Peter Sloterdijk is Germany’s most controversial thinker and media theorist. He has dared to challenge long-established divisions in traditional philosophy of body and soul, subject and object, culture and nature. His 1999 lecture on “Regulations for the Human Park,” in which he argued that genetic engineering was a continuation of human striving for self-creation, stirred up a tempest in a country known for Nazi eugenics. At the same time, he himself has concluded that "the taming of man has failed” as civilization’s potential for barbarism has grown ever greater. His seminal books include “Critique of Cynical Reason” and his trilogy, “Spheres.”
At a recent Berggruen Center on Philosophy and Culture symposium on humans and technology at Cambridge University’s St. John's School of Divinity, The WorldPost discussed with Sloterdijk the end of borders between humans and technology, the cloud, singularity and identity in the age of globalization.
For years now, you have been arguing that a new type of being was coming into existence, as the human species fuses with its technological prosthetics -- “anthropo-technology.” In this new being, man and machine are becoming one integrated, operative system linked by information.
All these years later, our consciousness has expanded into the cloud and the cloud into our consciousness; we have also learned to read, write and edit the genetic code, giving us the knowledge to purposively amend millennia of evolution.
How does your concept of “anthropo-technology” differ, or how is it similar, to that of futurist and AI proponent Ray Kurzweil’s idea of “singularity”? Kurzweil sees not only an epistemic break with the past, but a new phase of evolution altogether that reaches beyond consciousness into being and biology.
The concept of “anthropotechnics” rests on the hypothesis that the current psychophysical and social constitution of the species Homo sapiens -- note the evolutionist emphasis of this classification -- is based substantially on autogenic effects. In this context, the term “autogenic” means “brought about by the repercussions of actions on the actor.” The human being -- especially in so-called “advanced civilizations” -- is the animal that molds itself into its own pet. While evolution means adaptation to a natural environment, domestication means, from the outset, adaptation to the artificial.
What we call “civilizations” in moral and cultural-theoretical terms are, from the perspective of biological anthropology (which deals with the animal/human distinction), the result of a long sequence of auto-domestications. Tens of thousands of years before the Greek oracle could write the motto “Know thyself” above the place of encounter with the truth, the great mothers, chieftains and sorcerers had applied a different one to the lives of their own kind: “Tame thyself!” This led to what would become known much later as “education” -- in Greek paideia, in Latin humanitas, in Sanskrit vinaya, in Chinese wenhua and in German Bildung.
“While evolution means adaptation to a natural environment, domestication means, from the outset, adaptation to the artificial.”
The term “anthropotechnics” points to the fact that the process of the humans’ domestication by humans, which began very early on, retains an open future. Firstly, it describes the largely unconscious secession of humans from pure animality -- whereby they became not only members of the “symbolic species,” a “ritual animal” (as Wittgenstein remarked on occasion), indeed a mythological narrative animal, but also a technical creature. Secondly, it points to future possibility of conscious self-shaping through forms of training of the mind, through chemical modifications, perhaps even through genetic impulses.
The concept of “anthropotechnics” thus refers to the entire autopoiesis, or self-creation, of “mankind” in its many thousands of cultural specializations. It is empirical, pluralistic and egalitarian from the ground up -- in the sense that all individuals, as heirs to the memory of mankind, are free to surpass themselves.
Ray Kurzweil’s idea of “singularity,” by contrast, contains futuristic, monistic and elitist elements. Although “singularity,” according to its logical and rhetorical design, is meant to integrate mankind as a whole, it is evident that it could only encompass a tiny group of exceptional transhuman individuals.
Kurzweil argues that expanding our minds into the cloud and vice versa will create more diversity and less uniformity because we will have access to almost infinite information with which to fertilize our imagination and construct our personality. Do you agree with this line of thinking?
In speaking of the “cloud,” Kurzweil positions himself in a field that is preformatted by traditional philosophy. With his concept of the “objective spirit,” Hegel outlined the formal premise of a “cloud”: these consist in the “expressions” of the spirit, which have solidified into institutions. Institutions are programs for cultural transmission handed down to future generations.
It should not be especially difficult to develop the concepts of “spirit” and “institution” into the concept of the cloud. Clouds are liquidized institutions, as it were, in which the mass of prior experience that is capable and worthy of transmission is made available for later interested parties.
The difference between a cloud and a school reveals itself in the fact that in the former, the autodidactic (and eo ipso auto-domesticative) factor increases -- whereas schools, as prototypes of formal institutions, are principally heterodidactic (authoritative) and conservative (hetero-domesticative) in their structures.
“We don’t know today whether the clear sky, or the cloud that covers it, is the information.”
What clouds and schools have in common is that both wrestle with a nonsense problem: schools can never be entirely sure of passing on what is worth knowing, and cloud visitors are all the more incapable of distinguishing with certainty between nonsense and no nonsense. One part of the modern-postmodern situation is the instability of the difference between institutionalized and de-institutionalized knowledge.
In this respect, one must take the cloud metaphor seriously in a literal sense: clouds cover up the clear sky. The current infospheric encasement of the human field is the continuation of the “objective spirit” by other means -- and today, those are digital means.
It had already become evident in the 19 century how far the “objective spirit” can transform into an ideology and communicative plague (propaganda). The first half of the 20 century belonged entirely to the conflict among (pre-digital) ideological clouds. The second half of the 20 century brought -- in the form of the Cold War -- a form of ceasefire in the war of clouds.
“To counter the new empires of lie and perspectival distortion, a renewal of the idea of enlightenment is indispensable.”
It is unforeseeable whether the hyper-cloud of the 21 century will end the regional immersion in institutionalized untruths that was typical of the 20century. Nor do we know today whether the clear sky, or the cloud that covers it, is the information.
Anyone who uses the word “cloud” in the singular risks falling prey to mystification. At present, once more, there are several cloud systems, and what we once called the Cold War now returns as the war of clouds. One of the nasty surprises of the incipient 21 century is that the demons of propaganda have returned in a digitally updated form. To counter the new empires of lie and perspectival distortion, a renewal of the idea of enlightenment is indispensable.
Perhaps a better phrase than artificial intelligence would be “intelligent artifice”; and for humans in this future, “artificial humans.” In other words, the “authentic self” and being-in-the-world is no longer separated from our tools. It is “the world-in-being” as well as vice versa?
“Artificial intelligence” is a hybrid term for the long-familiar phenomenon that in artifacts (tools, works and institutions), the intentions of the producers survive almost independently of their products. That is precisely what was expressed in Hegel’s concept of objective spirit. What is objective is the intelligence invested in tools, works and institutions by their producers, which subsequently separated from them to be absorbed and applied by other intelligences (subjective spirit, pupils, users).
Now, Cecil Rhodes’ dictum “Expansion is all” only applies to the sphere of the political with significant qualifications. For the current worlds of money and information, by contrast, it is all the more valid. The spheres of artificial intelligence and intelligent artificiality develop of their own accord an expansionist constitution that has increasingly permeated all aspects of existence. In this sense, existence in the technical world per se is characterized by ever-greater artificialization. Modern and postmodern humans not only live in the “house of Being” (as Heidegger called language), but increasingly in the abode of the technosphere.
Identity in the Age of Globalization
You have noted that, since the rupture that gave birth to modernity, human civilization has moved from the era of “humanism and the nation state” to “ecology and globalization,” from the “agrarian patriotism” in which identity is tied to the earthy virtue of place to the “global self.” What is the locus of identity for the global self if it has been de-territorialized? Not in the heavens, but in the cloud?
More than a few contemporary thinkers have defined the 20 century as an age of global mobilization. Actually, this period -- or rather, that beginning with the Industrial Revolution of the 18 century -- saw the dissolution of the immemorial alliance between humans and territory (Oswald Spengler spoke of culture and landscape) that had defined the age of agrarian sedentarism. Thus begins the adventure of post-sedentary life forms -- and eo ipso of liquidized identities. These not infrequently appear in a costume of nomadic romanticism. It feeds off the notion that the moderns’ constant state of transit is accompanied by the return to a deeper truth about human beings.
In this respect, the philosopher Vilém Flusser probably hit the mark when he stated that humans do not necessarily belong to a territorialized nation (a “home”). This was exemplified by the Judaism of the diaspora era -- but they need at all times and in all places a suitable home in which to anchor themselves existentially. Homelessness constitutes a worse fate than statelessness. What we call a residence is the place in which one gains relief through habituation.
This (Heidegger-inspired) interpretation of the human being as a residential being corresponds to the concept of “connected isolations” developed some decades ago by the American architectural firm Morphosis to describe the modus vivendi of post-sedentary “society.” The phrase points to the modern challenge of creating a balance between isolation (literally: island formation) and connectivity (context formation).
Isn’t the dialectic of yearning for belonging in such a vacuum of community creating a backlash? We see it today with religious fervor and nationalism all around. Is this a search for the security of identity and recognition in the “womb” of the volk, or your “bubbles” which are the containers of identity and meaning? What ought to be the response to this new tribalism?
The same applies to the traditional tension between the will to independence and the will to belong. So-called “new tribalism” is a virtually inevitable reaction to the progressive individualization of modernity. It tries to generate synthetic social bonds where the natural ones have been broken. Only future historical experience can show whether such bonds can be produced without regressive fictions.
“'New tribalism' is a virtually inevitable reaction to the progressive individualization of modernity.”
The most malign form of regressive political factionalism manifests itself today in the new terror tribes, which are termed, in some cases rightly, a return of fascism. Fascism (as it emerged in Europe in the shadow of World War I, as a rejection of demobilization) is a martial tribalism whose ambition is to reform the whole of “society” on the model of a combat league.
Order and Chaos in Modern China
Finally, a question on East and West in this context. You have argued that the “excess reality” mobilized by modern energies outstrips any narrative of origins and continuity that can tie a globally synchronized world together. The steady disruption of these energies has led to persistent asymmetry and disequilibrium, a lack of balance. “All that is solid melts into air.” All attempts at re-founding legitimacy and narratives of origin are frustrated.
Thus, there is only a kind of corrosive entropy away from order that saps “cosmological confidence.” I wonder how true this is in China? You might say the Chinese Communist Party (like the “institutional civilization” that preceded it throughout many dynasties) sees its main task as resisting the flow of entropy by seeking to establish and maintain equilibrium -- a political rudder, so to speak, to keep the ship from capsizing amid the swells of unleashed modern energies.
To do so, it aims above all to prevent any counter-hegemony (or worse, no ideological hegemony) from arising out of the chaos by grafting the narrative origins of the present system’s legitimacy and continuity -- Mao -- to the narrative of China’s millennia-long Confucian and Daoist cosmology. This bound the Chinese together as a civilization long before the nation-state and mass media.
“There is great disorder under Heaven, and the situation is excellent.”
Unlike the West, in China today there seems to be a kind of inner-civilizational confidence -- not a lack of cosmological confidence -- that prevails. Perhaps the West is only experiencing something new that China has experienced over and over again for 2000 years -- many episodes of upheaving change over centuries have led to an obsession with order.
China, perhaps, has learned to maintain civilizational continuity after perennial bouts of disruption. In more recent times, remember Mao: “All under the heavens are in disorder; the situation is excellent.” Mao was the deluge. Now China authorities are attempting to refound legitimacy and continuity by linking the future to the past. Circular time still maintains in China, and so does balance against asymmetry.
Might all this suggest that in the East, the old patterns of symmetry, balance and circular time remain? Perhaps the “myth,” the noble lie close enough to the truth, still works in China? Maybe the modern West is just too young yet to gauge the whole picture?
As a non-Sinologist and admiring observer of the “Chinese phenomenon,” I tend to be restrained with judgments about the course of events in that part of the civilization universe.
It seems to me, however, that my statements about the growing asymmetries in the process of modernity are also applicable to China. China may have averted a demographic disaster in the last half-century, but its contribution to environmental disasters -- local and global -- seems immense.
“It could be that in the longer term, China will form the decisive counterweight to the Jurassic Park of Western modernity.”
For the political and cultural intelligence of the future, one can say with a degree of certainty that, in the coming century, it will develop a conceptual system of coordinates based on the difference between the sustainable and the non-sustainable. It is reasonable to assume that China’s vote will be of increasing importance in this context. The rest of the world will learn to see China not only as the paradigm of cunning despotism, but also as a civilization that affords the principles of symmetry, balance, circularity and continuity an appropriate status -- in contrast to Western nations, which are less and less in control of their great experiment with asymmetry, imbalance, irreversibility and discontinuity. It could be that in the longer term, China will form the decisive counterweight to the Jurassic Park of Western modernity.
At the same time, it cannot be overlooked that China itself has incorporated many motifs from the Western civilization of asymmetry. These, as China’s political leadership has evidently recognized, contain a high explosive potential. In light of this, it is a sign of the civilization-critical wisdom of tomorrow to remain alert as a “comparatist” of the Western and Eastern paths.
This interview was translated by Wieland Hoban and is part of the WorldPost Series on Exponential Technology.
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