An affordable, paperback edition of Cinematic Nihilism is now available from Edinburgh University Press.
The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. (New York: The Free Press, 1973).
Everything we do in life stems from the vain attempt to deny our mortality. Having children, fighting wars, writing books, making art, building nations; it is all motivated by our denial of death.
This is the central insight of Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize winning book The Denial of Death, which upon a recent third reading I have come to admire more than ever. It is one of those works in whose pages I see my thoughts and beliefs reflected so vividly that I wonder if it was my first reading of this masterpiece decades ago that shaped the growth of my own later philosophy, or if the ideas in this book merely resonated with what I already believed before reading it. In truth, the tangle of influences involved in anyone’s intellectual evolution are just too complicated and tightly woven to be systematically separated after-the-fact. But no matter. It remains that there are some authors who give voice to thoughts so profoundly correct that it doesn’t matter who wrote them down first.
Becker himself was influenced by a whole tradition of existential philosophy and psychology, with thinkers such as Sigmund Freud, Otto Rank and Søren Kierkegaard playing key roles in his account of the human condition. Side-lining Freud’s emphasis on sexuality, Becker instead promotes Rank’s claim that it is the quest for immortality, for the infinite, that powers human psychology. He links this psychological insight to the thinking of Kierkegaard, who devoted his philosophical career to articulating how human beings struggle in vain to reconcile their finitude, which is rooted in bodily existence, with their spiritual desire for infinitude. “…man wants the impossible” (p. 155). We know we are doomed to bodily decay, yet we want to live forever. We are a contradiction that cannot be resolved.
And yet we try. In fact, all of humankind’s cultural creations over the centuries have been motivated by the desire to overcome this ontological schism between the finite and the infinite. We follow religions that assure us that once the body dies, the soul will survive forever. We produce children, hoping that they will carry on the family name, and that after they die their children will do the same, and so on, and so on. And even if we don’t reproduce, we make art, write books, build businesses or fight wars that we hope will keep our memories alive when we are physically gone. All of this, according to Becker, is part of the human desire to be heroic, to elevate ourselves above the average, forgettable masses. It is an indication, he tells us that “…we are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves” (p. 2). In the grips of this self absorption, we just cannot accept that there will be a time when we are dead and gone, and so we strive to leave a trace proving that we were here. Society is the vehicle that we have developed in order to facilitate this ongoing human craving for immortality. It is a symbolic system that attempts to deny our finitude in order to give birth to things of lasting value. “The hope and belief is that the things man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his product count” (p. 5).
But all of this is a denial of fundamental reality, according to Becker. Humans, in hoping for symbolic immortality, do not have the courage to accept the truth that all things fade and disappear in time; including ourselves. And so we both fear life and we fear death. We fear life because we don’t have the courage to affirm our here-and-now existence as worthwhile in its own rite; and we fear death because it erases everything. These twin fears drive us into the grips of neurosis, the natural, everyday condition of human animals. We are forced, in varying degrees, to reject reality and to build a creative world out of lies that allow us to forget the horrifying meaninglessness of our existence. We seek to insulate ourselves from the absurdity of reality by telling false stories about the ultimate significance of it all. And so we follow leaders who are good at convincing us of their lies. We fall in love with other people, idealizing them as objects of romantic obsession or of sexual distraction. If we have special, creative talent, we make art, write books, produce films or plays. All of these, according to Becker, are considered by society to be “healthy” ways of dealing with the terror of existence, but ultimately they fall on a continuum with other, less “healthy” coping mechanisms, including depression, schizophrenia, drug and alcohol abuse, and sexual perversion. “…there is no line between normal and neurotic” (p. 178), he tell us, just more or less functional ways of getting along in a world with other people. “Generally speaking, we call neurotic any life style that begins to constrict too much, that prevents free forward momentum, new choices, and growth that a person may want and need” (p. 179). Nevertheless, quoting Rank, Becker insists that “to be able to live, one needs illusions” (p. 188).
And so we are stuck with our lies. The best we can do is to “burn brightly” and try to get along with other people, allowing them to burn as brightly as they can while living their own lies. But Becker warns us that we should not completely lose touch with the underlying horror of reality. In order to respect and value our illusions, we need to understand their power, and in order to do this we must remember what life would be like without them. We must embrace our illusions heroically and courageously precisely because they save us from succumbing to, and being engulfed by, an awful, cruel and meaningless world; a world that Becker sums up like this:
What are we to make of a creation in which routine activity is for organisms to be tearing others apart with teeth of all types – biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue. Everyone reaching out to incorporate others who are edible to him. The mosquitoes bloating themselves on blood, the maggots, the killer bees attacking with a fury and a demonism, sharks continuing to tear and swallow while their own innards are being torn out – not to mention the daily dismemberment and slaughter in ‘natural’ accidents of all types: an earthquake buries 70 thousand bodies in Peru, automobiles make a pyramid heap of over 50 thousand a year in the US alone, a tidal wave washes over a quarter of a million in the Indian Ocean. Creation is a nightmare spectacular taking place on a planet that has been soaked for hundreds of millions of years in the blood of all its creatures (pp. 282 – 283).
His is a pretty bleak description. It’s no wonder that Becker is an advocate for neurotic withdraw into creative illusion.
From my first reading, when I was in my 20’s, I was moved by the bold, unflinching gloominess of The Denial of Death. Upon a third reading, now that I’m in my 50’s, I’m no less moved. Part of the lasting poignancy of this book is due to the fact that Ernest Becker was posthumously awarded the Pulitzer Prize just two months after he died of colon cancer at age 49. I suppose his experience with this disease may have contributed to his focus on anality, shit, and excrement throughout the book. At one point he asserts that “the anus and its incomprehensible, repulsive product represents not only physical determinism and boundness, but the fate as well of all that is physical: decay and death” (p. 31). At another point he proclaims that we are “gods with anuses” (p. 51). And later, he warns, “the turd is mankind’s real threat” (p. 227). As cancer ate him from the inside out, it is no wonder that he was powerfully struck by the incongruity between his loftiest thoughts and the filth percolating inside his gut.
Becker’s own immortality project, neatly and cleanly packaged in book form, has been a relative success, as there are people like me, now older than Becker was when he died, who still think about him and his ideas. There is even an Ernest Becker Foundation, dedicated to raising awareness of how the fear of death affects us all. In the end, of course, none of us can escape our own mortality, and so sooner or later we’ll be gone as well. I’m reminded of Yukio Mishima’s final note, left on his desk before committing seppuku: “Human life is finite, but I would like to live forever.”
First published in 1961, Yukio Mishima’s novel The Frolic of the Beasts (Translated by Andrew Clare. New York: Vintage Books. November 2018) was only recently translated into English in 2018. It is a short work, reminding me of Mishima’s more well-crafted novel The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, which was first published in 1963 and then translated into English two years afterwards. Both stories deal with themes of aberrant love, moral transgression, murder and nihilism, but whereas The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea exhibits an elegant and graceful style, The Frolic of the Beasts is rather clunky and jagged in form. Since I don’t read Japanese, I’m not sure how much of this has to do with the original text and how much is related to the English translation.
The story begins with a prologue describing a photograph of three smiling figures – Yuko, Ippei and Koji – whose apparent happiness, we are told, conflicts with a “wretched incident” that will take place only a few days later. The photo was snapped at the harbor of a fishing village where the three characters live. Yuko and Ippei are married and own five greenhouse gardens near the village where they grow plants and produce for sale. Koji works for them; but there seems to be something secret and unspeakably intimate about the relationship he shares with his employers. This intimacy is confirmed by the photograph and then, at the close of the prologue, with the description of three grave markers that have been erected, against the wishes of villagers, in the local cemetery. Ippei’s grave lies on the right, Koji’s grave is on the left, and Yuko’s grave sits between them as a “reserved monument.” Ippei and Koji, it appears, have died, while Yuko is still alive, but anticipating death; and there is some sort of outrage involving the three that has scandalized the village residents.
The story unfolds through flashbacks and flash-forwards as the hidden secret alluded to in the prologue is slowly revealed. In Chapter 1, Koji is released from prison and returns to the fishing village of Iro where he is met by Yuko at the port upon his arrival. On the boat ride to Iro, Koji repeatedly thinks to himself “I have repented,” but when he meets Yuko, her first words to him are, “You haven’t changed.” She repeats this phrase as the two of them stop for lunch. “You haven’t changed one little bit,” she says to Koji, and he thinks to himself, “They were frightening words” (p. 22). The reader starts to understand that Koji has committed some sort of crime that has disrupted not only his own life, but the course of Yuko’s life as well. Koji longs for an assurance that he is different than he was before his incarceration – that he is reformed – but Yuko sees in him the same person that was always there: someone capable of violence. And yet, she is not afraid or repulsed by him. Rather, she seems protective of, and in fact attracted to, this young man. Yuko has even insisted upon becoming Koji’s legal guardian upon his release.
The two of them walk through the village, and while Koji starts to feel a sense of shame, Yuko commands him to hold his head high as they pass by the villagers who know about his crime. Eventually, they arrive at Yuko’s house where a fearful Koji is greeted by Ippei.
Ippei was a German literature scholar who once worked as a lecturer before inheriting his parents’ ceramics shop in Ginza. Koji was one of his students, hired to work in the shop. Upon becoming his employee, Koji discovered that Ippei, who is married to Yuko, was involved in a number of extra-marital affairs; something that his wife knew about but tolerated. In Koji’s eyes, “Ippei had everything.” In addition to having a beautiful wife and girlfriends, he was educated, intelligent, wore expensive Italian suits and went to exclusive hair salons. On the other hand, Ippei admired Koji for his youth; in particular his “ability to fight and express anger.” “Old age is all that awaits you. There is nothing other than that,” (p. 29) he told Koji, seemingly encouraging his young employee to grab hold of life while he could. Indeed this is what Koji did, falling in love with Yoku and beginning a secret affair with her.
While out with Yoku one day, Koji discovered a heavy, black wrench laying on the ground. Not really understanding why, he picked it up and put it in his jacket pocket. Reflecting upon this later while imprisoned, he interprets the incident as having some sort of metaphysical importance. Koji concludes that it was not he who actually decided to pick up the wrench, but rather that the wrench itself was a manifestation of some primal “will” that had become concrete and which sought to throw the order of reality into chaos. This section of Chapter 2 immediately brought the ideas of Schopenhauer to mind. Schopenhauer, of course, considered all things in the world to be manifestations of an underlying, unitary will, but this cosmic will was neither benevolent nor moral. Rather, it was energetic, violent and cruel. It would make sense that Koji, a student of German literature, would be familiar with these ideas and thus come, in retrospect, to understand the black wrench as the embodiment of a force that seeks to disrupt his world.
And this wrench does indeed change the course of things. When Yoku and Koji walk in on Ippei and his lover Machiko engaged in a romantic rendezvous, Yoku becomes upset and Ippei strikes her across the face. Koji’s inner feelings are confused as he observes all of this. “…he wasn’t sure whom he hated” (p. 49). He longs for this confrontation to lead to some sort of epiphany, a pulling away of the veil that will lead to the revelation of the raw perversity of human nature, but instead all he sees is “nothing other than things he had grown utterly tired of seeing: the mediocre concealment of human shame, the irony of keeping up appearances” (p. 47). This disappoints him. The concrete discovery of her husband’s infidelity, which Yoku knew about all along, is not greeted by her with the “delight” of one who has finally revealed a long suspected truth; instead she reacts in the stereotypical way that a spurned wife is expected to act. At this, Koji recoils instinctively and finds himself compelled to correct things by taking an action that will impart lasting and profound significance to this moment. He reaches into his pocket, grabs the wrench and strikes Ippei repeatedly in the head.
In Chapter 3 we learn about the aftermath of the attack on Ippei. The blows he delivered caused severe brain damage, reducing Ippei to a passive and persistently grinning idiot who needs to be cared for by his wife. This is the crime for which Koji was incarcerated, and though he tells himself that he has “repented,” he nevertheless also feels as if this act of violence was a necessary corrective to the ugly, stupid and senseless reality that would otherwise have been the destiny of these three people:
At the time, I could no longer endure that putrid world; a world bereft of logic. It was necessary that I impart some logic into that world of pig’s entrails. And so you see, I imparted the cold, hard, black logic of iron. Namely, the logic of the wrench. (p. 51).
The “logic of the wrench” defies the nihilistic meaninglessness of reality. It is an attempt willfully to alter the course of nature so that these three characters will no longer be doomed to the mediocrity of conventional, forgettable lives. While they may be demonized, pitied and reviled by others, “the logic of the wrench” assures that they will not be easily forgotten as boring, faceless, run-of-the-mill drones that are merely part of the herd.
Following his incarceration, Koji settles into life with Ippei and Yoku, working in their greenhouses alongside Teijiro, one of the couple’s other employees. One day, he accompanies Yuko and Ippei on a hike to a waterfall in order to make an offering at a sacred shrine. Koji thinks about how happy he is in this peaceful setting, but the hike is rather strenuous, Ippei becomes tired, and Yoku, upon their arrival at the shrine, begins to speak and act disrespectfully and sacrilegiously. She complains that the shrine itself is “dull” and “small,” and then starts to taunt her husband by asking him if he even understands the concept of sacrifice. Ippei seems confused, but Yuko persists, trying to get him to pronounce the word “sacrifice.” When he is unable to do so, she asks him if he understands what a “kiss” is and then grabs Koji, embracing him passionately as her husband watches. This enrages Koji, who slaps Yoku across the face and then turns to face Ippei, who stands passive and silent, that ever present grin fixed to his face. It is a look that terrifies Koji, and in order to escape this fear, he once again embraces Yoku.
Chapter 4 begins with Koji drinking alone one night in the only bar in Iro. It is here that he meets up with two young men – Matsukichi and Kioyshi – and the beautiful daughter of his co-worker Teijiro; a young woman named Kimi. Kimi is on vacation from her factory job, but oddly she does not stay with her father, nor does she spend any time with him. In the past, after the death of her mother, she had seemed to be quite happy living together with her father, but then, quite suddenly Kimi left home, and it became apparent that there had been some sort of falling out.
Koji sits with his three friends in the bar, becoming more and more drunk. Finally, the three young men leave with Kimi and take a row boat out to a small island where they go swimming and then dry off by a campfire. Matsukichi and Kioyshi steal Kimi’s ukulele, which they see as a symbol of her love, and row away, leaving Koji and Kimi stranded on the island together. At the campfire, Kimi tells Koji that she knows he really loves Yuko, but that “just for this one night she was prepared to make a sacrifice and act as a stand-in” (p. 99). But as they have sex, Koji thinks to himself how the experience is “nothing but a poor imitation,” not of Yuko, but of the idealized sexual images that he had conjured up in his imagination while in prison. Here we find yet another indication of the nihilistic theme at the center of the story.
The nihilist considers all existent things to be substandard and flawed when compared to the superlative ideals that human beings are capable of imagining. On earth, there is no such thing as perfect Truth or Justice or Beauty, and so reality as it exists is always defective, ugly and deficient. The only perfections that exist are idealizations, and, disappointingly, the ideal is always incapable of becoming real. Thus, Kimi’s actual beauty is a “poor imitation” of real Beauty, and at the end of the chapter Koji reflects on how the sandals she has left on the island will eventually decay, being “transformed into a dwelling place for an infestation of sea lice,” finally melting “into the great multitude of unearthly, formless material phenomena that exist on earth” (p. 101). Reality is a raw, unformed, ugly, meaningless mass of matter. As Jean-Paul Sartre would say, the world of physical existence is an existence that is “in-itself.” It is a vast absurdity that means nothing at all until human beings exert their willful interpretational efforts to make something out of the nothing; just as Koji did with his wrench. But even those human interpretations are ephemeral, doomed to decay and to die along with the people who formulated them. Nature is ugly and meaningless, and the best thing that a human can do in life is to commit crimes against nature in defiance of its absurdity.
The ugliness of reality is further unveiled in Chapter 5. Before Kimi leaves to go back to her factory job, her father, Teijiro, proudly confesses to Koji that shortly after the death of his wife, he raped Kimi, his own daughter, and this is why she hates him. Teijiro produces a photograph that he bought in Tokyo of a young school girl and a young school boy having sex. Smiling, he says to Koji, “What do you think? It looks a bit like her, doesn’t it?” (p. 108). Teijiro – like Ippei and Koji – is a criminal. In confessing his own crime, he expects Koji, who has also slept with Kimi, to participate in his perverted sexual titillation. It is an attempt to share a bond of corruption with Koji in whom he recognizes a kindred, aberrant spirit. But Koji is still resistant. He is still convinced that he has “repented.”
When Kimi stops to say goodbye, Yoku is present, and Koji senses that she is jealous. But, as it turns out, she is not at all jealous of the sexual affair that he has had with Kimi. She is jealous of Koji’s crime:
Yuko’s jealousy was directed not at Kimi, who was of no importance. It was directed, she said, at Koji’s crime.
The anguish she felt at not having a crime to her name like the one he committed had grown in intensity. Ever since the picnic that day at the waterfall, this thought had rooted itself blackly in her mind – she wanted to compete with Koji’s crime, to somehow be able to own a crime like his in order to at least stand beside him. (p. 119)
Yoku is the only one who possesses no crime of her own, and because of this, she feels lacking and weak. She is the only one in her household who has not willfully challenged the conventional course of life, but rather has simply allowed herself to be swept along by the actions of others. In order to correct this, she must commit a willful transgression against morality.
The story comes to a crescendo when, on a walk with Ippei, Koji confronts his former teacher and accuses him of being a “hollow cavern,” and an “empty hole” (p. 140) around which the entire household revolves. This former scholar has lost all inner thought. He is a perpetually grinning nothing that everyone else must cater to. He has become a being-in-itself, a dumb, ugly force of nature, propelled by inertia and necessity rather than by willful desire. Like a black hole, he sucks everyone around him into his orbit, in the process also sucking the energy out of their lives. However, as Ippei becomes increasingly agitated, it becomes apparent that there is some sort of willful, inner consciousness still alive within him. “What is it you want?” Koji asks, and finally Ippei responds, “Death. I want to die” (p. 144).
The book ends with a first-person epilogue in which a researcher recounts his visit to the town of Iro and his meeting with a priest who recounts his memories of Yuko, Ippei and Koji. The priest recalls how at dawn on a particular day, Yuko and Koji appeared at his temple, hand-in-hand, looking like a bride and groom. They confessed to him that they had strangled Ippei to death. The priest shows the researcher the photograph described in the book’s prologue, and explains that Koji had given it to him the day before the murder. This was used as evidence of premeditation in his court trial, and so Koji was sentenced to death, while Yuko was sentenced to be imprisoned for life. While in prison, Yuko and Koji requested that the priest arrange for three graves to be established in which Yuko would be buried between Ippei and Koji. The priest gives the researcher a photograph of the grave markers, and he in turn visits Yoku in prison, passing the photo along to her. She now can be assured that she has committed a crime that justifies her lying alongside her husband and her lover for eternity.
The Frolic of the Beasts echoes themes that are found in many of Yukio Mishima’s major works, like The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, and the Sea of Fertility. Like these other books, it is a nihilistic tragedy in which the main characters struggle, suffer and ultimately die in the vain attempt to impose their ideals onto a meaningless and resistant world. Their actions take the form of crimes against conventional morality precisely because it is conventional morality that serves to keep individuals tied to an everyday, normal and unexceptional way of life. In order actively to break free from passive mediocrity, the characters in Mishima’s stories find that they must challenge the world as it has been given. The given world – the world in-itself – is an ugly, meaningless nothing that absorbs and dissipates all human effort. It is like the ocean, which provides a dark and threatening backdrop to The Frolic of the Beasts (as well as to The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea). The ocean serves as a symbol of Being itself; a dark, formless and flowing reality giving rise to, and then reabsorbing, all worldly phenomena. Like waves that erupt on the surface of the sea and then melt back into the depths, individual human lives erupt forth from Being, struggle for a short time to make something of their short existence, and then are inexorably vanquished back into the formless void.
In Mishima’s stories, just as in his own life, individual perversion, crime and depravity become acts of defiance against a meaningless world. Though human existence is impermanent, at least crimes against nature can potentially leave a lasting scar on the face of Being.
That’s Not Funny: The Humor of Diogenes
College of Marin
The term “cynic,” as it is commonly used today, tends to be associated with negative evaluations. To call someone “cynical” is to suggest that a person sees the worst in others, distrusts the motivations of others, and has a generally dark and critical perspective on the world and people in it. Today, a cynic is rarely thought of as an affirmative, happy or joyful individual; and if the cynical attitude is associated at all with humor, it is with a cruel, spiteful and mean-spirited sort of humor that holds others in contempt. This obscures the historical fact that the origins of the “cynical” perspective are actually found in a philosophy having more to do with the affirmation of life than with dismissive and negative criticism of others. This philosophy began with the ancient Greek figure Diogenes of Sinope (c.412 – c.323 BC), a man who was exiled from his homeland and who spent the rest of his days in Athens, living a barrel while using humorous means to educate others concerning the nature of a good life.
Diogenes’ use of humor remains an innovation that, while frequently highlighted and noted by scholars, has rarely been explored systematically and in depth. In this paper I shall offer a methodical analysis of the role humor plays in the philosophy of Diogenes. I shall argue that the cynicism authored by Diogenes is a philosophy premised on a number of doctrines – none of which are essentially negative in character – and that among these doctrines humor holds the central place. The cynical humor of Diogenes, I shall claim, is more than just a feature of his personality or a method through which he communicates his real message. It is, in fact, the foundation of the philosophy of cynicism itself.
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.
I just learned that Anitia Silvers, one of my professors at SF State, passed away. Dr. Silvers sat on my MA thesis committee in the early 1990’s and was the instructor for “Postmodernism and Valuing,” one of the most memorable seminars I took as a graduate student at SFSU.
In later years, I would regularly see her at philosophy conferences. One on my fondest memories of Anita is from 2005 when I was attending an APA Conference in Portland, OR. I was walking down the street, looking for Powell’s Bookstore, and she came whizzing up to me out of the blue in her electric wheelchair. “Hi John! Are you lost?” she asked. When I told her that I was trying to find Powell’s, she said, “Follow me!” and zipped down the sidewalk, with me running full-speed behind her, leading me to my destination.
Here’s her obituary, from the Philosophy Department at SFSU:
Professor Anita Silvers died on the morning of March 14, 2019, of complications of pneumonia. Silvers was an institution in professional philosophy. She was Professor and former Chair of the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University and a nationally recognized advocate for disability rights. Disabled by polio as a child, Silvers was a leading advocate for equality for persons with disabilities. On the faculty at SF State since 1967, Silvers worked to make access and disability services available on California college campuses. In 1980, she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve on the National Council for the Humanities, the governing board of the National Endowment for the Humanities. She served for 26 years as Secretary-Treasurer of the American Philosophical Association (Pacific Division). Silvers received the inaugural California Faculty Association Human Rights Award in 1989 and served as a Senior Fulbright Scholar in New Zealand in 2005. In 2009 she was awarded the Quinn Prize for service to the profession by the APA, in 2013 the Lebowitz Prize for Philosophical Achievement and Contribution by Phi Beta Kappa and the APA, and in 2017 she received the Wang Family Excellence Award for extraordinary achievements in the California State University system. Silvers’s groundbreaking scholarship helped to establish disability rights as an important subfield of philosophy; she is regarded as an authority on medical ethics, bioethics, disability theory, social philosophy, aesthetics, and feminism. As a teacher and mentor she changed the lives of countless students, scholars, and activists. She will be deeply missed by her students, colleagues, and the many people she inspired.
A memorial will be announced at a later date.