Tuesday, May 13, 2014

A Cynical Argument for the Liberal Arts, Part Six

[Part Zero] [Part One] [Part Two] [Part Three] [Part Four] [Part Five]
We have taken the Cynical charge to "debase the coin of the realm" to mean interference with signals of all sorts, from coins themselves (a promise of a future good or service) to emotions (pain as a signal from the body). More traditionally, the classical philosophy of the dogs has been dismissed as unimportant (Hegel), used as a model for social critique (Diderot, Foucault), adopted into Sadism (de Sade) or romantic primitivism (Rousseau), and as a guide to self-enlightenment (Sloterdijk). All attempts to completely civilize the Cynics necessarily leaves out the dog's bite, argues Louisa Shea in [1].

As we have considered it here, Cynicism is a sort of weaponized philosophy, having little to do with the academic philosophy that peeks out of books and journals. The coin of the realm for academics is convincing other academics of something. In other words, a socially-constructed "truth" ripe for cynical attack [2], [3],[4]. A famous description of Diogenes going about by day with a lantern to look for an "honest" man might seem to point to a common ground. In fact, some describe the Cynics as searchers for Truth. At face value, this seems backwards: the Cynical project is the debasement of coins, not the minting of them. A counter-argument is that by debasing coins, the Cynics show that they were valueless to begin with except as tokens of the king (state-sanctioned signals), and this deconstruction is the real Truth.

At the least, signal attacks are a method of "truth-through-conflict". A good example is Diogenes' plucked chicken challenging Socrates' definition of humans as featherless bipeds. The most effective challenge to any claim of Truth is physical evidence to the contrary.

In a liberal arts curriculum, students ideally receive instruction in what we might call homeopathic Cynicism. It is so dilute as to be safe for the classroom, but still useful. Examples include competitive truth-finding in critical analysis of texts or art, or other exchanges where students and teachers challenge each other to find meaning. This is practice is social truth-finding, and the corrosive power of Cynicism to turn signals into noise is there waiting to be rediscovered. Society is too tame to embrace it as pedagogy, although I think even liberal arts programs would benefit from adding more Cynical doing to the curriculum. Theory is too easy and too easily (little-c) cynical, too easily dismissed. Having a plucked fowl tossed at you makes an impression.

By contrast, jobs training doesn't benefit from producing graduates who question authority or are self-reflective. A job is a cog in a gear in a box, and what it needs is a consistent interface. The best employees are efficient machines that absorb their employer's epistemology. There are three problems with this.

The first problem with jobs is that computers and robots are taking them. It turns out that machines are better at being machines than people are. The second problem is that bureaucratic systems are amoral, and may do bad things. In the "homework problem" from last time, an employee became dissatisfied with his job on moral grounds (blowing up strangers based on what phone chip is in their pocket). The recent history of our species is strewn with far worse examples. Jobs training (writ large) works by inculcating a amoral epistemology, and what we see time after time is that the establishment of these ways of knowing and doing gives moral cover for individuals. "I was just doing my job" may end up being the epitaph of The Enlightenment.

Third, the "education for jobs is good for the economy" argument may be true in the short term, but invention and entrepreneurship don't come from 'jobs training', they come from disruptive impulses by people who don't want to scan groceries.  Liberal arts education is far from perfect, but even heavily diluted, the few molecules of Cynicism that remain are enough to make a difference. Even if the education doesn't change anyone's mind, it validates those who come looking for something they can't find in jobs training. Few are going to be full-blown Cynics, because that lands you in jail these days. But even a whiff of the vapor can be intoxicating.
Here's to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes... the ones who see things differently -- they're not fond of rules... You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them, but the only thing you can't do is ignore them because they change things... they push the human race forward, and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the ones who are crazy enough to think that they can change the world, are the ones who do. --Steve Jobs
Anyway, the focus on jobs just detracts from the big picture, because the jury is still out on The Enlightenment as a long-term survival strategy for humans. We don't just need consumers and producers--we need Cynics to dissolve all but the most essential truths for us so that we might have a chance of constructing a system of living together that doesn't kill all of us. Or perhaps we look at the epistemological coffee grounds and conclude that this is impossible [5]. That would be major progress.

Next: Part Seven

[1] Shea, Louisa. The cynic enlightenment: Diogenes in the salon. JHU Press, 2010.
[2] "Publishers withdraw more than 120 gibberish papers," Nature, 24 Feb, 2014
[3] "Read Derrida's Response to the Sokal Affair," Critical Theory, Aug, 2013
[4] Latour, Bruno. We have never been modern. Harvard University Press, 2012.
[5] Eubanks, David A. "Survival Strategies." arXiv preprint arXiv:0812.0644 (2008).

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