The Limits of Resemblance

The defining feature of modernity is its inability to reproduce itself within the limits of resemblance”. Such is the economy of expression employed by the German writer, Peter Sloterdijk. Perhaps the sense of the aperçu could even be enhanced by substituting “within the limits of recognition”. Be that as it may, in this interview with Le Figaro, Sloterdijk, as social pathologist, continues his mauling of modern progressivism’s high priesthood, as it quits the House of History in jocular procession, bound for Angela Merkel’s uplands of future-funded compassion. The word might still be mightier than the sword — the experiment is best avoided, but alas it is no match for the pulverizing faith of those who ride the war-horse of modernity. It never will be.

Modernity Yields a Future Without Descent

First published in French 21st October 2016, in Le Figaro

FIGAROVOX/EXTENDED INTERVIEW : “Die permanente Flut. Über ein Bonmot der Madame de Pompadour[The Permanent Flood. On a Witticism of Madame de Pompadour’s], the German philosopher’s last essay, is a masterful treatment of the disequilibrium of a world emancipated from the past and at risk of devouring itself.

Peter Sloterdijk is the author of the trilogy, Sphären [Spheres], much celebrated in Germany, and is unquestionably one of the most eminent figures of contemporary philosophy.

LE FIGARO : The German title of your book [of which Die permanente Flut forms Chapter 1] is, “Die schrecklichen Kinder der Neuzeit” [The Enfants Terribles of Modern Times]. What do you mean by “modern times”?

Peter SLOTERDIJK : Modern times? It’s not enough to put this title on the first page of a journal, as did the editors of Sartre’s magazine at the time… To be modern is not just to engage with the contemporary world, but to continue to modernize it. And to modernize — from the genealogical point of view, or rather anti-genealogical, as I propose in my book — is to push ever further in the direction of deracination, auto-genesis, denial of origins, and also if possible, in the direction of a life without issue or descent. And if it should turn out to be a practical impossibility to lead a life without trace, then let the next generation be created by lateral branching. Contemporary legislation establishes this: illegitimacy is abolished. “There are no longer any children”, said one of Molière’s characters in the 17th century. At the end of the 20th century, rather it was a case of: there are no longer any illegitimate children.

❝ With the moderns, there is a will to widen the boundaries of the normal, and to absorb a large part of what was formerly monstrous into contemporary normality.❞

Who are “the enfants terribles” of these “modern times”?

The most terrible child of our civilization is certainly the unhappy Œdipus, whose evil destiny was to marry his own mother and kill his father without knowing what he was doing. For the Greeks, this was a genealogical catastrophe because it was an inversion of the ordinary course of nature. Œdipus procreated, as it were, backwards! This abomination came as a warning: a monstrosity is always at the door for those who veer from the middle way. A monster is a living creature that breaks the law of genealogy, such as the famous chimera — a combination of goat, dragon, and snake. Hybrids are always dangerous. For the Greeks, the monstrousness of composite creatures was the greatest of all the ills. These creatures were afflicted by sterility, they didn’t reproduce. Each individual of the type is the last of its ‘species’. Curiously, in modern thinking, there is nothing more chic than hybridism, proudly dignified as miscegenation. With the moderns, there is a will to widen the boundaries of the normal, and to absorb a large part of what was formerly monstrous into contemporary normality. Tolerance is a part of modernity, of course, but at the same time so also is the risk of our civilization sweeping itself away.

How so?

The defining feature of modernity is its inability to reproduce itself within the limits of resemblance.

Isn’t this movement appropriate to modern times?

Modern culture certainly rests on the principle of weakened territoriality. It’s a term dear to the hearts of Deleuzians [Gilles Deleuz] — deterritorialization, uprooting, deracination. The romanticizing of ‘deterritorialization’ results in the great contemporary tragedy that we call ‘global migration’. According to demographic statistics relating to the Islamic arc from Morocco to Indonesia, which today is home to more than a billion people, one third of the population would be ready to emigrate if only they could find a host country.

The same thing is happening in sub-Saharan Africa: over there, you see the swelling of an enormous wave of people who are ready to leave their country. But the only host-countries of interest are Europe and the states of the Anglosphere. These latter operate a system that could be called ‘the politics of Fortress Talent’: only qualified migrants are encouraged. In other words, only those who can contribute to the host-country’s GDP are welcome. For the rest, it’s the politics of closed — almost impermeable — borders. In Europe, it’s another matter. There was the now famous event in September 2015, when Angela Merkel made this gesture — whether out of weakness or generosity or mercy, nobody knows… For most observers, it was a grave mistake, and above all a unique gesture not to be repeated.

Migration and nomadism are not the only perspectives. There are also the ‘country folk’ who remain…

You can always find in modern societies people who remain attached to their native territory. But modernity’s grand metamorphosis has crushed classical country life. Around 1800, after the French Revolution, more than 80% of the populations of Germany and France were still rural, deriving their livelihood directly or indirectly from agriculture. By the middle of the 20th century, this figure was down to 3%. Urbanization and modernity’s destiny. And the return to the land by those seeking a ‘tree-change’ is really just another form of urban life, one that includes substantial elements of tourism and romanticism. This return to the countryside has nothing to do with the defence of national roots. It’s just a matter of acquiring second residences.

At the beginning of your book, you use the metaphor of a ship that is continuously being reconstructed while at the same time under navigation. What do you mean?

Controlling a vehicle depends on the existence of some means of arresting its motion. We must have full control over acceleration, as well as the ability to apply the breaks. Our civilization knows only how to accelerate, rendering its overall development uncontrollable. It’s a ride in a train in permanent acceleration, a TGV without a driver or breaks. We don’t even know whether the rails have been laid… [laughter]. Futurism, so to speak, is the act of laying the rails just before the arrival of the train, and of planning the route from inside the carriage. But as there are no breaks, we have no control over the process as a whole. This is what threatens us the most, because we don’t really know how to stop. Even if we wished to, we couldn’t.

Isn’t this just the human condition, faced with current events?

The salient idea came from France in 1919, when Paul Valéry published his anthology, Variété I, in which this famous sentence occurs: “We other civilizations, we now know that we are mortal.” He said this in looking back over the complex of events that we call the First World War. It is the phrase that has echoed the most, both privately and publicly, in the minds of human beings over the last century. The classical world was constructed on this essential distinction: the mortality of men and the permanence of cultures. Eternal culture and transient individuals: this was the classical ontology. Modernity introduces, in the footsteps of Darwinism, the idea that even civilizations can disappear. This is something that, in a way, we’ve known since the days of the French Revolution.

❝ The classical world was constructed on this essential distinction: the mortality of men and the permanence of cultures.❞

In this train without a driver, what wisdom is there for enduring the uncertainty?

The word “wisdom” is well chosen. We’re going to have to re-learn the art of delving into history and of keeping it up over the long term, and of resisting the temptation to frivolity as expressed in Mme de Pompadour’s quip, “Après nous, le déluge” [After us, the Flood]. But let’s be careful: there are people who quote this phrase in a more or less unthinking way, because in so doing they’re saying nothing more than, “let’s have fun”.  The capacity for fun is a part of everyone’s immune system.

Aren’t you being somewhat apocalyptic, a prophet of doom?

On the contrary. You need to be an imperturbable optimist to conduct long-term research, as I have done for my book. I kept myself to a restricted field, which was thinking about genealogy. And in my opinion, in order to understand the destiny of Europeans, you have to go right back to primitive Christianity. There, you understand that the Europeans invented a new way of interpreting the genealogical interval. In reality, there has never been true continuity between parents and children. But it was precisely the ancient world that had tried, with considerable success, to bridge the gap between the generations, to ensure that the appearance of continuity would prevail over the effects of discontinuity. The art of living, the art of being a people, the art of safeguarding cultures in those days, consisted precisely in the ability to minimize the genealogical interval. After the Renaissance, things changed dramatically. What began, was a new cycle in which innovators entered onto the scene and moved things along. This began amongst the artists of the 14th century, amongst the traders of the 14th and 15th centuries, amongst the mechanics and engineers of all modernity, amongst statesmen, in the academic domain, and finally in the field of law. In these six virtuous circles can be seen the process of modernization, and as a result, the beginnings of divergence between the generations. If you live the type of life marked by one or more of these six virtuous circles, then you are a creature of modernity. At the same time, there are many who don’t participate or who are only partially affected. They keep themselves in reserve, they hesitate, they refuse. This is why nations with modern populations can never be homogeneous.

Today, this “perpetual onward thrust” is meeting growing resistance from these populations…

Let’s not forget that people since the beginning of modern times have always feared the new. When the news of Christopher Columbus’ voyage spread, the people were justifiably afraid, except for a small elite: those who wanted to invest in overseas trade. The rest exhibited a protectionist or territorial reflex. For this reason, there have always been very deep internal divisions in modern societies. Because in the absolutist state, the people’s voice is ignored. And even if later they’re listened to, the so-called people are represented by bourgeois elites who silence the voices of those who hesitate and of those who are not true stakeholders in modernization.

Modern times also take in the businesses of Silicon Valley that promote transhumanism, artificial intelligence… What do you think about ‘cyber-progressivism’?

I find it part interesting, part ridiculous. I think it marks the entry of sectarianism into the age of digital thinking. Sectarianism has almost always come from the meeting between superstition and high technology.

❝ The domain of youth is constantly growing and now beginning to absorb the adult population, even the old, who today are doomed to remain young.❞

For you, is it a modern version of ancient superstitions?

Yes, absolutely. Superstition in its pure state. In the 13th century, the cabal, whether Jewish or Christian, resulted from the encounter between literalism, the most advanced grammatical knowledge, and the most ancient superstitions. Superstition is always in search of modernity. Otherwise, it cannot captivate. The greatest of the superstitions is the conviction that one is leading the march of progress.

How can our orphaned society have a posterity by descent?

It’s sufficient to look at how young people see themselves. Since the youth movements in Germany and everywhere in Europe during the years 1900-10, they have begun to detach themselves from the adult world and to create a domain reserved for the young. This domain is constantly growing and now beginning to absorb the adult population, even the old, who today are doomed to remain young. The old headed off into a youth movement, and the young themselves discovered a brilliant strategy: becoming the object of a kind of worship by setting themselves up as models through the use of idols. Just look at Justin Bieber, whose vacuity is such that anyone can project his ‘grandiose dream’ onto the void of the idol.

From the point of view of the theory of civilization, it is the victory of fashion over mores or customs. Enduring customs are necessarily the losers in a world of simultaneous imitation. One day, an haute-couturier presents a fashion design in Paris, and a year later the women of Dijon are wearing it. This is exactly the moderns’ pattern of imitation. Elsewhere, this effect was known in the Middle Ages, when it was claimed that women were the instruments of the devil. Imitation of the contemporary is always seductive. In every epoch, the devil is devilishly modern. §