Overcoming alienation: On Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the eighth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

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I am nearing the end of my excursus into the exercises that athletes of the spirit perform on themselves in order (a) to secede from ordinary life and (b) to unify themselves with the cosmos. How this secession-unification nexus will work will change according to particular program followed by the particular community of practitioners.

I have discussed Stoterdijk’s claims regarding overcoming scarcity, burden, and sexual desire. It is not that one stops eating, ceases existing, or refuses to have sex; it is rather that one is freed completely from the compulsions of eating, the sense of burden, and the sexual appetites for one has overcome the erroneous claims that ‘one has to do X….’

I am now concerned with alienation. The claim is that there is an ‘enemy’ to living, one that oppresses me, thereby making life inhospitable or unlivable. In ‘Against Domination and Enmity,’ Stoterdijk makes the Nietzschean argument that the ascetic freely and actively submits himself to forms of coercion in order to be free. There is no freedom without the path of coercion; no higher freedom without the program of self-submission or self-surrender. Nietzsche’s counterintuitive conclusions run counter to those in modernity (save, perhaps, Kant’s concerning the rational person’s giving the moral law to himself), which distinguish between zones of coercion (e.g., the state) and spaces of freedom (e.g., the private sphere).

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Overcoming sexual desire: On Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the seventh set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

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Stoterdijk has written a book on anthropotechnics. He wants to redescribe human beings as those creatures who train themselves–some doing so explicitly, most implicitly–to become who they are. He wants to show, based on Nietzsche’s vitalizing distinction, that some training programs are life-enhancing while others are life-degrading.

In more recent posts, I have been examining how the adept, who has already seceded from ordinary life, trains himself to become extraordinary. Stoterdijk claims that material scarcity, life as a burden, sexual need, alienation, and death are the ‘five fronts’ upon which practitioners have fought. Today, I turn my sights on the third front with an eye to exercises concerned with overcoming sexual desire.

The dilemma of sexual desire has to do with rejection and affirmation. If one rejects sexual desire, then one’s desires can become infinite and perverse (call this the transgressive path). Yet if one simply affirms one’s sexual desire as it is, then the latter remains crude, course, unrefined (call this the pornographic tack). Hence, certain periods of human history have been deemed prudish or repressive with the response being that what is called for is sexual openness. Thus, the various dyads: pagan/Christian; Epicurean/Christian; Victorian/fin de siecle; 50s/sexual revolution–the list could be extended almost indefinitely. From a philosophical point of view, these dyads are not ways of overcoming sexual desire but rather forms of mutual reinforcement. In The Scarlet Letter, Arthur Dimmesdale first has sex with Hester Prynne, only to lacerate himself afterward. The two go hand-in-hand.

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Overcoming burden: Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the sixth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

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Recall that Stoterdijk is singularly focused on how the practicing animal can become more than he is. Having seceded from the buzz and chatter of ordinary life, the practitioner has now made the aim of his life that of putting his life to the test.

In Chapter 12, ‘Exercises and Misexercises,’ Stoterdijk suggests that there are five main fronts upon which they have fought. These are ‘material scarcity, the burden character of existence, sexual drive, alienation and the involuntary nature of death’ (416).

In the last post, I analyzed Stoerdijk’s claims concerning how the practitioner overcomes material scarcity. Not far from the layperson’s fear of hunger is that of the ‘burden character of existence’ (417). When one takes oneself to be overtaxed by the task of living, he either seeks forms of ‘hardenings’ or moments of ‘little escapes’ (417). We can tease out the implications of these two strategies. On the one hand, one can harden oneself to the point of ‘coldness’ (Adorno) so that one becomes as insensible to the vibrations of life–of the well-cultivated mind and senses–as to the ethical claims of others. On the other hand, one can fantasize about the kinds of escapes from burden that will count as times of pleasure and enjoyment. This form of momentary release is called vacation. Both strategies are foolish.

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Why are there so many claiming to be victims today?

My answer, which came during a conversation with one philosophical friend the other day, is only partial. Its scope is limited: today means ‘the modern age.’ And victimhood is restricted to ordinary claims about failure to secure certain goods. So, the discussion does not go so far as to take up the kinds of claims made, say, by those who were oppressed by a colonial power.

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What’s a commonly held conception today?  

A: The victim conception.  

And how did the victim conception gain wide appeal?  

A: Because the materialist picture of human flourishing won out in modernity.  

My thesis is that the materialist picture of human flourishing assumes that human beings are reducible to material bodies that pursue pleasures and avoid pains. The ordinary goods they seek to secure are (a) security, (b) longevity, (c) health, and (d) comforts. (NB. These goods are quite similar to those sought during a pre-Axial age.)

So that someone who cannot secure (a), (b), (c), or (d) would likely conclude that the world is unjust and, moreover, that he is a victim. What is unjust, according to him, is that everyone else can secure (a) – (d) yet she cannot and cannot hope to.  To the extent that it is impossible for him to secure what is good, to that extent is he a victim.

The assumptions the victim makes are (1) that he cannot conceive of or imagine a higher life than the one provided by the materialist picture of human flourishing (e.g., someone with an illness who ascends beyond the corporeal toward communion with the One) and (2) that the modern world has failed to provide her with any suitable alternatives (e.g., saintliness, martial glory, the common good, the tranquil soul, etc.).

The limits of any victim’s conception run parallel to modernity’s failure to move beyond an ‘immanent frame’ in order to supply him with an idea of what is higher. If Socrates is right that we can only desire what is good and if, for him, there is no good left, then the victim shall sooner or later slide into self-pity and nihilism.

Overcoming material scarcity: On Stoterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the fifth set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). The first set of reflections can be read here. A summary of Stoterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

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If, as Stoterdijk insists, human beings are first and foremost practicing animals and if some practicing animals take human flourishing as their ultimate aim, then how do these practitioners go about becoming excellent in the art of living? In Chapter 12, ‘Exercises and Misexercises,’ Stoterdijk suggests that there are five main fronts upon which they have fought. These are ‘material scarcity, the burden character of existence, sexual drive, alienation and the involuntary nature of death’ (416). Today, I examine material scarcity.

Material scarcity has to do with needs: with the ways in which we are connected to, as well as dependent upon, some goods beyond us in order to maintain our existence.So food and water do not ‘come from  us’ or ‘reside within us’; they must be sought after, collected, and taken in again and again in order for us to persist in our human existence. These needs include having adequate food, water, shelter, warmth when it is cold, and coolness when it too warm. The assumption is that human beings qua human beings cannot get beyond their needs so long as they wish to persist in finitude. Can this assumption be challenged or loosened? Can we be freed, if not from the fact of eating, then from its pressingness, its urgency, its franticness?

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