Disguised as a dog

Cynical Occupy?

RP 174 () / Article

I take my title and my philosophical cue from a passage in Marx’s 1839 ‘Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy’. I take my artistic cue from the early work of Valie Export. The passage from Marx reads as follows:

As in the history of philosophy there are nodal points which raise philosophy in itself to concretion, apprehend abstract principle in a totality, and thus break off the rectilinear process, so also there are moments when philosophy turns its eyes to the external world, and no longer apprehends it, but, as a practical person, weaves, as it were, intrigues with the world … and throws itself on the breast of the worldly Siren. That is the carnival of philosophy, whether it disguises itself as a dog like the Cynic, in priestly vestments like the Alexandrian, or in fragrant spring array like the Epicurean. It is essential that philosophy should then wear character masks. … philosophy casts its regard behind it … when its heart is set on creating a world. But as Prometheus, having stolen fire from heaven, begins to build houses and to settle upon the earth, so philosophy, expanded to be the whole world, turns against the world of appearance. The same now with the philosophy of Hegel.1

And today, we might add, in the wake of the collapse of historical communism (‘1989’): ‘The same now with the philosophy of Marx.’

What, you may ask, is all that about? And what does it have to do with going ‘beyond cynicism’ through political forms of opposition, protest and provocation in art today?*

It is about the historico-philosophical necessity of cynicism (in its ancient sense) – and other politically defined philosophical particularisms – at certain historical junctures, as the necessarily one-sided practical expression of the alienated universality of philosophy. Marx’s doctoral research, culminating in his 1841 dissertation, The Difference between the Democritean and Epicurean Philosophy of Nature, was only superficially, or academically, concerned with a comparative analysis of two Ancient Greek philosophies of nature. As the notebooks reveal, it was primarily, polemically, concerned with an allegorical reading of the condition of philosophy after Aristotle, as a model for understanding the situation of philosophy in Germany in the aftermath of the death of Hegel – and the political splits in the Hegelian school, in particular. Hence its renewed significance today.


* This is the text of a talk to the symposium ‘Beyond Cynicism: Political Forms of Opposition, Protest and Provocation in Art’, held at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, 18 March 2012, in collaboration with the Royal Institute of Art, Stockholm.

Notes 1. Karl Marx, ‘Notebooks on Epicurean Philosophy’, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, Volume 1: Marx: 1835–1843, Lawrence & Wishart, London, 1975, pp. 403–514; p. 491, emphasis added.