Peter Sloterdijk – The concept of “contraction”

According to a similarly constructed proposition by Wittgenstein,the whole earth cannot be in greater distress than one soul.” (574 Sloterdijk BUBBLES)(Wittgenstein Culture and Values)

 In one of the final chapters of BUBBLES, a chapter titled Closer to Me Than I Am Myself, Sloterdijk finds inspiration from a voice that traveled hundreds of years, in the work of Nicholas of Cusa (1401-1464), a mystical theologian from the Latin West. In Nicholas’ work, Sloterdijk discovers a penetrating analysis on “how to envisage the being-in of finite intelligences in the infinite intelligence of God” (570).

Nicholas wrote a treatise titled On the Vision of God, which he sent as a dissertation to the monks at the Abbey of Tegernsee in Bavaria. Nicolas writes about the sensation that occurs when looking at portrait art that gives the observer the feeling of being looked at by the gaze of the painting, wherever one happens to be standing. Just as the gaze of the painting moves to look at you no matter what position of the room you happen to be in, the gaze of the painting simultaneously looks at all people in the room the same way, or anyone who enters the space of the gaze. Nicholas writes in his dissertation;

“And while the brother observes how this gaze deserts no one, he will see that it takes diligent care of each, just as if it cared only for the one on whom its gaze seems to rest for no other, and to such an extent that the one whom it regards cannot conceive that it should care for another (quod curam alterius agat). He will also see that it has the same very diligent concern for the least creature (minimae creaturae) as for the greatest (quasi maximae), and for the whole universe.” (573)

The universal gaze of the painting parallels the absolute vision of God. “How could a summary and aspecific God for all simultaneously be an intimate God for each and every person?” Sloterdijk creates a response to Nicholas’ text, with an introduction of the concept of the “maximum-in-the-minimum” and the ultimate contraction of the absolute vision into the individual subjective.

“The painted portrait with the living wandering eyes is an excellent representation of a God who, even as He pantocratically oversees all of humanity, only actually turns to each individual. Here we see a God of intensity whose outpouring of power is as present in the minimum as it is in the maximum. God cannot love the whole of mankind any more than a single human being…the presence of the maximum in the minimum lends a sharper logical profile to the familiar idea the God distinguishes the individual soul by being-in inside it. ” (573).  [Author note: a pantocrator is a title given in Byzantine church decoration to the image of Christ as overseer of the universe.]

For Sloterdijk, the exteriority of the painting to the observing subject is important to the inner awakening of the observer when he feels the gaze of the painting on him. The fact that the gaze seems to come from outside of the observer awakens an awareness of an intelligence that is present both within him and exterior to him, and both simultaneously. The possibility of this awareness is that even in an inner-life, unshared on the outside or with others, one is contained in “the calmly following gaze of a total intelligence” (574). In this way God exists within each individual, and each individual exists as a contraction of God. His infinite vision depends on it being contracted into each and every individual, the maximum is in the minimum – we are within God and also constitute God. The absolute vision is not restricted to each individual or by any individual, His being-in-me does not limit Him to my perception because His intensity is capable of infinite expansion, and is incapable of being diminished, even if I cease and the absolute no longer sees through me. God, the maximum viewer, contracts Himself into me, the minimum. “My containedness in God’s magnitude can be compared to a point in an all encompassing ball, where the point, in its way, mirrors and contains the ball” (576).

The individual is always responsible for the absolute vision of God. In Modernity God in many ways was substituted with capital. Sloterdijk explains, “God acts as a lender of eyesight to humans – or more generally as a lender of subjectivity. Here the word “lend” can be understood both in its feudal and its bank-capitalist sense, for both fief and credit are authentic modes of giving being or awarding strength – self-contraction” (576 Sloterdijk). There is now change of meaning from guilt to debt. In both cases of God and Capital there is present a “mystical duty to repay” (577). In this case, the individual stands in relation to his own understanding of the Absolute, which can be understood as the absolute vision of God or the absolute sweeping of capital. The individual deals with this relation by engaging with one’s actions and choices. Each chosen action is work in relation to the credit of the Absolute. Because a concept like absolute vision is relative in scope to one’s ability to imagine an absolute, the largest macro-sphere that we inhabit is no different from the micro-sphere of one’s eyeball. The infinite vision of God sees all, by also being seen out of by all. The maximum is contracted into the minimum that is the individual.

At the worst of times the responsibility to the macrospheric vision can become oppressive and depressive. The world of power is exercised through contraction, by ruling and producing. The important thing is that we act as a filter or channeling system for a power that is infinite, and we recognize the changeability of that power through perception. Capitalism is not an absolute truth, but it is a power that is held together by each of us individually. In this way we each are responsible for the cultivation of our lives in an awareness of our attachment to being-in through contraction. Resistance to the awareness of contracted vision results in the deformation of power over us. “The subject finds itself in a position of revolt if it ceases to view itself as a mere vassal of being; whoever invokes capital of their own and refuses to define their actions as work within the credit of the absolute becomes a rebel…Was the Modern Age not founded on the axiom that whoever begins with themselves has shaken off the burden of compulsory gratitude once and for all? Has the human being, from a Christian perspective, not always been the creature that wants to reserve a part for itself? Can there be such a thing as a man in non-revolt?” (579).

It seems that when the power of an absolute becomes oppressive it becomes popular to attempt to shirk the responsibility to upholding the values and limits of its structure. A complex problem arises when the neglect of value becomes integrated into the absolute vision, the oppositional forces of one generation become the oppressive forces of the next. As individuals we need to make subjective choices on what we choose to filter as a vessel. Rebel-intstincts and Revolt without composition often end in a mess that power sweeps up and uses. If we can live with a vision composed of choices, engaged with a responsibility to the macrosphere and absolute intelligence, we can become a vessel that wills what is Good, even when it contradicts the rules and regulations of a power-structure. Living in non-revolt doesn’t mean erasing contradiction, or accepting all debts, there is inevitably always a scope of absolute vision beyond the agreement of the individual to the outside.  Sloterdijk always remains able and willing to see the highest potentials of the absolute when filtered through an individual.

“If I am a branch-eye of God in contracted vision, then in contracted loves I am a relay of divine love…I see because the absolute vision sees in me and through me into the idea that I exist and enjoy as a loving being because I am held into the world as a vessel and outlet for divine attentions and emanations” (577).


Sloterdijk, Peter. Bubbles. Cambridge, Mass: Semiotext(e), 2011. Print.

About Michael Johnson

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