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?

To overcome material scarcity, which is evinced most pressingly in the case of hunger, Stoterdijk writes with great insight that Brahmans

transformed hunger into a voluntary act of fasting; they turned a humiliating passivity into an ascetic action. The disempowerment of hunger led directly to the emancipation from the compulsion to work. Whoever chooses abstinence exits the producing life and knows only exercises. (416)

Brahmans, rejecting the above assumption, sever the connection between needs and vitality, between mere animality and what exceeds bare life. A human being’s fasting frees him from the burdensome sense of the ‘have to’: I have to eat (just now), I have to sleep (now), I have to work (now). I take this claim from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols, which is also cited by Stoterdijk: ‘Every characteristic absence of spirituality, every piece of common vulgarity, is due to an inability to resist the stimulus–you have to react, you [have to] follow every impulse.’ 

This is a rigorous exercise in autonomy, which supplants the ‘tyranny of need’ (417) with the act of affirming what is; which seeks transcendence of the merely contingent; which heads beyond human conventions; and, not the least, which prepares me for dying my own death.

One may draw back from these radical conclusions concerning overcoming hunger for good in order to arrive at a clearer understanding of what is ‘just enough.’ On the more moderate view, fasting allows one to consider what is just enough food, just enough water, just enough shelter, and the like, and these all turn out to be quite minimal, essential. Coming to understand the ‘just enough’ and to grasp that ‘just enough’ is, for many but not for all people, rather easily secured, one can withdraw from the fear of want and from the three-fold compulsions to overwork, over-consume, and over-copulate. Overworking, over-consuming, over-copulating are all born of a desire to take in more of what is exterior in the false hope of ending scarcity forever by means of ‘hoarding.’

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