Reading Sloterdijk’s Spheres, alongside Stengers and Barad

Aman­da Windle has kindly invited me to par­ti­cip­ate in her small sem­in­ar:

Informed mat­ters
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 Review11(1), 183–196.

Slo­ter­dijk, P. (2009). Spheres the­ory: Talk­ing to myself about the poet­ics of space. Har­vard Design Magazine30, 126–137.

van Gen­nep, A. (1960)  The rites of pas­sage. Chica­go: Uni­ver­sity of Chica­go Press.


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.
Stengers, I. (2013). Intro­duct­ory notes on an eco­logy of prac­tices. Cul­tur­al Stud­ies Review11(1), 183–196.

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