- Philosophy Between Land and Sea
Peter Sloterdijk's In the World Interior of Capital challenges philosophy to propose a theory and a history of globalization. Why has philosophy not done so? Is it because that entails the monstrous self-confidence of "grand narrative"? Philosophy has been badgered into petits récits—so much the better, perhaps. For grands récits are tainted by tendention: too much overconfident teleology, too many overblown accounts of "progress" and "destiny." Postcolonial and feminist critiques have observed that the authors of such narratives are generally European, male, and white. Only a willfully obtuse writer would supply a grand narrative that ignored "the colonialist looting of the world" (Sloterdijk 2014, 4).
Preferable, therefore, is a récit that would be "polyvalent, non-totalizing, and, above all, aware of its own perspectival conditionality" (2014, 4). There's nothing objectionable here, in Sloterdijk's view, except the assumption that grand narratives are incapable of similar polyvalence and self-awareness. Globalization past and present: this is the grand narrative Sloterdijk proposes. But it's also a narrative concerning the world, and so Sloterdijk gets down to brass tacks: the world is round. One chapter of the grand narrative therefore concerns orbs, balls, and circular geometries: "classical ontology was a sphereology" (9) because it conceived creation's perfection as a harmony between the vault of the heavens and the bow of the earth. To be is to dwell in perfect encirclement, girdled by sky, heaven, and earth. Another chapter concerns "terrestrial globalization realized practically through Christian-capitalist seafaring and politically implanted through the colonialism of the Old European nation-states" (9).
Historians will observe that this story has already been written. But Sloterdijk's question is why philosophy hasn't surveyed that history. If matters began with Columbus' 1492 voyage to America, or with the age of European "Discovery," and "discovery" is "the central epistemological and political word of the modern age" (2014, 46), has philosophy ever thought seriously about discovery? "As far as we know," Sloterdijk writes, "a philosophically thought-out history of discoveries, terrestrial and maritime alike, has never been considered, let alone attempted or carried out" (53). I'm not sure that's quite true, but even if partly true, the reason is simply that the welter of concepts required for such a history would defeat the keenest philosophical [End Page 349] mind. One would need "distance, extension, externality, canopies, barbarians, becoming-image, density, one-sidedness, disinhibition, dispatchability, capture, inhibition, investment, capital, mapping, medium, mission, ecumene, risk, feedback, debt, obscurity, crime, traffic, interconnection, delusional system, world system, wishful thinking, cynicism" (53). Deleuze would probably eye that list with approval, but it's evidently a long list, and the difficulty for Sloterdijk himself is harnessing already-theorized terms like "debt" or "capital" to terms he has made his own, especially "canopies"—thoughts of sky-ceilings and world-plafonds abound in his Sphereologies trilogy. But if a philosophically thought-out history of terrestrial and maritime discoveries is at stake, the matter involves gaining conceptual purchase not just on "discovery" but also on "land" and "sea," especially "sea." For the capital moment occurred when sea voyages took primacy over trips taken on land. A "damp revolution" (42), as Sloterdijk fetchingly puts it. The oceans now served global affairs, and circumnavigation of the Waterworld was the name of the game.
The objective of this essay is to assess Sloterdijk's challenge to philosophy, one made over a decade ago, but one which still has point, I think. The challenge is this: to offer what, to invoke Carl Schmitt, would be a "world-historical meditation" on land and sea (and, I suggest, islands as well). Imagine, first of all, a philosophy that formulated what Sloterdijk calls "the world-concept of the Modern Age" (2014, 88). A "concept" that concerns Discovery, but also the sea. Imagine, therefore, a Philosophy Department attuned to the sea, contemplating docks and stevedores. It would have constituted itself "as a swimming faculty, or at least as the port authority of Old Europe" (88). Nice. The Philosophy Department as the Department for Maritime Affairs; philosophers as harbor masters and ship-chandlers; Kant and Hegel...