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Prepared for Every Fortune: Cynicism as an Analytical and Normative Perspective in Democratic Theory

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - CANT (Prepared for Every Fortune:Cynicism as an Analytical and Normative Perspective in Democratic Theory)

Reporting period: 2019-09-04 to 2020-09-03

"Originally, this research project aimed to recover and defend analytical and normative uses of 'cynicism' for contemporary political analysis. Beginning with an historical/conceptual reconstruction of 'cynicism' (understood as a radical mode of disaffection, evincing a unique normative perspective, and tied to a definable set of political tactics and rhetorical techniques), I had planned to develop a novel framework for interpreting manifestations of cynical distrust and estrangement.
Over the course of the past three years, this initially narrow focus has been widened and deepened. I am now undertaking a more intensive engagement with the political culture of ancient Athenian democracy—always with a view to making this reconstruction relevant for contemporary political debates. This change in focus resulted from two methodological concerns. First, the extant material available for 'reconstructing' cynicism proved to be extremely limited (with almost no reliable contemporaneous accounts of the practices and beliefs of the ancient itinerant moralists associated with Diogenes of Sinope). The outsized influence of a single text (the third century ""Lives of Eminent Philosophers"") is unfortunate, give the limitations of its crude caricatures and unreliable sourcing. The problem of a relatively weak empirical basis for initial historical findings was compounded by the shortcomings of the project's second interpretive pathway, which would have entailed the deployment of a speculative interpretive frame ('cynical disenchantment') for understanding incongruous political behaviours. This brought with it the danger of the researcher's findings being refuted by the self-interpretations of actors themselves, with no further pathway for working through such impasses.
Thus, it was decided to strengthen the empirical basis of this study by devoting more effort to an expanded historical reconstruction. I am now engaging with a wider array of 'marginal' and 'irregular' political personas, many of which first emerged in fifth and fourth century Athens (the 'sycophant,' the 'flatterer'/kolax, the 'demagogue', the 'backbiter', the 'parasite')—all of whom are well accounted for in the historical record, as characters in Attic tragedy and Old Comedy, and as recurring themes in forensic oratory. This methodological shift necessitated intensive training in Attic Greek, which is ongoing.
Here I should preempt the criticism that these changes indicate a retreat into scholarly antiquarianism. Among the many reasons for studying Attic Greek is the aim of becoming reacquainted with a remarkably resilient lexicon that exerts an outsized influence within contemporary political culture—which also means critically reassessing inherited interpretations of those political 'anchoring terms'. To take one example from among the papers I have submitted for review, political 'power' is typically conceptualised as a 'possession' to be wielded or enforced by virtue of one's status and position. This 'objectified' understanding of power applies across governing regimes, both authoritarian and democratic. However, when we consider the ways in which 'power' was understood within Ancient Athenian democracy (to the extent that extant records allow us such speculation), we find an array of clearly distinguishable modes of ‘power,’ from legal entitlements (archê), to charismatic influence (demagōgós), to overwhelming force (krátos). Importantly, the political vocabulary of Attic Greek was able to capture the range and diversity of democratic agency with much greater subtlety than is typically found in modern normative/political theorising. I therefore seek to recapture the original meaning of ‘kratos’ within ‘democracy,’ in the expectation that this will provide the basis for further reassessments of ‘irregular’ and ‘extrajudicial’ political behaviours that are typically labelled ‘un-democratic’.
By the end of this project I hope to establish a means of revitalising contemporary political vocabularies through reacquaintance with the complex and conflictual political culture that coined many of these terms."
October 12-14 2017:
Paper presentation on cynicism and statelessness for annual Association for Political Theory [APT] conference (University of Michigan, USA).

November 2-3 2017
Paper presentation on semantic analysis of cynical speech acts for annual Critical Theory Roundtable (University of California at Irvine, USA).
Throughout the implementation of this project I will significantly expand my research profile by submitting an article to a high profile, peer-review journal at the end of each Work Package. Importantly, while based in the Department of Political Science at McMaster, I will also receive training in qualitative research methods, in association with the Institute on Globalisation and the Human Condition [IGHC]. As well as expanding my skill-set as a researcher, my training will enable me to organise case studies on contemporary manifestations of cynical disaffection. My empirical analysis will serve to test the coherence of my interpretive framework in differentiating constructive cynical tactics from self-defeating forms of political disillusionment. For both the Incoming and Outgoing phases of this project I will organise major international conferences on themes related to political disaffection and radical protest. These endeavours will serve to strengthen international research links between McMaster and UCD. Upon my return to the UCD School of Philosophy, I will draw upon my experience as a member of the interdisciplinary research team in the IGHC to develop a similar interdepartmental research and teaching network between UCD’s respective Schools of Philosophy and Politics and International Relations [SPIRe].

In illuminating the constructive potential of cynical disaffection, my aim is to show how cynicism is compatible with, and indeed beneficial for, democratic culture and politics—that it offers a constructive means of critiquing, improving, and coping with the exigencies of complex, pluralist societies. The critical phase of this project entails bringing my interpretive framework to bear on contemporary political realities. Utilising my training in qualitative research methods (discourse analysis, interpretive reconstruction, qualitative causal analysis), I will analyse case studies to provide a more comprehensive picture of cynical political tactics, rhetorical techniques, and reflexive attitudes. My findings will be disseminated through article submissions to high profile peer-review journals and presentations at major academic conferences. I will also bring my research to non-specialist audiences through a dedicated project website and blog, and through outreach initiatives, such as the IGHC’s Public Intellectuals Project.