Rules for the Human Zoo  

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Abstract: "Rules for the Human Zoo, also known as the Elmauer Rede, originally appeared in 1999 in the newspaper Die Zeit and was subsequently published by Suhrkamp in 2001. In this response to Heidegger's Letter on Humanism, Sloterdijk poses the basic question about the purpose of politics, governance, and civic solidarity. On the one hand, since Plato, politics has been conceived in part as concerned with the necessity of taming humans into being good citizens. Sloterdijk thus follows Nietzsche and Heidegger in portraying humanism as one side in a constant battle ... between bestializing and taming tendencies. It is in the Hobbesian state of nature that humans are wolves to each other; but who turns the wolves into friendly, loyal dogs? Humanism has claimed, according to Sloterdijk, that it is reading the right books which calms the inner beast. It is the great books, the thick letters from one great thinker to another, that provide the model presented by the wise , which enables the care of man by man. At the present, Sloterdijk argues, we appear to have been abandoned by the wise. It is no longer the humanist but the archivist who bothers to look up the old, thick letters. Humanism thus gives way to archivism."

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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.
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Train wreck at Montparnasse (October 22, 1895) by Studio Lévy and Sons.

Rules For the Human Zoo is the title of a speech delivered by Peter Sloterdijk on July 20 1999 on the occasion of a symposium dedicated to the philosophy of Martin Heidegger held at Schloss Elmau. He had held that same speech two years before but nobody had taken offense. The speech is on genetic engineering and its implications (think Gattaca). On September 9 1999 in Die Zeit, Peter Sloterdijk, following a public debate regarding his speech, declared critical theory as "dead".

In this text, Sloterdijk regards cultures and civilizations as "anthropogenic hothouses," installations for the cultivation of human beings; just as we have established wildlife preserves to protect certain animal species, so too ought we to adopt more deliberate policies to ensure the survival of Aristotle's zoon politikon. Breaking a German taboo on the discussion of genetic manipulation, Sloterdijk suggested that the advent of new genetic technologies required more forthright discussion and regulation of "bio-cultural" reproduction.

The core of the controversy was not only Sloterdijk’s ideas but also his use of the German words Züchtung (breeding, cultivation) and Selektion (selection), which recalled Nazi eugenic policies. Sloterdijk rejected the accusation of Nazism, which he considered alien to his historical context. Still, the paper started a controversy in which Sloterdijk was strongly criticized, both for his apparent usage of a fascist rhetoric to promote Plato’s vision of a government with absolute control over the population, and for committing a non-normative, simplistic reduction of the bioethical issue itself. This second criticism was based on the vagueness of Sloterdijk’s position on how exactly society would be affected by this genetic development. After the controversy multiplied positions both for and against him, Die Zeit published an open letter from Sloterdijk to Jürgen Habermas in which he vehemently accused Habermas of "criticizing behind his back" and espousing a view of humanism (i.e., critical theory) that Sloterdijk declared dead.

See also

see human zoo.




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