Peter Sloterdijk’s Anthropotechnic Aesthetics: Reading ‘You Must Change Your Life’

Peter-Sloterdijk

Peter Sloterdijk’s 2009 volume You Must Change Your Life is a wide-ranging study ostensibly addressed to a problem that has little evident relation to aesthetics, the “return of religion” in our putatively post-secular time.  Sloterdijk will have none of this; not, however, because like Jürgen Habermas, he seeks to defend the project of an unfinished enlightenment against religion’s renewed claims, but rather for another, seemingly paradoxical reason: “a return to religion is as impossible as a return of religion—for the simple reason that no ‘religion’ or ‘religions’ exist” (3).

What instead do exist, in Sloterdijk’s view, both before and throughout modernity to the present day, are different regimens of spiritual and psychophysical training “that are more and less capable and worthy of propagation” (3), exercises and practices which have never vanished, despite many mutations, and hence which cannot “return.”  These regimens are composed of bundles of bodily and mental practices by which human beings create for themselves “symbolic immune systems and ritual shells” (3), constituents of our basic anthropological constitution through which we regulate our collective and individual intercourse with the world.  Particularly important are the various “anthropotechnic” means by which human beings train themselves to experience a “vertical tension” occasioning self-transformation and self-transcendence.  These techniques of provoking and responding to such vertical tension, as well as their modernization and ramification into new areas of existence, Sloterdijk argues, are what call for the greatest attention in our investigation of the present age—an attention likely to be distracted by spurious “post-secularist” hypotheses either trumpeting or lamenting how “religion,” after two-century-long slump, is at last recovering its lost spiritual productivity.

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Sloterdijk’s analysis is deeply indebted to his reading of Nietzsche on asceticism, though he also emphatically revises Nietzsche’s negative evaluation in favor of a more affirmative stance towards the shaping, transformative power of ascetic practices.  While Nietzsche, with his overt anti-Christian animus, tended to equate asceticism with a life-denying pathology, Sloterdijk argues that the real value of Nietzsche’s arguments about asceticism lies in his recognition of their force as operators of self-willed anthropological change.  Thus, he argues—

“a large number of the asceticisms to which [Nietzsche] referred polemically were precisely not expressions of life-denial and metaphysical servility; it was rather a matter of heroism in a spiritual disguise. . . . With this find, Nietzsche stands. . . at the start of the modern, non-spiritualistic ascetologies along with their physio- and psychotechnic annexes, with dietologies and self-referential trainings, and hence all the forms of self-referential practicing and working on one’s own vital form that I bring together in the term ‘anthropotechnics.'” (34)

In Sloterdijk’s view, however, Nietzsche’s discovery is in turn dependent on a prior objective modernization in the spectrum of asceticisms themselves, which he characterizes under the dual aspect of the “despiritualization of asceticisms” and the “informalization of spirituality.”  The former he sees characterized most clearly in the vast twentieth-century expansion of athletics, sport, exercise, and other forms of physical “training”; the latter is exemplified for him by popular music, which offers spiritual intensities, affects, and experiences on a mass, democratic basis and without a formal spiritual framework, covering “the lives of contemporary individuals with unpredictable flashes of spiritual emergency” (38).

You Must Change Your Life is a sprawling, speculative book, and, having set out in summary the merest outline of its sweeping argument, I will not pursue further its many ramifying lines of inquiry.  Instead, I will note that Sloterdijk’s book takes its title from a work of art about a work of art, which suggests that the aesthetic is entangled in its arguments.  “You must change your life” comes from the final line of a poem by Rainer Maria Rilke, “Archaic Torso of Apollo” from his 1908 New Poems, which derives from a modern aesthetic encounter the “vertical tension” that Sloterdijk sees as immanent in anthropotechnic practices.  In Rilke poem, the artwork, the torso-fragment of Apollo, issues its silent demand to the viewer to transcend one’s existing state, to become different than one is.

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Implicitly then too, Rilke’s artwork, his poem, derives its own aesthetic power and modernistic “newness,” its intensely charged temporal difference from the archaic fragment, from its effective channeling from poet to reader of the overwhelming demand made upon his by the historical otherness of the work of art.  If the encounter with the sculpture represents a somatized relation with an archaic force of the numinous, its sheer power is nonetheless mitigated by its descent from the ritual into the aesthetic, safely enframed by the modern museum’s institutional space and sober behavioral protocols.  Yet the sculpture’s overpowering entraining of the poet’s vision becomes, in turn, a figural equivalent of the poet’s equally intense, equally disciplined enchainment of poetic lines and words through which, finally, the reader’s fascinated attention and surprise at the last line will be imposed: “You must change your life.”  The shock of the poet’s (and subordinately, the reader’s) aesthetic encounter with this sudden imposing power is presented as paradigmatic for the vertical tension that seizes us and tears us from our settledness in daily habit and habitation.  Following Sloterdijk’s line of thought, aesthetic defamiliarization, which the Russian formalists saw as constitutive of literary and artistic efficacy, might be thought of not simply as a practice pertaining to the modern arts, but as an exemplary instance in the historical repertoire of anthropotechnic means by which human beings confer upon themselves new shapes and higher forms.

I would suggest that Sloterdijk’s anthropotechnical arguments offer an especially fruitful way of thinking about modernist and avant-garde art practices—with their emphasis on formal innovation, their cultivation of semantic difficulty to the threshold of nonsense, and their fascination with transgression and power—in a broader philosophical ambit.  If modernist works pursue a unique constellation of formal, rhetorical, and semantic elements in order to defamiliarize our experience of them, they also, Sloterdijk implies, may turn to us and address us with a demand to change ourselves with an equivalent degree of radicality.  “Artistedom,” Sloterdijk writes, “ is the somatization of the improbable” (123).  It “is subversion from above, it superverts the existing” (125). We may recall here the Ad Reinhardt art cartoon in which a man points to a modern artwork mockingly and asks “Ha Ha What does that represent?”—only to find the painting angrily turning back to the spectator and asking, “What do you represent?”

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If an abstract painting or sculpture presents us with a space, it also, as Reinhardt points out, pronounces to a viewer attuned to its implicit address,:“You, Sir, are a space, too.”

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Each work, tacitly, offers itself as a highly specific training module in a different mode of experience, a different way of life.  They invite their viewers, listeners, and readers to a new set of “complications, facilitations, narrowings, widenings, inclinations, disinclinations, lowerings, raisings” (161),  entreating them to “work on themselves and make examples of themselves” (110), that they might be able to increasingly discover themselves the self-made inhabitants of “a multi-disciplinary and multi-virtuosic world with expanding limits of ability” (155).

Source: Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).

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