Peter Sloterdijk has written an important novel at a time where biological explanations for human actions have become the norm.

Eivind Tjoenneland
Eivind Tjønneland is a Norwegian literary critic and professor of Nordic literature at the University of Bergen.

The German philosopher and cultural theorist Peter Sloterdijk has, surprisingly, chosen the erotic epistolary novel as genre for his last book, entitled The Schelling Project. This is his second novel; the first one, The Magic Tree from 1985, was about the roots of psycho-analysis in mesmerism in the 18th century.

peterBriefly speaking, the book describes how five academics decide to apply to the German Research Council for funding a project on developmental theory to study the female orgasm. Their application is rejected, and they exchange letters containing a mix of personal erotic experiences and general views on sexuality. The research project bears the parodic title «Between biology and the humanities: On problems regarding the emancipation of an increased female sexuality from the hominid females to the homo sapiens woman based on an evolutionary theoretic viewpoint with continuous consideration of the natural philosophy of German idealism.»
This interdisciplinary research group consists of Peer (not Peter!) Sloterdijk, Kurt Silbe, Desiree zur Lippe, Beatrice von Freygel and Guido Mösenlechzner. One of their starting points is that research on orgasms has not progressed since Masters & Johnson and the Hite report. These researchers are accused of being hardcore positivists, «light years away from a position from where one would have been able to pose interesting questions.»

Mystery. The male orgasm is easy to explain functionally and in terms of evolution and biology through the reproduction of the species: There is an obvious connection between the orgasm and propagating our genes. The female orgasm is more difficult to explain: it does not seem to have any clear function, since the egg is fertilized through male ejaculation whether the woman has an orgasm or not. And it’s even more difficult to explain that the woman’s sexual desire increases after menopause. Since the female orgasm is problematic from the perspective of evolutionary biology, Sloterdijk sees an opening for the humanities, in this case the philosophy of Schelling.

The connection to Schelling is not easy to grasp, and is not particularly well explained. Sloterdijk clearly alludes to Schelling’s thesis On human freedom (1809), which is available in Norwegian translation with a long and informative introduction by Jan Erik Ebbestad Hansen. Schelling interpreted natural history as the evolutionary history of the spirit. In The transcendendtal system of idealism (1800), Schelling placed art as the highest expression of the human spirit, as a synthesis between consciousness and the unconscious, nature and spirit. Reflections on the role of the orgasm in evolutionary biology feeds the creativity of the characters in Sloterdijk’s novel. Their artistic expression and liberated sexual energy express a kind of utopian synthesis of nature and spirit. The female orgasm becomes a high point of natural history, the secret goal of evolution.
German reviews

The reception of Sloterdijk’s book in Germany has been mixed.

The reception of Sloterdijk’s book in Germany has been mixed. Some have picked up on the names: Guido Mösenlechzner, for instance, could have been the performance name of a porn star. (Neither the German word «Möse» or the correlating Norwegian word «fitte» is to be found in Gerd Paulsen’s German-Norwegian and Norwegian-German dictionary from 2011). The university novel and thereby also a research parody critical of science, such as this one, has a weak tradition in Germany, compared to England and the U.S. To avoid being regarded as unserious, Sloterdijk should probably have omitted the sexualized names; the novel would have managed fine without them.

Others have placed the book in the genre of philosophical pornography. The research of Robert Darnton (b. 1939) on prohibited bestsellers in France during the 20 years prior to the revolution has shown that this was a well-established genre. In The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, Darnton found over 700 pornographic books published between 1769 and 1789. They were smuggled in from Switzerland and Holland. Darnton includes a separate chapter on philosophical pornography, a genre which was also used by well-known authors like Diderot and, of course, Marquis de Sade. Sloterdijk enters into this tradition.

220px-peter_sloterdijk_karlsruhe_07-2009_imgp3019Bullseye. Is this book an expression of a delayed «sexual revolution» in an old radical from the 60s? Some have accused Sloterdijk (b. 1947) for writing old man’s prose («Altherrnprosa»). He is suspected of being a dirty old man, trying to spice himself up by writing philosophical pornography, a genre which does not have much of a tradition in Germany. In the Berliner Zeitung, Markus Schwering draws parallels to Friedrich Schlegel’s epistolary novel Lucinde (1799), which caused a scandal when it was published. Schelling fell in love with Schlegel’s wife, whom he later married himself. Several critics have read the book as criticism of science, but are unsure at whom this satire is aimed, such as Jens Jessen in Die Zeit. Alexander Solloch gave the book the worst form of review on NDR: a boring novel with talkative academics going nowhere. The same is true of Stefan Cartier’s review on Radio Bremen. Elke Schmitter in Der Spiegel was also critical. Under the heading «The woman as a men’s joke» she wrote that Sloterdijk is now in danger of becoming more infamous than famous. She places him in the tradition of mature men who in a talkative way imposes their experiences of female sexuality on their audience: de Sade, Schnitzler, Casanova, Houellebecq, Philip Roth and Henry Miller.

Actually, this form of criticism merely demonstrates the depth of its own ignorance. None of the reviewers seem to have any knowledge whatsoever of the debate on the female orgasm and the history of human evolution in evolutionary biology and theory of science. In spite of Sloterdijk’s parody of science being explicitly interdisciplinary, the reviewers’ reference points are exclusively from fiction. Is «das Land der Dichter und Denker» starting to fall behind intellectually? Those who have followed the professional debate in evolutionary biology will see that once again, Sloterdijk has hit the mark with his choice of topic.

The debate on the female orgasm. Over the past five years, the female orgasm has been discussed in journals such as the Feminist Review, Biological Philosophy, Animal Behaviour, Journal of Sexual Medicine, Evolution and Human Behavior and Hormones and Behavior.
Elisabeth A. Lloyd’s The Case of the Female Orgasm: Bias in the Science of Evolution (2005) led to an extensive debate in professional journals, which is still going on, undiminished. Lloyd criticized the assumption that you could explain the orgasm functionally by an increase in fertility or more successful reproduction. The explanations also modelled female sexuality unfairly on male sexuality, according to Lloyd. She claimed that research on the female orgasm was driven by bias, by ideological paradigms or assumptions. And this is exactly the issue Sloterdijk raises!

She mentioned 21 evolutionary explanations for the female orgasm, which broadly speaking fall into three different categories: explanations based on the advantages of pair bonding, mate selection and enhanced fertility. In The Naked Ape (1967), Desmond Morris points out the pair bonding advantages; the orgasm being the reward keeping the couple together. Lloyd criticized Morris for assuming a higher correlation between intercourse and female orgasm than there is empirical coverage for. The theories of selection claim that the female orgasm encourages repeated sex with males of high quality, which increases the chances of survival for the offspring. The theories of fertility claim that the female orgasm increases physiological processes which promote the transport of semen to the woman’s egg, a kind of «upsuck effect» which pulls the sperm from the vagina into the uterus. Lloyd contested the empirical evidence for all of these adaptive theories.
Lloyd instead explained the female orgasm from a non-adaptive model which was originally proposed by D. Symons in The Evolution of Human Sexuality (1979). The female orgasm has no important adaptive function, but is only a by-product of the evolutionary process which has created the evolutionarily speaking more important male orgasm. The female orgasm thereby becomes a parallel to nipples in men. Why do men have nipples? Because women have them.

Why do men have nipples? Because women have them.

In the journal Animal Behaviour (2011), the Australian researcher Brendan P. Zietsch and his Finnish colleague Pekka Santtila criticized the by-product-theories of female orgasm. Their research was based on a large number of Finnish twins, both identical (864) and nonidentical twins of the same (2287) and the opposite (1803) sex. If it is true that the function of the female orgasm is only maintained through selection of the function of the male orgasm, one can predict a strong correlation of the function of the orgasm of siblings of the opposite sex. Zietsch and Santtila found no such correlation, heritable variation in orgasmic function is not substantively correlated across sexes, making it unlikely that female orgasmic function is maintained only by ongoing selection on male orgasmic function». They claimed that it is still possible that the female orgasm has an adaptive function separate from the male orgasm.

More research. However, rejecting one model of explanation does not mean that our knowledge on the topic has increased. Zietsch and Santtila concluded that «the evolutionary basis for the female orgasm is both important and unknown, something that makes it a primary goal for future research. » In a paper published in 2014 in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, Lloyd, Garcia, Wallen and Fischer found that there are significant variations in orgasm for women based on sexual orientation, but not for men. The percentage of orgasms for women was 61,6% for heterosexuals, but 74,7% for lesbians. They concluded that women, regardless of sexual orientation, have less predictable and more varied experiences of orgasms. Together with the variations in orgasms in relation to women’s sexual orientation, this encourages more research, they concluded.

Sloterdijk’s book must be understood in this context. Evolutionary theory, socio-biology and brain research need philosophical criticism, and this is exactly what Sloterdijk has given us in his satirical epistolary novel. This is a welcome and much needed contribution, because biological explanations of human actions are presently gaining popularity as if criticism of positivism never existed. We must strike back! Literary criticism which rejects philosophical questions and prefers tradition and «business as usual» is poorly equipped to face books such as Sloterdijk’s last novel. When the critics fail to appreciate the book due to their own ignorance, this tells us a lot about cultural prejudice.


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