A Lamp in Search of a Philosopher

As democracy is perfected, the office of president represents, more and more closely, the inner soul of the people. On some great and glorious day the plain folks of the land will reach their heart’s desire at last and the White House will be adorned by a downright moron.”

— H. L. Mencken

As far back as I can remember, I’ve utterly destroyed within myself the pride of being human. And I saunter to the periphery of the Race like a timorous monster, lacking the energy to claim kinship with some other band of apes.”

― Emil M. Cioran

Sadly if one is neither a progressive nor conservative one is either on the extreme pole or a-political these days. Is there a politics against politics out there? I don’t just mean being agnostic like the a-political, or some militant extremist in the libertarian capitalist or socialist mode – nor even a utopian/dystopian communitarian. I mean someone who wants to destroy politics altogether, forget the human project; join the machine and say fuck the humans. Ah! Misanthropist… well not quite, I like some people, despise others, and believe most are either mindless morons – sleepwalkers who will always be programmed automatons no matter who pushes their buttons otherwise, else innocents awaiting the moment they will have to choose the red or blue pill. So what options do we have?

Cynic? – Maybe a vow of poverty, a naked tub-guy like Diogenes, piss and pot radical of the I don’t give crap (unless I feel like lifting my leg on the sly) type?

Goethe, did not fail to discover in Diogenes the unmistakable features that reveal a great and lucid philosopher. More recently, he has been called “one of the most original and spiritual human beings who has ever existed, and he has been viewed as “a ‘Zen man’, eccentric in his ways yet fundamental in his thought, vastly irritable yet suffocatingly funny, magnetic yet repulsive, a regal vagabond who was somehow in charge of the truth.”‘

A Vagabond in charge of the truth: the Cynic. A street comic with scruples, a sleight-of-hand artist whose only trick is to awaken you from your apathy. The kind of man who when a King or President stands between him and the Sun says: “Hey, you, you’re in my way. Move it or lose it.” One who speaks his mind to power without thought of repercussion or consequences to his personage. A street poet who’d just as soon shit on your shoes as kiss your ass, a creature with “an insatiable thirst for freedom, a profound sensitiveness to the ills of life, an unshakable faith in the majesty and all-sufficiency of reason, and a corresponding abysmal contempt for all traditional ideals.”‘

If Slavoj Zizek wasn’t a dialectical materialist he’d of been the comic catastrophist of our generation… as is he’s a sort of Diogenes Hegel, a whip and chain slap-dash comedian of two thoughts, both oscillating in the void of voids. Prone to questions without answers, insoluble Zen like manifestations of despair and clownish child like heights he reminds one of the joke man without jokes. One does not ‘hear’ Zizek as much as overhear him laughing at some private politics of the mind, a sort of wake-up call to himself that the world is at war and he’s on the front lines promoting neither peace nor violence but rather laughter… pure jouissance and laughter as the only salvation worth having.

Zizek offered his take on ancient and modern cynicism:

Peter Sloterdijk puts forward the thesis that ideology’s dominant mode of functioning is cynical, which renders impossible- or, more precisely, vain — the classic critical-ideological procedure. The cynical subject is quite aware of the distance between the ideological mask and the social reality, but he none the less still insists upon the mask. The formula, as proposed by Sloterdijk, would then be: “they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it”. Cynical reason is no longer naïve, but is a paradox of an enlightened false consciousness: one knows the falsehood very well, one is well aware of a particular interest hidden behind an ideological universality, but still one does not renounce it.

We must distinguish this cynical position strictly from what Sloterdijk calls kynicism. Kynicism represents the popular, plebeian rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm: the classical kynical procedure is to confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology — its solemn, grave tonality — with everyday banality and to hold them up to ridicule, thus exposing behind the sublime noblesse of the ideological phrases the egotistical interests, the violence, the brutal claims to power. This procedure, then, is more pragmatic than argumentative: it subverts the official proposition by confronting it with the situation of its enunciation; it proceeds ad hominem (for example when a politician preaches the duty of patriotic sacrifice, kynicism exposes the personal gain he is making from the sacrifice of others).

Cynicism is the answer of the ruling culture to this kynical subversion: it recognizes, it takes into account, the particular interest behind the ideological universality, the distance between the ideological mask and the reality, but it still finds reasons to retain the mask. This cynicism is not a direct position of immorality, it is more like morality itself put in the service of immorality — the model of cynical wisdom is to conceive probity, integrity, as a supreme form of dishonesty, and morals as a supreme form of profligacy, the truth as the most effective form of a lie. This cynicism is therefore a kind of perverted ‘negation of the negation’ of the official ideology: confronted with illegal enrichment, with robbery, the cynical reaction consists in saying that legal enrichment is a lot more effective and, moreover, protected by the law. As Bertolt Brecht puts it in his Threepenny Opera: “what is the robbery of a bank compared to the founding of a new bank?”2

As you can see above there is both a subversive or Diogenes street-level form of cynicism (Kynicism), and the more modern variant of a false form or inversion of it used as a mask to hide under cover of subterfuge and darkness an a-moral form by the rich and powerful against the innocent, poor, and excluded. Many modern subversive kynics like a Mark Twain or H.L. Menken or Kurt Vonnegut Jr. etc. used it to unmask power and corruption and expose its false cynical behavior and parasitical half-life within society. Satire, parody, irony, the grotesque and invective, aphoristic undercurrents of the critical eye of an Ambrose Bierce or a Thomas Pynchon have rooted out the dark contours of American Empire and its inhuman gaze in culture and social forms of death, decomposing its hideous face under the comic gaze of critique and diagnosis. Wherever one finds the subversive power of the street cynic one discovers the laughter that awakens both anxiety and freedom – a freedom shaped by the dark core of Ananke, mother of Necessity. We are all bound to the wheel of existence, borne of providential determinisms both artificial and biological beyond which we are mere figments of a demented dream. And, yet, it is the spark of this subversive art of laughter and reason that brings to us a life stripped to the bare minimum that allows us to walk naked and unafraid of any man of power we confront. For in the end what can they take from us that we ourselves have not already given away. Nothing. This was the freedom of Diogenes: to be free is to be stripped of all those socio-cultural masks we cherish so much as our self-identity, for in the end we are nothing and no one – our identity is like the world around us both beautiful and naked; free and determined.


  1. Luis E. Navia, Diogenes The Cynic: The War Against The World
  2. Zizek, Slavoj. The Sublime Object of Ideology (London; New York: Verso, 1989), pp. 28-30.

2 thoughts on “A Lamp in Search of a Philosopher

  1. Whew–enjoyed this little reflection. I too have been considering if there is an alternative to the left-right schema that isn’t some dim, quiet “centred” position that masks itself as a-political. Both “sides” sound the same, at the end of the night, so maybe there really isn’t a side so much as noise. And I certainly am allergic to the whole political “spectrum” that is offered by some because it really isn’t useful, especially in the mornings.

    I don’t believe I know enough to really follow the thought through. I’ll have to check out ‘Diogenes The Cynic: The War Against The World.’

    Best,

    -Jon

    Liked by 1 person

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