The Journal of the AGLSP

XXV.2 CM8

 

Mathieu Debic is an alumnus of the MLS program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas and a current doctoral student in the History of Ideas at the University of Texas at Dallas. His interests include the philosophy of technology, literature, and the connections between technology and social life.

The Dogged Work of Sisyphean Cynicism

Mathieu Debic, Southern Methodist University 

Nothing disturbs a bishop quite so much as a saint in the parish.
—traditional

What does it mean to think? What does it mean to work? These questions motivate the following exercise. Does thinking mean making grand claims? Does it mean consideration of the world concluding that, in the last analysis, the world as it stands just needs a tune-up or a new coat of paint? To begin addressing these questions, I must clarify the rules of the game I intend to play below. We will hear more about him later, but I will start by using Albert Camus’ definition of thinking in The Myth of Sisyphus: “Thinking is not unifying or making the appearance familiar under the guise of a great principle. Thinking is learning all over again to see, directing one’s consciousness, making of every image a privileged place.”[1] I do not propose in this essay to break new ground or to make any metaphysical claims about whatever may exist that goes “all the way down.” Instead, I propose to offer a new way of seeing. I intend to demonstrate an attitude and a way of thinking that I find useful and that, I hope, may help us “learn all over again to see.” This essay will consist of a training exercise; nothing more.

A useful definition of what I want to avoid in this essay comes from Robert Pirsig’s novel Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. The spiritual sequel to Pirsig’s more famous Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Lila follows Phaedrus, Pirsig’s pseudonymous semi-autobiographical narrator, on a solo sailboat trip down the East Coast. On his boat ride, Phaedrus works on his magnum opus: a book codifying what he calls a “Metaphysics of Quality.” I find a particular notion Pirsig has Phaedrus play out as he works on his metaphysical project worth using here: the difference between philosophy, and what Phaedrus calls “philosophology.” Philosophy, Pirsig/Phaedrus writes, consists of finding new things or new ways of seeing. It consists of sloughing off old skin only to see that skin anew and use it for something different. Philosophy sees the spectral possibility of doors where others see only solid walls. Philosophy requires effort and work and presents tremendous challenges, both to teach and to do. Philosophology, on the other hand, does not take much effort to teach because, unlike philosophy, it does not consist of breaking walls down to build new doors, but simply consists of the study of the walls that already exist. Though such study has its uses, one should not confuse it with breaking new ground. Pirsig has Phaedrus claim that, “Literature, musicology, art history, and philosophology thrive in academic institutions because they are easy to teach…. Actual painting, music composition, and creative writing are almost impossible to teach and so barely get in the academic door. True philosophy doesn’t get in at all.”[2] I don’t take such a dim view as Phaedrus. “True philosophy,” or, philosophy that shows us things we hadn’t known were right under our noses, can and does exist in academic institutions, but it must recognize its precarious place in those hallowed halls. Break down too many walls to make new doorways and you’ll let in a draft.

Pirsig goes on to write that to “put philosophy in the service of any social organization or dogma is immoral.”[3] Here, I agree with him, but with a twist. If using philosophy to open new doors constitutes immorality, then, I believe, we must maintain a willingness to act immorally if such action keeps open the possibility of philosophy. Philosophy, rather than the alluring trap of Pirsig’s philosophology, depends upon our recognizing the trap for what it is and working against it, knowing that it is a foe we may not be able to permanently defeat.

I should pause to make clear that I do not identify philosophy as a solo project. If all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, and therefore mortal, then because all philosophers are human, and humans live in social groups, philosophers must unavoidably live in social groups. Because we who would claim the title of “philosopher” live in social groups, to practice our craft we must first clarify how we understand our social groups. I claim, following Gilles Deleuze, that we in the “developed” West (and increasingly worldwide) live in societies of control, as opposed to older disciplinary societies. Control societies emerged after the end of World War II and distinguish themselves from the earlier disciplinary societies by collapsing the temporal distinctions and rhythms that structured those earlier societies. In his “Postscript on Societies of Control,” Deleuze clarifies the distinction between the two, and correctly fails to lament the fall of the old and the rise of the new, or vice versa. Rather, for Deleuze, and likewise for me, “’[t]here is no need to fear or to hope, but only to find new weapons.”[4] The ideas I present below may constitute one such new weapon. 

Societies of control differ from their earlier predecessors in that where disciplinary societies molded individuals, control societies modulate them. Disciplinary societies take human life and mold it to their purposes while retaining a distinction between the mold and the medium it acts upon. There is a clear “outside” in a disciplinary society. Control societies, on the other hand, modulate preexisting human social life and efface the distinction between that life and the mold imposing itself on that life. Deleuze writes: “Enclosures [in the disciplinary society] are molds, distinct castings, but controls are modulation, like a self-deforming cast that will continuously change from one moment to the other, or like a sieve whose mesh will transmute from point to point.”[5] In societies of control, the factory, the productive site that sustained the disciplinary societies, becomes the corporation, an ephemeral entity not tied to a particular physical place or location. Where factories had a “solid” existence, corporations have a “gaseous” existence. In physics, the law of gasses states that a gas will diffuse to take up all the available space in a container. When diluted across a large area—some might now say the entire planet—these gasses are difficult, if not impossible, to identify as different from the space they take up. In societies of control, we no longer see the horizon beyond the corporation. We no longer see an “outside” at all, and this is the landscape which leads us to confuse philosophy, which  might open new doors, with philosophology, which merely gives us more granular descriptions of those doors.

In disciplinary societies, humans were/are subject to discrete and (more or less) mutually exclusive periods of work and rest. One could “finish.” With the phase change to gaseous societies of control, however, such “finishing” finds itself replaced with never-ending activity. Writes Deleuze:

just as the corporation replaces the factory, perpetual training tends to replace the school, and continuous control to replace the examination…. [I]n the societies of control, one is never finished with anything—the corporation, the educational system, the armed forces being metastable states coexisting in one and the same modulation, like a universal system of deformation.[6]

Education becomes job training, and job training becomes perpetual, never-ending, and constantly demanding (re)training. One must never rest, lest she be outperformed because of her lack of continual training. Rhythms of energetic activity and rest, with clear up- and down-beats, dissolve and morph into an undulating, undifferentiated flow of conscious, unconscious, and semi-conscious states. “The disciplinary man [sic] was a discontinuous producer of energy, but the man of control is undulatory, in orbit, in a continuous network. Everywhere surfing has already replaced the older sports.”[7] Deleuze wrote his “Postscript” in 1992. Today, we might replace “surfing” with “scrolling.”

As we scroll, what happens to us? Many have written of the detrimental effects of new so-called social media and the ubiquity of digital connectivity and networked life. Certainly, these novel technologies change how their users think and behave, just as their non-digital predecessor technologies did. In the collapse of rhythmic distinctions of productive and unproductive time under the societies of control, our lives have taken on a strangely similar sense of “scrolling.” We feel, and correctly so, given the ephemeral, undulating requirements of productive output under conditions of control, that we must continue working forever. It becomes a low-grade fever, like the shadow of angst that runs through the work of Franz Kafka. We jump at the chance to increase our productivity, to “hack” our minds and bodies with strange modulations of food, sleep, stimulants, and exercise. We struggle to detach ourselves from digital systems and to reassert a sense of rhythm dimly remembered—although we can never be sure. All of biological life on Earth evolved with strong rhythmic cycles: seasons, phases of the moon, glaciations. Only now, when we humans like Victor Frankenstein have created younger siblings made of silicon, do we see the real importance of these cycles. Computers, as it turns out, don’t care about tides, or seasons, or menstrual cycles. Under societies of control we pursue an education in the arts not to break through the walls that exist and see things afresh, that is, not to engage in philosophy or to think, but rather to demonstrate our greater employability because we “understand people” through our study of a philosophology we mistake for philosophy. I don’t know “people.” I only know individual human beings. And besides, reading Dostoevsky or Ursula Le Guin or Greek tragedy or whatever to be a better, more employable (and therefore malleable) worker strikes me as something of an irony. 

In societies of control, individuals become particulars, just one fungible and standardized example out of many of a broader trend or wave. The singularity that characterizes my “self” melts into the warm bath of networked “content,” and the gentle Muzak of gossamer bands stronger than any iron lulls me to sleep. I live a life of preprogrammed dreams, of televisual fantasy. These gentle dreams support a life of constant, frenetic activity that exhausts me without my noticing. Before, I think, I could feel the coercion of the society of control. I could experience, and resent, even rebel against, the sometimes brutal power my father, or my principal, or my boss had. Now, my boss wants to be friends on Facebook. My principal wants to be my princi-“pal.” My father doesn’t even have the decency to make rules for me to rebel against. He is always “just disappointed,” never angry. The iron discipline of the factory has become the spider’s web of the corporation. Pace Rousseau, the individual is now born in chains, but everywhere feels free. 

Following Deleuze, we should remember that our job is not to fear or hope, but only to find new weapons. The societies of control have won with their Sisyphean insistence. Indeed, we may already be moving into something new. Just as Sisyphus’ torment, chosen specifically for its pointlessness, never ends, neither does the work or the training of an individual under control. The family, the school, the workplace all run together along with night and day, sacred and profane. Even the torture of Prometheus ends, someday, at the hands of Hercules, the descendent of accursed, fly-bitten Io. Not so Sisyphus. I, for one, cannot see a way out of control. Perhaps no way exists yet. The allure of philosophology always beckons us, a wolf in sheep’s clothing, and in the nebulous society of control, it exists everywhere, all the time, with no clear point of leverage that might overturn it. The new weapon, then, is to turn control on its head. To embrace the Sisyphean endlessness of thinking, knowing full well that our thoughts may, in the end, come to naught. This idea is not new. Rather, it characterizes the position of Albert Camus in The Myth of Sisyphus, to which I will now turn.

Camus’ essay begins by famously laying out a clear problem: “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”[8] Suicide, for Camus, offers a way out of the absurd condition of human life:

Dying voluntarily implies that you have recognized, even instinctively,…the absence of any profound reason for living, the insane character of…daily agitation, and the uselessness of suffering. What, then, is that incalculable feeling that deprives the mind of the sleep necessary to life? … [I]n a universe suddenly divested of illusions and lights, man feels an alien, a stranger. His exile is without remedy since he is deprived of the memory of a lost home or the hope of a promised land. This divorce between man and his life, the actor and his setting, is properly the feeling of absurdity.[9]

Suicide, along with hope, constitute “eluding” the reality of the absurd. Hope, in this context, is bad. For Camus, “[e]luding is the invariable game. The typical act of eluding, the fatal evasion…is hope. Hope of another life one must ‘deserve’ or by trickery of those who live not for life itself, but for some great idea that will transcend it, refine it, give it a meaning, and betray it.”[10] Hope of a better world, hope of a way out of the absurd while still alive betrays life which, for Camus, is replete with human encounters with the absurd. We are the heirs to Prometheus’ gift of fire. We have the minds of gods and the bodies of bipedal apes. Ours is an absurd condition, and for Camus, the choice that takes seriously our absurd reality is not the dream of a better reality, not eluding our absurd reality with hope, but tarrying with it. Tarrying with our absurdity and purposefully eschewing the possibility of eluding our fates as temporally limited beings is a precondition for thinking as I use the word in this exercise. 

In Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound, the eponymous Titan tells the nymph Io some of her future. Prometheus can, of course, see everything with his foresight. Io moans at her future, full of pain, woe, and travels, and Prometheus responds, “How should my toils defeat you, then—since I am fated to endure them and not die?”[11] Prometheus knows his own future, he foresees his time stretching before him. His torture is compounded by the fact that he knows everything that will happen. Prometheus knows he will be freed one day, adding insult to the injuries he daily sustains. We humans don’t. We like to imagine that we can know the future. We use models to “predict” market activity, the weather, outcomes of sports games. Our predictions turn out right, some of the time, but we must remain wary of letting our occasionally correct stabs in the dark develop into an unthinking hubris. In societies of control, and in philosophology, such hubris comes very easily. In their haste to collapse and efface any temporal distinction, control societies lead their denizens to forget themselves as temporally limited beings, inheritors of contingent worlds full of lacunae, gaps, and unforeseen variables, worlds that, crucially, are not the way they are by necessity. Under Control, we forget that we will never again be this young; or this old.

With industrialization and the disciplinary factory, idiosyncratic human capability becomes generalized into labor—it doesn’t matter who pulls the lever on the widget machine just so long as it gets pulled. With the corporation, the time of our lives likewise collapses into generalized “productive” time. It doesn’t matter who sees the advertisements or who goes in for yet more training, just so long as the material to be shaped submits to the shaping. But, to wield our new weapon against the societies of control, we must remember the reality of time’s passage. The person willing to tarry with the absurd, according to Camus, “belongs to time, and by the horror that seizes him, he recognizes his worst enemy. Tomorrow, he was longing for tomorrow, whereas everything in him ought to reject it.”[12] Tarrying with the absurd rebels against the collapse of time of the control societies, reinvesting time with its power—and its terror. 

To tarry with the absurd is to hold doggedly on to a painful truth. Writes Camus, “[t]he first and, after all, the only condition of my inquiry is to preserve the very thing that crushes me.”[13] To think, we must remove any hope (which, as Camus points out, does not mean to despair) that we can escape our absurd fate. The absurd is an achy knee. It hurts when it rains, and the only option is to mollify the discomfort with an analgesic and gripe a bit. That, or do without the limb. 

Many might read Camus’ injunction to give up hope as a facile pessimism, the cynical (lower-case “c”) moanings of someone who didn’t have any friends growing up, or whose professional or personal aspirations were dashed. Failure to hope seems, today, to mean a poisonous bitterness. Some say that technological development will save us mortals from our inevitable encounters with absurdity. Maybe we will be able to upload our consciousness to a computer, or use nanotechnology to keep the telomeres of our chromosomes from unraveling, thus greatly expanding lifespans. Maybe. But I fail to see how such things would alleviate the inevitable sleepless nights in which we find ourselves once again face to face with the absurd. Besides, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, and my plate is still empty. As we wait for such salvation, I propose a different way of living with our particular flavor of absurdity under societies of control, a way of living that allows thinking in Camus’ sense, and the practice of philosophy in Pirsig’s. I propose, and will elaborate below, a Sisyphean Cynicism. 

Cynicism, in contemporary usage, carries a deeply negative connotation. One is cynical who never sees the good in things. A cynic today never allows that things get better sometimes, or that, every once in a while, the good guys win. Cynicism today is close cousins with irony, whose tendency toward gallows humor and biting, bitter satire unintentionally creates a kind of anti-hope. By never allowing oneself to express positive feelings, or to admit something good, the good can become a fantasy object, a Good, a kind of eternal promise one can secretly enjoy never actually getting. In contrast to the common usage of this word, I propose a rehabilitated Cynicism (capital “c”) that one might use to tarry with the absurd without succumbing to (or eluding) its destructive power. Sisyphean Cynicism would not make claims about the world, but seek to find a way to live in it. 

Coming from the Greek word for “dog,” Cynic philosophy begins in the fifth century BCE with Antisthenes, a student of Socrates, and Diogenes of Sinope, famous for “defacing the currency.” Cynics lived in poverty, owning nothing more than a cloak, a bowl, and a stick. Diogenes famously lived in a tub outside Athens and ate, defecated, and masturbated in public, just like a dog would. But despite his bizarre and socially inappropriate behavior, Diogenes was beloved of the people of Athens. When some rowdy youths broke his tub, the city voted to buy him a new one. Perhaps most famously, Alexander the Great once approached Diogenes, of whom the Conqueror had heard a great deal, and offered him a boon. No mean offer, considering Alexander was one of the most powerful men alive at the time. Diogenes, unimpressed by conquest and content to lie in the sun all day, asked as a boon from the young Conqueror: that Alexander step out of his sun. As he was walking away, Alexander said that if he were not Alexander, he would like to be Diogenes.[14] Much of what we know about Diogenes and other Cynic philosophers comes from similar chreiai, short, pithy anecdotes capped with a wry or sarcastic remark from the philosopher intended to drive home a Cynic lesson.[15] These chreiai demonstrate that the Cynics, far from denying the world by refusing to live by its rules, engaged the world by questioning and holding to account the assumptions of their interlocutors. That is, the Cynics avoided the trap of philosophology and practiced philosophy. For the Cynics, most people were beguiled and fooled by typhos, smoke or mist, that kept them from seeing the artificiality of their social world. In Cynic texts, typhos “has the metaphorical meaning of ‘pretence’ or ‘imposture.’ The Cynics regarded their contemporaries as a sad race of moral degenerates who valued appearance, prestige, and wealth above all else.”[16] In contrast to the mist covering up the vision of their contemporaries, Cynics sought atyphonia and happiness, or Eudaimonia, by living in accordance with nature. 

All classical philosophies, Cynicism included, claimed to lead their adherents to happiness.[17] Cynic philosophers identified four primary ideals that, when put into practice, led to happiness: self-sufficiency (autarkeia), freedom of speech (parrhesia), training (askesis), and endurance (karteria).[18] Individuals could be trained to develop the capacity for lasting happiness, but such training required endurance, or karteria.In fact, endurance (perhaps even dogged endurance!) was not only useful to get things done, but also helped the individual feel better, a primary goal of Cynicism:

Cynics preached karteria not only as a tonic for the soul, but on altruistic grounds. They were not monastics, ascetics, proto-holy men in the cloister or on top of a pillar. They were very public figures who endured life outdoors and a meagre diet, and no doubt a steady stream of heckling, especially from the gilded youths in the urban centres [sic], while servicing society with their prose hymns delivered on street corners and in the public square.[19]

The classical Cynics, then, were public figures who sought, through perseverance, self-sufficiency, and training, to help their fellows rid themselves of the typhos, the mist of illusion that kept them from the happiness available to them by living life according to nature. They should serve as a model for those who would engage in thinking or philosophy in these times of control, but with a twist. The Cynics believed that lasting happiness could be attained in this life. That is, there was a “real” or “natural” happiness that existed if only one saw through the mist of pretense and imposture, of silly social games and unnatural indulgence of appetite. I reject even this faint glimmer of hope in the Cynic worldview. To hope, as Camus put it above, is to elude the reality of the absurd condition of life, and the society of control ensures that any glimpse of an “outside” is immediately filled with the typhos of philosophology and integrated into the networks of control. Our Cynicism should not be hopeful, but rather Sisyphean. We must work to clear away the mists knowing full well that for all that we clear away, more will come. 

One of the chreiai about Diogenes of Sinope has him walking around Athens with a lamp in broad daylight, calling out that he is searching for a man. When several Athenian citizens show up claiming to be men, Diogenes scolds them and lashes out at them with his stick, yelling that he wanted men, not scoundrels. I find this little anecdote quite funny because I love curmudgeonly characters. The “business end” of this story, however, has an uncomfortable edge: it’s easy for me to laugh and identify with Diogenes in the story, but how do I know that I myself am not one of the scoundrels he chases away? It is far too easy for me to imagine that I would pass the Dog’s muster. The scoundrels today are those who claim to have lost all hope while secretly hiding away a little piece deep in their souls. These are the scoundrels that the Sisyphean Cynic must fight against, and they are his direst enemies because they bear a close family resemblance to him. 

We do not need any more sour cynicism or ironic distance from the world that covertly cherishes a hidden hope as a way out. As Camus writes, the Absurd individual “has forgotten how to hope. The hell of the present is his Kingdom at last.”[20] Later in the same passage, Camus reveals himself to agree with the Cynics on at least one thing: “Let us insist again on the method; it is a matter of persisting.” The societies of control fill in our imaginations and obscure whatever may lie outside of them. In societies of control, ethereal networks shape the matter of our bodies and minds without ever feeling like an imposition. Control expands to fill all available space—a tall glass of typhos, indeed. But the Sisyphean Cynic, because she abides and tarries with the absurd in Camus’ sense, does not try to leave the world. Indeed, the Sisyphean Cynic doesn’t even have the luxury of her predecessors’ faith in living according to Nature. For such faith to sustain, one has to hope (or, at least, believe) that Nature exists! The Sisyphean Cynic, instead, lives fully here. She eschews any hope of anything “outside,” even the Nature that the classical Cynics thought could bring happiness. The Sisyphean Cynic lives fully here in our societies of control; she lives fully here in our world of messy, grimy, lacking human lifetimes, inheritors of violent and absurdly contingent material histories and assumptions. She eschews the eluding power of hope for the consolation of thought and action here and now. “The absurd enlightens [her] on this point: there is no future.”[21]

The Sisyphean Cynic lives here and now, and she does so regardless of honor in the eyes of others. There is no need to seek out opportunity for impropriety or rudeness—it’s easy to chuckle approvingly at Diogenes asking Alexander to get out of his sun, but I still call police officers “sir” or “ma’am” when I encounter them. Indeed, to indulge too often in impropriety can lead to one secretly harboring hope about the possibility of impropriety, hope that disarms the absurd power of impropriety when mobilized rightly. Impropriety, though it seeks initially to deface the currency, can itself become just another currency if indulged in too frequently or without reason. Like her namesake the dog, the Sisyphean Cynic must remain vigilant. But despite the potential pitfalls of behavior considered dishonorable or rude, the Sisyphean Cynic must remain mindful that such behavior may be necessary to tarry with the absurd and avoid the trap of hope. As Camus puts it, “Supposing that living [absurdly, without hope or future] were not honorable, then true propriety would command me to be dishonorable.”[22] Indeed, one must be willing to take on sickness, perhaps even unto (involuntary!) death to tarry with the absurd. To return briefly to Prometheus on his rock, when taken to task by the Chorus for his hating of the gods, the Titan responds, “If hating the gods is sick, then I’ll be sick.”[23] The Sisyphean Cynic knows she is sick, that everyone is, and acts anyway. She is less like a technician repairing a broken world than like a confessor to a sinner. Confessors have their own confessors, after all. Dogs run in packs. 

So, here we are. Hopeless, Cynical, masochistically and doggedly gripping in our teeth a view of the world that causes us suffering. Though the Cynics of old may have seemed free in their disregard for habitual social practice according to established norms, they, like we Sisyphean Cynics, were in fact more slaves to their principles than the scoundrels they sought to convert. Once hope is gone, it doesn’t come back, at least not like it used to. No matter how solid the world now seems, once we have glimpsed the possibility of the absurd we see wisps of smoke in the corners of our eyes. The gossamer chains of the web of control don’t weigh any more than they did before, but we can at least feel them now. Sisyphean Cynicism requires precisely this willful loss of liberty. As Camus writes, “The absurd does not liberate; it binds. It does not authorize all actions. ‘Everything is permitted’ does not mean that nothing is forbidden. The absurd merely confers an equivalence on those actions… One can be virtuous through a whim.”[24] I engage in this exercise, these pages here, on a whim. I train myself to think carefully on a whim. I tarry with the absurd on a whim. And I do all this precisely for nothing. Writes Camus 

To work and create “for nothing,” to sculpture in clay, to know one’s creation has no future, to see one’s work destroyed in a day while being aware that fundamentally this has no more importance than building for centuries—this is the difficult wisdom that absurd thought sanctions.[25]

The societies of control engage in constant modulation of creative energies. They fill the horizon, obscuring the possibility of anything beyond them with the smoke of tendencies to reify the world the way it is now. I should clarify again here that I do not intend any of the foregoing as metaphysical claims. I don’t know if life really has no meaning that goes “all the way down.” I don’t know if the absurd is “real.” I am not even sure, as I said above, that we have not already moved past the societies of control into something different. The position of Sisyphean Cynicism is a tactic and a lens. It is one map of many, not the territory. I find the training, the askesis, of Sisyphean Cynicism useful because it offers a pleasingly homologous symmetry when juxtaposed with societies of control. Sisyphus’ punishment was not only onerous, but pointless. Prometheus knows he will someday be set free, and so he can endure. The constant buzzing activity of the societies of control does not seem to have an end. The scrolling may go on forever, with busyness as proxy for actual productivity, with Pirsig’s “philosophology” reigning over Camus’ thinking. Because we can’t see a way out, let us turn the logic in on itself. Like Sisyphus, we have the power to make of our chains a kind of liberation:

If [the myth of Sisyphus] is tragic, that is because its hero is conscious. Where would his torture be, indeed, if at every step the hope of succeeding upheld him? The workman of today works every day in his life at the same tasks, and this fate is no less absurd. But it is tragic only at the rare moments when it is conscious. Sisyphus, proletarian of the gods, powerless and rebellious, knows the whole extent of his wretched condition: it is what he things of during his descent. The lucidity that was to constitute his torture at the same time crowns his victory. There is no fate that cannot be surmounted by scorn.[26]

Sisyphus’ punishment was pointless. Good. The work of the Sisyphean Cynic, then, is pointless. And that is also good. The Sisyphean Cynic embraces the tragedy of her fate and keeps it, like the last coal of a once-raging fire, close to her breast. She knows that if “the descent is…sometimes performed in sorrow, it can also take place in joy. This word is not too much.”[27] She knows that to elude her fate with hope would be to betray it, that the only honor is in persistence, and that the floodwaters of control will rush in to fill whatever progress she may make. But she continues. As Camus famously concludes, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”[28]

We find ourselves living in societies of control with Sisyphean tasks careful not to present themselves as punishments before us. And we have no choice if we wish, as I do, to tarry with the absurd, than to doggedly refuse to elude our tragic fates; perhaps, in engaging in the work of Sisyphean Cynicism, we can modulate ourselves slightly out of synch with the dulcet imperatives of control. We must work not against the world, though we may sometimes need to decry scoundrels, but rather next to and withinthe world. In a world of control, there is no “against.” We necessarily encounter the absurd, but we are not alone in these encounters. We do not share the luxury of Prometheus’ foresight, though he was an ally of defeated humankind in the war that saw the tyrannical Olympians enthroned. We lack his prophetic foresight, and so we must take an even greater risk than our Titan ally and work for nothing, clear in the knowledge that we may incur upon ourselves the wrath of whatever gods there may be in our undulating, modulating world. We must recognize philosophology for what it is, remain aware of the spider’s web of control, and, like Diogenes, lash out at its impertinence. Deleuze says we must find new weapons. We must also find new allies. Friends near and far who will help us clear the mists away, friends who would pass Diogenes’ muster. Friends with whom we can share in the realization that there is no reason to fear, or to hope. But there is reason to work. Like a dog.

 

 

Works Cited

Aeschylus. “Prometheus Bound.” Translated by James Romm. The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. Edited by Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm, Modern Library, 2017, pp. 180–217.

Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O’Brien. London: Vintage International, 1991.

Deleuze, Gilles. “Postscript on Societies of Control.” October 59, Winter, 1992, pp. 3–7.

Dobbin, Robert, ed. The Cynic Philosophers: From Diogenes to Julian. London: Penguin Classics, 2013.

Pirsig, Robert. Lila: An Inquiry into Morals. New York: Bantam Press, 1991.


Notes

[1]Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays, trans. Justin O’Brien (New York: Vintage International, 1991), 43.

[2]Pirsig, Robert. Lila: An Inquiry Into Morals (New York: Bantam Press), 1991, 371.

[3]Ibid., 415.

[4]Gilles Deleuze, “Postscript on Societies of Control.” October, 59, Winter (1992): 3-7.

[5]Ibid,, 4. 

[6]Ibid., 5. 

[7]Ibid., 6. 

[8]Camus, 3. 

[9]Ibid., 6. 

[10]Ibid., 8 (my italics). 

[11]Aeschylus, “Prometheus Bound,” in The Greek Plays: Sixteen Plays by Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides, ed. Mary Lefkowitz and James Romm, trans. James Romm (New York: Modern Library, 2017), 180-217. Lines 751-752. 

[12]Camus, 15. 

[13]Ibid., 31. 

[14]Robert Dobbin, ed. The Cynic Philosophers from Diogenes to Julian (London: Penguin Classics, 2013), 31. 

[15]Ibid., xvi.

[16]Ibid., xx. 

[17]Ibid., xiii.

[18]Ibid., xvi-xx. 

[19]Ibid., xix.

[20]Camus, 52. 

[21]Ibid., 58.

[22]Ibid., 61. 

[23]Aeschylus, line 977. 

[24]Camus, 67. 

[25]Ibid., 114. 

[26]Ibid., 121.

[27]Ibid., 123. 

[28]Ibid. 

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