Culture as a Source of Practice

Peter Sloterdijk, Musisz życie swe odmienić [You must change your life], trans. Jaroslaw Janiszewski, PWN, Warsaw 2014

1.

In his book You Must Change Your Life, Peter Sloterdijk—one of the most interesting and undoubtedly the most original of contemporary philosophers—is trying his hand at an art which seemed definitely abandoned in the humanities; namely, a great synthesis, a historiosophical narrative which from the multiplicity of theoretical tropes, categories and concepts extracts some fundamental principle and then traces its more or less visible dynamics in the course of history of the entire human culture.

At the heart of this impressive project—an epic which is erudite, lavish, smoothly moving between ages and latitudes—is a radical reinterpretation of religion and ethics, that is the principal spheres of culture, the principal areas of human activity. But they are not the only subjects of Sloterdijk’s brilliant hermeneutics—for his ambitions are total. “You must change your life”—this phrase, taken from the famous poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, expresses, after all, the fundamental rule valid on virtually all planes of human culture.

“You must change your life,” says Sloterdijk, this is a metanoetic (from the Greek metanoia, that is a profound inner transformation, a profound inner reorientation) arch-principle, the foundation of a culture which for three thousand years is addressing an essentialist message to man: do not live as you have lived until now. And then, resorting to various means of camouflage, Sloterdijk suggests to people some more or less subtle training techniques and systems of practice—historically bearing various names and variously justifying their existence—so that they could successfully implement this message.

So the newest book of the German philosopher is also a work belonging to the tradition of the philosophy of suspicion. And there is nothing strange in that, since—both in this work and in others (just recall the ground-breaking Critique of Cynical Reason or Crystal Palace)—an obvious source of inspiration for Sloterdijk is Friedrich Nietzsche. It was Nietzsche’s reflections on asceticism and nutrition (which germinated in the short essay Ecce Homo) which gave rise to the science of a practicing live, although, as Sloterdijk immediately observes, “they were misunderstood by superficial readers as a retreat of philosophy to the positions of pharmacy.” So Sloterdijk was the first to undertake the task of developing these intuitions—and in his basic argument he tries to translate the “religious, spiritual and ethical facts into the language and perspective of the general theory of practice.” And he does it by using the methodology most characteristic for the hermeneutics of suspicion: “making explicit the relations which in a whole mass of messages are presented as ‘implicit,’ that is: hidden in the forms which are folded inside and pressed together.”

2.

Sloterdijk begins his panoramic reinterpretation of the history of human culture—dating back to ancient times, both to pre-Socratics, and Patanjali—by placing the category of “a practicing live” in contemporary context. In our times, he claims, there is a lot of talk about the return to religion. Sociology and philosophy convince us at every turn (often through the mouths and pens of their finest exponents) that we are witnessing a kind of renaissance of everything that the Enlightenment tradition for long attempted to consign irrevocably to the dump of history.

But, as Sloterdijk provocatively suggests, we cannot speak about a return to religion, for “a return to religion is as impossible as a return of religion itself—for the simple reason that there is no ’religion’ and ‘religions’ as such, but only spiritual systems of practice misunderstood as religions, exercised either in the collective/ traditional way: church, ordo, umma, sangha, or individually—in a mutual game with ’your own God,’ from Whom the citizens of modernity buy a private insurance.”

By making this kind of assumption, with one expansive gesture Sloterdijk invalidates not only the ongoing disputes about the essence of religiosity and about the difference between religion and pseudo-religious humbug or a sect, but also—in a pointedly mocking and ironic way—the antireligious crusade of the new atheists, headed by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. For the latter completely miss the real meaning of the phenomenon of religion, they fail to notice its essentially training character. To make matters worse, they attempt to reduce complex systems of practices to a set of absurd claims about the world, discredited many times over within the thorough and conscientious process of verification by empirical science going back at least to the times of Copernicus. Militant atheism, says Sloterdijk, is a waste of time, a blind alley in the evolution of human thought, a misreading of the fundamental message calling for an existential transformation in us.

Similar attacks by organized churches on the so-called new religious movements betray a fundamental misunderstanding. They are of course an expression of competition on the free market of ideas and training services, but in fact the distinction between a sect and true faith, which they persistently promote, does not exist.

This is why, when reconstructing the implicit and explicit nature of practice systems called religions, Sloterdijk does it on the example of… Scientology. And this does not follow only from his liking for controversial comparisons or scandalmongering. Not at all. His dissection of the founding of the Scientological Church, the meanders of its teachings and, last but not least, its complex structure of initiation and hierarchy, allows Sloterdijk to fully disclose the main features of religious anthropotechnics, its basic currents, objectives and methods.

3.

So there is no religion, there is only anthropotechnics, a complex system of practices, aimed at a fundamental existential transformation. But what is the vector of this transformation? It is defined by the opposition between the immanent and the transcendent—and the metanoetic arrow is always pointing upwards. So religious anthropotechnics is a verticalizing system, in one way or another oriented towards transcending the current condition (“You must change your life” means: you cannot live as you have lived until now) and, by its very essence, towards regularity and repetitiveness.

Sloterdijk writes: “I define practice here as any operation which preserves or increases the qualifications of the agent to conduct the same operation once again, regardless of whether it is declared as practice or not.” The repetitive character of religious anthropotechnics directs the practicing agent upwards, while the ritual ornamentation or the many-layered theological reflections serve almost exclusively as factors feeding this verticalizing impulse.

Therefore when looking at the dynamics of development and crisis of Western religiosity, Sloterdijk carefully analyses the breakdown of traditional metaphysical categories and their replacement by other concepts and images—but the aim of this replacement is that the structure of the original practicing energy would not disperse. For example, Sloterdijk manages to build a convincing analogy between ancient and mediaeval ascetic practices on the one hand and the contemporary cult of sport and fitness on the other—the latter would in fact be a metamorphosis of the former, or rather its peculiar degradation: namely emptied of an openly spiritual references.

So today’s cult of physical fitness practiced in countless gyms is anthropotechnics reduced to empty repetitiveness, stripped of transcendence, but anthropotechnics all the same, strictly subordinated to implementing the call for a transformation of the current form of life.

4.

The general theory of practice—as disclosure and systematization of what earlier was implicitly contained in the forms of structures of particular cultural spheres—at last becomes possible thanks to the development of empirical science, and more precisely, of medical biology. The late 19th century brings a discovery of Ilya Mechnikov and Paul Ehrlich, which is difficult to overestimate, namely: the immune system. “[Since this discovery] in the sciences studying integral entities—animal organisms, species, ‘societies’ cultures—nothing can remain the same,” writes Sloterdijk. For it is only from that moment on that we are becoming aware of a number of processes shaping the functioning of complex, self-organizing, viable and self-reproducing systems, which are the objects of the philosopher’s interest: individual organisms, communities and ultimately cultures or civilizations. “This kind of immunological systems,” adds Sloterdijk, “might as well be described as organic

proto-forms of the sense of transcendence: thanks to the constant readiness of the immune system to act and its effectiveness, a living being actively confronts potential deadly threats and opposes them with the ability of its own organism to overcome what is deadly.” And man, as the only one in the universe of living creatures, may be said to function in three immunological spheres, autonomous, although interconnected, and closely cooperating immune systems.

The first one is simply biological, connected with physical survival of an individual organism, defense from microbes and direct threats which could break the continuity of its biological existence. The second one is social, composed of legal, mutual and military practices which a given community uses to confront strangers which pose a threat to it. And the third system, the most important and complex, is symbolic immunization, thanks to which man (but also entire communities, entire generations) attempts to cope with his “own vulnerability to events brought about by destiny, including death, assuming the form of imagined anticipations and mental armor.” And it is in the broad context of the immune system that the whole argument put forward by Sloterdijk is played out.

5.

Producing the above characteristics and adopting the above assumptions, Sloterdijk tracks—on the pages of his book which overwhelms with details and facts—the fate of the constantly practicing homo immunologicus, from antiquity to the present time, from the Far East to the erstwhile centers of civilization of the white man. As befits a self-pronounced conservatist, in the description of modernity his tone assumes a somewhat bitter note—especially in those moments where he complains about contemporary education and art. In his opinion, both are devoid of the awareness of the proper structure and direction of a successful immunization process. Both are bogged down in a sterile self-referentiality, they lose from sight the primacy of self-improvement or at least of transcending the achievements of earlier generations. Paradoxically,as we are dealing with an essentially degenerated form, this awareness has not vanished in the current forms of athleticism. But transcending the achievements of previous generations is realized here only through multiplying monstrosity—through consumption of more and more sophisticated and intense performance- enhancing drugs and crossing barriers insurmountable for human biology.

But the ultimate goal of Sloterdijk is not to formulate some kind of memento for his contemporaries or to lay bare the decadence of today’s state of the world. His book—a fountain of erudition and a composition of sophisticated sentences exhibiting a rare beauty—probably wants to be above all a source of inspiring insight, so that we can see the fundamental institutions of our culture in a completely different light. In a light, let us add, which is equally present in cultures which seem radically different from ours.

So Sloterdijk really comes with a message of a new, radical universalism. Perhaps the most profound among all which have been proclaimed so far. In fact, he says, all cultural differences are merely contingent. What unites us is our common participation in the imperative of continuous practice. We must change our life, and we must understand how important consequences it entails.

Tomasz Stawiszyński

is a philosopher, columnist, the author of “Skirmishes with Freud. Myths, Temptations and Traps of Psychotherapy” (2013), the author of radio programs devoted to philosophy in Radio TOK FM. He recently launched the website www.stawiszynski.org.

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