Cynical Lessons

“There were always men who practiced this philosophy. For it seems to be in some ways a universal philosophy, and the most natural.”
– Julian the Apostate


Some months ago, I discovered a series of books on ancient philosophies produced by the University of California Press, with lovely details of Baroque paintings reproduced on the covers. The titles read: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, Ancient Scepticism … Cynics. That last title immediately drew my attention: Cynics and not Cynicism. It turned out that Cynics makes explicit reference to anarchist ideas in a way that is both intelligent and important to at least some of us. (I will return to this intersection).

The choice of the title Cynics for William Desmond’s contribution was probably only meant to avoid confusion, but it also suggests a way to read the book so as to learn not merely of the Cynics but from them. Why is it not called Cynicism? True, from one point of view it is perfectly easy to say that there is Cynicism because we can list tenets held in common by Cynics. Textbooks, encyclopedias and dictionaries do this: in any of them we can learn that these people favored what Desmond calls “carefree living in the present”1; and that, to accomplish it, they practiced a generalized rejection of social customs (Desmond catalogs this rejection in delightful detail: it includes customs concerning clothing, housing, diet, sex and marriage, slavery, work …) in the direction of a simplification of life.2 (This was somewhat more confusingly referred to as living in accord with nature).

But already in the ancient world, Diogenes Laertius, author of the great gossip-book of ancient philosophers, commented: “we will go on to append the doctrines which they held in common — if, that is, we decide that Cynicism is really a philosophy, and not, as some maintain, just a way of life.”3 One of the perpetual question marks hanging next to the Cynics’ status as philosophers is their common rejection of intellectual confusion. The term typhos (smoke, vapor) rightly emphasized by Desmond sums this up nicely. It was used, he writes, “to denote the delirium of popular ideas and conventions” (244). Typhos also included the “technical language” of philosophers: “the best cure” for it “is to speak simply” (127).

In any case, there is also certainly something called cynicism. Desmond consciously capitalizes the word when it is a matter of the school, and leaves it uncapitalized when it is a matter of what could be called the ambient attitude of a place and time — something people definitely live, but in no way choose or wish for. Something like that seems to be what Deleuze and Guattari were after in their recurring references to a special relation between capitalism and cynicism in the Anti-Oedipus: cynicism as the correlate of modern bad conscience, “accompanied by a strange piety.”4 Cynicism, for them, is not so much the ideology of capitalism, as it is a congeries of behaviors and attitudes secreted by the capitalist socius, the apparent apathy that is ever becoming real, but never for all that passing into a reasoned or passionate way of life. It is rather the default lifestyle of those for whom a way of life (in any interesting sense of the phrase) is impossible.5

In light of this, I propose that perhaps the most interesting perspective is to say that there is no Cynicism, that there is cynicism, and that there are (or at least were) Cynics, as individuals.

Whereas the usual philosophical guidebook (and, worse, the usual philosophical conversation) starts with the Great Question “what is …”, I propose instead the question “who is …” Who is a Cynic? This question never disappears: even when we find great commonalities between different Cynics, we are still dealing with its familiar variant: “Who is the real Cynic?” We know that Cynics first appeared in the Greece of Socrates and Plato, and that there were Cynics well into Christian times. How do we know this? As with other ancient schools, its inventors, creators of a way of life, wrote nothing, or their writings are lost. We know of them through what is now called doxography: collections of sayings and opinions. Desmond recompiles and rearranges the doxographies charmingly, proving the point that if it is philosophy as a way of life that we are interested in, perhaps a few anecdotes about a singular character are as valuable as a short treatise or a letter to a friend. (I recall here Nietzsche’s gnomic proposition: “It is possible to present the image of a man in three anecdotes”6).

In behavior and intent, The Cynics we know of were “missionary” (as Pierre Hadot has put it).7 Their rejection of customs seems to have had an essentially performative, confrontational aspect. Desmond illustrates this as follows:

… the ancient Cynic could be stereotyped as a wild man who stood on the corner piercing passers-by with his glances, passing remarks to all and sundry, but reserving his bitterest scorn for the elites who parade by in purple and chariots, living unnatural lives, and trampling on the natural equality of man. (187)

Such confrontations in public places were one way in which the Cynic way of life was communicated. How does one become a Cynic? By example, obviously; by means of a model. Now, this anecdote tells of a more intimate communication:

Metrocles had been studying with Theophrastus, the successor to Aristotle and head of the Lyceum, a taxonomist and classificatory thinker with a specialty in botany. Once while declaiming Metrocles farted audibly and was so ashamed that he shut himself off from public view and thought of starving himself to death. But Crates visited him, fed him with lupin-beans, and advanced various arguments to convince him that his action was not wrong or unnatural, and had been for the best in fact. Then Crates capped his exhortation with a great fart of his own. “From that day on Metrocles started to listen to Crates’ discourses and became a capable man in philosophy.”8 (28)

This intimate aspect is not emphasized in Desmond’s book, perhaps for lack of evidence. One could go a long ways in the direction of answering the question “Who can be a Cynic?” by considering the status of customs and laws from the perspective of how people have become capable of subverting them. I do not mean conferring a special status on transgression as a social or philosophical category, but rather becoming curious about who it is that grasps the instability of mores, conventions, laws and so on, and how they become capable of selectively ignoring them.


Consider then this couple: unusual public behavior / anecdote documenting the same. As Desmond points out, a typical chreia or anecdote related an action followed by a witty, insightful, or bluntly truthful utterance. It would seem that the anecdote was simultaneously a spoken rhetorical device and a genre of literature, both in close relation to what is best about gossip. There were many compilations of such anecdotes in the ancient world. It is not hard to imagine that these anthologies were compiled so as to amuse the curious; but they could also have brought about, at a distance and thanks to a certain sort of reading, the transmission of a model that public harangues and private obscenities can communicate face to face, body to body. I mean the imitation of unusual behaviors, and, more importantly, a stimulation to invent new ones relevant to one’s own life. This literary transmission of the Cynic life has surely happened many times and in many ways.

Long after the first generations came lengthier written texts either advocating the Cynical way of life or at least presenting it in a favorable light. But by then the writers’ commitment to the way of life was in question. It is one version of the question “Who is the real Cynic?” Desmond discusses, though does not promote, a common distinction between original “hard” Cynics (Diogenes, Crates, Hipparchia) who lived the life and derivative “soft” Cynics, who, fascinated by it, merely wrote about it (Lucian, Dio Chrysostom). It is, of course, as a distant echo of this supposed merely literary presence of the school that the term “cynic” reappears as an ordinary noun, and eventually as a pejorative term, bringing the question “who?” full circle from punctual designation to anonymous epithet.

One example of the richness of this question’s persistence in the literary transmission of Cynicism is Lucian’s The Death of Peregrinus. Desmond mentions it briefly; I will take it up in some detail. In this satire we learn of the life and spectacular death of the “ill-starred” Peregrinus the Cynic.9 As the satire opens, Theagenes, a fearful, crying Cynic (?) gives a hoary speech in praise of Peregrinus; then a nameless, laughing man mounts the same platform to tell the truth. (This man is not identified as a Cynic). He dismisses Theagnes’ praise as well as his tears. Instead he offers his laughter, and another perspective on Peregrinus. He details, among other things, how Peregrinus started life as a good-for-nothing, becoming a parricide in exile after strangling his own father for no reason other than the inconvenience of caring for an old man. In exile Peregrinus eventually transformed himself, managing to become a well-respected Christian leader. As such, he was imprisoned, and received all of their support. Once freed, he betrayed the Christians. Setting off again, he became a Cynic and trained in ascetic exercises. These were the ponoi, practices Cynics would use to loosen the bonds of custom: Peregrinus shaved half his head, smeared his face with mud, masturbated in public, beat and was beaten with a fennel cane, etc. Eventually his love of glory and attention led him to his famous self-immolation, the event that Lucian ruthlessly mocks as a failed apotheosis. Having publically announced it years in advance, Peregrinus killed himself by jumping into an enormous pyre before countless witnesses at the Olympic festival. This was purportedly done to show others that they need not fear death. Lucian, now present as the narrator, places himself, laughing, at the scene of the pyre, describing Peregrinus and Theagenes as pitiful actors. Lucian is not only unimpressed: he calls the witnesses “idiots,” and retires. In the scenes of the aftermath, Lucian converses with curious passers-by and latecomers, answering their idle questions with preposterous and contradictory exaggerations.

It seems that, for Lucian, to say one is a Cynic, even to have trained in the ascetic exercises, means nothing special if in the present one continues to demonstrate vanity. And nothing could be more vain than capitalizing on one’s own suicide by announcing it years in advance. Here Lucian, who never called himself a Cynic, shows himself capable of wearing that mask in his satire. He addresses an interlocutor:

… I can hear you crying out, as you well might: “Oh, the stupidity! Oh, the thirst for renown! Oh — “, all the other things we tend to say about them. Well, you can say all this at a distance and much more safely; but I said it right by the fire, and even before that in a large crowd of listeners. Some of these became angry, the ones who were impressed by the old man’s lunacy; but there were others who laughed at him too. Yet I can tell you I was nearly torn to pieces by the Cynics …10

The entire story revolves around the question: “who?” Lucian’s Peregrinus cynically moves from low-life to moral Christian to ascetic Cynic to vainglorious blowhard. Is this progression Cynical? Or is Lucian’s laughter more of a Cynic effect, however he may have lived?

Desmond, for his part, suggests that much of Lucian’s satire may be a “hatchet job,” such as the account of the parricide, for example. Considering this takes us one turn further into the maze of the question: “who?” What if it is Lucian, the writer, who is the vainglorious one, envious of Peregrinus’ performance, its practical philosophy? What if, for example, Peregrinus had an excellent reason to take his own life, and opted to use his death to teach a final lesson, one the results of which he could not live to see? Could that not be the opposite of vanity? For me this ambiguity manifests a tension between way of life and philosophy, or, again, between living according to nature and a missionary urge to harangue others to do the same.11

Lucian calls Peregrinus an actor, his suicide a “performance.” Discussing the history of the well-worn metaphor of the world as theater, the philologist Ernst Robert Curtius traces it back to comments in Plato’s Laws about humans as puppets of the gods, or to a phrase in his Philebus about the “tragedy and comedy of life.” But then he notes: “In the popular lectures on philosophy (’diatribes’) of the Cynics, the comparison of man to an actor became a much-used cliché.”12 This story of origins only becomes interesting when we read between the lines in Curtius, noticing that it must have been the Cynics who began using this metaphor without reference to the divine, and perhaps not as a metaphor at all. Simply put: everyone is an actor. Desmond writes: “if the self is substantial and secure in itself, then, like a good actor, it can put on and off many masks, playing many roles without dissipating or compromising itself, just as a good actor can appear in many guises while remaining the same person beneath” (182).13 Indeed, the reception of this idea, metaphor or not, which Curtius traces from the Romans through the Middle Ages to Shakespeare, Baltasar Gracián, and Calderón, may be studied along at least two axes: who takes the world-theater to be a divine place? Who does not? And: who says is there is anything behind the actor’s masks? Who does not? About Lucian and Peregrinus, Desmond writes:

Peregrinus was rightly named Proteus because he was as adaptable and many-masked as the Old Man of the Sea. He took many shapes and professed not to be changed by any. Lucian scoffs, but Peregrinus’ own intention in his last “role” as a latter-day Hercules may have been to demonstrate that external flames and a melting body cannot harm “the god within.” (182)

That would be the case for saying that there is someone behind the mask. Something like Lucian’s laughter would be the case for saying that there is not, or that what is behind the mask is another mask, or that it does not really matter… Now we might have begun to understand what is vital in the couple behavior/anecdote. It it is a tension, an intimate challenge, a kind of existential dare, that can only be resolved or transformed in one’s own life and body.


I have mentioned the list of titles in the series: Stoicism, Epicureanism, Neoplatonism, Ancient ScepticismCynics. When I gazed upon the gathered books I felt I was not merely looking at a list of didactic books aimed at a curious and intelligent student. I also felt that I had before me a series of manuals, or at least fragments of manuals concerning ways of life that are perhaps still available. (Notice that someone claiming that the Cynic way of life is no longer available could be accused of taking a cynical position). Grasped as manuals they suggest a different sort of curiosity, and perhaps another aspect of intelligence as well. I have advocated for a pragmatic use of certain anthropology books along the same lines, as manuals concerning the organization and disorganization of social and cultural life, available to all. This sort of reading is obviously also in some sense a willful misappropriation, or at least a misreading; something else than the conventional use of such texts. It has two facets: the patience of engagement with the text (one cannot simply call it plagiarism or ‘stealing ideas’); the impatience, or maybe hurried patience, concerning whatever in it is significant enough to draw into one’s life as an urgent problem, challenge, or question …

That said, I would like to consider that the Cynic way of life is impossible. Maybe no one could embody their way of life perfectly, avoiding the ambiguities brought about by the public aspect of the example or the harangue. Or at least, if someone did, it was in a way that was inimitable and so incommunicable. Historically speaking, such perfect Cynics must have disappeared. I recall the first day I spoke in public of the Cynics. One of my strange teachers was present; he said something like: “What about the Cynics who were such perfect masters that they disappeared?” At the time, I did not know how to respond. Perhaps I was confused. I now find his question calming, in two perhaps contradictory ways. First, if we suppose that the real Cynics disappeared, we can be untroubled about finding real Cynics; we can assume that we never will. The use of the question “Who is a Cynic?” is modified accordingly: we will expect to find masks, semblances, references. Imperfect embodiment is still embodiment, and literature is still (is very much so!) life.

Secondly, however, one can certainly disappear to the historical record without disappearing from the historical record. One’s life can just as much be expressed in an anecdote as hidden within it. (Or both, which is what I suppose Nietzsche meant: the best anecdotes reveal and conceal at once. Otherwise we are collecting bad gossip, trivia, distractions, typhos). This idea of disappearing (of secrecy, or of clandestinity) could be used to finally dispose of the seriousness behind the question “Who is the real Cynic?”, dissolving the distinction between “hard” and “soft” Cynics: the first might have written all manner of things, an exquisite and singular literature which they destroyed or shared with a very few; the latter might have undertaken countless ascetic exercises, from the ridiculous to the grotesque, but opted not to record them and disallowed others from reporting on them. All of this is intimately related to the problem of vanity at stake between Lucian and his character Peregrinus; it also shows much of what is at stake in the difference between ancient or medieval ways of life and our so-called lifestyles.


I conclude by discussing the interesting references to anarchist ideas in Cynics. This has great interest for me and mine. One of my companions, when I showed him, patted me on the back and said something like: “See, now our movements are points of reference for everything, even for a book on ancient philosophy!” At which point I cringed twice, once for the phrase “our movements” and again for the pat on the back, that little victorious sentiment … I do not think that is exactly what is interesting here. That Desmond makes the reference is indeed noteworthy, especially given the clearly pedagogical intent of his book.14 But at the same time, that is not a reason for us to be comforted; rather, it is a matter of curiosity, a reason to think differently about who we suppose we are and what we suppose we are doing. I mean that we could provisionally accept the connection he makes, taking everything he writes about the Cynics as an intimate challenge.

When he calls the Cynics anarchists, Desmond confesses this is just “the most convenient label” for them. Of course:

… they renounced the authority of officialdom and of social tradition: not marrying; not claiming citizenship in their native or adopted cities; not holding political office; not voting in the assembly or courts; not exercising in the gymnasium or marching with the city militia; and not respecting political leaders … To be free is to have no master, whether that master be a god, political assembly, magistrate, general, or spouse. (185)

But Desmond thinks, as many or most do, of anarchism as a form of politics, and so restricts the Cynic-anarchist connection to the rejection of certain forms of political organization. On this side of the question, he generalizes to the point of grotesque error: it is not true that, as he seems to think, all anarchists think humans are fundamentally good, or that life without the state is better because it is more natural than life under it. On the other hand, calling Cynics anarchists is compelling in that they did not form parties or foment revolutions. So it is precisely to those anarchists most suspicious of such activities that this comparison will be interesting.

For me, the import of this is to show the tense relation, or non-relation, between the Cynics’ concern with ethics (a way of life) above all, and the various political stages of the world, with all of their typhos. One could anachronistically call them a subculture; this would be useful precisely to the degree that it allows us to focus on how they both maintained a way of life and did not entirely disappear in the doing. That is: it is arguably the public aspect of their way of life that brought them to these various platforms.

Desmond does not call the Cynics anarchists and leave it at that; he also suggests that the same Cynics could be called democrats, kings, or cosmopolitans. Indeed, for what does “carefree living in the present” especially have to do with the State or its rejection? Instead of asking: “what is Cynic politics?”, we can ask: “who is the Cynic when she does this, when he says that …?” Let us say provisionally that the Cynics were playing with, playing at politics, insofar as its cloudy stages are also so many platforms from which to launch the perhaps inevitable diatribe. They were democrats, because in so doing they discovered a way of simultaneously inhabiting and resisting their dominant political environment, pushing it in a radically egalitarian or at least populist direction (Desmond reminds us that for many “democracy” essentially meant “rule by the poor”(188).) But the democratic assembly is also a place to practice comic wit! And the funniest thing is to call oneself a king. Well, why not? It is much funnier than calling oneself an anarchist or a democrat! Cynics are kings in rags (57).15 As with democracy, Desmond suggests that what we have here is an intelligent exaggeration, a pushing to the limit, of another ancient commonplace: that the best should rule.

The poor Cynic can claim to be a “king” because in his wild, unconventional life he has recovered all the natural virtues: courage, temperance, simplicity, freedom, and, most of all, philanthropia. As “kings” who try to lead people to a life “according to nature,” they are acting only in the people’s best interest. They alone love mankind, and so in comparison with them, Sardanapallus, Xerxes, Philip, Alexander, Antigonus, Seleucus, Ptolemy, Nero, Vespasian, Domitian and the rest are only gangsters. (199)

They are, or aspire to be, monarchs in the only non-deluded sense of the word. And cosmopolitans? It seems that at least some of them did use this term. And here again we have what seems to be a provocation. Since the polis was the only available sense of “state,” to claim to be a citizen of the cosmos is to express oneself through paradox. “How can one be a citizen of the totality and its vast spaces? Can one make the cosmos one’s home? … Diogenes implies that only the Cynic wanderer is truly at home anywhere” (205). I conclude that this mixture of paradoxical and provocative attitudes is more interesting than opting for any one Cynic politics.

Keeping this in mind, what happens when we return to the initial connection and make it operate in the other direction, asking: are anarchists Cynics? Could anarchists (really) be Cynics?16 As with other practices or ideas that interest me, for example those of the Situationists and Nihilists (there might even be people clever enough to play this game with the word “communist”!), I feel the need to keep asking the question “who is …?” which is, among other things, the perspectival question of the true and false.17 This is not a matter of identity or identification, of clarifying or purifying our essence. It means, among other things, asking if there are anarchists who, instead of considering their activities solely as a politics (”anarchism”), understand what they do as aspects of a way of life distributed unevenly between political activities in the ordinary sense, micropolitical activities, and anti- or non-political activities — even inactivities? Are there anarchists who experience their lives as the ultimate criterion, instead of some goal or cause? If so, they will find plenty of interest in a manual entitled Cynics.

Yes, someone could read this book as a manual; someone could begin a revaluation of anarchist activities stimulated by the example of the Cynics. In that direction, I conclude with an outline of topics for immediate discussion and implementation:

  1. What is typhos to you? I think of this as a promising alternative to terms such as “ideology” or “spectacle.” Rather than deploying a a true-false, reality-appearance dichotomy (the starting point of so many boring conversations), to me typhos suggests an intimate, personal, singular limit. It is the limit of my interest in the world, in the ideas and experiences of others, and in some of my own ideas and experiences as well. “Beyond this limit,” I can make a habit of thinking, “all is smoke, vapor, typhos.” Ah, the destestable convergence of the uninteresting and the confusing …
  2. What are your forms of ascetic exercises, your ponoi? I know many people who have shaved half of their head, some who are dirty enough to be said to have caked mud on themselves, a few who have masturbated in public … what kinds of situations can you get yourselves into that exemplify, not in principle but in fact, detachment from what you wish to detach yourself from? Instead of contending with others about interpretations of the world, you could bend your urge to compete in the direction of increasingly absurd or confrontational public acts. It is stimulating to imagine how, violating before me a custom concerning sexuality, you could provoke me to go and violate one concerning diet or work.
  3. In thinking through the first topic and living out the second, who can truly describe themselves as “laughing a lot and taking nothing seriously?” (65)18

Works Cited or Referenced

Chrysostom, Dio. Discourses. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932.

Curtius, Ernst Robert. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1991.

Deleuze, Gilles and Félix Guattari. Anti-Oedipus. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1985.

Desmond, William. Cynics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008.

Hadot, Pierre. What is Ancient Philosophy? Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004.

Laertius, Diogenes. Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, vol. II. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1925.

Lucian. Selected Dialogues. New York: Oxford University Press, 2009.

Nieztsche, Friedrich. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks. Chicago: Regnery, 1962.

—. Human, All Too Human. New York: Penguin, 1994.

Serres, Michel. Detachment. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1989.


  1. Cynics, 65. All further references in the essay.
  2. An account of this simplification as a de-culturing, perhaps de-civilizing process, perhaps more palatable to some, can be found in Nietzsche: “The Cynic knows the connection between the more highly cultivated man’s stronger and more numerous pains, and his profuse needs; therefore he understands that manifold opinions about beauty, propriety, seemliness, and delight must give rise to very rich sources of pleasure, but also to sources of discontent. In accordance with this insight, the Cynic educates himself retrogressively by giving up many of these opinions and withdrawing from the demands of culture. In that way, he achieves a feeling of freedom and of strengthening …” Human, All Too Human § 275.
  3. Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VI. 103.
  4. Anti-Oedipus, 225.
  5. Question: does awareness matter in all this? Those who become aware of ambient cynicism and how it has affected or shaped their social personas: could they be on the way to becoming Cynics? It cannot be so simple. Deleuze and Guattari’s reference to “a strange piety” invites us to consider contemporary cynicism as the cynicism of the credulous. I do not have much of a taste for discussing capitalism as such, but it would be interesting to consider modern cynics in Deleuze and Guattari’s sense as those descended, though not without a series of sociocultural mutations, from those Hume called the superstitious. Precisely with this difference: modern cynics are superstitious, and they know it, and they are resigned to it.
  6. Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks, 25.
  7. What is Ancient Philosophy?, 108. The Cynic faces the crowd and “scold[s] to his heart’s content,” as Nietzsche puts it (Human, All Too Human, § 275.)
  8. The last sentence is cited from Diogenes Laertius, Lives and Opinions of the Eminent Philosophers, VI.
  9. Lucian, “The Death of Peregrinus,” in Selected Dialogues, 74.
  10. Lucian, 75.
  11. A fascinating discussion of these sorts of reversals, based on a famous anecdote involving Diogenes the Cynic and Alexander the Great, appears in Part 4, “Friar,” of Michel Serres’ Detachment.
  12. European Literature and the Latin Middle Ages, 138.
  13. This is one of the few places where Desmond seems to go too fast, overstepping his doxographical task. I find no correlate in the texts he discusses to any such substantial concept of the self, which I take to be a more recent invention. The same problem occurs in the definition of typhos that I cited above: “…insubstantial ‘smoke’ in relation to the self and its present experiences, which alone can be known and possessed.” For me the highly abstract concept of the self is more likely to be another example of typhos.
  14. His reference in making this connection ultimately seems to be Kropotkin’s Britannica article of 1911 on “Anarchism,” in which Zeno of Citium is given as an early inspiration. Zeno, founder of the Stoic school, was a student of Crates the Cynic. (It would be tremendously satisfying to discover a story about the two involving farts or something comparable, to embarrass the seekers of noble origins.)
  15. As Dio Chrysostom put it, alluding to the figure of Odysseus. In his “Fourth Discourse on Kingship,” Dio imagines a version of the anecdotal dialogue between Diogenes the Cynic and Alexander the Great in which he prepares the idea of “kings in rags” by undermining the conventional understanding of monarchy. “And Alexander said: ‘Apparently you do not hold even the Great King to be a king, do you?’ And Diogenes with a smile replied, ‘No more, Alexander, than I do my little finger.’ ‘But shall I not be a great king,’ Alexander asked, ‘when once I have overthrown him?’ ‘Yes, but not for that reason,’ replied Diogenes; ‘for not even when boys play the game to which the boys themselves give the name ‘kings’ is the winner really a king. The boys, anyhow, know that the winner who has the title of ‘king’ is only the son of a shoemaker or a carpenter — and he ought to be learning his father’s trade, but he has played truant and is now playing with the other boys, and he fancies that now of all times he is engaged in a serious business — and sometimes the ‘king’ is even a slave who has deserted his master. Now perhaps you kings are also doing something like that: each of you has playmates …” (46-48)
  16. There are multiple ways to understand this question. It might be interesting to compare it, and its possible answers, with a topic of scholarly controversy discussed by Desmond: was Jesus a Cynic? (Cynics, 211-216). Naturally, the mere question would disturb the average Christian: if Jesus was a Cynic, then the entirety of the Christian religion is an colossal misunderstanding at best, a vile imposture at worst. Does the correlation of Cynics and anarchists similarly unground “anarchism”?
  17. The parallels are obvious: there are vague epithets, a noun and an adjective, for cynics and anarchists alike; there are Cynics and anarchists, and there may or may not be Cynicism or Anarchism, depending on who you ask. But “who is …” is also the question of possible and impossible positions: “Who can be a Cynic?” So, for example, in the aphorism cited above, Nietzsche writes that the gentle Epicureans had the same perspective as the Cynics: “between the two there is usually only a difference in temperament.”
  18. The quote is from Lucian.

How to Survive in Graduate School

A Review of Postmodernism is Not What You Think

Postmodernism Is Not What You Think by Charles Lemert, 1997.

Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 185 pages (first edition)

This first edition of Postmodernism is not what you think was written over 13 years ago, just before the “event” that changed everything. A proud and bright icon of modern architecture stands on the cover, mocking the two lowly constructions which appear to be from a younger age and time. It as if Charles Lemert wants to remind us that the problem of modernism have not yet passed. A simple and rarely refuted thesis dawns upon me: the problem of modernity is the problem that can not be gotten beyond. 1997 .. this was the same year that a lesser known post-anarchist by the name of John Caputo (you will recall an essay about Derrida’s “Responsible Anarchy”) introduced his book Deconstruction in a Nutshell: A Conversation with Jacques Derrida. Caputo wrote in his book that the “apostles of anti-deconstruction seem to think [in response to] strange readings of odd poems in graduate literary theory classes, [that] when the sort of anarchy that deconstruction perpetrates threatens to spill over into the streets of ethics and politics, that is serious business and it is not to be taken lightly. [They] have to put a stop to it; that is [their] ethical and civic duty, [they, the] Knights of Good Conscience.”

One does not need to get behind the ethics of “responsible anarchy” to appreciate the way modernist ideas have inked their way back onto the pages of the book. Caputo wrote: “Deconstruction is […] the irrepressible anarchy of signifiers, the unmasterable, anarchic event of archi-ecriture.” And here, like so many signifiers spilled across a page, we are confronted with a proud modernism:

The problem of recuperation is precisely the problem of the retroactive powers of the state(ments); they inscribe the history of the text with the powers of the present. This is why Derrida’s responsible anarchy discloses is covered by the image of the state(ment). We have only to approach the image of the cover, in Lemert’s pro-postmodernism book to establish the legitimacy of this thesis and to thereby refer outside of the so-called anarchy of signifiers, and outside of the text, to the “nothing” that Derrida so favourably described (“there is nothing outside the con/text”).

1997 .. this was a time when so-called post-modernists, Derrida as our exemplar, were bitterly critiquing the works of modernist Marxists such as Habermas (and vice versa), proclaiming Marxism to be the shallow language of the university that one will have to learn to speak without speaking, to speak while secretly overcoming, to master so as to give way to the forces of anarchy in the university. This was a time when it was safe to present a cover of a modernist piece of architecture crumbling to the ground and yet Lemert did not take the opportunity. And has he not been validated by history?

2005 .. the second edition of Postmodernism is not what you think was published. This was a time of rational dialogue between postmodernists and modernists .. a time in which Derrida would overcome the differences he had with Habermas so that they might come together, as one, to speak in a single voice against a shared crisis of faith. When the twin towers of “system” and “lifeworld” come crashing down, we are left with the real terror of postmodernity and we run back to our safe space. Speaking in good conscience, Derrida and Habermas defend the ethical project of the Enlightenment. 2001 … three years before the modern towers came crashing down.

The introduction to the book Philosophy in a Time of Terror: Dialogues with Jurgen Habermas and Jacques Derrida (edited by Giovanna Borradori, 2003) explained the significance of this event in no uncertain terms: “This book is the first occasion in which Habermas and Derrida have agreed to appear side by side, responding to a similar sequence of questions in a parallel manner.” 2003 .. one “event”, an “event” that changed everything. Badiou would have us believe that through the witnessing of this rupture, in its (cover-)image, a the smooth ideology of the subject is puntured and s(he) is able to come into being by recognizing the dark face of truth. But here do we not experience precisely the opposite? The rupture of the smooth functioning of the system will always be sutured by the symbolic network of signifiers, the event terrorizes us, frightens us into submission, and we retreat back to a safe time, back to a safe place. The statist logic of modernity thereby is thereby renewed. .. Derrida and Habermas appear to us as the Knights of Good Conscience.

1997 .. 2005 … irony is at play between the two cover images. Whereas the archi-ecriture of the first cover reflects a time of modernity, while the book stands alone in defending the claims of post-modernism, the latter cover reflects a crisis of modernity at the hands of post-modernity: the twin towers of system and lifeworld are crashing to the ground. In a time of hope, Lemert has mocked us. In a time of fear, Lemert has frightened us. Finally, a book that goes all the way.

I had the honour and good fortune of listening to Charles Lemert speak at the W.C. Desmond Pacey Memorial Lecture at the University of New Brunswick. He shook the audience up with his words, provoking them. When they offered him looks of disgust, he disgusted them further. He stood unmoved by any of it, firmly in place. He spoke about the importance of coming to terms with death and stood like a corpse in front of an audience with dieing interest. After the lecture there was only one question and it was posed as such: “I respect you, Mr. Lemert, as a learned individual, and I respect that you are on the stage up there and that I am not, but all the same I wonder how you can go about spreading this theory of post-modernism and death and to thereby steal all the hope from our children?” The passionate interlocutor stood there with tears in his eyes as if to beg for mercy. Even I wanted to tell him what he wanted to hear, knowing very well he wouldn’t believe it anyway. Clearly, the interlocutor had not come prepared to engage with Mr. Lemert nor had he spent any time researching the thesis of his book.

A new thesis, rarely refuted, now dawns upon me: postmodernism is “the ability to drive people crazy, even to distraction.” This is what good post-modern philosophy does to people: it obfuscates and distracts them from the smooth functioning of their everyday lives, drawing them into new ambiences, new experiences, new ways of knowing and being. It does not do this by driving a plane into a giant piece of modern architecture, .. there is no reason to waste it all, to hurt so many people, on a strategy that won’t work anyway. But so long as I am alive, and so long as I know the error of the hysterics discourse, I speak through it from some other place of being. Imagine. Should one find oneself in the uncomfortable position of being a sociologist in the academy as well as an anarchist, a business owner and a radical, .. a baseball player and a freak; one nonetheless crucifies those who do the same. Let me reverse. Imagine. One should find oneself in the uncomfortable position of being an anarchist while also being prepared to be sacrificed to and alienated from the milieu for breaking the ethical codes that motivate the tradition, even while one believes these codes more dogmatically than most. Dare I say it? Having said it, I fear, I have already sacrificed too much.

Lemert’s quick on-point anecdotes were captivating. One such story described an incident in which a non-tenured junior colleague of sociology was carefully instructed that his/her department “so hate[d] postmodernism as to [have the individual stand] no chance of promotion should they be seen in its company.” It could similarly be stated as the case for any student of sociology, such as myself, who, after having searched through the archives of radical thought and, after finally exhausting the possibilities as to how to define the present crisis—of which it might well be impossible to doubt—to have finally stumbled upon a body of literature in nihilist anarchism, now finding herself having to defend such an audacious proposal! There is no defence! While reading this book, memories of undergraduate sociology courses vividly haunted me. I recall one debate that lasted for at least two classes in which a professor attempted to convince me that her department was more radical because it was not falling into the popular trap that so many other departments had become victim to: namely, the teach postmodern philosophy. But where does one go, in the university, to learn postmodern philosophy? Surely not Queen’s University.

The book is clearly written and surprisingly comprehensive: including, among several personal stories (even one reprinted love-note), well thought-out and cleverly focused treatments of Saussare, Derrida, Foucault, Debord, Mauss, Durkheim, Simmel, Strauss, Weber, Baudrillard, Lacan, Sivak, Habermas (who, I remember Lemert repetitively denouncing at the bar while we shared a few drinks), Barthes, Said, Rorty, Marcuse, Lyotard, Kristeva, Merton, Mills, Mead, Parsons, among many others. If one can move beyond Lemert’s naive retracing of the New Social Movements (a residue of the modern project) and his seemingly celebratory treatment of identity politics, the book is sure to be a good companion for any radical interested in understanding post-modernism and post-modernity from an academic who writes outside of the language of the university.

Lemert’s central line of argument is that not only is postmodernism not what you think, it is also not what you think. Trained as a sociologist, but be warned that he was also a minister, Lemert brings postmodernism to the sociological scrimmage line and, in the face of the supposed current crisis of theory suggests for us to stop asking “What’s wrong with sociology?”, “What is wrong with the university”, and to start asking “How does one speak the truth?, What truth?”

Perhaps there is something to this postmodernism thing after all. Whether one likes the term or not, one certainly has to admit that, as Lemert puts it, “something powerful, deep, and potentially far-reaching is going on [and this] seems to . . be beyond doubt.” A few interesting distinctions are made which are worth repeating. One of which is the difference between social theory and sociological theory. While the former is characterized by a critical attitude in the face of social life, the latter invokes a purely scientific methodology. Lemert is able to trace, not unlike many other contemporary sociologists, critical, even moral, impulses in such sociological figures as Durkheim, among others. It is this critical impulse that gives Lemert the academic force he needs to advance a case towards critically engaging with theories of the postmodern. Lemert is clearly a social theorist, he is not therefore a sociologist.

Another interesting distinction is made between what Lemert calls “radical modernism”, “radical postmodernism”, and “strategic postmodernism”. To put the matter simply: radical modernism is best explicated by Habermas’s defence of enlightenment subjectivity (the self-knowing subject), as can also be found in many of the Frankfurt school thinkers. Thus, one can sense, if not explicitly mark in the pages of such thinkers as Marcuse, the wanting to break away from the ‘iron-cage’ that Weber so dreadfully referred to. Radical postmodernism, as to be expected, is best explicated by Baudrillard and, to some degree, advanced earlier by the Situationists, for such thinkers the current situation is characterized not by the linearity and the reality of the past, but by hyperreality of the present. Strategic postmodernism, more cautious than full postmodernism and more critical than naive radical modernism, is interested in rewriting the history of modernity.

From a lonely, dark, apartment, such ends my one day encounter with Charles Lemert and the dreadfully depressing postmodernism he contends sociologists must be forced to think through. Though one might be in fear of that which is new, critical, and exciting, if one wants to invoke any sort of epistemological rupture, insurrection even, one must take, as Lemert puts it, ‘the mind of the fearless amateur’ — one who is not afraid to not know, to experiment with ugly and dirty ideas, and to face that which is unable to be explained (that which is impossible). Otherwise, one is faced with the likes of anarchism and its loyal servants who, on fear of having to contend with thoughts which bring power and responsibility closer to home, send out hostile emails, protesting the “dangerous” and decidedly infectious postmodernisms, post-lefts, and primitivists, and defending the even more dangerous and totalizing notions of progress, purity, social movements, and popularity.