The following piece is unpublished to date.
Beginning in August of 2013, virtually every American citizen with access to mass communications media became aware of the chemical weapon attacks in Ghouta, Syria. Though the nature of the attack was arguably no more brutal than any of the other mass civilian exterminations to have taken place during Syria's two-year civil war, an ambitious media campaign against Syrian president Bashar al-Assad immediately arose out of the gas clouds, condemning the chemical weapons usage as a unique evil that demanded a violent rebuke by the armed forces of the "free world." The cover of the Economist issue published following the reports from Ghouta was a prime example of this righteous media outrage, showing a low-opacity photo of the dictator staring ahead with icy, presumably uncaring eyes, superimposed atop a faintly rendered background of flaccid corpses - the accompanying text demanded that those of its readers in the policy-making community "HIT HIM HARD."
As escalating, wall-to-wall, and frankly hysterical coverage of these events became a staple of any American media diet for the days leading up to President Obama's national address on the issue, a strange thing happened. The American public remained overwhelmingly against any form of military intervention in the area in spite of this, seemingly marking a sea change in the ranking of priorities during the interminable 'Great Recession,' or evincing a widening ideological split between the public at large and the Beltway elites. This was remarkable, given the previous decade's sordid history of passive public acceptance of flimsly premises for U.S.-led war and military intervention. Yet it was more remarkable that the American people's collective indifferent shrug came about even with the specter of chemical weapons being raised, since such weapons have long been regarded with a special kind of aversion by the inhabitants of the 1st-world countries.
Though the Ghouta incident is of great interest to students of American popular opinion, military intelligence, and local media manipulation by foreign interests, perhaps not enough attention has been given to explanations of why the chemical weapons used were a singular evil that represented a step over Obama's much-touted "red line" of tolerance for human rights abuse. It seems that, in certain circles, chemical weapons have already surpassed "the bomb" as being the real ne plus ultra of inhumanity. For those who earnestly wish to bring about the apocalypse, like the Japanese Aum Shinrikyo ['Aum Supreme Truth'] cult responsible for the 1995 Tokyo subway attacks, sarin gas has been outright romanticized. The caveat here is that Aum turned to sarin gas after no fewer than four failed attempts at using biological weapons, and while simultaneously tasking their "minister of construction" Kiyohide Hayakawa with an attempt to secure a nuclear warhead from Russia. Nevertheless, the fact remains that the cult members saw a successful mass slaughter via sarin gas as an act that would - by the tortured reasoning characteristic of Aum chieftain Shoko Asahara- repulse and anger the public so much that the final war of Armageddon would follow soon on its heels.
As the story goes, conventional weaponry - from melee weapons to rocketry - are at least courteous enough to let us know whom and what is doing the killing. Death by gas clouds seems like a devious cheat, and in this respect, it is worth wondering if those who harbor anxieties about its use are also those who feel embittered by other major socio-economic forces that spread unnoticed. Mass death by poison gas seems to provide a potent metaphor for the invisible and, for many, incomprehensible machinations of the stock market and the technological info-sphere, both of which can cause catastrophic changes to one's life without initial detection and, again, without the possibility for an assailant to be clearly identified, denying even the possibility of plotting revenge while in the midst of personal crisis.
Other CW-related anxieties are more typical of those who see the hand of an eternal enemy as guiding virtually all destructive and degenerative acts: anti-Zionist conspiracy theorists (who in many cases can certainly be labeled as plain anti-Semites, despite the incomplete overlap between the two camps) have posited that the furore over chemical weaponry is an attempt, by proxy, to keep the horror of the Nazi gas chambers alive in the minds of the public. Indeed, the Aum cult was highly aware of sarin's development within the I.G. Farben labs of Nazi Germany, and had a deep dislike of the Jews (Asahara also waxed romantically that "the Nazis will be revived like a phoenix after Armageddon.")[i] As an anti-Zionist intellectual no lesser than Noam Chomsky notes, though, Israel's bringing excessive attention to the issue of chemical weapons hardly benefits that nation.[ii]
Certainly, it is an appropriate time to exhume some of the more interesting texts pertaining to chemical warfare - if for no other reason, than to unequivocally confirm or deny that such weapons do indeed constitute a unique category of evil or contain a destructive power that merits their being discussed separately from other forms of modern weaponry. One of the most interesting such texts is Peter Sloterdijk's Terror Form the Air, made available in an English translation from Semiotext(e) in 2009. The marriage of this particular work to that publisher is appropriate, given Semiotext(e)'s lengthy relationship with Paul Virilio, whose most noted works are incisive critiques about the co-evolution of military technology, urbanity, and man's media extensions.
A brief introduction to Sloterdijk is in order here, since I will not assume readers are fully conversational with his work. Born in 1947 in to a Dutch-German family, Sloterdijk began his academic life at the University of Munich in the turbulent year of 1968 (and studied during even more turbulent time for Germany, as the 1970s "decade of terror" unfolded locally courtesy of the Rote Armee Fraktion and their sympathizers.) In 1971 he composed a Magistrarbeit [roughly equivalent to a Master's thesis] titled Strukturalismus als poetische Hermeneutik, and followed a couple years later with the Foucault-influenced paper Die Ökonomie der Sprachspiele: Zur Kritik der linguistischen Gegenstandskonstitution ["The Economy of Word Games: On the Critique of Linguistic Subject Structures."] Having perhaps suffered from academic fatigue, Sloterdijk spent the years 1978-1980 in the Indian ashram of Bhagwan "Osho" Rajneesh, a move which still seems puzzling and comical in light of Sloterdijk's current indifference towards promoting spirituality (luckily for Sloterdijk, his dalliance with Rajneesh preceded the latter's disastrous relocation to Oregon, and the negative press that accompanied his conspicuous consumption of Rolls Royces, nitrous oxide-fueled visions and eschatological fantasies.) A relatively quiet period of freelance writing commenced shortly thereafter, and then, a timely explosion onto the literary scene.
Sloterdijk's sudden, unanticipated moment in the sun would come in 1983, upon the publication of his opus Kritik der Zynischen Vernunft ["Critique of Cynical Reason"], a book that purported to be the most widely read philosophical book in Germany since the end of the Second World War (one source notes that "more than 40,000 copies…were sold in the first few months after its appearance in West Germany" and that it was "touted as one of the two cultbooks [sic] of the year - the other being Christa Wolf's Kassandra.")[iii]
Inspired in part by the widespread apathy and self-referential irony that the worldwide student movement had lapsed into, Sloterdijk felt it necessary to distinguish between a kind of personally and societally ineffective "small-c" cynicism and the "original" Greek cynicism or Kynicism as proposed by Diogenes (kynikos originally meant "dog-like," refering to the shamelessness, contented indifference, and brutally honest appraisal of circumstances, all characteristics that cynical philosophers supposedly shared with free-roaming dogs.) This treatise was then an attempt to 'rescue' classical Kynicism from associations with its modern debasement into an unreflective malaise that, providing no solutions for the crises of modernity, substituted a sarcastic ridicule of the tenets of modern life. As Adam Kirsch notes, Sloterdijk is
…especially struck by the way he and his peers were able to master the most emancipatory and radical philosophical language, but utterly unable to apply its insights to their own lives and their own political situations. Coming after Critical Theory, whose post-Marxist diagnoses of social ills are a key reference point and antagonist for Sloterdijk, younger thinkers have found themselves brilliant at diagnosis and helpless at cure. “Because everything has become problematic, everything is also somehow a matter of indifference,” Sloterdijk observes.[iv]
Behind Sloterdijk's impassioned protest was the realization that the ecstatic or merely pleasurable aspects of attaining knowledge had given way to the type of "know-it-all" school of cynics that, while rolling their eyes at all attempts at seizing personal or political power, still demanded to have an elite or authoritative position accorded to them. Wahrheitsliebe ['love of truth'] and Liebeswahrheit ['truth in love'] were being increasingly seen as unjustly discarded relics of antiquity, but Sloterdijk saw them as vastly preferable to a world populated (if not outright ruled) by paranoid diletanntes claiming to be our intellectual superiors. Several different sub-categories of these individuals are identified by Sloterdijk in the book and tied together by the common bond of "enlightened false consciousness;" a kind of programmatic demystification that adds little to the quality of life despite its attempts to violently confront the unenlightened with the truth.
Since the seemingly improbable success of Kritik…, Peter Sloterdijk has become one of the pre-eminent philosophers on the European continent. From the period of 1993-2013 he was won thirteen different major European accolades including the prize for 'best economics book' from the Financial Times Deutschland, an honorary doctorate from the University of Nijmegen in the Netherlands, and a 'Kommandeur' status in the French Order of Ats and Letters. He has even appeared regularly on a television discussion program (Im Glashaus: Das Philosophische Quartett) while sharing panels with such unlikely conversational partners as Jacques Ranciere and inviting comparisons to the more opaque theoretical brews of Michel Serres and Bruno Latour. An inexplicable silence of nearly thirty years seems to have followed in the Anglophone world since the English-language publication of Kritik. However, for whatever reason - and I might speculate a hunger for intellectual challenges from personalities other the handful of 'radical thinkers' that dominate humanities curriculae - Sloterdijk is again being looked to as an incisive diagnostician when it comes to the three classic conflicts of man vs. himself, his natural environment, and his gods. Among some of Sloterdijk's currently untranslated works are Streß und Freiheit ("Stress and Freedom,") Mein Frankreich ("My France," a musing on his philosophical indebtedness to French thought and on the widening cultural divide between France and Germany), and Die Verachtung der Massen ("Contempt of the Masses.")
Though Jürgen Habermas - still considered one of Germany's most unimpeachable philosophers and democracy advocates - saw fit to contribute a positive review of Kritik der Zynischen Vernunft to Sloterdijk's press kit, the two had a well-publicized theoretical 'falling out' which helped to sustain Sloterdijk's fame throughout the 1990s. Upon the publication of Sloterdijk's Regeln für die Menschenpark ["Rules for the Human Zoo: A Response to Heidegger's Letter on Humanism"], which mused upon the human propensity for constructing "zoo"-like instutions in which to self-domesticate, Habermas took offense at Sloterdijk's insensitive use of Nazi-befouled terms like Züchtung ["breeding"] and Selektion in the same tome that acted as a critique of humanism. Habermas and his epigones spent a great deal of ink on declaring Sloterdijk a neo-fascist, though this oxygen of publicity seems to have suited him quite well in a philosophical climate that was gradually leaning towards more comically irreverent and / or "edgy" thinkers.
On that note, the Habermas-Sloterdijk affair also earned the latter some notable admirers within the theoretical community on a kind of "my enemy's enemy is my friend" basis, namely the hip Slovene philosopher Slavoj žižek, who has joked that the pair should go on a kind of speaking tour before the latter sends Sloterdijk "straight to the gulag" for his opinions. This is a rib that he is fond of using with other thinkers that, while mainly disagreeing with his communist ethics, nonetheless share some salient " žižek-ian" characteristics like a penchant for unveiling the paradoxical or for deflating the tension of theoretical debates with irreverent mannerisms. Indeed, Critical Quarterly reviewer Steven Connor claims that Sloterdijk "can be thought of in some ways as a kind of German žižek – prolific, pugnaciously opinionated, quotably contrarian, affably at ease on a public stage and perversely drawn to the defence of lost causes," although Sloterdijk remains distinguished by being " less dogmatic, more historically aware, more argumentatively versatile" and possessing "a defter wit"[v] (in another review, Sloterdijk comes out well ahead of žižek, who is refered to as a "gasbag.")[vi]
Terror From the Air, while perhaps a 'darker' book with little of the wry humor implied above, is nonetheless an intriguing example of Sloterdijk's craft, and is nothing if not "pugnacously opinionated" and "quotably contrarian." It was originally published in the German language as Luftbeben: An den Quellen des Terrors [loosely "Air Quake: At The Foundations of Terror"], in the year 2002 (Steven Connor is not alone in wondering why a direct translation of the title wouldn't have sufficed.)[vii] The book is an attempt by the publisher to introduce an Anglophone readership to the massive Sphären trilogy by first administering some smaller doses of that work: this text first appeared in the final volume of that work, Schäume ["Foams"]. As such, it aims to confirm the thesis of that volume - that "being and space" is an under-acknowledged ontological counterpart to Heidegger's "being and time - but while drawing upon the more explicitly aggressive or confrontational aspects of environmentally-driven life.
Though at least a dozen other Sloterdijk titles still remain untranslated, despite the recent efforts of Semiotext(e), Polity and other publishers to introduce American readers to his philosophy, the choice of this title is appropriate for the terrorism-obsessed American market (if a little belated in its translation.) However, despite the provocative title and cover graphics that immediately bring to mind the attacks of September 11, 2001 (to say nothing of this event's being mentioned on the back cover copy), Sloterdijk wisely keeps the discussion of this event on the sidelines, as it is not all that relevant to the discussion at hand. He does make careful, if passing, mention of Aum's activities, showing that he is not among the uninformed Western commentators that view terrorism as synonymous with Islamic fundamentalism (and, at any rate, that topic is dealt with more fully in Zorn und Zeit.) Moreover, the book deals not exclusively with 'terror' - meaning here both the raw fear accompanying unexpected attacks, and the asymmetrical warfare of 'non-State actors' - but also with the paradoxical situation whereby substances decried as a supreme inhumanity are also put into the service of more "humanistic" exterminations, and, by extension, more efficient ones. To this end, Sloterdijk cites the example of Major D.A. Turner's efforts at designing the Nevada State Prison gas chamber in Carson City, and his recommendation of "his chamber as a milder alternative to the already notorious electric chair."[viii]
However, in sketching a history of the Nazis' use of chemical execution shortly after making these comments, Sloterdijk also shows how the purported greater efficiency and humane progressiveness of this weapon also relied upon the dehumanization of its targets in order to rationalize its use. Sloterdijk notes how this weapon intended for human exterminations was spoken of as if an anti-microbial "disinfectant," or how, once Goebbels recognized Jews as the "lice of humanity," that there was nothing contradictory or inconsistent about claiming gas executions as a step forward for mankind.
Lest you think that an eclectic thinker like Sloterdijk limit his investigation to the expected of Nazi crimes, the above events do appear in their proper chronological place in this book, i.e. after the large-scale use of chlorine gas by German armed forces in the Belgian town of Ypres (April 22, 1915.) Sloterdijk incorrectly glosses over the earlier use of gas at Bolimow on the Eastern Front; nevertheless the more high-profile second battle of Ypres is seen by Sloterdijk as the inaugural moment of "atmo-terror," or warfare in which the target of an attack is no longer the enemy combatants but the very atmosphere which supports and nourishes them. Interpreted as such, this strategy could be seen as a precursor to warfare in which civilian centers themselves are military targets, and more importantly - as Sloterdijk points out - as a precursor to a complete re-organization of society along the lines of ambience. Sloterdijk seems to be warning us that such a re-organization would not attempt to perpetuate the symbiotic relationshiop with the atmosphere, but would merely replace human compartmentalization via physically solid containers (buildings, cities) with a system in which unseen atmospheric agents act as behavioral modifiers. It is here that Sloterdijk's deft word play with the term "air conditioning" becomes evident, as this specific type of artificial climatization becomes a metaphor for a larger program of harnessing the atmosphere to specific agendas.
Sloterdijk binds the explicitly military campaigns of gas warfare, and the anxiety over them, to our obsession with climatology (and we hardly need him to tell us, as he does at one point in the book, about the percentage of modern "small talk" that is given over to weather-related discussions.) Many on the conspiracy theory fringe have already identified weapons that they feel will extend the catastrophic trend of atmospheric warfare by manipulating weather patterns, such as the HAARP [High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program] super-weapon assumed to have capabilities for "creating hurricanes and typhoons […] can creat[ing] earthquakes and superheat[ing] the atmosphere" (in some accounts, an ability to "destroy aircraft anywhere in the world; and control the minds of its victims" is also thrown in free of charge.)[ix] Even the more modest powers associated with the HAARP facility (which was, incidentally, closed as of May 2013) are highly implausible - given that the frequency it emits can only be absorbed by the ionosphere, which is well outside the range of atmospheric weather systems - though this speculation does prove that there is still a popular fear of atmospheric alteration; it remains in the 'vanguard', as it were, of the public anxieties regarding coercive violence.
(2nd part to appear here shortly.)
[i] Robert Jay Lifton, Destroying The World To Save It: Aum Shinrikyo, Apocalyptic Violence,
and The New Global Terrorism, p. 169. Henry Holt & Co., New York, 1999.
[ii] "…there is a country which happens to be - happens to have illegally annexed part of Syrian territory, which has chemical weapons and is in violation of the chemical weapons convention and has refused even to ratify it - namely, Israel. So here’s an opportunity to eliminate chemical weapons from the region, to impose the chemical weapons convention as it’s actually formulated. But Obama was very careful not to say that he—for reasons which are too obvious to go into—he—and that gap is highly significant." http://antiwar.com/blog/2013/09/12/chomsky-on-syria-the-idea-that-the-us-enforces-international-law-is-hardly-even-a-joke/. Retrieved September 15, 2013.
[iii] Neil Wilson, "Punching Out the Enlightenment: A Discussion of Peter Sloterdijk's Kritik der Zynischen Zukunft."
[iv] Adam Kirsch, "Up From Cynicism: A European Philosopher Gives Reasons for Living." The New Republic, July 1 2013, pp. 44-49.
[v] Steven Connor, "Reviews." Critical Quarterly Vol. 53 No. 2, pp. 107-112.
[vi] Carlin Romano, "Slippery Sloterdijk: The Edgy European Philosopher, Circa 2012." Chronicle of Higher Education, 9/11/2012.
[viii] Peter Sloterdijk, Terror From The Air, p. 39. Trans. Amy Patton and Steve Corcoran. Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 2009.
[ix] http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4122. Retrieved September 15, 2013.