PRINT Summer 2009


Peter Sloterdijk’s Terror from the Air

PETER SLOTERDIJK IS THAT RARE THING, a public intellectual. Cohost of a program of cultural debate on German television called The Philosophical Quartet, he burst into public view in 1983 with his Critique of Cynical Reason, an ambitious study of the modern ego as steeped in cynicism, “inwardly adroit and outwardly armored,” which his American publisher touts as “the best-selling German book of philosophy since World War II,” and he has seen no fewer than twenty-seven titles into print since. Most important here is his expansive trilogy Sphären (Spheres I–III, 1998, 1999, 2004), which explores myriad spaces—from the microsphere of the uterus to the macrosphere of the nation-state—that are fundamental to the formation of human life but often overlooked by philosophers. At once polemical and holistic in approach, Sloterdijk has landed in trouble at times: In 1999 he published a text called Regeln für den Menschenpark (Rules for the Human Park), which risked the language of breeding and selection, still taboo in Germany, to consider how the category of the human might be protected in an age of genetic manipulation—and the Scheisse hit the fan. His short treatise under review here, Terror from the Air (first published in German as Luftbeben: An den Quellen des Terrors in 2002), an offshoot of Spheres III, has its own provocations.

“Anybody wanting to grasp the originality of the era,” Sloterdijk writes early in the book, “has to consider ... the practice of terrorism, the concept of product design, and environmental thinking.” Essentially, Terror from the Air runs the histories of these three things together, for it is this convergence, Sloterdijk believes, that defines the modernity of the last century. He locates its primal scene in the first gas attack, by a special German regiment against French-Canadian soldiers in the Ypres Salient in Belgium on April 22, 1915. With “the introduction of the environment into the battle between adversaries,” Sloterdijk argues, the military target became less the body of the soldier than its “basic prerequisites for life.” “Almost overnight, after the events at Ypres, a kind of military climatology sprang virtually out of nothing, and it would not be [an overstatement] to recognize it as the leit-phenomenon of terrorism.”

Sloterdijk calls the gas attack at Ypres “a spectacular revelation.” However odd this language sounds, it is key to his argument, for here the very dynamic of modernity is to render explicit that which is latent, “in the background”—overlooked in our environment, unrepresented in our thought. At first obscure, his term for this process, explication, thus comes to crystallize his thesis, which is that rationality has long since become instrumental, in a way that makes scientific explanation and technological manipulation almost inseparable. (In this view, for example, the study of chlorine gas cannot help but lead to its weaponization.) For Sloterdijk this modern dynamic is also a vicious dialectic: “Modernity conceived as the explication of the background givens thereby remains trapped in a phobic circle, striving to overcome anxiety through technology, which itself generates more anxiety.” In the explication of “atmoterrorism,” the Ypres attack was quickly followed, in the early 1920s, by the development of Zyklon A, a designer gas engineered by German companies for the peacetime purpose of pest control. Enclosed spaces such as warehouses, ships, and railway carriages were now routinely fumigated with this hydrogen cyanide concoction, ridding them of all manner of vermin—rats, moths, mosquitoes, bedbugs, lice—even killing their eggs, their larvae, and their nits. This advance was immediately put to perverse civilian use in a gas chamber in Nevada, where, on February 8, 1924, a twenty-nine-year-old Chinese named Gee Jon, convicted of murder, was the first to be thus executed. Through the metaphor of Jews as “pests,” the SS then fused these two applications, on a monumental scale, in “the gas chamber and crematorium industry in Auschwitz and other concentration camps.” At every turn, according to Sloterdijk, product design was there to assist in new forms of environmental terror: For example, without the breakthrough of Zyklon B, a solid form of hydrogen cyanide that allows for its transportation before its conversion to gas, the technology of delousing might not have found its way quite so readily into the Nazi camps.

For Sloterdijk this dialectic did not end even there: The Allied firebombing of Hamburg and Dresden on July 27, 1943, and February 13, 1945, respectively, marked a further step in atmoterrorism, succeeded directly by the quantum leap represented by the American nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945. The latter events were so momentous, according to Sloterdijk, because they made radioactivity explicit to all, and “phenomenal catastrophe” flipped into “a catastrophe of the phenomenal.” Relentless, the beat of explication goes on to this day: Sloterdijk highlights a project paper, developed by the US Department of Defense in 1996, titled “Weather as a Force Multiplier: Owning the Weather in 2025,” which looks forward to “battlefield dominance” through ionosphere control. Again the dialectic is at work, for this fearsome technology stems from otherwise benign research that seeks to deploy superwaves to repair tears in the ozone layer and to stem the deadliest of hurricanes. And there is a further twist in military application here, for Sloterdijk also discusses how this research might be brought to bear on our own internal weather through “neurotelepathic weapons” that use superwaves to disrupt mental functions.

To be plausible at all, Sloterdijk points out, such atmoterroristic strategies must claim “a moral asymmetry” vis-à-vis a putative enemy, and they must do so in a way that goes beyond the assertion of ethical superiority so common in war. It is this claim that allows military aggression to be legitimated as an “extrajudicial trial”; thus, for instance, the prosecution of the Iraq War—which began with the atmoterroristic campaign of “Shock and Awe”—was presented as the prosecution of Saddam Hussein by other means. On this point Sloterdijk might have developed the philosophy of Carl Schmitt, the rediscovered theorist of the category of the enemy, “the state of exception,” and other relevant concepts, yet Heidegger is the philosopher he chooses to engage here. This is so, in large part, because Sloterdijk considers atmoterrorism a “problematization of human dwelling” above all. Under “the constraint of explication,” he argues, dwelling can no longer be construed in Heideggerian terms “as a donation of Being.” Revising the Freud dictum “Where there was Id, there must now be Ego,” Sloterdijk quips in Spheres III, “Where there was ‘life world,’ there must now be air-conditioning.”

This challenge to Heidegger is suggestive; less so are the parallels Sloterdijk draws to modernist artists, who, in his view, also proceed through the explication of the latent. His two principal examples, touched on only lightly, are Salvador Dalí, who is said to make explicit the latency of the unconscious, and Kazimir Malevich, who is seen to elevate “the unthematic into the thematic”—that is, to make explicit the abstract fundaments of all painting. For Sloterdijk both artists make good on the militaristic meaning of the term avant-garde, for both are involved in “an offensive movement on the aesthetic flank of explication.” Yet surely Dalí is involved more in the obfuscation of the unconscious than in its explication, and to argue that the desire for purity in Malevich is just a step away from the “terror of purification,” as Sloterdijk does, is just a step away from the reductive thesis that the utopianism of the Russian avant-garde leads directly to the gulag of Stalin. If Sloterdijk wants us to rethink “culture theory” in terms of the climatological study of “collective conditions of immersion in art and sign systems,” he will need more persuasive examples than these. (In fact a more instructive parallel might be located in contemporary art concerned with eco- systems; once again, indifference to current practice proves to be the Achilles’ heel of the critical theorist.)

An argument that brings terrorism, the environment, and design into tight conversation is timely, even urgent, yet there are problems here (beyond the occasional infelicities of the translation) that mitigate its use-value. Focused on wars and weapons, Terror from the Air is a boy version of the twentieth century, and some of its ground is familiar, already covered by Paul Virilio (not to mention W. G. Sebald in his On the Natural History of Destruction [1999/2003] and Harun Farocki in his various essay-films on military technologies). Sloterdijk mentions the “paranoid critical method” of Dalí, and a tinge of paranoia—an anxiety about “influencing machines” (as the psychoanalyst Victor Tausk called putative mind-control devices)—does animate his text. Maybe it comes with the territory; after all, Freud pointed to a paranoid tendency in the system-building of many philosophers. At the same time, as Philip K. Dick once suggested, the paranoiac might just be a person with more facts at his disposal than the rest of us, and certainly the great merit of Terror from the Air is to make connections we have heretofore overlooked—precisely, to explicate them. Today, however, it is difficult not to be ambivalent about grand narratives of this sort: On the one hand, now perhaps more than ever, we need to come to terms with the ever-retooled systems that structure our lives; on the other, paradoxically, such totalizations leave too much out. (Maybe we could begin with a moratorium on that ultra-elastic term modernity.) Implicitly, Sloterdijk looks to Horkheimer and Adorno for his model, demystifying modern rationality as they did in Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947), but substituting a dialectic of explication instead. In the end, though, his account may be no more dialectical than theirs: His version of modernity, too, appears to be without detour, let alone exit.

Hal Foster is Townsend Martin 1917 Professor and Chair of the department of art and archaeology at Princeton University.


Peter Sloterdijk, Terror from the Air, trans. Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran. (Los Angeles: Semiotext(e) Foreign Agents, 2009), 112 pages.