Tuesday, April 27, 2010

on cynicism

Peter Sloterdijk is a current-favorite current philosopher, cited often in architecture academia. He teaches philosophy and aesthetics at the State Academy of Design at the Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, and is a professor at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. He is most famous for his book, Critique of Cynical Reason, made first available to the English-speaking world in 1988, and his latest work, Sphären Trilogy, currently is being translated. He has his own show in Germany for which he is a co-host on to wax philosophy and contemporary issues, and he partakes in lectures, panels, and seminars world-wide, for which according to his website, he is normally booked for one or two years in advance.   

Ordos 100, master plan by Fake Design 

architect as cynic 

To jump cut, shown here is a photograph from part two of a conference, showing design pitches for Ordos 100, a huge upscale residential project in the desert of Inner Mongolia, China, where one hundred mostly up-and-coming architect teams from twenty-seven countries were commissioned to each design a individual house, large enough to include amenities such as servants’ quarters and indoor pools, as part of a billion-dollar “cultural district”. Ordos 100 was conceived by Cai Jiang, who got his start trading cashmere and freshwater pearls to Russians for recycled steel and has since diversified into a dozen businesses, and made his money in coal and dairy and has lately turned to real estate. Ai Weiwei, a Chinese artist, and his firm, FAKE, were commissioned as the master planners. Weiwei is known for using his art to make critical remarks on the current regime in China, and is an all-around provocateur. 

This project was profiled in the New York Times last year in May.  

Besides the quotes by the architects, who were lamenting about the shitty nature of the current architecture industry and were blind-slightly thrilled just to be building something and making stupid comments like ‘we got a little taste of what it’s like to be Zaha Hadid’, this is one of the few that was sober, self-reflective, and almost cheeky, and to quote: 

“Are we just performers in another of Weiwei’s pieces?” 

The last quote’s skeptical and cynical position summates our current condition; not just as an architect who has been flown to the middle of no-where to build a too-good-to-be-true architectural object among many in a Disney-world of an American-esque suburb out in the Mongolian desert, but of our Western social culture of cynicism as the reflexive default attitude.   

“new values? no thanks!” 

The modern cynic, whatever her situation or as ridiculous as it is, has to go forward and move on, a conscious moving on, in spite of anything that might happen, and especially after anything that might happen. She must carry a certain chic bitterness about her activity.  
For cynics are not dumb, and they every now and then see the nothingness to which everything leads. Their psychic apparatus has become elastic enough to incorporate as a survival factor a permanent doubt about their own activities. They know what they are doing, but they do it because, in the short run, the force of circumstances and the instinct for self-preservation are speaking the same-language, and they are telling them that it has to be so. Others would do it worse. (5) 
Sloterdijk clearly defines cynicism is enlightened false consciousness. A cynic is someone whose social existence and values she can no longer see as necessary and universal, and who is miserable because of this understanding - because she sticks to principles that she does not believe in. The only truth left for a cynic is her trust in reason, which however cannot provide her with a firm basis for action, and this again is another reason for her misery. 

The cynic is someone who is well-entrenched in the cogs her society, so to speak in bastardized Marxist sort of way, of someone neck-deep in ideology or a profession, who does not believe in what she is doing anymore, like a priest who doesn’t believe in God, but still preaches on as if she still believes in the dogma, which again, makes her miserable and leads her to this schizoid frame of mind. To quote Sloterdijk again: “it is the universally widespread way in which enlightened people see to it that they are not taken for suckers.” (5) 

The problem with the cynic is that she has already given up. She has come to accept the terms of her conditions and does nothing about it other than sneer.

But Sloterdijk doesn’t say that a cynical view is the way to go, that this nihilist approach is just a knee-jerk reaction. (6) For this Sloterdijk goes back to the classical association of cynicism to kynicism of Diogenes, or cheekiness. Diogenes lived in a barrel, shown contempt for fame, ridiculed the architecture, refused respect, walked through the streets carrying a lamp in the daytime looking for one honest man, parodied the stories of gods and heroes, ate raw meat and vegetables, fooled around with the whores and when lounging said to Alexander the Great that he should get out of his sun.

What this is, is a rejection of the hegemony of mainstream thought; for Diogenes this was idealism. He made acting the truth into a process of confronting the prevailing lies of the current ideologues, as a resistance to the rigged game of discourse, philosophical or otherwise. He used the basest of actions, of physical reality, to counter the typical dialectic, the abstractions and satirical remarks.

If the modern cynic has at least the satisfaction of being right most of the time and pleasantly surprised the rest of the time, then cynics would be nothing if not perpetually satisfied. Cynicism does not have to be the default status; and cheekiness isn’t limited to the Athenian market. Cheekiness has a space in which it can be tolerated, even if that tolerance lasts only a short time. (117) Cheekiness is not the final answer, but can at least be a temporary solution and a way out of the problem of the untempered cynicism of the current M.O.

Peter Sloterdijk, Critique of Cynical Reason (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987)
“The Twilight of False Consciousness” 3-9; “Search of Lost Cheekiness,” 101-120; “The Secondary Cynicisms: Minima Amoralia: Confession, Joke, Crime,” 301-307.
Peter Sloterdijk - website
Fred A. Bernstein - In Inner Mongolia, Pushing Architecture’s Outer Limits, NYTimes
Lebbeus Woods – O, Ordos
Archilosophy – Ordos 100
Al Jazeera - China's empty city (YouTube)
Stefan Lorenz Sorgner - In Search of Lost Cheekiness, An Introduction to Peter Sloterdijk’s “Critique of Cynical Reason”

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