Roy Boyne on Peter Sloterdijk and Topology at Tate Modern

Photo: Peter Sloterdijk
To supplement the TCS Special Issue on Topologies of Culture, Roy Boyne comments on the talk Peter Sloterdijk gave at Tate Modern as part of their series on Topology

The event was chaired by Ralf Rogowski and took place on 16th June 2012.


The 200 seat auditorium was full.  Nigel Thrift had been due to chair, he withdrew at the last minute, because of a serious family illness, but he had sent his introduction to Celia Lury (who organised), to Sloterdijk, and Rogowski who substituted. He explained that the visitor was a ‘post-Frankfurt theorist’ who also ran a TV programme in Germany (Philosophical Quartet), and made it quite clear that an enormous amount remains untranslated. His introduction suggested that The Critique of Cynical Reason diagnosed the present epoch as being well and miserable simultaneously, and his theory of spheres had been advanced from 2000 as an alternative basis for being in and understanding our current epoch.  Its essence is that spaces of co-existence are crucial for understanding the human.

                Sloterdijk was speaking to an audience at a modern Art establishment, and he tried to make it relevant to them.  He opened his talk with a picture showing Pablo Reinoso’s (1998) Laparole where two people have heads in a shared space. This would open the possibility of theorising shared space.  Albert Speer was to build a semi-sphericalGreat Hall. It was to be 17 times larger than St. Peter’s.  It was never built. Leonid Rogozov operated on himself, with the assistance of four others on April 30, 1961, when he developedappendicitis.  He had recovered in less than a month.  What these three stories show is debateable, but they did not indicate clearly the primordiality of the couple.  Sloterdijk was aware of this, and beckoned Boris Groys to his aid.  He did not cite him.  The presentation was not rigorous in that sense, but he summoned his spirit insofar as it helped him to think beyond ‘signifiers of private collections.’

Ilya Kabakov presented a quasi-autobiographical installation at Documenta in Kassel. Its subject was the Soviet toilet.  Groys had seen that apartments could serve as signifiers of private collections, but Kabakov showed that for many in the Soviet Union their home was unheimlich, and for some their only option was a toilet.  Kabakov had lived in a toilet while he was at art school.  Kabakov’s mother

felt homeless and defenceless vis-a-vis the authorities, while, on the other hand, she was so tidy and meticulous that her honesty and persistence allowed her to survive in the most improbable place.  My child psyche was traumatised by the fact that my mother and I never had a corner to ourselves. (Cited in Svetlana Boym, The Future of Nostalgia. Basic Books, 2002, p.316)

Soviet power accepted as catastrophe 100 million people living in such conditions or worse, and Groys believed that apartments could serve as private space.  Sloterdijk saw that there was a hygienic dimension to dwelling, and this would make of a flat or a house something more than a three dimensional structure.  He added a statement by Gaston Bachelard, that all space is well-being, which seemed to make a living area much more than mere space.  The house is a guardian for those asleep within its protection, a spatial immune centre. He displayed a picture of a woman sleeping on a tata matt, with a fan, warmed by the stove.  It allowed an optimistic view.  The house provides immunity because it is a sealed space. Contrasting with this, Sloterdijk presented a picture of a man sleeping on the street, using a cardboard box as a partial shelter. What does this suggest? The answer to the question is not so simple. He did not offer very much, in contrast with, for example, Three Colours White, in which the protagonist loses everything, but begins to haul his way back from the dump where he is left, finally moving from parity through triumph to contentment, even if in a lop-sided way. 

In answering questions, he was little clearer, possibly because of the direction by which he was tempted.  He uses the metaphor of the sphere because networks are too bodiless. There is no time without tension, without thrill, without danger.  Justice needs time, as danger does, and as truth does.

Sloterdijk spoke for about an hour and a half, and what he had to say will have been understood in many different ways.  When he spoke about Heidegger, he said that it was all about ‘in-ness’, and thought that what Heidegger was writing, in Being and Time, lost its way towards the end.  For me, he did not speak very much about the connection and difference between sphere, bubble, and foam, but a colleague saw things differently, even finding that he might have deliberately chosen the art works he showed to illuminate them separately.  Whatever conclusions might be provisionally drawn, however, there is no doubt that it was an Event.

Roy Boyne is the Standard Issues Editor of Theory Culture & Society            


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