Double bubble

Reading Sloterdijk in New Delhi. Kai Friese makes his way into the German philosopher’s globalised glasshouse.

Kai Friese Reading SloterdijkMr Hayata, Sunset Airport, 2006. Courtesy the artist 

Do we, or at least you, Tank-reading people, live in “a dynamised and comfort-animated artificial continent in the ocean of poverty”? A “self-pampering endosphere built on stabilised luxury and chronic overabundance… an artificial construct that challenges probability”? A “dynamic installation that serves as a ‘lifeworld’ shell for the faction of humanity with spending power”? I think you know you do. 

Me, I came across Peter Sloterdijk’s unsettling vision of the “world interior of capital” in New Delhi, while my own world was falling apart. In different directions: my job running an Indian edition of a German magazine had evaporated when the Mumbai billionaires pulled the plug. My wife was leaving to do a degree at a medieval European university and after 20 years of residence in a beloved neighbourhood, the lease on my flat was up. My books lay piled on the floor awaiting the movers like a crumbling Cubist brain cloud. But my new iPad, a shiny two-dimensional crystal ball, was at hand… 

Surfing for distraction, a disgruntled internet-flâneur, I stumbled upon Peter Sloterdijk’s latest, In the World Interior of Capital: Towards a Philosophical Theory of Globalisation (2013). It wasn’t the first e-book I’d downloaded, but it was the first puff of Kindle-vapour that had rebuked me for doing so: 

“A lighter form of subjectivity, let us say the postmodern ‘user self’, is beginning to replace the more ponderous form of subjectivity, the ‘educated self’ of the Modern Age… but what [users] collect are not experiences, in the sense of personally integrated, narratively and conceptually ordered complexes of knowledge; they are addresses… The present gesture which expresses the transition into the post-experiential age most perfectly is that of downloading. It exemplifies liberation from the imposition of gathering experience.” 

The book is in many ways an extended rebuke, not just of e-books, of course, but of the entire trajectory of the Western world view and its consequences for, well, the world. Sloterdijk is now fairly well known even in the Anglosphere for his set of master metaphors: bubbles, spheres and foam, which he uses to describe the genealogy of globalisation, from a universal human spherology rooted in our primal experience in utero; to the celestial spheres of early European cosmology; to the “terrestrial globalisation” of colonial expansion; to the worlds we inhabit today, where as he said in a recent, somewhat hysterically headlined interview in the Huffington Post, “Modern and postmodern humans not only live in the ‘house of Being’ (as Heidegger called language), but increasingly in the abode of the technosphere.” The problem, from e-books onwards, is that this is a world in which there is no there there. It’s more fun in German: da ist kein Da da.  

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“The immunological catastrophe of the Modern Age is not the ‘loss of the centre’, but rather the loss of the periphery.”From In the World Interior of Capital, Peter Sloterdijk, 2013. Engraving from Camille Flammarion’s L’atmosphère: météorologie populaire, 1888 

If this sounds like a tired lament of po-mo ennui, it’s only because my precis is inadequate. Obviously Sloterdijk is also addressing a familiar ressentiment of nausea and Entzauberung der Welt and his voice has its echoes. Notably in the works of those erudite French Jeremiahs, Marc Augé and Paul Virilio, and their visions of a world of non-lieux or the doomed “dromosphere” of technological acceleration. Or, more grotesquely, in the exuberant concerns of globalisation feuilletonistas, from Tyler “Fast Track” Brûlé to Pico “Global Soul” Iyer (although I hear that he now regrets that book) to Thomas L. “Flat Earth” Friedman or even the rebarbative Nicholas “Win-a-Trip-with” Kristof. But while Augé can seem resigned to the proliferation of non-places and the Catholic Virilio awaits the apocalypse of modernity’s “integral accident” (his aphorism on the invention of the plane as “the invention of the plane crash” should be required reading for Brûlé and his tribe of narcissistic jet-setters), Sloterdijk paints a beguiling picture of a catastrophe that has already happened and suggests some good reasons why its own bubble can and must burst.

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“It is unforeseeable whether the hyper-cloud of the 21st century will end the regional immersion in institutionalised untruths that was typical of the 20th century. Nor do we know today whether the clear sky, or the cloud that covers it, is the information.” From In the World Interior of Capital by Peter Sloterdijk. Image from “The Cosmic Brain”, Weird Adventures, May-June 1951

What truly sets Sloterdijk apart is firstly his form: an unrepentant “grand narrative”, delivered as an imperturbable oracular-aphoristic address. And secondly, the flood of images and references with which he illustrates his vision. It was the bubbles that got me, filling my head with remembered archetypes and sending me scrambling through my now resurrected bookshelves and the internet for a sheaf of mental bookmarks that seemed to somehow cohere with Sloterdijk’s spherology. “The immunological catastrophe of the Modern Age is not the ‘loss of the centre’,” he writes in one acute aside, “but rather the loss of periphery.” And although In the World Interior is not an illustrated book, its tour of mankind’s obsession with inhabiting and transcending spheres (and their many analogues, such as domes and clouds) conjures its own boundless foam of references. Such as the iconic Flammarion engraving as an illustration of the Enlightenment’s trespasses against the sheltering sphere of divinity, or Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic visions of Manhattan under glass, or the latest Chinese megamall’s restaging of Paxton’s Crystal Palace, or Dubai’s mad “World”, that planispheric archipelago of pleasure islands. From Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system to the now creepily pervasive image of “the cloud” as a disembodied brain. My own brain on Sloterdijk felt at times like it had been trapped too long on spin cycle, struggling to emerge from this free-associating lather of images. 

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“Where everyone is the other and no one themselves, humans are cheated of their ecstasy, their loneliness, their own decisions, and their own direct connection to the absolute outside, namely death. Mass culture, humanism and biologism are the cheerful masks that, according to the insights of philosophers, conceal the profound boredom of an existence devoid of challenge. The task of philosophy would then be to shatter the glass roof over one’s own head and directly make the individual the monstrous once again.” From In the World Interior of Capital by Peter Sloterdijk. Image from “The Dome of Death”, Weird Adventures, July-August 1951

A series of dreams – or nightmares. In one of my favourite passages, Sloterdijk cuts away from his account of the colonial “discovery” of the globe to a sly uncovering of Freud as the would-be Magellan of that other “world interior”, the unconscious: “He stoically took the white man’s burden upon his shoulders when, summarising his work, he stated: ‘Psychoanalysis is an instrument to enable the ego to achieve a progressive conquest of the id.’” Much of the power of Sloterdijk’s imagery comes from this recursive instinct, one that is soon instilled in the reader. It leads you to the wormholes that connect the technological fantasies of modernity to the rebounding fears they repress. And reminds you that we contemplate the pleasures and horrors of the dome in a loop of entertainment. From The Matrix to The Truman Show to Elysium: all linked phantasms of the Crystal Palace. As are many of the older but enduring poetic tropes of sci-fi and horror: from the brain in the vat to the hovering brain cloud, the suffocating city under glass to the city in a bottle. From Coleridge’s pleasure dome to (pace Public Enemy) the terrordome.  

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“Every globe adorning the libraries, studies and salons of educated Europe embodied the new doctrine of the precedence of the outside. Europeans advanced into this outside as discoverers, merchants and tourists, but they saved their souls by simultaneously withdrawing into their wallpapered interiors. What is a salon but the place where one chats about distant monstrosities?”From In the World Interior of Capital by Peter Sloterdijk. Image by Eduard Hildebrant, Alexander von Humboldt in seiner Bibliothek, 1856. Engraving from a painting that represents the rooms in Humboldt’s apartment at 67 Oranienburger Strasse in Berlin, where he lived from 1827 to the end of his life.  

Similarly, all the disorientation and dislocation, the euphoria and nausea of Sloterdijk’s vertigo-inducing sphere-jugglery; is also his point. Terrestrial globalisation – the conquest of the world orb – really was a spin cycle. His image of the contemporary world interior of global capital as the apotheosis of the Crystal Palace, the grand installation in which distance and any authentic sense of place is being erased, describes the ultimately uninhabitable sphere that has replaced it: “The orb consisting only of a surface is not a house for all, but rather an epitome of markets on which no one can be ‘at home’; no one is meant to settle where money, commodities and fictions are changing hands… The trend towards a multi-local self is characteristic of advanced modernity – like the trend towards a polyethnic or denationalised place.”  

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“Any self-pampering endosphere built on stabilised luxury and chronic overabundance is an artificial construct that challenges probability.” From In the World Interior of Capital by Peter Sloterdijk. Image from “Lois Lane’s Romance with Jor-El!”, Lois Lane (issue 59), 1965 

And yet, reading In the World Interior in the capital of India, the Crystal Palace still seems far away. I can see its incursions, of course: in the dramatic gentrification of my local market, recently democratised with “public” Wi-Fi for well-heeled expats. Or when I drive to Delhi’s satellite conurbation Gurgaon, where many of my friends who still have full-time jobs now live. Hurriedly erected over the ruins of the hamlet from which it takes its name (“Molasses Village”), it remains an unconvincing parody of the West. For all its glass towers, emblazoned with multinational logos, the Irish pubs and German microbreweries in its achingly unironic nightlife hub Cyber City, Gurgaon is an embarrassment. An aspirational corporate Elysium that still has the whiff of a gulag. Much of the flesh and bone of Gurgaon’s economy subsists in global sweatshop industries. However “digital” such operations, it’s hard to argue that “outsourced” labour inhabits the interior of capital. If Paxton’s Crystal Palace has metaphorically risen from its ashes in London it still extends only to the fringes of the old colonial metropole. In places like Gurgaon it is represented only by the bubbles of its most shabby and diminutive simulacrum: the cast iron and glass phone box. Or the call centre. Surely, if the world interior of capital still has a global periphery, it’s not quite the space-extinguishing structure it sets out to be? 

As I close my e-book with that truly global anti-hypnotic gesture (though for me this action always recalls a childhood comic book hero – the cosmopolitan “Xanadu” resident Mandrake the Magician); I can’t help feeling that I’m waking from a trance. Sloterdijk’s narrative can feel like something of a conjuring trick: a metaphoric crystal palace in itself. His Wunderkammer (as Joshua Mostafa put it) of images stays with me, but also reminds me that there is a counter-narrative of spherological images that does not come from the West. I think of my favourite sphere, the 11th-century Persian scholar Al-Biruni’s “ego-centric map” or Azimuthal equidistant projection, a profoundly useful and intrinsically non-megalomaniacal cartographic idea that preserves a universal and dispersed sense of centre and periphery. (It’s not as arcane as it sounds – Al-Biruni’s idea has enabled aeronautical navigation and even the United Nations’ logo.) I find a loopy but inspired anti-Flammarion in a charming Hare Krishna book called Easy Journey to Other Planets. I think of the enduring Indian mythology of the origins of the universe in the cosmic egg, and the Upanishadic parable of the empty seed as the essence of reality. Or this cloud anecdote of the Indians of the lost West from Barry Sanders’s A is for Ox (1995): “In some Native American tribes, the storyteller holds in trust the sacred instrument of storytelling, the pipe, for his breath is sacred. The leader lights the pipe and puffs, the narrative imitating the shape of the smoke, moving out and curling back on itself, dropping and finally drifting far off and disappearing.”  

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“The trend towards a multi-local self is characteristic of advanced modernity – like the trend towards a poly-ethnic or denationalised place.” From In the World Interior of Capital by Peter Sloterdijk. Image titled “There are Unlimited Vaikuntha Planets in the Spiritual Sky and Their Ratio to the Material Planets is Three to One” from His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada’s Easy Journey to Other Planets, 1972 

I don’t mean to suggest that esoteric “Eastern wisdom” will save the world (though given Sloterdijk’s personal history as an Osho sannyasi he might well be sympathetic). After all, India’s most prominent storytellers today are politicians like Prime Minister Narendra Modi, a Twitter-haunting dybbuk, whose most famous campaign gimmick was holograms – of himself. But for all these technospheric bells and whistles, even this huckster knows he must tell more ancient and local stories. For better or worse, Hindu mythology, unencumbered by the Enlightenment, is his stock-in-trade. Which is just to say that the dazzling hall of mirrors of capital’s dome is not the only spherology that shapes the world and its fate. Nor, in fairness, does Sloterdijk maintain that it is, but it’s worth noting that his persuasive account remains a narrative of the “interior” he describes. A narrative that can also be a trap. That Western sage Wittgenstein comes to mind: “A picture held us captive. And we could not get outside it, for it lay in our language and language seemed to repeat it to us inexorably.” In the closing passages of his book Sloterdijk seems to acknowledge as much, when he writes, “Falling for reflections is the occupational hazard of enlighteners.” But it’s hard to tell whether he has his own reflection in mind. 

Despite this lingering sense of occidental hubris, this is a book you really ought to read. Only, do yourself a favour – don’t download it. It’s a book to scribble in and argue with. One you should furnish with its own plumage of bookmarks. A book to be in the world with: “Occupy the book!” (As it were.) Of course, if you’re among the happy few who are quite content with the world and its current course, you’ll probably hate it. In which case you could always burn it and watch it go up in an eloquent smoky cloud. §