Overcoming sexual desire: On Sloterdijk’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 Sloterdijk’s principal theses is available here.

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Sloterdijk 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. Sloterdijk 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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Do we desire what is good, or do we call good what we desire?

Socrates and Aristotle both say that we desire what is (or what we perceive to be) good. Spinoza and Nietzsche both believe that we call good what is it that we (already) desire. Who is right?

David Wiggins suggests that we do not have to choose. Parsing Aristotle, he writes, ‘The good is the sort of thing we wish for because we think it good, not something we think good because it is what we wish for’ (‘Deliberation and Practical Reason,’ 231). In the endnote, he helpfully remarks,

It is the beginning of philosophical wisdom on this matter, both as an issue of interpretation and as a philosophical issue, to see that we do not have to choose between Aristotle’s proposition [‘We desire it because it is good for us’] and its apparent opposite [Spinoza’s]. We can desire it because it seems good and it seems good because we desire it. (239)

I believe for any rationalist that the first is easier to see than the second (which appears unapologetically voluntarist). I may desire love because it seems good to me, but why it also true that love seems good to me because I desire it? Could I not be in error?

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Plotinus on beauty (an exhortation)

In “On Beauty” (Ennead 1.6), Plotinus invites us to consider “what it is that attracts the gaze of those who look at something, and turns and draws them to it and makes them enjoy the sight.” He thinks this is a particularly good question into what makes something beautiful when it is so called (his answer will be Form), but could it not also be a more general question about what draws us toward the goods of life–an insight into what attracts us, what moves us, what entreats us, enjoins us, implores us? What–yes–calls to and pleads with us? Could it be that answering this question would be the key to understanding ourselves? Why does the light that falls from the good also shine upon us an aura of beauty, allowing us a glimpse into, a vision of what could matter most? Let us see.

On blurbs and encomia

Had my encomium been turned into a blurb?

On Sunday, I’d received a nice note in my inbox to the effect that the first issue of the Journal of Modern Wisdom had been selling at a good clip at the local book shops in Cambridge. A few weeks prior, I’d sent a favorable review of JMW to Ben Irvine, Editor and man of parts, and a couple weeks after that Ben and I had had a fine chat over Skype.

In the email and on the website, I saw that Ben had taken excerpts from the review:

I took immense pleasure [I wrote in my review] in reading the Journal of Modern Wisdom from start to finish. The artwork alone makes it well worth the purchase. I love how Thai Beltrame’s illustrations are threaded throughout the journal almost as if they were part of a flip book. The reader feels such joy upon encountering a door, a moon, a galaxy, a simple joy that a child experiences in the presence of the smallest thing… In my view, [I go on] the best kind of philosophy inhabits the middle realm between the lower bound of self-help and the upper bound of analytic philosophy… The best essays in the Journal of Modern Wisdom manage to inhabit this realm, and that’s a good thing, a very good thing indeed.

All of which led me to ask whether there is a difference between a blurb and an encomium and to consider whether that mattered in the end. I’m not sure there is a difference, apart from historical context and our vexed attitude toward the marketplace, but I am sure that it matters.

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As Silva Rhetoricae tells us, an encomium is “praise for a person or thing for being virtuous.” The pupil who praises the right person is learning how to sew her eloquent words into worthwhile things (the beautiful supervenes on the good). She is exercising good perception: how to look at the right things in the right way. Moreover, she is cultivating just generosity. The object of her attention “calls” her to, or “entreats” her to, give the thing its due. Writing an encomium is thus a meditation on self and other, one exercise among others in the practice of self-transformation. In praise, she comes to love.

But can a blurb be a praisesong, or must it be something else entirely? The historical record is mixed. In 1914, Gelett Burgess, in his Burgess Unabridged, defines a blurb as a

flamboyant advertisement; an inspired testimonial. 2. Fulsome praise; a sound like a publisher.‥ On the ‘jacket’ of the ‘latest’ fiction, we find the blurb; abounding in agile adjectives and adverbs, attesting that this book is the ‘sensation of the year’.

From Burgess’s remarks, it can be inferred that a blurb is precisely that figure of speech–the hyperbole–that cannot give something its due. A blurb is unjust in that it sings the praises of that which is not worthy of such praise. It is flattery, period, and flattery involves praising the wrong thing full stop or praising the right thing for the wrong reason or praising the right thing but overly much. Encoded in the blurb are all  kinds of vice–ignorance, dishonesty, deceit, garrulity, injustice, hot air–vices trotted out for the sake of pushing product.

Burgess’s was not the final word on the matter, however. The Times Literary Supplement, in 1926, says more soberly that a blurb is “The paragraph briefly setting forth the merits of the book.”  TLS, therefore, does not weigh in on whether the blurb is accurate in its assessment of the work’s merits. Whereas Burgess had assumed that the interests of the market trump the evaluation of merit, TLS remained agnostic.

It would not be an overstatement to say that our ambivalence surrounding the concept of the blurb is also a sign of our deeper and more longstanding ambivalence about the messy relationship among the virtues, craftsmanship, and the marketplace. For what reasons do I praise a work? Does it matter that the praise is short or long? Does it make any difference whether the praise has been copied, pasted, and inserted in a new context (the French philosopher Jacques Derrida once wrote of “iterability” in connection with hermeneutics)? How about who uttered the statements? Is ours the kind of social world where fine words can’t be trusted? Where we must always be on our guard? And what am I doing when I set up a link to the Journal of Modern Wisdom? Finally, though this is hardly “finally,” what form of education would be necessary to put the good (the virtues), the beautiful (eloquence), and the useful (the market) back on the same footing?

The church bells tolling 9 o’clock remind me that my blogging for the day is now at an end.