Many philosophers have their pre-Socratic precursors; and one of hte most important philosophers of the past 40 years has been Peter Sloterdijk, who took Diogenes as his precursor. The choice is telling and, to be sure, it flies in the face of philosophy. And that is exactly what Sloterdijk, in his book The Critique of Cynical Reason, aims to do. Sloterdijk describes cynicism as a way of interpreting ideology which highlights the distance between the ideological mask and social reality without actually acknowledging it. He writes, “cynicism is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness,” which I understand as meaning the cynical subject understands the falsehood behind the particular ideology, but does not admit the falsehood of it. Zizek on the other hand, has presented kynicism in opposition to cynicism, described as “the popular, plebeian rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm.” Kynicism is essentially the opposite of cynicism as it confronts those falsehoods of ideology that are masked by cynicism.
My interpretation of cynicism versus kynicism is that cynicism represents claims to power by those in power/those behind ideology while kynicism is a tool used by the multitudes to expose the lack of reality behind ideology. Cynicism is not a direct position of immorality but ignores the fact that there is a difference between ideology and reality. Kynicism, on the other hand, exposes and confronts the integrity of ideology. Zizek writes, “cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognises, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask.” If we assume that ideology is a system which makes a claim to the truth, the cynical view masks those claims to truth while the kynical view aims to expose them.
Notes on Readings
Like Nietzsche, Sloterdijk wants to challenge idealism; and like Marx, he takes to materialism. However, Sloterdijk sees in Diogenes a challenge that, to his mind, is fundamentally better than Nietzsche and Marx’s challenges because Diogenes and his kynicism leaves discourse behind. Instead of arguing with idealism, kynicism is a living, “embodied,” challenge to idealism. Regarding what he calls “ancient kynicism,” in its “Greek origins,” Sloterdijk argues that it is in principle “cheeky” (or in German “frech,” which, in old German is associated with “productive aggressivity” and “bravery” and “boldness”). This cheekiness is found in its total disrespect for civility and emulation of “embodied” vulgarity. In the face of this, “respectable” Greek thinking doesn’t “know how to deal with it.”
To illustrate, Sloterdijk gives two examples of how the kynic relates to Socrates. When Socrates “speaks of the divine soul,” he “picks his nose.” When Socrates discusses the theory of ideas, the kynic “farts”. And when Socrates speaks of Eros, as he does in the Symposium and the Phaedrus, the kynic “masturbates in public”. The kynic is much more radical
Cheekiness is on the side of truth and the body. Those who rule, according to Sloterdijk, “lose their self-confidence to fools, clowns, and kynics.” In other words, cheekiness is not “discourse” (idealized discussion or debate, Socratic style) or politics, which are on the side of untruth (because they are what he calls “head” theory). And so Sloterdijk creates something of an analogy to describe what this cheekiness is. It is “desperately funny,” “satirical resistance,” “uncivil enlightenment,” “material embodiment,” “low theory,” and “practical embodiment.” Sloterdijk calls the language of Diogenes the “language of the clown” which uses “pantomimic materialism” to refute the “language of the philosophers”.
One could argue that, for Sloterdijk, the kynic is a kind of baudy, foolish, cunning clown whose goal it is to defeat “the stronger.” But the clincher is to be found in what the kynic does in the public sphere. For Sloterdijk the best place to “demonstrate” the kynics argument is not a public debate so much as in a public spectacle:
“The animalities are for the kynic a part of his way of presenting himself, as well as a form of argumentation…The kynic, as a dialectical materialist, has to challenge the public sphere because it is the only space in which the overcoming of idealist arrogance can be meaningfully demonstrated. Spirited materialism is not satisfied with words but proceeds to a material argumentation that rehabilitates the body. ”
Playing on this call for public defecation and vulgarity, Sloterdijk calls for “pissing in the idealist wind”. But Diogenes does more. Not only does he urinate in public; he also “masturbates” in public. And when he urinates and masturbates in public he creates what Sloterdijk calls the “model situation”.
This laughter, claims Sloterdijk, is the very thing that Adorno denied “categorically” . In the face of Adorno and the world, Sloterdijk suggests that we take the “model situation” to heart and shit, urinate, and masturbate in public for all to see. That “demonstration” of the kynical argument will evoke laughter and, as he suggest, a truth that has been stifled by idealism.
Although the movement went on for a while, it failed, according to many critics, because it lacked a coherent message. In other words, it failed because it couldn’t enter discourse. This, to be sure, is what Sloterdijk seems to be saying it should do. Indeed, for him kynicism’s greatest challenge is to stay out of public discourse. The problem with this is that if it doesn’t do this, it will have no political meaning. But, perhaps, that’s the point. As Sloterdijk suggests above, hegemony would laugh in the face of such public displays of vulgarity. However, what we saw was the opposite. Power didn’t laugh at the spectacle. It became utterly serious and drove it out of the public sphere.
The problem, therefore, with kynicism has to do with its ends. If its only end is to be embodied, then fine. But the question is whether it will win in the long run. Sloterdijk thinks it will because, as he suggests, these public acts leak into the private realm. And he cites proof based on how the public changed its views toward sexuality. However, the ultimate laughter, the laughter of conventions when they give up power for truth, cannot be but a kind of utopian/messianic thing.
That said, I think we should keep our eyes open for more kynicism in the future. Zizek and many intellectuals stand behind this kind of public affront and many of them believe that it is greater than public discourse and conversation. It is, as they believe, greater than the Enlightenment and it’s truth, the truth of materialism, is greater than the truth of idealism. This truth is to be found, for Sloterdijk and those like him, in public vulgarity and kynicism. This truth, for Sloterdijk, the “model situation”, is public defecation and masturbation. The question, however, is who is going to have the last laugh.