Here is the second part of this previously unpublished piece.
As Sloterdijk implies in Terror…, the conquest of the atmosphere brings with it a parallel arising of vanguard or 'cutting edge' culture. The innovation in Sloterdijk's book comes not from his unpacking the history of military "atmo-terror," but from his realization that cultural and aesthetic developments have a neatly parallel history of etherealization, i.e. "aesthetic modernity is a procedure of applying force not against people or things, but against unexplained cultural relations."[i] Like Virilio, who saw '"the cinema trance" as being interchangable with the blank-slate mind of the "combatant,"[ii] Sloterdijk sees cultural novelty as intertwined with novelty in the arts of destruction. The commonality between forces of terror and artistic iconoclasm goes beyond this simple realization, though: Sloterdijk further binds these two categories of advancement together by noting that they are procedures concerned with "latency-breaking." Rather than eliminating latency by the explosive force of revolution, though, Sloterdijk suggests that the proper term to summarize modernity's development is explication: an "unfolding" process that is too subtle and to be noticed until its effects have already begun to set in. A parallel could maybe be drawn here to the way in which computer viruses and worms have both been deployed as weapons (see especially the June 2012 assignment of blame for the 'Stuxnet' worm to the highest levels of U.S. government)[iii] roughly along the same timeline that "viral marketing" campaigns have become the vanguard aesthetic of advertising and celebrity-making. However, Sloterdijk probably realizes that life in the infosphere is far too thorny a topic to be covered in this volume, and at any rate other new media specialists like Jussi Parikka have already written authoritatively on the subject.
This dilemma posed by the intermingling of avant-garde creativity and destructivity is not an entirely new annex to Sloterdijk's theoretical territory, considering that similar discussions took place in his 1989 work Eurotaoismus: Zur Kritik der Politischen Kinetik ['Euro-Taoism': Towards a Critique of Political Kinetics.] A key assumption of this work is that "the liberating potential of avant-garde art is intrinsically linked to technicity and its regulatory powers…it keeps intensifying or radicalizing itself with the corresponding increase in the spread and power of contemporary and future electronic technology," and that the success of this avant-garde fraternity will mean that 'being' becomes "identified with acceleration itself."[iv]
We can discuss all types of immaterial 20th-century art, particularly within the Conceptualist camp, as having this character, though Sloterdijk's does not need to stray much further beyond the example of Marcel Duchamp. Noting how Duchamp characterized himself as a "breather" rather than as an artist, Sloterdijk tags the artist as the Ur-representative of an "atmospheric" avant-garde, or that culture which saw de-emphasized the importance of solid, visuo-centric objects and instead focused upon the "social scultping" that resulted from confrontation with a new idea. In this way, something that is ostensibly a sculpture, like Duchamp's infamous urinal Fountain, can be argued as an "atmospheric" work, since its alteration of relations and proliferation of discussions constitute its true "aesthetic" effect. Of course, Sloterdijk does point out at least one instance in which Duchamp used bottled air itself as one of his signature "readymades;" when he presented his New York collector patrons Louise and Walter Arenberg with an ampoule of air brought with him from Paris.
Salvador Dali is also brought into the story, as Sloterdijk recounts the hilarious instance at the international Surrealist exhibition of July, 1936, during which the Catalan Surrealist dandy attempted to give a speech in a cumbersome diver's suit while proclaiming himself as an "ambassador from the depths" (which can be inferred as being those of the subconscious.) Dali's accidental near-suffocation within the suit, which he claims led to a rapturous audience response, is posited as a key artistic moment using stressed atmospheric conditions as a catalyst to greater revelations. However, while it is a striking scenario, one might wonder why Sloterdijk chooses this as an example of his thesis rather than, say, Dali's Mannequin Rotting in a Taxi-Cab a.k.a. "Rainy Taxi" (1936), in which a taxi cab populated by bizarrely mutated mannequins (one with a shark's head) is also the site of a "rain shower" provided by a set of pipes leading into the cabin. This Surrealist blurring of the delineation between exteriority and interiority seems to have greater implications for "atmospheric" art.
Sloterdijk might also have rendered a fuller picture of Dali as a "atmo-terrorist" antagonist by exploring the whys and wherefores of the fragrance line named for him, since, after all, the author notices that one salient feature of the new explicative society is its being an "odor-hedonistic society" (something that is partially confirmed in the works of celebrity 'noses' like Luca Turin, or in the poetic exegeses of Diane Ackerman.) The fragrance industry's attempts to provide immersive "olfactory offers" in the place of "mono-fragrances" is an interesting confirmation of Sloterdijk's thesis that the truth of atmospheric envelopment is being increasingly subjected to a secondary envelopment by radical modernizing agendas.
All told, Sloterdijk's brief on "negative air conditioning" does stand out from the crowd, although it perhaps intensifies a current in critical writing rather than making a clean break from it: the aggressive targeting of "cultural relations" over solid edifices or bodies, and the implications this has for civilian life, are an increasing concern among all varieties of criticial thinker, with Gilles Deleuze claiming this shift marks the transition into a "society of control," i.e. one in which the manipulaton of social relations, rather than any type of productivity, becames the goal of that society's masters:
The factory was a body that contained its internal forces at the level of equilibrium, the highest possible in terms of production, the lowest possible in terms of wages; but in a society of control, the corporation has replaced the factory, and the corporation is a spirit, a gas.[v]
The criticism of the etherealization process as an unethical one has a fairly history in 20th century thought, particularly in the work of urban critics like Lewis Mumford. It also has a distinctly Marxian tinge to it, if we consider Marx' portentous quote in the Communist Manifesto that "all that is solid melts into air" under capitalism (a quote that later became a title for David Berman's 1982 analysis of modernity.) Though Berman's expansion of this phrase into a book-length work makes his one of the more recognizable essays built from the thesis that etherealization is essential to the globalization of labor markets, his is far from being the first. Alain Touraine's The Post-Industrial Society (1971), for example, is a convincing jeremiad against the de-materialized "information economy" and the rise of bureacracy which accompanies a society shifting from a production-oriented to a consumer-oriented one. Touraine also saw the monopolization of immaterial information - rather than of material wealth - as the true mark of a successful totalitarian society.
Despite the brevity of Soterdijk's book (brief for modern theoretical texts, anyway), it is rich with observations that, if not supporting Sloterdijk's thesis, remain intriguing starting points for further study. One such observation is that the same man largely responsible for contributing to the public repulsion towards gas-based annihilation - Adolf Hitler - was himself a victim of a gas attack in the First World War. However, given that Sloterdijk generally needs volumes of a few hundred pages to let his theoreties properly marinate - and I would argue that his best works do remain his 'epic' ones - it is not surprising that some things feel 'left out' of this book.
The treatment of "atmo-weapons'" history perhaps cleaves a little too close to Sloterdijk's home, with the main examples culled from the peak era of German militarism in 1914-1945, and thus could have used some expanding. The use of the Agent Orange defoliant by the United States during the Vietnam conflict, for example, is perhaps one of the most glaring omissions, seeing as that this environment-altering weapon meets the criteria for atmo-terrorism as outlined by Sloterdijk. To the rural villagers and agricultural communities subjected to this, we could certainly apply Sloterdijk's comments:
…atmoterrorism was what gave the areas of human dwelling in the natural and ancient 'lifeworld' that were most resistant to the transition from traditional into modern conditions - those areas affording inhabitants and travelers in the air milieu a natural rapport to the atmosphere and an unquestionably given and anxiety-free, unproblematic being - the decisive push into modernization.[vi]
Still, Sloterdijk's inventory of atmo-terrorist incidents does alight upon other forgotten conflicts from time to time - he recalls how the 1922-1927 Rif war in Spanish Morocco was the first in which "terror from the air" truly became synonymous with "death from above," as Spanish forces used aerial bombardment with chemical munitions to break the 1924 stalemate with the Rifian forces.
Sloterdijk's appraisal of 'atmospheric' cultural events is also a selective, and not comprehensive, one. From Critique of Cynical Reason on, Sloterdijk has shown himself to be well versed in counterculture and subculture, a fact that leaves one wanting more from him in this area. His discussions of art that fuse confrontation with an "atmospheric" quality are highly percpetive, though some deeper digging might have revealed more connections still between the cultures of asymmetrical warfare and subsersive art. The connectivity between such artwork and military strategy is cemented by the latter's "agenda-driven" nature, which separates it from prior forms of art and cultural exchange undertaken merely for personal edification, and brings it closer to a more militaristic goal of subjugating undesirable / 'enemy' thought formations.
Subject matter as grim as atmo-terrorism has always been available in the darker corners of pop culture, from Throbbing Gristle's industrial noise classic "Zyklon B Zombie" to Slayer's landmark thrash metal track "Chemical Warfare." Perhaps in the spirit of maintaining the ideals set out in Kritik der Zynischen Vernunft, Sloterdijk does not touch on this material since, like Dada performances that preceded these examples by at least six decades, it exemplifies the spirit of "neo-cynicism," or the "expanded production of the past on the newest level of what is currently the worst"[vii] (in what may be a winking acknowledgement of the stylized cynicism then prevalent in Berlin social arenas like the Dschungel dance club, Sloterdijk also tosses off a hilarious aside in Kritik… about "the necrophilic robot gestics of New Wave.")[viii]
Speaking of Sloterdijk's "cynical" landmark, many will wonder, justifiably, how the thesis of this book remains consistent with - or just acts as a further development of - Sloterdijk's increasingly diversified catalog of ideas (still others will ponder if this book refutes any of the key points that he has made to date.) Among those who have been paying attention, there seems to be a critical consensus that, at the very least, Sloterdijk is not attempting to make all his work since Kritik… a restatement of it, with Kirsch noticing that
…what he saw in the Critique as the malaise of a disappointed generation becomes, in Bubbles and You Must Change Your Life, something much bigger and more profound. It is the plight of humanity after the death of God, which Sloterdijk follows Nietzsche in seeing as a catastrophe the true dimensions of which we do not yet fully appreciate. At the same time, the impatience with Marxism that is already visible in the Critique evolves into a full-throated defense of liberal capitalism, especially in Rage and Time, which is largely an account of communism, and also Christianity, as ideologies driven by resentment and fantasies of revenge. (Here, too, the inluence of Nietzsche is clear.)[ix]
In a narrower sense, it is actually easy to spot some continuity between Kritik… and Luftbeben, given that the former sees the very origin of warfare as being tied up with the destruction of our living environment: "before iron weapons can be raised against an enemy, a campaign against the earth's crust must have taken place,"[x] Sloterdijk notes. Having noted that warfare against the earth itself is a sine qua non of warfare between humans, he can look upon 'the bomb' with less superlative awe (i.e. "we must take care not to view today's nuclear technology as exceptional…it is, in reality, nothing more than the consistent continuation of the mineralogical-metallurgical attack on the given structures of matter, the purest intensification of polemical theory.")[xi] With this in mind, it is interesting that one negative review of Sloterdijk's work castigates him for not including an incident of "scorched earth" strategy (i.e. General Sherman's March to the Sea) in Terror From The Air:[xii] beginning with Kritik…, Sloterdijk has always perceived war between human bodies as resting on a foundation of "scorched" or denuded earth.
As Sloterdijk has admitted well before the publication of Luftbeben, "criticism against society becomes criticism of false mobility."[xiii] The "false mobility" he mentions here is explained as the essential thrust of modernity whereby progress is "movement toward movement, movement toward increased movement, movement toward an increased mobility."[xiv] That is to say, it is an unreflective and agitated form of techno-scientific self-perpetuation, a naked survivalism that we have convinced ourselves is actually the process of "overcoming" ourselves. Given that this process involves the aforementioned decrease in latency in all that we do, it means that weapon systems must, ironically, be more efficient as well, revealing just how much we have put the "cart" of technological advancement above the "horse" of confronting our species' innately violent nature. Having assumed that increased mobility will suffice to make great strides towards eradicating or transforming this nature, even the most interesting of utopian project teams (e.g. the Japanese Metabolists, or the Archigram group) do not provide us with the templates for a saner society.
Following the biologist Jakob von Üexkull, who implied that "life is always life-in-an-environment…and hence also against other environments"[xv] Sloterdijk notes how the sort of techno-teleology outlined above will ultimately tip the scales towards destructiveness, since
…in the age of atmospheric toxins, strategies, and hidden agendas all […] quasi-religious consenting to place one's trust in one's primary surroundings - be it nature, the cosmos, creation, homeland, situation, etc. - takes on the guise of self-harm.[xvi]
So, in a world where local, tangible connections are disdained as the outmoded relics of some more savage world, wherein we did not realize our collective potential as "latency-breakers," we can only count on more of what we currently experience: more contamination being delivered to us as disinfectant, more gaseous emission that poisons both the earth's atmosphere and the figurative 'atmosphere' of our cultural life.
[i] Sloterdijk (2009), p. 79.
[ii] Paul Virilio, War and Cinema: The Logics of Perception, pp. 38-39. Trans. Patrick Camiller. Verso, London / New York, 2009.
[iii] https://www.militarytimes.com/news/2012/06/ap-iran-us-cybervirus-may-hit-you-too-060212/. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
[iv] Krzysztof Ziarek, "The Turn of Art: The Avant-Garde and Power." New Literary History, Vol. 33, No. (Winter, 2002), pp. 89-107.
[v] Gilles Deleuze, "Postscript On The Societies Of Control." October #59 (winter 1992), p. 3. MIT Press, Cambridge MA.
[vi] Sloterdijk (2009), p. 47.
[vii] Peter Sloterdijk, Cirtique of Cynical Reason, p. 546. Trans. Michael Eldred. University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1987.
[viii] Sloterdijk (1987), p. 400.
[ix] Kirsch (2013.)
[x] Sloterdijk (1987), p. 352.
[xi] Sloterdijk (1987), p. 353
https://www.amazon.com/Terror-Air-Semiotext-Foreign-Agents/product-reviews/1584350725/ref=cm_cr_dp_qt_hist_one?ie=UTF8&filterBy=addOneStar&showViewpoints=0. Retrieved September 18, 2013.
[xiii] Peter Sloterdijk and Heidi Ziegler, "Mobilization of the Planet from the Spirit of Self-Intensification." TDR: The Drama Review, Vol. 50, No. 4 (Winter, 2006), pp. 36-43.
[xv] Sloterdijk (2009), p. 108.