Amanda Windle has kindly invited me to participate in her small seminar:
Digital media materialities.
The seminar is summarised as follows:
Considering Peter Sloterdijk’s rendering of a Heideggerian ‘being-in’ this informal seminar will be a situated reading. The discussion will be located at the Royal Society of the Arts to spatially think through an approach to Peter Sloterdijk’s ‘spherology’ across disciplines. How, where and with what matterings do we embark our daily readings is no trivial matter? Sloterdijk’s writing can both inform and trouble readers and so the adjacent readings from and will open up further questions and provocations. Sloterdijk’s recent publications have been aimed at a design audience (namely architects) and with his media theory the following digital media question will be proposed. With a broadly experiential and performative approach in mind the discussion will loosely consider spherology in this respect:
- This formulation opens to the somewhat irreverent question (following Sloterdijk’s own irreverence) of how his thinking can be turned into an app or an application (app displacing application displacing theorisation displacing philosophisation, the last term barely being a word)?
- How might Sloterdijk’s work be reparatively questioned through a feminist enquiry? How might Sloterdijk’s metaphors engage us intra-actively?
I’ve sketched out my response to the latter:
First, I have to say I am not really familiar with Sloterdijk’s work, and I come to the suggested text informed by two equally lively but quite different threads of thinking. One is ‘relational materialism’ as articulated by Annemarie Mol and a host of others in STS (sometimes in differing flavours). The other is a feminist technoscience that draws heavily on Barad and Stengers, as well as Donna Haraway, Lucy Suchman, etc.
Turning, then, to Sloterdijk (and his short Spheres Theory piece), I like the question of islands, and the mixtures of thinking introduced by comparing and contrasting islands to spaces as varied as apartments and worlds. This mixing of the mundane with the, well, global seems to me to raise lots of interesting questions about our modes of being, about ontology. I also quite like the idea of foam as a analytical device as it conjures up much of the multiplicity, and contingent and provisional qualities of being that I take from scholars, again, like Haraway, Suchman, etc. So these concepts of islands and foam, etc. are as Sengers would call them helpful ‘tools for thinking’ (p. 186).
Yet, at the same time, I must admit that I feel uneasy about what I see to be the strong humanist position that runs through Sloterdik’s theorising. For example, I’m uneasy with the Freudian and evolutionary (p. 3, middle col) types, symbols, stages, etc. that are so full of categorical fixity and “grounding definitions” (Stengers p. 187). This, for me, is summed up in Sloterdik’s evocative question about the “the difference between the paw and the hand” p3. Why should we be looking to difference here, at least in any essential way? My worry is that Sloterdik’s position occupies, too much, the ‘major key’ or ‘centre stage’ (p. 186) to borrow from Stengers or what Barad calls ‘atomistic metaphysics’ (p. 813). That is, in instructing us to see humans, islands, houses and indeed architecture in quite definite ways, Sloterdik provides us with a ‘stake defined by an either/or disjunction’ (Stengers p. 186), you are either in or out.
So, like I said, I see the ideas of foam and the like as useful ‘tools for thinking’, but I am not so sure about the outside-inside binary Sloterdijk mobilises here. For me, coming out of (post)structuralist sociology, I immediately think of Durkheim, Mary Douglas and also the anthropology of ritual (Van Gennep 1960) when I think of inside/outside and the production of the home as scared vs profane. And then there is of course Foucault (with his understanding of the ‘order of things’ (2005)), who Barad reminds us leaves us with much trouble to ‘hold on to’ (p. 813) or ‘stay with’ (Haraway) when it comes to our personal bodies and the wider politics that surround and invade us, inside (Foucault 2010). From these loosely connected threads of thought, I like to think of the inside being made or ‘performed’ (Barad) through the ordinariness of (domestic) material labour. Isn’t it the routine but at the same time ritualising practices that make homes to be the special/sacred inside places that they are? Home as, forever, an ongoing endeavour, never to be defined by “inherently determinate boundaries or properties” (Barad p. 813)?
This is no doubt an ungenerous characterisation, but I take Sloterdijk to be working with an almost essentialist idea of inside, something tied to our evolutionary biology, and to some extent our (metaphysical) mastery over nature: “Biology deals with the environment, philosophy with the world” (p. 3). Although he is ready to present his theory as a “spatial interpretation” and not one able to “explain everything” (p. 3) he seems prepared to proclaim what things like philosophy, biology and homes are, not how they are, and how they are always already ‘becomings’: so, for instance, “homes are initially machines to kill time.” (p. 5). While I like the provocativeness of statements like this, I find them too general and too couched in a restricted, elementalism — as if we might just break things down in these neat ways.“Approaching a practice then means approaching it as it diverges, that is, feeling its borders, experimenting with the questions which practitioners may accept as relevant, even if they are not their own questions, rather than posing insulting questions that would lead them to mobilise and transform the border into a defence against their outside.” (Stengers p. 184)
I would like to ask what it might be like to be on the inside, living right there and making do with the things and practices (a lá Stengers) that are available to us (and that we make available). To me this ‘thinking par le milieu’ (Stengers p. 187,from Deleuze) is a more responsible and responsive understanding of our presence and role in place. Yes, I see that Sloterdijk, with his foam and islands is doing some generative work to blur the boundaries and reveal the fluid relationality inherent between things, practices and space. Nevertheless, he looses or seems to overlook the performative qualities of ‘being there’ (that is much more than Heideger’s rather too general Dasein), and entangled in the “(re)configurings of the world” (Barad p. 816), of being there ‘accountable’, ‘responsible/responsive’ and ‘belonging’ (Barad/Stengers).
Barad, K. (2003). Posthumanist Performativity: Toward an Understanding of How Matter Comes to Matter. Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society, 28(3), 801–831.
Foucault, M., Ewald, F., & Fontana, A. (2010). The birth of biopolitics: lectures at the Collège de France, 1978–1979. M. Senellart (Ed.). Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.
Foucault, M. (1970). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. London: Tavistock Publication.
Stengers, I. (2013). Introductory notes on an ecology of practices. Cultural Studies Review, 11(1), 183–196.
Sloterdijk, P. (2009). Spheres theory: Talking to myself about the poetics of space. Harvard Design Magazine, 30, 126–137.
van Gennep, A. (1960) The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.