We might say that an information society such as ours should have already achieved emancipation. If not, at the least our streets should be teeming constantly with angry mobs outraged at the myriad of horrors our society inflicts on itself. Yet despite our unprecedented knowledge of our ne’er-do-well elites, our capacity for moral action seems just as compromised as always. We know that civilization faces existential threats. We know that myopic, money hungry, sociopaths dominate our society. We even know that we have the means and intelligence to solve many of our problems. Nevertheless the problems persist, they fester as our inaction deepens. Why? We might best label this phenomenon “cynical reason”. It means as it sounds, the cynical practice of knowledge divorced from the imperative of action. As George Carlin said, “It’s the old American double standard: say one thing, do something different.”
I will use two analytical lenses, William James’ Will to Believe doctrine and Slavoj Zizek’s The Sublime Object of Ideology to examine this double standard. These rather disparate lenses will demonstrate how ethical action requires subjects to “believe before they believe”. Belief operates on two levels, that of knowledge and that of action. Cynical reason exists when this double belief breaks down, allowing the individual to “believe” at the knowledge level and yet still disbelieve on the action level. James’ analysis locates this in a “will” which “fires the magazines of belief” thus promoting action. Zizek proposes a psychoanalytic approach, arguing that the disbelieving action is really belief at the level of unconscious fantasy.
The problem with both analytics lies in their descriptive nature. They don’t offer much in the way of prescriptive emancipatory action. To solve this I will introduce several social movement organizing strategies, designed to engage with and combat, cynical reason. These strategies will show what James and Zizek get right and what they get wrong. Synthesizing the lessons gleaned from both philosophers and organizers, I hope to posit a strategy for emancipatory politics in the face of cynical reason.