Another way of making sense of everything that has gone on explicitly in the last three years and implicitly, perhaps, in the last 50 years, is to say that we have seen the rise of a world-historical clash between the FOOLS and the TOOLS.
I shall come back to this. My original idea was to write something in praise of Giorgio Agamben: the first philosopher to come out against the protocols of the elders of COVID-19 in early 2020. Agamben is notorious for having issued several bulletins against the lockdowns in Italy, and for then having continued to write against the protocols, despite abuse and opposition from other figures such as Jean-Luc Nancy and Slavoj Zizek, and finally for having had the temerity to collect his writings together in a book. I recently came across an article, published a year ago, by one Adam Kotsko, published in Slate magazine, and also a podcast on which Kotsko explained to two laughing leftist Americans why Agamben had turned from a philosopher into a “anti-vaccine conspiracy nutcase” with “goofball pandemic views”. Kotsko is the translator of many of Agamben’s books, but now is in the sorry position of finding that his guru has gone off-message.
Agamben is one of those odd figures who used to look like part of the boring and obscure 1968 brigade of post-Marxist leftists: the sort whose books are endlessly published in small and handsome editions by Verso, Stanford University Press or even more prestigious presses. Here we are talking about Foucault, Derrida and all the successors: Zizek, Butler, Badiou, Bourdieu, Nancy, Ranciere, Laclau, etc. These are the figures whom Roger Scruton taught us to dislike, first in his Thinkers of the New Left published in the 1980s, and later in Fools, Frauds and Firebrands, his updated version of the same book, published in 2015. Well, Scruton was right about much: but he was wrong about Foucault; and he was also wrong, alas, to use the word ‘fools’ in his title. Because, as I shall show, to be a fool is a good thing, and Agamben, like Foucault (who spent his dying year lecturing on freedom of speech), is one of the FOOLS – not one of the TOOLS.
FOOL is an ambiguous word. It can mean someone who is fooled. But it also means someone who deliberately engages in folly, someone who is a fool either deliberately or conscientiously.
Obviously, it is not good to be fooled. But it is good to engage in deliberate or conscientious folly. This is made clear in an old book, which was published by Faber and Faber in 1935, The Fool: His Social and Literary History by Enid Welsford. In this book, Welsford compiled a history of buffoons, clairvoyants, mascots, scapegoats, court fools, lords of misrule. If she had written the book in our time, she would have added stand-up comedians. At the end of the book she tried to theorise the significance of the fool. Her verdict was that the fool was a believer in spiritual freedom, someone who saw that living in Leviathan was necessary but that such a life – though safe – was costly to human spirit: so the fool engaged in deliberate folly in order to show that the world was worthy of mock, and that escape was possible.
Two things Welsford said stand out, even in this analysis. The first is that “the fool is wiser than the humanist”: the “fool in jest” is wiser than the “revolutionary in earnest”. This may remind us of St Paul who in the first letter to the Corinthians said that Christ crucified was to the Jews a “scandal” and to the Greeks “foolishness”. In part, what St Paul was doing was pushing back hard against centuries of Greek philosophers who had praised wisdom. “God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” (1 Cor. 1.27.) The logic here is: “If wisdom = Ferguson, Lineker, Hancock, etc., then I choose folly.” Credo quia absurdum, as Tertullian used to say. Translation: “I believe it because it not based on a computer model.”
The second thing she said was that “the fool makes the sage look silly”. If we, again, adapt this to our own times, and modernise the word ‘sage’ by capitalising it, we have the wonderful formula that it is the fool who makes SAGE look silly. Consider how criticism of government in our time has depended on comedians. The philosophers, scientists and other professors have all kept well away from folly. Except for Agamben, they have refused to be fools. Therefore, they have been fooled. In addition, they have been what we could call TOOLS.
TOOL is not an ambiguous word. It simply means instrument. But it is of course a slang term, used for the male appendage, and, by derivation, for idiots: perhaps as a reminiscence of the word ‘fool’. I would like to suggest that from now on the word ‘tool’ should be used disparagingly, not in the old general American way, where it is just a term of abuse, like ‘dick’ or ‘cock’, but in a new way to mean something very exact.
From now on a tool should be used to refer to someone who is fooled because they have made themselves into an instrument.
Agamben is a fool, no doubt. But Kotsko and his friends are tools.
The Guardian is a veritable toolbox. Also, the Times.
What was remarkable about the podcast in which Kotsko and the others discussed Agamben was how readily they made themselves the tools of the state-corporate-media position on COVID-19. Admittedly, they prided themselves on being critical enough to notice the odd contradiction in the official position (saying that Fauci lied, for instance), but they – despite having no more scientific credentials than you or I or even Toby Young (whom Private Eye impertinently insists on calling an “armchair epidemiologist”, while refusing to admit that everyone, from Hancock to Hislop, was an armchair or smartphone epidemiologist in 2020) – they, I say, admitted to no doubt whatsoever that the virus was x, the lockdown was y, and the vaccine was z: where x means totally destructive of us, where y means necessary until z comes along, and where z means totally destructive of x.
Anyone who agrees with this, and I quote from important scholarly rebuttals of Agamben by Adam Kotsko, Eric Santer and Carlo Salzani, will doubtless also agree that Agamben is someone who wrote some “embarrassing pandemic screeds”, transformed his philosophy (good) into an ideology (bad), fell back on “a quite childish anarchism”, and came to sound “disturbingly like a right-wing crank”. They all complain that Agamben compared lockdown to Nazi extermination camps. Well, he did – apparently falling into that common trap. But they seem to have forgotten that Agamben’s entire argument 20 years ago was that the state in its entirety and through all of its history is best understood as such a camp. In addition, Kotsko even claims that by writing the way he did Agamben missed the opportunity to “challenge existing power structures”. Eh, er, what? Yes, indeed. Apparently, Agamben was not challenging existing power structures when he inveighed against the folly of lockdown. Ah, I see, he should have accepted all the pandemic protocols, and then shed a tear about how they were leading, for neoliberal reasons, to various forms of exclusion and privilege – before putting his script down, and taking a fee from Gates via the Guardian.
As we know, COVID-19 ushered in a very stark situation in which the TOOLS attempted to set fire to the FOOLS, destroy them, cancel them, send them into exile. It should come as no surprise that a philosopher like Giorgio Agamben, whose entire life’s work is about how the state is nothing more than a state of emergency (sometimes suspended to give us a short-lived sense of normality), would take the opportunity afforded by COVID-19 to say, “I told you so.” His obscure, elaborate and recondite theorising is found in many books, and would lead most readers of the Daily Sceptic to reach for – their Bibles again. (This time, Ecclesiastes 12.12: “Of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh” – which, incidentally, was my father’s favourite line from the Bible, and was often quoted at me when I was at my books.) But if one ignores all the philology and pedagogy the idea is basically that government has always been a conspiracy against us.
It is a foolish argument.
It is the equal and opposite of the toolish argument, made my almost everyone in the last three to 50 years: which is that government can deliver diversity, inclusion, equality, if not also equity, plus carbon zero, high speed rail travel, comprehensive education, good internet, all 17 sustainable development goals, identity cards, lockdowns and just wars.
Some time ago Sinead Murphy in the Sceptic asked why academics failed us so badly during the pandemic. Her answer was polite. The less polite answer is that academics are, by and large, tools. For many years, Eric Weinstein, who is one of the great figures of our time and who is a typical fool in that he speaks better than he writes (which, in his case is a bit of a shame, as one would like to see his positions clearly written out), has been saying that the universities should endow difficult and brilliant scientists and leave them alone. He makes the absolutely correct point that many great men, and indeed women, in the past were objectionable. Take Gödel, say. Or Feynman. Or James Watson. Take almost any famous professor from between 1870 and 1970. But they did their work. Now such figures are unlikely to get past Human Resources. Their instinctive foolish inclination not to buckle before inclusivity or sustainability precepts would doom them to deletion.
Weinstein’s policy of endowing fools is unlikely to be achieved. But he is certainly right about what has happened to the universities. The state ‘grew’, as we now transitively say, the universities from the 1950s and 1960s onwards. The consequence was that the entirety of higher educated society became statist, bureaucratised and, interestingly, also leftish in some sense: at the very least because academics generally favour state intervention, ‘the science’, and a ‘problem and solution’ model of politics – and at the most because they also like making concessions to the left (originally, the socialist left, but nowadays the woke left). Admittedly, there were in the 1960s and 1970s many original and independent thinkers: take Isaiah Berlin, Alasdair MacIntyre, Michel Foucault, etc., for instance: the famous names of the older generation. But the successor generation has thrown up hardly any names. Can you think of any famous academics? The reason is that the successor generation has tended to simply solidify the old ideas through repetition and adjustment, solidification and scholarship.
I saw evidence of this in a now fairly old book on feminist interpretations of Hannah Arendt. The book was full of academic professors, mostly women, “thinking with Arendt against Arendt”, to use their irritating slogan: in other words, wondering why such a great and fearless thinker as Hannah Arendt was unwilling to abandon the precept in Genesis that God created man, and male and female he created them. As Eugyppius has put it in one of his recent posts, the successor generation of academics is more open-minded than the old generation. (Open-minded = empty-headed.) They see no reason to object to any form of diversity. Anything goes. Even old ways of making sense, which might even seen normal to us, are suspect, privileged, orientalist, colonial.
We have also seen, as part of BBC enculturation of our society, the rise of comedians who are TOOLS rather than FOOLS. Chief exhibit: Frankie Boyle, who at least has features, unlike all the other interchangeable colourful Playskool spanners. In short, the TOOLS are everywhere, in television studios, also in lecture halls, and in their offices – in office. So we have to offer our thanks to the comedians and occasional philosophers who have remained determined to be FOOLS.
We should therefore salute Agamben. Being obsessed with words, he would enjoy the irony of the fact that ‘salute’ is etymologically related to ‘salvation’ and also to ‘safety’. We salute him (for being a fool).
But we are not expecting him to stay safe (since that is a toolish thing to say).
Dr. James Alexander is a Professor in the Department of Political Science at Bilkent University in Turkey.
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