Towards Cynical Action

On the philosophical militancy of the Cynics, Michel Foucault writes:

This would be the idea of a militancy in the open, as it were, that is to say, a militancy addressed to absolutely everyone, which precisely does not require an education, but which resorts to harsh and drastic means, not so much in order to train people and teach them, as to shake them up and convert them, abruptly.  It is a militancy in the open in the sense that it claims to attack not just this or that vice or fault or opinion that this or that individual may have, but also the conventions, laws, and institutions which rest on the vices, faults, weaknesses, and opinions shared by humankind in general.  It is therefore a militancy which aspires to change the world, much more than a militancy which would seek merely to provide its followers with the means for achieving a happy life.  

-The Courage of Truth, p. 284-285


Much has been made of our post-modern ‘cynical’ malaise.  The term ‘cynical’ has always had a negative connotation.  “Don’t be so cynical,” we chime at our outspoken friends.  In our contemporary fetishization of positive thought, affirmations, and visualizations, we have no time or space for cynical talk.  And, yet, this is just it.  We are merely outspoken.  We merely talk.  The clear lesson of Diogenes of Sinope and the cynics was that talk is cheap.  While philosophers proselytized in the agora about detaching oneself from fleshly desires – I am nothing.  No, no, no, I am nothing.  No, no, no, you’re both wrong!  I am less nothing than ALL of you!  – Diogenes lay in the alley, curled up in a barrel with his dogs, scrounging for scraps with his lone possession, a beggar’s bowl.  And, yet, this self-imposed lifestyle was not simply a matter of self-effacement, self-denunciation, and self-denial.  It is said that, having drawn a crowd of hecklers jeering at him for ‘eating like a dog,’ Diogenes barked back at them, “Look at you all, I am no more of a dog than all of you.  After all, only dogs circle around another dog and his food.”  Thus, the cynical mode of life, as opposed to mode of speech, was such that it threw back the absurdities of ignorance, pettiness, and cowardice in the faces of those who would claim to judge the Cynic.  For the Cynic, there is no such thing as neutrality.  All citizens are implicated in the collective constipation of consensus culture and, most importantly, consensus politics.

What I gather from all of this is that we are not yet cynical.  Or, if we are cynical in our words, we are not cynical enough.  We complain amongst ourselves, mock and criticize authority figures, individual or ideal, to our heart’s content, but we continue to dutifully obey and behave in a thoroughly routine, customary manner.  This is most evident in our political participation, or lack thereof, where the mere mention of voting is considered a joke.  Hardly anyone takes voting seriously, and for good reason, but we have yet to construct new modes of collective behavior which might accomplish what voting was supposed to.

We have yet to enact our cynicism.  What we need is cynical action.  Cynical activism which might be analogous, if not identical, to Absurdist activism.  A kind of DaDa in action which reflects the absurdity, trickery, and deception of consensus politics back into its own center, forcing a response.  Imagine marching on Congress waving a handful of these:

What could be studied is a history of absurdist/cynical political activism.  Perhaps, through an ongoing reflection in experiment and experiment in reflection, we might be able to construct a new social formation, one characterized by playful seriousness and serious playfulness, one we can be proud of, because, as it stands, in the US today:

We have way too much time on our hands and way too little going on in between the ears. 

 And, very briefly, in these conditions we can say that not only has Cynicism pushed the theme of the true life to the extreme point of its reversal into the theme of the life which is scandalously other, but it has laid down this otherness of an other life, not simply as the choice of a different, happy, and sovereign life, but as the practice of a combativeness on the horizon of which is an other world. (287)



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