A Critique of Cynicism: Something from Nothing

Written by Isaac Cronin, this was taken from Implications, published in the USA in December 1975. It formed part of a critique of Vaneigem's 'The Revolution of Everyday Life', and was basically an extension of Vaneigem's chapter on nihilism, bringing in post-68 tendencies which still have relevance today. The whole of this text, some of which I will put out in the library, is a far better take on Vaneigem than the silly critiques by various ultra-leftists who superficially dismiss wholesale what he had to say, usually because some of it is implicitly a critique of them.

Submitted by Samotnaf on June 12, 2011

Something from Nothing

“One masters the world to the extent that one says it is nothing, that it is
already negated.”
—Nietzsche, The Will to Power

“The man of resentment is ready for duty, but the use of this availability, that is to say, the end of it, necessarily goes through an insidious crisis of conscious­ness: the man of resentment becomes a nihilist” (Chapter XVIII, part 3 of Vaneigem's 'The Revolution of Everyday Life'). But what is this man of resentment? Where in modem society does his attitude originate?

Nietzsche was at least relatively explicit about it: resentment grew in the slave who posited his earthly weakness as extra-terrestrial strength, thus degrading all noble morality into a morality considered to be vice. But the man of resentment as Nietzsche portrayed him no longer exists. In modem society, the slave who secretly coveted what the master possessed —most of all his social status —has gotten what the master had. Modem man is a full participant in the spectacle of publicity. It is this very inclusion, and the continuing dissatisfaction that results, which creates the mass philosophy of today: cynicism — a cynicism which mistrusts every individual promise but not the source of those promises.

Cynics know they are not alone. The whole society is, at least in part, cynical. Cynicism is the lowest common denominator of modern social relations. As such it tries to bring everything down to its level, especially explicit social critique.

The cynic is the disengaged man who manages to consume his share. In fact the cynic is often someone stripped of everything except his sense of private prop­erty.

Cynicism as an extreme form of objectification, is often used for the purpose of defense. An ideology, person or event is ridiculed in order to be able to tolerate its inexplicable, embarrassing or confusing presence. The cynic takes the most obviously inconsistent element and exaggerates the contradiction contained in it without getting at its root, allowing the creation of a situation which can’t be taken seriously.

The nihilist is society’s most coherent anti-historical man in a profoundly histor­ical era. His existence depends on proving that history doesn’t exist. Nihilists now are just like they were fifty years ago, and they act as if the world has stayed there with them. They add nothing to themselves because they detourn nothing and reject everything.

Nihilists can’t, don’t and won’t conceive of the practical consequences of critical activity. They are negative without negating. Everything they do is defensive. They act in order to be able to stay in the same place.

A nihilist is someone who believes in nothing. Everything that is here is shit; but it’s all we’ve got. The nihilist gets used to that fact — it is his only comfort. There is nothing new under the sun. The nihilist prepares for the worst so that the banal will seem quite nice in comparison.

The nihilist says that things won’t change because they have always been that way. Here he conveniently forgets that he has changed — he doesn’t see any connection between individual transformation and society. To confront the nihilist on this point will always make him back down, recover his “humility.” “I’m not different than anybody else,” he says. Yet he prides himself on his non-conformity.

The nihilist is apolitical to a fault, .a fault which he often parades. In fact he is the spectacular opposition to politics. Here he exhibits an almost moral purity which leaves him blind to the fact that what he often labels as “politics” really has nothing to do with separate power, hierarchy or specialized decision-making. The social question is reduced to its most vulgar representation in order to suit the nihilist’s archaic world view.

The nihilist is a negative specialist, a quick reader and put-downer of superficial­ity, but someone who remains on the surface as if hypnotized by it. The nihilist has a morbid fascination for images, which comes from standing a little too close. The nihilist despises himself for being taken in by spectacular propaganda — a hatred he easily displaces onto the “passive spectators.”

He is caught in the contradiction between not believing that anything is possible and the responsibility of his consciousness, between hyperawareness of the present and a belief in the eternality of the passivity of the conditioned masses. His compromise is often the public advocacy of paranoia as a valid social stance.

The nihilist’s fear of deception leads to a monotonous existence, one which he alleviates by making his paranoia extravagant to the point of being entertaining. The science-fiction metaphor of hostile alien worlds is an example of an ever-escalating aesthetics of paranoia which threatens to completely seduce the nihilist.

There has always been an irrationalist opposition which has isolated out of the totality of capitalism its rational/technical aspects and opposed to them a spontaneist counter-planning. What is different about the modern irrationalists is that rather than fleeing from technology their form of its fetishization seeks to employ the technological apparatus in order to perform a kind of de-rationalized counter conditioning. They do not fly from consciousness but attempt to shape it into a new mold.

William Burroughs’s theory of subversion which relies heavily on the use of the tape recorder suggests that if the past is returned to the present, it can create a different present. But his technique has already been “adapted.” We know it as the law of capital. Burroughs buys the ad men’s view of behavior modification; only he wishes to use it for his own ends. He equates liberation from habitual neurological associations with social liberation. The goal of Burroughs’s techniques is for the individual to know what is going on well enough to stay one step ahead of the control machine, not to transform it but to manipulate it to one’ sown ends. According to Burroughs, being unpredictable is being rebellious because society is supposedly based on its ability to predict the future; chaos and randomness will remedy biological conditioning by shocking the sleeping awake. Not surprisingly, his rebels are the biological deviants — homosexuals and drug users — whose weapon in the struggle against conformity is their bodies.

Nihilism is reborn in the very forces which seek to oppose it, the situationist movement. It can appear whenever instant practical effects are desired, whenever the critical process is superficially short-cut, whenever the pseudo­-revolutionary voluntaristically seeks to put an end to his impotence. Nihilism is a constant threat to the pseudo-revolutionary, it haunts him at every turn.

At the same time, the nihilist who needs more and more coherent elements to reject in order to keep up his interest is attracted to the situationist movement as a fertile field of operation. When he broadcasts the fact that he finds the dialectic impenetrable, he gains a lot of temporary allies who, like himself, are perplexed about the radical critique, mainly because they don’t see that it is about them too. Yes, being negative simplifies things, but it sure makes a guy restless and dependent.