A republic of ideas, or farts: Beautiful losers study cynicism, part II


Hi and welcome to episode 11. This week we continue our engagement with Peter Sloterdijk’s book The Critique of Cynical Reason.

We begin the discussion by thinking about cynicism as a comedic practice. What is the role of comedy in political discourse? For us, and for other listeners born in the 1980s, one of our formative political developments occurred through Jon Stewart’s run on The Daily Show and the media critique he provided, especially around the war on terror. Although our politics have grown beyond that particular commentary, the role of comedy as a means of engaging with power remains a fundamental tool in analyzing and understanding the operations of governmental power. 

The rise of new movements such as #metoo has introduced invaluable forms of social commentary, criticism, and change regarding the status of patriarchal power today. A question remains, though, about the role of comedy within the current political moment. Irreverent voices are actively removed from public discourse, but the jurisprudence appears uneven. It feels like the stakes have never been higher: public recordings of killings, mass demonstrations, the cancellation of media members. By any measure a new form of political consciousness is emerging. The tone has also never been more humorless. Sloterdijk’s subject—cynicism—never abandons its commitment to a formation of comedy as essential practice. He provides a lengthy study into one of the darkest periods of human history, the slow rise of racism in Weimar Germany. His critical distance as an author writing in the late 1970s allows him to balance both the tragic and the comedic. It remains unclear to us how to best balance these terms today.

We focus on the section “In Search of Lost Cheekiness,” where he develops his theory of the “kynic,” an actively passive formation of an irreverent comic, philosopher, or quasi-buddhist guru. This outsider figure resists the descent into philosophical resentment. Sloterdijk’s kynic reintroduces a form of comedy and humor into the overly-serious discourses and traditions of philosophy and political theory. This form of comedy is ambivalent and multi directional. It seeks to “punch upward,” and it refuses to act on behalf of any particular formation or political identity; in this sense one may frame it as the universal value across time of resisting power by laughing at it.

Sloterdijk’s central figure in this analysis is Diogenes, contemporary of Plato who famously farted in the Athenian marketplace. Diogenes is a different kind of philosopher. He was known as the “anti-Socrates,” an inversion that indelibly links him to the founder of Western thinking. Insofar as Socrates’ abstract theory of the ideal state has force, then so, too, Diogenes’ concrete emphasis on the body and its excretions wield a universal form of critique— another sort of force that no empire escapes. 

Kyncisim exists in contradistinction from idealism. It is, at its core, an anti-metaphysical form of humor that points to the materiality of the body to puncture the abstract idealisms that support oppressive and unjust forms of power. In this way, Sloterdijk reverses the relationship between the philosopher and the sophist. He implies that most inequitable power relationships are grounded in an invisible, idealistic abstraction. The cure, it seems, is to uphold the pragmatic force and reality of the world that we actually engage in—despite the fact that it smells, is broken, and often doesn’t live up to our expectations. We can access this version of reality through bawdy, lewd humor—moments of laughter bring us back to the experience of merely existing in community with other people. 

The criticism of idealism crystalizes when we consider the ways that the great works of political theory, like Plato’s Republic, end up in a place where a type of philosopher-king emerges as the ideal leader. The kynical analysis points out the set of interests and biases that undergird any idealistic system. President Trump presents the slogan, “Make American great again,” and then adds to it that “I am the only one who can fix this system.” Plato writes a careful analysis of metaphysics and politics and arrives at the “logical” conclusion that people like him are the ones that should be running things. In both instances, evocations of idealism are used to mask a very plain and ordinary set of interests and power relationships. The kynic’s commitment to focusing on the material and not on the idealistic allows her to see clearly how these interests operate. Plato says the human is a featherless bird, so Diogenes plucks a chicken and tosses it in the Academy only to say: there is Plato’s human. If there is a kynical commandment, it is to lay bear the interests and rationality of any argument in order to understand its material and pragmatic consequences.

Kynicism is also the answer to diffusing some of the most egregious and violent forms of political totalitarianism. Sloterdijk frames the kynic in a Von Clausawitz tradition: politics is a continuation of war by other means. The history of philosophy and politics is therefore a battleground to argue for the very foundations and legitimacy to act in a political economy. Into this scene steps the kynic, who seeks disengagement from the world of abstract argumentation in order to help people understand the various ways that the game is rigged from the start. The attempt here is an earnest one, for although it is dressed up in a cynical attitude, people have been arguing with each other for thousands of years and the world is defined by the very same problems and dynamics that were present in the time of Plato. The kynic humbly suggests that the very tradition of arguing, of sophistry itself, is endemic to the problems that philosophy and political theory seek to solve. By presenting kynical action as a form of passive engagement, Sloterdijk seeks to create different sort of intellectual tradition. This is not a whole cloth new tradition, the point of the book is that these traditions have co-existed, under the surface of our culture, for as long as people have been reading and engaging with texts like Plato’s Republic.

Sloterdijk, at the end of the text, argues with the idea of objectivity itself. He does so by presenting it as merely the subjectivity of the dominant power structure. As a result, he claims that the idea of objectivity is not the best way to critique power. Instead, he offers a kind of “wise passivity,” which he derives from a Buddhist tradition. He argues that this is how you can defuse the negativity of the enlightenment. This strikes us as both naive and also sneakily powerful. In the context of self-help culture, another formation that dominates public discourse, why can’t one develop a politics that expands the stoic-inspired self-help discourse into a macro politics? 

In an effort to practice our own form of kynicism, we end the episode by trying to bring to bear the very tools of kynical analysis to Sloterdijk’s potentially naive conception of politics. Our discussion then leads into a broader analysis of contemporary political and cultural discourses and communities, especially those framed as outsiders, like the “anti-woke left” or the “dirtbag left” and also, in the more conservative tradition, the “intellectual dark web.”