Review Essay – Peter Sloterdijk on Social Bonds, Freedom, and Religion

Peter Sloterdijk, Online Book Forum

Peter Sloterdijk, In the Shadow of Mount Sinai: A Footnote on the Origins and Changing Forms of Total Membership, Cambridge and Maiden MA: Polity Press, 2015.  ISBN 10: 9780745699240.  Hardcover, paperback, Kindle, 80 pages.

Peter Sloterdijk, Stress and Freedom, Cambridge and Maiden MA: Polity Press, 2015. ISBN 10:9780745699295.  Paperback, 80pp.  

The English reception of Peter Sloterdijk has been ambivalent at best, relying largely on hearsay from European interlocutors (Žižek especially) or gossip about the weird world of the German philosophical scene (cf. the Habermas-Sloterdijk affair).

In 1988, Sloterdijk’s star briefly rose among English readers with the translation of his 1983 text Critique of Cynical Reason, which established him as a unique contributor to sorting through the problems of “postmodern” culture and the psycho-political dimensions of societies west of the Iron Curtain. Apart from a few interruptions and stray essays, however, almost nothing new appeared in English until 2009, which inaugurated a steady stream of translations, special journal issues, and edited volumes engaging Sloterdijk’s work.

Since Sloterdijk himself is a prolific and public intellectual, who does not wait around to be translated, putting together his general themes and filling certain gaps in his translated ouevre has been a difficult task for English readers. While one might be cynical about the seemingly opportunist publication of small books, pulled from long-form essays or conference addresses like the two up for review here, their appearance in English helps to continue filling out the picture of Sloterdijk’s thought.

Sloterdijk writes two kinds of books. Either he produces a long, sustained pastiche made from the flotsam and jetsam of the philosophical “tradition,” resulting in a creative treatment of a particular theme (like globalization, religion, space) almost ad absurdum, with the consolation prize of making for a good door stop or paper weight for those unmoved by the wanderings of the text itself. Or he writes a brief and punchy piece honing in on one contentious point, often expanding or summarizing some of the arguments in his longer texts.

Stress and Freedom and In the Shadow of Mount Sinai, both published in English in the fall of 2015, are books of this latter kind.  The first considers the relationship between the terms that form its title and the second extends and clarifies Sloterdijk’s work on “religion”, which I put in quotes here.  Though he uses the term colloquially to try to avoid confusion throughout In the Shadow of Mount Sinai,  Sloterdijk challenges its ambiguity in his earlier book You Must Change Your Life. While their angles are different, both essays continue to develop Sloterdijk’s thoughts on social groups and bonds, making them a worthy publishing pair.

In the Shadow of Mount Sinai picks up two major threads in Sloterdijk’s consideration of religion – an examination of the cultural mechanisms by which violence functions as a social solidifer in religious texts and communities and an exploration of how religion might reinvent or change itself in order to contribute to alternative forms of social solidarity. These questions are grounded in an investigation of what Sloterdijk calls “ethnogenesis,” the creation of “a people.” In particular, Sloterdijk traces the creation of the Jewish people, textually formed by the recurring Blblical motif of the creation of a covenant, its transgression, and its restoration.

Sloterdijk finds this structure paradigmatically in Exodus, keying in especially on the events at Mount Sinai, where, after worshiping the Golden Calf, Moses demands a brutal punishment for the Israelites including a violent thinning of idolaters, carried out by the priestly Levites, after which the remainder of the community is permitted to go on. Sloterdijk calls this drama of covenant, transgression and its consequent self-culling, as well as the restoration of covenant by the remainder of the “Sinai schema.” The Sinai schema, Sloterdijk suggests, is a logical structure that works as a cultural adhesive responsible for the constitution and maintenance of the early Jewish “people.”

Here the title of the book becomes clear – religions borne out of this Biblical history (Sloterdijk discusses Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, along with certain “secular” inheritors of these dynamics in the early twentieth century) are formed from the violence at Mount Sinai, an event that casts a long shadow over their history and expression. But this shadow, argues Sloterdijk, is not wholly determinative or exhaustive of these religions or their futures. There are alternative ways in which, despite their intimate relationship to the Sinai schema, religious discourses and practices might contribute to social bonds that are not determined by purifying violence.

Sloterdijk identifies five models of such ways, in particular.  They include Erasmus’s domestication of zealotry, a Spinozist sublation of religion into philosophy, an empiricist approach demonstrated by William James, attention to heresy via Scholem, and a look at the dual sides of religion as identified by Egyptologist Jan Assmann.

Sloterdijk goes on to suggest theology generally, long ago released from its role as cultural adhesive by alternative modern institutions and media, should split into two major foci: one dealing with “theopoetics,” the theatrical and symbolic features of theological inspiration, and the other dealing with training regimens and spiritual practices (not unlike the kinds identified by Pierre Hadot). By extending and clarifying some of his past work on religion along these lines, In the Shadow of Mount Sinai is Sloterdijk at his best.  He does not hold back an unsettling criticism of Western religions, here adding the identification of the Sinai schema, but he also offers trajectories of possibility beyond a pattern of violence that give those still formed by, or sympathetic to. religious traditions a way of relating to them creatively for the sake of participating in and transforming a broader social context in their own ways.

Stress and Freedom also deals with social bonds, but, beyond the formation of a particular people and a recurrent pathology, it looks instead at cultures as a whole. Channeling systems theory a la Niklas Luhmann, Sloterdijk argues cultures survive insofar as they are capable of mustering rage and pride energies, forms of integrating stress, among their participants when threatened with the dissolution of their culture. This observation gives way to a discussion of two freedoms that Sloterdijk considers to be of primal importance for Western society, explored through a look at ancient Greece and a curious writing of Rousseau.

For the Greeks, Sloterdijk argues freedom is found in the collective’s ability to be run by its own conventions, rather than the conventions of another people group, as illustrated by the rebellion of Rome against the Etruscans.  Sloterdijk says this is best understood as a battle for freedom, for the right to impose social codes on oneself, where freedom is tied to mobilizing social stressors and collective self-determination.

This freedom from foreign rule sets in motion the drama of revolution and independence that continues through to modernity. But Western modernity discovers another kind of paradigmatic freedom as its political situation changes, as emancipative collective freedom emerges as a more widespread phenomenon. This is not the freedom of modern subjects embarking on projects, which are long deconstructed and pilloried in our day by critical theory and post-60s thought, but something more profound, an emancipation from collective stress (even the stress of projects) altogether.

 In his Reveries of the Solitary Walker, Rousseau reflects on the experience of rowing out onto a placid lake and drifting inwardly in a profound feeling of detachment and self-sufficiency. Sloterdijk calls this a freedom from reality itself, from all projects and identities, where Rousseau is no longer the European celebrity of his day but a site of availability for new possibilities. While this freedom is necessarily individual, Sloterdijk suggests it is infectious and contagious, radiating out like a nuclear reactor loosening others from attachment, even the post-rebellion social stress, freedom in the first sense, imposed by a culture on itself.

Sloterdijk polemicizes about the attempts of society and even philosophy (notably German Idealism) to rein this anarchic freedom in by giving the subject tasks, specifically imposing the demands to accept the freedom of necessity and to embark on constructing reality. Here the regime of the real takes over where the regime of the social fails to integrate, though still in the interest of keeping a social system alive when threatened by Rousseau’s discovery of a social free radical.

Yet Sloterdijk says these efforts only made the curious modern freedom of Rousseau more difficult to find (which Sloterdijk shows through a reading of Beckett’s little known play Eleutheria). At this point the text turns contemporary and political, where Sloterdijk suggests the majority of the world has yet to rebel for the right to form its own stress collectives, and somewhat paradoxically, everyone, due to globalized homogenization, remains oppressed by the demand of the real, which aims to domesticate the total availability of Rousseau’s freedom.

What we need today, Sloterdijk argues provocatively and playfully, is a new form of individualistic “liberalism,” understood as a principle of free self-sufficiency, unburdened from the demands of global capitalism and capable of exercising its own detached mode of being-in-the-world through liberally giving what it does not need to keep. Sloterdijk says this is not what we often call “neoliberalism” today, nor a capitulation to the victory of the capitalist class or European values via “neoconservatism.”

What Sloterdijk advances is a kind of “liberality” that is always available for new possibilities and excessive gift-giving, beyond the imposition and burdensome weight of social codes and the demand of allegedly objective reality. Like In the Shadow of Mount Sinai, Stress and Freedom gives us both critical and creative coordinates to interrogate our present situation and imagine how we might inhabit it otherwise.

While both of these texts help to fill gaps in Sloterdijk’s thought, neither get him “off the hook” for certain persisting problems or problems newly introduced. Though Stress and Freedom shows, explicitly, that Sloterdijk is no neoliberal or neoconservative (as is often assumed), it is admittedly hard to imagine that his idiosyncratic “liberalism,” a kind of French Gelassenheit that continues the project of funding a “Heideggarian Left” announced early on in Critique of Cynical Reason, is actually capable of resisting those currently hegemonic trends.

While Sloterdijk argues his liberalism cannot be entrusted to either liberals or conservatives, he affirms that many parties deserve a place at the table in sorting out how to fund this new kind of liberalism, which is beyond liberal-conservative attachments—but this dialogical commitment is precisely the undergirding ideology of contemporary neoliberalism, leading to a certain ambiguity as to how Sloterdijk’s position ultimately offers a different mode of social organization. The dangers of a political quietism, impotency, and counter-intuitive strategies remain, and those with an aversion to Heideggerian motifs and attempts to politically integrate rather than separate (despite Sloterdijk’s individualism) will find the text frustrating.

 As for In the Shadow of Mount Sinai, though it goes a long way in adding to some intriguing possibilities for scholarship in religious and even theological studies, Sloterdijk’s five suggested avenues fail to include and might even nullify the religious voices of those oppressed by violence themselves, e.g. liberation theologies (to take just one example), which again threatens to limit his account and suggestions to the neoliberalism he attempts to distance himself from in Stress and Freedom. In fact, In the Shadow of Mount Sinai evinces an even more favorable disposition to modern liberalism as a means of pacifying religions than one might expect after reading Stress and Freedom—to treat religion as a special problem warranting suspicion is a hallmark of neoliberalism, as authors like Talal Asad, Saba Mahmood, and Hussein Ali Agrama regularly show.

On the contrary, forms of religious life and thought as expressed in discourses like liberation theology and, in many cases, simple practice, are not regressive or latent rebellious freedom in an ancient sense, but often contribute something like a politicized contemplation or parrhesiastic freedom unnoticed by Sloterdijk; at the very least, it is hardly the time to silence these discourses and practices through more theological and normative criteria derived solely from scholarly, white, Euro-American males (the architects of all five of Sloterdijk’s proposed approaches to religion).

Two problems also manifest with respect to Sloterdijk’s reading of the Bible. First, though the Sinai schema is undoubtedly a pathology in Western monotheisms, one wonders why other paradigmatic schemata, say the emancipation of Exodus or patterns of gratuitous mercy (to take just two), could not have as much of a recurring and competing influence on their traditions (as suggested, for example, by Paul Ricoeur and Jürgen Habermas, among many others).  Sloterdijk gestures toward those attempts as an ecumenical occluding of problems faithful believers do not want to face, but while that might often be true, the gesture is not ultimately convincing.

Second, and related to this, Sloterdijk uncritically assumes a largely modern, German, Protestant hermeneutic approach to the Bible, but his insights might be both challenged and expanded by the work of more complex inter-/intratextual approaches to the biblical canon, noting the ways in which the Bible is a dialogue of multiple competing voices, not a simple, univocal means of solidifying the identity of an exilic community.

 More complaints could be raised, and the texts themselves likely open up more problems than they solve. For all their faults, however, these little books serve to complicate the picture of Sloterdijk’s conceptual environment and help to push aside all-too-easy dismissals and partial reckonings that present themselves as final reckonings. Sloterdijk remains a provocateur, and these texts might not win him much more sympathy. Read carefully, however, they help to crystallize and clarify his larger collages, showing deep continuities in Sloterdijk’s winding career, which spans topics from critical theory to media studies to the history of religions to social systems theory.

Indeed, one might even summarize Sloterdijk’s work by combining the titles of the texts: “Stress and Freedom in the Shadow of Mount Sinai.” And beyond a simple exegetical help, despite their blindspots and their brevity these books add to a repertoire of discourse and training methods that might open us up to alternative social worlds, outside the need for rage and violence as necessary social binding agents, making us available, instead, to the (im)possibility of living generously and liberally.

It might be that Sloterdijk’s approach to such an opening up remains unsatisfactory for many, but he deserves at least a modicum of praise, and close scholarly attention, for getting the issues on the table in the ways that he does, providing fodder for still more productive extensions and dissents alike.

Dean Dettloff is a PhD candidate at the Institute for Christian Studies, where he works on the intersections of media theory, religious studies, and critical theory. His MA thesis, also at ICS and examined by Robert Sweetman, James Olthuis, and Eduardo Mendieta, considered Peter Sloterdijk’s early work on cynicism and later work on religion. In doctoral work he continues to explore the ways in which philosophy of design and technology, as expressed by Régis Debray, Paul Virilio, Vilém Flusser, and Sloterdijk in particular, illuminate “religious” phenomena and practice in a way that might contribute to more liberating expressions of spiritual traditions foreclosed both by static dogmatism and the impositions of political secularism.


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