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Cynical or Kynical?

July 09, 2012 By: NCVeditor Category: Culture, Current Events, Devon G. Pena, Politics

Exposing Rightwing Propaganda Through Leftist Humor

by Devon G. Peña

Given recent events in Arizona and Texas, I have been thinking a lot about ideology. So, yesterday I was re-reading the Slovenian social critic and philosopher, Slavoj Žižek considered by many to be the “Elvis of social theory.” He’s good, but I would not deify him.

Anyway, I went back to Žižek’s 1989 book, The Sublime Object of Ideology (London and New York: Verso Books) and found a familiar passage that has been in the back of my mine ever since I first came across the Texas Republican Party Platform and reported it in the piece I did last week on Fear and Loathing in Texas. Žižek makes the following fascinating statement:

“The most elementary definition of ideology is probably the well-known phrase from Marx’s Capital: ‘Sie wissen das nicht, aber sie tun es’ (‘They do not know it, but they are doing it.’) The very concept of ideology implies a kind of basic, constitutive naïveté: the misrecognition of its own presuppositions, of its own effective conditions, a distance, a divergence between so-called social reality and our distorted representation, our false consciousness of it.”

Like Žižek, I have long been intrigued by this passage in Capital because it provides perhaps the most lasting and definitive conceptualization of the concept of ideology not so much as “false consciousness” – as is often argued – but rather as the ability to construct your own reality. And I am not talking about a mitote with the mysterious Carlos Castañeda hanging with his Yaqui mentor, Don Juan, and tripping out in a mushroom-induced separate reality with their animal doubles in search of a rupture with the dialectics of the nagual and tonal.

But, come to think of it, it almost seems as if the rightwing partisans in Texas and Arizona have altered their consciousness with some weird netherworld substance that has permanently shifted their perception of reality through the lens of permanent distortion. That netherworld substance is called fear and hatred; they are drunk and deranged by these by-products of ideology; that and power; or perhaps the fear of losing power?

But enough with funny allusions to the work of a stoned-out and disappeared anthropologist. The question of the nature and role of ideology in contemporary social and political conflict is a very serious matter.

So, back to Žižek’s book, which addresses not just multiple meanings of ideology beyond Marx’s original and still useful proposition. Instead, it posits a very interesting paradox, which he summarizes in one sense as the opposition between the cynicism and kynicism. Here is a quote worth pondering:

We must distinguish this cynical position strictly from what Sloterdijk calls kynicism. Kynicism represents the popular, plebeian rejection of the official culture by means of irony and sarcasm: the classical kynical procedure is to confront the pathetic phrases of the ruling official ideology — its solemn, grave tonality — with everyday banality and to hold them up to ridicule, thus exposing behind the sublime noblesse of the ideological phrases the egotistical interests, the violence, the brutal claims to power. This procedure, then, is more pragmatic than argumentative: it subverts the official proposition by confronting it with the situation of its enunciation; it proceeds ad hominem (for example when a politician preaches the duty of patriotic sacrifice, kynicism exposes the personal gain he is making from the sacrifice of others).

A very good example of this occurred rather recently. Remember during the Republican Primary this past January when candidate Willard Mitt Romney argued during a debate in Florida that his immigration policy would be to get the undocumented to self-deport? That was sheer cynicism because everyone knows that is never going to happen.

What Romney did not realize is that Chicano political satirists had originally invented the idea of self-deportation. They had been engaging in a classic form of kynicism. Self-deportation was a brilliant political joke attributed to a fictional persona, a Daniel D. Portado (the name can translate as “Daniel Deported”).

This was a character invented by the irrepressible Chicano tricksters Lalo Alcaraz and Esteban Zul in 1994, the year that California voters approved a ballot initiative known as Proposition 187. That law would have prohibited undocumented immigrants from using public services like schools and hospitals in California but it was shortly overturned as unconstitutional.

Kynicism is a tool used by the multitude to bring the rich and powerful back down to Earth, although it seems Romney is probably too arrogant to even know that the joke was on him. What matters to a good portion of the multitude is the ability to relish in the irony and paradox of that entire affair; they get the joke as aficionados of all things kynical.

Let’s take one other example of this paradox. After the Supreme Court ruling overturned most of SB1070, and suspended enforcement of the notorious §2(B), the media mavens were quick to go to the Big Boss Sheriff in Arizona, Joe Arpaio himself, whose days in office are surely numbered once the DOJ is done with him and his corrupt minions.

When asked what impact the ruling would have on his department, Arpaio replied, sniffing at the air with that bulbous red nose of his: “Well, nothing changes,” he told Univision’s Jorge Ramos. That, again, is cynicism.

But what followed in this interview was not just pure demagoguery, an effort to shore-up the collapse of this draconian law, it was a bold-face lie: “We are well trained,” Arpaio grunted, “we do that without racial profiling, regardless of what the critics and some politicians in the U.S. Justice Department accuse me of.” Now that is not just cynical, it is outright mendacity.

But the joke is on Arpaio and the multitude is relishing the latest dressing down of this abusive bully hiding behind an official badge. The kynical response is seen in the mobilization of the community into guardians of democracy and immigrant rights, and the artistic community that has risen to provide the movement with educational media and additional weapons of political satire. (See the poster accompanying this article; that is kynicism!)

More: The Arizona Chicana/o community is organizing itself to document the abuses of the separate reality constructed by Arpaio that holds: “Well, nothing changes.”

But everything has changed: Now, if the police or sheriff deputies start enforcing §2(B), or any other provision of SB1070, they will be in violation of the Higher Court ruling that suspended enforcement of the “Show me your papers” provision until lawsuits make their way through the courts and are settled.

And, if illegal police acts of enforcement involve racial profiling, which is inevitable as in the past, then that too will be another nail in the coffin of the telluric partisans who suspend the rule of law to protect against the growing erosion of their power as our society makes the demographic transition to a majority minority.

Part of the process of change involves a resurgence of political mobilization and direct action. This is apparent in a new spirit of systematic non-cooperation that is going “viral,” and is partly being expressed through kynical art. This is also being realized  through the countless “Freedom Summer” events organized across Arizona, California, and other states.

Even Dora the Explorer has gotten into the act of resistance! This character, a popular figure in a cartoon on the Nickelodeon TV cable channel, has been appropriated and reinvented by anonymous movement artists, who present her as a border-crosser showing signs of obvious abuse at the hands of law enforcers. This is kynicism and its ideological role is simply to call truth to power.

So, what I have learned from re-reading Žižek, especially in the light of what is rapidly becoming a post-1070 Arizona?

I have learned that ideology is much more than false consciousness or even mostly a systematically distorted form of communication; it is all that but it is also much more: It is often a form of self-deception borne of a delusion grounded in a fear of change brought about by the forces of the “Other.” This is what I have been calling the “ecology of fear” for several years now and it really is remarkable how much the rightwing in Arizona and Texas is acting out of fear.

But ideology also involves the ability to create a critique of domination, one that persuades an ever-larger number of people of the righteousness of a movement’s grievances and demands. In this manner, ideology also works when people allow themselves to imagine alternative political possibilities emerging from the struggles of the multitude. These are not separate realities like the delusional constructs of rightwing partisans. They are imagined political futures guided by strategic recompositions of actual power relations.

In this process, art has a role to play that can be understood by the widest range of marginalized subjects, including those lacking other forms of literacy. We might do well to recall that the army of Emiliano Zapata used corridos to teach the guerrilleros how to service their weapons or how to move into a rear flank attack position on the enemy.

Kynical humor is “ontologically thick” because it is part of the every day lived experience of the oppressed and this often means playing the stereotypes against the dominant party. Thus, the women of Zapata’s army smuggled and carried weapons underneath their clothing by appearing pregnant as they slipped past the retenes of the Huertistas or Constitucional forces. Everyone expected the women to be bulging from their pregnancies. That is a practical form of kynicism.

Likewise, Dora the Explorer represents the same subversive turning of the stereotype into a weapon of the “weak,” a tool of resistance. ¡Que viva el arte de la Resistencia!

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His influential books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (University of Arizona Press, 2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (University of Arizona Press, 1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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