The Wages of Cynicism

by Michael Miley

Michael Miley straddles the cynical world between his true avocations, philosophy and anomalies research, and his false profession—an accidental tourist in the world of computer journalism.

* * *

Consider this: AIDS as a form of biological warfare.

Paranoid fantasy or leftist cynicism? When the epidemic was first getting press, articles here and there speculated in just this vein. (They still crop up in the oddest places—see Issue #5 of Reality Hackers.) The line of reasoning goes something like this: If the US government was capable in the '60s and '70s of secret drug and viral experiments conducted upon unsuspecting citizens (see Acid Dreams, for example), why not in the '80s add AIDS to the list of microbes? Part of the neoconservative agenda is to roll back the sexual revolution, right? Well, if libertines want to have sex outside of marriage—and homosexuals want to have sex at all—then let them, the scum. They'll kill each other off.

In this cynical scenario, sex is an instrument of murder, murder the preferred noose for suicide.

The Critique of Cynicism

While the reasons for cynicism in our culture are numerous and obvious—the lies and genocide of the Vietnam war; the destruction of the Brazilian rain forests and the ozone layer; the callousness and arms trading of the Reagan-Bush administration—the effect on the American psyche is less clear. It's not enough to identify a mood. Political ennui, the waning of a socialist alternative, accommodation and yuppieism, living with the bomb while bearing children—all these psychic states are in need of analysis. We need to understand the uses of cynicism in a culture where propaganda is the dominant mode of discourse.

Indeed, where propaganda has been characterized as the public relations arm of a cynical, repressive, master ideology, conducted by means of lies, covert action, or subtle cultural manipulation, its critique has usually taken the form of an expos of crimes and conspiracies, or of turning the ruling ideology on its head. My example above adds something else to the list of necessary tasks for any propaganda analyst: the critique of cynicism. (I take my cue from a book published in West Germany in 1983 called the Critique of Cynical Reason1, by Peter Sloterdijk.) Regardless of what you might think about our AIDS horror story, it reveals something telling about part of the American psyche: the depth of its cynicism, its readiness to believe the worst about an enemy just out of reach. In other words, just because you're not paranoid doesn't mean they're not out to get you.

I'd say cynicism is the dominant mood of our culture. A little analysis, however, reveals a cynicism that begins with that of political rulers and corporate moguls and only by degrees becomes a cynicism of the populace. I'd like to make the case that a certain kind of cynic, who I call the reflexive cynic, is the primary target for propaganda analysis simply because he or she is the prime, unhappy victim of the distortions of propaganda. The cynic I'm targeting includes people like me.

To spell out the case for the reflexive cynic: my story begins with a cynical suspicion, but the deeper assumption is that "the enemy" is far more cynical than we are. Our cynicism is merely a reflex. The cardinal cynicism is the master cynicism, or in Marxist terms, the cynicism of the ruling class. In our paranoid tale on AIDS, our cynicism is a mood of sickening suspicion; theirs is the execution of a political policy. Our cynicism is thrust upon us by their imagined behavior. Their behavior is a cynicism of means toward some end that is not ours, but that we must suffer. Our cynicism, therefore, is a state of divided, unhappy consciousness, a battle ground of cardinal cynicism and reflexive cynicism, in need of resolution. The hope here is that, while cynicism can lead one to political inaction, narcosis, parody, extremism—it can also lead to a mood of defiance bordering on subversion.

Take a walk down Haight Street in San Francisco. In a shop called "Villains," the buyer is presented with punk-black fashions that find their mythology in the garb of the SS; in the skull and crossbones of motorcycle gangs; in vampires, the tarot, black leather and chains; in a fetish of the Cross, and in necrophilia. This is cultural resistance with a cynical vengeance, a sort of revenge of morbidity. The punk-rock magazine, Propaganda, spells it out for young nihilists: the rock band "Bauhaus" has been dead (figuratively speaking) for several years now, but being dead, they're worshipped as the great undead, ritual icons of kind of chic vampirism. What's this but parodying the cynicism of the master class in its most uninhibited form—as Nazis—and mirroring their image with cynical impudence (though punks that really are Nazis mingle with the satirists).

But while some punks turn cynicism into a vampire cult (after the bomb, we're all already dead), your average cynic is cynical simply as a matter of self-preservation: he or she won't be taken for a sucker. It's the "stance of people who realize that the times of naiveté are gone."(Sloterdijk) In this milieu, self-preservation can take both cynical and non-cynical forms. As accommodation, it's an explanation of depression. As an undercurrent of defiance, it's the deeper stream into which we must step in our journey out of the cynical attitude.

Twilight of the Cynics

In Sloterdijk's book, the average cynic occupies a central place in the modern corporate world. Defining cynicism as "enlightened false consciousness," he characterizes the typical, reflexive cynic as someone who is well-off, though miserable at the same time.

"Psychologically, present-day cynics can be understood as borderline melancholics, who can keep their symptoms of depression under control and can remain more or less able to work--in spite of anything that might happen, and especially, after anything that might happen. The key social positions in boards, parliaments, commissions, executive councils, publishing companies, practices, faculties, and lawyers' and editors' offices have long since become part of this diffuse cynicism." The phrase "enlightened false consciousness" goes to the heart of the matter: by a process of education--an education in disillusionment—consciousness attains a higher order of falsity, where insight into the cynical workings of the world is gained, but the means to resist it are not. Instead, "the compulsion to survive and desire to assert itself have demoralized enlightened consciousness. It is afflicted with the compulsion to put up with preestablished relations that it finds dubious, to accommodate itself to them, and finally even to carry out their business."

As Gottfried Benn says, "To be dumb and have a job, that's happiness." Obviously, this piece of cynicism was uttered by an unhappy man, but if it were simply a case of our unhappiness, a critique of the cynical attitude would only be a matter for therapists: relief would be finding a way to "go along with the game plan."

Sloterdijk pushes the factor of political urgency and spiritual resistance further by drawing out the connections between cynicism, self-preservation, and fascism. In his Critique, he finds the locus of German fascism in a witches brew of the "fear of disintegration, regressive self-assertion, and objective, cold rationality" combined with "a time-honored strain of military cynicism."

By implication, master cynicism attains its deadliest forms in the practice of genocide (the "final solution," as practiced in Nazi Germany)—while its reflexive form takes root in the suspicion that some form of genocide, in fact, is a political goal of every government elect. As Sartre put it in his own Critique, every society numbers its dead and designates a group for extermination.

By now it should be obvious: cynicism is a complex mood, depending upon who's being cynical and why. Sloterdijk identifies satire as one of the healthier moments of cynicism, where it becomes impudent, cheeky, rebellious in the face of the status quo. He calls this "kynicism." He conjures up the ancient, laughing figure of Diogenes—the human dog, the good-for-nothing—pissing against the idealist wind of Plato and his Republic. Those who have ears to hear this laughter will recognize in it that strain of vitality and incorruptability that are the hallmarks of resistance to master cynicism, to its grandiose plans which postpone the good life to the indefinite future, while justifying horrible means for dubious ends.

Wherever cynicism takes the kynical form of the satirical, sensual Diogenes, affirming an authentic life in the teeth of deferred life, it represents a grain of truth buried in the belly of the world-weary, worldly-wise cynic—and a critical opportunity for the propaganda analyst. For while propaganda is the handmaiden of cynicism, and cynicism a prerequisite for propaganda, satire and resistance are the sisters of kynicism. Here, the reflexive cynic is the figure most susceptible to kynicism because one's accommodation is the source for, one's melancholy, one's lack of self-esteem. Offer one an alternative and one may grab hold of it. In this context, propaganda analysis is a physic for the average cynic; the analysis of the forms of cynicism a critical task for any propaganda analyst.

That said, Sloterdijk proposes something beyond critique as a cure for what ails the cynic. It's true, he offers a brilliant, imaginative critical portrayal of the cardinal cynicisms at work in our culture, in philosophy, government, religion, in sex, medicine and the military, in its high-brow literature and its middle-brow ads. In his analysis of the Weimar period as the era of cynicism par excellence, a decade is characterized "whose first descendant was fascism and whose second descendant is us." But even the most diehard philsophical cynics may take heart. Buried in his gloomy text, whispered between the pages, there's respite from the dialectical gauntlet of cynicism vs kynicism. He finds exit from that maze in the repudiation of deferred life and in a mystic affirmation of a sacred present. Those who have ears to hear will hear.

1 Critique of Cynical Reason, by Peter Sloterdijk, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, Minnesota, 1987.

SOURCE: Miley, Michael. “The Wages of Cynicism,” Propaganda Review, no. 4, Spring 1989, pp. 31-33.

RESTRICTIONS: Copyright 1991 by Propaganda Review. All rights reserved under the International Copyright Union, the Universal Copyright Convention, and the PanAmerican Convention. Unauthorized republication is prohibited but reprinting (or reposting in other conferences or networks) of all Propaganda Review articles is encouraged. Please contact Johan Carlisle, Managing Editor, for permission.

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