Since I have been asking for suggestion of works that impel action in the world rather than fantasies of escape or strategies of accommodation, Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life sounded promising. I hoped it might be an exhortation to engage the world more productively. It is not. It turns out to be less a philosophy of active transformation than a justification of adapting to the world as it is, less an attempt to enable true agency than an assertion that the fully realized human is the one who is most perfectly subjected to capitalism.
I don’t want to attempt a response to the Sloterdijk’s project as a whole, or even to all of You Must Change Your Life. Instead, I want to attend to one small problem that begins this particular book, but one that can only lead to the very worst kind of error, delusion, and loss of agency.
Sloterdijk begins his book with a discussion of an aesthetic object, a Rilke poem the last sentence of which is the title of his book. For some readers, this might seem an irrelevant indulgence, to be skimmed over with little attention: oh, he’s just talking about poems here, poems are all good and we don’t need to give this part much attention. In fact, my used copy of the book was apparently given as a gift, and in the inscription the giver suggests that the entire first section be skipped as tedious and irrelevant—advice the recipient apparently followed, as his marginal notes begin in the second section. I wonder how many others skimmed or skipped this part, and never considered that the most dangerous assumptions Sloterdijk makes, which most educated Western readers no doubt share, are tied up in the unexamined Romantic ideology of the aesthetic.
For me, Sloterdijk’s naïve inability to understand how aesthetic objects function is troubling not only because it is evidence of how dismally the entire academic discipline in which I work has failed at its job. It is troubling because the particular way that even very smart people become profoundly stupid when faced with a poem or a painting or a novel reveals the power and intractability of the production of capitalist ideology in our intensely aestheticized world. Intelligent critical thought about a work of art is just considered impossible at best, obscene and offensive at worst.
The result is that we are so powerfully interpellated by the work of art we refuse to think about, that we are left with little hope of actual ideological agency.
I don’t want to rehash the theory of ideology here, so I will simply state that I use the term in Althusser’s sense, as a positive and necessary feature of all human action. We must have beliefs-in-practices in order to reproduce our social formations, and the term interpellated refers to an individual becoming a participant in an ideological practice, and so a subject of that practice. We cannot be without an ideology, because any action requires an intention and a practice in which to carry it out, but some ideologies are better than others. It is always better to know that one’s ideology is and ideology, and not to mistake it for an eternal and natural truth; usually, when an ideology is asserted to be a natural truth, that ideology is functioning to reproduce an oppressive social formation. “Ideological agency,” then, is not an oxymoron: we can only ever have true agency in an ideology when we know that it is an ideology and do not mistake it for the natural order of things. That’s all the primer on ideology I’m going to offer here, but I’d be happy to point to other texts where I’ve developed this more fully.
The question of aesthetics is almost always connected to the problem of producing ideology. In the philosophical sense, aesthetics concerns the relationship between bodily experience and ideas, and the negotiation between concrete particulars and abstract universals. The use of ideas and abstractions to organize our particular and bodily experience of the world is, then, both an aesthetic and an ideological question.
Yet when it comes to something like a poem, most people become unwilling or unable to consider how it operates to construct our ideology, and so shape our actions and experience in the world. With poems, we are asked to admire, to be awed, to feel deeply…but never to think. At least, this is the common attitude toward poetry since the Romantic period—and it obtains today even in the college English classroom. Sloterdijk, for all his obvious knowledge about other subjects, remains a complete naïf when it comes to Literature. As a result, a poem can function as a convenient tool with which to cover over a host of philosophical and ideological problems, because we can’t think about it, it just is beautiful.
The main project of this book is to argue for a kind of asceticism that is not the life-denying asceticism of some religious orders. Sloterdijk wants to produce a kind of asceticism that asks us to engage in a life-affirming practice, without the need for an ultimate goal—a practice that becomes its own end, seeking to make ourselves into something just because we can do it. At first, this struck me as potentially similar to my own position, which I adopted from Spinoza: that joy is the attempt to increase our capacity to interact with the world, and we should at all costs avoid asceticisms that ask us to forgo such interaction with the promise of future rewards of bliss or eternal peace. There are however significant differences between these two positions, and they seem to me to become most obvious when discussing the function of a poem.
Here, then, is the Rilke poem Sloterdijk discusses in his first chapter (note: he uses a different translation):
Archaic Torso of Apollo
We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit. And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,
gleams in all its power. Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.
Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:
would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.
His reading of the poem follows absolutely exactly the standard Romantic aesthetics—his claim that this poem has “nothing to do with the previous century’s Romanticism” (21) clearly depends on a rather stunning ignorance of what “Romanticism” means, as evidenced when he then goes on to discuss the poems in exactly the Romantic fashion, as a matter of “willingness to participate in subject-object reversal”(24). He praises Rilke’s elevation of “what things themselves communicate” and the “message energy that does not activate itself, but requires the poet as a decoder”(20), in terms that most readers probably pass over thinking “oh, that’s just how people talk about poems.” But if we interrogate the abundance of obscure an ideologically loaded terms that sound like the they could have been taken right out of Wordsworth or Shelley, if we are willing to think critically about this obscure discourse of aesthetics, we find something we should know from the study of Romanticism: the demand is simply that we must allow ourselves to be uncritically interpellated into an ideology, and to accept that this ideology comes from the thing itself, not from human social formations.
Now we might (I would) want to read this Rilke poem differently. We might want to consider it as a critical consideration of exactly the problem of the aesthetics of interpellation. As Sloterdijk points out, the problem of the gaze is unavoidable when we read this poem: “the torso sees me while I observe it—indeed…it eyes me more sharply than I can look at it”(23). To me the poem seems to suggest that, in typical Romantic fashion, it is exactly the incompleteness of the sculpture that gives it the capacity to construct the elusive and all-powerful gaze of the other. We can’t quite grasp its desire, and so it demands of us that we “change our lives” to fulfill a desire we remain incapable of fathoming. Of course, it is possible that Rilke is simply reproducing this Romantic aesthetic, not attempting to give us some critical foothold to interrogate it, but I’m less interested in authorial intention than in what the poem enables us to think; Sloterdijk’s reading would no doubt be more common than mine, and I don’t want to argue here which is the “correct” reading. The point is that this Romantic cult of the symbol as the ontological anchoring point for an ideological formation allows Sloterdijk to simply dismiss any attempt to critically examine whatever ideological practice might serve as one of his “anthropotechnics” of a recovered positive asceticism. The “attractor,” to use his term, draws us in its positive fullness to a truth beyond any humanly created, socially produced meaning.
His discussion of what he means by an “attractor” ought to be disturbing to any thinking person, but in the reviews and discussions I’ve read of this book it mostly passes unnoticed (although I can’t believe someone hasn’t objected to it somewhere—I have only read a handful of reviews and only in English). The discussion of attractors begins in the introduction, where Sloterdijk makes a fairly conventional reactionary rhetorical move: refusing to grasp (or at least to acknowledge) that social class depends on the source of income, he assumes it is a matter of affluence and social status. Of course, on a Marxist understanding, one could belong to the capitalist class and (potentially) be broke, while a member of the working class might have quite a bit of money socked away—the important difference is in whether one’s income comes from ownership of private property and capital and means of production or from selling one’s labor power for wages. That is, the important problem is not just the inequity, but the mode of production itself which inherently requires the alienation and oppression of most humans. Sloterdijk, however, uses the traditional capitalist rhetoric to claim that “wherever one encounters human beings, they are embedded in achievement fields and status classes”(12) and so to occlude the real problem of a flawed mode of production and replace it with an eternal problem of human nature. As a result, he can then translate economic problems into matters of lists of inevitable binary oppositions, and so we have “wealth versus lack” as an eternal feature of all human cultures, alongside others like “excellence versus mediocrity” or “knowledge versus ignorance”(13). In all cultures, he tells us “the first value [of the binary] is the attractor in the respective field”(13). Economic reality is conveniently reduced to a universal pattern of binaries, in which one is the positive attractor serving as the key term structuring the cultural practice. To put it in my usual Lacanian-Althusserian idiom, then, the attractor is the Master Signifier, the Transcendental Signifier, which functions to interpellate individuals as subjects of a particular ideology, naturalizing a particular social formation. The function of a work of art, then, is to thoroughly interpellate us into the existing social formation, producing only a practice in which we can adjust ourselves to the system through self-disciplined asceticism, and cannot possibly think critically about that social system.
That works of art can do that should be obvious to anyone who has spent any time studying literary theory in the last several decades. I want to offer just one example here, one instance, of someone explaining how it is that a work of literature can have the power to draw us in and hold us so thoroughly. In The Plague of Fantasies, Zizek discusses the tendency in popular culture to try to “fill in the lack” of classic works of art—such as when we get novels that explain what Heathcliff did to make his fortune while away from Wuthering Heights, or when nineteenth-century art historians tried to imagine a reconstructed Venus De Milo. The problem is, he explains, that the “artifice of ‘true art’ is thus to manipulate the censorship of the underlying fantasy”(26). The point is that the work of “great art” is appealing more because of what it occludes than what it reveals to us—we love a work of art because it successfully organizes its censorship so as to give us something to desire, to convince us that it holds the secret of absolute imaginary plenitude; the appealing work of art masks the banal truth that our ideological practices, our daily activities, will never give us any happiness, that they only serve to keep the structures of power in place. One might, as I suggested, read the last sentence of Rilke’s poem ironically, as a recognition of this seductive power of art to subjugate us, to trick us into living lives of endless suffering for a promise that will always remain unfulfilled. The missing gaze that the work of art carefully occludes becomes the powerful and ubiquitous gaze of the Big Other. Far from giving us the profound truth of the “thing itself,” saying more than words ever can, the work of art structures a gap in which we think that truth will be found if we just inhabit its ideology thoroughly enough.
Such critiques, though, are exactly what Sloterdijk wants to ward off. His book abounds with passing dismissals of his college-textbook (mis)understanding of psychoanalysis, with snide comments about deconstruction being nothing more than the tantrum of a petulant child knocking down another’s block tower, or with the assertion that radicals simply want to “stand around and find [things] unfair”(158). For Sloterdijk, society is always nothing but an impediment, and we’d be better off without it. But since we have one, we might as well make us of the obstacles it puts in front of us, and use the very struggle against those obstacles as the practice that will make us into ubermensch. What is important is the act of struggling itself, with no hope of succeeding, of ever achieving any kind of goal—if we are interested in a goal we aren’t practicing his positive ascetics correctly.
Part of the problem here is a kind of foolish radical atomism. Sloterdijk cannot conceive of any kind of social system being in any way beneficial for human beings. The individual must always be pitted against the social, which becomes only his obstacle, pulling him down to mediocrity. This is the reason for his apotheosis of Nietzsche, who he insists is not a product of his culture, but, in Christlike fashion, a being appearing in the world but not of it, to give us an eternal truth.
I would suggest that the problem of atomism is, in fact, the key problem of Nietzsche’s project as well, particularly in Sloterdijk’s favorite text Thus Spoke Zarathustra. I don’t’ want to undertake an extended discussion of Nietzsche here, so I will just offer one comment from a brilliant essay on Zarathustra written by Robert Pippin: “the possibility of self-overcoming seems…also tied somehow to his problems of rhetoric, language, of audience, friends, his own loneliness…success in self-overcoming is linked to achieving the right relation to others” (xxvii, emphasis added). The problem Nietzsche faces is that since he is “uninterested in gaining power over others,” and he assumes that the goal of “overcoming” must mean overcoming oneself as an individual, in a way freely and individually chosen, he cannot determine any such radically individual practice that is not hopelessly isolating. He cannot imagine a collective “overcoming,” or any collectively chosen practice, because if one doesn’t choose one’s practice in active opposition of the collective it somehow seems to inferior. Caught in the capitalist ideology of radical atomism of individuals in endless struggle against one another, and refusing a social relation of domination, Nietzsche can only end in despair.
The solution, more typically, would be to seek the approving gaze. And this is suggested in Sloterdijk’s discussion of “the cripple.” He tells the tale of a boy with no arms who learns to play the violin, and becomes a concert violinist. His struggle, Sloterdijk tells us, is the opposite of the bohemian desire to rebel against the ordinary culture—instead, the cripple wants to be an artist “in order to be a bourgeois. For him, artistry is the quintessence of bourgeois work, and earning a living through it is what gives him a sense of pride”(44). This is held up as an example for all of us: we ought to be thankful for the bad economy, for our poverty and exclusion, because it offers us the ability to struggle ascetically just to survive as a “normal bourgeois.” For the “armless fiddler,” the goal is to avoid being a mere curiosity, a mere oddity, and to be appreciated as a real musician: “curiosity often gives way to moved enthusiasm” and “his self-exhibition pre-empts mere sensation”(46).
The problem, of course, is the same: the problem of becoming “self-made,” of transforming oneself, of overcoming the self, can only work if it is acknowledged by an approving gaze—for Zarathustra, his troubled relationship to audience is never resolved, as he finds hollow the very approval he seeks, just getting that approval becomes proof he hasn’t yet overcome, but not getting it would prove exactly the same thing. For the “armless fiddler,” he must attract the vaudeville audience of gawkers, and try to convince himself that they really admire his musical virtuosity.
In the end, then, we are always left with the problem of seeking the approval of a gaze whose very approval only ever leaves us feeling more empty, hypocritical, and purposeless. The lure of the work of art, of the poem or the sculpture, only offers us another somewhat more elusive gaze to perpetuate our endless efforts to remain ignorant of the nature of our social formation, to fool ourselves that in working hard to reproduce it we are freely choosing to rebel against it.
This is the inevitable dilemma that Sloterdijk is left with in the end of his book with all his paeans to the “global community.” He produces nothing but a typical capitalist ideology of renunciation, submission, adaptation, and defense of ignorance…with just one twist: the “attractor” is no longer God and his heaven, or even the promise of eventual wealth and power, but some seductive aesthetic object. An ideology perfectly suited to the middle-class workers of the West, facing as they are an endless gradual decline in standard of living: become ascetics who work for the sheer joy of how the work transforms you…into nothing more than a more perfect instance of a worker.
Ultimately, then, this is nothing at all like what Spinoza means by joy. What I would like to see instead is the kind of ideology which allows that we need not become ascetics at all—not even in what Sloterdijk considers the positive sense. What we need is an ideological practice that rejects atomistic individualism, and remembers that collective social practices can operate to give us more opportunity to interact with the world. The goal need not be to become the perfect instance of a farmer; instead, the goal might be to collectively produce more food more effectively in a system organized around feeding everyone instead of around profit. A collective subject would not longer struggle to find the elusive approving gaze, but would be enabled to act in the world as part of a group. Recognition of equals, negotiated and endlessly reworked, would replace the fantasy of the gaze of the Big Other, whether that Big Other is God or the anonymous applauding (or “liking”) audience.
The kind of poem I would be interested in, then, is not the one Sloterdijk finds when he reads Rilke. I would prefer a poem that doesn’t “attract” us, but makes explicit the social practice which might give us more power to act in the world. I would prefer the petulant poem that knocks down block towers, or the radical poem pointing out the unfairness. I would prefer not to dismiss psychoanalytic theory with some naïve belief that it is about “repressed feelings”; instead, we might follow psychoanalysis into the understanding of the repressed as that which must remain unthinkable in the existing symbolic order. Finally, instead of seeing culture and social institutions as mere “crutches,” perhaps we should consider them as things we can collectively do to successfully escape a world of ignorance, sickness, starvation, and brutal struggle with the elements.
Maybe a work of art that suggests these things wouldn’t have the “attracting” power of Romantic art. But Romantic art just is capitalist art—it is not accident that Romanticism arises when capitalism becomes the dominant mode of production. If we want an art, and an ideology, for what comes next, we might have to move beyond this seductive lure of pleasurable ambiguities and elusive gazes. Instead of changing our lives, we should change the world.
Pippin, Robert. “Introduction.” In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, Friedrich Nietzsche. Trans. Adrian Caro. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge. 2006.
Rilke, Ranier Maria. “Archaic Torso of Apollo.” Trans. Stephen Mitchell. https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/archaic-torso-apollo
Sloterdijk, Peter. You Must Change Your Life. Trans. Wieland Hoban. Polity, Cambridge. 2013.
Zizek, Slavoj. The Plague of Fantasies. Verso, New York. 2008.