…Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
(Yeats: The second coming)
In the book Le courage de la verité, a transcript of the course Le gouvernement de soi et des autres, delivered at the College de France in 1984, Michel Foucault speaks of Diogene and the other ancient philosophers who are currently known as cynicist, and he links their thought to the practice of telling the truth (parresia). In our modern times the word cynicism has acquired a totally different meaning, almost an opposite one: a cynical person, in our times, is someone who is routinely lying to everybody, especially to him/herself. The intimate lie, the contradiction between act of language and belief is the core of modern cynicism. Nevertheless there is a sort of consistency of the ancient idea of cynicism – extreme truthfulness, individualism, ascetic behavior and disdain of power – and the modern – lip service, moral unreliability, conformist subjection to the powerful. The consistency lies exactly in the suspension of the relation between language and reality, in the consciousness of the ambiguous nature of language, particularly in the ethical sphere. Therefore cynicism has much to do with irony. Cynicism and irony are two rhetorical forms and two ethical stances who are based on the suspension of the relation between reality and language.
Some German philosophers like Tillich and Sloterdijk, writing on this subject, use two different words in order to define ancient cynicism (subject of Foucault’s lectures) and modern cynicism: Kynismus and Zynismus.
In order to understand what modern Zynismus is, you have to think to the Kubrik’s movie Eyes wide shut, an artistic gravestone on the modern illusion of progressive Enlightenment. Bill and Alice, the happily married couple (Fridolin and Albertine in the Schnitzler’s novel Traumnovelle, published in 1926, that inspired the Kubrik’s screenplay), are expression of the consciousness that truth cannot be said because the social game is based on the power of lies, and because nobody will listen to you if you don’t accept the language of deceit.
That is the point of arrival of the Kubrik’s overview of the XXth century. The starting point was Dax, the upright colonel personified by Kirk Douglas who fights against the cowardice of military power in Paths of Glory (1957). Dax believes in ethical right and has the strength and the courage of opposing evil, because he thinks that evil can be stopped, and defeated.
Bill Harford, personified by Tom Cruise in Eyes wide shut (1999) still is able to recognize misdeeds and to distinguish right and wrong, but he knows that nothing can be done in order to stop and defeat evil. If he wants to survive, he must bend to evil, despite moral unhappiness.
At the end of the century that trusted in the future, Zynismus seems to be the only one accepted language, the only one cool behavior. The word “cool” is a keyword in contemporary cynicism, because the linkage of cool and cynical is suggesting the idea that the only alternative to cynicism is passion, as did Glucksmann in his Cynisme et passion, (1981). That’s wrong. The real alternative to cynicism is not passion, but irony.
In Critique of Cynical reason, published in 1983, Peter Sloterdik argues that cynicism is the prevailing mindset of the post-68 era. Sloterdijk does not portray the cynic as an exceptional social character, but as an average state of mind.
“It violates normal usage to describe cynicism as a universal and diffuse phenomenon; as it is commonly conceived, cynicism is not diffuse but striking, not universal but peripheral and highly individual.” (pag. 4)
This is the most important difference between Kynismus and Zynismus: while Diogene and his fellows Kynicists were ascetic individualists rejecting the acquiescence to the law of the powerful, the modern Zynicists are the conformist majority of our time, well knowing that the law of the powerful is bad, but bending to it, because nothing else can be done. Unlike the ancient Cynism, modern Zynismus is not a disrupting factor, but the internalization of the impotence of truth.
“this is the essential point in modern cynicism, the ability of its bearers to work, in spite of anything that might happen, and especially, after anything that might happen… cynics are no dumb, and every now and then they certainly se the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic (seelish) 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.”
(Sloterdijk: Critique of cynical Reason, Minnesota Press 2008, pag. 5).
Contemporary mass cynicism can be linked with two different roots: one is the failure of the utopian ideologies of the past century. The second, more powerful, is the perception of irreversibility and incontrovertibility of the exploitation of labor, competition, and war. Contemporary mass cynicism is a consequence of the dissolution of social solidarity. Neoliberal deregulation, particularly globalization and precarization of the labor market, have imposed competition as the general inescapable mode of relationship among social actors. Workers, once upon a time united by a link of social solidarity and common political hope, are now obliged to think in cynical terms: survival of the fittest.
In the ’68 movement different cultures and different political expectations lived together.
Those who dreamed of the historic Aufhebung were expecting the instauration of a proletarian dictatorship, and were prepared to seize power in their hands. They thought, in a quite Hegelian way, that Reason is going to be accomplished at last, and the good guys are destined to win. So they stayed with the proletarians because they wanted to be on the winning side of history.
When, at the end of the ’68 decade, the wind turned and worker’s movement was defeated, and the Neoliberal ideology opened the way to a new wave of capitalist aggressiveness, those who wanted to stay on the winning side of history opted to stay with the winners, because all Real is Rational at the end, and because in their Dialectical scheme, who wins is right, and who is right is destined to win.
But the majority of the rebels of ’68 were not orthodox m-l dialecticians, and did not expect any Aufhebung in their future. We did not believe in the end of the historical complexity, and the final establishment of the perfect form of communism. All this sounded fake to the students and young workers who were seeking autonomy in the present, not communism in the future.
The today’s neoliberal conformists are the perverted heirs of ’68. Those who have come to power after ’89, in Russia, in the US, in Europe, are not free from the ideology as they pretend. Their ideology is a sort of dogmatic faith in the unquestionability of the Economy. The Economy has taken the place of the Hegelian all encompassing Dialectical Reason.
They tend to bend to the potency that appears to be the most strong, they tend to accept the (economic) Necessity (Notwendigkheit). Problem is that nobody knows what the strongest trend will be in the complicated becoming of the future events. This is why cynicism is weak (notwithstanding its apparent unwinnable strength): because one never knows, and because the irreducible singularity of the events cannot be predicted, or reduced to logical necessity.
Irony and Zynismus
In many points of his book Sloterdijk identifies, or at least assimilates, cynicism and irony, and he is not alone in doing this.
“From the very bottom, from the declassed urban intelligentsia, and from the very top, from the summits of statesmanly consciousness, signals penetrate serious thinking, signals that provide evidence of a radical, ironic treatment (Ironizierung) of ethics and of social conventions, as if universal laws existed only for the stupid, while the fatally clever smile plays on the lips of those in the know.” (Sloterdijk, pag. 4).
Of course ironic language, like sarcasm, aggressive form of irony, can be an expression of cynicism. But irony and cynicism should not be assimilated. Irony can be a linguistic tool for cynical behavior: both irony and cynicism imply a dissociation of language and behavior from consciousness: what you say is not what you think. But this dissociation takes a different turn in irony and cynicism.
In his book Irony Vladimir Jankelevitch defines cynicism with the following words:
“cynicism is often deceived moralism, and an estreme form of irony…
Cynicism is only a hectic form of irony that gets pleasure in shocking the philistines.
Cynicism is the philosophie of exageration (surenchère): irony after Socrate tends to be exaggeration of moral radicalism…” (Jankelevitch: L’ironie, Flammarion, Paris, 1964, pag. 15-16, the translation is mine).
Cynicism is deceived moralism, a judgment of behavior which is dependent on a fixed system of (moral) values. Diamat, the dialectical philosophy of the past century implied a form of moralism. Whatever is going in the direction of history (progress, socialism and so on) is good, whatever is opposing the historic tendency is bad. Post-68 cynicism, therefore, is the effect of a painful awakening. As the truth has not been fulfilled, we’ll marry the untruth.
Here irony and cynicism differ.
The ironic discourse never presupposes the existence of a truth which has to be fulfilled and realized.
Irony is presupposing the infinity of the process of interpretation, while cynicism presupposes a (lost) faith. The cynical person has lost his faith, while the ironic person did never have a faith.
In the Jankelevitc’ words:
“irony is never disenchanted for the good reason that irony has refused to be enchanted.” (Jankelevitch, pag. 32).
The common starting point of irony and cynicism is here: both the cynical and the ironist are suspending the belief in the moral content of truth (also: in the true content of morality). They know that True and Good do not exist in God’s mind, or in History, and they know that human behavior is not based on the respect of any law.
In Presentation de Sacher Masoch: Le froid et le cruel. Deleuze writes something about irony and the law: “we call irony the movement that consists in going beyond the law, towards an higher principle.”
Irony and cynicism do not believe in the true foundation of law. But the cynical person bends to the law, while mocking its values as pretentious and false, while the ironic person is escaping law, and creating a linguistic space where law has no effectiveness. The cynical person is someone who wants to be on the side of power whilst he does not believe in its righteousness. The ironist is simply refusing the game, and recreating the world on the foundations of a language that differs from reality.
Mass cynicism (Zynismus) is aggression (suffered aggression, and acted aggression), irony is based on sympathy. While the cynical behavior involves a lie in the relation with his/hers interlocutors, irony involves a shared suspension of reality. When you are ironic in a social context, you suppose that your interlocutors share the same linguistic implications, the same presuppositions. This is why irony cannot be assimilated with lie.
“Lie is a state of war, and irony is a state of peace. The liar is not in agreement with the cheated. The gullible consciousness is late in relation with the lying consciousness, which is trying to maintain its advantage. Irony, instead, is crediting the interlocutor of sagacity and treats him/her as a true partner of true dialogue. Irony incites intellection, and is calling a fraternal echo of understanding.” (Jankelevitch, 63-4)
The Italian dictatorship of meaninglessness
In the ‘70s, reading Deleuze and Guattari, the consciousness of the autonomous movement discovered that reality has no meaning: the meaning of reality has to be created by the movement itself. So the autonomous movement got free from the idea that the ethical horizon is marked by the historical necessity, and opened its mind to the ironic mood, that means singularization of ethical responsibility and political choice. In this (post-dialectical) space of moral indetermination both language enunciation, and political action are devoid of any ontological foundation.
Will of power and research of the good, that were linked in the framework of the historical ideology are now diverging. Here the fork of irony and cynicism opens.
Irony suspends the semantic value of the signifier and chooses freely among thousand possible interpretations. The ironic interpretation implies and presupposes a common ground of understanding among the interlocutors, a sympathy among those who are involved in the ironic act, and a common autonomy from the dictatorship of the Signified.
Cynicism starts from the same suspension, but is a slavish modulation of irony, is irony at the service of power. While irony does not postulate the existence of any reality, cynicism postulates the inescapable reality of power, particularly the power of Economy.
Irony is opening the game of infinite possibilities, cynicism is dissociation of ethics and possibility. The cynical mood starts from the idea that the ethical action has not possibility to succeed.
The ironist sleeps happily because nothing can awake her from hers dreams. The cynicist has light sleep, he sleeps, he dreams, but he gets up as soon as power calls at him.
The relation between irony and cynicism has been for me an interesting subject since the end of the ‘70s, when in Italy a cultural movement based on the mass practice of irony was sucked in, and obliterated by a massive wave of organized cynicism that finally led to the Berlusconi’s mediadictatorship.
We may describe the Italian transition from the ’70 to the ‘80s as a transition from irony to cynicism. I don’t want to say that the ‘70s have been an ironic decade in Italy, far from so. Unfortunately the political culture of Italian Catho-Communism was not ironic at all. But in a meaningful part of the Italian society in those years the ironic mood was the common ground of understanding. And the most important change in the Mediascape, the end of the state-owned monopoly of electric media, and the following spread of radio stations, marked a jump out from the hypocritical seriousness of the official Catho-Communist media-system into the ironic Mao-Dadaist style of the autonomous unofficial media which influenced the cultural mood and the social language in the second half of the decade.
But the movement of free radios which injected the rebellious ideas of the Autonomy into the language and the behavior of a large part of the first postmodern generation, preparing the ’77 final explosion, opened the door to the invasion of the Mediascape by advertising and commercial tv.
Publitalia and Mediaset, the Berlusconi’s creatures that became the main cultural enterprises of the ‘80s, mimicked the linguistic style of the radios, hired professionals coming from the ranks of the movement, and helped turning irony into cynicism. The intellectuals who conceived the style of the Berlusconi’s tvs and those who nourished the advertising imagination of the ‘80s came from the radical experiments of Radio Alice, A/traverso and similar new Dada media agencies. The transition from the free radios cultural mood and the commercial tv stations is a viewpoint for understanding the cultural shift which happened in Italy in the ‘80s, bringing the country towards the cultural and political catastrophe that is now totally deployed, whose consequences are hard to predict. This transition can be described as a transition from irony to cynicism.
Even if he is not known as a writer or an ideologist, the Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, one of the most remarkable examples of contemporary Zynismus in the world, wrote a preface to the Erasmo’s Praise of folly. Berlusconi’s Erasmo is used as an opening to the crazy universe of the merchandise. Together with Erasmo’s folly, Modern times start with the Baroque perception of a “locura”.
Only the affirmation of the arbitrariness of power can reign on the absence of theological foundations.
The cultural background of Italian post-democracy can be found in the passage from the catho-communist identity based on ideological compromise and the respect of political formal rules, to the mix of entrepreneurial pragmatism and aggressive lunacy that is the special feature of the Berlusconi’s new class.
The cult of an ambiguous freedom which is not freedom, but despise and manipulation of the other’s mind is the ideological mark of the Berlusconi’s political identity.
— Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi, August 2010