When I first read this article, I laughed. But immediately afterward I was struck with an odd sensation. Though printed in an avowedly satirical publication, using made up “facts”, the point of the article is so obviously true as to be beyond platitudinous. And yet, any article bearing the truth of this is not published as a “legitimate” story in a “reputable” source of information. I reflected that maybe it’s socially ok to be “truthful” so long as one is not “serious” (as Oscar Wilde once wrote: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”)
Then, I randomly ran across an account in a book on medieval “court fools”:
A fool is one who does not wear the social “mask” of decorum or normality, or who does so only intermittently. Naive people, childlike adults, people who in some way are unable or unwilling to play the social game, who say what they mean or who do what they want, regardless of what is “done”, all these are fools…the medieval court-fool…because of a frankness uninhibited by social convention…could be relied upon to tell the truth. (“Madness, Masks and Laughter” by Rupert D.V. Glasgow)
Further, I found a distinction between “natural” fools and “artificial” fools which finds its origins in “A Nest of Ninnies” by Robert Armin (a contemporary of Shakespeare). Obviously the “natural” fool was a simpleton by birth–someone who today would be thought of as mentally retarded (Forrest Gump is a popular contemporary example). The “artificial” fool was one who willfully cultivated his style of foolishness in a modified imitation of the natural fool. Thus, while the natural fool was generally regarded as “truthful” due to naivete (the way a child is perceived), the artificial fool was seen as “wise” in his wit (both types were generally seen as having access to a special “reality” outside the “logic and order” of the world that most of us inhabit–the natural fool by chance of birth, the artificial fool by deliberate self-stylization).
Now this all appears to paint a very desirable picture of foolishness from the perspective of an individual possibly subject to the classification (though presumably most natural fools lack the capacity to appreciate their condition, the artificial fool would seem to possess the ability to evaluate his own standing). Not only is the fool much freer individually than his social peers with regards to his actions and his discourse, he also appears to possess an oddly privileged social standing as one who is “reliable” (more so the natural than artificial) or “wise” (more so the artificial than the natural). Of course, there is another perspective on the concept of foolishness. Consider the observation of the philosopher Slavoj Zizek:
“I admit it…there is a clownish aspect to me…I maybe flirt with it…nonetheless I am getting tired of it because I notice…a kind of a terrible urge, compulsion, to make me appear as a kind of a funny man…the true question would be where does this urge come from?” –See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sl29r-c4anM&feature=related (from 4:30-6:00)
So, “Foolishness” can clearly be seen negatively (in the evaluative sense) as a structural assignment that predeterminatively marginalizes and excludes certain individuals from the relevant social sphere for broadly political reasons. Zizek hints that his foolish designation (which he acknowledges is at least superficially appealing since he “flirts with it”) has the ultimate effect of neutralizing his capacity for socio-political impact.
However, consider that in an age where skepticism regarding the legitimacy of socio-political norms/authority/etc. deepens into an an almost unreflective status quo of cynicism, the fool who initially stands outside the dominant narrative quickly becomes the dominant perspective (thus ironically quickly losing the very aspect which constituted his foolishness in the process of assimilation–it should be noted that Zizek specifically rails against this assimilatory aspect of what he calls “liberalism”).
In direct opposition to Zizek’s concerns, one could argue that the “fool”, in addition to being freer, happier and more highly regarded, is superior in an ethico-political sense insofar as he could be seen as ultimately more efficacious at effectuating, or contributing to the effectuation of, social change (obviously Zizek’s prefers the examples of Lenin, Mao, etc., however, the question remains as to how effective a Mao or a Lenin would/could be in today’s socio-political environment).
Zizek’s concerns nothwithstanding, it appears masochistic in the extreme for any person to ever consider being assimilated into a “serious” discourse or position, when one could play the fool (I’m speaking here obviously of the “artificial” fool). Why write for the NY Times when you could write for The Onion? Why present the evening news on CBS when you could be Jon Stewart? The Fool appears both freer (and thus lives a more selfishly enjoyable life in general) and (ironically) more highly respected (in some socially relevant sense) than his “serious” counterparts in the social sphere (consider that among the most important demographic, i.e. 18-35, Jon Stewart is often considered more reliable/trustworthy than his “serious” peers). The only response to this would seem to be the one Zizek worries about–the ability to “make a difference”. But again, I question the argument that one is only effective–or even more effective–at “making a difference” through the medium of “serious” discourse and action.