The text for today is from Peter Sloterdijk, You Must Change Your Life, Cambridge UK and Malden MA: Polity 2013 (Du mußt dein Leben ändern, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 2009):
The basic contradiction of Greek ethics, as well as the art of education connected to it, comes from the fact that it never managed to work out the difference between passions and habits with the necessary clarity–which is why it also never clearly articulated the corresponding difference between dominance and practice. The consequences are evident in over two millennia of ambiguity in European pedagogy–initially it often suffocated its pupils with authoritarian discipline by treating them as subjects, while later on it increasingly addressed them as false adults and released them from all discipline and practising tension. The fact that pupils are initially and mostly burgeoning athletes–not to say acrobats–who must be brought into shape was, because of the moralistic and political mystification of pedagogy, never pointed out as explicitly as a matter of such import would require. (166)
That is, we seem to have two modes, as regards teaching children: the forced march and the mushroom method. Either we train them like dogs or we leave them to blossom on their own, in the dark, on a pile of shit (which does not, of course, preclude the muddled mixtures of those two modes we see in the everyday classroom). Sloterdijk’s middle way out is to recognize that we all depend, for our socioeconomic effectiveness as well as our self-respect, on the cultivation of the right kinds of habits–on the practices that make up our discipline and disciplines; on recognizing that we could do better and taking requisite action; in sum, on taking to heart Rilke’s admonition “du mußt dein Leben ändern.” As I wrote recently in another context, any intrusion of unnecessary authoritarianism kills it. And the idea that students’ ownmost condition is as athletes–performers and competitors with skillfully trained bodies–figures here as an opportunity not grasped. We set ourselves up as preceptors and judges, while our work would be much more effective were we to conceive of ourselves as coaches instead.
I want to believe. Sloterdijk is, as they say, singing my song here. But there are two huge, intertwined problems putting this approach into action, of which I have written before: one is what is called developmental readiness, and the other is a particularly problematic aspect of our commercial culture. I have and will continue often to discuss the question of adolescent and young adult intellectual development as it impinges on our teaching. In these middle years, the less mature one is, by and large, the more mature one imagines oneself to be–“I almost got it all figured out, man”–and at this point a passionately defensive instinct is ready to spring up against anything that seems to threaten one’s fragile autonomy. Thus, especially when it seems to come from outside, from “above,” Rilke’s admonition is all too often met with snarls of refusal.
And at least one of the methods commerce has evolved to market stuff to these folks exacerbates the problem greatly. Pandering to this defensive pseudo-autonomy is sadly easy: No worries, kids, you’re awesomely, uncannily cool just as you are, even in your obvious occasional doofiness, just (and only) as long as you BUY OUR PRODUCT. . .”
I submit that we are badly equipped to compete against this concatenation of inner and outer environmental forces unless we have something awesome to offer. I also submit that we do have that, but we market it very badly: disciplined practice, our real product, is fatally associated with the imposition of top-down authority when it can and should be offered as liberation through the kind of self-fashioning most kids associate only with style. Importantly, the practices Sloterdijk has in mind are embodied, or maybe it’s even better to say bodily, like perhaps tattooing. His book is subtitled “On Anthropotechnics,” a term he didn’t coin, though his use of it is quite removed from its Soviet origin; it refers generally to the ways we work on ourselves, but also to the not-yet-developed science and philosophy of practices–call it, riffing along with Sloterdijk on L. Ron Hubbard’s brilliantly and cynically conceived “dianetics,” a general disciplinics that disrespects the supposed boundary between the physical and mental and presents a decided advance over such powerful forerunners as Foucault’s late work. Of course I can see the objections colleagues have to the shift Sloterdijk imagines here, at least with the spin I’m giving it, but I would argue that approaching the humanities in terms of self-transformational practices does not at all have to entail a descent into loopy self-help discourse and/or bogus religiosity (not that all self-help discourse is loopy nor all religion bogus!). Then again, I have to admit that I do like to think of my laser pointer as a light saber.
I’m only a third of the way through Sloterdijk’s massive essay, which itself seems to me the third in a trilogy of uniquely related books, their titles all riffing on great philosophical phrases from the past–Critique of Cynical Reason, Being and Rage, and now this one–and all concerned with the vicissitudes of reason under conditions of modernity entwined with something he might consent to call human nature. I think this one might turn out to be quite important, and it seems to me right and fair for Sloterdijk to claim that “the emancipation of practice from the compulsive structures of Old European asceticism . . . might be the most important intellectual-historical and body-historical event of the twentieth century” (167). Of course, that emancipation is not yet complete.