NOTES ON: Sloterdijk, P. (1984) ‘Cynicism: the twilight of false consciousness’ in New German Critique 33: 190-206.

Cynicism is the hallmark of modern culture.  It cannot be addressed by ideology critique.  It leads itself to naive ideologies, a ‘cunning multifaceted realism’ which makes ideology critique itself look naive.  It is general rather than individual, no longer confined to, say, the great cynics of the past.  It is déclassé, affecting both city dwellers and the upper classes, including statesman.  The extremes of social life meet in disregard for the laws obeyed only by the stupid.

Massified cynicism is new, and cynics are no longer anonymous—cynicism is the only realistic way to do things.  It is melancholic and depressive, but cynics are still able to function: indeed, constant self doubt has become the key to survival.  This is why cynicism becomes ‘enlightened false consciousness’ (192).  It is enlightened enough, but no longer vulnerable to a critique of ideology.  Cynicism is paradoxical but objective--we are without illusion but we’re also ‘dragged down by the “power of things”’ (193). 

How did the Enlightenment lead to this ‘modernization of false consciousness’?  The Enlightenment did have an effect on its heirs—for example, to be loyal to it is to be disloyal to the heroes of the past.  But modern cynicism is more than this, it is an all embracing rejection of new values, it means the end of hope, it produces ‘listless egoism’ and detached negativity.  The pressures to survive and to assert one’s self produce a necessary accommodation [looking a bit like the alienation of the intellectual argument]—‘to be intelligent and to perform one's work in spite of it, that is unhappy consciousness in its modernized form’ (194).  We have become ‘ill with Enlightenment’.

We adopt a privatized disposition and decline to be noticeable.  We are discreet, and this leads to the end of personal critique as well.  We maintain a mournful detachment rather than mounting critical attacks.  We can see the same trends in the Weimar Republic, which produced both fascism and us.  There is an essential issue around the connections between cynicism and fascism—fascism adds ‘military cynicism’ to the mix.  Fascism has been typically neglected by serious philosophy, as has cynicism, but both deny the ethics of high culture in favour of personal and social survival.

We can see Weimar as failed Enlightenment, overwhelmed by anti-intellectual forces, authoritarian ideologies, messianics and apocalyptics.  These tensions produced an irritable and arrogant reaction from academics at the time.  The defeat of Enlightenment was also due to the opponents refusing to be rational and to discuss their differences, part of a long tradition of denial of the validity of rational knowledge.  What makes Enlightenment values vulnerable is that they are universal and democratic, meaning they must enter into a relation with non rational ideas and cannot simply deny or repress them.  These values were validated and supported by the great achievements in the 18th and 19th centuries in science, but also supported 20th century perversions [Auschwitz] and have produced pessimism.

The Enlightenment must involve free consent and reason, the pursuit of the better argument and so on, and this shows it is actually based on an ‘original utopia, a beautiful and academic vision’ (198).  The loss of rational argument might be bearable as the ‘price of commonality’, an advantage for the ordinary consciousness, but it leads to hegemony, class interests, defensiveness, or repression and annihilation.  The only hope is for the Enlightenment to hold on, against the reality, hoping for a moment when philosophy will help life again, currently a laughable notion, but to be maintained as a ‘healing fiction’ after the ‘hells of realism’ (199).

The Enlightenment soon realized its difficulties, after some early astonishment at resistance.  It was soon opposed by hegemonic powers, tradition and common sense, all of which can be described as prejudices.  Obviously, there is no way to compel dialogue [we do insist on attendance at universities!].  We can perform ideology critique on these prejudices, but this is often done in the absence of any real contact with the enemy, who is rendered as a ‘case’.  The conflict takes the form of a ‘war of consciousness’, and the opponent is objectified. 

The Enlightenment is able to expose errors and bad faith, and errors can be personal or systematic.  Ideology is seen to operate behind the consciousness of the subject. These critical activities are really cruel and satirical, but are now abstracted from laughter and classical cynicism and have become serious, even respectable, as in the forms of Marxism or psychoanalysis.  Theory has replaced satire, a ‘bourgeoisification of satire’ (202).  Ideology critique is therefore no longer about winning over opponents but dissecting them.  It does force opponents to speak, but they can also avoid rationality and do counter-denunciations instead.  A critique can force confessions, but critics are wrong to see confessions of rational weakness as the same as announcing political or military weakness.  Ideology critique analyses rather than disarms.  It can take the form of a kind of one-upmanship, where rivals are denounced or incorporated.

Personal attacks are not welcomed in universities, which produces a general dislike of unmasking.  Outsiders do it instead in the form of a ‘holy non-seriousness, still one of the sure indices of truth’ (204).  Universities pursue unmasking in the name of hermeneutic, attempting to understand the opponent better than he does himself, or to show the ‘everlasting embarrassment of ideas in the face of underlying interests’ (204).  This can only be helpful if a dialogue ensues: too often, there are simple claims to be right, to be doing science rather than satire.  This scientific approach often leads to seeing opponents as psychopathological, denying and reifying reality.

The worst offender is Marxism,, stressing abstract social mechanisms rather than individuals and their weaknesses.  It analyses false consciousness, but tends towards that which is predictable, graspable and ‘correct’.  In this it is very close to cynicism, although it still believes in emancipation.

Generally, sociological relativism also leads to cynicism, for example with the argument that ‘correct  illusions’ are needed:  ordinary people are seen as naive and manipulable.  This has led to a ban on reflection, and an attack on intellectuals [describes the current relation between theorists and practitioners to a tee!]

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