Samir Gandesha, Johan F. Hartle, Stefano Marino (Eds.): The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later

The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later Couverture du livre The “aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory. Fifty Years Later
Edited by Samir Gandesha, Johan F. Hartle, Stefano Marino

Reviewed by: Anna Angelica Ainio (PhD ETH Zürich)

The idea of aging seems, at first sight, to be at odds with the concept of theory itself. Theory is supposedly something immaterial that should encompass or anticipate the idea of a development with time, or at least this would be the case if we were talking about theory in the context of systematic or analytic philosophy. Instead, the concept of aging (Altern) in Adorno’s theory is at centre of a discourse tied to his conception of history with regards to critique. The very idea of critical theory, as the first generation of Frankfurt School intellectuals posited it, is a movement which intervenes on concepts, such as that of truth, that are to be understood historically. This entails that the question of aging assumes specific historical connotations and becomes an essential element in the process of criticism. Indeed, it is only because of its temporal core that a theory can become dialectical and therefore gain historical consistency for Theodor W. Adorno.

However, another question which might come to mind when thinking about aging is in which way the type of aesthetic theory that Adorno delineated would still have to do with today’s artistic development. It is through these lenses that the book, ‘The Aging of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, edited by Samir Gandesha, Joan Hartle and Stefano Marino, looks at Adorno’s aesthetics and gives a nuanced and multifaceted account of it. The book, which was published in 2021 by Mimesis International, presents fourteen critical essays by international scholars and an editorial introduction.

The editors choose to utilize the concept of aging, as explicated in the title, as they deem it to be central to the Adornian conception of criticism (Gandesha S., et al., 9). Indeed, aging is delineated as a dialectical quest for what remains of the philosopher’s aesthetics, conveyed through different writings among which his last and perhaps most enigmatic work: Aesthetic Theory (Ibidem, 11). As an unfinished manuscript, Adorno’s work has received renewed critical attention from the eighties onwards. In ‘The “Aging” of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, the authors frame their and their contributors’ approaches as a critical dialogue with Adorno. The multiplicity of texts that they include, as they put it, ‘often proceed dialectically “with Adorno” and simultaneously “against Adorno”’ in a productive dialogue that aligns with Adorno’s own understanding of a critical philosophical dialogue, as he himself outlines it with regards to Hegel (25).  Indeed, this type of approach considers how one can productively engage with Adorno’s aesthetic theory today by following the pathway of the Adorno’s own approach to Hegel – that is, thinking about what Hegel himself would have said with regards to the present (24). That means engaging in a critical understanding of the philosopher that neither is a defense nor is it an ‘exercise of distinguishing between “what is living and what is dead”’ (ibidem).

An instance of this re-evaluation from within Adorno’s theory is Gunter Figal’s essay ‘Is Art Dialectical? Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory Revisited’, where the author argues that one should critically assess the fact that, for Adorno, art ought to be necessary dialectical. Through a thorough analysis of Adorno’s aesthetics which goes back to its Hegelian and Kantian roots, Figal sustains that there is a need to overcome Adorno’s dialectical understanding of art as it is bound to the idea of ‘artistic rationality’ (87). Indeed, to build a dialectical understanding of art, Adorno needs to posit the existence of an artistic rationality which would resemble the determined rationality Adorno identifies to be constitutive of contemporary society. However, this is at odds with some instances of contemporary artistic endeavours where the creative act does not embrace the sort of all-encompassing controlling rationality that characterizes society, as Adorno describes it. Figal gives the example of Jackson Pollock’s dripping technique, where the element of chance is incorporated in the act of artistic creation (90). Figal’s is a provocative take on aesthetic theory, and one that wants to provoke discussion within the scholarly community.

Gerhard Schweppenhäuser’s essay, titled ‘Nature and Society in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’ cleverly considers the role played by natural beauty and its nuanced conception in Adorno’s aesthetics. Indeed, because the concept of natural beauty is at the basis of Adorno’s utopian conception of art, Schweppenhäuser tries to outline how this plays a part when one wants to consider the philosopher’s aesthetic theory together with his theory of society (105). Indeed, Adorno’s aesthetics and social philosophy inform one another as artworks ‘stand for the right of the suppressed nature to exist’ (96). Therefore, as the concept of natural beauty has become absurd in a reified society, the very utopian moment resides in the artworks that structurally aim towards this conception. At last, Schweppenhäuser quite on point emphasizes the reflective moment in Adorno as the kernel of both his theory of society and of art. Therefore, what is rendered visible in Adorno’s conception of art is its reflective character which lies bare art’s inherent contradictions (110-111). This in turn reflects the social sphere as art is a ‘fait sociale’ and becomes the ultimate source of criticism (105).

Another significant contribution on the topic of the formal structure of artworks is that of Giacchetti Ludovisi. In his essay ‘Aesthetic Form and Subjectivity in Adorno’, Ludovisi shifts from a viewpoint that necessarily wants to evaluate Adorno’s conception of autonomous art in contrast to non-autonomous art and argues that one productive way to look at Adorno’s aesthetics is by linking the formal structure of art to psychoanalytical interpretation. Ludovisi creatively draws parallelisms between psychoanalytical concepts and formal structures of art situating his essay within interpretations such as Joel Whitebook or Amy Allen’s (Whitebook 1996; Allen 2020). Moreover, Ludovisi productively emphasizes the formal aspects of Adorno’s artistic criticism drawing on Adorno’s own work as a composer within the context of atonal music.

The book is composed of five different sections, each of which collects two to three essays from international Adorno scholars. Each one of the different parts is thematic and aims at dealing with a specific aspect of today’s scholarly debate on Aesthetic Theory. The sections are titled Revisions, Conditions, Materiality, Constellations and Contemporaneity. While the division of the book into different parts presents a useful tool for navigating its structure, it may feel arbitrary at times. An instance of this are section two, ‘Conditions: On the (im)pulse of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’ and three ‘Materiality: on the construction of the specific in Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory’, where the dividing line between the two is blurred at times. Hence, an essay such as Surti Singh’s ‘Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory: the artwork as a monad’ could have easily been placed in the second section, as it deals with the interpretation of Adorno’s aesthetic theory considering the Leibnizian conception of monads.

Moreover, while the book achieves its aim in giving a nuanced account of Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory fifty years after its publication, the choice of including such a wide number of essays risks losing the common thread which ties them all together. Despite this lack of a unitary point of view, which might impact the reader which approaches this collection from beginning to end, the book’s eclectic character can be one of its strong points too. A prismatic collection of viewpoints on allegedly one of the thorniest parts of Adorno’s theory, this book represents a refreshing collection of original contributions, each one to be extracted and read singularly. Moreover, an excellent introduction by the three editors sets the tone of the book and signals that there is a harmonized critical approach from authors that have indeed collaborated in the past. The choice of essays present in the book shows the originality of the editors’ perspective on contemporary Adornian scholarship and makes the book a precious collection of scholarly essays.


Gandesha, S., et al. 2021. The « aging » of Adorno’s Aesthetic theory. Fifty Years Later. Milan: Mimesis International.

Whitebook, J. 1996. Perversion and Utopia: A Study in Psychoanalysis and Critical Theory. Cambridge. Mass: MIT Press.

Allen, Amy. 2020. Critique on the Couch: Why Critical Theory Needs Psychoanalysis. Vol. 73. New York: Columbia University Press.

Mikko Immanen: Toward a Concrete Philosophy, Cornell University Press, 2020

Toward a Concrete Philosophy: Heidegger and the Emergence of the Frankfurt School Couverture du livre Toward a Concrete Philosophy: Heidegger and the Emergence of the Frankfurt School
Signale: Modern German Letters, Cultures, and Thought
Mikko Immanen
Cornell University Press
Paperback $27.95

Martin Jay: Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations, Verso Books, 2020

Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations Couverture du livre Splinters in Your Eye: Frankfurt School Provocations
Martin Jay
Paperback £19.99

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Couverture du livre The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
Hardback $95.00

Reviewed by: Françoise Monnoyeur (Centre Jean Pepin, CNRS, Paris)

The Mathematical Imagination focuses on the role of mathematics and digital technologies in critical theory of culture. This book belongs to the history of ideas rather than to that of mathematics proper since it treats it on a metaphorical level to express phenomena of silence or discontinuity. In order to bring more readability and clarity to the non-specialist readers, I firstly present the essential concepts, background, and objectives of his book.

The methodology of this book is constructed on the discussion of concepts and theoretical perspectives such as Critical Theory, Negative Mathematics, Infinitesimal Calculus, expression and signification of silence and contradictions in language. Borrowed from the mathematics or from the thinkers of the Frankfurt School, each of these concepts becomes refined, revisited and transposed by Handelman in order to become operative outside of their usual context or philosophical domain. The term Critical Theory was developed by several generations of German philosophers and social theorists in the Marxist tradition known as the Frankfurt School. According to these theorists, a critical theory may be distinguished from a traditional theory as it seeks human emancipation from slavery, acts as a liberating tool, and works to create a world that satisfies the needs and powers of human beings (Horkheimer 1972). Handelman revisits what he calls a “negative mathematics”: a type of mathematical reasoning that deals productively with phenomena that cannot be fully represented by language and history, illuminating a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities.

In The Mathematical Imagination, negative mathematics encapsulates infinitesimal calculation, logic and projective geometry as developed by Gershom Scholem (1897-1982), Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929), and Siegfried Kracauer (1889-1966). These three German-Jewish intellectuals were connected to the thinkers of the Frankfurt School but distinct because they found ways to use math in their cultural theory. The negative mathematics found in the theories of Scholem, Kracauer or Rosenzweig (inspired by their famous predecessors Salomon Maimon (1753-1800), Moses Mendelsohn (1729-1786) and Hermann Cohen (1842-1918)), are not synonymous with the concept of negative numbers or the negative connotation of math that we see in the works of the other members of the Frankfurt School.

Handelman’s objective is to present his book on the path of Scholem, Kracauer and Rosenzweig using math and digital technology as a powerful line of intervention in culture and aesthetics. The Mathematical Imagination investigates mostly the position of these three German Jewish writers of the XX century concerning the relationship between mathematics, language, history, redemption, and culture in the XX century and extending his analysis to digital humanities. Mathematics is convened metaphorically in their theory of culture as pathways to realizing the enlightenment promises of inclusion and emancipation. The silence of mathematical reasoning is not represented by language but by the negative approach that is to say absence, lack, privation, discontinuity or division like in the conception of the infinite. One example of this productive negativity is to look at how mathematics develops concepts and symbols to address ideas that human cognition and language cannot properly grasp or represent, and surfs metaphorically with the concept of the infinite (Monnoyeur 2011, 2013). The infinite calculation is a generative spark for theorizing the influence of math in culture as differentials represent a medium between experience and thought. For Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer, these mathematical approaches provide new paths for theorizing culture and art anew, where traditional modes of philosophical and theological thought do not apply to modern life or situation of exile.

In The Mathematical Imagination, Matthew Handelman wants to give legitimacy  to the undeveloped potential of mathematics and digital technology to negotiate social and cultural crises. Going back to the Jewish thinkers of the Weimar Republic, namely Scholem, Rosenzweig and Kraucauer, he shows how they found in mathematical approaches strategies to capture the marginalized experiences and perspectives of German Jews in Germany or exile at the beginning of the XX century. In doing so, he re-examines the critical theory of the Frankfurt School, specifically those philosophers who perceived in the mathematization of reason a progression into a dangerous positivism and an explanation for the barbarism of World War II. Handelman re-evaluates Adorno and Horkheimer‘s conception of mathematics, according to which math should not be treated as a universal science able to solve any problem because it is not able to rule the human world of culture, art and philosophy. For them, as for Adam Kirsch, who wrote in 2014 the article “Technology Is Taking Over English Departments” (published in New Republic), both mathematical and computational mechanization of thought exclude the synthetic moment of the intellect and cannot produce new or meaningful results.

The first chapter, titled “The Trouble with Logical Positivism: Max Horkheimer, Theodor W. Adorno, and the Origins of Critical Theory,” recounts the debate that took place between the members of the Frankfurt School — Max Horkheimer (1895-1973), Walter Benjamin (1892-1940), Theodor W. Adorno (1903-1969)—, and members of the Vienna Circle, such as Otto Neurath (1882-1945) and Rudolf Carnap (1891-1970). Mathematics, according to the Frankfurt School’s critical theory, is in apparent opposition to language, since there is a dialectical tension between two forms of thought, one expressed in mathematics that circumvents representation and the other mediated by language and representation. Adorno gave, through the tension between mathematics and other forms of knowledge, the political dimension that we find in his works and his confrontation with the Vienna Circle. For Adorno, the attempt in mathematics to abandon meaning, the ability to signify something else, constitutes the philosophical flaw of the logical positivists’ proposal to reduce thought to mathematics.

The second chapter, titled “The Philosophy of Mathematics: Privation and Representation in Gershom Scholem’s Negative Aesthetics,” revisits the relation between language and mathematics in the context of Kabbalist culture. In his writings on the language of lamentation, “On Lament and Lamentation,” Scholem explores the dilemma of saying the ineffable and the oscillations between spoken and unspoken language, in order to reconcile the paradoxes inherent in language (Scholem, 2014). At the heart of these paradoxes lies the deep dialectic between openness and secret, concealment and revelation. He underlines a common privative structure of communication in mathematics and laments that it negatively communicates language’s own limits, but it also reveals an aesthetic strategy. For Scholem, the philosophy of math deals with the problem of language by omitting its representation, and its inexpressibility represents the privation of life in exile with the possibility to recover a productive vision of mathematics. Math is done to speak purity, privation, a language without representation, and it deals with the shortcomings of language. According to Gershom Scholem, this fruitful approach lies beyond language within the sphere defined by the signs of mathematical logic. Scholem understands math, history, and tradition metaphorically, as characterized by silences and erasures that pave the way for the acknowledgment of historical experiences and cultural practices which rationalist discourses, majority cultures, and national, world-historical narratives may marginalize, forget, or deny.

The third chapter analyses the relation between infinitesimal calculus and subjectivity/motion in Franz Rosenzweig’s Messianism. Rosenzweig’s (1886-1929) major work, The Star of Redemption (1921), is a description of the relationships between God, humanity, and the world, as they are connected by creation, revelation, and redemption. He is critical of any attempt to replace actual human existence with an ideal and, for him, revelation arises not in metaphysics but in the here and now. He understands knowledge not as what is absolutely proven, but rather what individuals and groups have verified through their experience. For Rosenzweig, verification did not mean that ideas substantiated in experience automatically counted as knowledge; neither does it imply that theoretical statements become meaningful when verified by experience, as Carnap later argued. He analyzes thus how concepts such as subjectivity, time, and redemption are central to critical theory and avoided by the official languages of philosophy and theology. Rosenzweig’s thought is an example of how cultural criticism can borrow from mathematics to illuminate its concepts without mathematizing culture. For instance, the way infinitesimal calculus linked nothingness with finitude represented a tool that could be used to reorient epistemology around the individual subject. For him, mathematics possesses the ability to resolve a fundamental problem for both theology and philosophy, which is the creation of something from nothing. Calculus is motion over rest, reveals multiplicities of subjectivity and representation, and shows how the theoretical work done by mathematics offers epistemological tools useful for cultural criticism. These tools could help theorists to think through concepts that remain obscure in aesthetics and cultural theory, as fractal geometry illuminates the theory of the novelty. Mathematics helps us to construct more capacious versions of these concepts as well, and conceptual tools exist that allow us to intervene more immediately in a project of emancipation, in the service of theories of culture and art, and where they are at work.

Chapter fourth presents geometrical projection and space in Siegfried Kracauer’s Aesthetics. In The Mass Ornament, written in 1921 but published in 1960, Siegfried Kracauer reads the ephemeral unnoticed and culturally marginalized phenomena of everyday city life as an ornament.  His attention to the quotidian leads him to decipher in urban life a hidden subtext referring to biblical figures that comfort his experience of intellectual exile. Improvisation constitutes a key category in Kracauer’s critical engagement with metropolitan experience and modern culture; improvisation, with its invocation and representation, lies at the confluence of Kracauer’s preoccupation, the contemporary cityscape. In this book, he decodes the surface meanings of the new city phenomena in their shallowness, personal and political significance. These collected essays dream wild about the ultimate meaning of the banal and the beautiful in cities and gather a diverse range of observations such as boredom and bullfights, dance crazes and detective novels, to reviews of sociology, theology and Biblical translation. The Mass Ornament offers an opportunity to reflect historically on culture and connects the theoretical or philosophical discourse to the passing flux of fashion and the inexorable demands of quotidian life in the city. As a report from the past, this book invites us to renewed reflection on the relation between theory and history, fashion and tradition. Kracauer, in relation to the entire range of cultural phenomena, includes fascinating portions of history and situates man’s relation to society and time. By rearranging the language and textual space as a projection of rationalization, Kracauer explores the point of transference where geometric projection and the metaphors of space become a natural geometry in cultural critique. For Kracauer, geometry is a bridge across void because the mathematical study of space bridges the void between material reality and pure reason. The logic of mathematics informed his readings of mass culture, which sought to advance, rather than oppose, the project of the Enlightenment. For him, geometry enabled a literary approach to cultural critique in which the work of the critique helped to confront the contradictions of modernity and, through such confrontation, potentially resolve them. In The Mass Ornament, geometric projection turned into a political mode of cultural critique, projection, and the metaphors of space became aesthetically operative in the exploration of the rationalized spaces of the modern city.

In his final historical book, titled The Last Things Before the Last (1969), Kracauer presents mathematics as a web of relationships between elements abstracted from nature (Kracauer, 1969). The surfaces Kracauer describes are not an objective reality in the sense of the natural sciences describe them; surfaces exhibit innate breaking points built into by the phenomenology of his approach of a reality stripped of meaning. For Kracauer, the study of history had to mediate between the contingency of its subject matter and the logic of the natural sciences. Nonetheless, this type of cultural critique, enabled by negative mathematics, must resonate with those of us who live in a world of new media, one ever more mediated and controlled by computers and other digital technologies. Kracauer assessed popular culture on its own terms, with a mind open to new technology and communications, and articulated a still valid critique of popular culture.

In his last chapter, titled: “Who’s Afraid of Mathematics? Critical Theory in the Digital Age,” Handelman concludes that digital technology with textual analysis is engaged in social emancipation and can give an answer to the crisis in the humanities. In his analysis of Gershom Scholem, Franz Rosenzweig, and Siegfried Kracauer’s project, he develops the concept of Negative Mathematics in the tradition of Maimon, Mendelson, and Cohen to show how certain mathematical features and concepts can express the unexpressed part of language. In this endeavor, he focuses on infinitesimal calculation and reveals how culture, emancipation and social life can benefit from mathematics. That is to say, the seemingly tautological repetition of mathematics or digital technologies can act as a cultural aesthetics and interpretative medium. Handelman considers that mathematics and digital technology are by nature able to be a tool of liberation and emancipation if a good use is made of them. According to Handelman, if critical theory accepts the way Horkheimer and Adorno associate mathematics with instrumental reason and politics of domination, it risks giving up the critical potential of mathematics and any other interpretive tool such as technology or computer science.

Handelman poses the question: what happens if we allow mathematics to speak with analogy and image, to work with the integral of tradition, the continuity and derivative of truth? What if we applied mathematics more directly to cultural criticism? What possibilities, if not also, dangers, arise in using mathematics as an instrument of cultural thought?


Handelman’s choice to focus on Scholem, Rosenzweig, and Kracauer’s approach to mathematics in order to reveal pathways through the apparent philosophical impasse and an opportunity to realize the Enlightenment promise of inclusion and emancipation is exhilarating. His endeavor to build on the thought of these three lesser-known German-Jewish intellectuals of the interwar period can help move today’s debates that pit the humanities against the sciences. By locating in mathematics a style of reasoning that deals productively with something that cannot be wholly represented by language and history, The Mathematical Imagination illuminates a path forward for critical theory in the field we know today as the digital humanities. Furthermore, this volume explores mathematics as more than just a tool of calculation but one that is a metaphorically powerful mode for aesthetics and cultural analysis. Handelman reintroduces critical theory in the benefice of mathematics as access to culture and expression of the inexpressible. In other words, Handelman revitalizes a forgotten field of research at the intersection of language, math, history, and redemption, so as to capture the irrepresentable presence and interpretation of the complementarity of silence, and the language to express what was forgotten by the official language and culture. He also questions Adorno and other members of the Frankfurt School as unremitting opponents to mathematics. Instead, negative mathematics offers a complement to the type of productive negativity that Adorno, in particular, had located originally in the Hegelian dialectic. Negative mathematics reveals prospects for aesthetics and cultural theory neither as a result of being opposed to language, as Adorno and Horkheimer suggested, nor because it uses the trajectory of history or the limit of tradition. Instead, negative mathematics constitutes its own epistemological realm alongside history and mysticism, illuminating, based on its problematic relationship to language, in the dark corners and hidden pathways of representation. In this sense, it is positive because it deals successfully with what cannot appear in normal use of language or disappears behind official discourse. To this point, Handelman maybe meets the critical and social purpose of the Frankfurt School and fulfills his ambition to produce a theory both critical and mathematical, and even digital.  If we take the Frankfurt School main critique regarding mathematics, according to which mathematical and computational mechanization of thought excludes the synthetic moment of the intellect and thus cannot produce new or meaningful results, we have to question then if Handelman’s negative mathematics can actually produce new and meaningful results? Handelman’s negative mathematics does not propose a general way to social critique as a block but rather opens space for the expression of what is suppressed, forgotten, hidden or impossible to realize because of official culture. Silences, disruption, movement, fashion, improvisation, news and materiality occupy the world of culture and are brought to existence by adapted mathematical processes. In this sense, the special treatment of mathematics does not repress the synthetic moment of the intellect but gives a voice to what could not exist before. Common, traditional, usual and politically dominant ideologies cannot resist or foresee this new critical mathematical cultural theory. Of course, this perspective is limited and is not enough to prepare a general critique of society as the thinkers of the Frankfurt School pursued it but improves significantly cultural and critical analysis.

Matthew Handelman noticed that many humanists nowadays have turned to mathematics and digital technologies and tries to forge new paths for modernizing and reinvigorating humanistic inquiry. The Mathematical Imagination presents mathematics and digital technologies as providing a key to unlock the critical possibilities hidden in language to give a voice to silenced communities. Handelman’s book improves cultural and critical analysis, and results into a new and thought-provoking Critical Theory bridging humanities and digital/mathematical technologies. His methodology and ideology are deliberately provocative, and he intends to develop a post-academic approach to fix the weaknesses of traditional and official discourse. His endeavor is also fruitful from the perspective of the history of the science as it shows the relation between various mathematical processes, such as the infinitesimal calculation and everyday phenomena that remain unexplored.


Horkheimer, M. 1972. Critical Theory. New York: Seabury Press.

Kirsch, A. 2014. “Technology Is Taking Over English: The False Promise of the Digital Humanities.” New Republic, May 2, Article 117428.

Kracauer, S. 1969. History: The Last Things Before the Last. New York: Oxford Univ Press.

Monnoyeur, F. 2011. Infini des philosophes, infini des astronomes. Paris: Belin.

Monnoyeur, F. 2013. “Nicholas of Cusa’s methodology of the Infinite.” Proc. Conference on History & Philosophy of Infinity, Cambridge: University of Cambridge. DOI: 10.13140/RG.2.1.1595.0881

Scholem, G. 2014. “On Lament and Lamentation.” In Ferber I. & Schwebel P. (Eds.), Lament in Jewish Thought: Philosophical, Theological, and Literary Perspectives, 313-320. Berlin/Boston: De Gruyter.

Gerhard Richter: Thinking with Adorno: The Uncoercive Gaze, Fordham University Press, 2019

Thinking with Adorno: The Uncoercive Gaze Couverture du livre Thinking with Adorno: The Uncoercive Gaze
Idiom: Inventing Writing Theory
Gerhard Richter
Fordham University Press
Paperback $32.00

Matthew Handelman: The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory, Fordham University Press, 2019

The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory Couverture du livre The Mathematical Imagination: On the Origins and Promise of Critical Theory
Matthew Handelman
Fordham University Press
Hardback $95.00

Peter Sloterdijk: Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger

Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger Couverture du livre Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger
Peter Sloterdijk. Translated by Ian Alexander Moore, Christopher Turner
Paperback $26.95

Reviewed by: Anthony Crisafi (Philosophy Department, University of Central Florida)

Peter Sloterdijk is currently one of Germany’s most important and most controversial philosophers, and his work has been emerging in English translations more and more over the past ten years. Polity Press has published quite a bit of Sloterdijk’s work, and its publication of Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger is a much-needed addition for Sloterdijk’s English audience. In this book of essays, lectures, and excerpts, Peter Sloterdijk presents the reader with a collection of thoughts which all swirl around two main concepts: 1. That Heidegger is a fallen soul whose inability to venture from the provincial into the cosmopolitan led him to retreat from the human world; and 2. That only through what Sloterdijk terms the anthropotechnic – the mobilization of the human being – can modern humans find their way in the world and to create of it what they will. In his fashion, through extended dialogues with both the reader and with a wide range of thinkers, as well as a developed depth and breadth of intellectual knowledge – with a literary style that is dense and compelling – Sloterdijk laments the fallen Heidegger, acknowledging and admonishing Heidegger’s embrace of cynical evil, while offering a positive vision of human power based on conscious activity and intelligent creation.

Concerning the first point, the substance of Sloterdijk’s critique of Heidegger is that Heidegger, in eschewing the cosmopolitan city for the village, never fully understood how humanity expands. Instead, Heidegger sought to impede modern growth by insisting on a philosophy of anti-expansion, one in which, according to Sloterdijk in the later works of Heidegger, becomes a parochial return to the Catholic-Augustinian acceptance of the human as a deeply flawed being incapable of overcoming this fall except through some metaphysical/spiritual intercession. Heidegger sought to ground the person in Ursprunglichkeit (origin), but for Sloterdijk this was a false consciousness: The human is anthropotechnic by nature, one whose growth is dependent on creating and recreating itself and its world through constant kinetic movement forward. In this instance, for Sloterdijk, the « The People » is a fiction, as this assumes, like Heidegger, that there is an essential essence which is what connects people together. But if we reject this Heideggerian Ursprunglichkeit for a more mobile ontology, we see that what connects people together is not essential ideology, but rather necessary technics of desire. Here, Peter Sloterdijk writes the following:

We will be dealing with a bit of mythology in which the screenplay for the history of this world begins with its prelude in the beyond. The Augustinian Satan, who represents something like an allegory of negation on a level below the principal, does not resort — this much is certain—to any external motive for his revolt against the origin. He finds everything that is necessary for sedition in himself — to put it more precisely, in his capacity for freedom, his most important endowment. By virtue of this, he can, parodying divine creation ex nihilo, generate his ‘no’ from the abyss of an unmotivated act of the will. Thus one may not ask why and from where he has acquired his evil will. He wills as he will and nothing more. (63)

It is the Augustinian-Satanic human, flawed and always doomed to failure and falling by engaging in degrading and dehumanizing behavior, of itself and of others for which contemporary humans have embodied in the new era. But Sloterdijk both laments and admonishes Heidegger for his own evil. Because Heidegger was afraid to move forward, he therefore had to justify his own failures within this Augustinian-Satanic paradigm, which also allows Heidegger to posit that there are classes of human beings: God and human, rulers and ruled, and breeders and bred.

However, the antithesis to Heidegger’s cynicism is through anthropotechnics and mobilization. Mobilization is a theme throughout Sloterdijk’s main work, and it is also found within the sections of this book as well. This lack of mobilization is what makes Heidegger’s fall to the Augustinian-Satanic figure so much more difficult for Sloterdijk. In the first essay in the book, titled “The Plunge and the Turn: Speech on Heidegger’s Thinking in Motion,” Sloterdijk writes, “With this fanciful sketch, ladies and gentlemen, with this almost ridiculous curriculum of the philosopher educated to the end, I have outlined what Heidegger, The Freiburg professor of philosophy and educator/inspirer of a generation of young thinkers and scholars, never did nor even attempted” (27). It may appear as a strong interpretation of Sloterdijk here, but Heidegger was evil because he was a coward, and Sloterdijk sees this in Heidegers’s own retracting from cosmopolitan human engagement. Sloterdijk lays bare the stark contradiction in Heidegger as he writes, as he lays bare this critique of Heidegger. But Sloterdijk goes further to demonstrate that Heidegger’s retreat into Augustinian solipsism is actually a perversion of Augustine’s own emphasis on movement through mediation. Heidegger selfishly adheres to the retraction part, which is where, according to Sloterdjk, Heidegger’s fear of expansion leads him to fall into the ignorance of the Augustinian-Satanic figure. This misappropriation of Augustine can also be found in Heidegger’s own awestruck admiration for Nietzsche. Heidegger’s affinity for Nietzsche rests within a narrow focus on power in Nietzsche, where Heidegger then mistakes power for the pastoral in Nietzsche. He refers to Heideger’s myth of “path of thought” (41) grounded in the “heroic apprehension of the self” in pseudo-Nietzschean terms, while Sloterdijk then remarks that this is because Heidegger retreats into a philosophy which pleads for salvation while still at the same time cowardly hides behind the fear of mobilization.

Therefore, according to Sloterdijk, Heidegger turned away from thinking and retreated towards a mythic metaphysics, as, according to Heidegger, the human cannot find a path to thought without help. Here we can feel Sloterdijk wrestling with an apologetics for Heidegger as Sloterdijk sees Heidegger as a fallen figure to be pitied. The true power of the human, according to Sloterdijk, is the mobilization towards outward expansion, which itself is a movement towards atmospheric and ecospheric migration, leaving behind the Augustinian for the propulsion into the macrosphere. But Heidegger himself never experienced this, and as such he sought to keep others from experiencing it as well through the appeal to philosophical certainty. Therefore, according to Sloterdijk here in Not Saved, philosophy is the attempt to plot a course, which is what Heidegger got right. But there is not one course, and Sloterdijk reads Heidegger as falling into a trap, in which for Heidegger contemplation is the tension and the kinetics of discovery, not truth. Once the philosopher abandons the search for truth, he becomes the lost soul, never finding the real and substituting that for chasing redemption in exile.

This theme runs throughout the book, in which Heidegger as the Augustinian-Satanic character is prevalent. In the essay “Luhmann, Devil’s Advocate,” Sloterdijk writes that the essentialist nature of Heidegger is exposed through Lumann’s own critique of the Augustinian, in which Luhmann demonstrates he is not afraid of the underlying systems of human ontology. This can also be seen in the essay “The Domestication of Being,” where Sloterdijk contrasts Luhmann to Heidegger by writing “The discourse on the human being in historical anthropology proceeds from the fact that the expression ‘human being’ does not designate any object concerning which one could formulate direct (edifying or lamenting) statements, but rather only presents a conceptual container that, to speak with Luhmann, holds ‘vast complexities’” (98). Here we see Luhmann embracing the macrospheric expanse, where Heidegger seeks to retreat away from this complexity into a mythology of a cynical rejection of human complexity. Here again, Sloterdijk points out that this expansionist thinking was present in Plato and Aristotle as the demiurgic and creative power of the human being.

However, the essay that encapsulates this dichotomy between the fallen Heidegger and the anthropotechnic antithesis is « Rules for the Human Park,” for which Sloterdijk started a controversial war of words between he and Habermas. Habermas raised the criticism that Sloterdijk was relying on the eugenic language of the Nazis, while Sloterdijk would go on to accuse Habermas of fascistically trying to smother Sloterdijk’s main point in the essay: That humanism is based on sophisticated dialogues between others and for which creates the topological space for human identity and human being. In this essay, Sloterdijk returns to the themes he has already raised in Not Saved by focusing on the categorical mistake Heidegger makes in dividing the world into God and human, rulers and ruled, and breeders and bred. Here, Sloterdijk insists that it is through true humanism – the study of the minds of the past and present – that will move the human from being a part of a breeding stock and towards a holistic being.

In “Rules” Sloterdijk writes:

The phenomenon of humanism deserves attention today above all because it recalls—in however veiled and timid a manner—the fact that human beings in high culture are continually engaged by two formative powers at the same time—we would like here, for the sake of simplicity, to designate them simply as inhibiting and disinhibiting influences. The conviction that human beings are ‘impressionable animals’ and that it is hence necessary to get them to come under the right kind of influences belongs to the credo of humanism. The label ‘humanism’ recalls—with false harmlessness—the constant battle for the human being, which is carried out as the struggle between bestializing and taming tendencies. (196)

Here Sloterdijk argues that human beings are “impressionable animals,” alluding to Aristotle’s comments concerning humans as politikon zoon while also harkening back to Plato’s theory of how proper education helps to create the good citizen and the just state. With a specific emphasis on Plato’s regard for rules regarding human political and social conduct, Sloterdijk then argues that human beings are not firstly interested in education, but rather, human beings are like animals who want to engage in the conditions which may breed successful human beings within a political-social topology. As Sloterdijk writes “In his dialogue Politikos—often translated as The Statesman—Plato put forward the Magna Carta of a European pastoral politology . . . Its incommensurable position in the history of thinking about the human being above all consists in the fact that it is conducted as though breeders were having a conversation about work” (207). Therefore, in Plato’s dialogue, Sloterdijk sees the beginning of Heidegger’s turmoil: From its very inception, philosophy has been about creating rules for human consumption. According to Sloterdijk, “Thus this Stranger and his counterpart, the Younger Socrates, devote themselves to the tricky endeavor of placing the politics of the future or the herdsmanship of the city under transparently rational rules” (207). On the surface, one may be tempted to take Habermas’ rejection of Sloterdijk here as true, but that would be facile at best. Sloterdijk is not advocating eugenics or any kind of political-social breeding program; instead, Sloterdijk wants to reorient the anthropology of the breeding human towards a positive and forward thinking humanism.

To do this, Sloterdijk begins the essay by defining humanism as “What from Cicero’s time onward has been called humanitas belongs, in the narrowest and broadest senses, to the consequences of literacy . . . It has allowed its writing to continue like a chain letter across generations” (193). From this point, Sloterdijk moves into a sustained critique of Heidegger, specifically Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism.” Sloterdijk begins by acknowledging the vast gratitude he has for Heidegger in general, but from there begins to criticize Heidegger for allowing the humanism of philosophical discourse degenerate into attacks against humanity in general. Sloterdijk writes:

A part of Heidegger ’s strategy thereby becomes manifest: the word ‘humanism’ must be given up if the actual task of thought, which in the humanist or metaphysical tradition wanted to appear as though it had already been accomplished, is to be experienced once more in its initial simplicity and inevitability. To put it sharply: why again tout the human being and his prevailing philosophical self-depiction in humanism as the solution when it has just been shown in the catastrophe of the present that it is the human being himself, along with his systems of metaphysical self-elevation and self-explanation, that is the problem? (198)

Here Sloterdijk once more takes Heidegger to task for not directly engaging in humanity, or rather from disengaging from humanity. The critique here is based on Heidegger’s Post-War status as a former Nazi in exile, rather than the esteemed philosopher Heidegger used to be. We must now realize that Sloterdijk is wrestling with both Heidegger the philosopher and Heidegger the historical figure, and for Sloterdijk both of these positions come together in Heidegger’s work in general. Because Heidegger always saw philosophy as a provincially elitist activity, Sloterdijk now contends that Heidegger never fully understood the true quality of human activity: To create humanism. Humanism, even in the face of Sloterdijk’s own arguments concerning breeding in this essay, is the rule for human activity.

In order to affect this new concept of humanism, Sloterdijk must also focus on the concept of anthropotechnics and its mobilization as the power of humanism. Therefore, the other philosophical archetype in this essay for Sloterdijk is Nietzsche, for whom Sloterdijk views as the antithesis for the cynical Heidegger. Sloterdijk asserts that it is through Nietzsche that Heidegger’s rejection of Plato’s concept of education is now understood as a human breeding system which arranges the material world by strict rules of hierarchy of powers, both material and phemonenological. Sloterdijk’s use of Nietzsche in this essay leads him to advance a radical critique rooted in a position posited strictly against the inhuman form of late modernism itself. For example, Sloterdijk writes that “The era of modern humanism as the model for schooling and formative education is over with, because the illusion can no longer be maintained that large political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of the literary society” (195). Modern society – which for Sloterdijk is the contemporary world of late and hyper capital – is awash in Heidegger’s cynicism: Instead of embracing humanism and the good, the modern age has followed Heidegger down the rabbit hole and into a world where there is no human good to truly discuss. Because Heidegger sees his own failure as a failure of ideas, so to then the modern world must be bereft of ideas for Heidegger to hide his own cynical, evil Nazi persona. Again, according to Sloterdijk’s critique of Heidegger’s “Letter on Humanism,” Heidegger hides his shame behind the Augustinian-Satanic figure by shifting the blame onto an abstract concept of evil rooted in anti-humanism.

From this point in the essay, Sloterdijk begins to unpack Nietzsche for the reader. For Nietzsche:

In contrast, Nietzsche—who read Darwin and St. Paul with equal attention—thinks that he perceives a second, darker horizon behind the bright horizon of the formation of the human being in schools. He perceives a space in which inevitable battles over directions of human breeding will begin—and it is this space in which the other, veiled aspect of the clearing is revealed . . . He [Nietzsche] wants to call the proprietors of the monopoly on taming up to this point—the priests and teachers who present themselves as friends of the human being—by their name and to designate their secret function; he wants to launch a world-historically new kind of contest between different breeders and different kinds of breeding programs. (204)

Sloterdijk’s understanding of Nietzsche here is a complex articulation of both the fundamental problem within political philosophy – philosophy as regulator of human activity – and what Sloterdijk sees as Nietzsche’s strength: The human as anthropotechnic and mobile. Sloterdijk demonstrates that Heidegger’s cynical rejection of humanism has wrestled humanity away from its own consciousness by technologizing human labor and regulating human congregation, specifically through modern capital’s control over media and the phantasy worlds they create. By reproducing text itself not as a phenomenon of human cognitive self-positioning but as a measurable quantity of human worth and dignity, reproducible within technological apparatuses, human being can be controlled through the architecture of modern capital itself. Plato and Heidegger posit that rules must come from specialized types of ruler, referred to as breeders, for which Sloterdijk questions whether or not the breeders become a different species altogether, as Heidegger also differentiates between human and animal species, effectively rendering any discussion of consciousness from the later.

The result in the essay “Rules for the Human Park” is that Sloterdijk comes back to the concept of humanism as not a set of rules but the means to create human spaces. Sloterdijk writes:

It is the signature of the technological and anthropotechnological era that human beings become increasingly involved in the active or subjective side of selection, without having to be voluntarily thrust into the role of the selector. Additionally, one may observe that there is an unease in the power of choice; soon it will become an instance of opting for innocence when human beings explicitly refuse to exercise the power of selection that they have in fact managed to achieve. But as soon as powers of knowledge are positively developed in a field, human beings cut a poor figure if they—as in earlier times of incapacity—wish to allow a higher force, whether it be God or chance or something else, to act in their stead. Since mere refusals and dismissals generally fail in their sterility, in the future it will arguably be necessary to actively enter the game and formulate a code of anthropotechnics. Such a code would even retroactively transform the significance of classical humanism—since it would disclose and put in writing the fact that humanitas not only involves the friendship of human being with human being; it always implies as well—and with growing explicitness—that the human being represents the higher force for the human being. (206)

Sloterdijk’s reading here of psycho-socio culture is as an aggressive purveyor and user of cynicism against philosophy as humanism and humanity as biological. In this case, the human is not a self-creating being with anthropotechnic power, but rather is a product of a radical barrier which cuts off from the self its desire to create, maintain, and sustain its own ontology. Humanism is recognized here by Sloterdijk as the extended dialogue with past minds and as the concretization of the ideal through this mobilized poesis. Therefore, the antithesis for Heidegger’s cynicism is for human beings to return to true humanism and become the very spirit for which has to overcome its current bioorganic-technological existence. Instead of creating categorically false differences between classes of breeders and those who are bred, mobilization becomes the activity for consciousness to embody and extend itself into the material through a synthesis of anthropotechnic root structures.

The selections of the essays, lectures, and excerpts from Sloterdijk’s works here in Not Saved: Essays After Heidegger provides the reader with a sustained critique of Heidegger while also clearing a path towards unity between human and world. The uncovering of Heidegger as a fallen figure allows Sloterdijk to posit a philosophy of mobility and movement forward, and the analysis of the anthropotechnic – the self-creating mobile human being – becomes the action and the activity for which we as modern humans find mobility. The translation of these pieces by Ian Alexander Moore and Christopher Turner is sensitive to Sloterdijk’s style while at the same time offering English readers the ability to savor Sloterdijk’s literary approach to philosophy. The book itself is not a primer for Sloterdijk, as it presents essays, lectures, and selections as pieces of an extended argument, as well as the nature of Sloterdijk’s dense prose, which is never stultifying but rather engaging and erudite. However, the translators are keenly aware of this as well, and as a general introduction to Sloterdijk’s methodology and concepts, this book is essential for anyone interested in one of the contemporary world’s most prescient, prolific, and prominent philosophers.