From Where I Sit - Dissociated thought, bloody act

September 20, 2012

On a recent visit to Bergen in Norway, it was raining and, gloomily, everything on the menu was fish. The Anders Behring Breivik trial was coming to a close in Oslo yet you couldn't get it on the hotel television. Out of sensitivity to our hosts Breivik was not mentioned yet the case was on our minds.

I was there for a conference, Thought as Action: Gender, Democracy, Freedom, run by the University of Bergen Centre for Women's and Gender Research. Ellen Mortensen, director of the centre, claimed the Thought as Action project hypothesises "that there is a crucial interrelationship between thought and action, and that we need to understand and rethink the conceptions of possibility for freedom and democracy from a gender perspective".

Professor Mortensen argued that the thinking that underpins social and political practices is in dire need of a more rigorous inquiry, one that takes into account the altered conditions of a globalised world. Visiting the world's richest country, it was difficult to imagine the roots of Breivik's ferociously personal disaffection. Bergen's harbour echoed with the drinking songs of returning students, happy souls whose cheerful cries drifted through the rain and the mist. Everywhere I went, Norway seemed resolutely clean, well mannered, engaging (and expensive). Even the police looked nice. All of this was so contrapuntal to the Breivik trial and the collective revulsion at its close: that our world produces such figures.

When I returned home to Brighton (where it was also raining), Breivik was sentenced and declared sane. After the judgment, he apologised to his far Right brothers that he hadn't managed to kill enough people.

Like many aggrieved and isolated men, the black military garb of Fascism provided Breivik with a uniform and a scaffold. Of course, the ideology also motivated his actions - killing or wounding nearly 300 people, mainly children, on a summer camping holiday. Breivik is supposedly a thoughtful man who seems to have a troubled masculinity.

The feminist philosopher Elizabeth Grosz, Jean Fox O'Barr professor of women's studies at Duke University, gave the opening address at the Bergen conference. She looked not only at how thought acts but also, more particularly, at how acts think: "I want to look at the intimacy or inseparability of thought and action - thought as action and action as thought"; she considered the work of the pre-Socratics through Spinoza to Nietzsche, Bergson, Althusser, Deleuze and Irigaray, reminding us that political questions are always intellectual questions.

At the final conference dinner, a Norwegian research council representative told us that the funding stream for gender studies had been discontinued and that future policy would aim to "mainstream" gender in other disciplines. Eyes turned towards the ceiling - each one of us knew what that meant. Breivik's actions (and thoughts) were about masculinity gone sour. We have explanations for his actions and we seem to know his thoughts (they were extensively published) but Breivik, for all his ostensible thinking, comes across as a shamed, inarticulate person who failed to make connections. He is disconnected. What was he thinking?

Thought makes connections, claimed Grosz. She argued that a feminist future entails that we conceptualise "the points of vulnerability within patriarchy, but above all, other ways of undertaking practices, new ways of doing things and new ways of meaning". Perhaps the answer to Breivik is not to think about him any more but instead to think about connecting and act accordingly.

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