Monthly Archives: March 2009


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The opposite strategies of naturalization and socialization are able to stupefy the mind only because they are always thought of separately. But as soon as you combine the two moves, you realize that nature and society are two perfectly happy bedfellows whose opposition is a farce, and that what Peter and I did was, in our own ways, to kick both of them out of their beds, and then to attempt something just as foreign to naturalization as it is to socialization—or, even worse, to “social construction.” Spheres and networks allow, in our view, a reclaiming of the little beings that make up the life supports without the superficial gloss the philosophy of natural sciences has provided them: The re-localization and re-embodiment of science allows us to extract, so to speak, the epistemological poison out of the sweet honey of scientific objectivity. You may throw Dasein into the world by redistributing its properties (a word, by the way, more easily connected to the verb “to have” than the verb “to be”), only if the world into which it is thrown is not that of “nature.” And the only way this world can be real, objective, and material without being “natural” is first to have redistributed and re-localized science. As the altermondialistes and antiglobalization folks chant so rightly: “Another world is possible.” Maybe, but on the condition that we are no longer restricted to the meager combat rations of nature and society.

When we ponder how the global world could be made habitable—a question especially important for architects and designers—we now mean habitable for billions of humans and trillions of other creatures that no longer form a nature or, of course, a society, but rather, to use my term, a possible collective (contrary to the dual notions of nature-and-society, the collective is not collected yet, and no one has the slightest idea of what it is to be composed of, how it is to be assembled, or even if it should be assembled into one piece). But why has the world been made uninhabitable in the first place? More precisely, why has it not been conceived as if the question of its habitability was the only question worth asking?

I am more and more convinced that the answer lies in this extremely short formula: lack of space. Paradoxically, the whole enterprise around spheres and networks — which superficially looks like a reduction, a limitation, to tiny local scenes— is in effect a search for space, for a vastly more comfortably inhabitable space. When we speak of the global, of globalization, we always tend to exaggerate the extent to which we access this global sphere: In effect, we do nothing more than gesture with a hand that is never been much bigger than a reasonably sized pumpkin. Peter has a version even more radical than my pumpkin argument: There is no access to the global for the simple reason that you always move from one place to the next through narrow corridors without ever being outside. Outside you would as certainly die as would a cosmonaut who, much like the famed Capitaine Haddock, simply decides to leave the space station without a spacesuit. Global talks are at best tiny topics inside well-heated hotel rooms in Davos.

The great paradox of our two enterprises is that spheres and networks are ways first to localize the global so as, in a second move, to provide more space in the end than the mythical “outside” that had been devised by the nature-and-society mythology. An anthropologist of the Moderns like myself cannot but be continually struck by how implausible, uncomfortable, and cramped have been the places that the architects of the Moderns have devised for them—and here I am not thinking only of card-carrying architects but also of people like John Locke or Immanuel Kant or Martin Heidegger. It is ironic that so many people on the Left, at least in Europe, complain that we live in a time when the wretched of the world are no longer longing for any utopia. For me, it is the whole history of the Moderns that offers up a most radical utopia in the etymological sense: The Moderns have no place, no topos, no locus to sit and stay. The view from nowhere, so prevalent in the old scientific imagination, also means that there is nowhere for those who hold it to realistically reside.

Could you survive a minute as a brain in a vat separated by a huge gap from “reality”? And yet this is the posture you are supposed to hold in order to think logically.

Could you survive much longer by having your mind turned into a computer-like brain? Modernists have no place, no hookup, no plugs-in for harnessing in any plausible way the revelations of science about what it is to be material and objective. I learned from Marshall Sahlins this joke: “Reality is a nice place to visit, but no one ever lives there”—Without doubt a Modernists’ joke: Realism is not their forte.

How can we account, as historians and anthropologists and philosophers, for this lack of space, a lack of space so radical that Modernists had to migrate into a continuously renewed utopia? One distinct possibility is the confusion of space with paper. Architects are especially familiar with the manipulation of drawings, and this manipulation is now at the fingertips of any dumb-downed user of CAD design software or even Google maps. Manipulation of geometric forms is so intoxicating that it can lead some—notably my compatriot René Descartes—to imagine that this is also the way in which material things navigate and reside in space. My argument is that res extensa—taken for the “material world” and considered until recently as the stu( out of which “nature” is made— is an unfortunate confusion of the properties of geometrical forms on white paper with the ways material beings stand.

Let us be careful here: I am not saying that human intentional embodied mind and spirit never really look at the material world according to the laws of geometry. (The critique has been made often enough; the whole of phenomenology has explored this avenue already.) I am saying that even the material physical objects making up the world do not stand in the world according to what would be expected of them if they were thrown into res extensa. In other words, the “scientific world view” is unfair to human intentionality, spiritual values, and ethical dimensions does not bother me too much: I am much more concerned if it is even more unfair to the peculiar ways electrons, rocks, amoebas, lice, rats, plants, buildings, locomotives, computers, mobiles, and pills have a hold and a standing in this world. Nothing, absolutely nothing, ever resided in res extensa—not even a worm, a tick, or a speck of dust—but masses of beings have been exquisitely drawn on white paper, engraved on copper, photographed on silver salt-coated plates, modeled on the computer, etc.—including worms, ticks, and grains of dust. Res extensa pertains to art history, to the history of the publishing press, to the history of computers, to the history of perspective, to the history of projective geometry, and to a host of other disciplines, but it is definitely not part of natural history. Among the most puzzling features of the Moderns is how extremely difficult it is for them to be materialist: What they call matter remains even today a highly idealist projection.


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A lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. February 17, 2009, immediately after a lecture by Peter Sloterdijk. Published in Harvard Design Magazine 30, Spring/Summer 2009 [A .pdf of the whole article can be downloded here].






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I was born a Sloterdijkian. When, thirty years ago, I was preparing the proofs of Laboratory Life, I had included in the pictures, to the disgust of my scientist informants, a black-and-white photograph of the air-conditioned machinery of the Salk Institute in which I had done my fieldwork. “What does this has to do with our science?” they asked, to which I could only reply: “Everything.” Without knowing it, I had always been a “spherologist,” as I discovered about twenty years later when I became familiar with Peter Sloterdijk’s work in another locally situated, air-conditioned place: his school in Karlsruhe, which was separated by no more than one courtyard from the Center for Art and Media, where I twice had the great chance to experiment with installations and exhibitions—what, with Peter Weibel, we call a Gedanke Austellung or “thought exhibition,” the equivalent in art of a “thought experiment” in science.

We are assembled tonight for another thought experiment, namely to imagine on what conditions the world, at the time of globalization, could be made habitable—all of those contemporary metaphors have become important: sustainable, durable, breathable, livable—and also to explore what would be the ideal program, curriculum, or school to train its architects and designers (and “design” is taken here in the largest sense of the word, since as we know from Peter, “Dasein ist design”).

Peter and I have proposed to introduce, each in our own way, two sets of concepts, one coming from spheres and the other from networks. And let me say at the beginning that I have to agree with Peter that what is usually called networks is an “anemic” conjunction of two intersecting lines that are even less plausible than the vast global space of no space that it pretends to replace. Fortunately my own notion of network, or rather of actor-network, has borrowed more from Leibniz and Diderot than from the Internet, and in a way, one could say that Peter’s spheres and my networks are two ways of describing monads: Once God is taken out of Leibniz’s monads, there are not many other ways for them but to become, on the one hand, spheres and, on the other, networks. I’d like to test those two concepts to see whether they begin to lead us to some testable conclusion—a thought experiment, remember, is indeed an experiment that, even though impractical, should be able to discriminate between arguments. Spheres and networks might not have much in common, but they have both been elaborated against the same sort of enemy: an ancient and constantly deeper apparent divide between nature and society.

Peter asks his master Heidegger the rather mischievous questions: “When you say Dasein is thrown into the world, where is it thrown? What’s the temperature there, the color of the walls, the material that has been chosen, the technology for disposing of refuse, the cost of the air-conditioning, and so on?”Here the apparently deep philosophical ontology of “Being qua Being” takes a rather di(erent turn. Suddenly we realize that it is the “pro-found question” of Being that has been too superficially considered: Dasein has no clothes, no habitat, no biology, no hormones, no atmosphere around it, no medication, no viable transportation system even to reach his Hütte in the Black Forest. Dasein is thrown into the world but is so naked that it doesn’t stand much chance of survival.

When you begin to ask these naughty questions, the respective relations between depth and superficiality are suddenly reversed: There is not the slightest chance of understanding Being once it has been cut off from the vast numbers of apparently trifling and superficial little beings that make it exist from moment to moment—what Peter came to call its “life supports.”

In one stroke, the philosopher’s quest for “Being as such” looks like an antiquated research program. As sociologist/ psychologist Gabriel Tarde had anticipated a century ago, philosophers had chosen the wrong verb: “To be” has led them nowhere except to a melodramatic quandary of identity versus nothingness. The right verb should have been “to have,” because then, as Tarde says, no one can sever the two-way connections between the “having” and the “had.” (It is hard to imagine an audience finding tragic a Hamlet who would ponder, “To have or not to have, that is the question.”)

The same reversal of depth and superficiality was achieved when science studies began to “embed” the practice of science—until then construed as the most implausible and most mysterious achievements of a disembodied set of invisible brains in the vat —into larger, more visible, more costly, more localized, and vastly more realistic vats, namely laboratories or better, networks of connected laboratories. Once the little shock of realizing that science, which until then had been able to meander freely through the vast expanses of time and space without paying any special price or even being embodied in any specific human, came to be suddenly restricted and circumscribed to tiny, fragile, and costly networks of practices to which it could not escape except by paying the full cost of its material extension—once this shock had been absorbed, it became quickly clear that science had found a much safer and more sustainable ground. Objectivity too had found its life supports; it had been reimplanted into plausible ecosystems. The truth conditions that episte-mologists had looked for in vain inside logic had finally been situated in highly specific truth factories. Now I beg you to consider the two moves at once because, taken in isolation, they produce the worst possible solution: If you understand what Peter did to Dasein in abandoning Heidegger and philosophy more generally (because he reconnected the naked human with its life supports), it means that you have confused the plug in of life supports with the invasion of “nature.”

It is as if he had said: “Enough phenomenology. Let’s naturalize the whole goddamn human by using the most recent results of the hard sciences: neurology, biology, chemistry, physics, technology, you name them!” Conversely, if you think that by situating Science with a capital S inside the tiny loci of disseminated laboratories, we, the science students, have made it hostage of human vagaries, it means that you have confused our enterprise with an appeal to “society,” as if we had been saying “enough belief in the objective view from nowhere. Let’s deconstruct science and make it a narrative among narrative inside a flow of narratives.”


(part 2)

(part 3)


A lecture at Harvard University Graduate School of Design. February 17, 2009, immediately after a lecture by Peter Sloterdijk. Published in Harvard Design Magazine 30, Spring/Summer 2009 [A .pdf of the whole article can be downloded here].



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