I wrote this on March 20, 2020, three days since the announcement of region-wide lockdown due to Covid-19. It’s a bit of retrospect, as another lockdown is on the spades, with infection cases now close to 100,000.
Re-reading some of my old heroes while in quarantine, Peter Sloterdijk and Bruno Latour re-emerge as more than academic curiosities to me. (I took sociology as a minor degree in college, before I pursued and finished postgraduate studies in philosophy.) Sloterdijk and Latour are better known in sociology and allied social science disciplines.
Concerning Sloterdijk, I’m looking for, call it an event, or space of surprise attendant to his concept of ‘co-immunism’, in relation to our experience as an ‘organic species’, which at present, to use a phenomenological term, is ‘bracketed’ by quarantine. As he describes, this concept refers to ‘overcoming’ the gap between biological and cultural phenomena by our common immunological practices as a species.
In You Must Change the World, Sloterdijk refers to our immunological constitutions which, in general, reflect “life itself as a dynamics of integration.” This integration through time becomes “equipped with auto-therapeutic and ‘endo-clinical’ competencies” in what he calls “species-specific space of surprise.” Sloterdijk elaborates at length this particular concept of space:
It has an equally innate and – in higher organisms – adaptively acquired responsibility for the injuries and invasions it regularly encounters in its permanently allocated environment or conquered surround¬ings….[T]hanks to the efficiency of these devices, which are constantly at the ready, the organism actively confronts the potential bringers of its death, opposing them with its endogenous capacity to overcome the lethal.
But these dynamics may be disturbed by what Sloterdijk also refers to as the capacity of modern humans “to be [historically] dazzled that gives credit to unlimited illusions of the new’. The culprit, as it were, is that ‘modernity’ itself paradoxically ‘posits meaning’ in the ‘new’ per se.’ As Sloterdijk argues, this ’causes the brightening of the global learning climate’. But it also comes at a certain cost, what he describes as the mortal ‘blade of distinction’ between the old and the new that ‘demands cruelty to oneself and others [and therefore] leads to overload in its most naked state’. The naked state refers collectively to our organic bodies. Here Sloterdijk utilized the metaphor of the body of Christ, the Christ on the Cross as the price of his personal crusade against the old faith.
This blade of distinction, for example, could be glimpsed earlier in Hegel except that its resolution tends to be speculative. Here the distinction is wedged between material history and speculative thought. With the blade of distinction, the historical promise of the Christ on the Cross was no longer pursued. History can show that ‘positive’ resurrection is humanly impossible, thus, history is left with the mere ‘negative’ idea of the forsakenness of the world.
Paradoxically, this ‘idea’ is the only ‘material’ that’s left that contains a promise – the resurrection of the world through the labor of ideation, knowledge or science, or generally, what Hegel calls the Spirit, the labor of the negative. In his famous quotation in Faith and Knowledge, Hegel says that ‘the Spirit must wrest the idea of the speculative Good Friday from the historic Good Friday’ (its supraterrestial promise is only good for ‘cloud-specialists’, as Schelling, Hegel’s erstwhile friend, would later echo), further suggesting that the idea must negate the non-reflective or the unreflectedness of the contingent character of history for human redemption to become concretely possible.
If the ‘flesh can be resurrected in this life only and not in the otherworldly’, it behooves science and knowledge to invest in bodies, which transforms the Spirit into a kind of biopower. Here the blade of distinction transforms deeply internally into what Sloterdijk calls ‘somaticism’, in a sense a way to carve up the socius or social body according to either the clinical difference between health and sickness, the biological (male and female), the psychological (sane and mad), the juridical (citizen and the outcast, such as the criminal offender), and other social and cultural fields of contested difference, the whole system of binary opposites that Nietzsche earlier lamented enabled the pure utilitarian calculus of the moral values of good and evil, which, according to him, could be traced back to Christianity. Thus, Foucault’s analysis of the complementary origins of modern society in the birth of the clinic, which coincides with the birth of the prison system, is right on point. These two systems manifest and demonstrate powerful binarisms that can provide semiotic models for organizing the social that is not altogether independent of desire, labor, production, and language. A body is social insofar as it expresses a language, and occupies a place in labor, production, consumption and sexuation. Thus the social body is not an undifferentiated body. Bodies act and speak differently. The tendency of binarism is to reduce these differences to permanent ontological positions, such as the permanent difference between the sexes, the relation of labor and wealth, etc.
We are now under a state of exception that offers to resolve the crisis that Covid-19 has brought upon us with a familiar blade of distinction, the rich and the poor. This is how the pandemic states give credit to the unlimited illusion of the new: a new, yet in the form that it is merely recycled, way to carve up the population being imposed upon a biopolitical demand, i.e., to preserve its immunity until a cure is found to be able to move beyond the limit-threshold of the lethal (which means we are looking into the inevitability of millions of deaths). It is a kind of biopower that applies a blade of distinction upon bodies that are either defenseless and/or vulnerable or possess better immunological capacities. In short, there has to be a population of bodies capable of surviving into the post-pandemic world, a world of bodies again, but under a ‘presumptive’ new state of production and consumption, and of a new practice of sexuation. We can now deem to have ‘understood the past’, but it must ‘not’ be ‘rejuvenated’ (what the consummate logic of sublation in Hegel, for instance, teaches us).
Which leads me back to Sloterdijk. Unfortunately, the unlimited illusion of the new has already taken the species-body into an unprecedented ‘learning-avoidance’ curve. The kind of global response so far to a new strain of SARS virus wreaking havoc on human populations at present all the more rationalizes this dismal type of ‘learning-avoidance’ that threatens to destroy, not only present populations, but also what the human species have learned and gained, over thousands of years’ practice of ‘auto-therapy’ and over long periods of gaining ‘endo-clinical competencies’, at most on matters of survival, that may provide us a model for defeating the pandemic. This evolutionary practice of ‘overcoming the lethal’ includes approaches that would also complicate our appreciation of past models, which are also fatal and destructive (such as ritual sacrifices to end a plaque) given the contingencies of prehistoric survival. Our modern sensibility and state of technological progress should be sufficient enough to avoid ‘learning-avoidance operations’ that the prehistoric may also be guilty of, give and take examples of needless expenditure of libidinal energies (present in ritual sacrifices) and of competencies that could offer models for optimum survival. Thus our modern sensibilities, to employ Bruno Latour’s idiom this time, must have developed unique capabilities to apprehend what he calls a ‘metamorphic zone’.
This ‘zone’, for instance, is where nature and society interacts not as separate domains but rather as a knowledge-churning space (if I may put it that way) that allows us to ‘detect actants before they become actors’. It would have allowed us to detect, for instance, the dangerous tendency of a disturbing alliance between actants, such as the man-wildlife gastro-intensive alliance, the presumed bat-pangolin-human-to-human vital transmission origin of Covid-19, before it became a global threat to the continuity of the species. But this zone, this antidote to non-learning, seems now lost. Latour explains the paradox of this metamorphic zone even as he pays attention to the species-wide cost of this abysmal loss:
What also accounts for our utter impotence when confronted with the ecological threat: either we agitate ourselves as traditional political agents longing for freedom – but such liberty has no connection with a world of matter – or we decide to submit to the realm of material necessity – but such a material world has nothing in it that looks even vaguely like the freedom or autonomy of olden times. Either the margins of actions have no consequence in the material world, or there is no more freedom left in the material world for engaging in it in any politically recognizable fashion” (Latour, ‘Agency at the time of the Anthropocene’).
In the face of the pandemic, one may ask, have we glorified enough what Sloterdijk calls our modern ‘training in learning-avoidance operations’ that we have come to this point? More than anything, this behooves a profound question of existence, ‘what does it mean to be human now? In this context, I would like to conclude this reflection with a brief retrospect of my pet subjects in college: phenomenology and existentialism.
The reason I’m making this connection is that phenomenology and existentialism have a general tendency to interpret our long evolutionary past as an ontological question (this is a fair description of the discipline that has been bestowed upon generations of students of philosophy), rather than as a deeply historical and social one, and thus, implicates our modern errors as failures to address that question.
What I mean by the ‘ontological’ here is that in which the question of existence, or being for that matter, necessarily culminates in a human-centered world. I must admit this is a very liberal interpretation of the meaning of the ‘ontological’.
I’m not saying all phenomenological disciplines and existentialist interpretations would fit this description. In recent years, they have been employed as supplementary lenses or subsidiary frameworks to interpret our more complex experience in contemporary times. I couldn’t imagine the modern readers and scholars of Jakob von Uexküll’s theory of (animal) environment, for instance, without them having a fair knowledge of phenomenology, or a solid footing in its discipline, insofar as his theory broadly suggests epochal suspension of the reflective standpoint of philosophy, in regard to the subject that interprets (also the subject that ‘consumes’), the central agency that extends its view of the world to non-subjects (animals included). Uexküll takes us to the world of animals in the context of their environment, which, incidentally, resonates in the way we have known so far of wildlife environment being disturbed that started the Covid-19 outbreak). The relevance of phenomenology is clear. It requires us to suspend judgments and prejudices that attend to the naturalistic attitude (by all indications, human-centered), especially in studying and intervening in non-human phenomena. Nonetheless, as it went with Husserl (and also, with other interpretive claims of the existentialist tradition that found its way in modern Christian ethics), phenomenology and existentialism (in specific ways that they have been re-oriented to particular thought-procedures and semiotic interventions) ended up embracing a concept of the transcendental, that of the ego or subjectivity (most especially in phenomenological discourse), which is a sorry deduction that modern theology could easily dredge up to resurrect the old idea of transcendent entity.
Incidentally, Heidegger’s later engagement with existentialism had taken to task this anomalous transition from the transcendental ego to the concept of being, the leap from the famous Cartesian/Kantian ego-subject to the metaphysical notion of God (which attributes being or existence to the latter, thus, the ontological leap). It may be difficult to follow Heidegger here but let’s make it quite simple. Any hermeneutic transition or interpretive movement from subject to God has to be historically grounded. This refers to Heidegger’s notion of ‘historicity’. And historicity has a ground, which, according to Heidegger, is always the subject that inquires that he calls Dasein. The analytic of Dasein shows the positionality of the subject in any given history and social space, which reveals the contingent character of hermeneutic interpretation, the groundedness of an interpretive claim. Thus God or Being in the sense of the ontological transition from the ego-subject is called back to the finitude of the inquiring one, the Dasein. This ‘calling-back’ in a sense puts to paid any claim to infinite or absolute God.
However, all these become more intelligible and graspable as historical and sociological interpretations, concrete generalities as semiotic interventions into the actual world.
In a sense these generalities (to employ the Fichtean lenses) ‘awaken in us a feeling for our true needs … and acquaint us with a means for satisfying these needs’, i.e., in a more understandable sense. They make for a ‘maximal’ or ‘positive’ philosophical grounding of interpretations, if I may add. It is in this sense that Latour’s concept of ‘metamorphic zone’ and Sloterdijk’s critical exposure of ‘learning avoidance operation’ are powerful deterrent-metaphors, not only for their aesthetic fluency to read into reality a nuanced explanation and/or perspective, rather than of a pre-conceived totality, independent of subjects, but also for its maximal capability to exploit an indeterminate semiotic space (such as reading into the ‘metamorphic zone’ as a ground of explanation that does not, however, reveal itself by sheer appearing). But, once a ground is detected, the objective is not to sacrifice understanding to deterministic mediations of thought, nor to an endless process of speculation. They, thus, prevent the urge to wonder at transcendent causes to either climax in a credo or doctrine, a kind of transcendent cause, or sink in the negative abyss of indeterminability concerning an ‘unreflected exterior’ ‘where ‘thought’ wanders aimlessly and becomes prone to all sorts of unreasonable deductions with dismal societal consequences (as Hegel described in the Science of Logic).
A species enthralled by false causalities, in the sense Spinoza described of the teachings of the theodicy of his time, not to mention their folk reverberations in superstitions, is a kind of species-body that (to quote Schelling’s famous phrase in his lecture on the Grounding of Positive Philosophy) becomes utterly ‘incapable of actual knowledge’, all the more prone to the paradoxical dogmatism of the ‘postmodern’ world, if the term ‘postmodern’ still holds for much of what is happening in the world today, or false consciousness (in post-truth societies), as well as the demagoguery and populism that have been the most banal signatures of 21st century Spirit.
To conclude, these are dangerous times. The pandemic is already testing this Spirit in unimaginably lethal ways.
Quezon City, Philippines
Buchanan, Brett, The Animal Environment of Uexküll, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze (New York: State University of New York, 2008).
Fichte, J.G., The Science of Knowledge, trans. Peter Heath and John Lachs (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1982).
Hegel, G.W.F., Faith and Knowledge, trans. Walter Cerf and H.S. Harris (New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1977).
Heidegger, Martin, Being and Time, trans. Joan Stambaugh (New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 1996).
Latour, Bruno, “Agency at the time of the Anthropocene,” in New Literary History 45 (2014): 1-18.
Schelling, F.W.J., The Grounding of Positive Philosophy: The Berlin Lectures, trans. Bruce Matthews (New York: State University of New York Press, Albany, 2007).
Sloterdijk, Peter, You Must Change the World, trans. Wieland Hoban (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013).
Spinoza, Benedict, A Spinoza Reader, trans. Edward Hurley (New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 994).