A Celebrity Philosopher Explains the Populist Insurgency

Media Watch

Peter Sloterdijk [aka Dhyan Peter, ed.] has spent decades railing against the pieties of liberal democracy. Now his ideas seem prophetic, writes Thomas Meaney in ‘The New Yorker’. Published on February 26, 2018.

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Peter Sloterdijk drawing
Peter Sloterdijk has emerged as his country’s most controversial public intellectual. Illustration by Mikkel Sommer

One weekend last June, in an auditorium in the German city of Karlsruhe, the philosopher Peter Sloterdijk celebrated his seventieth birthday by listening to twenty lectures about himself. A cluster of Europe’s leading intellectuals, academics, and artists, along with a smattering of billionaires, were paying tribute to Germany’s most controversial thinker, in the town where he was born and where he recently concluded a two-decade tenure as the rector of the State Academy for Design. There were lectures on Sloterdijk’s thoughts on Europe, democracy, religion, love, war, anger, the family, and space. There were lectures on his commentaries on Shakespeare and Clausewitz, and on his witty diaries, and slides of buildings inspired by his insights. Between sessions, Sloterdijk, who has long, straw-colored hair and a straggly mustache, prowled among luminaries of the various disciplines he has strayed into, like a Frankish king greeting lords of recently subdued fiefdoms. The academy bookstore was selling most of his books – sixty-odd titles produced over the past forty years. The latest, ‘After God’, was displayed on a pedestal in a glass cube.

At a dinner in his honor, Sloterdijk surveyed the scene with a Dutch friend, Babs van den Bergh. “Do you think I should read out the letter?” he asked. In his hand was a note from Chancellor Angela Merkel praising his contributions to German culture.

“You really shouldn’t read it,” van den Bergh said.

“It’s not even a good letter, is it?” Sloterdijk said. “It’s so short. She probably didn’t even write it.”

“Of course she didn’t write it,” van den Bergh said. “But you would never get a letter like that in the Netherlands or anywhere else. Someone in her office worked very hard on it.”

Reverence for intellectual culture is waning in much of the world, but it remains strong in Germany. Sloterdijk’s books vie with soccer-star memoirs on the German best-seller lists. A late-night TV talk show that he co-hosted, ‘The Philosophical Quartet’, ran for a decade. He has written an opera libretto, published a bawdy epistolary novel lampooning the foundation that funds the country’s scientific research, and advised some of Europe’s leading politicians.

Sloterdijk’s colleagues offered encomiums. The architect Daniel Libeskind said that his books have inspired a rethinking of European public space. Bruno Latour, the sociologist and historian of science, apologized for not knowing German, and recited in French a long, droll poem he had written, describing Sloterdijk as a scribe of God. There was a video montage of Sloterdijk’s television appearances across the decades, in which a young blond mystic with arctic-blue eyes and torn sweaters gradually morphed into the burgherly figure before us.

On the second night of the symposium, Sloterdijk and his partner, the journalist Beatrice Schmidt, invited some friends to their apartment, on a stately street next door to a Buddhist meditation center. A picture by Anselm Kiefer of a bomber plane hung in the hallway to the kitchen. In the building’s untamed back garden, Sloterdijk began pouring bottles of white Rhône wine for his guests. There were whispers about the wonders of his cellar. On a small wooden porch, Sloterdijk spoke to two young women about his recent travails while getting his driver’s license renewed. “It’s a complete horror,” he said. “It takes nine hours in Germany. Only your most maniacally loyal friends are willing to go with you.” When Sloterdijk goes into one of his conversational riffs, there is a feeling of liftoff. A rhythmic nasal hum develops momentum and eventually breaks into more ethereal climes, creating the sense that you have cleared the quotidian. “The car is like a uterus on wheels,” he says. “It has the advantage over its biological model for being linked to independent movement and a feeling of autonomy. The car also has phallic and anal components – the primitive-aggressive competitive behavior, and the revving up and overtaking which turns the other, slower person into an expelled turd.”

In Germany, where academic philosophers still equate dryness with seriousness, Sloterdijk has a near-monopoly on irreverence. This is an important element of his wide appeal, as is his eagerness to offer an opinion on absolutely anything – from psychoanalysis to finance, Islam to Soviet modernism, the ozone layer to Neanderthal sexuality. An essay on anger can suddenly plunge into a history of smiling; a meditation on America may veer into a history of frivolity. His magnum opus, the ‘Spheres’ trilogy, nearly three thousand pages long, includes a rhapsodic excursus on rituals of human-placenta disposal. He is almost farcically productive. As his editor told me, “The problem with Sloterdijk is that you are always eight thousand pages behind.”

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 described the Presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as a choice “between two helplessly gesticulating models of normality, one of which appeared to be delegitimatized, the other unproven,” and is unsurprised that so many people preferred the latter. Few philosophers are as fixated on the current moment or as gleefully ready to explain it.

Sloterdijk’s comfort with social rupture has made him a contentious figure in Germany, where stability, prosperity, and a robust welfare state are seen as central to the country’s postwar achievement. Many Germans define themselves by their moral rectitude, as exhibited by their reckoning with the Nazi past and, more recently, by the government’s decision to accept more refugees from the Syrian civil war than any other Western country. Sloterdijk is determined to disabuse his countrymen of their polite illusions. He calls Germany a “lethargocracy” and the welfare state a “fiscal kleptocracy.” 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.

The rise of the German right has made life more complicated for Sloterdijk. Positions that, at another time, might have been forgiven as attempts to stir debate now appear dangerous. A decade ago, Sloterdijk predicted a nativist resurgence in Europe, a time when “we will look back nostalgically to the days when we considered a dashing populist showman like Jörg Haider” – the late Austrian far-right leader – “a menace.” Now Sloterdijk has found himself in the predicament of a thinker whose reality has caught up with his pronouncements.

The rest of Germany thinks of Karlsruhe, when it thinks of it at all, as a placid city where the Supreme Court is situated. Nestled in the far southwest, where Germany begins to blend into France, Karlsruhe was one of the first planned cities of Europe and an oasis of the Enlightenment. When Thomas Jefferson passed through, in 1788, he sent a sketch of the street plan back home, as a possible template for the layout of Washington, D.C.

The town is also the birthplace of the inventor of the bicycle, an entrepreneurial baron named Karl von Drais – a fact that Sloterdijk, who loves cycling, cherishes. When I met him a few weeks after his birthday celebrations, he suggested riding into town to try a new steak restaurant. He talked about advances in bicycle design, which got him onto one of his favorite topics: inventors. “There are people who are all around us who have invented something essential,” he said. “There’s a man in Germany who invented the retractable dog leash. Can you imagine? Millions of people have them now. Of course, these leashes present an existential threat to me, since I’m an avid cyclist. Sometimes I’m riding fast and there’s an owner over there, and the dog over there, and in between – !”

We embarked. On his bike, Sloterdijk seemed massive. In the light wind, his plaid short-sleeved shirt became a billowing tube. The fusion of man and machine looked top-heavy and precarious, but his pedalling was strikingly efficient, unstrenuous yet powerful. From the chest up, he appeared no different from the way he does in a seminar room.

At the restaurant, Sloterdijk ordered a glass of rosé. I asked him about the German federal elections, which were a few months away. Sloterdijk spoke disparagingly of all the major parties, except for the F.D.P., Germany’s closest equivalent to libertarians. “The most appealing scenario would be for the F.D.P. to share a coalition with Merkel’s Christian Democrats,” he said. “They could inject some sense into them.”

Most Germans think of health care, education, and other basic services as rights, not privileges, but the F.D.P. has argued that the country’s welfare state has become hypertrophied, a view close to Sloterdijk’s own. “It creates a double current of resentment,” he said. “You have the people making money who feel no gratitude in return for all they give in taxes. Then you have the people who receive the money. They also feel resentment. They would like to trade places with the rich who give to them. So both sides feel bitterly betrayed and angry.” Sloterdijk argues that taxation should be replaced with a system in which the richest members voluntarily fund great civic and artistic works. He believes that this kind of social web of happy givers and receivers existed until around the end of the Renaissance but was then obliterated by the rise of the European state. He gets excited about the profusion of philanthropic schemes emanating from Silicon Valley and sees in them an attractive model for the future.

Compared with many other countries in the West, Germany still has a relatively high level of social equality. The Second World War decimated the German aristocracy, and anti-élitist sentiment surged during the protests of 1968, as a generation of German students began to question the bourgeois priorities of their parents. There is a widespread skepticism of unbridled American-style capitalism and consumer culture. German bankers earn a fraction of what their American counterparts do, and avoid ostentation. It is not uncommon for C.E.O.s and C.F.O.s to painstakingly sort through their household recycling on the weekends. People are wary of credit – nearly eighty per cent of German transactions are made in cash – and customers in hardware shops and bakeries pay, with unfathomable diligence, in exact change.

But even in Germany inequality is growing. Sharp hikes in apartment-rental prices in major cities have dissolved neighborhoods and pushed ordinary workers into long commutes. Last year, the government put forward a plan to privatize the Autobahn. Deutsche Bank, once a stolid provincial lender, has transformed itself in the past two decades into a steroidal, Wall Street-style multinational, a leader in the collateralization of debt, and a major creditor of Donald Trump. Hippie beach enclaves on the Baltic Sea have become resorts for trust-funders.

Germany’s embrace of luxury delights Sloterdijk. He believes that it was a historic mistake of the international left to “declare war on the beautiful people,” and welcomes signs that Germans are allowing themselves to take pleasure in extravagance. The proliferation of sleek steak restaurants, such as the one we were in, is but one promising sign among many.

The waiter stopped by our table, and Sloterdijk handed him back his second glass of wine. “Was it not cold?” the waiter asked. “Yes, but I want it colder,” Sloterdijk said. Later, as we got up to leave, the waiter tentatively approached him and asked, “Are you Herr Sloterdijk?” For a second, it seemed as if he was going to kiss his hand.

As we rode our bikes through Karlsruhe, I asked Sloterdijk what he remembered of his childhood. “We lived in another part of town,” he said over his shoulder. “I’ve gone back to visit it, looking for traces, but nothing came back: there was no temps retrouvé!” Sloterdijk was born in 1947, part of the generation that Germans call “rubble children”; he remembers playing in the ruins left behind by the Allied bombing campaigns. His mother worked at a radar center during the war, and met his father, a Dutch sailor, after the German collapse. The marriage did not last long, and Sloterdijk lost contact with his father in early youth. “I had to find my own father and mentors, which meant that I had to look in the world around me,” he has said. “Somehow I managed to divide myself into teacher and student.”

Part of the “somehow” involved his mother, who taught him ancient Greek sayings and harbored no doubts about her son’s genius. When Sloterdijk was a teen-ager, they moved to Munich, where, outside school, he started consuming large amounts of expressionist poetry. In the late nineteen-sixties, he studied literature and philosophy as an undergraduate at the University of Munich, where his friend Rachel Salamander, now an editor and the owner of a Jewish-literature bookshop in the city, remembers him as a dazzling presence. “He spoke faster than everyone thought, and wrote faster than they spoke,” she told me. “I was not surprised at all by what he became.”

“He’s somewhat risk-averse, so you might have a hard time getting him onto a pier.”


Thanks to Dhanyam

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