the “indistinct” and “frightening” questions that they raise concerning humanity’s future. Here, it had already become apparent how much Sloterdijk’s approach to the ethico-political implications of these and other anthropo-technologies would differ from those of some other prominent authors who have taken part in that debate. Rather than point to the threats posed by biogenetics to individual autonomy, human nature, or the humanitas of man, as one finds in different ways in the work of Habermas, Fukuyama, or Sandel, Sloterdijk focused, in a deliberately polemical way, on the notion and practice of breeding (Züchten) – a most eerie word to a German ear – in the specific sense of the ways in which technology embodies and enhances human plasticity, i.e., the human capacity for self-formation. To quote one of his later texts, “humans encounter nothing strange when they expose themselves to further creation and manipulation, and they do nothing perverse when they change themselves autotechnologically” (Sloterdijk, “Anthropo-technology” 16). Anthropotechnics can thus be characterized in a preliminary way as an ontological determination of the co-constitution of anthropos and techne and their historical permutations rather than as a traditional theory of human nature as animal rationale (cf. Duclos, “Anthropotechnics”).

Even though Sloterdijk is not alone in his attempt to link the human and the technological from the ground up (see, e.g., Simondon; Stiegler; Haraway), still the scope that he gives to their relation proves to be much wider than is the case in many recent philosophies of technology. Technology, for Sloterdijk, includes not only material artifacts, machines, media, or other types of technical “exo-somatization,” but also, more broadly, any cultural practice aimed at consciously transcending and remodeling the human being, his self-understanding and stance in the world. Anthropotechnics belongs, in other words, to a wider constellation centered around the notion of askesis as a technology of the self, that is, as a set of praxes or, if one prefers, of arts of life, as articulated most notably in the works of Michel Foucault and Pierre Hadot. Here lies a second fundamental dimension of anthropotechnics: it functions as a general ascetology, a new science in which the history of ascetic practices in all of their disparate manifestations becomes visible not in terms of a more conventional perspective that focuses on abnegation and self-renunciation, but “positively,” as a system of anthropotechnical praxes that embody the fundamental ethical imperative to go beyond one’s existing conditions towards a new state of being that appears as either impossible or “monstrous” in relation to the habits, the norms and the enclosed protective systems of everyday social life. 4

Anthropotechnics as a general ascetology thus paves the way for a historical analysis where “charioteers and scholars, wrestlers and church fathers, archers and rhapsodists come together, united by shared experiences on the way to the impossible” (Sloterdijk, You Must Change 64). It forms a narrative of the multifarious ways in which human beings, both individually and collectively, have shaped, “bred,” and cultivated themselves, from the beginnings of advanced civilizations – when the first “acrobats,” “the wise men, the illuminated, the athletes, the gymnosophists, the sacred and profane teachers” made their appearance (194) – to the contemporary industry of self-enhancement and genetic engineering. Even the latter can and must be grasped as part of “a broad tableau of human ‘work on oneself’” (10) rather than as unnatural threats to our humanitas created by a new breed of institutionalized Dr Frankensteins. Genetic engineering is but the latest ring in a long chain of cultural experimentations, broadly understood, by means of which human beings step into the open of the world and immunize themselves against possible harm coming from the outside.

This last mention of anthropotechnics and ascetology as a general practice of stepping into the opening of the environing world or alternatively, as a practice of world-formation, introduces the third and final moment that we wish to highlight here: anthropotechnics as part of a general immunology. This theme, which occupies a large portion of Sloterdijk’s writings since the 1990s and culminates in the great spatial-ontological investigations of the Spheres trilogy, 5 bears a strong affinity with Heidegger’s existential analysis of Dasein as unheimlich, as not-being-at-home in the world, although it is by no means the same. One can get a better sense of Sloterdijk’s approach from his remark that “human beings are living beings that do not come to the world, but rather come into the greenhouse” (Not Saved 120). The world, in the sense of the sheer outside, is not an especially hospitable place, and pace the survivalist mindset, human beings that are exposed to it for too long do not last. Greenhouses – literally, those climatically controlled, enclosed, protective spaces that foster life and growth – are our natural dwellings. Humans need incubators, shelters, and artificial containers – in short, material and symbolic immunity scaffoldings – to protect themselves from a world that they are not well equipped at birth to inhabit. They are somehow compelled to form their world rather than simply expose themselves to its sheer facticity – the world is never given in such a brute manner. Hence, anthropotechnics appears a branch of a general immunology, as a comprehensive system of layered immunity structures that includes the biological, the social, and the symbolic. The latter is the specific focus of anthropotechnics, which may accordingly be defined as the study of

the symbolic or psycho-immunological practices on which humans have always relied to cope – with varying success – with their vulnerability through fate, including mortality, in the form of imaginary anticipations and mental armour [and] the methods of mental and physical practising by which [they] have attempted to optimize their cosmic and immunological status in the face of vague risks of living and acute certainties of death. 6As should hopefully be clear by now, immunology, particularly at the symbolic level, entails more than just a prophylactic insulation from external dangers. The life of practice is never just a matter of survival or adaptation, as a crude form of pragmatism or biologism would have it; practice requires a controlled yet creative exposition to the outside (Duclos, “Falling”). In the interplay between the defensive retreat to an inside and the ecstatic opening to the world, the human looks out towards new horizons in the form of “vertical attractors,” to use the language of You Must Change Your Life, through which s/he may discover a different life. For Sloterdijk, immunology underlies, in this sense, the most basic dynamics of human culture:

In order to cope with the self-endangerments that increase for sapiens-beings from their unique biological position, they have produced an inventory of procedures for the formation of the self, which we discuss today under the general term “culture,” [which encompasses] all those ways of ordering, techniques, rituals, and customs with which human groups have taken their symbolic and disciplinary formation “into their own hands.” (Not Saved 126–27)Not only technology, but also politics, ethics, religion, art, and athleticism, to name but a few, might be reinterpreted accordingly, since life as a whole is only “the success phase of an immune system” (449).

The main coordinates of Sloterdijk’s anthropotechnical maneuver are thus delineated: the human, whose essence is technological, and whose technological essence impels it to transcend itself ascetically, is at the same time the subject who, through practice, must form the world it inhabits to shelter itself from the abyss of sheer exteriority.

Through this conceptual framework, we are now in a position to gesture, however tentatively, to the dangers as well as the opportunities associated with Sloterdijk’s diagnosis of modern anthropotechnics, and of the “Great Catastrophe” that he evokes at the end of You Must Change Your Life, which looms on our horizons today as never before. The crises that we are experiencing may be regarded as technological, ascetic, and immunological, which are now unfolding at virtually every level, including the viral, social, environmental, economic, and political. In a purely schematic way, modernity for Sloterdijk appears torn between its attempt to expand and democratize the life of practice, and the dilution, if not the sheer erasure, of its vertical dimension – i.e., the prospect of a radical transformation, a metanoia, a leap to the most improbable as the condition of possibility of any asceticism (You Must Change 315–435; Nach Gott 211–16). Never has humanity been as enthused by the prospect of a total and permanent transformation as in our age, but Sloterdijk is also aware that up until now this has failed to produce anything other than “a cybernetic optimization system,” where we “are guaranteed all human rights – except for the right to exit from facticity” (You Must Change 437). Despite his recognition of the essentially technological essence of man, Sloterdijk does not ignore how recent technologies – which, needless to say, extend well beyond biogenetics – tend to be mobilized primarily as “life-augmenting and life-increasing accessories” that direct life and the imperative to change one’s life only to the flat, horizontal perspective of enhancing or making more comfortable our existing life rather than transforming it. Divested of its vertical dimension and therefore of its ecstatic opening to the outside, immunity turns, to draw on the insights of another author who has long been preoccupied with similar questions, into auto-immunity (Esposito).

However vaguely, Sloterdijk seems nonetheless to detect a new paradigm looming on the horizon – or the need or the hope for one – which he refers to as “co-immunity.” In the face of the utter impossibility that things could still go on just as they have been for the last half century or more, humanity is, and will increasingly be called upon to realize “that shared life interests of the highest order can only be realized within a horizon of universal co-operative asceticisms,” ones that transcend “all previous distinctions between own and foreign,” and “the classical distinctions of friend and foe” (Sloterdijk, You Must Change 451–52). What this might entail, apart from an ill-defined, environmentally tinted cosmopolitanism remains an open question. Sloterdijk’s contention here seems to be simply that the crisis itself, whose religious overtones he stresses throughout You Must Change Your Life, may give rise to a new verticality, a new “unconditional overtaxing” in the form of an “absolute imperative” (442) – a dimension which modern, and above all contemporary anthropotechnics, would seem to have forsaken long ago. What is certain, though, is that like any ascetic exercise, this new imperative would not evince a clear and certain aim, but would, at the very most, be heard as a call to “rehearse the most improbable as the most certain” – “certum est quia impossibile,” as Tertullian wrote (You Must Change 334). At its most incisive, Sloterdijk’s anthropotechnics represents an attempt to reawaken this call – a call to which this issue and the essays contained in it have tried critically to pay heed, as a tribute, so to speak, to its necessary improbability.

Notes

1 Cf., for example, Couture; Elden; Schinkel and Noordegraaf-Eelens.

2 On Sloterdijk’s philosophical styles, see Hoban.

3 For a genealogy of the concept of “anthropotechnics” in Sloterdijk, see Lucci.

4 For a critical appraisal of Sloterdijk’s ascetology, see Ahmadi.

5 For an introduction to this theme, see Mutsaers, ch. 5.

6 Sloterdijk, You Must Change 9. Ascetology is in this sense only a branch of General Immunology, which also encompasses the study of biological and social immunity, the second of which Sloterdijk explores at length in the Spheres trilogy.

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