Sloterdijk, Honneth, and the politics of ‘provocation’

One of the theorists who is all the rage in spatial-theory-land at the moment, subject of a veritable ‘second coming’, is German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk. Society and Space had a special issue on his work a year or so ago, and Stuart Elden has edited a collection of essays on his work which is forthcoming. It’s interesting to watch this process, in particular the finessing of Sloterdijk’s political interventions. Sloterdijk is a professional provocateur, and amongst the various ‘controversies’ he has triggered in the world of German letters revolves around a Ayn Rand-like assault on the welfare state in 2009. I’m a bit slow, so am only now catching up on this, because I’m trying to write something about Honneth. You can read a summary of Sloterdijk’s position in English here in Forbes magazine or here in City Journal, both resolutely proud free-market publications. You can read Axel Honneth’s substantive response to Sloterdijk in translation here. Apart from the obvious politics to this (see the commendation of Sloterdijk by the National Review) there is also a dispute about how to interpret the role of various emotional dynamics in political life – a central theme of Honneth’s reconstruction of critical theory, and a feature of Sloterdijk’s work too since his ‘first coming’, in his analysis of cynicism. Rage makes the world go round for Sloterdijk, whereas disrespect and dignity are key dynamics for Honneth. Might sound similar, but quite different really. I’m not inclined to get too excited about Sloterdijk’s spatial metaphysics, which is what does excite geographers and others who like all things ontological; I actually think the reactionary inflection he gives to an analytics of resentment is helpful in reminding us that simply asserting the importance of ‘the emotional’ or ‘affect’ in life has no necessary political meaning per se – everything depends on how this affirmation is worked through. The Sloterdijk/Honneth to-do is interesting for drawing out the significance of this issue, and also helps to clarify an issue at stake in suggestions that Honneth’s ethics of recognition has some affinities with the work of Rancière – an affinity rooted in a particular sort of commitment to avoid a scholastic disdain for ordinary people (the case is made by Jean-Philippe Deranty).

Rancière at criticism

Via Continental Philosophy, here is an audio of Jacques Rancière, talking about the relationship of critical theory and contemorary social movements. It’s only 20 minutes long, but it’s a concise little summary of his position, mainly being rude about what he sees as the sellinof out of the emancipatory promise by current critical theorists, though its unclear sometimes exactly who he has in mind. There is a swipe at the ontological flights of fancy of Sloterdijk, and a slightly more sustained reference to Boltanski and Chiapello’s account of the spirits of capitalism.

His basic argument is that various facets of classical critical theory are now deployed in an inverted way, so that the main objects of criticism in analyses of consumerism or commodity culture are now the subjects of these processes, ordinary people themselves. The main object of critique, Rancière suggests, has become the ignorance and culpability of ordinary people.

This rings true for me, I think it is a feature of a great deal of contemporary theory, forced to find some ‘political’ purchase for its culturalist analyses, to end up focussing on how people have been ‘got at’ in one way or another, and to lament their susceptibility (this is also a feature of many ‘moralised’ fields of social science, on climate change and environmental issues, on behaviour change, on global poverty).

Rancière proposes an alternative, quite old fashioned model of critique, derived from Kant – critique as the reflection on and elaboration of the conditions of possibility of emancipatory action. That’s much the same concept of critique you find in ‘third generation’ big-C, big-T Critical Theorists like Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth.

Rancière’s version of this Kantian model of critique is notable of course because of the emphasis he places on the principle of equality of intelligence or competence, specifically of aesthetic judgement. This is the principle contravened by scholastic disdain for ordinary consumer entertainments and commodity cultures.

Rancière’s point against Boltanski and Chiapello seems, however, to replay an older division between a more sociological take on aesthetic discourse, that emphasises aesthetics as a discourse of distinction and differentiation, and a more populist affirmation of the universality of aesthetic competence (in Anglo cultural studies, see Paul Willis or Tony Bennett might stand for different positions on this). Rancière implies that the identification of two styles of critique of capitalism, a social and an aesthetic one, by Boltanski and Chiapello replays a bourgeois disdain for the aesthetic competencies of working people. I’m not sure this is convincing. The sociological analysis of the differentiating deployment of aesthetic values is normally animated by exactly the sort of universalist, egalitarian commitment that Rancière affirms – it’s perhaps less prone to the philosophical presumptions that his egalitarian account of aesthetics reproduces.