How are monstrous monsters monstrous?

“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. Every wish granted

Madame de Pompedeur is a rhetorical figure in Sloterdijk’s talk. Mme. de P. is not the sum of historical contingence and agency.  She does not bumble along.  In Sloterdijk’s work, she is pure deus ex machina, the composed story which always already is punching its own punchline.

And this semi-fictional figure 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 Pompadeur 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 the flourishing of ideals?

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 Mme. de P.

What makes her flourish as a subject?  Surely, the king’s attention, and the attention of a nation.  Perhaps also the perfectness of the story: the impossibility that someone like her could emerge from her class produced, after all, the conditions that made her fascinating.  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, at least as far as she’s depicted here.

I rather think this is productive for thinking about idealized subjects.  What kinds of monsters are the impossibly lucky?  Or the rhetorically perfect? I think it’s a serious consideration for feminists watching the media space these days, especially when thinking through the superwomen trope that fabulous performer Beyoncé Knowles or corporate phenom and writer Sheryl Sandberg have been discussed in terms of lately.

 

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6 Responses
  1. Lilly says:

    It occurs to me that the Spacejump post I made last year seems likea possible example of what a placental relationship makes possible

  2. Zinc says:

    Thanks Lilly for that image, and Zelda for those notes. I agree with Zelda that the historical context for women’s, and other conventionally marginalized actors, is anything but mysterious; one simply has to look at the material record. But it seems that certain philosophers (I’ll refrain from laying this at the feet of Sloterdijk alond, since I didn’t hear this lecture) just think it’s profane to look at context; one must follow the metaphysics to remain pure; descend from the realm of pure thought into that of context, practice, materiality, and you’ve sullied the work of philosophy.

    Thinking about the question of uncounted labor (that all of us seem to do a lot of — both the labor and the thinking about counting of it), I came across this gem in the Nation by Corey Robin, putting Nietzsche into historical context (rather than letting him remain in that aphoristic abstract universe that so many read him through). Robin calls attention to the ways in which the rising tide of worker’s movements were constantly dismissed in N’s philosophical frameworks. “Just weeks before [Nietzsche] went mad in 1888 and disappeared forever into his own head, he wrote, “The cause of every stupidity today…lies in the existence of a labour question at all. About certain things one does not ask questions.” Robin goes on in this essay (part of a just-published book on ‘The Reactionary Mind’) to connect Nietzsche’s legacy to Hayek and neoliberal economics. I thought this was a really intriguing link to Difference Engine’s multiple discussions on labor, as well as to this piece on Sloterdijk as a symptom of continental philosophy as it struggles to comprehend (or to dismiss) the shifting political dynamics of the post-colonial, post-Cold War, post-economic crash global scene.

  3. zelda says:

    I studied French history long ago—meaning I’m both rusty and out of date with scholarship, so bear with me here—but it seems to me that Mme de Pomadour’s rise wasn’t at all unlikely in structural terms—first because official and unofficial mistresses (and the power they wielded) were by then a routine aspect of European aristocratic life, and second because of her intelligence, which gave her traction among the salon intellectuals like Voltaire. Her position in that sense was not unlike some of the other impressive women of the time such as Emilie du Chatelet and Mme de Sevigne. Someone was going to have the place Mme de Pompadour held, as several did before her with Louis XV. So Beth, do you/Sloterdijk mean that her rise was individually unlikely—a one in a million shot for that one person? But isn’t that rather a given for anyone at any time who wasn’t born with a silver spoon and thus not a particularly special case?

    Like Lilly and Zinc, I’m suspicious of this metaphorizing of placental relationships, which sounds like it’s being used here as a fancy cover term for all kinds of abject, subaltern, and subordinate relationships. I know nothing about the science of the placenta but it does seem to me that the temporary woman-fetus relationship mediated by the placenta might be better understood as commensalist (or even parastic) rather than fully mutualistic, and thus is only loosely symbiotic. Hmm, maybe none of these terms really works, and I could be digging a hole for myself as someone who has never had to think deeply about placentas. Is Sloterdijk positioning Mme de P as some kind of social placenta for Louis XV—which sounds to someone who missed these lectures like yet another way to set up women as the support system for men—or, more interestingly, the other way round? Or neither?

    I’m also curious whether Sloterdijk brought up Haraway’s particular formulation of the monstrous in her articulation of cyborgs and their relation to historical constructions of the feminine and female. (I’m guessing not.)

  4. Zinc says:

    I agree with Lilly that it’s unclear (to those of us who weren’t there) about the extent to which Sloterdijk’s metaphor acknowledges its political economic resonances with histories of care and service.

    The use of a metaphor like “placenta” without attempts to situate it in its embodied history fits with other accounts I heard – such as the anecdote about Sloterdijk avoiding Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s question about the relationship between Napoleon’s “leadership” and the history of slavery.

    These stories (assuming they’re accurate) seem to get to the heart of Difference Engine’s concerns with “difference”: whenever difference is invoked, glossed over, summoned, cathected, or excluded from a story that seems to turn on the functioning of difference, we ask why. What work is this exclusion doing?

    On a different tangent, there’s this use of the term “bastard” by Gramsci, in the context of the political history of States; it sounds as if Sloterdijk was not referencing this history, either:
    “The condition of permanent passive revolution might therefore characterise the identity and history of a specific state in the transition to capitalism as a mode of production. This would be a situation when the ruling class is unable to fully integrate the people through conditions of hegemony, when ‘they were aiming at the creation of a modern state . . . [but] in fact produced a bastard’, as Gramsci puts it” (cited by Morton in his blog, http://adamdavidmorton.com/2012/07/permanent-passive-revolution/ )

  5. Zinc says:

    I agree with Lilly that it’s unclear (to those of us who weren’t there) about the extent to which Sloterdijk’s metaphor acknowledges its political economic resonances with histories of care and service.

    The use of a metaphor like “placenta” without attempts to situate it in its embodied history fits with other accounts I heard – such as the anecdote about Sloterdijk avoiding Professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s question about the relationship between Napoleon’s “leadership” and the history of slavery.

    These stories (assuming they’re accurate) seem to get to the heart of Difference Engine’s concerns with “difference”: whenever difference is invoked, glossed over, summoned, cathected, or excluded from a story that seems to turn on the functioning of difference, we ask why. What work is this exclusion doing?

    On a different tangent, there’s this use of the term “bastard” by Gramsci, in the context of the political history of States; it sounds as if Sloterdijk was not referencing this history, either:
    “The condition of permanent passive revolution might therefore characterise the identity and history of a specific state in the transition to capitalism as a mode of production. This would be a situation when the ruling class is unable to fully integrate the people through conditions of hegemony, when ‘they were aiming at the creation of a modern state . . . [but] in fact produced a bastard’, as Gramsci puts it” (cited by Moron in his blog, http://adamdavidmorton.com/2012/07/permanent-passive-revolution/ )

  6. Lilly says:

    Hi Beth! Thanks for this post. It hits on questions I always have Sloterdijk – I just ordered Bubbles now that it is available in English.

    From my unfamiliar reading, the placental relationship reads much like the mother or female caregiver who bears the burden of cooking, cleaning house, feeding, and giving emotional support to the fully realized subject. This feminized caregiver is then celebrated for her selflessness in remaining uncounted. Does this reading of the placenta jive with Sloterdijk’s theories of subject formation? If so, then are the janitors and agricultural laborers who make it possible for Googlers to just focus on “making the world’s information accessible” for “us” all also party to a placental relationship?

    I would love a Sloterdijkian reading of this image of the Apple Store I took a while ago but I know it is a self-indulgent thing to ask for. ;)

    I’m not sure my reading is right because I don’t quite understand where the patois of sexual congress fits into the creation of placental relationships. Is Mme de P a placenta for Louis XV? Is this an intervention into how we understand the forces of history?