Critique of Cynical Reason

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Peter Sloterdijk’s Critique of Cynical Reason is a nearly 600 page survey of the history of cynical (and kynical) thought, from ancient Greece through contemporary times. It is an eccentric book, written in an oddball style; at various points scholarly, humorous, vulgar and wacky. At some points it’s just outright bizarre! Nevertheless, it is not boring. It is a book that is fun to read while also being filled with many provocative insights into the evolution of cynical (and kynical) thinking in western culture.

Although its title makes reference to Immanuel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, Critique of Cynical Reason reminds me more of Hegel’s Phenomenology of Geist. Both books are presented as phenomenological explorations of history from ancient to modern times, exploring the unfolding nature of philosophy, art, politics and religion. Additionally, both books end with the authors advocating the virtues of accepting the world for what it is, thereby allowing us to overcome the alienation of our thinking selves from the world we inhabit. But whereas Hegel’s book is humorless, often incomprehensible, and yet profound, Sloterdijik’s book is hilarious, usually intelligible, and often striking in its keen insights. While Hegel’s book leaves one with a heavy sense of gravity, Sloterdijik’s book leaves one with a light-hearted sense of whimsicality. Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to drain the dogmatic seriousness out of contemporary philosophy and transform it, again, into a Gay Science. This desire, as he reports in the Preface, is inspired by his own “childlike veneration for what, in the Greek sense, was called philosophy”: a discipline that he believes has become strangled and stunted in its growth. With Critique of Cynical Reason, he intends to reinvigorate the “dying tree of philosophy,” in order to produce “bizarre thought-flowers” (p. xxxviii). And, yes, many of the “flowers” that bloom in this book are indeed bizarre!

Sloterdijk begins his book by defining the nature of cynicism as “enlightened false consciousness” (p. 5). This paradoxical definition is, he admits, puzzling; for with enlightenment it would seem that “false” consciousness should melt away in the blaze of its exposure. To be enlightened about false consciousness would be to see through the lies one tells to one’s self and thus necessarily to expose and undermine the state of “falseness” in one’s thinking altogether. After all, if I know that I am lying to myself about something, maintaining confidence in the lie would be impossible, wouldn’t it? Not really, claims Sloterdijik. With enlightened false consciousness, what occurs is that people are fully aware that their beliefs and work efforts are based on some sort of lie, but they nevertheless continue to act as if everything is just fine. They carry on their life routines, going through the motions of day-to-day work in a state of melancholic awareness that their actions in the world are out of sync with their inner beliefs and understandings of what is really true and important. With modern cynicism:

A certain chic bitterness provides an undertone to its activity. For cynics are not dumb, and every now and then they certainly see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. (p. 5)

Because of the circumstances that they find themselves living in, cynics feel that they are compelled to work in a particular job, act as if they adhere to a particular set of polite beliefs, and live in a particular manner that will allow them to prosper and thrive. Survival is seen as the reward for playing by the rules, even though, inside, the cynic thinks that the rules are fraudulent. “Thus, the new, integrated cynicism even has the understandable feeling about itself of being a victim and of making sacrifices.” (p. 5) Cynics adopt a protective social facade, but behind that facade is bitter sadness and angry resentment against a world that forces them to lie to others while telling themselves the truth. They are, thus, enlightened about their own false consciousness while continuing to make the sacrifices that are necessary to survive in a corrupt world.

Enlightened false consciousness doesn’t just happen out of the blue. It takes mental labor. In order to pursue enlightenment of any kind, one must abandon an old way of thinking in favor of a new, better way of thinking. For this reason, enlightenment is connected with a process of internal and external dialogue in which ideas and conflicting arguments must confront one another. This process brings pain, and so it rarely unfolds in a completely rational manner. In the unfolding history of enlightenment, Sloterdijk tells us that power struggles inevitably develop between the enlightened and unenlightened. Enlightened thinkers would like the unenlightened to give up all prejudice – including their attachments to tradition – in order to engage in open-ended, purely logical dialogue leading to an uncertain future. The unenlightened, on the other hand, desire to hold onto their comfortable illusions, viewing those who want to dislodge their beliefs as enemies rather than friends. Each side, then, ends up reifying the other. The unenlightened consider the enlighteners to be dangerous revolutionaries while the enlighteners regard the unenlightened as those who either are lying to themselves or those who harbor ill will toward the truth (p. 15). Since the traditional philosophical perspective (going back to Socrates/Plato) is that no one willingly hates the truth, enlighteners end up concluding that it must be socialization into some form of pre-existent, corrupt ideology that keeps the unenlightened from abandoning their false beliefs about the world. They must be brainwashed. So then, in order to rescue the unenlightened, the enlightened ones must fight fire with fire and adopt a strategy of “ideology critique” in order to “cut open” the opponent “in front of everyone, until the mechanism of his error is laid bare” (p.16). Abandoning pure reason and logic, the enlighteners resort to confronting and criticizing things like the economic interests or class membership of those that won’t listen to “reason,” in the process exposing just why it is they are so stubborn.  This amounts to what, in logic, is called an ad hominem attack, a strategy that strictly speaking is not “logical” at all, and thus not endorsed by philosophers, but which is regarded as a necessary evil under the circumstances.

Sloterdijk suggests that if used in the vein of satire, “ideology critique” allows enlighteners to demonstrate the sorts of laughable irrationalities that lie beneath the surface of everyone’s conscious awareness (including the enlighteners). However, in the history of the west, what we find is that ideology critique instead pretends to take on the character of a science, becoming dogmatic in its observations that those against whom the critique is leveled are uniquely “sick” and in need of a cure that only the enlightened can provide. When it loses its sense of humor, then, ideological critique also abandons its openness to ongoing dialogue, claiming to have the final, unquestionable solutions to the world’s problems. It thus descends into totalitarianism, which advocates a kind of functionalist pragmatism, teaching others how to remain “healthy” and productive by submitting to the ideological assumptions of the enlightened. A non-humorous, “scientific” ideological critique ends up teaching this lesson:  “Stop reflecting and maintain values” (p. 21).

Sloterdijk endeavors to recapture the humorous, “cheeky” (p. 101) nature of ideology critique as satire by looking back to it’s origins in the ancient Greek philosophy of kynicism. He uses the term “kynicism” (with a ‘k’) to distinguish the philosophy of Diogenes and his students from “cynicism” (with a ‘c’), the modern, non-humorous outgrowth of the ancient Greek tradition. With the appearance of Diogenes of Sinope, Sloterdijk tells us that we find “the most dramatic moment in the process of truth of early European philosophy” (102). Diogenes begins a rebellion against the idealistic form of thought advocated by Plato through his engagement in a non-linguistic method of argument that employs his own embodiment as a means of communication. Diogenes is an existentialist who, instead of chasing after “unattainable ideals” (p. 101), simply “says what he lives” (p. 102). His own body, and the actions that it carries out, become the premises and the conclusions in his arguments. Instead of verbally debating with others, Diogenes farts, shits and masturbates, shocking those around him, but in so doing, he also reveals the taken for granted assumptions about normal behavior in those who are shocked. His “shamelessness” is a subversive “low theory” (p. 102) that “refutes the language of philosophers with that of the clown” (p. 103), humorously demonstrating that the mainstream, polite and taken for granted mode of social life is a form of unquestioned ideology that inhibits and suppresses basic human nature. Instead of speaking against idealism, he “lives against it” (p. 104). In living against idealism, Diogenes is a materialist; but he is a materialist whose actions, because performed in public, also have a generalized, moral, imperative force. By acting out in public, he implicitly suggests that it is legitimate for others to do the same. If he had just performed his natural, private functions behind closed doors rather than in public, nothing would change. By shitting, pissing and masturbating in public, however, Diogenes demonstrates to others that they have nothing to be afraid of in turning against convention. His actions highlight how funny it is that people are so ashamed of what they do in private.

Sloterdijk argues that the history of cynicism after Diogenes consists of the progressive suspension of embodiment and the increasing exaggeration of thought and ideas split off from life. Philosophy eventually becomes just another form of ideology: ideas that are thought and argued about but not embodied in the day-to-day actions of life. By degrees, embodiment and idealism still do battle with one another in the arts, in religion, in politics, in warfare, in sex; but in a cynical (as opposed to kynical) age, the incongruity between the body and the mind, nature and convention, is increasingly approached non-humorously, with real, embodied rebellion being supplanted by new conventions of idealistic pseudo-rebellion, thus establishing new norms of behavior that are out of synch with real life. Even in subcultures like punk, which purport to resist the “system,” Sloterdijk complains that cynical cheekiness has become appropriated as a new ideology, a new cynical norm governing life in the nuclear age:

A short time ago, the leader of the English punk group, The Stranglers, celebrated the neutron bomb in a frivolous interview because it is what can set a nuclear war into motion. “Miss Neutron, I love you.” Here he had found the point where the kynicism of protestors coincides with the brazen-faced master cynicism of the strategists. What did he want to say? Look how wicked I can be? His smile was coquettish, nauseated, and ironically egoistic: he could not look the reporter in the face. As in a dream, he spoke past the camera for those who will understand him, the little, beautifully wicked punk devil who causes the world to rattle with unthinkable words. That is the language of a consciousness that earlier perhaps did not mean to be so wicked. But now, since the show demands it, not only is it unhappy, it also wants to be unhappy (p. 127).

 

He does, I think, have a point. Today, I am amazed at how even the most subversive and rebellious sentiments have been harnessed and domesticated for the cynical purposes of money-making and fame. Musical stars, actors, comedians and other celebrities express anti-establishment sentiments before going back to their mansions in the Beverly Hills. The parts that they play in movies or on TV, or the things that they joke about in their routines, are treated as completely divorced from real, embodied experience; and when it turns out that these stars do live lives resembling their artistic performances, the result is often public outrage. Fearing the loss of their careers, the offending stars then apologize and promise to mend their ways, changing their behavior to be more normal and in line with public expectations. It is supremely ironic that the very sorts of behaviors audiences pay to see depicted on the screen, hear sung about in songs or joked about in stand-up comedy are the same sorts of behaviors that they are outraged by in “real life.”

I’ve only scratched the surface of what appears in Critique of Cynical Reason. In addition to what I’ve covered, Sloterdijk offers a hilarious account of the symbolic meaning of differing body parts and functions (tongue, mouth, eyes, breasts, arses, farts, shit and genitals); he presents a “cabinet of cynics” including Diogenes, Lucian, Mephistopheles, The Grand Inquisitor, and “Anyone” (Heidegger’s Das Man); he gives an account of “cardinal” and “secondary” forms of cynicism; and he ends with a long section on the Weimar Republic that traces the development of increasing existential uneasiness among the Germans as a result of their progressive technical achievements. The thread that the author always pursues, sometimes grabs hold of, and sometimes loses altogether in the course of these sections is the exploration of a historically recurrent disjunction between the commands of the body and the ideological demands of culture, politics, and religion.

Sloterdijk ultimately wants to do more than simply describe the historical convolutions of cynical consciousness, however. He also wants to resurrect the spirit of Diogenes in present times, advocating a return to the kynical, rather than the cynical, way of life. He wants us to overcome the conventional abstractions that ultimately make human beings less, rather than more, happy, and replace them with an honest recognition of our embodied, lived experience. Instead of the “enlightened false consciousness” of cynicism, he wants to pair rationality with nature, encouraging us, like Diogenes, to satirically and humorously confront the absurd, contradictory demands that are always a part of being a social animal.

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