In order to do some justice to the breadth and depth of this work, we are offering two episodes dedicated to this text and its ideas. This first discussion focuses on its big picture themes and intellectual genealogy. Next week, we’ll dive into a more nuanced understanding of cynicism and its sister concept, kynicism.
This discussion begins with the intellectual tradition that Sloterdijk is writing within. How does a theory of cynicism engage with the long history of enlightenment thought? We offer a couple of ways to think about how this book speaks to some of its intellectual forbearers, namely Immanuel Kant and Theodore Adorno. Sloterdijk argues that even from the beginning, the enlightenment was a mixed bag of goods and bads. Yes, the scientific method ushered in a new world of commerce, creativity, and class mobility, but it also facilitated systems of alienation and exploitation through logics of quantification and statistical analysis.
Cynicism, defined as “enlightened false consciousness,” attends to the ways that this tradition of enlightenment-style thinking has failed. According to a Marxist tradition, ideology operates as a camera obscura that inverts our experience and perception of reality in ways that benefit the most powerful sectors of society. The primary “benefit” is the simple belief that the hierarchical structure of individuals and wealth is “natural.” The purpose of ideology critique is to shine a light on this distortion, offering the benighted (those occupied with “false consciousness”) an opportunity to understand the nature of their oppression and social reality, namely that it is merely the reification of an otherwise arbitrary distribution of capital. This moment of revelation, so the promise goes, is supposed to catalyze social revolution.
But what happens when we all understand that we are being duped, but all the same do nothing about it because we are convinced of our powerlessness? This is the figure and condition that Sloterdijk terms “enlightened false consciousness.” Sloterdijk suggests that this is the primary form of thinking and subjectivity today—that is, that we all know we are pawns in a game we cannot control, but have resigned ourselves to this depressing reality. The primary evidence for his position is fact that despite generations of ideological critique, political economy is still largely organized around systems of inequality. His goal is to figure out how to replace this form of cynicism with another, one that is more deeply rooted in the rebellious strain of cynicism found in the Greek figure Diogenes, who Sloterdijk calls a “kynic.”
Our initial discussion offers distinctions about different levels of cynicism and cynical reason. On the level of the individual, cynicism may provide a powerful tool of critique and an analysis of power; however, on the level of the institutional, cynicism may reify or justify staid power relationships and systems of injustice. How does a philosophical attitude like cynicism transform under different scales of social organization (from the individual to the institutional)?
We also point to ways that cynicism can help us understand some of the major discussions of our particular political moment. This conversation was recorded just as organizations began promoting police policy reforms like “8 Can’t Wait.” We take up these policy suggestions within the context of Sloterdijk’s cynicism in order to show how cynical reason can reveal blindspots in contemporary politics.