MONDAY, FEBRUARY 21, 2022
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.