A training program in transformation: Implications of Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the tenth and final 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 Sloterdijk’s principal theses is available here. An overview of my posts (what I term ‘the thrust of his argument’) can be found here

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Let us recall that Sloterdijk has investigated whether human beings qua practicing animals can overcome their bad habits. His conclusion is that in the past some extraordinary persons and groups of practitioners have. Let us remind ourselves further of the conceptual muddle shining forth in the modern period:

Modernity is the time in which those humans who hear the call to change no longer know where they should start: with the world or with themselves–or with both at once. (323)

I believe Sloterdijk’s answer clearly resounds that am called to change my life, a project of self-cultivation that can occur alongside those who have also heard such a call addressed to each of them. This untimely time Sloterdijk designates ‘antique.’

In his ‘Retrospective’ to You Must Change Your Life, Sloterdijk calls for an inventory of ‘salutogenic energies’ with a view to my transforming my life along with that of those who are my fellow ascetics.

Now is the time [he writes] to call to mind anew all those forms of the practicing life that continue to release salutogenic energies, even where the overelevations to metaphysical revolutions in which they were initially bound up have crumbled. Old forms must be tested for reusability and new forms invented. Another cycle of secessions [from bad habits, vague notions, negative affects, and, above all, ordinary life] may begin in order to lead humans out once again–if not out of the world, then at least out of dullness, dejection and obsession, but above all out of banality, which Isaac Babel termed the counter-revolution. (441)

From the outset, Sloterdijk has urged that (1) secessions from ordinary life have occurred and can occur again; that (2) this kind of break from ordinary life constitutes a ‘conversion,’ that is, a double turning away and toward a new way of life; and that (3) ascetics have thrown themselves into exercises whose purpose is both to ‘cement’ this separation from ordinary life and to ‘tighten’ the vertical tension pulling them toward what is higher, greater, fuller. Yet since Sloterdijk does not present us with a program, however roughly sketched, of the transformation of our ‘salutogenic energies’ in the present time, I think it worthwhile to offer such a training program that could track his account. I do so here.

The first part of the program would disclose more fully the character of modern ordinary life: work as productivity, civil society as forms of diversion, friendship as utility or reciprocal pleasure, love as sentimentality, and final aims (teloi) as being health, prosperity, longevity, and overall comfort. All of these constitute an implicit training program (a routine or set of routines) which reproduces each person’s poor habits: the worker making himself into the ‘productive worker,’ the private person into the ‘easily entertained’ consumer, the friend into the ‘well-connected colleague’ or ‘fun-loving guy,’ the lover into the ‘nostalgic sentimentalist,’ and, most of all, the aspirant into a healthy-minded, wealth-seeking, long-living creature. This is one vivid picture of Nietzsche’s Last Man.

The ascetic who had the courage to secede from ordinary life would have to reject all of these assumptions, desires, and routines. For instance, if he loves another, he must love her in a completely different fashion. If his telos is no longer the ordinary goods, then it must be a conception of what is higher. And so on.

The second part of the program would seek to provide a phenomenological analysis of the fullness of what is higher. The techniques the ascetic utilizes or recreates would have to discover this fullness rather than taking fullness for granted (e.g., it is assuredly the One) as well as articulate the essence of this fullness, if only in an esoteric way. To articulate this fullness is a linguistic necessity for the one who seeks to understand and to accord with what is higher.

The third part of the program would invoke exercises that are specially constructed for the ascetic, particularly tailored to retrain his tendencies, proclivities, and disposition. If he happens to be afraid of scarcity, he will have to practice overcoming the idea of lack wherever it has lurked in his life (and it may lurk out in the open or in hiding). This regimen may be strongly influenced by the apophatic claims to, one by one, ‘clean out’ or ‘forget’ the sorts of perceptions, affects, and confused notions that forestall approximating oneself to this sense of fullness.

The final part of the program would have to make plain how the first three parts are already altering, modifying, refashioning the ascetic’s way of conducting himself in the world. Even though he has transcended ordinary life, he has not transcended living in the world. His transformation would set an earnest example of the Socratic thesis that ‘the good man cannot be harmed.’

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