Conversion and elitism: A propaedeutic to reading Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life

This is the third set of reflections on Peter Sloterdijk’s You Must Change Your Life: On Anthropotechnics (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013). In the post below, I am tacking back, by way of Charles Taylor’s work, in order to understand how Stoterdijk arrived at his version of neo-Nietzschean elitism.

The first set of reflections can be read here.

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Before one comes to the question, ‘How is conversion possible?’ one must confront the genuine challenge that modernity has a truck with the very idea of conversion. One place where the refusal of conversion is in great evidence is in the realm of the therapeutic. In A Secular Age, Charles Taylor discusses the triumph of the therapeutic in terms of two basic claims. I cite him at length:

The modern therapeutic perspective develops partly out of the Enlightenment (in inspiration, Lockean) idea that the human agent is malleable; on the basis of certain fundamental motivations (e.g., seeking pleasure, avoiding pain), the agent can be trained to identify his ends in a variety of different ways. To redefine these ends through re-education thus does not force him to abandon an intrinsic direction of his being; and if it ends up making him better able to adjust to everyone else, it can lead to greater harmony, greater general desire-fulfillment, and thus a gain all around.

The other source of the triumph of the therapeutic is the desire to do away with the category of sin, which attributes at some level an ill will to the sinner. The deviant is a victim of bad training or illness; he is not there as an agent endorsing his lamentable, destructive behaviour, someone we should therefore condemn; rather he is caught in a cycle of compulsion, from which we can liberate him through therapy. (633, my emphasis)

Taylor’s argument against the therapeutic dispensation turns on the assumption that there is a loss of transcendence. Under this regime of thought, there are only ordinary goods to be pursued and secured, with greater or lesser a degree of success. If transcendence is impossible, then one might subscribe to a materialist view according to which human beings are malleable (what changes is only the already-existing) and exculpable (since one’s conduct, already reduced considerably to behavior, is not up to one). It seems that the patient or client is, at bottom, merely a being who suffers and so is in need of help or amelioration of his condition.

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Philosophy as metanoetics

Excerpt from Tanabe Hajime, Philosophy as Metanoetics, trans. Takeuchi Yoshinori, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

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[L]ife consists of the continuous practice of “death-and-resurrection.” Metanoesis is practicing, and also being made to practice, this “death-and-resurrection” according to criteria of the value and meaning of our existence, or, more correctly, of the valuelessness and meaninglessness of our existence. It must begin with a casting away of the self that is no longer qualified to exist because it is forced to recognize, through suffering and sorrow, that its being is valueless.

This means that metanoesis (zange) is the exact opposite of despair in the ordinary sense, which consists of getting discouraged at ourselves, asserting our negative self, and growing increasingly vexed to the point of forgetting the fact that we have been condemned to original sin. In contrast, zange is a true self-surrender that consists not in a recalcitrant despair but in a submissive one, a despair in which we renounce all hope for and claim to justification. Submissive despair thus preserves the permanent wish that our being be as it ought to be. Through such despair we suffer from the serious discrepancy in our being that which “ought to be” and that which is “as it is.” Through zange we regard ourselves as truly not deserving to be, and thereby enter fully into a state of genuine despair leading to self-surrender.

Riverdance

I was slow about it. First I took off my boots and set them aside. Then my woolen socks whose bands I rolled over once. Then my long, white shirt which caught up my long hair as it came off slowly. Finally my pants which were tied once round my waist with twine. My underwear I let fall.

The river was colder than I had imagined and I shivered in anticipation. My abdomen would clench, as would my loins, though neither would get wet.

The water was not deep, only a few feet to the bottom, and murky. As I walked along clumsily, then lightly, then naively over silk and pebble, the sun shone around and through me and the trees leaned their fingertips riverward. The more I walked into the unknown, the more I awoke, unknowing.

In my riverdance, I found breath and hearing ears and the first day, for I was lungs and sound.

‘I can’t believe it’: Awakening to philosophical life

Yesterday evening amid the falling coolness–yesterday only a week shy of the time we’d first met two months prior, yesterday also only one week before her 30th birthday, yesterday of the stern stalked tulips with their playful, velvety heads, yesterday therefore so close to death–we were walking out of the Conservancy Garden when she told me a story about being awoken with a start. She awoke one morning last week to a man shooting “Fuck” and to a woman replying, perhaps in a tone of despair, “I can’t believe it.” She did not see the man or the woman, only heard their voices and later saw, outside her apartment window, men and women walking to work in a hurry.

She awoke and looked while others remained in bed. In the quarter-turn from an unforeseeable, life-altering event to the mumbling of unintelligible words, we awake for the first time to philosophy. The passersby in the stream of life will keep on their way, immersed in their habits, clinging to sleep, the habits of sleep so familiar. The passersby will go on, going faster and faster toward their destination. Then too the woman who shrieks in despair will, unless she is fully awakened from her dogmatic slumber, will blanch, then shrink from the scene of horror, returning quickly to her affairs. Two further stories my conversation partner related brought this latter point home, both stories being about acquaintances who approached death (one who actually died) and who remained unchanged, fast asleep till the end.

But will my conversation partner, this beautiful woman looking out the window at horror and disbelief, gazing at the wreckage of life, will she turn her face to philosophy? Will she become alive to life? She already has.

How can we awaken to philosophical life?

We can learn to love our fate (amor fati). This life-altering event we affirm with all our courage and love. By affirming it, we aver that it cannot be otherwise. “It is so; it cannot be otherwise.” Or, as with Ecclesiastes, we grant that the season of change is ever upon us.

Or we can let our reason follow the postulate of sufficient reason. Each event, never in the end surprising, fits somehow or other into an order of things: something or other has brought it about, and it is headed toward somewhere or other. Falling in with the flow of the river rather than being pulled down or under, we can come to understand how we fit with genesis and persistence, with persistence and perishing, with perishing and natality. In this way, our lives come to have reasons for being and becoming, hanging together like a well-made sheet.

Or our lives, as if for the first time, can be finally up to us. Not another’s, not our mother’s, but ours. When our life is up to us, we can inquire about how we would have to be in order to be open to radiance. Recognizing the life-altering event as a call to live otherwise than how we have lived, recognizing that we must grant the event its reality while sorting out how what we can live-believe more lovingly, we seek a life–for the first time our own–that can be lived according to our understandings and commitments. We seek a life that we can live, that fits us, that we can make our own. Awakened to life, our own, we aspire to believe that this is happening to us, to make of ourselves into believable beings, to find a home that we can believe in. How to do this we do not know. That we can and must–that we know full well.