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An event and the quest for a single cause

In fact one of the most stunning characteristics during the recent crisis has been what I call the ‘quest for a single cause’. The Greek and the Eurozone crisis have been seen as the crisis of the euro, of the EU, of a nation, of liberalism, of capitalism, of globalisation, of specific financial and institutional instruments, as the natural consequence of lazy Greeks’ way of life and so on. It is true that the ‘single cause quest’ has deep theological roots and is offering powerful, although archaic, simplifications. It helps to reduce the often violent multiplicity of the real world to a linear explanation, setting a nearly metaphysical origin for human history and a nearly metaphysical foundation for human activity. It is also politically useful as an integral part of the power game related to the management of the crisis and the implementation of a cure. However, and despite its dominance in the public discourse, this ‘quest for a single cause’ can’t be interesting or fruitful for the simple reason that any event, especially a major one, is by nature a complex situation related to a variety of factors and causes, with different degrees of influence. Foucault has offered a more constructive approach to an ‘event’ within the more general framework of what he calls ‘ effective history’ :

Effective history (wirkliche Historie) inverts the relationship ordinarily established between the eruption of an event and necessary continuity. An entire historical tradition (theological or rationalistic) aims at dissolving the singular event into an ideal continuity, as a teleological movement or a natural process. On the other hand, effective history deals with events in terms of their most unique characteristics, their most acute manifestations. An event, consequently, is not a decision, a treaty, a reign, or a battle, but the reversal of a relationship of forces, the usurpation of power, the appropriation of a vocabulary turned against those who had once used it, a feeble domination that poisons itself as it grows lax, the entry of a masked ‘other’. The world we know is not this ultimately simple configuration where events are reduced to accentuate their essential traits, their final meaning, or their initial or final value (Foucault 1984: 88-89).

The use of data

How should we approach and study an event, or a problem? What is the appropriate material or data that we should focus on? Foucault had to discuss this point raised by professional historians, accustomed to studying a period or an institution. His response is quite simple and obvious:

‘If one wants to study an historical period, or an institution through a period of time, one has to obey two rules: exhaustive treatment of all historic material and equitable repartition, chronologically, of the analysis. On the other hand, if one wants to study a problem (or an event considered as posing a problem, e.g. the birth of the clinic, or the birth of the prison) one has to obey other rules: the choice of material in terms of the elements of the problem; the need to focus on every element suitable for resolving the problem and the establishment of the relations leading to the solution’ (Foucault 1980: 32).

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