ISSN: 1705-6411

Volume 12, Number 1 (January 2015)

Of Bubbles and Black Holes: The Role of Form in the Social Theory of Baudrillard and Sloterdijk

Dr. Johnathan Fardy
(Centre for Theory and Criticism, University of Western Ontario, London, Canada)

I. Introduction

Social theory is a conceptual instrument for logically linking and explaining diverse phenomena in a relatively coherent manner using a small number of postulates. Such postulates are often quite abstract like “interpellation” (Althusser), “class” (Marx), “hyperreality” (Baudrillard) and so on. But on occasion social theory takes form and sometimes it even assumes a certain shape. This is the case, I claim, with the work of Jean Baudrillard and Peter Sloterdijk.        

In this essay I compare the figure of the black hole as presented most vividly in Baudrillard’s most important statement of social theory, In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities, or The End of the Social, with that of the sphere presented in Bubbles, the first instalment of Sloterdijk’s magnum opus Spheres. Baudrillard’s theory of the social takes the form of the black hole. He sees the social as having imploded on itself like a dying star. Sloterdijk’s social theory takes the form of the bubble. Modern subjects are figured as fragile bubbles ever in search of the spherical security of the Medieval world-view. Examining these two forms – black hole and bubble – reveals a host of related meta-philosophical and metaphysical entanglements between theory and reference in the domain of the social in the context of an economy of form-based concept production.

II. The Black Hole Hypothesis
Baudrillard published In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities (hereafter Silent Majorities) in 1983 at the very height of his fame. Starting in the late 1960’s, Baudrillard published a series of works that contributed immensely to the field of cultural analysis such as The System of Objects, For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign, The Mirror of Production, and The Consumer Society. But by the late 1970s, Baudrillard’s thinking turned increasingly towards the problem of media and mediation, and with it his writing in both its scope and style changed radically.

Silent Majorities is the fruit of Baudrillard’s late style. It offers a radically postmodern re-theorization of the social, social theory, and theory itself. The text is actually a collection of four related essays: “In the Shadow of the Silent Majorities,” “…Or the End of the Social,” “The Implosion of Meaning in the Media,” and “The Theatre of Cruelty.” Baudrillard’s major morphological argument is advanced in the first two essays, but is echoed throughout the text.

The thesis of Silent Majorities is that the social has imploded, disappeared into itself, and taken with it that favorite figure of early twentieth century political and sociological theory – the “masses.” For Baudrillard, the social qua object of political machination was granted empirical veracity by statistical research on the “masses.” Empirical sociology sees the masses as a quasi-natural element that conducts social energy: the masses can be galvanized, electrified, and mesmerized by power, money, commodities, and entertainment. Empirical sociology axiomatically transform the masses from a statistical phantom into a substantive entity. Through this empirical chimera, Baudrillard argues, sociology and politics lays claim to the “truth,” or the “nature” of the social. Baudrillard writes, that the masses are in fact a phantasm, a “statistical crystal ball…‘swirling with currents and flows,’ in the image of matter and the natural elements. So at least they are represented to us. They can be ‘mesmerized,’ the social envelops them, like static electricity” (Baudrillard, 1983: 1).

Against this empirical naturalization of the masses, Baudrillard asserts that the masses are in fact neither “good conductors of the social, nor good conductors of meaning in general (Ibid.: 2). They are at best a “spongy referent” Ibid.: 1). The masses are everything and nothing: dupes to be saved by politically responsible ideological criticism, generators and conductors of revolutionary energy, indices for political pollsters, subjects of consumer reports, the electorate, and much else besides. Above all else the masses are the “silent majority,” but not of the kind Nixon invoked. They are silent in and of themselves for the object called the “masses” only exists, Baudrillard insists, as a series of opportunistic figurations through which the social is ventriloquized.

The mystery of the masses is matched only by that of power. The two are fatally joined: the mystery of the masses seeming to necessitate a theoretical rationale for the theologico-political imposition of sovereignty. The masses (like power) absorb everything but radiate nothing. Baudrillard writes that the masses “do not radiate; on the contrary they absorb all radiation from the outlying constellations of State, History, Culture, Meaning. They are inertia, the strength of inertia, the strength of the neutral” (Ibid.: 2). Baudrillard puts the matter quite radically when he asserts that his view of the social is “exactly the reverse of a ‘sociological’ understanding. Sociology...survives only on the positive and definitive hypothesis of the social. The reabsorption, the implosion of the social escapes it” (Ibid.: 4).

Baudrillard asserts that the masses as object of socio-political hope, derision, or as object of study belong to a specific class of objects that reverse the polarity of the subject-object relation. In order to grasp this it will be helpful for a moment to consider another class of objects – art-objects – in order to see how this reversal in polarity can be effected. Art-objects give rise to particular ways of seeing, and hence give rise to a particular kind of spectator – a certain kind of subject – that exists on account of the art-object in view. Contrary to the still popular Romantic notion that all art is in the eye of the beholder (and thus under the presumed mastery of the beholder’s gaze), the art-object commands attention, it provokes, it seduces, it frightens, it humors, it delights and so on. Michael Ann Holly (1996), Georges Didi-Huberman (2005) and others have argued that the simple fact that a viewer is affected by a work of art demands a reassessment of the subject-object relation and the presumed mastery of the former over the latter (Holly, 1996; Didi-Huberman, 2005).

Baudrillard argues that the masses, like art, effect a reversal in the subject-object relation. The masses appear to be the object, the instrument even, of the designs of powerful subjects: propaganda ministers, advertising executives, the State, and so on. But the bureaucratic and statistical production of the masses as object affects a radical hysteria in the managerial class. This hysteria is a function of the masses’ silence, their inert objectality. The mute objecthood of the masses is the form and essence of their power argues Baudrillard. Baudrillard writes, the masses “have no virtual energies to release, nor any desire to fulfill: their strength is actual, in the present, and sufficient unto itself. It consists in their silence, in their capacity to absorb and neutralize…any power acting upon them” (Baudrillard, 1983: 3). 

Is not this thesis absurd on the face of it? Surely the social exists. Look at statistics. But what do social statistics signify? What is their referent? Is it the social? Is not the practice of statistical sociology also a product of the society it reflects? The social of sociology and politics continually winds back on itself like the figure of the Uroborus (the snake biting its tail). The social says Baudrillard is caught in an epistemological bind. The social must always be produced, simulated, into being. The masses can be sociological data, revolutionary subject, accursed share, and so on. It is precisely this continual clash of competing and conflicting hypotheses on the “nature of the social” that summarily demonstrate the spectacular defeat of the project to ascribe to the social coherent or complete meaning. The social, writes Baudrillard, is an “unacceptable and unintelligible figure of implosion …[a] stumbling block to all our systems of meaning” (Ibid.). The social continually renews the “outbreak of signification” with “a blaze of signifiers” that signify only a “central collapse…of meaning” (Ibid.). Baudrillard restates this epistemological problem in cosmological terms: “The social void is scattered with interstitial objects and crystalline clusters which spin around and coalesce in a cerebral chiaroscuro. So is the mass, an in vacuo aggregation of individual particles, refuse of the social and media impulses: an opaque nebula whose growing density absorbs all the surrounding energy and light rays, to collapse finally under its own weight. A black hole which engulfs the social” (Ibid.: 3-4).

It is statements like the one above that Sokal and Bricmont (1998) lambaste in their book Fashionable Nonsense. Sokal and Bricmont charge that Baudrillard misuses and misunderstand science. But as Mike Gane has pointed out, this criticism is facile (Gane, 2000: 100). Neither Baudrillard nor his critics have ever believed for a moment that works like Silent Majorities were meant to be taken as statements of cosmological theory. The problem with Sokal and Bricmont’s treatment of Baudrillard is that they completely fail to read his work in terms of what it actually is – a statement of social theory and metaphysical philosophy. Moreover terms like black hole, nebula, particles, and such, are not the exclusive province of science. They belong to language, which properly speaking belongs to no one.  The term “black hole” does not belong to cosmology any more than “weather” belongs to meteorology or “sea” to that of oceanography.

The black hole provides the form around which Baudrillard’s thesis on the radical implosion of the social constellates. To study the social as it is for Baudrillard – an imploded concept – is only possible by studying the drift exerted on neighbouring concepts as they gravitate towards the social. Baudrillard’s project in Silent Majorities (and elsewhere) can be understood, then, as a meta-sociological and meta-political querying of the conditions of the possibility of the social qua concept. But what makes Silent Majorities unique is that it goes beyond the limits of meta-theory in the direction of metaphysics.

III. Perverse Metaphysics
Traditional metaphysics concerns itself with fundamental truths. Metaphysical propositions are arrived at through “theoretical speculation and are not open to empirical testing” (Benzer, 2010). While it is certainly true that Baudrillard’s theses hardly ever admit of empirical testing, they are not metaphysical in the traditional sense. Baudrillard’s distance from traditional metaphysics is set by his infamous thesis presented in Simulation and Simulacra that the reality-principle has withered in the face of simulation. Baudrillard sees technological society as trapped in what he elsewhere calls the “Great Game” in which the line between simulation and reality has been outplayed: now simulation realizes itself as reality (Baudrillard, 2005). The world has entered its “fatal” form – a terminal condition – that in The Intelligence of Evil Baudrillard names “Integral Reality” (Ibid.: especially Chapter One). Baudrillard’s simulation hypothesis states that the metaphysical border that for centuries divided reality from appearance has been irradiated by simulation. This is what makes Baudrillard’s metaphysics perverse. Baudrillard rejects the concept of a fundamental reality upon which metaphysics stakes its grandeur. This perverse metaphysics short-circuits the reality-illusion dialectic of classical metaphysics.

Baudrillard’s social theory follows from his (post)metaphysical move: he rejects the idea that there is a fundamental reality to the social. Moreover, for Baudrillard, the quest to uncover a fundamental social reality only further collapses the conceptual certitude of the social as such. The social qua concept involutes upon itself. The social becomes a conceptual black hole.

Without getting into technical details that escape this author, it is enough to hold onto the idea that a black hole results from the collapse of star. A black hole is the terminal state of the life of a star when all matter contained in the astral sphere collapses in on itself, radically warping space-time in the process. To make scientific sense of the center of a black hole – called the “singularity” – requires using both classical and quantum mechanics, because the center of a black hole is both extremely dense and extremely tiny. As of yet no testable theory has emerged that successfully bridges quantum and classical mechanics. The singularity remains a scientific aporia.

Analogously, for Baudrillard, the social is an aporia. It seems to require two seemingly incompatible modes of analysis. On the one hand, Baudrillard invokes meta-sociology when he comments on the conceptuality of the social. On the other hand, he invokes a post-reality metaphysics inasmuch as the “end of the social” is a fundamental claim. The social is always mediated by what is asked of it or demanded of it. That is, it is not simply that the social mediates one’s experience of reality. More radically, the social qua concept is itself mediated by processes that actually simulate it into being by realizing a seemingly empirical referent for the social qua concept. Therefore the meta-sociological question concerning the “observer effect,” as it were, on the study of the social necessitates the metaphysical solution that there is no social apart from its figurations. However, this metaphysical solution collapses since it is based on a radically non-metaphysical concept. The dissolution of reality dissolves the appearance-reality split and with this goes the entire regime of metaphysics – its principles, its philosophy, its politics, its sociology. The implosive condition of the concept of the social draws Baudrillard’s metaphysics into its aporia, warping and distorting classical metaphysics. Baudrillard writes that the collapse of reality into simulation requires a thoroughgoing acceptance that there “is no longer any polarity between one and the other…This is what causes that vacuum and inwardly collapsing effect in all those systems that survive on the separation and distinction of poles” (Baudrillard, 1983: 6). Baudrillard’s black hole hypothesis collapses (mass) sociology and metaphysics into a theoretical aporia –  a singularity. Baudrillard writes: “the masses function as a gigantic black hole which inexorably inflects, bends and distorts all energy and light radiation approaching it: an implosive sphere, in which the curvature of spaces accelerates, in which all dimensions curve back on themselves and ‘involve’ to the point of annihilation, leaving in their stead only a sphere of potential engulfment” (Ibid.: 9).

IV. Resistance
Baudrillard’s late style is a mirror of the postmodern culture it describes: fragmentary, hyperbolic, cynical, and non-systematic. Richard J. Lane notes that Baudrillard “doesn’t simply analyze cultural forms, but explores them through a doubling of those forms: his texts are cultural events that partake of the structures of postmodernity” (Lane, 2008: 127). Baudrillard’s statements about postmodern culture are themselves part of (even symptomatic of) postmodernity itself. Baudrillard’s statements on the empirical non-existence of the social are paradoxically another simulation of the social. The social qua black hole is itself a figuration of the social. The social therefore functions nonetheless as the prime reference point in Baudrillard’s post-metaphysical, meta-sociological, conceptualization of the social.

What holds together the antimonies of Baudrillard’s theory of the social is an image – the black hole. This image pulls together – like a gravitational field – the seemingly contradictory aspects of Baudrillard’s thinking. The black hole as figure collapses and radically condenses the entangled mass of provocations, observations, and polemical asides into a singularly dense, impenetrable conceptual mass. At the center of Baudrillard’s black hole logic breaks down. The distinction between concept and referent, between polemic and critique, between object and subject are collapsed to a point – an end – a singularity. The black hole as form is a hyper-reflexive theoretical structure. Social as referent and social as concept annihilate one another in a continually involving state. The black hole images less the end of the social as such, and more the infinitely terminal state of social theory. It is an anti-form for an anti-sociological theory of the social.

V. The Bubble (Bursts)
The Big Bang Theory says that the universe emerged out of single space-time point – a singularity – meaning that the origin of the universe began with something like what is supposed to exist at the center of a black hole – a singularity. In a parallel sense, Baudrillard’s black hole of social theory could be seen as either the end, or the theoretical degree-zero point for, any social theory. If the theoretical singularity of the social as black hole were to undergo a rapid expansion it might end up taking the form of the social theory that Peter Sloterdijk elaborates in his ground-breaking trilogy titled Spheres.

The first volume of Sloterdijk’s trilogy titled Bubbles was published in Germany in 1998 followed by Globes in 1999, and finally Foam in 2004. English translations have been sadly slow to catch up with so-far only Bubbles having been translated and released by Semiotext(e). But for present purposes, Bubbles will suffice. Sloterdijk’s project aims at nothing less than a wholesale re-theorization of the relation between subject, object, and world in the Modern Age as told and imaged through the form of the sphere. This at first might sound whimsical if not preposterous. However with reference to a dizzying array of examples from art, cosmology, psychology, gynaecology, mysticism, literature, philosophy, and much else, Sloterdijk shows how the sphere has been central to the Modern Age.

Sloterdijk begins with an oft-repeated truism. The Copernican Revolution destroyed the comforting illusion that humans dwell under the protective spheres of the heavens watched over by their creator. The ascent of humanism in the Renaissance, the scientific and political revolutions of the Enlightenment, the Industrial Age, Darwin, Nietzsche, Freud, Einstein, Bohr, Heisenberg, in short the Modern age, exposed humanity to the cold indifference of an accidental world. In response, the Modern Age furnished itself with new structures designed to protect it from the effects of its own progress. Sloterdijk writes: “To oppose the cosmic frost infiltrating the human sphere through the open windows of the Enlightenment, modern humanity...attempts to balance out its shellessness in space, following the shattering of its celestial domes” (Sloterdijk, 2011: 24).

Bubbles advances the thesis that modernity was not simply The Age of Reason. It was also a deeply metaphysical even mystical period. It sought through a host of means to recapture the protective guarantees of the Medieval world-view. Sloterdijk’s analysis has a certain affinity with the view advanced by Adorno and Horkheimer in Dialectic of Enlightenment, namely, that modern Reason never broke with its supposed enemy – mysticism (2002). As Adorno and Horkheimer argue, Reason underwent a kind of mystical enchantment as it promised nothing short of redemption for a blind and ignorant humanity.

However, Sloterdijk takes an imaginative leap that would have made Adorno and Horkheimer deeply uncomfortable. Sloterdijk proposes a psychical and social metaphysics: human subjectivity is to be described as a fragile bubble – a self-enclosed sphere – floating haphazardly amidst the sharp edges of the modern world. The psychical danger of the modern world has given rise, Sloterdijk argues, to a whole host of social, political, and psychological therapies designed ultimately to shield fragile subjectivities from the brute materiality of an unkind world. Sloterdijk writes: “What makes the Modern Age special is that after the turn to the Copernican world, the sky as an immune system was suddenly useless. Modernity is characterized by the technical production of its immunities and the increasing             removal of its safety structures from the traditional theological and cosmological narratives. Industrial-scale civilization, the welfare state, the world market and the media sphere: all these large-scale projects aim, in a shelless time, for an imitation of the now impossible, imaginary spheric security” (Sloterdijk, 2011: 25).

Modern subjects are “disappointed, cold and abandoned” hence they “wrap themselves in surrogates of older conceptions of the world, as long as these still seem to hold a trace of the warmth of old human illusions of encompassedness” (Sloterdijk, 2011: 26). Modern subjects are highly anachronistic; they are never at home in their time. They suffer from Hamlet’s pain – the dislocation of the temporal joint. Their eyes are ever on the horizon. They look to the future, the direction from which progress, Messiah of the Modern Age, is to come. Yet progress, Sloterdijk argues, disarms. Its lesson is always the same. Humanity is frail and unfit for the unprotected world it makes.

Sloterdijk pictures the history of the modern world as a morphological venture on the part of humanity to create in-dwelling spaces – bubbles – to shield itself from the Modern Age. These bubble worlds seek to form inter-globular links through intimate encounter, love, domination, exchange, and so forth. This is the shape of the condition that Heidegger called “being-in-the-world” (Heidegger, 1996). Sloterdijk writes: “What recent philosophers referred to as “being-in-the-world” first of all, and in most cases, means being-in-spheres. If humans are there [da-sein], it is initially in spaces that have opened for them because, by inhabiting them, humans have given them form, content, extension and relative duration” (Sloterdijk, 2011: 46).

But all bubbles burst. Thus these “atmospheric-symbolic places for humans are dependent on constant renewal” (Ibid.).

Understood as a series of dislocations and spheric security collapses, the iconic story of the Modern Age, Sloterdijk argues, is that of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Paradise. By a twist of anachronistic historiography (itself quite modern), the expulsion of Adam and Eve retrospectively became the ur-mythical origin of modern subjectivity. Sloterdijk writes: “The ‘expulsion from paradise’ is a mythical title for the spherological primal catastrophe” ( Ibid.: 51). Contra the traditional linkage of subjectivity to the individual, Sloterdijk argues that subjectivity as imaged in the Genesis account is founded on a relation between two.  While the Genesis story of creation collapsed in the Modern Age, the “dual bubble” was re-inflated by (among other things) conferring a psychical premium on the mother-child biune relation (Ibid.: 67). The collapse of the creation bubble of divine providence was sublated in the Modern Age into a metaphysically enriched biological account of psychical-subject formation.

Psychoanalysis enshrined a paradoxical science of biological mysticism in the Modern Age. The originary bubble world of in-utero encasement was taken as the founding moment not only of “human development,” but also the first loss, the first castration episode, in the process of individuation. The exile from the womb and the protected floating world of the amniotic sac became the new Garden of Paradise in the doxa of psychoanalysis. Sloterdijk seeks less to expand or expel this metaphysics of gynecology, and more to assert its centrality to the conceptual development of modern subjectivity.  Sloterdijk sees psychoanalysis as a poetics and science of navel gazing. It typifies the Modern Age’s fascination with its own origins. Sloterdijk writes, “the umbilical cord is tied off everywhere in modern times, in all imaginable ways; to this day, the navel on the subject’s body constitutes the hieroglyph of its drama of individualization” (Ibid.: 390). The gaze of psychoanalysis like modern anthropology, biology, linguistics, and so on is fastened upon its own condition of “de-fascination” (the loss of its origin) of which the navel is its physical and metaphysical scar (Ibid.: 393).

At breathtaking speed, Sloterdijk links the Garden of Paradise to the uterus. Modern subject development is figured in terms of a quasi-metaphysical, mythological and gynecological account that traces the emergence of the sole subject from its originary belonging inside the biological Garden of Paradise, the uterine sphere, to its separation from it. Bubble expansion, enjoinment, separation, and collapse become stations of the subject as iterated in modern mythological and biological narratives. Sloterdijk writes: “In all these models, spheric liaisons are brought up in which reciprocal animations generate themselves through radical resonance; each of them demonstrates that real subjectivity consists of two or more parties. When two of these are exclusively opened towards each other in intimate spatial division, a livable mode of subjectness develops” (Ibid.: 53).

Sloterdijk sees the Modern Age as the search for a utopic non-place of Edenic or uterine security and bliss in the face of cataclysmic catastrophes brought about by the pursuit of progress by an apparently mature, modern West. The Modern Age is seen as the age not of Reason but rather the Age of the Child. Modern social theory tethered itself to the family and ultimately to the biune sphere of the pre-natal world. The womb was seen as the microcosm of the child-parent social relation as the family was seen as a microcosm of the social totality. The history of the social in the Modern Age is figured in Bubbles as the West’s autobiographical re-tracing of its supposed lost innocence – its pseudo-originary biune beginnings – through a host of utopic social and political programs. It is the story of the West seeking spheric metaphysical shelter to protect its transparently fragile self.

Sloterdijk’s model, contra much contemporary theory of the last forty-plus years thus privileges a thinking of interiority (indeed the title of chapter 2 of Bubbles is “Rethinking the Interior”). Sloterdijk favours an epistemological prioritization of the psychical over the social – the inside over the outside: “[T]hough sphere theory by its nature begins as a psychology of inner spatial formation from biune correspondences, it inevitably develops further into a general theory of autogenous vessels. This theory provides the abstract form for all immunologies” (Ibid.: 57)

It would seem, however, that power exercised by the few over the many – the tragic story of all societies – renders Sloterdijk’s picture problematic. But there is a rejoinder, namely, that power is an immunological device intended to shield the fragility of power. The psychical life of power (to appropriate the title of one of Judith Butler’s texts) is one aspect of society that Sloterdijk’s psycho-sociospheric recasting of the Modern Age aims to tell (Ibid.). Sloterdijk states this with customary brevity when he notes: “The theory of spheres is a morphological tool that allows us to grasp the exodus of the human being, from the primitive symbiosis to the world-historical action…It reconstructs the phenomenon of advanced civilization as the novel of sphere transference from the intimate minimum, the dual bubble, to the imperial maximum” (Ibid.: 60).

Sloterdijk refuses to refuse the concept of interiority as many of his contemporaries do. He retains the concept of the human inside as a necessary element for any historical recounting of the Modern Age. To think the modern concept of the social thus paradoxically for Sloterdijk means understanding the ways that the concept was interiorized by successive bio-socio-psycho-political substitutes for the imagined (meta)physical protection of originary uterine bliss. Modern social life (and the concept of it) is constituted through the internalization of the exteriority of the social as such. The expansion of the psychical sphere is a protective measure taken against the immune deficiency syndrome of the modern world.

VI. Bubble to Black Hole (And Back Again)
From a theory of nothing to a theory of everything; from a theory of the social as radical collapse, as a black hole, to a theory of the social as an expanding fragile sphere,  a bubble, from Baudrillard to Sloterdijk there is a morphological continuity. Baudrillard’s use of black hole rhetoric suits his model of the masses as a strange attractor that animates the socio-political field while simultaneously frustrating its desire to exercise an innocent imperial empiricism. Sloterdijk on the other hand provides a model of the social in the Modern Age as a series of attempts to enclose itself in an originary bio-psychical spheric security. In Baudrillard, the closure or the “end of the social” takes the form of radical involution whereas in Sloterdijk closure takes the form of encirclement. What I want to suggest is that both these forms are really forms of utopian thought or rather a meta-thought on utopia: thought about the thought of social utopia given form.

Baudrillard’s vision in Silent Majorities (as elsewhere) is to an extent highly pessimistic, perhaps even nihilistic, but also to an extent utpoian in that he figures the social as that which resists mastery at the hands of sociological, political, and bureaucratic functionaries. Is this not in its own melancholic, disenchanted way a theory of the resistance of the social or even social resistance? Is the black hole also a black flag that waives for the social in the face of institutional encirclement? Is the collapse, the radical involution, of the social a tactical outplaying of managerial strategy? Is this really pessimism after all or is the terminal state of the social as black hole a perpetual state of no surrender? Is the “end of the social” to end its own domination?

These readings are perhaps too charitable. I want to suggest, however, that the form of Baudrillard’s social theory – that of the black hole – does not itself invalidate this reading. Even if the social does not exist apart from its figuration, then it is nevertheless the concept of the social that resists, and hence the theory at the very least can be taken to be literally a conceptualization of the social qua resistance. The black hole then is not too opaque after all. It rather admits of a rich description of resistant modalities of action and/or thought. The black hole hypothesis – like a real black hole – is not vacuous. It is an overfull, compacted, dense space. It has an inside even but one which is a singular inside – a singularity – somewhere beyond the event-horizon of conventional sociological thinking. Is not then the social for Baudrillard an interiorized concept or even perhaps a theory of the social as a phenomenon of radical interiority?

Sloterdijk’s spherological model of the social is dense too. A bubble is fragile but dense. A soap bubble encloses round a pocket of densely compacted air. The bubble – at least the soap bubble – is the exact opposite of the picture of the social as black hole provided by Baudrillard. The former is transparent and fragile while the latter is opaque and strong enough to atomically dismantle any object that falls into in. But they share the same morphology. They are both spheres. Despite its name, a black hole is really a sphere – a collapsed sphere – the involving, terminal state of total stellar death. Although the bubble model proposed by Sloterdijk rests on a kind of neo-humanism that would have undoubtedly made Baudrillard squirm, it mirrors the black hole by proposing that the social is to be understood as a radically interiorized phenomenon.  This is not to say that the “inside” of the black hole qua social is the same as the human interiority that underwrites Sloterdijk’s quasi-molecular and mechanistic account of spherological world-historical formation, but it is to say that from a topological viewpoint there is a spherical continuum from the black hole to the bubble. The two theories at the level of their form and shape are topologically continuous: one speaks of collapse, compaction, opacity; the other of expansion, multiplication, transparency, fragility. But at the level of form, each theory refuses Foucault’s advice to “abandon our tendency to organize everything into a sphere” (Butler, 1997).

In The Culture of Time and Space, Stephen Kern writes that sociology “is the geometry of the social sciences, the one most concerned with space. Its central analytical impulse is to understand the spatial distribution of social forms” (Sloterdijk, 2011: 67). If one accepts Kern’s thesis that time and space are culturally coded and historically variable concepts (a thesis that seems self-evident), then one might say that Baudrillard and Sloterdijk are modern social thinkers. But what differentiates their theoretical projects from modern social theory is that Baudrillard and Sloterdijk see the social as a dynamical topological structure. Each theory provides a formal conceptualization of the social as a constitutively uncertain dynamical system in which collapse and expansion are defined as singularity points from which it is impossible to determine the truth, nature, totality, duration, or telos of social forms. That is why they are both utopian. Baudrillard’s black hole and Sloterdijk’s dynamical sphere both grant the social a form but not a definite place within a rationally predictive schema. The social in both theories takes the form of a non-place – a utopia – constitutively beyond the stable geometries of social science.

The spatialization of the social qua concept enables Baudrillard and Sloterdijk to extend the sociological imagination beyond banal empiricism in the direction of a properly metaphysical account of the very conditions under which the social becomes thinkable. Their formal theories enact a diagramatization of the conditions for the possibility of a concept of the social. Baudrillard and Sloterdijk’s spherological conceptualizations of the social are born of a desire to give form to the social. Baudrillard collapses the sphere of the social into a theoretical black hole. Sloterdijk expands the story of the human sphere into a world-historical psychical drama of epistemic fragility. But the center form of each theory is a sphere. Here questions emerge and collapse. What kind of singularity is the social? Does the social and its conceptualization follow a non-teleological trajectory of radical involution or uncertain expansion? Does the social live in the universe of Baudrillard or Sloterdijk? Is the social a black hole or a big bang?

Jonathan Fardy received his PhD in Theory and Criticism from Western University in September of 2014. His dissertation examines the historical emergence of the subject position of the photographer in the nineteenth century. He has published on Oscar Rejlander, Baudrillard, Guattari, Benjamin, and others.


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