Peter Sloterdijk’s Crystal Palace Metaphor

This morning I arrived at the heart of Sloterdijk’s book, In the World Interior of Capital, the chapter “The Crystal Palace.” That he examines the Crystal Palace of 1851 as a metaphor for modernity is not new—certainly not among anthropologists and folks in visual culture and museum studies who look to the practices of imperial and capitalist-market visuality that the palace represents. The palace’s grand promise to categorize the world and its geographical commodities of empire is obvious—as is its historical position as ur-universal museum and ur-department store.

What I found new in Sloterdijk’s chapter is the way that he connects the Crystal Palace it to the compelling ongoing examination of interiors, exteriors, boundaries and atmospheres introduced in his Spheren project. For him the Crystal Palace-as-metaphor is foundational in the way it makes “both nature and culture indoor affairs” where social life takes place in an “expanded interior, a domestically organized and artificially climatized inner space.” While discovery and imperial conquest, in Sloterdijk’s understanding, were “open-air enterprises” these then came to be digested and integrated into the “protective shell” demonstrated by a structure like the Crystal Palace. The shell establishes and interior which necessitates “climate control” so that its consumers can enjoy its promise of relaxation and peace (170-171).

Comparing the Crystal Palace metaphor to Benjamin’s Paris arcades, Sloterdijk finds the latter insufficiently expansive. Whereas the arcades bridge buildings and create new spaces for seeing and being seen while consuming, the Crystal Palace invokes the idea of an “enclosure so spacious that one might never leave it” (175).  This is the key for him—the final ambitions of modernity as communicated by a structure like the Crystal Palace were to create a place from which one might never leave—a sphere which would enclose everything. This modern sphere of the global replaces the fractured sky-dome of the religious heavens of the premodern period which Sloterdijk describes in the first book of his Spheres trilogy: Bubbles. In an earlier chapter of In the World Interior of Capital, “Believing and Knowing,” Sloterdijk describes “monogeism“—with its symbol of the globe” as the modern replacement for an earlier monotheism (161).

As Sloterdijk observes, thinking of the ambitions of modernity as a palace of complete enclosure allows for the capitalism and socialism of the 20th century to be thought together—as simply “different building sites” for this palace projects (176). In other words, both aspired to create complete enclosures. In this way “the constructions” have always been about more than the relations of production, Sloterdijk argues: “It implies the project of placing the entire working life, wish life and expressive life of the people it affected within the immanence of spending power” (176).

The final observations of this chapter are compelling for two reasons: First, thinking of modernity as aspiring to an edifice of compete enclosure may allow for an interesting extension of actual physical architecture of buildings into the virtual architecture of digital platforms. Certainly the utopian edifices of digital media seek to place work life, wish life and expressive life “within the immanence of spending power.”

Secondly, I’m wondering if this might help to think about China’s sociopolitical and economic model as a kind of “palace project.” Certainly the Chinese Communist Party’s project of mass surveillance under Xi Jinping, following on the heels of his predecessors coining of “a harmonious society,”  offers one an image of a vast enclosure from which one cannot escape that is at the same time (from another perspective?) a utopian protective shell.

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