Foucault and Breivik

Is Rubert Murdoch responsible for actions carried out by his employees?

Do murders by Anders Breivik reflect on islamophobic commentators?

Are feminists, egalitarians and liberals advancing a Europe-wide grand plan to actively undermine the basic structures of Western civilisation?

All of these questions reflect an underlying theoretical difficulty: how to understand unities in human society. When is it appropriate to see distinct actions by distinct agents as parts of a larger pattern, and when is it misleading?

The pertinence of the question is brought out by considering the sort of people who seem to do badly on this score, who we might call ‘paranoid’ or ‘conspiracy theorists’ – people who have no compunction against attributing apparently unrelated events to a single ‘plan’ or shadowy ‘power behind the scenes’. To the unconvinced, a lot of ‘radical’ theory might look rather like this: A does X, B does Y, and C does Z, all in different contexts, but they can all be explained as expressions of capitalist hegemony or whatever.

But it’s clearly also possible to err in the opposite direction: to treat a consistent series of events as a collection of uninformative coincidences, to ‘miss the forest for the trees’ and thus fail to learn from evident facts.

So the question is worth considering in the abstract. It’s really a version of a broader question, of how to understand unity in any domain – given that we need to ‘carve things up’, which scheme of division is most illuminating?

In relation to that broad question, I want to suggest that there are two different ways of thinking, separated by the question: must a principle of unity be itself unified? That is, when several things compose a (relatively) unified whole, will this be explained by citing some single thing, which they are all related to, or which they all share, or which otherwise unifies them? Or might they be unified by multiple links which are not themselves unified?

I think this issue runs through a number of philosophical topics. Here are some examples:

  • Wittgenstein is famous for arguing that sometimes, a word can apply (non-ambiguously) to many things, without any single definition applying to all of them. Instead, there might be several different similarities which overlap, so that each item will have several relevant traits, but no trait is universal. These are often called ‘family resemblance’ terms.


  • John Locke argued with Descartes over what it means for a person to remain the same individual over time; Descartes position was that a single, inherently unified entity, their ‘soul’, persists throughout someone’s life, even as their body and personality change. Locke argued, on the contrary, that they were the same person as long as enough threads of memory bound the different stages of their life together: even if the 80-year-old can’t remember the experiences of the 5-year-old, they can remember the experiences of the 30-year-old who can.


  • Part of the goal of Spinoza’s theory of physical objects is to reject the Aristotelian idea of ‘form’ – that for an object to be really a single object it must have a single ‘form’ which is inherently a unity and which causally explains how it operates and what its properties are. Spinoza argues that, on the contrary, all that’s needed for an object to be a single object is that each of its parts be related in a stabilising way to some of its other parts, even if those relations are of irreducibly various kinds.

This photo shows the reanimated corpse of Michel Foucault at a party

Wittgenstein, Locke, and Spinoza are here making similar moves – explaining unity by reference something not itself unified – in different domains. I originally raised this topic in relation to a different domain – human society. The person I most associate with making the same move in this domain is Michel Foucault.

Foucault (at one stage in the orgy of re-invention, neologisms and orgies that was his life) uses the term ‘apparatus’ (French ‘dispositif’) for the sort of social unity he sought to study, a “system of relations… established between… a thoroughly heterogenous ensemble” of elements. The aim of this concept, he says, is to both show the role of “a dominant strategic function”, and avoid positing “any kind of strategic ruse on the part of some meta- or trans-historical subject”.

On my reading, the development of an apparatus involves two processes, one in which a “strategic objective” is addressed by some person or group, using the sort of deliberate, conscious intent that people display, and one in which, passively and without planning, “each effect…enters into resonance or contradiction with the others and thereby calls for a re-adjustment…of the heterogeneous elements”. But each element is also open to being “re-utilised” by some other personal project, which in turn would estblish further ‘resonances’ in society at large.

Consider how picture might apply to ‘islamophobia’. At various times, various people and groups have found some perceived utility in formulating and expressing the existential threat posed to ‘the West’ by ‘Islam’.

These might have been largely independent of each other at first – one president finds it fitting into his vision of re-asserting American power and values in Asia, one commentator finds it gets them readers, one angry conservative finds it a neat explanation and focus for their anxieties about cultural change, one angry young man finds it a satisfying target for their ambient feelings of persecution and frustration. Each of these situations is the product of previous ‘narratives’, previous ‘apparatuses’.

But each of these individual ‘strategic elaborations’ enters into ‘resonance’ with the others: the president’s speeches reinforce the columnist’s plausibility to readers, those columns in turn encourage the angry conservative’s anger, which leads them to vote for that president on account of his ‘tough stance’. The independent strategies connect via. a sort of feedback that tends to make them more coherent, producing a systematic social phenomenon which can easily appear planned.

Obviously this leaves a lot of questions unanswered, including the ones I began with. I’m really just trying to draw together certain threads of my own thoughts, unified by the idea of unification without a unified principle of unity.

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2 Responses to Foucault and Breivik

  1. No particular comment – just wanted to say I found this entry and line of thought generally very interesting. I think there is another aspect of epistemology that can be looked at in this way (it’s not entirely dissimilar to Wittgenstein, but a slightly different way of putting it). This is that the meaning of words and concepts comes, at least partly, from its web of relationships with other words and concepts, and if there are no such relationships they become meaningless, and that finally words are grounded by something like Wittgensteinian forms of life. So for example, something like differentiation is pretty far from being grounded in reality, but if you connect it to functions, to real numbers, to ratios, to integers and to arithmetic you finally get back to something that is very much grounded in reality. The concept of ‘God’ on the other hand has almost no links to any other concepts, and certainly not to anything that is grounded in reality, so it is essentially meaningless (epistemologically I mean, it’s clearly socio-culturally meaningful).

    On the subject of objects (unintentional pun), in my day job I’m a theoretical neuroscientist, and one of future research projects is to apply something like what you’ve attributed to Spinoza (I didn’t know this idea came from him) to sensory perception and the binding problem. That is, I imagine the nervous system keeps track of many possible potential relationship between simple percepts, and when there is a persistent web of such relationships, even if they are shifting over time, then the percepts are bound into a single perceptual object. As far as I know, this hasn’t been modelled neuroscientifically yet.

    • lukeroelofs says:

      “the meaning of words and concepts comes, at least partly, from its web of relationships with other words and concepts, and if there are no such relationships they become meaningless”
      Very interesting. I get the impression Derrida says something along these lines, from what friends have told me about ‘differance’? But it’s definitely a good example of the same kind of idea.

      That neuroscience stuff sounds cool – hope you make some headway on that front. Neuroscientific models of binding seem like something it would be good to have.

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