Europe's Times and Unknown Waters #1
e-revistă culturală de filosofie şi literatură aplicată
lansată în Aprilie 2009
ISSN 2066 - 3323


The Narcissistic and the Cynical Attitudes - Two Identitary Masks
(Gilles Lipovetsky, L'ère du vide. Essais sur l'individualisme contemporain, Paris, Gallimard, 1983, and Peter Sloterdijk, Kritik der zynischen Vernunft, 2 Bände. Frankfurt am Main, Suhrkamp 1983. )

by Narcisa Braşoveanu

         In 1983 two major volumes were published: L'ère du vide. Essais sur l'individualisme contemporain, by Gilles Lipovetsky, and Kritik der zynischen Vernunft by Peter Sloterdijk. They both analyzed two important coordinates of the human subject within the new, flexible boundaries of external conditions (political, social, ethical etc): the hedonistic identitary coordinate and, respectively, the cynical identitary coordinate.

         To begin with, Lipovetsky gathers in the above-mentioned volume more essays that tackle the problem of the individual being within a larger process of personalization, a relational process that embraces the multiple facets of human development at numerous levels, entailing a continuous metamorphic movement with a predominant note on the social segment, marking, at the same time, “une nouvelle phase dans l'histoire de l'individualisme occidental”, more precisely, “une deuxième revolution individualiste”. This process acts as a pivotal principle that animates and reorganizes the profound structure of society, indirectly subjecting desires, free time, diversity, types of social interaction, enthroning an overwhelming, horizontal series of attributes that actually compete in giving a new identity to the human being: “valeurs hedonists, respect des differences, culte de la liberation personnelle, de la décontraction, de l'humour et de la sincérité, psychologisme, expression libre”. If the ideal of modern society is based on subordination to rules and norms and conventions, creating a disciplinary system, but also instigating to revolts, revolutions and scandals, the postmodern society logically flows from the concept of “accomplissement personnel”, a concept that best suited the preceding episteme and out of which two fresh subdivisions arise: a “totalitarian” one and a particularized one; these two tendencies comprise the traits of the new individual.

         Firstly, the propensity towards accumulating all possible experiences that the surrounding realities have to offer (the pragmatic side is obvious in this case, as there is an assembly of operational devices that destandardize and fluidize the mechanisms of power, loosening the general coercion). And secondly, the inclination towards the group alternatives, individualized by the “will of autonomy”.

         Furthermore, the hedonistic individualism allows antinomies to coexist without any paradoxical sense, the governing low being “l'indifférence de masse”. The modern belief in future, in science, in technique, the progressive conquest in all domains, the importance of revolutionary changes and of innovations are being opposed the postmodern feeling of selection, the private autonomy, the acquisition of the new as already old, the common sense with which the innovation is received and the non-progressive view of the future. Another dual set of labels is attached by Lipovetsky to the modern-postmodern worlds: if the former has change as its engine became the acceleration of consumerism in a feverish, “hot” manner, the latter represents a second, “cool” phase of consumerism, the multitude of experiences having been already gulped.

         The metaphor considered the best by the French scholar to express the fragmentary, heterogeneous, multi-centered postmodern society/self is that of “narcissisme”. The Narcissistic image enfolds enough substance and power to symbolize the new “ère”, in its both sides, namely the private and the collective, also holding an enormous force of various self-expressions that is led into its extreme end, thus reaching what he calls “la logique du vide”.

         “Communiquer pour communiquer, s'exprimer sans autre but que de s'exprimer et d'être enregistré par un micropublic, le narcissisme révèle ici comme ailleurs sa connivance avec la désubstantialisation post-moderne, avec la logique du vide.”

         The identitary surface appears, therefore, as an instable combination of different elements that are subject to a constant alteration, the vertical, modern constitution being horizontally displayed and losing the solidity of mutual, internal connections.

         However, there seems to be three major concepts that Lipovetsky relates to this Narcissistic ontological attitude: seduction, indifference and the strategy of void.

         Thus, one of the key-concepts Lipovetsky proposes is that of “séduction”, exploding through innumerable facades as the strategy which institutes dependency reports between the needs of the consumer and the huge range of offers existing on the “markets” of reality, offers that refine the individual's tastes, that exploit the hedonistic ingredient in the human entity, that diversify “les relations humaines et sexuelles”, that instate “des rythmes individuals”, that transform language into its echo and, eventually, that abuse the intrinsic relation between “voix” and “animation rythmique de la vie privée” - “l'indidivu post-moderne […] est branché sur de la musique du matin jusqu'au soir, tout se passe comme s'il avait besoin d'être toujours ailleurs, d'être transporté et enveloppé dans une ambiance syncope, tout se passe comme s'il avait besoin d'une déréalisation stimulante, euphorique ou enivrante du monde.”. Furthermore, these offers insinuate into the political game, generating a “homo democraticus” subdued by a marketing program, designing nature as personal spaces and equalizing the terms of a former equation: self/you = “votre corps” - reveal yourself = exhibit your body - “rapports sexuels = “rapports de forces/de pouvoir”. In a phrase, seduction does eliminate silences, does create “interprétation analytique”, does eradicate the figure of Don Juan.

         Still, it is interesting to notice that Lipovetsky's concept of silence partially transposes into Hassan's similar concept, particularly in the case of the avant-garde theatre of silence (Beckett). Moreover, the Narcissistic proliferation of expressive forms is also foreshadowed by Hassan's metaphor of “the babel of noises” that, eventually is included in the literature of silence. This discrepancy at the stage of conceptual content may be explained by the different orientation of the fields of the two scholars: if literature seems to incorporate both types of external manifestations, the general overview of Lipovetsky ascertains clearer definitions.

         In completion to these, the general indifference that emerges in this second age of individualism is one of its major features, keeping a close account of the mass attitude towards the notions that configured the tradition, attitude expressed by “l'apathie de masse”. One of the big narratives, as Lyotard theorized, is the belief in God, in the transcendent entity that behaves as norm regulator, as a saving “mechanism” always ready to listen to the prayers/”instruction” coming from below. Starting from Nietzsche's famous line that states the death of God and, implicitly, from his nihilist philosophy, Lipovetsky identifies two types of indifference, moulding on his distinction between the modern and postmodern worlds: the “active” nihilism, corresponding to the first and being shaped by the principle of “self-destruction”, a principle transformed into craft by society; and the “passive” nihilism that indulges into a morose pondering on death as universal human condition and unique means of extinction. The void born out of this passivity, out of lack of involvement, or rather lack of energy needed to invest in great projects, is administered, among other cultural-literary phenomena, by hyperrealism which materializes as a “jeu pur”, a photographic representation of reality, extracting from it a various content which is turned into surface movements of meaningful human units. In addition to these, the speed of contextual, daily experiences that features this era guides the individual self toward an inner notional disposition that, a step further, becomes disintegration, and, even further, an apathy subjecting each human being in part, but also the mass of human beings.

         Finally, in the case of Narcissus, or of the strategy of void, Lipovetsky identifies several “lines of attack” - the directions that suffer the effects of this strategy are multiple and, the most important, they are in a dependency system of determinations.

         Firstly, the strategy of the new figure of postmodern age deeply relies on an intensive process through which the individuals look in the external mirror of their surrounding realities and discover innumerable fragments, and pieces, and segments. In this kaleidoscopic world the subject is torn in million directions, and his effort to cope with them all leads him/her to a “performative” existence, to a living that is so focused on the present that it forgets its own past and shows no preoccupation for the future.

         But, contrary to the expectations, Narcissus also brings forth the homo psychologicus, the awareness of the internal universe disclosing an immense space for self/egocentric analysis, a space that is the response of the broken external mirror of reality, a space that ultimately allows the “désubstantialisation” of the spirit in the hedonistic realm.

         However, the body is also caught in his net, defining an identity that has a visual, palpable representation; a body that lost its privacy, that rests on exposure procedures, that modifies itself in order to stop the appearance of aging signs is a body sheltering a postmodern self.

         In addition to these, the apocalyptic issue is tackled by Lipovetsky too, but only to stress the phenomenon that represents the end, for the traditional selves, and the general state of affairs, for contemporary selves which put emphasis on the aesthetic, erotic and affective constituents in the detriment of the competitive ones.

         Another topic is that of family relations, characterized by combinatory dispersions and dislocations, offering room for a double-sided hedonistic society: on one hand, the tolerance and indulgence from each member to the other (this is, in fact, the influence of the civilized behaviour principle that animates diverse cultures); on the other hand, the deep, hidden anxiety, frustration, uncertainty that build their way out through the newly discovered crevices of the human structure.

         Finally, the void itself translates into an impossibility of feeling, of truly, profoundly internalizing the sentiments. Thus, the human three-dimensional configuration is reduced to a two-dimensional or even one-dimensional configuration.

        On the other hand, Sloterdijk discusses the same matter of the individual and mass attitudes in the enclosure of the new episteme, but his efforts are directed toward an explicative discourse that may clarify, or rather expose the inner resorts which generated the cynical manifestations within the reports of external power and knowledge. The “discomfort in culture” seems to be a trait that accompanies the human beings from Antiquity, but the extent reached by it in contemporary times determined him to assign it to the acquisition of a general/universal and diffuse status. Cynicism is dealt with from various points of view, points that also reveal its flexible polymorphic composition.

         Firstly, the modern cynicism is a state of the consciousness, not a random one, but one that follows from naïve ideologies and their subsequent emancipation. This view creates room for this concept within the category labeled by Sloterdijk as “the forms of the fake consciousness”. Thus, the traditional components - the lie, the error and the ideology - receive the new member, namely the cynic phenomena.

         “Officially”, the Enlightenment - which is considered the focal point that established the polemic/dialectic development and refinement of cynicism, due to the imposed reasonable limits - is characterized by two forms of falsity: the error and the bad-will. But a closer analysis results in three forms (the ones mentioned above): a) the bad-will transposes into the lie with the subjected value invested by the individual, the generative entity being an “I”; because this “I” is a human being, the responsibility of the content of the lie is intrinsic; b) the error proves to be an objective mechanism that falsifies the content and that can be held responsible, the “I” keeping the status of “not guilty”; c) ideology is a complex error, “stubborn and systematic”, unwilling to give up or correct its ideas about life; it opposes too the simple error (from type b.) which stems from confusions of reason and senses.

         Secondly, the concept can be traced back to Antiquity, where the kynikos is always the person to ascertain distances from the norm/convention, to expose the unspoken, the unseen, the uncomfortable let aside by the focuses of power. Socially, he is neither a pleasant figure, nor a rural one; the city, the Antique polis configures the matrix of his own birth, the space where he can abundantly exercise his “dislocated/abnormal intelligence”. Diogenes, the main figure of this period, establishes simultaneously a resistance movement against the “counterfeited game of 'the discourse'” and the “non-Platonic dialogue”. Thus, the “theory from below” reveals the human body as an animal body, but also the strong arguments that can be brought by it in a “pantomimic materialism”.

         Then, the Enlightenment with its coordinates of constant research in every field and with its method of reason could not ignore the human consciousness, but the borders it met with could not be fully explained. In these circumstances, the ideological critique it [the Enlightenment] worked with, continued the “failed dialogue” with the human consciousness from behind it, in a dialectic, subversive play, attempting to unveil it; this attempt is proof too of the fact that the satiric tradition is carried further.

         The modern cynicism is divided into two stances: one of the “dislodged urban intelligence” (belonging to the low social classes), the other of the “reflexive seigniorial” intelligence (belonging to the elite, to the governing institutions). The individuals of both categories are skeptic about the ethics and the social conventions, but they stand apart through the manifestation of their beliefs: while the former discloses the satiric laugh, the latter's smile is persuasive and cunning. Moreover, the realism of the bourgeoisie constructed the cynic as a social character of the high state superstructures; the examples given refer to Germany since the beginning of the Second World War. But this variety of the cynic, “the asocial guy integrated in society”, plunges into anonymity, the new space that confers him/her shelter for expressing originality, that prevents him/her from the pressure of the normative system (although he/she already feels that their “cynical sight” is a personal flaw).

         Thirdly, from a psychological point of view, the cynic is depicted as a melancholic personality that can restrain his/her depression just as much as to still be able to work. Their schizophrenic architecture comprises an external aspect, within which they work, consciously understanding its futility, and an internal one, within which they elaborate a flexible, dubitative mechanism toward their activities. The sense of sacrifice arises from this incongruity and, furthermore, the “enlightened false conscience” emerges as a constant gliding between what one feels and what one does - a report between the actions in accordance with individual principles and those in accordance with social/normative principles. The notion that best encompasses this phenomenon is “discretion”, permitting the “hide and disclose” game, suitable to the cynical ontology and logic.

         The reason behind the scholar's insistence on Enlightenment resides in the fact that this cultural moment, through the agency of its continual distrust in everything, sets the basis of a “positional cynicism”. This reveals a retrospective consideration of the modern cynicism which acknowledges itself as its successor. The other two traits of “the consciousness sick with enlightenment” are the denial of any access to “cheap optimisms” and “an emancipated negativity”, rejecting hope, but compensating by pity and irony. The result is a high degree concentration of cynicism in this period, diachronically spreading toward the present days.

         Using the same cynic spirit of criticism, Sloterdijk identifies eight procedures of unmasking the hidden, the unspoken moulded on double functional and thematic mechanisms.

         The first matter that undergoes this “technique” is the revelation issue, an issue preoccupying human beings from its early rise of transcendental rise of consciousness. The scholar demonstrates how the Enlightenment transgressed this phenomenon into an instrument of power and manipulation through the means of confession.

         Secondly, the religious illusion is being unmasked as performed by “liar” or a “refined mind” (i.e. the priest) that induces to others beliefs in which he himself distrusts. This “refined dimension” of cynicism situates the illusion behind the false consciousness: “iluzionezi, deci eşti iluzionat”; but the theory of deceiving has a bipolar trait: one may be the victim of an illusion, but one can also use them against/toward the others. Its representative is the Enlightenment individual who becomes a meta-cynic enabled with both the capacity of understanding the mechanisms of illusion operated by the other and of neutralizing them by a simple question: “You don't think we are fool, do you?”.

         Thirdly, the metaphysic themes are ready to be dealt with by the human kind, but the solutions to the problems resulted from them are blurred, confusing individual spirits and minds. Sloterdijk calls this the modern formula for “I know that I do not know anything.”.

         The fourth unveiling focuses on the idealist superstructure, especially on the Marxist criticism which targets the discovery of the “objective”: because there exists a social separation of work according to different classes, each human being is verified as class consciousness and, therefore, as individual consciousness.

         The fifth unmasking takes place within the domain of the ethics. The German philosopher notices that there are three major techniques involved in the report between moral appearances and moral essences: a) the double oriented morality, that presents a set of alternative rules of which one may be aware by observation ( the difference between what one preaches and what one does); b) the inversion between “to be” and “to seem” out of which springs the ethics of compassion and altruism (both wrapping a sense of selfishness); c) the unearthing of a presupposed “initial reason”, such as Nietzsche's “will to power”, French moralists' “amour-propre”, the psychoanalytic concepts of “sexual drive” and “the drive of the ego” , and the Enlightenment's “morality of the masters”.

         The critique of transparency refers to the emergence of the unconsciousness as a sort of depositary space of human experiences that gets transformed into a large range of manifestations, experiences, having no obvious causal inputs but those residing in this space.

         The last two domains belong to the natural appearance and the private appearance. If the former grants greater importance to the “second impression” in the detriment of “the first impression”, the latter deals with the mechanisms leading to the formation of the self-image.

         Like Lipovetsky, Sloterdijk has the same sense of “increased rate of living”; the human existence is segmented between multiple, though smaller amounts of time, between infinitesimal events, experiences, news, sentiments and stories.

         To conclude with, the “the rush after identity” has reached high amplitudes, as it is the first concept that distinguishes the human subject from everything that is strange, improper, yet inherent to it. Moreover, the scholar states that our true self-experience is circumscribed to a vast “original anonymity” that is buried in many layers of taboos and fears, simultaneously born with “the social identity”. This “yesbody” (opposed to a “nobody”) is subject to the development from “non-reflexive Narcissism” to “understanding the world as a whole”, but it is also the source for human freedom, constructing a deep level of the authentic self.

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