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Cynicism And The Election

A "Rock the Vote" ad simply urges viewers to vote--for anyone or anything, just so long as they exercise their capacity to make a choice.
Joe Sartelle

Issue #2, October 1992

"These days I'm feeling all right, 'Cept I can't tell my courage from my desperation."
Bruce Springsteen, "Local Hero"

Recently MTV has been running a "public service" advertisement featuring the band Aerosmith extolling the virtues of freedom of expression as part of the network's "Rock the Vote" campaign to get its viewers to register and vote. The freedom which the ad celebrates appears to extend no further than the individual's right to dress flamboyantly and engage in pastiches of sado-masochistic practices and sexist stereotypes; after we are urged to keep our freedom through voting, the last image we see is that of two bikini-clad women holding up an enormous condom, while Steve Tyler's voice intones, "The freedom to wear a rubber 24 hours a day." While MTV has clearly put itself on the side of Clinton in this fall's election, the "Rock the Vote" ad simply urges viewers to vote — for anyone or anything, just so long as they exercise their capacity to make a choice. In other words, the ad manages simultaneously to trivialize the content of choice (freedom is a matter of fun, fashion, and safe sex) while insisting upon the seriousness of our right to choose. "Vote," the ad is saying, "even if it's for the wrong guy." I have also seen Tim Robbins, auteur and star of the Spinal Tap-inspired faux documentary Bob Roberts, giving interviews protesting the idea that his sneering, cynical indictment of the American political system might serve to exacerbate the existing disaffection with the election process. No, Robbins insists, our message is that people must vote, that the survival of democracy depends upon it — and he urges people to vote, no matter whom they vote for. One might want to ask why, if it doesn't matter whom or what we vote for, it matters so much that we vote at all; both examples seem to me to confess the effective bankruptcy of American "democracy" as we now know it while simultaneously exhorting us to act as though this were not the case by going out and voting. In both examples, what is endorsed is not the meaningfulness of the choices themselves, but the need to act as though the choices are meaningful; what we are really asked to vote for is the system itself, even if we don't believe in it. The apparently unselfconscious cynicism of both of these "pro-democracy" promotions might be more alarming were it not also so commonplace. The fact that we have, as individuals and as a society, learned to live so comfortably with this cynicism — that should truly have us alarmed.

During the years of the Reagan and Bush administrations we have witnessed in this country the steadily growing dominance of a new cultural sensibility, which I and my colleague and friend Kathleen Moran have called, in the classes we have taught on the period, "cynical spectatorship." The historical conditions of this sensibility lie in the multiple disillusionments of the 1960's and 70s: the various assassinations; the moral and practical disaster of the Vietnam War; the Nixon-era crackdown on political "subversion" (i.e., open dissent); the post-Watergate wholesale contempt for government and politicians; the collapse around 1973 of the fantastic post-World War II hyper-expansion of the American economy and the middle class; and so on. But whereas in the 60s and 70s enough people still believed in the promises of American society to respond to their betrayals with outrage, in the 80s we learned to take such betrayals for granted. The achieved hegemony of cynical spectatorship might be seen to have been announced by the polls that came out during the Iran-Contra scandals, in which a majority of those questioned thought that Reagan was lying about his knowledge and involvement, while a majority of those very same people thought that Reagan was doing a good job as President. No one seemed very surprised by the poll's results, signalling that we had come to accept this kind of contradiction as somehow normal. (The form in which the contradiction was most often expressed was something like the following: "No, I don't agree with Reagan's policies or statements, but he makes me feel good again about being an American!" ) For people on the right, the poll results could be used to argue that people thought it was OK for Presidents to lie in the service of a "greater good" (the Ollie North syndrome). For people on the left, the results served to confirm the left's tendency to regard the masses as pliant dupes easily swayed by fatherly authoritarians. In other words, the poll could satisfy almost everyone by confirming their existing cynicism.

The years of Reagan and Bush also saw the rise to incredible popularity of two genres of mass entertainment: stand-up comedy and "reality television." Of course, both of these genres have been around a long time; my point here is that in the 80s they went from being marginal to dominant in our popular culture: stand-up comedy and "reality TV" are now everywhere. Both genres depend upon a particular kind of ironic distancing from everyday reality. Stand-up comedy is almost always based on finding something odd or funny in the most ordinary circumstances and situations of our daily lives. Likewise, "reality TV" finds entertainment value in the details of reality itself (from the dangerous routines of police officers or the silly antics of home videos). In other words, in both cases the ordinary world of the everyday is converted into a kind of spectacle, something we can stand outside of and take aesthetic satisfaction from, whether in the form of laughter, excitement, fear, or revulsion (or some combination of these emotions, and others). It seems to me rather self-evident upon consideration that such "entertainment" presupposes a fairly high degree of alienation from ordinary reality on the part of those for whom it works as entertainment; the familarity of the "real world" becomes commodified and seems to confront us as something fascinatingly strange. It is as though our ideas of what ordinary reality should be have entered into a fairly painful contradiction with what ordinary reality actually is, and these two genres of popular culture are among the most literal ways in which we collectively replay this contradiction over and over again, trying somehow to come to grips with it.

What is peculiar about the times we live in is how thoroughly demystified about almost everything we have become, as a society if not as individuals — while we simultaneously perpetuate many of the same myths we so relentlessly demolish. Television in particular, as other social commentators have observed, tends to force everyone and everything to "come out of the closet." Just to give one example, the public attention currently being focused on how commonplace and ordinary a thing incest apparently is would have been almost unimaginable only twenty years ago. Thus we now have the spectacle of one segment of our culture calling for a return to old-fashioned "family values," while another segment shows us (pretty convincingly) that "family values" of this sort, with their romantic mystification of the actual power relations within the family, traditionally have provided both the conditions and the cover for all sorts of sexual abuse and humiliation. So now, as a culture, we all know that behind the happy facade of the nuclear family we are likely to discover a horror show; and yet, as a culture, we continue to cherish the myth of the very same happy nuclear family. (This is one way to read Twin Peaks as a cultural symptom; along these lines, check out the new CBS series Picket Fences on Friday nights.)

The traditional Marxist definition of ideology is that of "false consciousness," as in Marx's phrase in Capital, "they do not know it, but they are doing it." However, in our information- saturated and relentlessly disillusioned society, ideology has ceased to be so simple. In his 1983 book Critique of Cynical Reason (a bestseller in Germany), Peter Sloterdijk suggests that our dominant ideology is cynicism itself. The cynical subject is quite aware that ideology is a lie meant to conceal a very different reality; he or she does not believe the "official" view. But ,feeling superior to the lie, the cynical subject nevertheless continues to live by it. Such a person possesses what Sloterdijk calls "enlightened false consciousness": they know very well what they are doing, but still, they are doing it. Election campaigns are the perfect example of this, since "everyone knows" that candidates lie, manipulate and dissemble to get elected, that corporate special interests provide the money the candidates need and thus the interests they will serve once elected, and so forth — yet we persist in the fantasy that if we can just get enough people out there voting, the system will somehow be redeemed. Hence MTV's "Rock the Vote" ads and Robbins' pro-democracy take on Bob Roberts.

Cynicism in our culture is perhaps most often associated with ironic, wise-cracking humor of the sort that characterizes The Simpsons. Defenders of this kind of humor often wish to attribute to it a subversive edge, because cynical laughter arises from our recognition of the lies we tell ourselves — it is essentially an argument for a politics of attitude. However, as the Slovenian critic Slavoj Zizek points out in his 1989 book The Sublime Object of Ideology, "that cynical distance, laughter, irony, are, so to speak, part of the game." The ruling classes don't really care whether we believe the official ideology, they are only concerned with our behavior. The existence and circulation of so much radical and leftist writing and propaganda is testimony to this: the State only intervenes if and when people start putting those ideas into practice. Who cares that much about what people think if it doesn't translate into action? The most ideological dimension of our lives is increasingly not to be found in what we think, but in how we act; as Zizek puts it, "the illusion is not on the side of knowledge, it is already on the side of reality itself, of what the people are doing." Cynical laughter represents the capacity to find pleasure (however bitter) in the disparity between the myths we live by and the realities we actually live in. But from what exactly does this pleasure derive?

Again, the elections are instructive. Voting is traditionally the means by which ordinary citizens of whatever background are supposed to have a say in how they are governed; the utopian dimension of representative government lies in its promise to give us some kind of control over our destinies. However, since the 60s, it has become increasingly true that both in popular perception and in reality, the government no longer serves the interests of the people it claims to represent. This attitude is common to both the right and the left in this country. Feelings of powerlessness and lack of control take us to the heart of the problem of cynicism and enlightened false consciousness. I have already mentioned stand-up comedy and "reality TV" as symptoms of cynical spectatorship; to these we can add American culture's obsession with victims and survivors. We live in a culture that equates mere survival with heroism, a fact that speaks grim volumes about the quality of life in our society. Cynical spectatorship is a response to feelings of helplessness and powerlessness in the face of a society that holds up its ideals only to betray them, over and over. That is to say, deep down inside the cynical spectator wishes the ideals were true, though he or she knows them to be lies. A possible response, righteous outrage of the sort one saw in the youth cultures of the 60s, is destined to fail, the cynic reasons: after all, wasn't that the lesson which the 60s taught us? Assuming that all ideals are doomed to betrayal, the cynical subject is left only with pain and isolation. The compensation which cynical reason provides for this pain is the false empowerment of a feeling of superiority: "Sure, it's all a lie, and I'm being used and sold out, and all efforts to change things will just fail or make new problems, but at least I know it!" Cynical spectatorship allows one to be simultaneously both above it all and complicit with it. Think about this the next time you watch The Simpsons, or have a cheap laugh at the expense of politics.

My simple point in this essay is that perhaps our greatest obstacle to achieving the sort of substantive changes so many claim to desire is our investment in cynicism. Cynicism allows us to feel superior to a world we must all take responsibility for, because it gives us what feels like a total understanding, a sense of how it all works, that "others" (however we define them) don't have. We can feel like we're in on the joke, rather than being the butt of it. Cynicism is the victim's laugh at his or her own victimization and pain — but it doesn't change the fact that one is a victim. The cynic is thus the butt of his or her own joke, which is why cynical laughter is always mixed with mean-spiritedness and self-hatred. The person who acts to bring an end to oppression or victimization is no longer a cynic; whether such action is born of courage or desperation finally matters very little. To act is to affirm hope, to affirm the possibility that things can be not just different but better. Marx's "Eleventh Thesis on Feuerbach" is as true now as it ever was: "The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways; the point, however, is to change it."

Copyright © 1992 by Joe Sartelle. All rights reserved.