Sloterdijk’s Jesuits

I just picked up a copy of Peter Sloterdijk’s latest English release, a collection of essays entitled Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger. The collection, which was released in German in 2001, is part of a burgeoning translation industry that tries to get English readers up to speed with Sloterdijk’s prolific and ongoing career. The subtitle is somewhat misleading. It contains what is probably Sloterdijk’s most controversial essay, “Rules For the Human Park” (sometimes translated as “Rules For the Human Zoo”), which does deal signficantly with Heidegger, but the collection also takes up a variety of reflections on thinkers as diverse as Niklas Luhmann and Theodor Adorno. (I’ll get to the Jesuits, I promise.)

Leafing through, I was particularly struck by the essay “The Domestication of Being: The Clarification of the Clearing,” which I’ve been waiting to read since I read Sloterdijk refer to some of his theories about “homeotechnology” a while back in the interview collection Neither Sun Nor Death (published 2011 in English).  The essay aims to clarify and extend some of the theses made in “Rules For the Human Park,” specifically as they relate to Sloterdijk’s notion of “anthropotechnology,” the idea that the human is a creature that creates itself via technical practices as diverse as writing letters to mapping the human genome.

Though “Rules For the Human Park” launches off of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” and “The Domestication of Being” continues in the same spirit, I couldn’t help but notice a curious reference to Karl Rahner in the text, invoked almost as something like an ally in proving Sloterdijk’s point about the plasticity of human beings. The passage is worth quoting at length:

If the human being ‘is given,’ then that is so only because a technology has brought him forth from out of pre-humanity. Technology is that which genuinely gives the human or the plan upon which the statement ‘There are human beings’ can be true. Hence nothing alien is happening to human beings when they expose themselves to further production and manipulation. They do nothing perverse or contrary to their ‘nature’ when they alter themselves auto-technologically. …

Karl Rahner articulated this insight in Christian terms, when he emphasized that ‘the human being of contemporary autopraxis’ avails himself of a freedom of ‘categorical self-manipulation’ that originated in the Christian liberation from the numinous compulsion of nature. According to the testimony of the Jesuit Rahner it belongs to the ethos of the mature human being to be obliged to and to wish to shape himself in a self-manipulative fashion:

‘He must wish to be the operable human being even when the scope and the just mode of this self-manipulation are still largely obscure. … But it is true: the future of human self-manipulation has already begun.’

One can express the same insight in the diction of a radicalized historical anthropology by interpreting the human situation through its emergence from out of an autoplastic development of luxury…” (142-3)

By drawing Rahner into his cloud of witnesses, Sloterdijk intriguingly and subtlely establishes himself as a competitor to other progeny of Critical Theory, namely his arch-rival Jürgen Habermas (for what it’s worth, Jean-Pierre Couture provides a good overview of their rivalry in his introduction to Sloterdijk, which I reviewed here). Sloterdijk shares with other thinkers participating in and influenced by Critical Theory an intentional affinity with theological voices. Yet his use of theology is perhaps especially interesting insofar as it helps him distinguish himself in part from the use of theology by colleagues like Habermas.

To articulate the distance between Habermas and Sloterdijk, I like to point to the difference in dialogue partners the two take in published works, with Habermas dialoguing with then-Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger and Sloterdijk dialoguing with Cardinal Walter Kasper. This is certainly not to suggest that Ratzinger and Kasper are fundamentally at odds, but rather that the way they are taken into the projects and personae of public intellectuals like Habermas and Sloterdijk exhibits a somewhat (though not primarily cynical) instrumental use. The attempt to dialogue with theological giants, especially Catholic ones, on the part of Sloterdijk is at least in one respect an attempt to establish a counter-theological moment in contemporary German philosophy, which regularly draws theologians into its orbit.

This counter-theology recurs throughout Sloterdijk’s career. As early as Critique of Cynical Reason we find a variety of references to Jewish thought and practice in particular (which exhibits a warranted anxiety about anti-Semitism among German thinkers, especially those, like Sloterdijk, influenced heavily by Nietzsche). Christian thought regularly appears in Sloterdijk’s later works, however, perhaps most notably in his famous Spheres trilogy, which takes up a creative and critical relationship to Christian metaphysics from medieval metaphysics to contemporary theological phenomena.

There’s a lot to be said about Sloterdijk’s use of theology, and Catholic theology at that. Rage and Time, for example, devotes some thought to Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on hell, and contextualizes it in relation to Sloterdijk’s theory of “rage banking.” Sloterdijk also writes an entire book on religion, entitled You Must Change Your Life, which spans Christian figures from Barth to St. Francis.

Among the Catholic figures Sloterdijk fixates on throughout his career is St. Ignatius of Loyola, and his posterity, the Jesuits, who appear, especially, in You Must Change Your Life as well as In the World Interior of Capital (the latter text extends the insights of Globes, the second volume in Spheres). In In the World Interior of Capital, which deals with a theory of globalization, Sloterdijk suggests Jesuits were “the first subjects of the Modern Age in the precise sense of the word,” subjects who made “an explicit attempt at psychotechnical and medial modification… driven by the longing to understand the successes of the Protestants better than the Protestants themselves” (59). As Sloterdijk reads it, the Jesuits, inspired by Ignatius’s military training and program of spiritual exercises, created a regimen by which they made a plastic spirituality, or rather a spirituality of plasticity. “When a sequence of adverse events can be experienced as a passion, suffering is converted into ability,” writes Sloterdijk (60). He goes on to say that “Later generations of subjects naturally drew on more modern means than the Jesuits to organize their disinhibitions,” further suggesting the Jesuits are something like the origins of modern and, perhaps, postmodern subjects (61).

These insights are further explored in You Must Change Your Life, which deals explicitly with religion as “anthropotechnics,” a means by which humans work on themselves. Here, too, it is worth quoting Sloterdijk at length:

What makes Loyola ‘s place in the history of subject techniques so exceptionally significant i s that all earlier layers of autoplastic practice had successively been sedimented within it in complete clarity: what began with the drill of the Greek and Roman soldiers, and was continued by athletes and gladiators before Christian hermits and cenobites appropriated the ascetic secrets of these agonists – all this returned after 1521 in the existence of the failed soldier, lea ding to the strongest surge in newer psychotechnic exercises. This time, however – corresponding to the humanistic milieu with its neo-rhetorical rupture – it was in the form of a theatre of the imagination in which the practising person , following strict instructions, convinces themselves of their own worthlessness and immeasurable guilt before the saviour. In their time, the Jesuit exercises, this autogenic training in contrition over thirty hard days and nights of utmost concentration, obviously formed the newest layer in the stratigram of Old European practice cultures, whose older and most ancient layers lead back to the beginnings of heroism and athleticism. Recent neuro-rhetorical research, incidentally, shows that the ‘artificial’ affects produced in exercises are physio logically indistinguishable from natural ones.

The almost instrumental grab of the Jesuit technique for the trusting psyche, which itself turned meditation into a training camp, explicitly heralded the beginning of what would later be called the ‘Modern Age ‘. Its inhabitants developed into ‘modern people’ to the extent that they convinced themselves they had discovered the secret of self-determination in exchanging absolute dependence on God for human self-assertion. We will see that nothing could be further from the truth. (310-11)

There’s a lot to unpack here, not least Sloterdijk’s enigmatic assertion that with respect to the self-understanding of modern people, an inheritance or mutation of the Jesuits, “nothing could be further from the truth.” What I want to emphasize, however, is Sloterdijk’s assumption that the genius of St. Ignatius was to have intuited that the spiritual life is a practicing life, one that aims to train human beings otherwise, replacing old habits with new habits derived from imaginative exercises.

Here Sloterdijk’s comments on Rahner in “The Domestication of Being” should be totally unsurprising. It’s a small step from understanding humans as spiritually retrainable to understanding them as autoplastic creatures in themselves. Rahner’s towering stature in 20th century theology also reveals itself as being unsurprising given Sloterdijk’s history of human techniques, since the Jesuits are primary characters in the survival of Catholicism in modernity and, arguably, in postmodernity, owing largely to this fundamental insight, taken from a Saint who was once a soldier, that is, a disciplined, retrained creature.

Sloterdijk is not a Jesuit himself by any means but his own anthropology and, arguably, his late philosophy are impossible without the Jesuits–a point Sloterdijk seems to hint at in a variety of contexts. His attempt to name the Jesuits as a part of his genealogy of anthropotechnology helps to bring in the insights from media theory that distinguish Sloterdijk from both his rivals in Critical Theory and his colleagues in German media studies (e.g. Friedrich Kittler). By way of the Jesuits, Sloterdijk is able to find an autoplastic anthropology, one that locates a certain creative energy in human beings on human beings that eschews the trappings of Habermas’s conservative anthropology and the technological determinism of Kittlerian media theory.

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