Topos Etymology: Greek, literally, common place

A given culture never possesses a complete vocabulary for itself. The current language games only ever emphasize select topics and leave other phenomena unaddressed. This applies as well to the vocabulary of theory in the late twentieth century. In past decades, one could speak elaborately and with great nuance about everything that had to do with the temporal structure of the modern world. Tons of books on the historicization, futurization, and processing of everything were published—most of which are completely unreadable today. By contrast, it was still comparatively difficult ten years ago to comment sensibly on the spatialization of existence in the modern world; a thick haze still covered the theory landscape. Until recently, there was a voluntary spatial blindness—because to the extent that temporal problems were seen as progressive and cool, the questions of space were thought to be old-fashioned and conservative, a matter for old men and shabby imperialists. Even the fascinating, novel chapters on space in Deleuze and Guattari’s Thousand Plateaus couldn’t change the situation, since they arrived too early for the chronophilic, or time-worshipping, zeitgeist of those days. The same goes for programmatic propositions in late Foucault—according to whom we again enter an age of space—which in their time were still unable to usher in a transition.

My Spheres trilogy obviously belongs to a widespread reversal among philosophical and cultural-theoretical discourses that has taken place in the strongholds of contemporary reflection over the course of the past decade. As I began in 1990, while a fellow at Bard College, in New York, I had only a vague premonition of this topological turn within cultural theory. Only now, after the completion of the trilogy, do I see more clearly how my work is connected with that of numerous colleagues around the world, such as Homi Bhabha, Arjun Appadurai, and Edward S. Casey. Even Ilya Kabakov’s installation art and the work of architects like Frei Otto, Grimshaw and Partners, or Rem Koolhaas, belong to the circle of theoretical relations. At the time, I wanted to work with the figures of the circle and arrow in order to offer my students in Vienna and New York, who were mainly young artists, an introduction to philosophical thinking. I thought that graphic figures would be useful in that context.

I was also fascinated by a chalkboard drawing Martin Heidegger made around 1960, in a seminar in Switzerland, in order to help psychiatrists better understand his ontological theses. As far as I know, this is the only time that Heidegger made use of visual means to illustrate logical facts; he otherwise rejected such antiphilosophical aids. In the drawing, one can see five arrows, each of which is rushing toward a single semicircular horizon—a magnificently abstract symbolization of the term Dasein as the state of being cast in the direction of an always-receding world horizon (unfortunately, it’s not known how the psychiatrists reacted to it). But I still recall how my antenna began to buzz back then, and during the following years a veritable archaeology of spatial thought emerged from this impulse. The main focus may have been Eurocentric, but there was a constant consideration of non-European cultures, in particular India and China. Incidentally, I also owe something to Gaston Bachelard’s Poetics of Space, although later I quite stubbornly departed from his promptings.

(c) Bettina Funcke talks with Peter Sloterdijk

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