Latour and Sloterdijk (III)


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What would be amusing, if it had not been such a waste of time, is that “spiritualists” have exerted themselves for three centuries trying to save from the diluvium the little arch of the human soul floating on the vast ocean of the ever-mounting res extensa, without realizing that this ocean was but a trickle of highly localized techniques to allow on paper—and later on screen— the manipulation of figures by conserving a certain number of constants. The achievements of what I have called inscription and immutable and combinable mobiles are admirable, but they should not be confused either with a catastrophic diluvium or with the magnificent advent of Reason on earth. Far from being what the world is made of—and thus out of which the res cogitans should flee as far as possible—they are no more than a few of the many components contained inside the world of spheres and networks. The global is a form of circulation inside those sites, not what could contain them. The Latin etymology of the res extensa contains, to be sure, an extensibility that borders on the infectious, but this is no reason for sound minds to let it trespass beyond the narrow confines of inscription practices— and even less to imagine that it is such a mimetic description of the world that the whole real world of living organisms should migrate out of the res extensa, now construed as “space,” as the only thing that really stands. This absurdly extensive definition of the res extensa is probably the most hidden but the most potent source of nihilism. Imagine that—the real world confused with the white expanse of a piece of paper!

There is probably no more decisive difference among thinkers than the position they are inclined to take on space: Is space what inside which reside objects and subjects? Or is space one of the many connections made by objects and subjects? In the first tradition, if you empty the space of all entities there is something left: space. In the second, since entities engender their space (or rather their spaces) as they trudge along, if you take the entities out, nothing is left, especially space. Tell me what your position on space is, and I’ll tell you who you are: I suspect such a touchstone is equally discriminating for philosophers, architects, art historians, and others.

In the case of Peter and me, I hope it’s clear that we belong to the same side of the divide: Spheres and networks have been devised to suck in the res extensa, to bring it back to specific places, trades, instruments, and media, and to let it circulate again but without losing a moment of what in the industry is called its traceability.

Peter has even succeeded in devoting a whole volume of his trilogy, Sphären, to the rematerialization and relocalization of the global itself, so that thanks to his painstaking redescription, even the famous “view from nowhere” has found a place, a specific architecture, generally that of Domes and Halls and frescoes, a specific lighting, a specific posture. History of thought is now being made part of the history of art, of architecture, of design, of intellectual technologies–in brief a branch of spherology. The global is part of local histories.

Such an important turn in the history of rationality should not be overlooked: Whereas in earlier periods, the advent of Reason was predicated on the nonlocal, nonsituated, nonmaterial utopia of mind and matter, it is now possible to dissipate those phantoms and to observe them move inside specific spheres and networks. At any rate, we might now be slightly more realistic about what it is to be thrown into the world and attached to objects. “The Sleep of Reason” may “Produce Monsters” but also sweet dreams: It has taken some time for Reason to finally wake up from those as well.

I recognize that at first this could seem like a bizarre contradiction: How could we claim that spheres and networks provide more space when their first effect is to shrink everything that was outside and un-situated inside precisely delineated arenas? To be sure the critical effect is clearly visible: The global is accompanied back to the rooms in which it is produced; the laws of nature are situated inside the quasi-“parliaments” where they are voted on, and no one is allowed to jump outside as if there existed a room of no room. But how could we keep pretending that this shrinking enterprise provides in the end more space for a more comfortably habitable world, that it is not just a critical move, a clever but in the end only negative mean of humiliating the arrogance of materialists and spiritualists alike?

Well, to understand why it is not a contradiction or a paradox, or even a critical move, you have to consider the alternative: a vast outside that is so un-situated as to be totally implausible, where the only choice offered to its inhabitants is between two forms of inhumanity: one provided by naturalization (a human made up of idealized bits extracted from all the scientific disciplines parading as matter), the other provided by socialization (a human extracted from the life supports and airconditioning that allow it to survive).

 The choice is not between nature and society— two ways of being inhuman. The real choice is between two utterly different distributions of spatial conditions: one in which there is a vast outside and infinite space but where every organism is cramped and unable to deploy its life forms; the other in which there are only tiny insides, networks and spheres, but where the artificial conditions for the deployment of life forms are fully provided and paid for. Does it make a difference? You bet. Do you realize that organisms are still homeless in the strictures of Modernism? That we are still unable to define what a tool, a technique, and a technology are, without alternating between hype and nostalgia? That there is still no space for making sense of the billions of migrations that define the “global” but in e(ect not-so-global world? That, as it became pretty clear last fall, we still don’t have, after two centuries of economics, a remotely realistic portrait of what an economy is, of the simple phenomenon of confidence, trust, and credit? That we are unable to find space for gods except by putting them into the cesspool of the mind? That psychology is still a tramp looking for a plausible shelter? Every winter in France we are faced with the same crise du logement, the same building crunch. Well, there is a crise du logement of truly gigantic proportion in our total inability to find rooms for the homeless of Modernism. Indeed, Modernism itself is homeless, forcing its inhabitants to dream of a place to live that is uninhabitable —dare I say it? —by construction.

What we need is more room for a new type of real or realist estate. (In a strange sense and in spite of so much work on Modernist architecture, the links to be made between Modernism and architecture have not even begun yet— and this might be the reason why, strangely enough, so many intellectual enterprises, after a detour through Romance language departments in the 1980s, have recently migrated from deserted philosophy departments to design and architecture schools.) There is some urgency in concluding the thought experiment I invited you to make, because the outside is in short supply today anyway. It is not by coincidence that spheres and networks have been proposed as an alternative to the nature-and-society quandary just at the moment when the ecological crisis began to throw the very notion of an outside in doubt. As is now well known, the notion of “environment” began to occupy public consciousness precisely when it was realized that no human action could count on an outside environment any more: There is no reserve outside which the unwanted consequences of our collective actions could be allowed to linger and disappear from view. Literally there is no outside, no décharge where we could discharge the refuse of our activity. What I said earlier, rather philosophically, that the problem was “lack of space,” now takes a much more radical, practical, literal, and urgent meaning: No outside is left. As usual, Peter has a striking way to bring this up when he says that the earth is finally round: Of course we knew that before, and yet the earth’s rotundity was still theoretical, geographical, at best aesthetic. Today it takes a new meaning because the consequences of our actions travel around the blue planet and come back to haunt us: It is not only Magellan’s ship that is back but also our refuse, our toxic wastes and toxic loans, after several turns.

Now, we sense, we su(er from it: The earth is round for good. What the churches had never managed to make us feel—that our sins will never disappear—has taken a new meaning: There is no way to escape our deeds. And it burns like hell! The disappearance of the outside is certainly the defining trait of our epoch. We are trying to crowd billions of humans and their trillions of affiliates into cramped loci, and there is no space. And even more troubling than the lack of space is the lack of place— of placing, of placement.

Everything happens as if the ecological crisis had taken the Moderns totally unprepared: There is not the slightest chance for nature-and-society to be able to handle the crowding of organisms clamoring for a place to deploy and sustain their life forms. Modernism is good at displacing, at migrating in various utopias, at eliminating entities, at vacuuming, at breaking with the past, and at claiming to go outside, but if you ask it to place, replace, sustain, accompany, nurture, care, protect, conserve, situate—in brief, inhabit and deploy—none of the reflexes we have learned from its history are of much use.

Worse, Modernism has had the added consequence, even more dangerous at the present juncture, of identifying the taste for habitation with the past, with the innocent, with the natural, with the untrampled, so that, just at the moment when what is needed is a theory of the artificial construction, maintenance, and development of carefully designed space, we are being drawn back to another utopia—a reactionary one this time—of a mythical past in which nature and society lived happily together (“in equilibrium,” as they say, in “small faceto- face communities” without any need for artificial design). Even worse, Modernism has so intoxicated the very militants of ecology (those, you might have thought, who had the most interest in rethinking what it is to situate and to place) that they have proposed to reuse nature-and-society, this time to “save nature,” promising us a future where we should be even “more natural”! Which means, if you have followed me, even less human, even less realistic, even more idealist, even more utopian. I am all for recycling, but if there is one thing not to recycle, it is the notion of “nature”!

It is hard to realize that the trouble with nature is tied to the notion of space that has come from the confusion— instantiated in the res extensa—between the ways we come to know things and the ways things stand by themselves. In a quite radical fashion, spheres and networks are two ways of defusing the notion of res extensa: spheres because they localize the Umwelt that could serve as a cradle to house the things-in-themselves, networks because they allow us to respect the objectivity of the sciences without having to buy the epistemological baggage that drags it down. For the first time since the bifurcation of nature (a phrase Whitehead proposed to point out the strange 17th-century divide between primary and secondary qualities), we might have a way to throw Dasein into the world without misrepresenting either Dasein or the world into which it is thrown.


(part 1)

(part 2)


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]. And a translation in Russian (yes, in Russian) can be found in this link, by courtesy of magazine Project International, which also published a previous cartoon on the subject. the LATOUR/SLOTERDIJK: NETWORKS AND SPHERES lecture can be found at the Harvard GSDWebsite.


Update 2014/05/12: Today, someone who actually witnessed the making of this cartoon informed me that someone (else) actually put this idea into practice: Check “The man who lives in a giant naked woman” in Slate’s blog Atlas Obscura. That’s the problem with cartooning; reality always beats you.


Published by klaustoon

Klaus is a frustrated cartoonist that lives in an old castle in Europe. In his other life he is also a frustrated architect and scholar who...

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