The New Yorker: Profile of Peter Sloterdijk

In The New Yorker, Thomas Meaney has a profile of Germany’s gadfly public intellectual Peter Sloterdijk (“A Celebrity Philosopher Explains the Populist Insurgency”).

Of Sloterdijk’s slightly pomo brand of pastiche philosophizing:

This profligacy makes Sloterdijk hard to pin down. He is known not for a single grand thesis but for a shrapnel-burst of impressionistic coinages—“anthropotechnics,” “negative gynecology,” “co-immunism”—that occasionally suggest the lurking presence of some larger system. Yet his prominence as a public intellectual comes from a career-long rebellion against the pieties of liberal democracy, which, now that liberal democracy is in crisis worldwide, seems prophetic. A signature theme of his work is the persistence of ancient urges in supposedly advanced societies. In 2006, he published a book arguing that the contemporary revolt against globalization can be seen as a misguided expression of “noble” sentiments, which, rather than being curbed, should be redirected in ways that left-liberals cannot imagine…

He has decried Merkel’s attitude toward refugees, drawn on right-wing thinkers such as Martin Heidegger and Arnold Gehlen, and even speculated about genetic enhancement of the human race. As a result, some progressives refuse to utter his name in public. In 2016, the head of one centrist party denounced him as a stooge for the AfD, a new far-right party that won thirteen per cent of the vote in last year’s federal elections.

Of how, in contemporary Germany, everything to the right of Angela Merkel is called “fascist”:

In Germany, where the very word “selection” is enough to set off alarms, Sloterdijk’s essay invited antagonism. Was he making a plea for eugenics? Jürgen Habermas, the country’s most revered philosopher, declared that Sloterdijk’s work had “fascist implications,” and encouraged other writers to attack him. Sloterdijk responded by proclaiming the death of the Frankfurt School, to which Habermas belongs, writing that “the days of hyper-moral sons of national-socialist fathers are coming to an end.” German intellectuals mostly sided with Habermas, but Sloterdijk emerged from the scuffle with his status considerably enhanced. He was now a national figure who stood for everything that Habermas did not.

On the AfD and those he refers to as “rage entrepreneurs”:

When I brought up the AfD, Sloterdijk sank his head in his hands, and his expansive manner gave way to something more cautious. For years, the German media have been making connections between Sloterdijk’s thought and new right-wing groups, and he’s become used to rebutting the charge of harboring far-right sympathies. In my conversations with him, his political preoccupations seemed closer to libertarianism than to anything more blood and soil, but he has a habit of saying things that, depending on your view, seem either like dog whistles to the far right or like the bomb-throwing reflexes of a born controversialist. When Sloterdijk said, of Merkel’s refugee policy, that “no society has the moral obligation to self-destruct,” his words called to mind Thilo Sarrazin, a former board member of the Bundesbank, who, in 2010, published an anti-Muslim tract with the title “Germany Abolishes Itself,” which became a huge best-seller and made racial purity a respectable concern of national discussion…

Sloterdijk deplored the rise of the right, but he couldn’t resist seeing something salutary in the spectacle. “It’s been coming for a long time,” he said. “It’s also a sign that Germans are more like the rest of humanity than they like to believe.” He started talking about “rage banks,” his term for the way that disparate grievances can be organized into larger reserves of political capital.

The piece ends with Sloterdijk giving a talk, and getting courteously heckled by the Usual Suspects:

“You sound like the right-wingers when you speak of the refugees,” an elderly doctor stood up and declared. “We cared about refugees after the war and we can do it again.”

Sloterdijk replied impatiently. “The Americans gave us this idea of multiculturalism that suited their society fine, but which, as software, is not compatible with our German hardware of the welfare state,” he said. “There’s this family metaphor spreading everywhere: the idea that all of humanity is our family. That idea helped destroy the Roman Empire. Now we’re in danger of letting that metaphor get out of control all over again. People are not ready to feel the full pressure of coexistence with billions of their contemporaries.” He went on, “In the past, geography created discretionary boundaries between nations and cultures. Distances that were difficult to overcome allowed for mental and political space.” Space and distance, he argued, had allowed for a kind of liberality and generosity that was now under siege—by refugees, by social media, by everything.

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