September 2014‎ > ‎

04. Cynics in the Face of Apocalypse

Dean Dettloff, 24, is from Michigan, where he studied at Cornerstone University in Grand Rapids, and now lives in Toronto with his wife, Emily, and cat, Nona. He is currently in his second year of the MA program at ICS. Besides studying, he has a keen interest in comic books and an amateur interest in marine life. Upon completing his program, he intends to create, with friends, an alternative adult-education program in Michigan and possibly pursue hospital chaplaincy.
"Cynicism poses a particular problem for Christian apocalypse, an event not unlike the unveiling of ideology critique."
In 1983, philosopher Peter Sloterdijk published Critique of Cynical Reason, which became a bestseller in Germany. Contrary to the typical picture offered by Critical Theory, which suggests society is blinded by ideology and average individuals are simply unenlightened, Sloterdijk posits that culture is not plagued by ignorance but cynicism. “Cynicism,” writes Sloterdijk, “is enlightened false consciousness.… It has learned its lessons in enlightenment, but it has not, and probably was not able to, put them into practice. Well-off and miserable at the same time, this consciousness no longer feels affected by any critique of ideology; its falseness is already reflexively buffered” (5).

Contrary to the narrative of Critical Theory, then, solving society’s ills will not come from better education, or explaining to workers their situation, or making provocative art. The cynic already knows that something is deeply wrong with the world, and that each step is a compromise. As Slavoj Žižek writes, “The most elementary definition of ideology is probably the well-known phrase from Marx's Capital…‘they do not know it, but they are doing it’…. The formula, as proposed by Sloterdijk, would then be: ‘they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it,’” (The Sublime Object of Ideology, 28).

Cynicism poses a particular problem for Christian apocalypse, an event not unlike the unveiling of ideology critique. Indeed, the book of Revelation can be read as an ancient form of ideology critique, revealing to early Christians the injustices of Rome. More broadly, apocálypsis (literally, “un-covering”) reveals something otherwise hidden from everyday life, whether it be exposing power structures or forecasting impending doom or future healing.

Cynicism, however, threatens to reduce these revelations to impotent facts, rendering any political or existential change impossible. This is especially evident in Western societies saturated with the Christian story. Exposing the realities of global capitalism or predicting the end of the world, whether by divine fire or human negligence, is usually met with a frown and a shrug.
To combat modern cynicism, Sloterdijk suggests returning to the figure of Diogenes, emblematic of the ancient philosophical school called “kynicism.” While Plato ran an academy of the mind, elevating humans to the world of airy forms through reason, Diogenes (literally “dog-like”) took baths in the middle of town and requested Alexander the Great to stop blocking his shade. Diogenes’ kynicism contrasts bodily wisdom to theoretical insight, challenging structures not by unveiling their hidden injustices but by embracing one’s embodied life over which no authority has ultimate power. Kynicism does not take itself too seriously; Diogenes is known for his satirical laughter in the face of authority.

Kynical individuals in an age of cynicism challenge a paralyzed (perhaps by guilt or seemingly insurmountable odds) and politically impotent (by being immune to the full weight of apocalypse and critique) knowledge with a free, subversive, alternative activity. The mistake of ideology critique, according to Sloterdijk, is assuming the battle must be fought within the mind. Instead, he suggests, consciousness is no longer in need of enlightenment. Rather, the fires of action need to be kindled; in religious terms, one needs a change of heart.

Diogenes is a potent foil for modern cynicism, but he is not the only ancient candidate for body-wise replies. Consider the prophets, whose writings contain such events as Ezekiel’s theatre of critique or Isaiah’s naked wandering (Isa. 20:1-6). When God speaks to the Israelites, it is done not through arduous treatises on the nature of capital (useful as those are) but radical bodily messengers. The very revelation of Jesus is God’s Incarnation, literally God’s becoming-bodily.

In Jesus the kynical impulse, being in-touch with one’s fleshy life as well as being at home in the world, is obvious. Both Diogenes and Jesus take cues from wild animals to embody a self uncontainable by political authority (Sloterdijk, 162). Ascetics and mystics, too, seem to employ a religious kynicism (281), leading to monastic resistance to empire and authority in the early church and mystic resistance in medieval Europe.

Kynical threads in Christianity, despite being heartily spun directly from Jesus and before, are clearly minority threads. In an age of cynicism, however, picking up these threads once again and continuing to weave them is crucial. Without an embodied faith, one not only loses a deeply Hebraic and Christian disposition, but the revolutionary apocalypses revealed in history and in personal life might as well have stayed covered up.