You can't believe a thing you read!


The philosopher and the vice president: Can you believe anything you read or hear from the standard sources?

Not necessarily, no! We'll start with the day's comic relief—with the report which is currently featured at the top of Slate's front page.

On its front page, Slate is offering this tease. If you're willing to click, the comic relief ensues:

A Renowned Scholar Decided COVID Lockdowns Look Like Nazi Germany. The Fallout Has Raged Ever Since.

Who could this renowned scholar be? Inside Slate, Professor Adam Kotsko's report starts like this, dual headlines included:

What Happened to Giorgio Agamben? 
In February 2020, a hugely influential philosopher decided COVID lockdowns looked a lot like Nazi Germany. The fallout in academia and beyond has raged ever since.

The problem began, as a surprising number do, with a blog post. Giorgio Agamben, the Italian philosophy giant who is a bit like the Jonathan Franzen of the field—the kind of towering yet idiosyncratic figure you feel you have to respond to, whether you like him or not—had long maintained a blog where he posts short pieces about current events and other musings. Sometimes he’d comment on Greta Thunberg; other times he’d write poetic meditations on social decline. This went largely unnoticed—until he made his first intervention into the debate about emergency measures to stop the spread of the coronavirus in February 2020.

As it turns out, the renowned scholar in question is also hugely influential. He's an Italian philosophy giant—the kind of towering figure you feel you have to respond to, whether you like him or not.

He's also someone you've never heard of, and almost surely will never hear of again. The leading authority on his life and his work offers this quick overview

Giorgio Agamben (born 22 April 1942) is an Italian philosopher best known for his work investigating the concepts of the state of exception, form-of-life (borrowed from Ludwig Wittgenstein) and homo sacer. The concept of biopolitics (carried forth from the work of Michel Foucault) informs many of his writings.



Much of Agamben's work since the 1980s can be viewed as leading up to the so-called Homo Sacer project, which properly begins with the book Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. In this series of works, Agamben responds to Hannah Arendt's and Foucault's studies of totalitarianism and biopolitics. Since 1995 he has been best known for this ongoing project, the volumes of which have been published out of order.

As of 2017, these works have been collected and published as The Omnibus: Homo Sacer (2017). 

In the final volume of the series, Agamben intends to address "the concepts of forms-of-life and lifestyles." "What I call a form-of-life," he explains, "is a life which can never be separated from its form, a life in which it is never possible to separate something like bare life. [...] Here too the concept of privacy comes into play."

Perhaps the power of Agamben's work is beginning to come into focus. 

At any rate, Agamben has been working on this project since the 1980s and, despite his massive influence, you've never heard a single word about it. You can decide whether this tells you something about the world of the academy, about your country's national discourse, or about the world of Slate.

Do you believe that any of this makes a lick of sense? Due to our natural respect for authority, you may be inclined to assume that this just has to make sense. If so, we'll suggest that your respect for intellectual authority may in this instance be wrong.

Agamben is said to be an intellectual giant. He's 79 years old, but you've never seen his name mentioned, not even once. Could it be because his massively influential thought is built around such insights as these?

In The Coming Community, published in 1990 and translated by longtime admirer Michael Hardt in 1993, Agamben describes the social and political manifestation of his philosophical thought. Employing diverse short essays he describes the nature of "whatever singularity" as that which has an "inessential commonality, a solidarity that in no way concerns an essence." It is important to note his understanding of "whatever" not as being indifference but based on the Latin "quodlibet ens" translated as "being such that it always matters."

Be sure to pay attention to his understanding of "whatever!"

More and more, the people at Slate pursue advice columns in which they can't even vouch for the authenticity of the slightly suspicious letters to which they say they're responding. Sometimes, you simply get Schwedeled. 

Also, they throw in the occasional "imitation of life" like the essay they feature today.

You've never heard of Agamben. His massively influential musings may not seem to make sense.

In truth, our failing tribe's journalistic and academic horizons are drawn, more and more, from such halls of mirrors. Robert Zimmerman mentioned this general state of affairs a good many years ago:

You've been with the professors and they've all liked your looks
With great lawyers you have discussed lepers and crooks
You've been through all of F. Scott Fitzgerald's books
You're very well-read, it's well known.
But something is happening here and you don't know what it is
Do you, Mr. Jones?

As far as we know, Dylan has never explained who this "Mr. Jones" was. Tomorrow, we may proceed to the latest nonsense you shouldn't believe—the tribally pleasing, mandated nonsense about the (former) vice president.

We're running on imitations of life. More and more, again and again, our cultural fuel is imitations, pretty much all the way down.


  1. Meh. One doesn't need to be an Italian philosophy giant to see how the liberal-covidian faucist cult is reminiscent, in some ways, of Nazi Germany.

    Read CJ Hopkins, dear Bob:

    ...not to mention a whole bunch of people comparing, recently, Justin Trudeau, the actual leader of Liberal Party, to Adolf Hitler.

    Tsk. The times we live in, eh?

  2. "despite his massive influence, you've never heard a single word about it. You can decide whether this tells you something about the world of the academy, about your country's national discourse, or about the world of Slate."

    There are a great many things in fields of knowledge, pursued in both within academia and outside of it, that most people have never heard of. That is the nature of expertise -- the experts know it and the everyday people do not. Some of that knowledge has application to our everyday lives and some of it does not, in either case, operating without people's knowledge or appreciation.

    Sometimes it is our news media that brings obscure knowledge to public awareness. For example, no one knew about gene splicing and crispr before it made the news, except those working on it, largely in universities.

    Somerby loves to imply that if a topic is obscure or academic, then it is useless or irrelevant. That has never been true.

  3. "As far as we know, Dylan has never explained who this "Mr. Jones" was."

    Dylan wrote song lyrics to appeal to anti-authoritarian upper middle class youth. Remember that anyone over 25 was suspect. Mr. Jones represents "The Man" or The Establishment, adults and especially parents. The 60s counter-culture took the beatnik idea of hipness a step further and considered anyone not themselves to be uncool, not clued in. And that was expressed in songs like Dylan's telling kids that adults and authorities (teachers, old people, parents) didn't know where it's at (without ever being specific about what "it" was). Such adults were also "uptight" and sexually repressed, too materialistic and attached to property, opposed to fun and letting it all hang out, doing their own thing.

    Any reasonable person should be able to tell by the vagueness of this language, that the point was to separate youth from everyone else, to define the counter-culture boundary. It was common in the 60s to call anyone with short hair a "narc" whether they had any official capacity or not. Members of the military were mistreated in part because they were mistaken for uncool authority figures.

    The point is that Dylan didn't have to define who Mr. Jones was. Kids just knew. Dylan's intended meanings are not those of Somerby and Somerby has no business trying to grab them for his own purposes. Dylan would not approve of Trump and would not approve of his songs being used to further conservative causes -- especially during the time period when he wrote such lyrics. Toss in some mysticism and you have the rest of the counter-culture mix. Somerby would not be welcome among hippies. Too much hate.

  4. It seems to me the point of the Slate article was that Agamben, who for whatever reason is hugely influential, has taken the extreme anti-vaxx position, and because of his influence, the slate writer feels his arguments require a rebuttal.

    Somerby argues that Agamben is a crackpot.


    1. What is with you Bob-haters and your tin ears?

    2. Cecelia,
      How anyone doesn't love "Blonde on Blonde" seems crazy to me too.

    3. I don’t get the Edie Sedgwick stuff.

      I guess you had to be there.