Review: Peter Sloterdijk’s Der Ästhetische Imperativ – Schriften zur Kunst

logo95x95Review of Peter Sloterdijk’s Der Ästhetische Imperativ – Schriften zur KunstBy Sascha Rashof














Book details:


Each of Peter Sloterdijk’s diverse writings takes its readers into a different world. This book immerses us in the world of aesthetics – or better: the worlds of aesthetics. Der Ästhetische Imperativ – Schriften zur Kunst [The Aesthetic Imperative – Writings on Art] is a collection of essays, with a postscript by Peter Weibel, which approaches a range of spheres of this hybrid and unstable field, including sound, light, product design, cities and architecture, the human (artificial) condition, museums, action cinema and the art system. Through his encyclopaedic knowledge, elaborate theoretical prose [1], ability to change perspectives and inspiration from thinkers such as Hegel, Heidegger, Nietzsche, Luhmann, Benjamin, Freud and Lacan, Sloterdijk in this book addresses some classical questions in aesthetics as well as more unexpected ones. The originality lies in his ‘media’-anthropological, historico-philosophical approach, which he has properly made his own since the Spheres trilogy and here engages to critique the ‘aesthetic imperative’ of (post-)modernity. When ‘the world’ has become a total work of art [Gesamtkunstwerk], or ‘Crystal Palace’ [2], where futurised design civilisations act ‘as if’ they obeyed the general law of aestheticisation, without being attentive to the side effects of their aestheticisations, it is time to question the analogy between universal ethics and aesthetics after Kant [3].

In between ideological critique, which Sloterdijk deems neo-conservative due to its a priori distrust of things which prevent them from unfolding “until eventually the critique becomes comfortable with the criticised in a common misery” (2014: 454), and Nietzschean affirmative thought, i.e. the essayist path which enables one to approach things in non-destructive ways, he attempts to practice a form of immanent critique. The ’basis’ for this immanent critique is perhaps best illustrated in the first chapter on the World of Sound, one of the most ‘proximate’ spheres of aesthetics. In a move to go beyond the ‘eye ontologies’ of Western metaphysics, which try to represent ‘the world’ as ob-ject [Gegen-stand], Sloterdijk asks the question, “Where are we, when we are listening to music?” (50) – a question which was already asked in the Spheres trilogy, where the notion of the ‘sonosphere’ (and later ‘phonotope’) was developed. In order to find a way towards music, Sloterdijk suggests to begin with the genesis of the human ear and hence ability to listen, which already starts in the foetal, ‘wordless’ space inside the mother’s womb. In this proto-musical milieu, the ear of the individual-in-becoming floats within a non-oppositional continuum, where it is already able to pre-actively process sounds, such as the mother’s heart beat and voice, which prepare the unborn child for ‘the world’. Later in life, this primary psycho-acoustic field is ‘remembered’ in the artificially constructed musical worlds, or ‘wombs’, of societies – which are most of the time not very musical since the human is primarily (im-)mediated through the (largely latent) sounds of its environments. Thus, in contrast to Descartes, the ‘subject’ for Sloterdijk is not a fundamentum inconcussum [unshakeable foundation], but a ‘medium percussum’ [‘pierced’ medium].

Sloterdijk points out the difficulty of listening to classical music today and in this way prepares his critique of the ‘aesthetic imperative’. In his opening talk for a performance of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony on 3rd October 2000 in Hamburg, entitled In Remembrance of Beautiful Politics, he questions the piece which is seen as a celebration of political culture. According to him, the symphony has a ‘pleading character’ which is aimed at enthusiastic consensus to extra-musical ideas – that is as powerful today as in the 19th century, as one can see in the European Union’s choice to make the Ode to Joy its anthem (30/1). On a day which constitutes a political memory, i.e. 10 years after German reunification, Sloterdijk in this ‘rhetorical foreplay’ deems it necessary to remember the generative pole of the Beethovian art event. In the ‘world condition’ of his time, consensus was still analogous with enthusiasm, however citizens were not so much concerned to be of the same opinion, but to participate in the same emotion [Ergriffenheit]. It was an age in which the European middle-class-in-becoming still had to bring forth its ideas in the mode of wide anticipation of ‘the whole’ to be enacted, i.e. as (two-dimensional) ‘world pictures’. “With their private ability to dream”, the individuals of a rising elite turned themselves into “media of that which they deemed to be the dreams of humanity” (31/2). Bourgeois culture before it rose to power “speaks an enthusiastic dialect, in the same way as the consultants of globalisation practice the dialect of visions and missions with their clients today” (32). Through a ‘categorical imperative of confidence’, Europe’s progressives enacted an illusory inclusivity, based on good conscience and under-complexity, due to its inexperience with ‘the world’ and itself. According to Sloterdijk, idealism has created a new form of nobility, i.e. a ‘democratic’ one, which was not supposed to be a class anymore, but an enthusiasm for universal emancipatory aims. It was the attempt to raise ‘the world as a whole’ to the top, i.e. as representation, through the figure of the ‘foundational’ subject: “that which lies aground [zugrunde] – or modernly understood: what acts aground, what ‘on the basis’ of all positions accomplishes everything” (36). By trying to augment ‘the whole of society’ into nobility, what used to be the ‘highest’ now became the ‘widest’. This form of ‘beauty’ was driven by the desire for realisation and hence provided the basis for the military dramas of the last two centuries. “The subsequently influential schema of theory and praxis is pre-formed here in the relation of script and performance, war strategy and battle respectively” (34).

For Sloterdijk, Beautiful Politics was always already laid out as Sublime Politics. The sublime reminds humans of their possibility to be destructed and thus enables them to take a position towards it – “be it the idea of the infinitely large, which approaches us as the mathematically sublime, be it the contemplation of nature in its elementary dimensions, which we see ourselves limitlessly exceeded by when the dynamically sublime encounters us in its irresistible force” (42). In the transition from the absolute to the democratic state, bourgeois culture had to transfer the sublime from one condition to the next and hence short-circuited the beautiful with the sublime through an aesthetic ideology. “In order for joy to emerge […], the beautiful has to be sublime and the sublime beautiful – and at the point where both magnitudes hold the balance, politics dissolves itself into emotion [Rührung].” In this way “society appears to be called to emanate its stateness, together with its means of violence, like a spontaneous projection out of itself” (44). And for Sloterdijk, perhaps no work in the history of the arts shows this balance between the beautiful and the sublime on such a high standard than Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, especially in its choral finale.

Idealism, as last pre-technical relation towards ‘the universal’, i.e. a relation based on under-complexity, finally reached its catastrophe in the 20th century due to the realisation that “every totalising inclusion, which aims towards the real, is paid for by equally real exclusions” (41). The idealistic synthesis of ‘high’ and ‘low’ was thus not tenable anymore and the compound of the beautiful and sublime fell apart. The ‘cultural revolution’ of the 20th century hence brought forth the break of the avant-garde with aesthetic consensus on the one hand, and on the other the de-sublimation of the mass audience. Now “everything is beautiful but art and everything is critical but art criticism” (47). High culture has withdrawn itself into a ‘grumpy’ and expensive sublimity: “What no one can find beautiful and understand anymore, one has to collect and exhibit” (47). Post-modern mass culture, according to Sloterdijk, has not just set free innocent kitsch, democratised emotion [Rührung] and “moved beauty from the exhibition halls into bathrooms and beaches”, but also “de-sublimated the sublime, banalised death and enforced an expressionism of violence and tastelessness” (47). ‘Nobility for all’ has led to the freedom to increasingly decrease standards and one now has to experiment with finding a new democratic and discreetly balanced relation between the beautiful and the sublime. For Sloterdijk, classical art has to play a large part in this since one can experience through it that, on one side, the idealistic synthesis does not work anymore, but on the other, it remains indispensable..

At a time when the de-sublimation of the sublime has reached its limit, the sphere of product design, as applied art, takes on special importance. “The previous idea of the avant-garde to make the life of the individual into a work of art has now […] reached its basis. What one calls lifestyle is the breakthrough of design on the level of self-stylisation and biographies. The individual now grasps for the competency to execute itself as compromise between artwork and machine – sort of after the example of Andy Warhol […]” (158). It is an age in which the global ‘smart’ middle classes inhabit a ‘world exhibition’, or ‘Crystal Palace’, which has been trying to synchronise local cultures into its ‘global’ sphere since the industrial revolution and to make everything exhibitable in principle. In contrast to the ideologies of global liberalism however, Sloterdijk thinks that this ‘integral greenhouse of comfort’ only creates a partial universalism, which “includes many, but excludes very many” (271). The ‘post-modern condition’ of this privileged sphere, he argues, is characterised by a feeling of groundlessness – not the absurd one of the post-war years, but the groundlessness of aestheticism, in which ‘consumers’ are very competent in being incompetent and ‘experience’ has become the key word (322). The middle-class human is now deemed to frivolity and has to decide between weak differences, without serious reasons, in order to satisfy its ‘will to fun’ (323). But: How can a civilisation with a high factor of luxury consumption settle its ecological balances? (Post-)Modernity, i.e. as epoch in which creativity has transitioned from God/Nature over to the human, Sloterdijk thinks, might only be over when it cannot cope with the side effects of its own inventions anymore. In this way, he argues for a new conception of technics, i.e. a ‘second originality’, which is not just thought in terms of ‘progress’ anymore, but also of sustainability.

In order to talk about the future of art after the ‘end of art’, i.e. towards it and from within it, Sloterdijk deems it necessary to firstly talk about the future of the future. It is a question of the ‘world system’ of credit, based on virtualised spaces.,where every ‘reasonable’ person acts ‘as if’ s/he obeyed the “categorical imperative of a Kantian enlightened by a stock market report: act in a way that the maxim of your borrowing could at any time serve as principle of a universal law of the apocalypse” (457). In this highly individualised system, imaginary temporal commonalities have broken into pieces and the only common denominator might be that we are living in a historico-philosophically defined ‘risk society’ (460). However, every synchronisation also creates a-synchronisation – as such, this ‘global’ risk society in turn also already in- and excludes phenomena which are withdrawing from it and in this way create their own different temporalities, i.e. different forms of living.

From this basis, Sloterdijk imagines the art/s of the future to partly ‘leave the (world) gallery’. By enfolding itself, art steps aside a bit from the metaphysical exhibition front and becomes part of a new ecology of ‘showing’. I.e. artworks spontaneously take up some dicreet space/s on the margins, without boasting with their Dasein [being-there]; they do not produce themselves, even though they are produced (422). For Sloterdijk, the art of the future could be an art for ‘latently depressed’ people, which “takes time for an enlightened hesitation”; or an art which “inserts itself into one of the numerous regional and individual problem calendars”; an art of impatience and instant pleasures; an art of not-being-able-to-go-any-further and absolute reduction; an art which tries to start anew somewhere arbitrary, i.e. an art of assemblers and tinkerers; or an art which attempts to be beautiful again (461/2). The essence of this new experience of art, thinks Sloterdijk, will be grounded in a renunciation of a fore-closing consciousness, i.e. a largely ob-jectifying one, which in this way lets art come towards itself – it is so elementary that one cannot formulate it through philosophical thought anymore since it is neither originary nor radical enough. He hence proposes a philosophical anti-philosophy – a ‘meditation’ – inspired by both Eastern and Western traditions, which attempts to overcome (post-)modern subjectivity through “eventful releasement [Gelassenheit] in the living process” (481). Meditation is a medium which tries to converge theory and praxis, concept and realisation, in order to create a “present with a future”, i.e. an “art of being present” (490). It is a singular, attentive Being-in-the-world, which aims to go beyond the strategic egotisms of self-preservation by acting through abstaining and by driving processes through letting-be. “The present will show what past the future brings” (489).

Whether one thinks that a ‘meditative’ approach towards ‘the world’ will be enough or not, in Der Ästhetische Imperativ Sloterdijk most importantly shows that Kant’s categorical-, and in turn aesthetic-, imperative is actually only possible in part and relatively – as well as points out the problems and dangers of trying to ‘universally’ uphold it. In this way, he argues for a more singular and intensive aesthetics, as part of a pluralistic ‘world order’. For a critique of the ‘world exhibition’ as universal aestheticised sphere, however, this essay collection has a very ‘Western’ approach and could have stepped out into different aesthetic cultures a bit more – thus, we also do not get to know much about the ‘Eastern’ influences of Sloterdijk’s ‘meditative’ thought. Nevertheless, he has a great ability to change ‘world views’, which makes his writings contradictory at times, but this is in some ways unpreventable and as such supports his ‘cosmological’ and ‘fictional’ form of thinking. His writing can sometimes be repetitive, however is rarely boring due to his elaborate style and perspectival change. Quite a few essays in this collection are written in an open form and mostly do not give us defined theories of certain aesthetic phenomena or problems, but rather suggest ways for how to approach them – or rather: from where to approach them. Hence, Sloterdijk’s arguments can sometimes be a bit vague and, at least appear as if, they have not been followed through enough – again, a deliberate technique, if one wants to be sympathetic.

In a decentred ‘world’, one could question the need for an anthropologically grounded aesthetics. Here, Sloterdijk’s singular thought, alongside ‘speculative aesthetics’ of all kinds [4], important as they are, perhaps stands out in its attempt to explicate the place of the human – a place, which is in relation with others: “Since spirit has become human and historical – all too human and all too historical – and took notice of its entanglement in becoming, it is again in the middle of the game; as one which has always been played with; at the same time as one which takes the game in its hands” (173).




Sascha Rashof is finishing her PhD thesis at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths College (University of London). Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, her dissertation starts to develop a techno-social ontology of ‘place’ via ‘maker labs’, i.e. small collaborative work-places where humans cohabit with/in technological systems to produce and share ‘open designs’ for local needs. Sascha has a background in cultural journalism, taught media- and cultural theory at a number of UK universities, including Goldsmiths, the University for the Creative Arts, Southampton Solent University and others, as well as co-ordinated research grant proposals in the fields of design and social innovation.



1 As Sloterdijk writes in Neither Sun nor Death (2011: 158), “As far as I can, I will defend myself against the obligation to choose between poetry and philosophy.”

2 For the importance of the figure of London’s Crystal Palace, which housed the Great Exhibition in 1851, also see Sloterdijk’s In the World Interior of Capital as well as Globes – Spheres II and Sphären III – Schäume [Foams].

3 See especially the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals and the Critique of Judgement.

4 Broadly conceived as aesthetics which try to overcome the centrality of human perception, i.e. Kant’s transcendental tradition.



Kant I (2008) Critique of Judgement. Oxford: OUP

Kant I (2012) Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals. Cambridge: CUP

Sloterdijk P (1998) Sphären I: Blasen. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp

Sloterdijk P (1999) Sphären II: Globen. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp

Sloterdijk P (2004) Sphären III – Schäume. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp

Sloterdijk P (2006) Im Weltinnenraum des Kapitals. Frankfurt a. M.: Suhrkamp

Sloterdjk P (2011) Bubbles – Spheres I. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)

Sloterdijk P, Heinrichs HJ (2011) Neither Sun nor Death. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)

Sloterdijk P (2013) In the World Interior of Capital. Cambridge & Malden, MA: Polity

Sloterdijk P (2014) Globes – Spheres II. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e)


 Further Reading:

Cultural Politics (2007) Special Issue: Peter Sloterdijk. 3(3): 271-398

 Elden S, Mendieta E and Thrift N eds. (2009) Special Issue: The Worlds of Peter Sloterdijk. Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27(1)

Elden S ed. (2012) Sloterdijk Now. Cambridge & Malden, MA: Polity

Sloterdijk P (2012) Nearness and Da-sein: The Spatiality of Being and Time. Theory, Culture & Society 29(4-5): 36-42