“Monsters never have children,” Peter Sloterdijk told us. He was suggesting that we moderns, with our obsession with novelty, are about that life, so to speak.
At the end of May, Peter Sloterdijk gave a series of talks at Irvine. Even if you weren’t in attendance, you may be familiar with Sloterdijk’s work. The (massive) first volume of his Bubbles was translated into English from the German recently, and it’s making the rounds.
In this particular lecture series Sloterdijk took as his topic “bastards”– the unique, the unprecedented, the uncomfortable– the monstrous, in fact. His route in was French opulence, with Louis XV’s mistress and advisor the Marquise de Pompedeur (formerly the never-quite-ordinary Jeanne-Antoinette Poisson) and her rise from the emerging middle class to an impossibility of wealth and power.
1. Her every wish was granted
Madame de Pompedeur is a rhetorical figure in Sloterdijk’s talk. We need to get on board with that right away in order to think about some of the more productive bits that Sloterdijk gives us. M. de P. is not the sum of historical contingence and agency. She does not bumble along. She does not, as Marx says, make her own history but not as she would please. In Sloterdijk’s work, she is pure deus ex machina, the composed story which always already is punching its own punchline.
She was told in prophesy, when still a child, that she’d be the King’s lover. With this information, she became the kind of person who could be. It’s not just her rise that Sloterdijk is working through. It’s the sheer unprecedented-ness of it. Sloterdijk puts it like this: ”In all likelihood Madame de Pompadour was at the time the only person in France, if not in Europe, whose every wish was granted.”
She is a creature of unlikely entitlement here, an excess of sexy witty sumptuousness for whom all that stuff is only a stopover on the way to what she was made up for. The unlikeliness and completely produced nature of her triumph is worth taking a moment with.
2. On flourishing super women
Sloterdijk is a great thinker on the topic of flourishing and the mutualism, or exploitation, that sustains. Bubbles, the first volume in his Spheres, involves thinking through what he calls placental relationships. The placenta is the is the companion that makes the subject real, and the framing for similar subsequent relationships. “From it, energies flow to me that form me. Nonetheless, it remains unassuming in itself, never demanding its own presence” (Bubbles: 357). For Sloterdijk, the subject will always have a sustaining or constituting other, even if it is imaginary or inanimate.
He gives us placental relationships, sustaining others that “never demand” (or never make demand that we notice) and then he gives us M. de P.
What makes her flourish? The impossibility that someone like her could emerge from her class produced, after all, the conditions that made her fascinating and facilitated her success. The fortune someone told her as a child was absurd, her rise was amazing, and she, herself, a curiosity. An absolutely integral part of the way deus was clearly in her machina is that she shouldn’t have succeeded.
So now I’m thinking about the superwoman thing. Maybe you know what I mean. The thing where high-end lifestyle and demanding professional lives of certain very powerful women become a sort of media (and moral) compass for many of us, and then an argument as we debate why so-and-so should or shouldn’t have said what she said about the difficulty of managing to have all the stuff that a person who’s good should have.
I’m thinking about Beyoncé Knowles, whom I, like much of the world, adore. I’m thinking of Sheryl Sandberg, too. They are captivating and admired people. I’m thinking of beauty and work and social standards.
Are they as unlikely as Madame de Pompedeur? No, thank goodness. But we’re not very well equipped to think through the support that they and their popular images require.
I think Sloterdijk may give us good tools for thinking of the lives we aspire to have, and what they may in fact require. No offense to Ms. Knowles or Ms. Sandberg, but how would it change our orientation to them and to ourselves, as ordinary people, if we recognized them as (a Sloterdijkian) kind of monstrous?