Barbarism, part 1


Man, I’ve done a lot of stuff in recent weeks. But I’m not going to write about any of it. (One thing I did was see the Chicago Lyric’s new production of Parsifal, which was shattering and which I am completely powerless to describe in any adequate way.) I do, however, want to return to a question I posed at the end of my last post: Why, in a “world in which so much experience is virtual or mapped out in advance […] or framed by marketers as some kind of “lifestyle” [is] the experience of simply walking for its own sake seems like an increasingly radical act”? All this experiential exploration — putting hands on tables or going on walks or whatever — why might that be in some way opposed to consumer capitalism? I don’t want to go down the hacky, clichéd path of arguing that this or that cultural form is “resistant” or “transgressive” — a bit of countercultural boilerplate that I have argued elsewhere is played out. I don’t think there is any form of cultural expression that is inherently opposed to consumer capitalism, and the perennial hope that it might be otherwise has lead the academic humanities into a dead end from which it has yet to emerge. And if you think “mindfulness” — the attitude of open receptivity suggested by the protocol of the Hand Experiment — offers any kind of resistance to capitalism, I suggest you read this. I’m going to return to this topic at some point, but for right now I want to write about a major new work of philosophy — Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life (YMCYL).*

The title of this book, by the way, comes from the famous last line of Rilke’s Archaic Torso of Apollo, for which Sloterdijk gives a brilliant reading. The work of art challenges us to do better, to transcend whatever it is we are now. Which on its own doesn’t seem like a revolutionary new philosophy — it sounds perhaps rather like the creaking old idea of “uplift” in the arts. But Sloterdijk is smarter than that.

YMCYL differs from any amount of stuff published under the general rubric of “continental philosophy and theory” insofar as it a determined attempt to hold onto an orientation that other continental writers have problematized the hell out of for the last who knows how many years. That orientation is “good-better-best,” or if you like, “lower-higher-highest.” Sloterdijk sees human being as a fundamentally practicing creature, with practice defined as “any operation that provides or improves the actor’s qualification for the next performance of the same operation, whether it is declared as practice or not.” (p. 4) What matters, then, is repetition with a view to transcendence, and transcendence is a movement upwards, towards the vertical. We are all, in different ways, “vertically challenged”: crippled in some way and finding our purpose and meaning in the overcoming of our disability. A “cripple,” in Sloterdijk’s usage, is not necessarily someone with a physical disability. The word “cripple” comes to denote the basic aspect of all human existence — that of limitation — the only variable being the exact kind of crippling, of which there are countless varieties. I am myself, for example, a cripple of procrastination. One could be a cripple of poverty, a cripple of anger, a cripple of social skills, whatever.

Anyway, the point is, the basic condition of life is (1) the challenge posed by whatever limiting factors are inherent to our environments, and (2) our immunological response to them. And again, “immunological” here is not a purely biological fact, but shades into the realm of culture (culture being, I guess, a kind of prosthesis developed by intelligent biological entities such as ourselves). There is the irritation, and there is the strengthening response. I am reminded of something I heard about Muay Thai fighters who train by kicking their shins on banana trees thousands of times: the irritation to the bone hardens and thickens it, so the shin becomes a great war club the fighter can use with devastating effect on his opponents. A beginning Muay Thai fighter is a cripple of fragility: his bones cannot bear the shock of his proposed use of them. If his body’s response to training is immunological (a thickening of the bones and consequently and increased immunity to breakage that is built up in the same way as we create immunity to certain diseases, by introducing the irritant in non-injurious doses), the entire cultural apparatus of combat sport training that has motivated his practice is immunological as well, though on a more elective and cultural level.

In this view, the condition of human life is rooted in biology, but achieves its fullest expression in the intentional lives of human beings, in the things we choose to do, in willed acts of self-transcendence. In culture, in other words. The “vertical” is whatever lies beyond our present strength. (I suppose this spatial metaphor works because to climb up requires bodily effort that moving laterally does not.) Whatever practice is for Sloterdijk, it is effortful. This is perhaps why the book’s outlook seems rather German to me. It is not that an ethics of effort is only a German thing; Americans are apt to be very effortful as well, in their style. (“Never give up,” “just do it,” etc.) It’s the insistence on effortfulness as a positive virtue, and indeed a nigh-unavoidable one. One of the brilliant touches of Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice is that it makes the its author protagonist Aschenbach (a very particularly German writer) a proselyte of effort, one who praises the weakling called to exertion beyond his strength.

Insisting on a schema of good-better-best or higher-and-lower would seem to run counter to a spirit of easygoing relativism common in the academic humanities, or at least in the pop-cultural part of it where I’ve hung my hat lately. If we say some people are better at something than others, are we not suggesting that some ways of being are better than others? Aren’t we back to the old talk of “high art” and lowbrow pop culture that served to exclude all study of vernacular culture for so long? And if we assert that some cultural pursuits are better than others, can it be long before we start saying that some cultures are better than others? Surely we don’t want to go there.

One might say that there is still a space for relativism in Sloterdijk’s approach, though. There are countless forms of crippling, and so countless forms of practice aimed at overcoming, and who’s to judge from among them? What counts is practice, the form that life takes when humans decide to heed the call of “you must change your life.” If, in the context of my own life, of my sense of direction and purpose and meaning (which can only be a meaning for me**), it makes sense for me to kick banana trees, well, there it is. That’s what I’m going to do. The idea that learning to play cello or paint in watercolors is in some objective way “better” than Muay Thai doesn’t enter into it. That said, Sloterdijk’s contemptuous references of contemporary pop music certainly sound like the expressions of a soul that feels confident to judge what’s high and low in culture. At a certain point it’s probably impossible to avoid making judgments about the relative value of practices. I would guess that most of the readers of this blog who clicked through the link above to the Youtube video of vicious Muay Thai knockouts would feel pretty comfortable arguing that cello playing is a nobler pursuit that competitive fighting. At least that’s the point of view of pretty much every one of my friends and family, to whom my enjoyment of combat sports remains a mystery. Ah well.

Sloterdijk retains one word that has fallen out of regular use, at least in the circles I frequent: “barbarism.” Adorno liked to throw that word around, and we don’t hold it against him (even if what he calls barbarism is, to us pop-savvy pomo intellectuals, nothing barbaric at all). But it does sound funny to hear the word used unironically by a contemporary. Apparently Sloterdijk’s late-1990s philosophical dispute with Habermas had to do with what Habermas took to be a fascist associations of Sloterdijk’s vocabulary. YMCYL seems written in part to refine some of Sloterdijk’s earlier arguments and place them beyond the reach of such associations. In YMCYL barbarism appears only briefly, at the beginning:

Fatally, the term ‘barbarian’ is the password that opens up the archives of the twentieth century. It refers to the despiser of achievement, the vandal, the status denier, the iconoclast, who refuses to acknowledge any ranking rules or hierarchy.

Now, coupled with the ensuing passage about the fatal modern enchantment with barbarism, we might be inclined to dismiss this as a reactionary rant:

Whoever wishes to understand the twentieth century must always keep the barbaric factor in view. Precisely in more recent modernity, it was and still is typical to allow an alliance between barbarism and success before a large audience, initially more in the form of insensitive imperialism, and today in the costumes of that invasive vulgarity which advances into virtually all areas through the vehicle of popular culture. That the barbaric position in twentieth-century Europe was even considered the way forward among the purveyors of high culture for a time, extending to a messianism of uneducatedness, indeed the utopia of a new beginning on the clean slate of ignorance, illustrates the extent of the civiliatory crisis this continent has gone through in the last century and a half—including the cultural revolution downwards, which runs through the twentieth century in our climes and casts its shadow ahead onto the twenty-first.

Sloterdijk’s writing translates badly into our own post-countercultural idioms. I suspect that for some it has a sinister and reactionary ring. For those of us who live in the dotage of the hip sensibility, “the vandal, the status denier, the iconoclast, who refuses to acknowledge any ranking rules or hierarchy” is a heroic figure, because status, icons, rules, and hierarchy are always assumed to be bad. But perhaps you could argue that it was not usually the case that status, rules, etc. had no meaning, but rather that for any given counterculture it is only the existing rules and order that have no meaning. The point of counterculture is to erect different values, not an absence of values. (To be sure, this is seldom admitted and would probably be vehemently denied by, say, people in the hardcore punk scene.) The point is not to assert one set of cultural priorities over another; barbarism, in Sloterdijk’s usage, does not simply connote a set of values I don’t agree with. Barbarism is rather the refusal to acknowledge any form of superiority or attainment, and indeed the desire to vandalize all monuments or traces of such attainment. It is a spirit of true negation, a refusal of the movement upward. The barbarian is not the punk rocker or the gangsta rapper or whatever (because these musicians are each in their own domains striving at some ideal of the vertical), it’s the internet troll who cannot allow any moment of grace to exist without befouling it with a mean, racist, shitty remark.

I am quite willing to accept this notion of barbarism. But I want to take it further. I think we might consider following Sloterdijk’s example and bring back barbarism as a term of cultural evaluation. Some ideas, some expressive acts, are barbaric. And this is leading me back to where I started. But I’m already at 2000 words and have already sailed past the limit of how long even the most patient reader can be expected to read a blog post, so I will try to bring this argument home in the next installment.

*See here for an excellent LARB review essay on YMCYL, which gives a good overview of its arguments.

** I go into this argument at some length in the last chapter of Dig.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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