This is Sloterdijk’s explicitness: You are on life support, it’s fragile, it’s technical, it’s public, it’s political, it could break down—it is breaking down—it’s being fixed, you are not too confident of those who fix it. Our current condition merely relies on our more explicit understanding that this tentative technological system, this “life support,” entails the whole planet—even its atmosphere (Latour, 2005, 116).
In his Spheres trilogy, Sloterdijk provides us with an analysis of what he sees as a morphological transition in the history of human thought. He develops both a historically informed theory that details a shift in how humans understand the world, and an ontology of space which is concerned with the particular ‘spheres’ they inhabit. Sloterdijk wants to move away from the Kantian transcendental distinction between subject and object, instead following Heidegger in understanding the human as a being-in-the-world. However, whereas Heidegger subordinates the spatial characteristics of Dasein to temporality (Heidegger, 1962, §70), Sloterdijk wants to emphasise spatiality as the determining ontological characteristic of humanity. Specifically, he parts ways with Heidegger in the conviction that the spatial notions Heidegger discusses (such as region [Gegend] and home) are based on conditions which “cannot simply be accepted as gifts of Being, but rather depend on great efforts of formal design, technical production, legal support and political molding” (Sloterdijk, 2016, 137). In other words, it is our ever-changing socio-technological environment that reveals the necessity of going beyond Heidegger’s being-in-the-word, towards a new conception of the human as inherently relational and spatially determined: a being in spheres.
In the first book of the series, Bubbles (2011), Sloterdijk presents a phenomenology of what he calls ‘micro-spheres’ which is based on the idea that bubbles can be seen as an accurate morphological metaphor for the basic structure of human interaction. Bubbles represent an inherent relationality in human nature; a co-subjectivity which suggests the creation of an enclosed spatial interior that is never disconnected from what exists outside of it. From an ontological perspective, this idea of coexistence moves us away from the individuality of ‘being’ towards the dual primacy of ‘being-with’: “One could certainly read Spheres I as a dive into the abyss of ontological nervousness for the co-existent, the other, the outer” (Sloterdijk, 2016, 15).
The second book, Globes (2014), moves on to the historical examination of thought in relation to ‘macro-spheres’ which designate the expansion of the spherical metaphor into the realm of universalist metaphysics and theology: “The event called metaphysics was precisely that: the insight that local existence integrates itself into the absolute orb – and the ensouled point swells up into the universal sphere” (ibid., 16-17). Bruno Latour emphasises this point by claiming that, for Sloterdijk, “the complete singularity of Western philosophy, science, theology, and politics lies in the fact that they have infused all the virtues into the figure of a Globe – with a capital G – without paying the slightest attention to the way in which that Globe might be built, tended, maintained, and inhabited” (Latour, 2017, 123). Once again, we see Sloterdijk’s concern with the processual nature of creating our living environment, and importance this has in reconceptualising humanity through spatiality. The historical notion of the globe as an expanded all-encompassing sphere of existence has been brought into question by constantly shifting nature of the modern milieux we are a part of.
This idea is further explored in the final book of the series, Foams (2016), where Sloterdijk accurately diagnoses the spatial relationships between the human and its technological world through an analysis of architecture, urban planning, and environment. His claim is that, due to the increasing level of global interconnectivity, and the rapidly rising population, we have shifted into an epoch in which all human actions are determined, and potentially limited, by their proximity to other humans. In order to exemplify this point, Sloterdijk uses the metaphor of a ‘foam’ as it signifies a structure comprised of a number of chambers or cells (bubbles) that are separated from each other by thin, fragile and easily collapsible walls. What this implies is that our individual ‘micro-spheres’ are in a constant state of co-dependence and co-fragility with one another. Each individual sphere of existence is inherently related to, and defined by, it’s relation to others. As he states: “The foam metaphor has the merit of capturing the topological allocation of creative and self-securing creations of living space in an image. It not only reminds us of the tight proximity between fragile units, but also of the necessary self-enclosure of each foam cell, even though they can only exist as users of shared separation installations” (Sloterdijk, 2016, 236).
Atmospheres and Adaptation
One of the many practical applications for Sloterdijk’s Foam theory is in regards to the philosophical analysis of urban environments. When considering pressing topics such as sustainable urban development in response to climate change the importance of the foam metaphor becomes increasingly clear, especially in the latter half of the book where Sloterdijk makes explicit references to ‘foam architectures’ and ‘foam cities.’ Indeed, to understand how cities can adapt to changes in climate (among other things), we are immediately presented with the question of what cities are. To answer these questions requires a new kind of thinking, one that can conceptualise our current predicament on a variety of levels. Here Sloterdijk analyses the recent history of architecture and cities as an exemplification of our transition into a mode of being that is foam-like on both the macro and micro scales. He writes that: “The true ‘spatial revolution’ of the twentieth century is the explication of the human sojourn or residence in an interior via the dwelling machine, climate design and environmental planning” (Sloterdijk, 2016, 469). Thus, foams can be seen as the perfect conceptual tool with which to analyse how city architecture brings about changes in climate and environment that affect our being as humans within an interconnected milieu.
Furthermore, Sloterdijk’s concern in Foams is also of an ‘atmospheric’ nature. He claims that this spatial revolution has been explicated throughout the twentieth century with the increasing awareness of ‘atmosphere conditions’ brought about by a variety of factors, from the ‘atmoterrorist’ use of gas warfare in the first world war, to the wide implementation of air conditioning systems which create a multiplicity of microclimates within modern buildings. Even in the creation of greenhouses in Victorian England we can see the first evidence of human societies being explicitly concerned with controlling and creating the atmospheric nature of their environment. Here, just like with foams, he uses the idea of atmosphere both literally and metaphorically to denote a change in the relation of the subject to the world around it. He summarises that: “The theme of the cultural sciences in the transition from the twentieth to twenty-first century is therefore ‘making air conditions explicit’ … This program can only be dealt with through reconstruction and collection, for the ‘matter itself,’ the universe of influenced climates, [and] shaped atmospheres” (Sloterdijk, 2016, 158). What this means is that we have come into a time in which air itself has developed an ontological significance. Our increasing awareness of the ‘air-conditions’ in which we live brings us to an understanding that our atmosphere, now explicit to us, acts as our own life support system. We have been made aware of the fragility of something that has previously been taken for granted, but now asserts itself as fundamentally important. ‘Atmo-spheres’ therefore become understood as one of the ontological spheres in which humanity exists, and through which different micro-spheres are connected to one another.
Of contemporary thinkers who have started to see the importance of Sloterdijk’s work, there is arguably none more prevalent than Bruno Latour who has claimed that he “was born a Sloterdijkian” (Latour, 2009, 139). Like Sloterdijk, Latour has also sought to explain the relation between human, atmosphere and technology. Latour’s actor-network theory addresses some of the same concerns as Sloterdijk’s spherology in that it is concerned with the human actor as inherently related to the interconnected living and technological networks in which it exists. ANT’s basic ontological claim is that all entities in the world – from nanoparticles to bodies, groups, ecologies and ghosts – are constituted and reconstituted in shifting and hybrid webs of discursive and material relations. What this means is that we cannot take the ‘social’ element of any social theory for granted. The social must only be seen as a relational network of the actors and actants, both human and non-human, who act within it, and not as an object of study in itself. The implications of this way of thinking are extremely wide ranging, but if ANT is to be followed precisely it accurately breaks down binary distinctions such as ‘nature’ and ‘society’ and attaches the notion of agency to both the human and non-human worlds. He claims that overcoming this divide is a priority that he shares with Sloterdijk: “Spheres and networks … have both been elaborated against the same sort of enemy: an ancient and constantly deeper apparent divide between nature and society” (Latour, 2009, 139). To think in terms of networks therefore immediately forces us to understand atmosphere beyond what would have previously been considered its natural or societal determinations.
Due to the novelty of this idea, Latour’s work has also become explicitly concerned with the socio-technical nature of the atmospheric systems which surround us, namely the climate of our planet, and it is on this basis that Latour takes direct influence from Sloterdijk’s spherology. In Facing Gaia (2017) Latour draws a number of parallels between his own thinking and that of Sloterdijk, the most important of which (for our purposes) is the revelation of atmosphere in the modern age. He claims that Sloterdijk’s macrospherology shows us “what it means to be in space, on this Earth, offering us the first philosophy that responds directly to the requirement of the Anthropocene” (Latour, 2017, 124). In other words, if we are to understand what it means to exist as a being-in-the-world, we must draw our attention to the conditions of our planet and the networks we create as beings on the world. Latour also recognises Sloterdijk’s innovative notion that our atmospheric conditions act as the determinations of our spatial relationships with one another. On this note, he succinctly makes the connection between to the two aspects of Sloterdijk’s project and ANT by stating: “While networks are good at describing long-distance and unexpected connections starting from local points, spheres are useful for describing local, fragile, and complex ‘atmospheric conditions’” (Latour, 2011, 471). Thus, in order to provide an accurate analysis of contemporary cities we must be aware of the individual micro-spheres of the city citizens, the larger foam collectives that make up the cities themselves, and the interconnectivity that characterises their relation to the atmospheric conditions of the Earth.
Overcoming the Divide
To Sloterdijk, ANT’s attentiveness to the ‘transitional rituals’ that introduce new scientific facts and discoveries into their surroundings is where the true originality of Latour’s thinking lies. The incorporation of new facts into the realm of the collective understanding should not affirm the idea that mind independent entities, such as the particulate matter in the air, for example, are brought into existence at the arbitrary point in time when they are recognised by human consciousness. He claims that ‘discovering’ instead means a constant articulation which weaves a dense web between the articulated entity, other entities, science and society (Sloterdijk, 2016, 202-203). Latour’s concept of ‘articulation’ in this context draws direct parallels with Sloterdijk’s use of ‘explication’ which shows us that the introduction of particulate matter into our atmosphere has revealed the atmospheric and spatial relationships between the human and its environment. Therefore, both articulation and explication seek to overcome the divide between nature and society by emphasising what might be considered a relational feedback loop between the discovery of scientific facts and the social and atmospheric conditions that make this discovery possible. As Latour writes: “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” (Latour, 2009, 144). In other words, in a time when environmental and atmospheric conditions are being made explicit, we can no longer rely on a kind of philosophical ‘outside’ from which we can view the apparent distinction between nature and society. Both thinkers share a critical acknowledgement of the idea that philosophical and scientific knowledge must be situated within a particular environment. Indeed, the very notion of a shared environment, such as the one we consider to be affected by climate change, only began to emerge in the public consciousness at the same time that we realised our actions could no longer rely it. In Latour’s words: “There is no reserve of outside which the unwanted consequences of our collective actions could be allowed to linger and disappear from view” (ibid.).
Here Latour brings us back to Sloterdijk’s criticism of the Heideggerian question of Being. He states that: “Peter asks his master Heidegger the rather mischievous question: ‘When you say Dasein is thrown into the world, where is it thrown?” (Latour, 2009, 140). For Sloterdijk, we cannot understand Being as existing separately from the spatial determinations of the other beings or ‘life support’ systems which allow it to exist in the first place. In the same way, for Latour, we cannot see individual beings as having a distinct nature or culture which is separate from the interactions of the networks of which they are a part. Thus, ANT can be a useful tool for analysing our atmosphere as it provides an understanding of the relationship between humans and non-humans that does not rely on the imaginary ‘outside’ which Latour wants to move away from. However, it is only through Sloterdijk’s analysis that we can truly understand the historical and ontological relationship between city and atmosphere. City spheres cannot make necessary adaptive changes to global warming until they are directly confronted with climate change in such a way that explicates their previous mode of being within a relational atmosphere. Air pollution itself therefore takes on a whole new meaning that is at once ontological, empirical and spatial. It allows for a spherological interpretation of the city as a foam that reconceptualises atmosphere as an ‘atmo-sphere.’ Atmosphere can therefore not be simply reduced to our relationship with the air we breathe, but instead becomes a sphere of existence which acts as a ‘life-support’ system containing within it a multiplicity of elements of which the particulate matter in the air is merely one. Understanding the relationship between cities and atmosphere in this way opens up new modes of inquiry that will be crucial in formulating solutions to the coming climate crisis which accurately incorporate the technical, social, empirical, and ontological nature of the spheres we exist within.
Heidegger, M. (1962) Being and Time. New York: Harper & Row.
Latour, B. (2005) Air-condition. Sensorium. Cambridge: MIT Press. 104-108.
Latour, B. (2009) Spheres and Network. Two ways to Reinterpret Globalization. Harvard Design Magazine, Spring/Summer 30. 138-144.
Latour, B. (2011) Some experiments in art and politics. e-flux Journal 23: 471-490.
Latour, B. (2017) Facing Gaia: Eight Lectures on the New Climatic Regime. Cambridge: Polity.
Sloterdijk, P. (2011) Bubbles: Spheres I. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2014) Globes: Spheres II. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Sloterdijk, P. (2016) Foams: Spheres III. Cambridge: MIT Press.