Letters on the Inhuman

Peter Sloterdijk – Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger (Polity)

Sloterdijk tackles Heidegger’s Letter On Humanism, arguing that the wise have gone as nobody reads ‘the thick books’ anymore. Being and Time is undoubtedly one of them. Sloterdijk ‘begins again’ with Heidegger.

Heidegger began again with ‘our unfolding’ as sentient beings, suggesting that we can’t even ask a question about this ‘unfolding’ without an ‘essence’ coming before it.

This extension business is very Aristotelian. But for Heidegger, this relation ‘between essence and extension’ cannot be expressed’, but humans can be guided to the point where the ‘myth of extended life’ that rules it can be seen.

This ‘myth of extended life’, for Sloterdijk, is ‘Humanism’, but Humanism is a community fantasy, albeit a crucial one. Sloterdijk argues – and argues it more directly elsewhere – that the ‘in-between’ of shared language and community is really all that there is.

But Sloterdijk goes further, arguing in Rules For the Human Park that Aristotle’s ‘zoon politikon’, the political animal, should be nurtured in the face of contemporary chaos. For this advocacy, of a kind of contemporary reservation – and an open discussion about genetics – Habermas called Sloterdijk a fascist and Sloterdijk called it Habermas in return. Neither of them are Nazis, but only one of them has worn the uniform of the Third Reich.

‘Civilisation’, we can now see, fragments so very easily. Because a big part of its mythicalness is that it is not formed only out of bonds of love, but at least equally out of the threat of disintegration.

Violence is always already inside community. Having your own history buried as the vanquished remains essential to seeing the whole of historical discourse as untruth in support of the victor.

Sloterdijk’s essay on religion, ‘In the Shadow of Mount Sinai’, also published recently by Polity, argues that the confession and the internal threat of real violence is what forms us. It is the crucible of ‘civilised’ being. This is also, then, the in-between of shared situations and our ‘tuning’ through those shared situations.

The covering, or in some cases decimation (kill every one in ten) or annihilation (wipeout) of what Deleuze calls ‘minor discourses’ in the name of community is strangely what calls on their truth. This is a similar thing to Foucault’s view that a politics of right and taming do not fully account for apparatuses of power.

In Heidegger’s case, the historical elisions are nauseating. Experiencing ‘estrangement’ of this sort is essential to illuminating the dimension of history that is untruth. The dialectical view of history is superior to that of other historical accounts only in this way, but it is neither accurate, a mirror of the real, nor does it predict history, Hegel never claimed it to either.

Heidegger’s mystical search for an ‘essence’ before extension and his refusal to connect the two has its parallel in his interminable walking in forests. Both are abdications from the responsibility to politics and ethics. Sloterdijk often puts this back by illuminating it as an empty space. This is not some mystical void to be passed through, but a dangerous gap in the story-fabric of Humanism.

This is an absolutely canonical collection for Heidegger studies, the orthodoxy may not think so, but the heretics always had the best arguments there anyway.

Sloterdijk is wrong on one point though: The wise have not gone from us while he still reads and writes the big books.

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