Monday 27 October 2014

The omniscient intellectual pundit - Peter Sloterdijk as exemplar


Browsing through a book on the premier living German philosopher Peter Sloterdijk, and then watching an online interview, I was struck by the pose of omniscience which is a characteristic of modern 'public intellectuals': they have something apparently complex and analytic to say on any socio-political topic that anybody cares to throw at them - the whole thing can be woven into some multi-coloured tapestry.

Sloterdijk, in particular, does this very well; with his shambolic-ex-Viking appearance, and slowly enunciated and sinuous sentences delivered with a twinkle of the eye and a pursing of the lips; as if to say "if this is the kind of thing you want, then here it is; and I can keep this up for as long as you care to listen..'

For much of my early adult life, there is nothing I would have liked better than to be a Sloterdijk-figure; essentially doing and writing pretty much as the spirit moved me, and my pronouncements tracked, reported and discussed in the 'serious' media; causing periodic 'scandals' but always somehow floating above them.

But, really, this kind of multi-valent faux-expertise cannot be good for the soul! Sloterdijk is a vast and wide-ranging consumer of the modern mass media, which he rapidly memorizes and swiftly reframes into arresting and shocking assemblages.

There is no possibility of assimilation - of deep processing - of meditative reflection, it is 99% second-hand reprocessed and unexperienced opinion, there is no over-arching 'project' or strategy, no moral, aesthetic or truth foundations - instead an endless, open-ended production of high-brow commentary and stimulation; ranging here and there and perhaps back again.

After not very long, it makes me hold me head in my hands, and start to beg for mercy. And Sloterdijk is the best of his kind, and far above the US or UK competition (if indeed there is any Anglosphere competition for this kind of thing... Chomsky, perhaps?).

But I wonder what goes on inside Sloterdijk's capacious cranium? Does he ever stop reading and pontificating and writing for long enough to take stock about his place in the nature of things; to reflect that he is merely whiling away his time and our time, in a pleasant and amusing fashion, until he dies and the rest of us die?

Does this, will this, ever seem like an urgent matter; something that requires not just attention, not just more theories and analogies - but an answer?


ajb said...

" I was struck by the pose of omniscience which is a characteristic of modern 'public intellectuals': they have something apparently complex and analytic to say on any socio-political topic that anybody cares to throw at them"

At a smaller level, I remember university professors answering pretty much any question asked of them during class. Often, this involved them talking for long enough so as to have the class to a significant degree forget the original question, so at the end they had said something important but one wasn't sure how, exactly, it answered the question. As a rule, it seemed important to them to show they had 'important things to say' about pretty much anything asked of them - perhaps this is to some extent the source of their status and self-regard. (This was in the humanities.)

Also perhaps it is not a coincidence that my inclination to say 'I don't know' in answer to a question goes along with my increasing skepticism of higher schooling and the role played by professors and the like.

Leo said...

I would enjoy a job consisting of reading and pontificating, but I doubt I could earn much at it.

Thinking about how we spend out lives, I am reminded of the words of James Russell Lowell in The Vision of Sir Launfal about wasting our lives for trivialities:

"Earth gets its price for what Earth gives us;
The beggar is taxed for a corner to die in,
The priest hath his fee who comes and shrives us,
We bargain for the graves we lie in:
At the Devil’s booth are all things sold,
Each ounce of dross costs its ounce of gold;
For a cap and bells our lives we pay,
Bubbles we buy with a whole soul’s tasking
’Tis heaven alone that is given away,
’Tis only God may be had for the asking;
No price is set on the lavish summer;
June may be had by the poorest comer."

Anonymous said...

'Omniscient intellectual pundit'.
Unfortunately you are right, for academia and the professions are littered with such types today lurching around the lecture circuit, many of them mediacentric.
In my day it was more commonly known as bombast.
One can only hope that they cannot make a living out of it, though my hopes may be short-lived.