The fraudster and the fowl

The fraudster and the fowl
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The fraudster and the fowl

(published in: Lebenswelt n 13, 2018)


When someone bumped into Diogenes with a plank and then said “Watch out!” Diogenes struck him with his staff and said “Watch out!”

(Diogenes Laërtius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 673).


«The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things» (Spinoza 2000, Proposition VII, L. 2, 127), the thinking substance and the extended substance of the body are one and the same thing, what changes are the attributes, which alone appear in different forms, «thus a mode of the extension and the idea of that mode are also one and the same thing, although it is expressed in two different modes» (Spinoza 2000, scholia of proposition VII, L. 2, 128).

Lounging on a beach, overwhelmed by boredom, I watch the bathers in the August heat. Sitting in a café, I look out the window onto the street, like George Perec. I spend a whole Sunday afternoon sitting on my balcony, as suggested by Jean Tarrou (1), so as not to waste my time, and what I see is probably what Spinoza saw in the streets of Amsterdam or The Hague: «Bodies are distinguished from one another in respect of motion and rest, quickness and slowness, and not in respect of substance» (Spinoza 2000, Lemma I of prop. XIII, L. 2, 135), which instead is unique and indivisible.

Unstable extensions, bodies fluctuating in a universe of passions ordained in movement and stasis by external forces, by other bodies themselves moved by yet other bodies and so on. This brings to mind Gilles Deleuze’s machinism of the regime of images inspired by Henri Bergson: «the material universe, the plan of immanence [itself multiple and unstable and divisible into space/time blocks], is the machine assemblage of movement-images» (Deleuze 1983, 78). Both systems feature perceptions and actions and affections in between.

I truly am loath to say what is the property of the gesture on such a contourless and grim plane. I really am at a loss, I cannot say where the gesture is and, especially, where it is not.

I wish to begin my dissertation with Diogenes of Sinope, the character depicted in the two Renaissance prints (fig. 1), limitedly to the possibility of a genuinely subversive and expressive gesture of a truly other form of life.

The Diogenes on the left is by Gian Giacomo Caraglio (1527), while the one on the right is by Ugo da Carpi (1526-27). The latter is acknowledged by Vasari as Carpi’s masterpiece and was widely appreciated throughout the 16th century. The original idea of the work came from Parmigianino and the the drawing by Caraglio is an exact copy of the original.

The subject can be easily recognised as Diogenes the Cynic, by way of the presence of all his attributes: a barrel or vat, a lamp, a staff, a saddlebag and a cloak that barely conceals his nudity; he is depicted in a practically identical way in both prints, in the unusual posture of the god Poseidon, his cloak billowing in the wind that seems to blow out of the bag he grasps tightly to his chest, there is a bizarre featherless fowl in the background and in the foreground several books, two of which are open, another serving as a lectern or a stand. There are, however, substantial differences between the book Diogenes is holding open with his staff: in Carpi’s drawing we can see writing, probably a philosophical text; Caraglio, instead, has drawn a dodecahedron, which is definitely out of character because we know that the cynic philosopher despised mathematics, geometry and the sciences in general. Thus, it can safely be assumed that this is a reference to another Diogenes, the one from Apollonia (Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 689) (2), a physicist and alchemist who had lived a century before the dog-like philosopher, given that Parmigianino, at a certain point in his short life, had abandoned painting and dedicated himself to alchemy.

In the Renaissance there was undoubtedly a degree of confusion surrounding the figure of Diogenes the cynic, as revealed by Parmigianino’s work and his con-fusion of the two Diogenes, although there is another interpretation of the cynic philosopher and the dodecahedron, as the fifth element of Plato’s cosmology (3), based on the traditional contraposition between Plato and Diogenes. Carpi’s decision to replace the geometric figure with a text, aimed at rendering to the cynic philosopher what was his due, possibly harks back to this ancient controversy. This polemic intention becomes even more likely if we relate the dodecahedron to the surreal featherless fowl that appears, identical, behind Diogenes in both prints: some have interpreted this image as a parody aimed at disparaging the figure of Diogenes, with reference to nudity and the form of essential life, such as that of animals, and therefore a farcical Diogenes likened to a plucked fowl. Others instead, and rightly so, being clearly knowledgeable of the work of Diogenes Laërtius, viewed Carpi’s print as a tribute to the virtues of the cynic philosopher, with regard to Plato. Laërtius, in fact, tells the anecdote of when Plato, while disserting to his pupils about the ultimate essence of mankind, defined man as «a two-footed, featherless animal». Everyone agreed with this definition, except Diogenes, who left the academy and returned, shortly after, with a plucked cockerel saying: «“This is Plato’s man.” On which account this addition was made to the definition, “With broad flat fingernails”» (Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 647-749, § 40).

The contraposition between the image-concept of featherless biped animal and the caricature of a plucked bird, as interpreted by Diogenes in his performance, is certainly the element of tension and articulation that props up the entire work, because the use of the word featherless is one thing, while plucked is an entirely different matter: featherless defines a natural quality of several animal species, while plucked is what remains of the body of an animal which, it is presumed, was once naturally provided with feathers. The meaning of the anecdote clearly reflects a different attitude towards philosophy, an analytical approach, defined by the forms of ‘cupnes’ and ‘tableness’ (Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 661, § 53-54), as opposed to a real-life approach, defined by the actual ‘cup’ and ‘table’. The surreal image of a plucked bird in Parmigianino’s work explicates the cynical theoretic speculation. Diogenes does not seek truth in the academic discourse, which focuses on the idea, he shows truth as it is in reality, in its fleshliness stripped bare, like a bird divested of its feathers: «it is unconcealedness that reveals itself simply to the gaze» (Brandt 2000, 181) (4).

We also have the unusual posture assumed by Diogenes, depicted here with an athletic body, closer in resemblance to a severe god of the elements – Reinhard Brandt suggests the god Poseidon «the wind ruffling his hair» (Brandt 2000, 169) – than to an ordinary man. This posture is unquestionably that of a Master, rather than a destitute wretch, he resembles more a philosopher-king, a well-known theme at the time, than a boldfaced beggar, which Diogenes certainly was. Nevertheless, the majestic man with a regal posture is Diogenes, a character not content with effacing the differences between the power of the ruler and the wisdom of the philosopher, as envisaged by Plato, because he is the king as anti-king «who tolerates no king above him, because he rules over himself according to the law of nature and is, therefore, autonomous» (Brandt 2000, 165).

The different reasons which revolve around the concept of kingship or “regal authority” – a very current topic today, at a time dominated by Kadavergehorsam (5) – are compared in Laërtius’ account of the meeting between Alexander the Great and Diogenes: «Once, while he was sitting in the sun in the Craneum, Alexander was standing by, and said to him, “Ask any favour you choose of me.” And he replied, “Cease to shade me from the sun.”» (Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 645). This story is one of the most significant in the philosophical platform of the cynics: revealing the autonomy and supremacy of the subject over government, acting as a sovereign and looking towards a life of enjoyment. A decisive key in understanding the saying, which escapes no-one, is that the meeting of Alexander and Diogenes does not take place in the king’s palace, Diogenes has not been summoned to the palace, as is usually the case in a relationship of authority and subservience, but is in the Craneum, a cypress grove near Corinth, outdoors, in the sun, «so, as Julian the Apostate thought, it is Diogenes here who, instead, summons Alexander» (Brandt 2000, 165).

We do not know whether the story, recounted by Laërtius and painted by Parmigianino, about the plucked or featherless bird, really took place; however, we do know that the definition of a featherless two-footed animal can be found in Plato’s dialogue  The Statesman, although Diogenes is not among the characters of the dialogue, nor the onlookers. Plato uses an investigative method that breaks up, divides and compares until it outlines the peculiar qualities and skills of the ‘royal’ or ‘political’ man, and that which follows is the shortest path to the definition of king:

[says the Stranger] I say that we should have begun at first by dividing land animals into biped and quadruped; and since the winged herd, and that alone, comes out in the same class with man, we should divide bipeds into those which have feathers and those which have not, and when they have been divided, and the art of the management of mankind is brought to light, the time will have come to produce our Statesman and ruler, and set him like a charioteer in his place, and hand over to him the reins of state, for that too is a vocation which belongs to him (The Statesman, 266c-267c, p. 327).

The theme of kingship, or of sovereign life, was well-known in ancient philosophy, with the traditional meaning of being one’s own master, being in possession of one’s self, having enjoyment as one’s purpose.

Michel Foucault, who significantly dedicated most of the last course he held to cynic philosophy, places the theme of sovereign life as a limit and a reversal of the notion of ‘true life’, which he had previously identified – after having typified the Cynic parrhesia – in an undissimulated life, an independent life and in a righteous life (cf. Foucault 2009, 212-213): a sovereign life is the last and most essential and characteristic reversal of the Cynic life of truth, «the sovereign life is a life of enjoyment: enjoyment-possession, enjoyment-pleasure» (Foucault 2009, 259). This means maintaining a relationship with oneself in function of enjoyment, but there’s more, sovereign life inevitably establishes a relationship with the other and the others: knowledge of one’s self, in enjoyment and in full autonomy, does not encase the subject within a solipsistic condition, but exposes one to relationships with others in the form, for example, of rescue, solidarity, guidance, support of a friend.

Whether the true king was the philosopher or the political king was a debated issue, because it features certain contradictory aspects, as demonstrated by the anecdote of the meeting of Diogenes and Alexander: Alexander presents himself to Diogenes on an equal footing, leaving behind his generals and counsellors he visits Diogenes man to man; of course, there are enormous differences between them, the Cynic being half-naked, while the other has all the trappings of a king, but Alexander then effectively behaves like a philosopher king and, elsewhere, it is even narrated that, to the question who would you like to have been had you not been Alexander the Great, he replied Diogenes.

The Cynic idea of sovereignty, however, is altogether different from that of philosopher king, because Diogenes irrevocably does away with every superstructure, severs all ties with the State and its laws. Cynics are against democracy, although not for the same reasons as Plato, who considered the freedom of expression of citizens, with regard to the government of the city, as a cause of corruption and as lowering and levelling the public discourse; the cynics, instead, radically reject any form of established order and recognise no authority. They are anarchists without a motherland, laws, a family or children, because, consistently with their philosophy of life, they saw themselves as citizens of the whole world: «[Diogenes] also maintained that the only righteous citizenship was that of the entire world» (Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 679, § 72).

Ancient Cynicism, with its radical return to nature and its wholehearted dislike of idealistic doctrines and of any form of constitution, was a philosophical movement couched in anti-historical terms. André Leroi-Gourhan, speaking of the process of rationalisation of language and formalisation of languages following the development of metalworking and urban civilisation, and of the ensuing amusing paradox, in consideration of the anti-historic, says «the first signs of writing in Mesopotamia can be dated back to 3500 BCE. Two thousand years later, in about 1500 BCE, the first consonant alphabets appeared in Phoenicia and then, in about 750 BCE, vowel alphabets spread in Greece. In 350 BCE, philosophy was flourishing in Greek» (Leroi-Gourhan 1965, 247). Now, considering that Diogenes (probably) lived between 412 and 323 BCE, and that the meeting in Corinth between Diogenes and Alexander is dated to 336 BCE, we may easily determine that History has started and is already perceived by some as an illness; History and rhetoric, the art of fine writing, are born and already the related concept of historical man enters a crisis. Antisthenes (cf. Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 619, § 13) (6), a pupil of Socrates, regarded as the founder of Cynic philosophy and master of Diogenes of Sinope, was the first to establish the meaning of definition (cf. Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 611) contesting the notion of History as a linear process of accumulation of knowledge and emancipation from nature.

And it could not have been otherwise, if History is dialectical, negating Action, it goes without saying that historical and anti-historical processes are related: state/anti-state, Alexander/Diogenes.

But Diogenes is not dialectic, and especially with regard to the sovereignty of the subject: he is the one and only true king. The Cynics are keen to re-iterate this idea of sovereignty, stressing how the king Diogenes stands before the king Alexander as an anti-king (cf. Foucault 2009, 262-263).

If Alexander is Great, Diogenes is an anarchist, and therefore it is clear that the Cynics ban not just the Macedonian king but every form of political domination of man over man: «Diogenes certainly agrees with all the Socratics on the fact that man must gain the dominion of the self», but precisely in consequence of this, «the only form of socialisation that Diogenes can maintain is that in which no man dominates over another man» (Brandt 2000, 174).

Of course, one can hardly catch sight of any genuinely regal virtues behind the features of a Cynic. Diogenes is the king but nobody knows this, they can hardly be noticed in one as haggard and worn as a stray dog; yet he voluntarily hides behind this scandalous life, he presents himself confidently as an outsider, he conceals himself as king: «And in this sense he is the king, but the king of derision. He is a king of poverty, a king who hides his sovereignty in destitution, but also in the form of deliberate endurance, of endless work on self by which he is always pushing back the limits of what he can bear» (Foucault 2009, 265).

Diogenes and Alexander consent to speak frankly, both of them accepting the parrhesiastic game of speaking the truth frankly and boldly, running the risk of offending or even insulting each other. As mentioned earlier, Alexander also appears half naked, having divested himself of his palace and his guards and, like Diogenes, preparing himself for and exposing himself to the game of parrhesia.

So, if Alexander, whose profession it is to kill people, is capable of playing the game of speaking the truth with frankness, what then characterises Cynic parrhesia? Speaking frankly, to oneself and to others, is a natural inclination towards taking care of oneself, and I say natural because, obviously, care of oneself had existed since long before its Socratic conceptualisation, what distinguishes the Cynics, however, is that their bold outspokenness about the self is a practice so deeply rooted that it conveys an exaggerated model of life based on a truly other truth.

The Cynics led a bravely contentious life, exposing themselves to violence because of the argumentative way in which they spoke the truth, but also, which is the aspect that most interested Foucault, and us with him, because «one risks one’s life not just by telling the truth, and in order to tell it, but by the very way in which one lives» (Foucault 2009, 226). The Cynics were wont to put their life on the line by speaking out, in an intolerably unconventional manner, a scandalous “other truth”. The hallmark of Cynic parrhesia is a truth-telling courage as a profound criticism of the self and a radical criticism of power. The Cynic speaks the truth through his behaviour, his life aesthetic; he ill-treats himself to shape his body and meticulously control the flow of images that it produces itself. It is the work of a scrupulous, meticulous – art critics would probably say a “thorough” – artist. The gesturality of an artist.

Bashed by this courageous parrhesia, Cynicism tends to express two forms of care of the self: «Courage of truth-telling when it is a question of discovering the soul; courage of truth-telling also when it is a question of giving form and style to life» (Foucault 2009, 159). Foucault’s overriding interest in his latest years, the relations between subject, discourse and truth, are mirrored in his last course as an inextricable intertwining of the practice of the care of the self and a qualified ‘aesthetic of existence’. Once again, he asks himself how the courage of truth-speaking interfered with «the principle of existence as a work to be fashioned» (Foucault 2009, 161). How life had transformed into an aesthetic object.

The Cynic is sovereign, he is an artist that produces himself as a work of art, a true ante litteram bohemian, an activist struggling to change the entire world, through self-denial, scandal, brave outspokenness; the search for a beautiful and sovereign life leads to the reversal of the classical theme of the ‘true life’ into the ‘other life’, but also the material prospect of another world through a scandalously different life: «And, after all, the revolutionary activism of the nineteenth century is still this; it is still that kind of kingship, that kind of monarchy hidden under the rags of poverty» (Foucault 2009, 274).

We have already addressed the scarcity of doctrine in ancient Cynicism and Diogenes of Sinope is a philosopher like I myself could be: «well, he takes things philosophically» my mother used to say when, as a child, she would see me lost, although I would like to point out that she would say so with an expression of care, of wise kindly complicity which, in my deepest heart, I have always translated as: 1) enjoy life, 2) never work.

Cynicism is a life-practice that transforms one’s body into a testimony, proof incarnate of a different possibility of living one’s life in this world. It is a philosophically scandalous life that can be thought and exhibited through one’s flesh and one’s bones (7), and, as Peter Sloterdijk suggests, a dialectic and also existentialist materialism (cf. Sloterdijk 1983, 39). The core is existentialist because the discourse of truth on oneself proceeds on a purely experiential plane, by removing any superstructures (viz the fowl’s feathers) that have caused us to move away from nature; and it is materialist because this deep digging returns a truly other form of life, and an other life is always a life of truth (8). It is the life of a militant engaged in the public sphere, who challenges the idealist arrogance with scandalous animal nudity (9). Foucault, who is openly sympathetic with the Cynics, sees in this the matrix of an antagonistic approach, a line of flight, resistance against power. The priority of the subject over the exercise of authority and the hierarchical order becomes clear.

A shameless and derisive king, on which Sloterdijk insists in a youthful and brilliant book, which, curiously, was published in 1984, at the exact same time as Foucault’s course, and which primarily focuses on the dramatic, ironic, satirical, performative aspect of the Cynics: ‘low theory’ establishes alliances with humour, satire and poverty. The cynic is «the first in the tradition of satirical resistance, an uncivil enlightenment» (Sloterdijk 1983, 42) (10). Like Foucault, Sloterdijk too identifies a new concept of truth within Cynicism that is no longer supported by a ‘high’ theoretical toolkit, like Plato’s, which expunges the material quality of the body and highlights the abstract nature of everything, as in the concept of ‘tableness’: with the Cynics «a subversive variant of low theory that pantomimically and grotesquely carries practical embodiment to the extreme» (Sloterdijk 1983, 40) (11).

The Cynics flee lengthy discussions and, with the sharpness of the great philosopher, they find and exhibit their arguments, with cheekiness, in the animal nature of their bodies and postures, with exuberant performances, thus initiating «pantomimic materialism» (Sloterdijk 1983, 42). Where ‘high theory’ gazes upwards to ideas in the heavens, ‘low theory’ «seals a pact with poverty and satire» (Sloterdijk 1983, 41).

Canine philosophy is simple, it is a philosophy of nature and reason that observes the behaviour of animals in order to grasp the secret of a wise life of enjoyment; the Cynics, however, had no interest in all animals, but only in the stray dogs that inhabited the outskirts of the city, away from its political centre. This extreme lifestyle chosen by the Cynics is definitely not the return to an animal condition, a fact understood by Alexandre Kojève in his interpretation of Hegel’s phenomenology. Although the widespread phenomenon of Cynicism coincided with the crisis of democracy and the advance of tyranny, and therefore of withdrawal within oneself, of a widespread sentiment of distrust of the democratic institutions, nevertheless ancient Cynicism does not enshrine the end of negating Action, instead there is an unbounded performativity that spits onto the public that which is private. That spits on Napoleon in the streets of Jena. It is a typically urban lifestyle, there are no rural Cynics because this divesting oneself of all worldly goods and refusing the imposition of social norms translates, first and foremost, into the rejection of the laws of the State, of religion, family, private property and, logically, rejection has a meaning only where regulated hegemony is manifest. The Cynics’ return to nature, the process of deconstruction, divestment, elimination of all unnecessary things should not be read as a return to the harmony of the elements. On the contrary, this Cynic attitude is imbued with negativity, which is the opposite of passivity, which always looks beyond the ordinary, the settled and consensual aestheticisms: negativity is critical thinking. This comes out clearly in modern art, since the triumph of bourgeois painting, with all its «enormous hunger for negativity, not least of all because the secret of vitality pulsates in this negativity. Again and again, liberating negativisms have broken through the propensity for harmonious stylization» (Sloterdijk 1983, 50-51) (12).

     Figure 2 shows a performance at Rome’s La Sapienza University, in 2016 (Gallo, Storini 2018, 140). The title is Peddling counterfeit money and I can be seen suspiciously peddling counterfeit 20 euro notes. Although the money really is fake, the focus should not be on the money itself but on the illegal nature of the action: according to the law a crime is being committed.

«His aim in life was to do as his father had done, to ‘deface the coinage,’ but on a much larger scale. He would deface all the coinage current in the world. Every conventional stamp was false. The men stamped as generals and kings; the things stamped as honour and wisdom and happiness and riches; all were base metal with lying superscription» (Russell 1945, 237).

Peddling counterfeit money is a reference to the anecdote by Laërtius contained in his account of the life of Diogenes (Diogenes Laërtius 2005, 629): it remains unclear what really happened, some say it was his father, others the dog-like philosopher himself who somehow tampered with the coinage, while others still claim that the criminal deed was committed by certain other shady characters; at any rate, it appears that the god Apollo, speaking through the oracle at Delphi, commanded Diogenes “to deface the current coin” (parakharattein to nomisma). This was probably a misunderstanding caused by the double meaning of nomisma, as both ‘currency’ and ‘current values’ or ‘customary beliefs’. In other words, Diogenes understood that he was supposed to deface (or “counterfeit”) the currency, while what Apollo really meant was that he should put the coin (nomisma) of custom (nomos) out of circulation, in other words: drive the debased currency of conventional thought out of circulation. Be it as it may, Diogenes was sent into exile, which made a philosopher of him (cf. Diogenes Laerzio 2005, 657, § 49).

Whatever the story is, we know for a fact that to deface the coins, which we can interpret as “to subvert the dominant values in a society”, is at the core of Cynic philosophy, together with the parrhesiastic discourse, which brings together the Socratic care of the self and the life of truth which is an other life representing an other world.

The Cynics set great store by the parallelism between the response received by Socrates from the same god know thyself, and Diogenes’ deface the coinage: it is important, in fact, to understand that ‘alter your currency’ is a principle of living, it is the fundamental principle of Cynicism, along with ‘know thyself’. But while ‘know thyself’ goes well beyond Diogenes and Socrates, parakharattein to nomisma is an exclusively Cynic principle. These two principles may be interpreted as: get to know yourself, to understand that you need to deface the effigy on your coin, or deface your coin in order to understand yourself. As Foucault observes, the fundamental precept is ‘revalue your currency’, but this revaluation can only take place through and by means of the precept “know yourself”: «which replaces the counterfeit currency of one’s own and others’ opinion of oneself, with the true currency of self-knowledge» (Foucault 2009, 233). This was close to Foucault’s heart in his last course held in 1984, this is what he wanted to make the students listening to him understand: one can be master of one’s identification, one can fashion one’s life as a work of art (13), «One can handle one’s own existence, take care of oneself as something real, and have the true currency of one’s true existence in one’s hands, on condition that one knows oneself» (Foucault 2009, 233). Foucault is offering his students listening to him for the last time a truth about the self as an experimental practice of one’s subjectification, as the practice of leading one’s life to the full and giving it an aesthetically qualified form. It should be emphasised that for the Cynics change the value the currency is not a devaluation in a negative sense, but a philosophy and a practice of life that re-establishes, through the radical trans-valuation of the self and the world, the true value of the currency, of life. Therefore, «alter your currency» did not amount to an injunction to debase a coin, but rather to «start from a certain coin which carries a certain effigy, erase that effigy and replace it with another, which will enable this coin to circulate with its true value» (Foucault 2009, 220). This means that if we push the theme of true life almost – but not quite – to its extreme consequence, the Cynics can reverse it entirely, choosing for themselves a form of life that is the very opposite of what was traditionally recognised as the true life: «taking up the coin again, changing its effigy and, as it were, making the theme of the true life grimace. Cynicism as the grimace of the true life» (Foucault 2009, 221) (14).

The life of the artist leading a dog’s life and giving scandal is a life without modesty, which pokes fun at the true life, as conventionally understood, from which it originates. It is a shameless life, to the brink of sustainability, until it is overturned into an other life. This is another key point that characterises the Cynical life, according to the French philosopher: the ‘other life’. Through the undisguised true life we may see the other life, a different life from the one men generally lead. This is a very important point for both Foucault and Sloterdijk, who see in the other life of the Cynics a break with the tradition of Western metaphysics because it is a different life, a sovereign life, of enjoyment, which should be found and lived out in the here and now, and not in some other world. Despite their conceptual roughness, the Cynics open up a materialistic pathway to enjoyment, to the fullness of an other life and to a truly different world free of oppression (15). This differentiation between an other life in the other world and an other life in this world are the two lines between which the history of Western philosophical thought progresses.

It is only by starting with a scandalous other life – which bears testimony to the possibility of a different world – that we can outline a history of Cynicism, which has crossed all the ages and has eventually come down to us. This process of subjectification, achieved by digging into and fashioning one’s life as if it were an object of art, according to the meaning suggested by Foucault, is a subject that concerns us and especially art.

Of course, the passion for a full life, a life that can be fully possessed and enjoyed, for oneself and others, did not disappear with the ancient Cynics, in fact we can catch glimpses of it, more or less clearly, through the ages and down to the present day. In the heretical and revolutionary movements, for example, and then very clearly, in the opinion of both Foucault and Sloterdijk, in modern art, from the end of the eighteenth century, significantly at the same times as the bourgeois revolutions taking place in the Old Continent. Art became Cynical with the rise of the bourgeoisie, which claimed for itself a full and independent life; suffice it to mention the invention of lifestyles such as dandyism or bohemianism, mostly by voluntarily impoverished members of the middle classes, who would act unconventionally, make excessive use of alcohol and opium and self-marginalise themselves from society, when not marginalised by society itself. Like the ancient Cynics, they extolled the minor and marginal things in life, the negative and the over-the-top, determining a context in which the lifestyle of an artist not only certified the authenticity of the art work, but itself became a work of art.

The return to nature, the focus on the senses, Romanticism, Sturm und Drang, and, generally speaking, the loudly expressed dislike of hackneyed academic clichés and the increasingly radical rejection of rules, produced the avalanche of aesthetic kinism (Sloterdijk 1983, 49), as a result of which art becomes contentious and processual. Strictly contrary to any canon, cynic art is constantly looking to overcome all limits, against any form of acquired art. This is cynicism in art. Active negativity in any case. Marcel Duchamp, a magnificent example of cynical antiartist, created his last work TU m’ in 1918, after which he decided to hang up his paintbrush, but he had already produced his Fountain the year before, and in 1921 he became Rrose Sèlavy; then he maintained that work tired him and that he «did not have time enough to make a good job of it» (Lazzarato 2014, 22-23) (16). In 1915, Kazimir Malevich heralded the ‘zero point of painting’ with the first monochrome, and in 1919, with his painting called White on White he abandoned art altogether and exchanged the brush for the pen because, in his own words “one cannot reach with the brush what one can attain with the pen”. Cynic art eventually ended up devouring itself and what remained, after abolishing the work of art, were the atmospheres, the postures, the relations, bodies encompassing the coordinates of a residually artistic intelligibility. Returning to Foucault, this is an anti-Platonic art, meaning an art that digs deep, down and up, searching for and revealing the lesser things, rummaging through dustbins. «Anti-Platonism of art as the place of eruption of the elementary, the stripping bare of existence» (Foucault 2009, 185). Melville, Artaud, Beckett, Perec, Acconci. Foucault, besides the anti-Platonism of modern art, also discovers an anti-Aristotelian characteristic in its frenzy to constantly surpass a limit as soon as it is attained; by refusing series and accumulation there is no culture, it’s a counter-cultural art: «the consensus of culture has to be opposed by the courage of art in its barbaric truth. Modern art is cynicism in culture; the cynicism of culture turned against itself» (Foucault 2009, 185).

This idea of thinking of oneself in the work of an art work is certainly not immune from criticism, many have misunderstood the concept of ‘life to be fashioned’ as an excess of aestheticism in the reformulation of the care of the self, erroneously translating Foucault’s encouragement as if it were truly an artistic object outside the self, totally neglecting that the subject for Foucault simply does not exist and that he always speaks of the aesthetic of the existence and of life as a work of art in a discursive ethical context.

Clearly Foucault was fascinated by the idea of a bios as the matter of one’s experimentation, and this interest is intertwined «with the idea that ethics can be a very strong structure of existence, without any relation with the juridical per se, with an authoritarian system structure, with a disciplinary structure» (Dreyfus, Rabinow 1987, 308).

It was 1984, and although the project and the catastrophic consequences of extreme liberism were already clear, no-one could yet imagine how technology – and information technology first and foremost – by resoundingly betraying the expectations of freedom from the slavery of work, would have accelerated, intensified and determined the process of capture and enslavement by the capitalist machinic; it was still possible, like Foucault, to perceive biopolitics as control and subjection, and a positive biopolitics referred to the power of the subject who freely chooses his form of life. However, today, I think, in truth, that Foucault’s invitation to transform oneself into an aesthetic subject, in order to oppose the system, is naive and perhaps at risk of a power of dissuasion, given that aesthetics and the aesthetic subject are, today, the engine of the economy and of the determination of political power.

What Foucault’s salvation strategy is missing today is, to a certain extent, what the analysis by the situationists also missed, and which, curiously enough, Foucault doesn’t talk about, that modern capitalism no longer needs spectacle to mediate relations among people, as Guy Debord wrote in his Comments on the Society of the Spectacle in 1988, because, in reality, there is nothing left today that mediates relations, nothing now comes between the subject and capital.

(1)      Personaggio della Peste di Camus

(2)     Cfr. anche Cortesi Bosco 2007: «[…] occorre tener presente che nel Rinascimento sull’identità di Diogene detto il Cinico si faceva non poca confusione, se del filosofo originario di Sinope vissuto nel IV secolo a. C. si poteva far tutt’uno con Diogene di Apollonia, un fisico della scuola ionica vissuto un secolo prima».

(3)   «Quanto alla presenza del dodecaedro nel Diogene, la scarsa attenzione prestatagli non può non sorprendere. Nessuno studioso sembra aver rilevato sino ad oggi la sua derivazione dalle tavole, tratte da disegni di Leonardo, del Compendio de la divina proportione di Luca Pacioli, pubblicato a Venezia nel 1509, dalla figura del dodecaedro ‘piano solido’ con ombre a chiaroscuro […]: ‘La forma del 12 basi pentagone [Platone] atribuì al cielo sì commo a quello che è receptaculo de tutte le cose. Questo duoedecedron el simile fia receptaculo e albergo de tutti gli altri 4 corpi regulari commo apare in le loro inscriptioni uno in l’altro’ (Divina proportione, Venezia 1509, cap. V, Del condecente titulo del presente tractato, f. 16r.)» (Cortesi Bosco 2007).

(4)  «Platone se ne sta al buio in un’aula della sua Accademia, Diogene nella luce del suo semplice esser-ci. Il nominalista Diogene sostituisce la “dottrina platonica della verità” con l’a-letheia, il non-nascondimento dello sguardo ingenuo, originario, sull’uccello spennato» (Brandt 2000, 181).

(5)   Obbedienza cadaverica. Il nazista Eichmann usa il termine Kadavergehorsam per descrive lo stato di ‘cieca obbedienza’ del popolo del terzo Reich alla Legge di Hitler (cfr. Arendt 1963, 142-144).

(6)     Cfr. Diogene Laerzio 2005, 619/13: «Antistene, soprannominato “Vero-cane” fu il maestro di Diogene di Sinope detto il Cane, il più famoso tra i filosofi cinici».

(7)  «Con i sofisti e i materialisti teorici Socrate sa benissimo come fare basta riuscire ad attirarli in una conversazione… Ma con Diogene non ce la fanno ne Socrate ne Platone: il filosofo Kinico, infatti, parla con loro “anche altrimenti”, in un dialogo fatto di carne e ossa» (Sloterdijk 1983, 49).

(8)     «[Il cinismo] ha sollevato una questione molto seria, o piuttosto, mi sembra, ha dato il suo taglio al tema della vita filosofica ponendo la seguente domanda: la vita, per essere veramente vita di verità, non deve forse essere una vita altra, una vita radicalmente e paradossalmente altra? Radicalmente altra: cioè di rottura totale, da tutti i punti di vista, con le tradizionali forme di esistenza, con l’esistenza filosofica abitualmente accettata dai filosofi, con le loro abitudini, con le loro convenzioni» (Foucault 2009, 236).

(9)    «Ma un materialismo dotato di spirito non può accontentarsi di vuote formule e di conseguenza passa ad argomenti materiali, riabilitando il corpo. Nell’accademia troneggia l’idea. (E la discreta urina sgoccia in latrina.) Ma: urina nell’accademia! Ecco la tensione dialettica par excellence! L’arte di pisciar contro l’idealistico vento» (Sloterdijk 1983, 45).

(10)   «Inventa il dialogo non-platonico. Apollo, dio dell’illuminazione, vi mostra la sua altra faccia (sfuggita a Nietzsche), quella di satira pensante, squartatore e commediante. I dardi della verità, letali, piovono proprio dove le menzogne vanno cullandosi nella sicurezza di protezioni altolocate» (Sloterdijk 1983, 41).

(11)     «La schiera delle concezioni di verità si scinde qui in due tronconi: una falange ispirata a teoresi discorsiva in grande stile e una masnada di attaccabrighe satirico-letterari. Con Diogene, nella filosofia europea inizia la resistenza all’imbroglio del discorso» (Sloterdijk 1983, 40).

(12)    «La modernità estetica ci consegna un’arte di chicche avvelenate; la si può magari contemplare con fredda eccitazione specialistica, ma mai accoglierla senza rischio di malumori. S’ingurgita, con le arti moderne, una tal massa di negatività da rendere del tutto evanescente l’idea di godimento artistico» (Sloterdijk 1983, 50-51).

(13)      In realtà Foucault non dice esattamente questo nell’ultimo corso del 1984. In Il coraggio della verità dice solo che è interessato a comprendere come il bios, la cura del sé, si sia intrecciato con una estetica qualificata dell’esistenza. È altrove, in Sulla genealogia dell’etica, contestando che l’arte sia diventata un’attività specialistica in relazione solo con le opere e non con gli individui, che si domanda: «perché la vita di ogni individuo non potrebbe essere un’opera d’arte? Perché una lampada o una casa sono oggetti d’arte e non lo è la nostra vita?» (Dreyfus, Rabinow 1987, 309).

(14)     «Si tratta molto più di una sorta di prolungamento carnevalesco del tema della vera vita che di una rottura dei valori che a essa vengono attribuiti dalla filosofia classica» (Foucault 2009, 221).

(15)    «La filosofia greca, a partire da Socrate, ha in fondo sollevato, con e per il platonismo, la questione dell’altro mondo. Ma ha posto anche, a partire da Socrate o dal modello socratico al quale si riferiva il cinismo, un’altra questione. La questione non dell’altro mondo ma della vita altra» (Foucault 2009, 236).

(16)    «Non potevo lavorare più di due ore al giorno. […] ancora oggi non posso lavorare più di due ore al giorno. È veramente impressionante lavorare tutti i giorni» (cit. in Lazzarato 2014, 22-23).

Riferimenti bibliografici

Arendt H.,1963: La banalità del male, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2001.

Brandt R., 2000: Filosofia nella pittura. Da Giorgione a Magritte, tr. it. di M.G. Franch e D. Gorreta, Milano, Bruno, Mondadori, 2003.

Cortesi Bosco F., 2007: Il “Diogene” del Parmigianino. Alchimia e geometria, «MATEpristem» (

Debord G., 1988: Commentari alla società dello spettacolo, Bologna, Fausto Lupetti Editore 2012.

Deleuze G., 1983: L’immagine-movimento. Cinema 1, tr. it. di J-P. Manganaro, Milano, Ubulibri, 2010.

Diogene Laerzio, 2005: Vite e dottrine dei più celebri filosofi, Bompiani, Milano

Dreyfus H.L., Rabinow P., 1987: Michel Foucault, sulla genealogia dell’etica: compendio di un work in progress, in Dreyfus H.L., Rabinow P. (a cura di), La ricerca di Michel Foucault, Firenze, La Casa Usher 2010.

Foucault M, 2009: Il coraggio della verità. Il governo di sé e degli altri II. Corso al Collège de France (1984), tr. it. di M. Galzigna, Milano, Feltrinelli, 2011.

Gallo F., Storini M.C., (eds.), 2018: Antico e contemporaneo. Sguardi, prospettive, riflessioni interdisciplinari alla fine della modernità, Atti della Giornata di studi e catalogo della mostra Confluenze (Sapienza maggio 2016), Roma, Sapienza University Press.

Lazzarato M., 2014: Marcel Duchamp e il rifiuto del lavoro, Temporale, Milano.

Leroi-Gourhan A., 1965: Il gesto e la parola. Tecnica e linguaggio, vol. 1, Milano, Mimesis, 2018.

Platone, Tutti gli scritti, Milano, Bompiani, 2014.

Russell B., 1945: Storia della filosofia occidentale, tr. it. di L. Pavolini, Milano, TEA, 2014.

Sloterdijk P., 1983: Critica della ragion cinica, tr. it. di A. Ermano, Milano, Raffaello Cortina, 2013.

Spinoza B., 1988: Etica dimostrata con metodo geometrico, tr. it. di E. Giancotti, Roma, Editori Riuniti, 2000.

When someone bumped into Diogenes with a plank and then said “Watch out!” Diogenes struck him with his staff and said “Watch out!”

(Diogenes Laërtius, The Lives and Opinions of Eminent Philosophers, 673).

«The order and connection of ideas is the same as the order and connection of things» (Spinoza 2000, Proposition VII, L. 2, 127), the thinking substance and the extended substance of the body are one and the same thing, what changes are the attributes, which alone appear in different forms, «thus a mode of the extension and the idea of that mode are also one and the same thing, although it is expressed in two different modes» (Spinoza 2000, scholia of proposition VII, L. 2, 128).

Lounging on a beach, overwhelmed by boredom, I watch the bathers in the August heat. Sitting in a café, I look out the window onto the street, (…)

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