- Nobjectivity – Sloterdijk’s Bubbles
What is the outside? Sloterdijk’s majestic answer to this question is a trilogy about spheres, originally published in German in 1998, 1999, and 2004. The first volume of Sphären, translated as Bubbles, is to be followed (hopefully soon) by Globes (II) and Foam (III). In each, Sloterdijk posits a new geometrical thinking to investigate the Heideggerian questions of being-in and being-with, proposing the sphere as the concept best able to explain enclosure, adjacence, and containment.
The idea that each organism lives in a bubble of exteroception was most famously raised by Jacob Von Uexküll, whose concepts helped create the groundwork of a phenomenological environmentalism. But while Sloterdijk does intend to contribute to ecological thinking (especially in the second volume), for him the question of being-in proves more fundamental than the consequentialism of Von Uexküll. Our existence, he argues, generally takes the form of the bubble, the complex of intertwined intimacies which form us while also interpenetrating us (62). Our bubbles do not protect us from the external world – they compose who we are precisely as they determine what we assume are the limits of our experience.
The archetypal bubble for Sloterdijk is the womb, that originary sphere in which humans become human and which – for a while – seems to define the boundaries of the world. The power of the womb, he notes, has long been recognized by non-European religio-philosophical traditions, and much of this volume is taken up by recognitions of prehistoric, Asian, and “primitive” (Sloterdijk’s word) recognitions of the centrality of uteral existence. Pictures abound. And many of these traditions raise the questions of exit (and possible reentry) to this sacred space, what Sloterdijk terms “vulva magic.” (269) Can we escape our spherical lives and go to the one we can sense beyond?
Plato answered this affirmatively, bringing the womb into political philosophy. In the Parable of the Cave, the inside became the realm to be escaped – only the philosopher could escape the realm of shadows and bring back the truth of the real, external world. Thus much of the philosophic history of the West is the story of the antibubble. Truth operates as an escape from the world we think we know; the centrality of this parable to a story of how a polis should operate is not coincidental. The transcendence that philosophy promises is the transcendence of escape, of denial of the present and the coterminous. The perfect society, infinitely organized along ideal rules and unaffected by the peculiarity of specific humans, stands as the true escape from politics.
But there’s another way to conceive of womb-philosophy, and it is this latter path Sloterdijk takes. No individual is alone in the womb; the inside is never absolute or empty. First, he notes, a lot of things – unrecognized things – are in there with the fetus. The withness of the placenta, for example, continues to haunt the modern celebration of the unencumbered individual. Births are doubles – the baby and the placenta – and only in the contemporary world has society determined that the latter shadowbirth exists only as refuse. Our respective worlds are filled with denied things, particulates of being-with which we constantly reject as coexistents. Such “nobjects” (Sloterdijk borrows the term from Thomas Macho) are the conditions of cohabitation, the world we know but do not identify as existing as separate, subjective things. In the womb they consist of “liquids, soft bodies and cave boundaries ... placental blood, then the amniotic fluid, the placental, the umbilical cord, the amniotic sac. … ” (294). Outside the womb, they include the air, surfaces, food – what we moderns now call “the environment.”
The second lack of emptiness (or realm of nobjectivity) has to do with the permeability of the bubble. Temperatures, nutrition, poisons, and pressures all transmute through the walls of the uterus. But the exemplary case, for Sloterdijk, is that of sound. Mammals are aware of sounds such as vocalizations, rhythms, heartbeats (both one’s own and one’s mother’s), even harmonies...