Society must be understood as ”self-stressing, constantly forward-rushing worry systems,” says the German philosophical superstar, Peter Sloterdijk – and stress, in his terms, is not something that breaks us down. In fact, it is what makes everything stick together.
Stress holds everything together
Stress is commonly referred to as the great endemic disorder of our time, a disruptive societal problem. But the German philosopher and writer, Peter Sloterdijk, has a different view: Stress does not undermine our society; on the contrary, it brings structure to society, creates social communities, and makes us more able to withstand the growing challenges of our time. Our world is organised by a systematic and fundamental worry, and Sloterdijk’s point is that the cohesion is to be found in the ability of societies, nations, and social communities to keep up a constant state of stress.
Or rather: That is one of his points about society, for he has, for more than 40 years, contributed an abundance of theses and critiques of modernity, and has become famous and infamous for his top-selling philosophical theories, and his sharp contributions to public debate.
On the occasion of his latest book, Nach Gott, he visited the International Authors’ Stage at the Royal Danish Library in Copenhagen for a conversation with his friend and colleague, the cultural critic and writer, Manfred Osten. Shortly before this event, SCENARIO met him for a talk about language, sick social systems, and a new ethics for the end days.
A common language
Peter Sloterdijk was born in 1947, and since his first publication in 1976, he has published more than 40 original works, as well as a large number of works with other people’s writings, and anthologies about a large number of seemingly diverse themes: from modern spatial theory to religion and critique of capitalism. All these works have made him one of the best-selling philosophers ever, but that is not because he offers popular or specific stop-gap solutions to the challenges we are faced with in our time. His basis is idealist and uncompromising, and in all its complex simplicity, it is about educating us to become great human beings with moral, ethical, and unselfish behaviour. As the mere volume of his works suggests, it is a demanding task, and one that takes will-power, basically to change the form our world is modelled after — but Sloterdijk does not let that stand in his way. He sets the bar, as well as the requirements of modern man, high.
His works differ in style as well as theme, but they are all woven together from some of the same threads. One of these is a literary writing style with arguments made through analogies, mythical traditions, and language-based time travels that are, above all, notable for their eloquent narration. With irony and perspectives that skewer his contemporaries, he offers diagnostic analyses of the age without any tinge of pop philosophy, and builds up a new ethics from scratch. His work combines past, present, and future through metaphors taken from his predecessors, the phenomenologist Martin Heidegger, the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, and the über-pessimist philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. In this sense, you may understand the works of Sloterdijk as a response to, or new versions of iconic works. To Sloterdijk, the cultivated human being is not an ideal, but a precondition.
But between all the metaphors, you must recognise one of his characteristics: His perpetual battle against language that breaks away from the original meanings and takes on the worst shape: inaccuracy. For this reason, our conversation starts with finding common ground, language-wise. Throughout all his writings, Sloterdijk has laid out many mines, and you have to be careful what you say in order to not provoke the walking, talking etymological encyclopaedia.
”Communication”, Sloterdijk explains, ”comes from the Latin communicare, which just means ‘having in common’ or ‘making common’.” He laughs, as if this is the most absurd interpretation of modern language. And this is where reading and understanding Sloterdijk becomes complicated, for his language is not yet made common, and when he turns words upside down, giving them new contents, he does so without equipping his interlocutor or reader with an educational index. So, most of the time, it is not enough to hear the words from his mouth to understand what he is saying – as it is, everything is always already a word for something else.
However, one of his recurrent metaphors is more easily understood: Society is a body that is, above all, pathogenic. Thus, a central concept in his new ethics, called anthropotechnics, is immunity: the ability to resist and defend yourself against the many challenges of today. In an age of stress, this is the starting point for our conversation with Sloterdijk: how to cope – not to say, survive – in a society that basically demands more of us than we can provide.
The stress society
So, as a starting point, we need to understand ourselves as inhabitants in a simultaneously ill and pathogenic body, and the perspective for fathoming our possible cure and survival, we find in concepts such as immune systems, side-effects, and defence mechanisms. In Sloterdijk’s view of society, stress is an inherent phenomenon that you should not fight, but rather learn to live with step by step to become a better human being.
”In my opinion, the large, political entities we call societies mainly have to be understood as stress-integrated force fields or, more exactly, as self-stressing, constantly forward-rushing worry systems,” Sloterdijk explains in his short work Streß und Freiheit (Eng. Stress and Freedom). The linkage of human existence and basic worry is not new, however; Martin Heidegger, too, described the connection by saying that being is worrying about yourself and others, a relationship that was later changed to define beingas the very worry of existence. In contrast to this, Sloterdijk does not focus on the existential worry of the individual, but on the structural worry that enables communities, and makes them necessary. Social communities, collectives, societies, and nations find their cohesion in their ability to maintain a basic unease. This is radically different from our common understanding of stress, so what does Sloterdijk mean when he talks about stress as the glue of society?
”I don’t see stress as a concept of disease,” he states, continuing: “Stress is the basic situation for moving, living creatures situated in spaces of surprise. This means, nature. And, well, nature is just another word for a situation where accidents can happen.” He deliberately avoids using the word “society”, even if it is the traditional term for the community we are part of:
”When you have lived as long as I have, you learn to get used to your contemporary age. But when you take a closer look, an expression such as society (‘Gesellschaft’, ed.) is extremely problematic, because it presupposes something that shouldn’t be presupposed. That is, that its members are a priori connected to each other,” he says.
Because the members of a community or the inhabitants of a society are not, in advance, connected, you have to find the force that even so, brings coherence to communities, great or small. In Sloterdijk’s view, this force is called stress, and is actually a sign of good health:
”The ability to recognise or feel stress is a sign of health. Only diseased organisms are not fit enough to escape or fight properly.”
”We live in a multi-stressing world situation that is, in principle, pathogenic,” he continues. “The healthy form of stress training really consists in preparing for confrontation, like an athlete preparing for a fight. And so, it is equally important to train your ability to be under pressure. When you succeed in that, your health improves.”
This train of thought makes it clear that Sloterdijk continues working on a foundation established by Nietzsche at the end of the 19th century, not least with a quote that has become a cliché today: “Was mich nicht umbringt, macht mich starker.” (“What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”) Despite the kitschiness of this well-known and sometimes misused extract from the work Götzen-Dämmerung oder Wie man mit dem Hammer philosophirt (Eng. Twilight of the Idols, or, How to Philosophize with a Hammer), we find a similar point presented by Sloterdijk. We have to train and strengthen our immune system so that we are constantly preparing our resistance for future obstacles. But when it is the task of the community to constantly train the stress-defence mechanism, the political system also becomes a deliberate Sisyphean circuit where a new problem arises for every solved one. An extremely unsatisfactory sensation for everybody except the winners of the system, Sloterdijk concedes: ”The political system also presupposes a kind of person that handles defeat well. This, politicians have in common with athletes; they must be more or less immune to defeat. On the other hand, the immune system of the victor is strengthened through conflict and struggle. The old fighter with so many victories behind him possesses such calm that he no longer needs to fight at all,” he says, supporting it with a comic description of Sumo wrestlers who can conquer their opponents by merely looking at them.
A farewell to solidarity
Our innate instincts of survival make us seek protection in the community, and we stay there, because we are afraid. But is it too much to hope that thousands of years of evolution has brought us to a higher social level that could, instead, rely on the positive antithesis: that we would like to help others than ourselves? Solidarity, in other words.
”The 82 million people living in Germany, what do they really have in common,” Sloterdijk asks rhetorically in answer to my question of why solidarity has no validity at all.
”We can’t even consider citizenship a uniting force, because in that case, you will have to start by leaving out the 10 percent that haven’t been granted it.”
”With the over-sociologising understanding of man that, among others, the Hegelian social philosophy has contributed to, the present claim is that man is nothing without a society. And that, I believe, is also wrong. I believe there is a human nature that can be activated through interactions. This should not be taken to mean that we can shape it any way we want, but within the confines of a space characterised by genetics and evolution.” So this means surrendering to perhaps more primitive, pre-configured settings of our minds.
Should we be forced to pay taxes?
This parting shot at solidarity may sound like Sloterdijk has little faith in his fellow human beings, but actually, the reverse is the case. With the concept Ethik der Gabe (The ethics of gifts) his very intent is to educate the great human being, a moral human being that would rather give to the community than accumulate for himself. So, a basically idealist, anti-selfish proposal that was, however, taken for the opposite. Some people got his proposal, placed on the front page of the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, all wrong, and it was, after all, a highly controversial proposal: Sloterdijk wanted to abolish compulsory taxes and let them be replaced with a voluntary system more consistent with his idea of modern democracy, based, above all, on freedom.
But in a country of poets and thinkers where philosophical discussion is no less than the second most important national sport, next to soccer, the proposal was, of course, taken up and criticised from all sides of the political spectrum. Among others, reputable thinker, Axel Honneth, who is also a professor of philosophy at the Humboldt-Universität in Berlin, accused Sloterdijk of wanting to abolish the social state and introduce an absolutely libertarian state. The counterpoint to this criticism was written in Neue Zürcher Zeitungby the at least equally controversial philosopher, Slavoj Žižek, earlier this year. He delivers more or less unreserved praise of the proposal, which, in his perspective, offers “a balance between elitism and egalitarianism”. In addition to referring to him as “one of the most accurate diagnosticians of our time”, he posits the idea of objection to the tax system as part of the cultural revolution and revolt against Western capitalism:
”In capitalism, he (Sloterdijk, ed.) sees not only the problem, but also the solution – Sloterdijk pleads for a turn of capitalism against itself: Instead of accumulating still more wealth and consequently fearing the loss of the wealthy lifestyle, the inhabitants of the Western Crystal Palace As proud beings who rather give than take,” Žižek writes.
These very different receptions of the proposal are rather surprising in view of the fact that Sloterdijk is in favour of neither liberalism in its present form, nor revolution. He sees his position as “left conservative”, knowing that this is a rather contradictory position in the present political climate. But he still maintains that the critique doesn’t hold water:
”It totally misses my political position. I do not, at all, want to abolish the social state, I just want to give it a different grounding,” he says, smiling, as if that could be carried out in one fell swoop.
The discussion was a perfect example of how Sloterdijk does not consider the need for practice in politics, but aims at the ideal. The idea was, and is, controversial, and he stresses that he maintains voluntary tax as a better solution than the present one, despite the fact that our conversation is held only a few days after the disclosure of the Paradise Papers, that more than anything shows that there is already a large group who considers tax payment something optional. The point was, Sloterdijk elaborates, that if you abolish the compulsion on which the tax system is based, you create room for the freedom necessary to let people become great human beings and make the right decisions. With an understanding of freedom that draws a line straight back to Kant, it becomes obvious that freedom, to Sloterdijk, is not the opportunity to do whatever you like, but the freedom to make the right choice yourself – including the one that does not primarily benefit you.
Religion in the end days
Anyone who has seen more than one post-apocalyptic Hollywood movie probably knows that ethics faces difficult conditions when the end is near. Still, Sloterdijk is determined to rethink, rather than dispose of, ethics. In his most self-help-sounding title, Du musst dein Leben ändern (Eng. You must change your life) from 2009, the very message was that basic changes are (life-)essential.
”It (the book, ed.) reflects the general, basic feeling that it can’t go on like this; we can’t, society can’t, the world can’t. People sense that the current modus vivendi isn’t viable,” he said to the German political magazine Cicero when the book was published. A well-functioning immune system, in the figurative sense, is central to the existential race to the bottom in this “age of side-effects”, as he calls the modern period in Die schrecklichen Kinder der Neuzeit (Eng. Modernity’s Enfants Terribles) from 2015. We live in an age where the number of problems exceeds the possible solutions, and modernity ushers in “an age of self-perpetuating processes” that we must learn to resist through assurances in the form of, among other things, religion:
”What Christian charity once did, the social state does today,” Sloterdijk said when interviewed for Deutschlandfunk in connection with his latest publication, Nach Gott, “and in many cases even better. The apparent disappearance of religion is really a historical kind of liberation without precedent. For the first time in all its history, religion is free,” he said.
Nach Gott is the latest addition to Sloterdijks critique of religion over many years. But he has not turned his back on his previous proclamation that there are no religions, only misguided spirituality. As he says in his book, the church today is a “self-management business to handle the melancholy over the impossibility of the church”, and so, is just another possible safety mechanism. The book can be read as a précis of several of his central points – and not least, its title is symptomatic of Sloterdijk’s ideas with their frequently double, or multiple, meanings. Nach Gott means “after God” as well as “according to God” and indicates a way of thinking that embraces such diverse positions such that it can hardly be understood as just one perspective: He stamps on and blows on the hot embers at one and the same time.
So, in conclusion, our conversation returns to the criticism, for is he simply a misunderstood thinker?
”After having been a public figure for about 30 years, my experience tells me that there are no innocent misunderstandings. There is animosity, there are hostilities and rivalries. This brings us back to the theme, stress: It is all about surviving your critics, tiring out your opponents and never leaving them in peace. But really, everything gets better in time.”
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