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Our Identities and Political Thinking Are Formed in Our Free Time, Which Is Constantly Shrinking

We get our deepest and most important thinking done in solitude in our free time. But that condition is less and less available to us.

Photo Credit: Top Vector Studio / Shutterstock

The following is an excerpt from the new book The Aesthetic Imperative: Writings on Art by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity Press, May 2017):

From the time that human beings started living in modern societies they stopped experiencing the higher things they shared under the auspices of churches. The social bond that holds members of modern nation states together is composed of cultural and economic rather than religious strands. For market-based societies this poses the problem of how to bring their countless hardly connected members together in enough communal games. Today, when a large number of people gather together as a society to join in an open debate or as an audience at a performance, they usually remain as a gathering of strangers or near-strangers who rely on some extra mutual goodwill to overcome their original unfamiliarity with each other. Unlike a community linked by faith and religious ritual, such a social assembly first has to demonstrate its sense of belonging. This secular worldly connection is registered in events such as official civil ceremonies, which perform a kind of citizens’ liturgy in which society reconstitutes itself as an assembly in reality. When an assembly is constitutive it means we are talking about rules for superior kinds of party games: the theme of the gathering is socially constitutive play as such.

From a physical perspective we learn what a democratic society means between two extreme points: one is the discretion of the polling booth, where freedom is manifested as the right to segregation; the other is the openness of a ceremonial hall, where freedom of assembly creates a kind of civic bodily warmth – let’s call it the democratic ether – in which, if all goes well, the feeling of communality is diffused. The result, incidentally – because ceremonies, like elections, are rare events –, is that gathering together into a society is an exception for society itself. As a rule, modern societies do not come face to face with themselves. If they stray from this rule, it is only because they have found a special occasion to appear before themselves. Such an occasion happens when particularly useful members of human society celebrate jubilees. If a theory of jubilees were ever developed, it would have to show how years with round numbers, the years distinguished by the mystery of zero, could be used to visualize the rules of the game or, to put it more pompously, the basic values of a social federation with ritual intonation, ‘in the presence of the team gathered together here’. Part of the character of jubilees is that the people attending the festivities offer the celebrant a chance to meet himself or herself. In the exceptional situation of ceremonies, what people have in common matters more than what divides them, and in the exceptional moments in which we can speak of real existing civility, what is usually unthinkable appears possible– a common approach to what makes people reflect when they come into the world and share the weight of reality. My question is whether the social bond can also be tied for a few moments in the act of thinking deeply, which is generally our loneliest, most abandoned state, furthest away from society. I would like to discover whether it is possible to touch on basic structures of existence in our times in a public meditation session. The exceptional state of contemplation can result in society as an assembly being reconstituted once more to achieve better understanding of the present state of play with itself and the world.

2

Although I have not yet named the topic of this speech in these preparatory remarks, I have mentioned the key in which it will be introduced. Let me use the mood of ceremonial contemplation to present some ideas about play and games – insofar as philosophers are competent to speak about such subjects. This is not an accidental reference to a possible competence problem: most of the history of Western ideas strongly rejects the relationship between the spirit of philosophy and the world of play, and it took major ruptures in the system of thought before a philosophical discussion about such an un-philosophical topic could emerge. Old metaphysics behaved partly as if it wanted to break through the game of appearances to reach a deeper, more stable reality whose sublime state of standstill would be edifying for the human mind. Not to see the fleeting, the temporary, the playful aspect of the phenomenal world, or, rather, to desire and be capable of ignoring it – that was precisely what the splendid one-sidedness of the philosophical mind was based on; it remained blind to the active surface of the world to save all its vision to look at the ideas, concepts and structures that populate the intelligible worlds. The intelligible nether world only knows pure persistence as such; its way of being is not that of sportive play but that of essential survival. It contains no dancing, no flickering and no rule reversal, only the peace of the last principles. Insofar as humans’ angelic potential for genuine knowledge is activated in their lifetime, an eternal light burns over their intellect that has glimpsed the intelligible world beyond – the capacity for pure intellectual perception. What gives the age of classical metaphysics its all-embracing vitality is the heady feeling of a success story for logic: it proclaims the joyful message of the triumph of the essential over the accidental, of reason over result, of the origin over the emanation. In principle, the religion of philosophers believes in nothing but the redemption from coincidence. The original metaphysical activity of human beings is based on the conviction that the things of the sensual-seeming world are not serious enough to merit philosophical attention. The redemption from coincidence includes the redemption from mere experience as such.

3

When a philosophy of play is proposed today, or even seen as possible, we find that the basic position of classical Western metaphysics as such has been abandoned. Such a change cannot occur without reorganization of the judgements that determine the difference between serious and unserious things. That we are in the middle of such a revolution in judgements as well as a confusing change of sides between the serious and the not-so-serious is the thesis I wish to illustrate. At the same time it may offer a plausible explanation as to why a philosophy of play is the only theory of the present age worth considering.

The great metamorphosis that modern thinkers pronounced in relation to the time-honoured discipline of love of knowledge was rightly redefined as an ambitious concept: the image of the Copernican Turn. The best way to communicate the depth of the revolution that has led to the philosophical rehabilitation of chance in the past two hundred years is by comparing it to the collapse of the world picture. Old metaphysics was in love with the eternal and the necessary that shines through the real like pure light through a cloud. Modern thought, conversely, has been devoted to the quest for reality; this is now set against the backdrop of infinite possibilities involved in thinking ‘it-could-also-be-different’.

Apart from psychological motives, the new desire to let the mind obtain a foothold in deeper levels of reality had a theoretical basis. For in modern times the subject of cognition, the pervasive human being, increasingly appeared before himself or herself as the object of cognition. Modernity and self-referentiality, human or systemic, are only two aspects of the same case. Since then philosophy has had to break every statement about being and what exists into a statement about human beings. It began with the unpredictable, momentous turn towards the subject connected with the work of Immanuel Kant, with the concept of transcendental philosophy, and with the irresistible rise of a new philosophical discipline that became anthropology. This turn yielded significant effects in the intellectual balance of the modern world. The naïve boom in higher worlds severely obstructed its metaphysical needs from that time on. The desertion to the absolute was no longer easy to achieve. Modern human beings cannot simply do ontology as in the age of Platonic academics and heavenly doctors; at best, all they have is scientific knowledge of the ontological animals that they are themselves. Whatever human beings may think about God and the world in the post-idealistic era, they can only do it wearing anthropological glasses to remind them constantly that everything that appears before the intellectual eye has been through the human prism.

It follows that nothing that exists can be manifested as purely in-itself any longer. From that moment on, human beings, particularly as philosophizing beings, are condemned to themselves as they really are; they have to recognize themselves as an impure condition of a reason that can no longer be called pure. It follows that the chance that created the world – that was previously called by the beautiful name ‘creation’ – had already dealt a false hand to the intellect long before the latter reacted metaphysically and tried to avoid the evil game of becoming. Since the time the intellect became human and historical – all-too-human and all-too-historical – and realized its entanglement in what-had-become, it was in the middle of the game again: like someone who is always tricked and who, at the same time, takes the game in his own hand.

4

From that time on, the human being, a creature of games of chance, had to occupy the centre of philosophical attention as the creator of new games. The anthropological turn broke the floodgates that were supposed to stockpile chance behind essential things, and the modern human subject was overwhelmed with a new, diverse set of responsibilities for what is accidental, factual, historical, local and unique. One particular skill stands out from among these areas of competence that were suddenly highlighted with such strong emotions: artistic competence as a deeply disturbing and challenging ability to create works of art. People of modern times consciously see works of art as the final justification of chance. In the work of art not only is the non-necessary real, but it has also become necessary in some respects. What God omitted or forgot in the first creation is now retrieved by the force of human power; even the stock of everything that exists is increased through creative acts. Human beings, as authors of works of art, the most superior kind of play, are reconciled with the unnecessary in an exemplary fashion. In art the accidental is necessary for salvation, as it were. The subject that creates art is similar to the God of creation Himself, who has accepted His own capriciousness because, from the abundant choice of possible worlds, He chose to make a reality out of the present world and none other. On closer consideration our world still gives an impression of being thrown together and improvised. But as always, it still gets the best reviews in theological circles. The recipe for this is as old as the creation story itself: anyone who has made anything in the world has to ensure that a self-made review is published and officially confirms that it was good. The modern turn to the subject enforces the turn to the human being as the originator of art: the artist, as the person who gives meaning to meaningless things, is a redeemer of random chance.

5

What is play other than art’s little cousin? Of course art, too, must profit from the modern turn of thought towards human beings. It is a simple step from praise of art to that of play – and anthropology must take that step because in this case it is forced to move. Having brought humans as creators into the discussion, it can no longer keep silent about human beings as players. Whether Homo artifex or Homo ludens, anyone who positively categorizes human beings as accidental has to turn things around as if play were a human being’s best friend since the beginning of time. In this respect, play has achieved a similar fate in theory to Nature, which was also redefined in romantic anthropology from its role as human beings’ oldest enemy and became their most intimate accomplice – indeed, their better self; on this view, Nature can do more for us than we can do for ourselves. By analogy, play is endowed with the power to enrich us beyond anything we ourselves can plan and calculate. Johan Huizinga’s assurance in his classic book that human culture is a gift of play concurs fully with this romantic way of thinking about play. Huizinga saw play as an ecstatic function of Nature; in play what is natural spontaneously goes beyond itself – moving towards intellect, the drive to representation and self-celebration. Play is the theatrical organ of Nature. Human beings are defined simply as the artistic directors of the energies for play that arise out of biological existence. These energies always contain an active overshooting factor, and in the light of the romantic analysis of play Nature appears not as an astute housekeeper but as a diva for whom enough is not enough. Huizinga’s idea that a game principle runs right through human beings seems like a reasonable Dutch response to Nietzsche’s Dionysian doctrines – the game is rather like the god from below who traverses the human sphere and then transcends it with laughter, a pirouette and a paradox.

We can see here that, even today, the great theories of play are unable to do anything but get close to the principal case, which was called the divine in the metaphysical age. It remains true that wherever anthropology is practised, theology cannot be far away. All the same, at this point the difficulty often arises that Western people are still only able to imagine serious divinities at the origin of everything. The world must have a serious reason if serious people are researching into its beginning. An omniscient world creator may be just about acceptable – but how are we supposed to believe in a first player?

6

If human beings did not exist, anthropology could be a serious science. But it cannot become solidly established because it is shaky about its object. Human beings, down to the depths of their essential nature as ontological ephemeral spirits, have a hazy character, and this identifies them more reliably than any definition. Yet all the blurring in the theory of humankind goes back to the impossibility of deciding on objective criteria whether ‘in principle’ human beings are poor or rich creatures. To varying degrees, these two options have demarcated the history of civilization since time immemorial. The thesis that has openly held sway for centuries speaks of humans as beings born with deficits, as crooked sinners, as thinking reeds, as precarious late products of evolution, as pariahs of the universe, devoid of instincts, as slaves of the drive for self-preservation, as bare survival artists and as gloomy savers. The antithesis, which is still mostly latent, represents a doctrine on human beings as creatures of luxury, as fireworks of being, as the fixed spot of cosmic consciousness-raising, as finite gods, as poets of their own worlds, as serene procreators and as brave profligates. Both these versions, which are difficult to relate back to each other, reflect different ethics and temperaments and, what is more, different logics, different rationalities, different ways of finding existential balance. This deep divide in the anthropological approach naturally corresponds to different conceptions of play. If people are considered poor, they are regarded as creatures that play nonetheless – for relief and compensation, to raise their spirits and to learn. The hypothesis of deficiency sees play reflected through the four faces of its opposite: through birth, through work, through war and through death. On this view, play stands face to face with those serious crucial moments in which the weight and force of the world are concentrated.

Each time, play is only redemption of compulsions and an easy interlude between difficult tasks. It is precisely the people who play who are the poor ones – they play because they need to. In cases where rich people are mentioned, on the other hand, they are seen as beings who play from the ground up. They do this because they own far too much per se, because they brim over with their own importance, because realizing their potential requires wasting themselves. Part of the hypothesis of wealth is the view of play as absolute. If people are rich beings, it is to the extent that they do not interpret play through its opposite. In absolute play the serious factors of life are not counterposed to the game but are an inherent part of it; they keep it moving, they give it substance, universal content and humanity.

Egon Friedell once said that culture consists in having a wealth of problems. By analogy, an anthropology of superfluous things would say that play consists in having a wealth of oppositions. When the rich life believes in itself, it celebrates its difficulties. It follows that a religion of robust frivolity is part of the modern world.

7

To explain what I have just said, I shall conclude with a diagnostic thought for our times. By now, in terms of its industrial society, present-day humankind has stocked up several hundred years of experience with the adventure of modernization. Above and beyond this timespan it has continuously maintained a dynamic process of technical learning, capital formation and an accelerating pace of life – despite massive setbacks and crises. All in all, these modernizations add up to an avalanche in the way the world works. People experience this subjectively as an increase in wealth and relief that would have been unimaginable until recently; but it is accompanied by an inflation of risks. Nevertheless, our age has not really been able to revise its basic feeling that we are living in deficit. The patterns of thought and feeling of deficit anthropology are more universally present than ever. For every person who has more to give than previously there are a hundred who demand more than they previously did. Sometimes it may even seem as if the people who have become wealthier and have fewer burdens are the poorest and most burdened of all – because they have lost their instinct for coping with difficulties. This has been a theme of the critique of modernity since early existentialism: Kierkegaard said that anyone who wished to be a benefactor of human beings in the midst of progress and relief had to create difficulties. This idea ran subversively through the nineteenth century and Nietzsche made it big and dangerous – then it attacked the last humans, the fellahin of progress; Heidegger transposed it into audacity – then there was talk of the necessity of lack of necessity; and something comparable has reappeared in today’s discourses on the rebellion against the ‘secondary world’. On the economic level, Illich has spoken of a simple modernization of poverty. Anyone who makes a deeper diagnosis of the state of things today is forced to describe modernized worlds of scarcity. More than anywhere else, the old anthropology of poverty seems to be triumphing in the rich societies.

These paradoxes reveal something that I would like to call the fear of people who have become rich in the face of wealth. This shows nothing less than modernity recoiling from its own principle in the moment of success. Marx definitively captured the essence of this era when he proclaimed the world revolution of the will as wealth for all. It was the Western world that adopted this slogan more radically than the East, which was still wallowing in misery. Yet the present discomfort about the rich life is shown by contemporary Westerners’ deep fear of looking closely at their unparalleled situation in the history of civilization: there is a touch of embarrassment about oversized successes. Modern persons seem overwhelmed by the unshackling of wealth. They want to possess wealth but not recognize it; they don’t want to do without it but they don’t really want to grab it. They want to suffer from it as from a comfortable illness; nobody wants to be guilty of, or indebted to, his or her wealth. In fact, sensitive people in particular feel morally shy about openly making the historically possible transition from scarcity to abundance as the main destiny of human life. Doesn’t it seem like betraying the testimony of poverty theory, for which a high price was paid? Wouldn’t it mean turning one’s back on people whose lives are still hard and overburdened? And shouldn’t openly betting on a rich life end in hubris? People who stick to poverty in rich societies still feel that a morality of abundance is immoral. For this reason we act blind to the obvious: that for our part of the world the traditional justifications, whitewashing and compensations of the poor life are no longer valid. Things look bad for the cause of the anthropology of poverty, even if the rich life has not won its case by any means. Despite all the evidence, the nouveau riche of modern times, which means us, do not really believe in the changed premises of existence at our particular moment of the world – the premium that the status of poor has enjoyed over the millennia is still too high, and we are still accustomed too much to the modest little form of soul that lives from compensation. Thinking oneself poor continues to bring fictitious profits – or, at least, fictitious claims to them. Wealth, however, involves an obligation, more than mere nobles are capable of. But the fact is that wealth does not involve an obligation – it liberates, it brings benefits. The rich life reveals itself in its overflowing. It has something to spare, it allows us to play with it, it offers games and it wants other lives, new lives to join the game in this world and in new worlds.

Where wealth governs, there is no Flood after us; what follows is the invitation to extended games. It was this, not least, that was meant by the Europeans’ departure into modernity. In essence, the modern world was – and still is – an enterprise for overcoming poverty and wretchedness; this enterprise takes the form of a wager placed on the character of human beings. Anyone who takes up such a wager is betting on the assumption that under the auspices of poverty nothing can yet be revealed about how things stand between the human being and himself or herself. Wherever people seek the essence of modernity in this sense there is an entrepreneur at work to obviate situations in which human beings can be explained and excused by what they lack. In a contemplative moment like this it may be relevant to remember the revolutionary roots of our age. Since neo-conservative miserabilism has gained ground, the generous substance of the modern age – transcending the morality of scarcity and moving towards a morality of abundance – is being rolled back more or less secretly everywhere. This defines the deep reactionary current of the present time. The psycho-politics of having-nothing-to-spare is increasingly poisoning the prosperous societies on the planet. It is not clear whether this trend will continue. At least two things are required to stop it: constantly repeating the question of where material and human wealth really comes from, and – as a result – initiating more extensive games on the occasion of every gathering at which people of our times celebrate and interpret themselves.

This has been an excerpt from The Aesthetic Imperative: Writings on Art by Peter Sloterdijk (Polity Press, May 2017).

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