Sloterdijk on explication (explicitation)

From “Airquakes,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 27.1 (2009): 41-57, trans. Eduardo Mendieta, an excerpt from Sphären III: Schäume (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2004) 89-126, 5 Feb. 2009 <>:

If one wanted to say . . . what the 20th century . . . contributed . . . to the history of civilization, answering with three criteria could suffice . . . : the praxis of terrorism, the conception of product design, and concepts of the environment. Through the first, interactions between enemies were established on postmilitary foundations; through the second, functionalism was able to reintegrate itself in the world of perception; through the third, the phenomena of life and knowledge were entwined to depths hitherto unknown. Taken together, these three criteria indicate the acceleration of explication of the revealing inclusion of latencies and background data in manifest operations. (41)

This definition also opens Terror from the Air (Luftbeben: Aus den Quellen des Terror [“Airquakes: Out of the Sources of Terror”), trans. Amy Patton [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002; Los Angeles, CA: Semiotext(e), 2009] 9), but with the last phrase slightly differently translated: ” the revealing-inclusion of the background givens underlying manifest operations.”

Explication, elsewhere termed “thematization” (after Heidegger, Being and Time 412-15), is making implicit or “latent” things “explicit” or manifest. In his dichotomy of explication and latency, Sloterdijk plays on Heidegger’s correlative characterisation of truth as aletheia (αλήθεια: from alethes, true, lit. not concealing, thus unconcealment, i.e., openness or remembering), and lethe (λήθη: “forgetfulness, oblivion,” thus concealment, i.e., closure or forgetting [N.B. the word “latency” derives from lethe also]). Hence, explication is “a rephenomenalization of the aphenomenal” (32), and it answers “the [modern] need to perceive the imperceptible” (59).

François Lemoyne, “Time Saving Truth from Falsehood and Envy” (1737), Wallace Collection, London.

(The nexus of time and truth is implicit in the role ascribed to memory in truth as aletheia.)

Sloterdijk and Heidegger’s etymological readings of their respective terms suggest that they see unfolding truth as primarily textual, something which is implicit in the root word of explication: “explicit.” Explicit comes from L. explicitus, past participle of explicare “unfold, unravel, explain,” from ex- “out” + plicare “to fold.” Unfolding is indeed a textual metaphor: “explicitus” was written at the end of medieval manuscripts, short for explicitus est liber, “the book is unrolled”—or unfolded. Hence, Heidegger primarily thinks of truth as etymological, hermeneutic or poetic, as deep explanation akin to reading; so, to a degree, does Sloterdijk.

But unfolding can also be a textile (“woven”), or even textural (“of the visual and, especially, tactile surface of” or “of the characteristic physical structure of”), metaphor. Sloterdijk’s idea of explication is in the main textural. It aims to get at the characteristic physical structure of “reality,” as it is taken to be (we could say “metaphysical structure of reality,” if it weren’t illegitimate to speak in such a way). Sloterdijk adds to the temporal aspect of truth a spatial one (not unlike Heidegger with his notion of truth as “clearing“).

Bruno Latour explains explication, which he calls “explicitation,” in this way in “A Plea for the Earthly Sciences,” the keynote lecture at the annual meeting of the British Sociological Association (Apr. 2007), to be published in Judith Burnett, Syd Jeffers and Graham Thomas (eds), New Social Connections: Sociology’s Subjects and Objects (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010):

[H]istory was never about “modernization” or about “revolution,” but was rather about another phenomenon, . . . “explicitation.” As we moved on, through our technologies, through our scientific inquiries, through the extension of our global empires, we rendered more and more explicit the fragility of the life support systems that make our “spheres of existence” possible. Everything that earlier was merely “given” becomes “explicit.” Air, water, land, all of those were present before in the background: now they are explicitated because we slowly come to realize that they might disappear—and we [sic] with them. (2-3)

So this shift is about how we understand how we exist both in the world and with others (these dimensions of existence being inseparable):

[T]he whole idea of “social connections” was linked to a moment in history, that of modernization and of emancipation. What happens if we have shifted to another period, one of explicitation and of attachments?

[Or rather, s]ince “we have never been modern”, we have always been living through a completely different history than the one we kept telling ourselves about: until the ecological crisis began to strike hard and tough, we could go on as though “we” humans were living through one modernization after another, jumping from one emancipation to the next. After all, the future was one of greater and greater detachment from all sorts of contingencies and cumbersome ties. Free at last!

What happens to our identities, if it finally dawns on us that that very same history always had another meaning: the slow explicitation of all of the attachments necessary for the sustenance of our fragile spheres of existence? What happens if the very definition of the future has changed? If we now move from the taken into account of a few beings, to the weaving of careful attachments with an ever greater and greater list of explicitated beings? Attached at last! Dependent! Responsible! (3)

From Eric Morse, “Something in the Air,” an interview with Peter Sloterdijk, Frieze 127 (Nov.-Dec. 2009)


2 thoughts on “Sloterdijk on explication (explicitation)

  1. Pingback: Explicitation of Risk — scaring yourself into victimhood

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