Retreat from politics: The cynic in modern times


This essay examines contemporary diagnoses of cynicism, issuing from scholars such as Peter Sloterdijk, Frederic Jameson, and Slavoj \[Zbreve]i\[zbreve]ek, to distill a clear concept of cynicism and its social and political consequences. In particular, it seeks to call into question accounts in which cynicism suddenly bursts onto the scene as a response to recent, post-1960s political disappointments and the corrosive philosophy of postmodernism. Instead, by turning to Denis Diderot's perplexing dialog Rameau's Nephew, I demonstrate that the impulse toward cynicism may lie buried much deeper in modernity, in the thought of enlightenment itself. This longer perspective helps us to understand the conditions for the emergence of cynicism today, while problematizing hard and fast distinctions between enlightenment and postmodernism. I conclude by warning against excessively moralistic denunciations of cynicism, demonstrating that such denunciations harbor the very same anti-political tendencies which they locate in cynicism. Instead, I argue we must find a form of politics appropriate to an increasingly cynical age. © 2007 Northeastern Political Science Association.

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