Robert Silvers, New York City, early 1980s, by Dominique Nabokov

La Maison Française, New York University: Robert Silvers, New York City, early 1980s, from the exhibition “Dominique Nabokov: The World of the New York Review of Books”, Friday, November 1st – Friday, December 6th, 2013. Catalogue: PDF. Press release: PDF.

For more details about the photo, see the end of this post.

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Peter Sloterdijk’s essay Regeln für den Menschenpark. Ein Antwortschreiben zu Heideggers Brief über Humanismus was first presented as a speech on June 15, 1997, in Basel, Germany. The occasion was a series on conferences about the actuality of humanism. The same text was presented a second time in July 17, 1999, at an international conference on Heidegger and Levinas, in Schloss Elmau.

The text was first published in written form on September 16, 1999, in Issue 38 of Die Zeit. At the time of writing, this first German edition is still available online at Die Zeit website. The same year, it was published as a book by Suhrkamp Verlag (Frankfurt am Main, 1999). A partial PDF copy of the first Suhrkamp edition is hosted by the wesbite of the Staatliche Hochschule für Gestaltung Karlsruhe, where Peter Sloterdijk also teaches.

The French edition appeared a couple of months later, in January 2000, under the title Règles pour le parc humain. Une lettre en réponse à la Lettre sur l’humanisme de Heidegger (Paris: Mille et une nuits). It was translated by Olivier Mannoni, who has since translated many other books by Peter Sloterdijk. The French edition was augmented by an afterword where Peter Sloterdijk commented on the significant controversy his book had ignited in Germany (“Postface à l’édition française”). The controversy –which I won’t document here– nonetheless spread to France with equal, if not increased intensity.

It would take a decade for an English translation to be produced. “Rules for the Human Zoo: a response to the Letter on Humanism” appeared in a special issue of Environment and Planning D: Society and Space dedicated to “The Worlds of Peter Sloterdijk” (Volume 27, Issue 1, pp. 12-28). It was translated by Mary Varney Rorty (the “Abstract” of the translation suggests the first Suhrkamp edition is from 2001: this is likely a small typo).

I briefly quoted Sloterdijk’s essay at the end of the research I recently did around the apocryphal quote “O friends, there are no friends”. Along with Derrida’s book The Politics of Friendship (1994) and Giorgio Agamben’s short essay “The Friend” (2004), the excerpt from Sloterdijk briefly mused upon the miracle that allows for thoughts to reach us through centuries of copies and editions, in the form of text documents, like letters sent in the post.

Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari also discussed the importance of friendship and love in regard to philosophy in their “Introduction” to What is Philosophy (1992). At one point, they observe that Greeks do not introduce friendship alongside the act thinking as a solution, but as a problem:

It is even more difficult to know what friend signifies, even an especially among the Greeks. Does it designate a type of competent intimacy, a sort of material taste and potentiality, like that of the joiner with wood –is the potential of wood latent in the good joiner; is the friend of wood? The question is important because the friend who appears in philosophy no longer stands for an extrinsic persona, an example of empirical circumstance, but rather for a presence that is intrinsic to thought, a condition of possibility of thought itself, a living category, a transcendental lived reality. (tr. by Hugh Tomlinson and Graham Burchell, New York: Columbia University Press, [1991] 1994, p. 3)

I also quoted from Deleuze and Guattari’s “Conclusion” recently to suggest that thinking was a lively practice of creation, one that risks itself outside well paved road, into unexplored territory (see “Poetry, philosophy and communication”). The crucial topic of friendship associated with philosophy is a reminder that such an act of creation is not done alone, and that the risk is shared. In other words, the opening discussed by D.H. Lawrence in the introduction he wrote for Harry Crosby’s Chariot of the Sun may very well be understood as an opening toward coexistence. Thinking the problem of friendship, in this perspective, has already something to do with the creation of forms of coexistence. Reciprocally, as Deleuze and Guattari observe, friendship as a form of coexistence is “a condition of possibility of thought itself”1. Sloterdijk makes a similar argument in the “Preliminary Note” to the first volume of his Spheres trilogy:

I will only remain on the trail of Platonic references in the sense that I will develop, more obstinately than usual, the hypothesis that love stories are stories of form, and that every act of solidarity is an act of sphere formation, that is to say the creation of an interior. (Bubbles. Spheres Volume I: Microspherology, tr. by Wieland Hoban, Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), [1998]2011, p. 12)

In the following excerpt from “Rules for the Human Zoo”, Sloterdijk briefly sketches the rise and decline of the book as a mean not only of friendship – letters circulating among among friends of σοφία– but also of general “political synthesis”. The German philosopher thus present the crisis of humanism as being first and foremost a crisis of media and milieu: in the absence of books as predominant tools of world formation, how are human beings supposed to give form to their life in common? This is certainly one of the crucial task of thinking for the present times.

Books, as the poet Jean Paul once remarked, are thick letters to friends. With this phrase, he aptly articulated the quintessential nature and function of humanism: It is telecommunication in the medium of print to underwrite friendship. That which has been known since the days of Cicero as humanism is in the narrowest and widest senses a consequence of literacy. Ever since philosophy began as a literary genre, it has recruited adherents by writing in an infectious way about love and friendship. Not only is it about love of wisdom: it is also an attempt to move others to this love. […]

Erotically seen, the hypothetical friendship of the writer of books and letters with the recipients of his messages represents a case of love at a distance –and this entirely in the sense of Nietzsche, who knew that writing is the power to transmit love not only to one’s nearest and dearest, but also, through the next person encountered, into the unknown, distant, future life. Writing not only creates a telecommunicative bridge between known friends, who at the time of the transmission live in a geographical proximity to one another; but it sets in motion an unpredictable process. It shoots an arrow in the air, described in the words of old European alchemists as an actio in distans, with the objective of revealing an unknown friend and enticing him into the circle of friends. In fact, the reader who sits down to a thick book can approach it as an invitation to a gathering; and should he be moved by the contents, he thereby enters the circle of the Called, making himself available to receive the message. […]

If this period seems today to have irredeemably vanished, it is not because people have through decadence become unwilling to follow their national literary curriculum. The epoch of nationalistic humanism has come to an end because the art of writing love-inspiring letters to a nation of friends, however professionally it is practised, is no longer sufficient to form a telecommunicative bond between members of a modern mass society. Because of the formation of mass culture through the media –radio in the First World War and television after 1945, and even more through the contemporary web revolution– the coexistence of people in the present societies has been established on new foundations. These are, as it can uncontrovertibly be shown, clearly postliterary, postepistolary, and thus posthumanistic. Anyone who thinks the prefix ‘post’ in this formulation is too dramatic can replace it with the adverb ‘marginal’. Thus our thesis: modern societies can produce their political and cultural synthesis only marginally through literary, letter-writing, humanistic media. Of course, that does not mean that literature has come to an end, but it has split itself off and become a sui generis subculture, and the days of its value as bearer of the national spirit have passed. The social synthesis is no longer –and is no longer seen to be– primarily a matter of books and letters. New means of political-cultural telecommunication have come into prominence, which have restricted the pattern of script-born friendship to a limited number of people. The period when modern humanism was the model for schooling and education has passed, because it is no longer possible to retain the illusion that political and economic structures could be organized on the amiable model of literary societies. (“Rules for the Human Zoo: a response to the Letter on Humanism”, tr. by Mary Varney Rorty Environment and Planning D: Society and Space, Volume 27, Issue 1, [1999]2009, pp. 12-14)

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The portrait displayed at the beginning of this post is that of Robert Benjamin Silvers, long-time editor of The New York Review of Books, is part of a photo essay by French photographer Dominique Nabokov, who lives and works in New York. The photo essay was presented to the public in an exhibition hosted by La Maison Française of New York University a month ago (from Nov. 1 to Dec. 6, 2013). From the official catalogue, a statement by Nabokov:

This is a short personal and professional photo essay on The New York Review of Books in the year of its fiftieth anniversary. I have approached the subject as if I were a film director making a documentary. I have tried to reveal the spirit of its founding editors and expose some of its past and present contributors. My list is far from being exhaustive, but I hope my choices have captured the uniqueness and the unmatched excellence for which the Review is known all over the world. (“Dominique Nabokov: The World of the New York Review of Books”, official catalogue, 2013, p. 9)

For a short biography of Dominique Nabokov (in French), see Galerie Patricia Dorfmann. To get a sense of the atmosphere in which Robert Silvers was working at The New York Review of Books in the late 70s, one can read this colorful account by Shelley Wanger who was his assistant from 1975 to 1982: “It Was 1975…” (April 17, 2013). There’s more about the fiftieth anniversary over at the Review’s blog.

• • •

1. Giorgio Agamben explicitly develops this argument in his short essay “The Friend” (in What Is an Apparatus?, tr. by David Kishik and Stefan Pedatella, Stanford: Stanford University Press, [2004]2009). He also explores it in light of his treatment of the concept of potentiality in the short essay “Form-of-Life”, which is included in Means Without End:

The experience of thought that is here in question is always experience of a common power. Community and power identify one with the other without residues because the inherence of a communitarian principle to any power is a function of the necessarily potential character of any community. (tr. by Vincenzo Binetti and Cesare Casarino, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, [1996] 2000, pp. 9-10)

Jean-Luc Nancy has already already explored this question in the augmented version of his essay on “The Inoperative Community”, published as a book in 1986. In French, see the essay “De l’être-en-commun” in La Communauté désoeuvrée (Paris: Christian Bourgois, [1986] 2004, pp. 199-234):

Philosophie et communauté apparaissent comme indissociables. Il y aurait, semble-t-il, non seulement une communication, mais une communauté nécessaire de la philosophie et de la communauté. (p. 210)

This essay is not included in the English translation of The Inoperative Community (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991). Instead, it was included in the collection Community at Loose Ends (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, pp. 1-12).

The intimate link between love and philosophy, or more precisely between love and “thought” (la pensée) is explored in further details by Nancy in his later essay “L’amour en éclats” (“Shattered Love” in The Inoperative Community, tr. by Lisa Garbus and Simona Sawhney, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1991, pp. 82-109; also reproduced in A Finite Thinking, same translation, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, pp. 245-274). Finally, it is worth noting that Nancy’s essay is referenced in another relevant essay by Agamben for the matter at hand here: see “The Passion of Facticity. Heidegger and the problem of love” (in Potentialities: Collected Essays in Philosophy, tr. by Daniel Heller-Roazen, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999, pp. 211-229).

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