The Importance of Being Foolish


Reoul Eshelman


Life in a postmodern world is experienced by most people as being intimidatingly complex. We are surrounded by constant, shifting streams of information conveyed by electronic and digital media that often make it difficult to tell truth from falsehood or reality from fiction. Given this sort of complexity and undecidability about what is real and true, people living in postmodern culture have limited means to assert themselves as individuals. One effect of this is a kind of culturally induced paranoia, when people are no longer able to tell when their own personalities begin and where media-induced influence ends. The postmodern way to deal with this is to ironically “go with the flow.” By freely acknowledging the fact of our own dependency on outside sources we at the same time establish a perspective that creates a critical distance to them.  This ironic, hyper-critical mode dominated art, literature, and academic writing for decades. It placed a premium on intellectual cleverness, on trying to derive power from a critical description of our own powerlessness.The comic end result of this kind of attitude can be found in films like the Coen brothers’ Burn after Reading(2008), which presents us with a paranoid vision of a world populated by dumb, cartoon-like characters and manipulated by an incompetent CIA.  The only thing that winds up making sense in this senseless mess is the ironic attitude itself.


Needless to say, this sort of attitude has itself become tiring (the Coens’ movie is simply a symptom of that more general exhaustion). In the last 15 years or so, an artistic counter-movement to this kind of radical postmodern irony has developed that I call performatism.One of the ways performatist works of literature and film try to get away from this ironic, hyper-intellectual mode is to make us identify with fools and their simple, persistent behavior. This trend can be traced back to films like Rain Man (1988) and Forrest Gump (1994), but it can be seen in novels with autistic heroes like Mark Hatton’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time(2003), in Jonathan SafranFoer’sExtremely Loud and Incredibly Close(2005) or in television series like The Big Bang Theory or The Office. The foolish characters in these workstend as a rule to be positiveand to evoke our strong sympathy in spite of their seemingly stupid or awkward behavior. The reason for this is that fools have certain qualities that make them ideal points of resistance to postmodern irony and media culture. One such quality is, paradoxically, their inability to communicate well with others. While this has obvious disadvantages, it also means that foolish characters are themselves resistant to the constant flow of information flowing through and dominating everyone else. Their “stupidity” makes them able to resist not only media culture, but also irony of all kinds—unlike postmodern individuals they are always “serious.”  The fools’ inability to communicate well almost means that they work by example rather than by getting involved in discourse with others. If other people follow their example, thismeans that social relations are established on the most basic, intuitive level—below the threshold of the media-based discourse that infiltrates the thought of all “intelligent” people. 

This kind of imitative interaction also has far-reaching ethical consequences. Because fools are very single-minded in what they do, then their mere presence can create a kind of an event that is unsettling and provocative to everyone around them. They unknowingly create what the French philosopher Alain Badiou calls a “truth process” (for more on this
see his book Ethics. An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, originally published in France in 1993). What is important is not outside opinion but being faithfulto the truth process once it has been set in motion by an event of some kind. Fictional fools are especially interesting in this regard because they are events and truth processes all rolled into one. Because of their odd, unreasonable behavior they change and challenge the conventional situations that they’re in, and they single-mindedly stick to what they’re doing no matter what everyone else around them thinks. Fools naturally exhibit what Badiou calls “ethical consistency” or “disinterested interest.” This means that they are able to subordinate all sorts of individual, often selfishinterests to pursuing a goal that is greater than themselves. The curious thing about fools, of course, is that they are unaware for the most part of what they are doing. To be successful (at least in works of fiction) they need the support of an Author. I write Author with a capital “A” because he or she takes on a godlike quality vis-à-vis the fool. The fool needs the support of the Author to succeed, and we feel this when we read a book or watch a movie with a positive outcome for the hero. The “foolish” state of truth has a religious feel to it, even though religion may not be a direct topic or theme.

We can quickly see how this works using a popular Indian example, VikasSwarup’s novel Q & A (2005), the basis for the Oscar-winning movieSlumdog Millionaire. The hero, Ram, isn’t strictly speaking a fool, but the character is a very close cousin to the fool, called a picaro. Picaros come from the outskirts of society (in this case it is the Mumbai slums) and are usually looked down upon by that society (the host of the quiz show and the police think that Ram is a “moron” because he is uneducated). Picaros traditionally move freely through different social levels (as does Ram), and, because their own personalities change very little, they act as a positive contrast to the corruption around them, even though they are often rogues (Ram in fact wants to kill the talk-show host, though for good reason).  And, the way that Ram answers the questions (by chance he knows the answers directly from life) suggests that there is some Higher Force helping him—he has a Christian, a Hindu and a Muslim name, in case there is any doubt about this! 

Q & Aand works like it are part of a much larger trend in contemporary culture. This trend, which can be found not only in popular novels and movies but also in highbrow philosophy, stresses the human ability to act in a goal-oriented way, “stick-to-it-iveness,” and faith as positive ethical features. Fools and picaros are the ideal bearers of this new ethics because they condense all its features into one package, as it were. Even though we as “intelligent” people may not be prepared to follow them in all respects, the positive ethical example they pose to us is becoming more and more important as we move away from postmodernist irony and into a mode of performatist belief.



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