Part theory, part manual, part love story and soul-history, Peter Sloterdijk’s work “Bubbles” is a high octane masterpiece. It is a membrane that breathes. This meticulous and elegant translation by Wieland Hoban will be a resource for decades. In what follows, I’ll try to paraphrase what I see is at stake and provide a few supporting examples from the book, in hopes of enticing you to this profound work.
In the preface to the Spheres trilogy as a whole, Sloterdijk warns: “let no one enter who is unwilling to praise transference or to refute loneliness.” A cogent presentation of this material ought to begin by unpacking this double inscription. Together, they indicate these two ontological tasks, both in terms of the position or whereabouts of the modern “individual”: (1) Refute loneliness: Expose us to the dual or doubled-up nature of self, the plural aspect of being, or to a subjectivity that is resonant. From the discussion of the Greek genius to mesmerism; from Giotto’s painting of inter-facial space to Magritte’s tree of infinite recognition; from Odysseus and the Siren’s Song to the idea that, “as soon as breath exists, there are two breathing,” this primary dyad that we are forms the bubbling center of microsphereology. Sloterdijk does not revise our notion of the self; he exposes its premises, and reminds us that we begin shared. (2) Praise transference: Expose us to these spaces of resonance that constitute our being-wholly-in-relation, being as “in-relation.” To praise transference is to praise the transferential nature of my being: I am only in transmission, I “am” transmission. I’m here so that sense can bounce and rebound off of me, in the infinite relating of shared truths, or the infinite creation of interiors. As Sloterdijk writes, “The limits of my capacity for transference are the limits of my world.” In other words, the creation of a world and the sharing of the world are very similar. Ultimately, to praise transference simply means to make room for another (in me or outside me).
These two tasks are supported by countless intimacy-models (biological, therapeutic, theological, interfacial, poetic) that are weaved together chapter by chapter and across the trilogy, which show how the self/individual is preceded by “nobjective,” resonance-based with- and in- relationships. Bubbles explores various spherical models that figure strong relationships of mutual intrication and coinherence. This “introduction to a medial poetics of existence” compiles histories, references, and revelations that have animated us since time immemorial. And you can tell that Sloterdijk himself loves what he recounts.
The most vital model of spheric resonance exists between mother and child, who are each “poles of a dynamic in-between.” Drawing equally from Lao Tzu’s birth-myth and Thomas Macho’s research into the uterine-amniotic environment, Sloterdijk unveils the model of an original biune bubble that is ternary in structure: mother-child and their shared medium (blood, air, sonic space). One-and-two is always already three because, when each one is IN the other without exteriority, each one IS the dynamic in-between. Each one is its augmentation coming from elsewhere. Each one is the other’s partner and also the medial bond between them. Each of them are themselves, the other, and the in-between medium as such: blood. Blood (like words) is the gift of relation before it is established as a system of relations (e.g., mother-child, author-reader). Likewise, inter-uterine listening and filtering begins long before there is some “one” to listen. Mother and child are relational, dyadic, and dual because before they are themselves they are relations across media. Mother and child do not exist as physical realities so much as they exist according to their interrelationship. The meaning of the two “poles” or “selves” is in-relation, “coinherent” or rounded, such that “the history of the self is first of all a history of self-conveyance.” This is never more apparent than in the inter-uterine blood-exchange and sonic resonance, and it is this condition of being-self that we’ve forgotten (and in forgetting it, we’ve lost the magic of transference). This is why Sloterdijk asks us to “Find a rooting in the existing duality”: we started out in such a sensation-substance-welcoming-opening in the first place!
Thus, existence is medial, a thing of passage and exchange through and through. “The soul cannot be anything other than a studio for transactions with inspiring others” (p. 124). To be is to relate, to be space, to make room for, or to salute. (In parentheses, there is a great deal shared between Sloterdijk and Jean-Luc Nancy: to praise transference is not unlike the latter’s “adoration,” and for both, greeting each other is our ultimate horizon.) Paired with the idea of the “a priori or strong” relationship, this idea is the St. Elmo’s Fire of this book. Being-in-relation is your being’s ownmost being. It’s a priori, in a sense, although we have forgotten it. It means, as Heidegger said: “Everyone is the other and no one is himself.” But as Bataille says, being is communication is correspondence: the birth and burst of being doubled up.
Here and there, to respond to what you hear is to come into existence. It’s to experience happiness at inter-listening, filtering, pursuit, and finally, habitation– such that listening, enjoying, intending and emerging are the same “thing”: you. Here is your first devotion, which means: rousing yourself to the state of alertness necessary to open up to the sound that concerns you (pg. 504).
When we only exist vis-a-vis each other — before either of us have a “vis” of our own — we are each like a “third” that trembles between both of us- different from both of us, yet only bubbling because of the heat and the mixture. There’s no absolute boiling pot, but a foam that sometimes bubbles over, on both micro and macro levels.
Reading “Bubbles,” you yourself bubble up. The challenge of this reading is an existential challenge (perhaps reading ought to always be so). It calls you out into the open, beyond the personal “point” and into plural-transferential spheres: encounters, engagements, and encodings with/in externality, “outside.” I want to emphasize that it is no mere combination of thoughts and techniques that led to the creation of this work. There is a mystic, ecstatic, communicative dimension to it that draws the reader out in to the open and creates an interior with/in them: a solidarity-bubble in transference. In other words, it asks that the bubble be broken and bubble infinitely — that loneliness be refuted, and praise be to transference.