I finished reading volume 3 of Sloterdijk’s Spheres trilogy, and then went back and read the whole series again. It has been a delightful struggle to think through the rich banquet of ideas and images he offers. I have written up my overall account of the work in a new “Stacks of Books” essay (available on Amazon). I’ll share here an excerpt regarding the third volume, Foams.
Foams are masses of little bubbles, of course. As metaphor, foams represent smaller zones of inclusion filled with the air of hope. The metaphor is perhaps best grasped through a vision articulate by the biologist Jakob von Uexküll (1864-1944), who wrote that the universe “consists not of a single soap bubble that we have blown up beyond our horizon into the infinite, but of countless millions of narrowly bounded soap bubbles that overlap and intersect everywhere” (quoted on III, 60). The general picture, it seems, is that with the collapse of macrospheres, we are left with smaller, hopeful zones of human interaction, inclusion, and mutual concern. But this reaches further than a mere “think small” sort of program, as the foams we construct must meet the survival needs that prompted our earliest spheres but at the same time meet with the realities of the modern (or post-modern) world.
What lies before us is the task of marking multiplicities of individual space among humans as processes of foam in which defense and invention merge into each other – as speaking foams, one could say, as immune systems that dream beyond themselves … via the establishment of a personalized traffic system, to the creation of a customized world picture poem. (III, 232)
This may sound obscure or strange or impossible, but a short reflection on contemporary life should make it familiar. Each of us may be registered as a citizen of a nation, and perhaps work for a sizable corporation, and belong to a venerable religious tradition. But typically none of these things really characterize who we are or where we find our sense of belonging. We assemble into smaller units whose members are friends and family (the distinction does not matter much), and our foam-mates may be geographically dispersed across the globe. We find meaning and joy in a shared set of ideas, projects, games, and social values, and in our shared history. What binds us is not nationality, nor the relation of co-worker, nor even a shared religion, unless it just so happens that our social circle coincides with people in our place of worship. The common thread that brings your friends together is you – and each of your friends can say the same of their circle of friends, which also includes you. The resultant picture is not just a set of fixed bubbles, but smaller spheres of friendship and closeness that vary according to the point of view that is adopted: each circle of friends is “a psychic relationship of reciprocal harboring” (III, 279). The familiarity of our social networks can blind us to the fact that this is a relatively new way of human being.
The foam philosophy is suited especially to urban life, where individuals live in close proximity to one another but usually do not run in the same circles. We live in “co-isolation”, in a sense, but each of us is also joined with our own set of companions. Each apartment has its own world to share, its own set of diplomatic ties and allies and enemies, and its own shared protective shell with others.
The co-isolated forms of individualistically conditioned society are not mere agglomerations of adjacent (separation-sharing) inert and solid bodies, but rather multiplicities of loosely touching lifeworldly cells, each of which, due to its individual width, possesses the dignity of a universe. (III, 565)
We might think here of various radio shows or podcasts that tell us the stories of our neighbors. These shows invariably introduce us to worlds of greater complexity, troubles, and nuance than we ever would have imagined. We step into another’s life, adjacent to our own, and share for a few minutes their wealth of connections – or, often, their peculiar forms of poverty and their species of loss we could not previously conceive. Each cell in the foam presents “a symbol-woven magic tent of internal meanings and tensions” (III, 459).
At the outer logical limit of this social form is the architectural fantasy of Constant Anton Nieuwenhuis’s New Babylon project. Constant, a Dutch artist who died in 2005, envisioned a shared city and living space in which the inhabitants could bring their creative potentials into full expression.
Constant’s hope was that new technologies and economical transformation would allow for a city of people at play. It is, of course, a utopia, but it is in such imagined utopias that we catch glimpses of what lives we would form when given total freedom. According to Wikipedia’s summary of New Babylon, “the bourgeois shackles of work, family life, and civic responsibility would be discarded. The post-revolutionary individual would wander from one leisure environment to another in search of new sensations. Beholden to no one, he would sleep, eat, recreate, and procreate where and when he wanted”. Sloterdijk’s own characterization of it is “an artificial paradise in the form of a planetary climbing park for constantly creative mutants who give new meaning to the term ‘world interior’” (III, 618). We do not live in New Babylon, certainly, but the life it advertises is not far off from the luxurious lifestyle of today’s well-off urbanites.
There is no common center, and no outermost shell. The macrospheres of nation and religion continue to fade, for, truly, God remains dead. But that does not spell the end of community. Community must emerge – for that is what we are – and it emerges (again) “multifocally, multiperspectivally and heterarchically”.
Now, chances, are, any intellectual surveying this foam philosophy is likely to see dystopia. For an “artificial paradise” is no real paradise; for a life of play is no genuine human life; for humans must be centered in a meaningful worldview for their lives to have any purpose; and so on, and so forth. Human life is a serious, tragic business. But is it really? Our history and pre-history, filled as they are with shortages of food, plagues, tribal and national warfare, and ethnic hatreds certainly suggest that it is. And so we are rightfully suspicious. But Sloterdijk asks us to consider that this melancholic default may no longer be appropriate. The decisive repression of our times, he argues, actually concerns our own prosperity: we are unsure how to live with the fact that – generally as a species, and certainly acknowledging the fact of unequal distributions – we now have affluence and surplus, for the first time in human history. We live in a true embarrassment of riches, but at the same time we retain a “syndrome of hardship simulation and deficiency illusions”. “We find the lack of lack far more embarrassing than open poverty” and our traditions are not able to cope with such abundance. Wealth has come to us like a thief in the night (III, 636-648).
One must now admit that the premise for the concept of civilization is the concept of anti-gravity; it implies immunization to the heavy, the over-heavy, which has paralyzed human initiative from time immemorial. (III, 672)
There is, then, finally, hope. For though no one can deny that we face deadly ecological crises, and global economic injustice, we also have the great advantage of having an explicit understanding of our life-support requirements. We know what it takes to run our planet like a space capsule, and we know what we require of ourselves and one another to have livable human lives (this last part is what Sloterdijk has tried to pull together in his overview of spheres). Whether we make good on this promise is up to us, but that we can do it without macrospheres is certain.