The information age may have at last found its philosopher. Peter Sloterdijk, the German author of A Critique of Cynical Reason, is one of the most revolutionary thinkers to arise in a long while. Yet, in the English-speaking world, he remains scarcely known.
Information in our era of networks and genome maps, according to Sloterdijk, binds man and his tools that transform nature into one operative system. This “post-metaphysical” condition not only tends to abolish the separation between the subjective person and “objective spirit,” but the distinction between culture and nature as well.
For Sloterdijk, one co-intelligent system now encompasses subject and object, culture and nature. This information ecology gives man a new fused identity with the other, with his world and his tools. He is no longer an identity apart.
Such a civilization of co-intelligent “anthropo-technology” requires an entirely new perspective on ethics. For Sloterdijk, today’s passionate debates over man’s domination of nature or technology’s domination of man miss the point because they are fearfully rooted in the obsolete master-slave dichotomy that holds such a hallowed place in Western philosophy. As Sloterdijk sees it, this dichotomy, based as it was on the opposition between subject and object and between culture and nature, needs to be updated: In our time, master and slave are dissolved in the advance of intelligent technologies whose operability is non-dominating. One can only talk about self-manipulation, not slavery; not about a master, but about self-mastery.
Unleashing the basic force of nature against the people of Hiroshima may have been possible prior to the information revolution when “allo-technology” (the division between man and machine) still predominated. But, the anthropo-technology of the post-metaphysical 21st century, Sloterdijk contends, holds out a generous promise. In this system bound together by information feedback and artificial intelligence, the preservationist instinct of the co-beneficiaries of co-intelligence will limit the destructive acts of anthropo-technology against itself.
Between the lines, Sloterdijk even seems to suggest that the “astraying” fate of alienated Being may at last find its dwelling place rejoined with nature and the world.
In May 2000, Sloterdijk gave lectures at the Goethe Institute in Boston and in Los Angeles that covered these topics. Some excerpts appear below.
The fundamental differentiation [in the metaphysical period] of soul and thing, spirit and matter, subject and object, freedom and technique cannot cope with entities that are by their very constitution hybrids with a spiritual and material “component.”
Cybernetics, as the theory and practice of intelligent machines, and modern biology, as the study of system-environment-units, have forced the questions of the old metaphysical divisions to be posed anew.
Here, the concept of objective spirit turns into the principle of information. Information enters between thoughts and things as a third value, between the pole of reflection and the pole of the thing, between spirit and matter. Intelligent machines—like all artifices that are culturally created—eventually also compel the recognition of “spirit.” Reflection or thought is infused into matter and remains there ready to be re-found and further cultivated. Machines and artifices are thus memories or reflections turned objective.
The statement “there is information” implies therefore that there are systems; there are memories; there are cultures; there is artificial intelligence. Even the sentence “there are genes” can only be understood as the product of the new situation wherein the principle of information is successfully transferred into the sphere of nature.
Such a reconceptualization of reality diminishes the interest in traditional notions of theory, such as subject/object relation. Even the constellation of “I” and “world” loses much of its luster, not to mention the worn-out polarity of individual and society. But above all, the metaphysical distinction between nature and culture withers. This is because both sides of the distinction are only regional states of information and its processing.
INFORMED MATERIAL | One of the deeper motivations behind the so-called astrayness of humankind through history can be detected in the fact that the agents of the metaphysical age have obviously approached being with a false description. They divide being into the subjective and the objective, and they put the soul, the self and the human on one side, and the thing, the mechanism and the inhuman on the other. The practical application of this distinction is called domination.
In the course of technological enlightenment—and this in fact takes place by means of mechanical engineering and prosthetics—it turns out that this classification is untenable, because it ascribes to the subject and the soul a superabundance of characteristics and capabilities that in fact belong on the other side. At the same time it denies to things and materials an abundance of characteristics that upon closer look they in fact do possess. If these traditional errors are corrected respectively, a radically new view of cultural and natural objects comes about.
One begins to understand that “informed material,” or the higher mechanism, performs parasubjectively. These performances can include the appearance of planning intelligence, capability of dialogue, spontaneity and freedom.
MAKING HUMANS | The most spectacular encroachment of the mechanical into the subjective reveals itself in genetic technologies, for they draw a broad expanse of physical preconditions of the self into the span of artificial manipulations. This evokes the popular, fantastic image of a foreseeable future in which whole “humans” can be “made.”
In such fantasies, primitive biologisms compete with helpless humanisms and theologisms, and it is impossible to detect in the proponents of such opinions a trace of insight into the evolutionary conditions of anthropogenesis.
This invasion into the imaginary field of the “subject” or the “person” is beset with fears. The basis for this is to be sought in the fact that even on the side of the so-called object, in the fundamental material structure of life, as represented by the genes, nothing “material” in the sense of the old culture/nature divide is to be found any more. Rather one finds the purest form of information, for genes are nothing but “commands” for the synthesis of protein molecules.
It is clear that the traditionally conceived personal subject no longer recovers in these processes any of that to which it was ontologically accustomed—neither the side of the self, as it traditionally presented itself, nor the side of the thing, as it was known.
Therefore it seems to the subject as if he/she were confronted with anti-humanism’s hour of truth: Instead of making the subject’s own home and integrating the external into the self, the self is being sunk into the material and external where he/she will be lost.
Naturally this horrifying vision is also only an hysterical illusion that stems from the fundamentally false metaphysical classification of being.
MASTER VS. SLAVE | The anti-technological hysteria that holds large parts of the Western world in its grip is a product of the decomposition of metaphysics, for it clings to false classifications of being in order to revolt against processes in which these classifications are overcome. It is reactionary in the essential sense of the word, because it expresses the ressentiment of those who cling to outdated dichotomies and reject complexities they fail to understand.
This applies above all to the habits of the critique of power, which are still unconsciously motivated by metaphysics. In the metaphysical schema, the division of being into subject and object is mirrored in the difference between master and slave, as well as that between labor and capital. Thus within this disposition, critique of power can only be articulated as resistance of the suppressed object-slave-material-side against the subject-master-worker-side.
But since information systems reign, this opposition no longer makes sense and is developing ever more into a phantom conflict. This hysteria is indeed the search for a master to stand up against. But the master as an effect is in the process of dissolving, and more than anything else lives on as the postulate of the slave fixated on rebellion—as the historicized Left or a humanism that is ready for the museum.
A living left-wing principle would need to constantly reinvent itself through creative dissidence. Homo humanus can only maintain itself in poetic resistance against metaphysical reflexes of humanolatry.
AUTO-EVOLUTION | If there is man, then that is because a technology has made him evolve out of the prehuman. It is that which authentically brings about humans. Therefore humans encounter nothing strange when they expose themselves to further creation and manipulation, and they do nothing perverse when they change themselves autotechnologically, given that such interventions and assistance happen on such a high level of insight into the biological and social nature of man that they become effective as authentic, intelligent and successful coproductions with evolutionary potential.
NON-DOMINANT TECH | We are witnessing that, with intelligent technologies, a non-dominant form of operativity is emerging which I call anthropo-technology. By its very nature, it cannot desire anything different from what the “things themselves” are or can become of their own accord. The “materials” are now conceived in accordance with their own stubbornness into operations with respect to their maximum aptitude.
With this they stop being what is traditionally referred to as “raw material,” which can only be found where raw subjects—call them humanists or other egoists—apply raw technologies to them.
Anthropo-technology is characterized by cooperation rather than by domination, even in asymmetrical relationships. Outstanding scientists of the present express similar ideas with the metaphor of “a dialogue with nature.”
TRUMANS OF GENETICS | The problem of evil no longer presents itself so much as the will to enslave things and humans, but as the will to disadvantage the other in cognitive competition.
It is not a coincidental observation that classical allotechnology, in which man dominated through the machine, was linked with mistrust as a form of thought and with cryptological rationality and its psychological sediment, paranoia.
Indeed, the emergence of a post-paranoid culture of reason is on the evolutionary agenda of civilizations that are highly advanced both technologically and communicatively, but it is delayed by the powerful inertia of the raw material age and its custom of rape in dealing with beings as such.
The assumption that the suspicious mood will remain the realistic one in the future is most strongly confirmed by the actions of US strategists, who, in August of 1945, did not refrain from employing the most extreme allotechnological weapon, the atom bomb, directly against humans.
In doing this, they provided an epochal argument for the suspicion against the alliance between the highest technology and the most lowly subjectivity. Due to Hiroshima, humans have reason to believe that the most advanced technologies are uninhibited and reason to distrust the Oppenheimers and Trumans of genetics.
RELICS OF DOMINATION | In the inter-intelligently condensed net-world, masters and rapists have hardly any long-term chances of success left, while cooperators, promoters and enrichers fit into more numerous slots.
After the abolition of slavery in the 19th century, it becomes thinkable that the relics of domination will be abolished in the 21st and 22nd centuries. But nobody believes this can happen without intense conflicts. Certainly, it cannot be ruled out that the master as reactionary might once more join forces with the mass ressentiments to form a new kind of fascism. But the failure of such revolutionary reactions is just as predictable as their rise.
THE TRAIL OF TRUTH | Since Hegel, one of the great intuitions of modern European thought is that there exists a connection between truth and fate implying something more than a metaphysical resort to the eternal. These intuitions are prefigured in the schemata of Christian eschatology. Hegel sums these up in his attempt to provide for the spirit a path that is modeled on the old-European scheme in which the sun’s course is traced from Orient to Occident. It seemed as if the Hegelian spirit managed to enter into a second eternity that follows its arrival in the distant twilit west. The highest state of Hegelianism is the spirit’s complete grasp of itself: its geopolitical symbol is the farthest extreme of the West. In it, the being-together-with-itself would attain its final form, and thereafter the only remaining task would be to round off some uncomfortable provinces on the fringe of the inhabited world. In essence there would already be validity to the statement: everything dwells. And where? In the inevitable West End of history.
When Michel Houellebeq, at the end of his novel, Elementary Particles, has his hero, the depressed inventor of biological immortality, seek death in the Irish Atlantic under a “shifting, gentle light,” this is nothing more than an appropriate commentary on Hegel. When all is achieved, one should sink into the ocean. In this twilight of the world, “astrayness” [alienation] seems to come to an end.
Heidegger, however, had he had narrative intentions, would have had his hero build a hut in the hills and there wait to see how the story goes on. To him it was evident that astrayness continues. A total coming-to-oneself does not take place. Rather everything suggests that the revelation of man through history and technology is about to enter into an age of even greater tensions and blindings.
In Heidegger’s view Hegel was right when he provided truth with a history, but he was not right in having it run from Ionia to Jena, just as he was not right in depicting it as a sun rising and setting.
Heidegger, confronted with the state of affairs in 1946, does not consider the history of truth to be the course of the sun, but rather the burning of a conceptual fuse running from Athens to Hiroshima—and, as we see, yet further into the laboratories of current gene technology and beyond to who knows where.
In this advancing increase of technological knowledge and ability, man reveals himself to himself as the maker of suns and the maker of life, thus forcing himself into a position which he must address, whether that which he does and can do is actually himself and whether in this activity he is together-with-himself.
In the face of its results, there is no denying that this history, insofar as it is a success—story of able knowledge and knowing ability—must also be read as a history of truth and its mastery by man. However, this is only as a partial history of truth, a truth that is always only fragmentarily grasped by man and his operations.
When over the desert of New Mexico the atomic explosion flashed, there was no human coming-to-oneself involved. At any rate, Oppenheimer had enough chutzpah to call the first nuclear test Trinity; when Dolly bleats, the spirit is not together-with-itself familiarly, but when its producers think of their own, it’s in the form of patents.
Since history makes no preparations to close the circle, both they and the technological society remain caught up in a movement which Heidegger has labeled with the term “astrayness.” Going astray characterizes the historical form in which an existence moves that is not together with itself and that is working its way through a world it does not possess, be it with the aim of coming home or in the mode of the never-ending journey without arrival.
Both in directed and undirected astrayness, homelessness is the fundamental state; misapprehensions in the apprehension of the self are the rule.
However since astrayness is presented by Heidegger as an epochal constant, the question is unavoidable, whether it too, seeming to be linked by fate to metaphysics, would not have to undergo a profound change following the subsiding and “decomposition” of metaphysics.
The enormous increases in knowledge and ability of modern mankind force the question of whether the diagnosis of astrayness can apply to them in the same manner today as to the times before the development of modern potential.