This review of Peter Sloterdijk’s Bubbles appeared in the Guardian.
In 2005, the German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk contrived a timely and satiric installation for Making Things Public: a vast exhibition on objects and present-day politics held at ZKM, a cutting-edge centre for media art in Karlsruhe, Germany. Faced with fragile western triumphalism in Iraq and Afghanistan, Sloterdijk proposed that a “pneumatic parliament” be parachuted into post-conflict zones, its sleek transparent dome inflated in an hour and a half, and seats for 160 representatives installed within 24 hours. In a laconic essay to accompany CGI renderings of his Swiftian bubble in situ, the philosopher noted that some “failed states” among the customer target group might not be ready for the full parliamentary “experience”. A lucrative secondary market would arise in educational theme parks dedicated to potential state systems: democracy, monarchy, aristocracy and outright tyranny.
As a political-philosophical joke, the pneumatic parliament is a slightly clunky conceit. But it has its origin in Sloterdijk’s hugely ambitious and suggestive trilogy Spheres, published between 1998 and 2004. (Bubbles is the first volume to appear in English.) Here he attempts nothing less than a metaphysical history of enclosed spaces, utopian or practical pods and domes, real and fantastical atmospheres or ecosystems. Spheres is a wildly eclectic work; the third part, on foam (Schäume), is full of reflections on such topics as the vitreous dreamland of the Great Exhibition, the Victorian invention of the concept of environment, the deployment of poison gas during the first world war and the geodesic domes of Buckminster Fuller. Modernity, Sloterdijk contends, has long been a matter of control and liberation through a sort of air conditioning. And we live now, of course, with the constant knowledge that we have turned the system up too far.
Bubbles is every bit as vagrant and curious in its range of reference as the volumes still to be translated. Early on, Sloterdijk signals his mixing of art, science and metaphysics with a lovely invocation of Sir John Everett Millais’s 1887 painting Bubbles: a little boy sending some core aspect of his being aloft in a magical soap bubble. But it’s worth pausing to sound not exactly a warning but a modest caveat. This is fundamentally a work of philosophy, and its author is in more or less avowed dialogue throughout with the thought of Martin Heidegger, whose disquisitions on time and space describe a rooted, authentic sense of being in the world that Sloterdijk wants in part to counter with his vision of mobile spheres.
Here he is on what he calls the “egg principle”, as broached by William Harvey in his animal encyclopaedia De generatione animalium in 1651: “The ovum of the biologists is no longer the egg of the mythologists of origin; nonetheless, the incipient modern life sciences also fall back on the old cosmogonic motif of the genesis of all life, indeed the world as a whole, from an original egg.” The scientific insight that all living beings (even those previously thought to generate spontaneously) emerge from egg cells – a conjecture later confirmed under the microscope – becomes a guiding principle for thinking about all manner of origins and adventures. Sloterdijk conjures the image of life bursting forth from a discrete bubble, or communing with the outside through a porous membrane: these are the metaphors that animate artists from Hieronymus Bosch to Kazimir Malevich, scientists from the 17th century to the era of space travel, the designers of renaissance garden grottoes and 18th-century French four-poster beds.
At times, Bubbles reads distinctly like one of those poetic, rigorous and slightly mad essays that posits a single form as pseudo-scientific key to all mythologies and mores: Emerson’s essay on “Circles” (“the highest emblem in the cipher of the world”) or Sir Thomas Browne’s “The Garden of Cyrus”, in which the 17th-century physician spies a five-pointed “quincunx” everywhere in nature. At worst, Sloterdijk could be accused of merely spotting metaphoric slippages between the womb-encircled human foetus, saintly faces surrounded by haloes and the static-charged spheres employed by mesmerists or enthusiasts of animal magnetism. But his book is more fundamentally a study of the ways that life, soul, being and being-together have been conceived in terms of inside, outside and the traffic between.
If Sloterdijk’s reflections sound obvious or fanciful, consider again the long and vexed history of enclosed but transparent volumes as images alike of freedom and security, futurism and consolation. From the paradise of commodities corralled at the Crystal Palace – the only building, so the catalogue had it in 1851, in which the very atmosphere was visible – through the Millennium Dome and Eden Project to metaphors attached today to national security or cloud computing, we seem addicted to spaces that promise immunity and drift at the same time. Bubbles might best be compared to The Arcades Project, the massive fragmentary book in which Walter Benjamin tried to crystallise the history of capitalism in the image of Parisian glass arcades. (Or, in a British context, to Humphrey Jennings’s phantasmagoria of industrial modernity, Pandaemonium.) Though his eccentric methods are similar, Sloterdijk’s historical purview is a lot wider, and Bubbles is as much an essential guide to modern space as it is a philosophical epic about dwelling and thinking.