Sloterdijk on Dionysian Materialism

Friedrich Nietzsche, The Birth of Tragedy from the Spirit of Music (1872)

The term/concept of Dionysian materialism comes from Sloterdijk’s monograph on Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy (1872), Thinker on Stage: Nietzsche’s Materialism (1986, 83-85), but it’s rather impenetrable there. Asked by Éric Alliez in “Living Hot, Thinking Coldly: An Interview with Peter Sloterdijk” (2007), “to expand . . . what [he] mean[s] by ‘Dionysian materialism’: what kind of higher materialism is in play . . . if Nietzsche is, indeed, in your eyes, the philosopher of life par excellence,” he first positions his reading of Nietzsche vis-à-vis idealism:
[T]he writings of the young philologist seemed to me haunted by what I’ve called his “Dionysian materialism.” This provocative expression signaled my intention to read the Nietzschean corpus as forming part of the subversive tradition of those marginal thinkers who’ve managed to keep themselves apart from the idealist closure.
(By idealism, he presumably means transcendentalism and realism.)
In the 1980s, this notion of “materialism”—which I employed with a touch of humor—had, in spite of everything, retained a last hint of its initial aggressiveness. It seemed always useable to me as a positional—and oppositional—beacon in relation to an intellectual environment that displayed hostility to everything that could evoke the vitalism of the early years of the century. (319)

(By vitalism, he presumably means Bergson, Teilhard de Chardin and Deleuze, not to mention the psychoanalysts, inter alia, who espouse a kind of “spiritual” materialism in which matter is imbued with life force.)

Sloterdijk then positions his reading vis-à-vis the conservative Heideggerians’:

I wasn’t unaware, either, that this “materialist” terminology was going to create definite unease among Heideggerians of a neo-pietist persuasion. Having proposed an iconoclastic—and “Left-wing”—reading of Heidegger’s work in Critique of Cynical Reason, I didn’t at any cost wish to be confused with that de-virilized, conservative Heideggerianism. . . . As for Heidegger’s enormous (not, it must be said, a particularly Nietzschean quality) and, in certain respects, admirable Nietzsche, I must stress I’ve never accepted his claim to have “gone beyond” Nietzsche [indeed!]. On the contrary, it was, in my view, in Nietzsche that one should look for paths leading somewhere, toward an open future for thought. “Dionysian materialism”: the formula expresses the need for a rapprochement between the post-Marxist and post-Nietzschean currents, a highly implausible encounter in the academic and public context of the time. (319-20)
And here’s the nub: DM is for Sloterdijk as fundamental an ontology as he has need of.
It’s true that I haven’t explicitly gone back to this formula in the fifteen years since the publication of Thinker on Stage. And yet it’s become virtually second nature to me, and if I didn’t use the expression often, that’s because I’d formed the habit of considering all my problems and all my interventions in the affective light of this concept—without having any further need to develop its purely theoretical dimensions. I carry the notion on my head like a miner’s lamp; without it I couldn’t follow the seam that keeps leading me on.
The concept assumes greater importance in the light of the recent development of anthropotechniques that bring into question the humanist “domestication” of homo sapiens, primarily by priests and teachers:
Now, to come back to the question: there is, for certain, a strong epistemological linkage between concepts like “Dionysian materialism” and “vitalism,” a linkage made even more interesting by the fact that the life sciences and life technics have just passed into a new phase of their development. We’re arriving at a point where the most committed idealists are obliged to admit the productive and “ideoplastic” nature of the process of conceptual labor. (320)

Dionysius on a Panther’s Back, Pellas, Macedonia (c. 300 BC).

The panther, by a fanciful etymology (Gk pan- “all” + ther “beast”), represents all animals, the thyrse (Gk “stalk,” i.e., staff) all plants; that it is leaping, the forces of nature. Dionysus, riding the panther, embodies the supplement of nature as represented by human beings.


So what is DM? According to Stuart Elden and Eduardo Mendieta in “Being-With as Making Worlds: the ‘Second Coming’ of Peter Sloterdijk,” it is the wisdom of the necessary supplement (or, perhaps, an aesthetic of excess):

This materialism is more than a mere vitalism, where everything that humans undertake is for the sake of the enhancement of life. The Dionysian dimension celebrates that which augments life, but this is a life that is in pursuit of a truth, a truth that is a necessary error. The Dionysian is the excess of the aesthetic and poetic, but one that is linked to the material conditions of possibility of human life. For Nietzsche, art has priority over knowledge, for we can die of too much knowledge, while we need art in order not to die of too much truth. (2)
DM, then,
  1. “celebrates that which augments life,” i.e., the supplement or excess, but
  2. “a life that is in pursuit of . . . truth that is . . . necessary error,” i.e., that truth is like artistic truth, which does not claim to be absolute (i.e., not Truth, and therefore “error”) and enables us to live (or to thrive).

(Note that for Nietzsche in BT [sec. 1.1], there is Dionysian art, like music, that “formlessly” represents—inasmuch as that is possible—the chaotic productivity of nature; its mood is intoxication and its embodiment dance. And there is Apollonian art, like the visual arts, in particular sculpture or architecture, that gives nature plastic form; its mood is dream and its embodiment the beautiful appearance [of order]. So, strictly speaking, the world may be Dionysian, but our truths are Apollonian.)

    Sloterdijk expands on this theory of truth as “necessary error” with Alliez:
    From the standpoint of Nietzschean or post-Nietzschean philosophical metabiology [i.e., what Sloterdijk does], “truth” is understood as a function of vital systems that serves in their orientation in the “world” and their cultural, motivational, and communicational autoprogramming. At this level we are dealing with a philosopher/biologist Nietzsche, the author of the famous phrase, “We have need of lies . . . in order to live” [Will to Power (1888), sec. 853, which quotes BT]. In my terminology, one would say that the truths (which I shall term “first-order”) are symbolic immune systems. Lives are condemned to perform a permanent effort of raising their morphoimmune shields against the microbiological invasions and semantic lesions (we call these “experiences”) to which they are exposed. (316-17)

    Ah. The world is a limitlessly productive (chaotic) living system. We experience it through the medium of (ordering) truths that enable us limited beings to cope with its apparent threat to our well-being. Ecosystem; immune system.


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