On Spheres and Media Theory

On: April 6, 2008
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About Esther Weltevrede
Esther Weltevrede is a second year Media Studies Research Master student at the University of Amsterdam. Before studying New Media she attended the School of Arts in Breda where she received a Bachelor degree in Graphic Design. She is involved as researcher and coordinator in the recently founded Digital Methods Initiative at the University of Amsterdam. DMI is dedicated to developing tools and methods for researching the ‘natively digital.’ Since this summer she is a member of GovComOrg, a foundation dedicated to creating and hosting political tools on the Web. Currently she is a part-time teacher Information Visualization at Master Editorial Design, Utrecht School of Art, and part-time teacher Public Design at Interactive Media, Hogeschool van Amsterdam.

In a tutorial by Geert Lovink on German Media Theory we read German uncontemporary media theorists. Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies Volume I and Male Fantasies Volume II, Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power and Friedrich Kittler’s Gramophone, Film, Typewriter was the shared basis we started with. I read Spheres I: Bubbles by Peter Sloterdijk and gave a presentation about it. Bubbles is part of a trilogy where the German Philosopher develops a theory of Spheres. This post is derived from the presentation I gave in class.

Sloterdijk studied philosophy, Germanistics and history at the University of Munich. He received his PhD from the University of Hamburg. Since 1980 he has published many philosophical works, including the Critique of Cynical Reason. The trilogy Spheres is the philosopher’s magnum opus. The trilogy has not yet been translated in English. Sferen, the book I have read is a Dutch translation of a large part of volume I and II. Some parts are omitted. Volume III is not translated into Dutch.
The trilogy of spheres
Spheres are the spaces where people actually live. I would like to show that human beings have, till today, been misunderstood, because the space where they exist has always been taken for granted, without ever being made conscious and explicit.
And this lieu or space I call a sphere in order to indicate that we are never in fact naked in totality, in a physical or biological environment of some kind, but that we are ourselves space-creating beings, and that we cannot exist otherwise than in these self-animated spaces.
Peter Sloterdijk
Peter Sloterdijk rewrites the history of mankind from a philosophical perspective rather than a scientific one. This philosophical perspective has its roots in metaphysics and religious thought and counters the materialistic approach that has dominated thinking for centuries. The philosophical question Sloterdijk starts of with is: where is man? Instead of addressing ontological questions of the being of man, he addresses the places of human beings. The theory of the Spheres can be viewed as a Grand Narrative, which combines new sociology, psychology, world history and philosophy. In taking this approach he aims to renew psychology from a philosophical perspective, and also renew media theory from a philosophical perspective. He uses a divers range of sources such as religious paintings from the middle ages, Odysseus and the Sirens to an autobiography of Andy Warhol. His style can be characterized by metaphorical transitions, associations with a combination of text types instead of rational arguments. The argument is build up rather unconventional yet the plausibility of his theory is compelling.
It is useful to consider the general structure of the trilogy. The first volume was published in Germany in 1998, the second in 1999, and the last in 2004. Spheres is about spaces of coexistence, spaces commonly overlooked or taken for granted that conceal information crucial to developing an understanding of the human. Sphären I: Blasen (Spheres I: Bubbles) makes up the first part of a Sphere-trilogy in which Sloterdijk rewrites the history of mankind by understanding humans as sphere-producing and sphere-dependent beings. There are small and large spheres. Bubbles deals with the small spheres that form between individuals. In the second volume he moves to the macrospheres of the community, the state. Politics enters the argument in Sphären II: Kosmen, Globen, Reiche (Spheres II: Worlds, Globes, Empires). It contains a criticism of totalitarianism, expanded to include the entire history of advanced civilization. It demonstrates that empire-spheres are false attempts to project small familial spheres onto the social plane. Sphären III: Schaum (Spheres III: Foam) presents a postmodern plan, with which the German Philosopher wants to show how small and large spheres can combine to form a non-repressive, pluralistic whole.
In Spheres I: Bubbles the question “where is man?” is answered by approaching it from a micro level. A human being starts existence within another person, the mother. Sloterdijk argues this first condition of life defines us as human beings: always looking for new microspheres to protect us and resonate with, form relations with. sloterdijk therefore sees the subjects not as individuals, something which can not be divided, or as Deleuze sees subjects as “dividuals”, rather the subject is defined as something that is already divided to begin with and is always looking for a two-oneness.
Leonardo Da Vinci ca. 1510, detail
Chapter 5 is crucial in the argument, following his tendency to do away with mythological and religious narratives by secularizing them, Sloterdijk finds a material correlative to the intuition of an original human wholeness as it is expressed in numerous documents and artifacts in many cultures. The placenta, which nourishes the embryo and is connected to the mother through the umbilical cord, can neither be unambiguously interpreted as the organ of the mother, nor of the child. For Sloterdijk, this placenta presents evidence of a lost wholeness that was constituted dyadically. Using gynealogical terms such as placenta is however something Sloterdijk wants to avoid. It objectifies. It is a separation of subject (fetus) and object (placenta). Sloterdijk therefore employs the term Mit (With) to designate this state, which is hard to describe because of its pre-linguistic origin. The fetus and its placenta are connected to each other, like Orpheus and Eurydice. Together they form a two-oneness. The problem of the history of mankind begins with the excommunication of this first companion. The newborn subject is the mutilated half of an originally rounded being which is whole. At this point, modern individualism enters. The gynecological cutting the umbilical cord brings forth the lonely modern subject. This condition in turn facilitates the formation of totalitarian nations, which is addressed in Spheres II where macrospheres are theorized.
Media theory
On parting, the subject has a new space in which substitutions are possible. The vacant space that the lost primal companion leaves behind in man becomes the starting point for a consistently renewed search for new companions and new substitute spheres. New companions and spheres are constructed through media and can be regarded as substitutions for Mit. Approaching media from this perspective makes media part of the two-oneness instead of an extension of man or a tool. When considering the Web as such, it is a space that is real yet not tangible similar to how Sloterdijk defines spheres in the first place. This view counters material approaches to the Web such as Kittler’s argues in “There Is No Software” that every piece of information on the Web is in the end stored on material hardware. Looking at the Web as a space created by humans from the perspective of Spheres, Web space should not be materially objectified. Media are one form of substitution for Mit and part of the sphere to resonate with and form relations with others. Developing a media theory from a Sphere perspective provides ways to clarify the how and which of the consistency of different existences in shared ether. The challenge might therefore be the operationalization of a method to analyze the object of study from such perspective.
In her thesis Blogging for Engines Anne Helmond argues the blogosphere is constructed through a variety of technically enabled relations between blog software, search engines as well as bloggers. The sphere is not only created with other beings as well as with technology. The blogosphere is a sphere or a substitution of the Mit, that is enabled by technology such as the trackback, pingback and comments and resonates between bloggers as well as engines and blog software. The “I Am Sorry Blog Excuses” is one striking example where it becomes clear that for the blogger, the blog is not an object separated from the subject, rather part of the two-oneness similar to how Sloterdijk has described the placenta not as a separate object but as a state of Mit.
Interfacial spheres
In Bubbles, Sloterdijk contextualizes and develops his theory by looking how spheres can be perceived through history by analyzing a variety of sources such as art works and mythological stories. In chapter 2 on interfacial spheres of intimacy, Sloterdijk replaces the term intersubjectivity with interfacial greenhouse effects that form the human species. Eye contact is not seen as a vacuum or neutral “in-between” but rather following Plato, the interfacial space is viewed as a force field filled with turbulent tension that constructs the face as being-for-the-other-face. He analyzes two sacral frescos by Giotto where he studied interfacial constellations.
Giotto Di Bondone, The Meeting at the Golden Gate ca. 1305, detail
The first one depicts the moment where Joachim and Anna meet after they had a vision they were going to be parents of holy Mary. This moment where they are partners in the shared secret of the other is a moment where an interfacial sphere is created. Giotto represents this by placing both faces in a two-poled aureole. With a nice optical trick a third face appears in this two-poled sphere. The visible-invisible face that emerges refers to the new life that will be in Anna’s body. It is however not the face of a child that emerges from the faces of the future parents and resembles grandchild Jesus rather than their child, Mary.
Giotto Di Bondone, Betrayal of Christ ca. 1304-06, detail
The second fresco of Judas’kiss represents a very different interfacial constellation. It presents an antithetical spherical tension. The antagonism between the two is depicted on three levels. The first is metaphysical, distinguishing between god-man and man by using one single aureole. The second is physiognomic, depicting the distinguished versus the vulgar. The third is the spherological gap between the faces. There is an open sphere-creating force in the eyes of Jesus while Judas is unable to enter the sphere. Instead he selfishly tries to steal entrance. The kiss represents the gesture of someone who wants to enter the love space with the attitude of an outsider. There is no possibility for a shared life in their eyes.

In this chapter Sloterdijk provides a method how to analyze facial expressions as either sphere-producing or anti-spherical. When employed to the to the digital Mit, the interface as Sloterdijk describes it should be distinguished from the interface in interaction design. The sphere-related interface is not a surface. Spheres are the invisible bubbles of relations between individuals that form when information is exchanged and communication. Interfacial analysis from a sphere approach would rather be investigating the depiction of different constellations of the software that enable and constrain certain forms of information exchange and communication. An application like Skype provides ways to create small intimate spheres between two or a small number of people. In an interfacial analysis the possible constellations build into the software such as the use of online status ranging from the Skype Me to the Do Not Disturb can be looked into, as well as the use of emoticons and text employed to create spheres.
For me Sloterdijk’s Bubbles inspired me to look at the medium I am studying for a while now from a novel perspective. I am looking forward to reading volume II and hope that when I finish Boom/SUN decides to translate volume III in Dutch as well.

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