Thursday 13 January 2011

Cynicism and kynicism in political correctness


The politically correct are people who do not believe in absolute truth.

Yet they insist that everyone should believe what they are telling them today.

Or else if you do not believe whatever they tell you today, you are evil.

Yet the politically correct do not believe in evil.

What they do believe in is culture - culture is the bottom line 'reality'.

And culture is consensus.

Yet the politically correct believe in the liberation of individual desire: that is, they believe in the overthrow of consensus.

So the bottom line reality for political correctness is... a continually changing, compulsory consensus.


Is this to be what Richard Rorty described as a 'liberal ironist' - to live passionately by understandings one knows to be temporary and contingent?

Not really - political correctness is better characterized by Peter Sloterdijk's 'enlightened false consciousness' of the modern cynic.

Enlightened = realistic; false consciousness = self-serving illusion.

The combination is a clear eyed awareness of one's own self-manipulating fantasies; fantasies which one also believes absolutely.

To make reality and then to forget one has just made it, and then to remember, critique and re-make reality; and again to forget it - and so on and so forth...


Neither ironical nor detached; enlightened false consciousness is a severe, rational, anger-fuelled stance which aims to impose meaning and purpose onto life via the continual bureaucratic and authoritarian process of creating and moulding culture - undoing and reversing the inequalities and miseries of the past, and chasing always after the flickering fashions in upper class status.

Culture is arbitrary, yet it is reality; culture is managed, yet it is contingent; culture us everything and irresistible, yet it is nothing and as insignificant as the life of a mayfly.

This enlightened false consciousness collapses into careerism, which collapses into parasitism (life as a permanent holiday, travel, good living), which collapses into the secret-guilty cult of the openly instinctual and unashamed psychopath: the invincible gangster, the irresistible and expert sexual predator, the envied permanently-stoned junkie.

This opposite to the disaffected cynic is what Sloterdijk (in his Critique of Cynical Reason) terms the kynic.

The kynic has (merely) discarded consciousness; has solved the problem of being a modern human in a modern society by becoming an animal and preying upon society.


But in the cynic and the kynic, Sloterdijk has exhaustively described the possibilities for modern secular life - the bureaucrat who lives inside of culture OR the junkie who lives outside (and upon) culture.

Make your choice.


Except that the normal, mainstream, generally accepted thing is to alternate between these states.

Hence PC is remarkably tolerant of the kynic; because (to parody Solzhenitsyn):

...the line separating cynic and kynic passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either, but right through every human heart, and through all human hearts.

This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years.

Even within hearts overwhelmed by kynicism, one small bridgehead of cynicism is retained; and even in the most cynical of all hearts, there remains a small corner of kynicism.



James Kalb said...

Would the Nazi be another possibility for modern man? He would be a synthesis of the bureaucrat and the violent psychopath who prevents enlightened false consciousness from collapsing into careerism by emphasizing its anger-filled aspects.

We're told by various pundits that hate, demonization etc. play a fundamental role in today's politics. Why not accept that they know what they're talking about? The image of the Nazi must stand for something fundamental in they way things are now, since otherwise people wouldn't be so obsessed with it.

The Nazi lives neither inside nor outside culture but constructs it and makes it valid through will, violence, and a victory-or-death attitude. He gives an artificially-constructed supreme concept absolute this-worldly transcendence through limitless aggression against those it casts in an oppositional role. The intoxication of battle maintains his allegiance to the concept and its arbitrariness becomes a source of strength because it means its authority can't be attributed to any source but itself and its promise of victory.

In the case of actual historical Nazis of course the arbitrary supreme concept was the Aryan race. I seem to remember some table talk in which Hitler frankly admitted it was a construct to be given validity through will and dedication to victory. It could be anything though, even inclusive tolerance. In the latter case it would be bigots and fundies who are cast in the oppositional role.

Bruce Charlton said...

I tend to think of Nazi as merely on a spectrum of National(ist) Socialism - which is quite common nowadays.

For example, sixty miles from where I sit is a country where the devolved government is run by Nationalist Socialists - it is called Scotland.

The only thing which sets them apart from the Socialists of the Labour party is that they are based on an anti-English gut-feeling. Only time will tell how far this feeling would go.

Recall that Sri Lanka was once a peaceful nation until a power-seeking politician successfully mobilized and nurtured Sinhalese resentment of the more successful Tamils; the descent into civil war was remarkably swift.


But, to take your different definition of Nazi-ism - surely this is simply on the spectrum of secular modernity; one in which some instinctive feelings including scapegoating are emphasized as a basis of creating national cohesion?

Nazisim in Germany is not an example of a sustainable political ideology - it was in a continuous state of transition for its whole period.

Initially the Nazis were hailed by Europes premier philosopher (Heidegger) as an embodiment of Being - a tremendous spiritual re-birth, around the restoration of a peaceful, agrarian society (with either a resurgent Norse paganism - with the heroic virtues of courage and loyalty given primacy - or maybe even a more Austrian/ Bavarian 'Catholic' Christianity). There were many PC aspects such as anti-smoking, vegetarianism, 'health and efficiency' etc.

But within a few years this has mutated into aggressive secularism backed by state manipulation of emotions via the mass media/ civil administration and education; with massive industrialization and modern regimentation, and the antisemitism into extermination.


The interesting question is what would Nazi-sim have changed into had it survived and post the Holocaust?

Probably something much like the Brezhnev era Soviet Union - corrupt, inefficient, cynical - still very nasty, but much less aggressive.

PC is Nazi-like in many ways - especially its its mobilization of opposition and resentment - but PC attacks the heroic virtues and worships weakness rather than strength.

Western PC uses violence indirectly, by quietly withdrawing state protection from its ideological enemies (usually on literalistic legalistic grounds or some other procedural constraint); and relying on feral elements to do the dirty work of violence (once they have been pointed in the right direction and given a sense of righteousness).

I'll probably respond again to this - because it is an important question.

Bruce Charlton said...
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Bruce Charlton said...
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Bruce Charlton said...

(Blogger posted my previous comment in triplicate!)

According to the Sloterdijk idea, I suppose current societies are cynical (bureaucratic) with a counter-current of (instinctual) kynicism; whereas Nazi-ism could be seen as having the balance tilted further towards kynicism.

But it is hard to keep these forces in balance, and society is always going one way or the other.

And there are soceital differences. The German national character (presumably a combination of genetics and socialization) was very much towards the bureaucratic-cynical side - and to strengthen the the kynical required deliberate and systematic cultivation (as dramatized in Doktor Faustus by Thomas Mann - where the hero deliberately infects himself with syphylis in order to get the psychotic energy he needed to be creative - this was intended as an allegory of what Germany had done).

The Nazi military then retained their traditional Prussian discipline, yet performed savage atrocities in a deliberate and systematic fashion.

Nazi-ism would have quite different characteristics if its principles were implemented in a different country - and would be much more prone than it was in Germany to mutuate into mere gangsterist or clannish chaos, which would rapidly be self-defeating.

James Kalb said...

I said "Nazi" because the Nazis seem representative of modern political movements that emphasize struggle and smashing the enemy in the interests of the victory of some goal that doesn't bear examination. My comment treated them as a sort of a pure form, with substantive goals that are irrelevant because arbitrary.

What I said would apply to revolutionary Marxism as well and to some degree to almost any modern movement since all of them have goals known to be arbitrary so they have to get their impetus by constructing oppositions and cultivating irrationality. I thought the point was worth noting because Sloterdijk seems to propose an either/or while a sort of synthesis is possible between the bureaucratic and the psychopathic outlook. The synthesis is of course unstable but that's true of the other possibilities as well.

I'm not sure what to call the synthesis other than "Nazi," "fascist" or similar. That's not historically accurate etc. but "aggressive hysterical demonizing cynical arbitrary nihilistic ideology" doesn't have much of a ring to it.

James Kalb said...

Maybe it would clarify my comments to say that I was using the term "Nazi" to refer not to the Nazi of history but to the Nazi of current mythology, as interpreted in accordance with my view of political modernity. I think it makes some sense to do that since The Nazi is evidently an important figure in current mythology and as such needs some interpretation.

Bruce Charlton said...

PC Western governments (i.e. all of them) are using Nazi-style "aggressive hysterical demonizing cynical arbitrary nihilistic ideology" already, to a significant extent.

I was first aware of this in the early Tony Blair years - - but of course it had been building up for some time before that.

Leftist politics is much less rational than it used to be - and infinitely less honest (i.e. not honest at all) - indeed there is no attempt whatsoever to argue - to demonize the opponent is the first and only move.

And this is understandable - because the arguments often cannot be won rationally.

I think that the advocates of PC get away with this because conservatives are afraid of using the same weapons to fight back, because they sense how quickly this sort of situation can spiral out of control. They just keep hoping that radical progressives will back down, will realize the dangers. But the tactic is serving PC very well.

(Among the ruling classes) on the left there are brazen barefaced lies which mobilize hatred, resentment, anger; and on the right there is careful, reasoned argument spiced only with a bit of satire and mockery.

One of my core beliefs is that politics is simple; i.e. the level at which humans can understand and do politics is simple.

Complexity and nuance are either a product of naive idealism, or deceptive propaganda.

So, if there was a counter-PC movement (and I don't think there will be) then it would be very simple; so simple that rightist intellectuals would be repelled and embarrassed by it. It would probably be wrong about most things, but right about the one big thing that mattered most to people.

And I would further predict that the one big thing would *not* be money, at least not unlees money was acutely short, but would be something more basic to human instincts.

So, yes, this does sound rather nasty and Nazi. It all depends on whether the one big thing is Christianity - all the alternative core ideas for a populist right will surely lead to disaster.

James Kalb said...

The 1999 Blair speech for which you provide a link was indeed horrifying. He just wasn't interested in politics as normally conceived.

At some point PC will disappear. Nothing lasts forever, especially if it's badly founded. And you're right, the worry is that something horrible may replace it. The end result of the communist effort to extirpate economic self-interest was the reign of lawless untrammeled greed. Everything that civilized self-interest to some degree had been destroyed. Something similar may happen among us.

Daniel said...

The notion that the standard accepted answer to the kynic/cynic tension is to alternate between the two has a lot of explanatory power.

Given the modern model of the hydraulic psyche that must let off pressure (i.e. rude outbursts prevent serious violence; sexual license must happen or people will explode), the cynic/kynic binary provides a temporary and distracting answer to the deep dissatisfaction people feel.

For example, a person living a heavily bureaucratized, steady, functional-yet-empty existence is encouraged to indulge in sexual license, in drugs, in ever more kaleidoscopic video entertainments.

A person who has ruined his health or his finances in the pursuit of hedonism, is encouraged to buckle down and get "serious," i.e. partake in the managerial society as a quiet cog.

If one single answer is proposed (either pure cynic or pure kynic), the inadequacies are too easily felt. But with these two identically nihilist and yet opposite-seeming modes, many people will flop back and forth indefinitely. Like a fish out of water who flops from one side to the other trying to breathe... the answer of course is to get back in the sea, but the alienated fish can't think manage to think is or do it.

The movie and book "Fight Club" are about this cynic/kynic split (literally... the main character is a schizophrene). Of course, it proposes the kynic mode as the answer to the emptiness of the cynic mode. It does not attempt to break out of this dualism.

A question: where does Sloterdijk's coinage come from? Is it a play on "kynetic"?