Much Ado About Breivik: Why Academics Should Engage The Killer's Writings

08/02/2011 07:47 am ET | Updated Oct 02, 2011

Academics should read Norwegian right-wing murderer Anders Behring Breivik's writing. Perhaps this exhortation seems redundant in a world of instant online access and 24/7 media spectacles, but it is also true that academics are famously anxious about spectacles, and there is no doubt this violent anti-Muslim, would-be-learned "conservative revolutionary" -- though he fails to understand the meaning of this term -- has created much ado about himself.

A press snapshot shows Breivik leaving court in a car. His police guard, a blond, taut-looking Norwegian, glances grimly away from the throng of reporters. At the window closer to the cameras, the killer sits in a dapper red sweater, appearing a bit puffy and greasy, but nevertheless smiling distractedly to himself. Here is a man, who appears pleased with his success.

By now most of the world knows that on July 22, 2011, Breivik opened fire at a Labor Party youth camp on Utøya Island taking the lives of 68 teenagers. He has also claimed responsibility for the bomb blasts in Olso two hours earlier, which killed eight people. His YouTube video, which he released just six hours before the attacks, urges conservatives to "embrace martyrdom." Breivik seems to believe he has committed no crime, but rather to consider his murders a necessary act of war against his own people and their "misguided" liberal complicity in the so-called "Islamization of Europe."

Though described variously as a luckless "loner" and "mummy's boy," who underwent plastic surgery and took steroids to attain his ideal Nordic masculine look, Breivik seems to imagine himself to be in fine company among the many conservative, anti-Muslim writers, whom he cites in his rambling 1,516-page screed. From the perspective of his manifesto, it seems he merely put into action the words and ideas he read. After all, for him Europe is in a "state of emergency," where he believes Muslims are about to overrun the continent.

About 90 minutes before the bomb blast in Oslo, Breivik spammed over 1,000 people with his manifesto, provocatively entitled 2083: A European Declaration of Independence (a reference to the unsuccessful second Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683), which he wrote in English under the pseudonym "Andrew Berwick." Perhaps he imagines his deeds live up to the right wing critiques he's read and the classic political philosophers he's appropriated.

Some right-wing European politicians have even gingerly affirmed Breivik's ideas, though they have come under attack and distance themselves from his actions. But most conservative bloggers like Pamela Geller have been quick to dissociate their writings and ideas from their murderous admirer, claiming, "Breivik is responsible for his own actions." But the question many are asking is whether the writers, right-wing and otherwise, can disassociate themselves from their killer fan, who claims to be acting in their name. A New York Times article entitled "A Blogosphere of Bigots" asks this question.

Academics, meanwhile, assess the relationship between political rhetoric and violent actions with unease, as it is remains a question at least as old as Pericles' Funeral Oration, though Pericles claims words can never rival deeds, even the words he's using to urge the Athenians to die for their way of life. There is also a long history of appropriation of rhetoric for violent revolution, after which observers both on the right and the left blame each other's rhetoric for incitement. For example, in Germany of the 1970s, when the Baader Meinhof gang committed murders and claimed the Frankfurt School Marxists as their spiritual and political guides, critics were forced to ask the question whether such writing indeed produced a kind of Geistige Brandstiftung, or intellectual arson.

The connections to Baader Meinhof gang and the Frankfurt School are not merely coincidental here: Breivik blames the "cultural Marxism" of the Frankfurt School for helping to destroy European civilization through its "profound influence in European and American universities." This assertion is both a source of consternation and titillation for academics, because after all, how often does one read in the daily news the names "Max Horkheimer" and "Theodor W. Adorno," two of the most famous German-Jewish members of the school of critical theory that began in Frankfurt and brought its undogmatic, often contradictory Western Marxist cultural criticism to the United States?

Some academics, especially readers of Adorno, also worry whether they should countenance the killer's writings and ideas; whether reading and discussing the writings will extend the legitimacy the killer seeks -- although academics should well know analysis never amounts to legitimization. In fact, the manifesto, despite its assertion of rationality, undermines its own legitimacy with a series eccentric readings of social, philosophical and literary ideas. Some might even argue it reveals a writer suffering, Adorno would have diagnosed him, from "Halbbildung," a half-educated grasp of ideas that give one the illusion of profundity without being in conversation with anyone but one's own deluded self.

Surely, the point is not to laugh at the killer, though the manifesto presents many opportunities for cringing including: a vanity interview with the writer and his full list of personal preferences, as well as the fact that he proudly lists the name of his "primary weapon" as "Mjöllnir" the famous hammer of the mythical Norse god Thor.

Here is an opportunity for academics to offer a public service. Breivik's rambling and referencing may dazzle some readers, but, in fact, to master any of the material covered in the manuscript requires public discussion. Whatever sense the public might make of the contents, the manifesto is an opportunity to reexamine the relation of rhetoric to political action alongside pressing social questions of multiculturalism.

Academics won't be surprised to find themselves vilified in the manifesto. Most scholars on the left are familiar with the charge that much of the assault on European culture is currently produced on university campuses. While the conservative blogosphere is full of such attacks, academics don't normally bother with the likes of anti-Muslim writers Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Mark Steyn. But academics of all stripes do have much to say about multiculturalism, its successes and challenges.

So why not read Breivik and respond to the events?

One blog cuts its thoughts short, "I'll stop at this point, having noted this peculiar, poisonous meme which shows no sign of dying off, even after it has been connected to this weekend's deadly attacks." Another academic asserts that rather than looking at the killer's words and ideas, we should focus instead on his actions. This shift refuses Breivik's PR campaign and argues strongly for taking action against violent ideologues.

No doubt discussing actions is a worthy academic pursuit and has been since Socrates' trial in Athens, but Socrates also drew his accusers into dialogue, allowing them to publicly demonstrate the absurd injustice of their own ideas.

Academics should talk about Breivik's murderous ideas and actions, even if reading his text is more of an affirmation than it deserves. At least then they could answer whether his ramblings provide any greater cultural insight into European and American Islamophobia, or what his pro-Zionist stance means, or whether it matters if he proclaims himself a Christian. These are interesting and important questions that are raised not only by rambling, wannabe-intellectual killers, who claim to be rational. What does it mean to support Israel as, Breivik claims and reject its Holocaust-culture? What does it mean to be a Christian, of any denomination and political persuasion and to talk about Islam in Europe?

It won't be long before the discussion abandons Breivik and his posturing self-portraits. The task at hand is to engage the more important discussion of Islam, Europe and the struggles of multiculturalism.