Sunday, April 24, 2011


Over the last few months my mind has regularly returned to the issue of habit. By habit I mean all those thoughts and behaviors that we reflexively experience and perform. It is about assumptions, about reflexes, about the things that we do without thinking about doing them.

When I think about habits I don't think of them in terms of something that is natural or essential. I think of them as patterns of thought and behavior that we learn from our experiences.

I can't recall precisely when I first became concerned with the issue of habit. I know that in March of 2010 I was doing writing about 'default behavior' or 'the problem of autopilot'. All of those issues that I was writing about then I now think about in terms of habit.

I know that I became concerned with the word habit when I started reading Collingwood's The Principles Of Art, mainly because Collingwood talks about how artistic expression leaves a deposit of habits in us. If we express certain things, or make an effort to express in certain ways, we will be more likely to express those things or that way in the future.

At the beginning of last year, when I was really beginning to delve seriously into philosophy, I was seriously trying to modify and craft my own behavior. I knew I didn't want to be certain ways. I didn't want to be angry. I didn't want to be aggressive. I didn't want to be sad. And I still don't want to be those things, and I try hard not to be. But sometimes I am. I wonder how good of a job I've done crafting myself through my philosophical work. It remains an ongoing project, as I concluded recently.

I guess I can even trace my interest in habit back to my experience in the Clausewitz seminar. Clausewitz's primary concern is the education of intuitive decision making. He wants to train people to unconsciously think in certain ways and to make certain decisions. At its core, what he wants to do is to train commanders to have certain habits of thought and action. But, paradoxically, he also wants to make people creative and not bound to habits. This reminds me of a question I asked a friend: is it possible to make a habit of breaking habit? And I think the answer has to be yes. You can instill in yourself a habit of breaking with habits. Just as mindfulness can be a mental model of reality, you can have a habit of breaking with habits. Sounds paradoxical, but I think it makes sense. So, even though I didn't use those terms then, I think the issue of habit is definitely implicated in Clausewitz's work.

A minute ago I stubbed my to on this chair. This chair that I am sitting on in my bedroom. Ouch. I immediately said 'ahhhhhh owwwww' and bent over and checked it out and stuff. Then I thought about how perhaps I could control that pain with my mind, focus on it less. Then I noticed it was bleeding almost immediately. So that perhaps is an instance of a habit that is natural, to say ow or something. But perhaps that is also learned in some ways.

The issue of habit then started cropping up in Zizek's writing. He touches on habit for a bit in Violence and then briefly discusses it in In Defense Of Lost Causes. For Zizek habit is a fundamental part of living in any society. For him, habits are "the complex network of informal rules which tells us how we are to relate to explicit norms.... These informal rules make up the domain of habit. To know the habits of a society is to know the meta-rules of how to apply its explicit norms: when to use them or not use them; when to violate them; when not to use a choice which is offered;...." (Violence, 158). Zizek then explains how habits have political implications. He says that "The problem of the chaotic post-Soviet years of Yeltsin rule in Russia can be located at this level" although the legal rules were known and largely the same as under the Soviet Union, what disintegrated was the complex network of implicit, unwritten rules which sustained the entire social edifice" (160).

Habit also belongs in the domain of empty social gestures. When we say 'hey how are you?' or 'oh so nice to see you!', we don't necessarily mean these things, but we have been conditioned by habit to say them. But that doesn't mean that we should reject these things as useless or stupid. On the contrary, these things should be embraced as the necessary space in which our freedom can be actualized. Or, as Zizek puts it, "Belong to a society involves a paradoxical point at which each of us is ordered freely to embrace and make of it our own choice what is, in any case, imposed on us" (161). Without these informal and empty symbols we would be at a loss as to how to interact with one another. Without them we would lapse into a completely atonal world.

Without the existence of social habits, furthermore, we wouldn't even be able to maintain a consistent identity. "Habits are the very stuff our identities are made of. In them, we enact and thus define what we effectively are as social beings, often in contrast with our perception of what we are" (164). Zizek then quotes Orwell's thoughts on identity, habits, and politics. He says that those who speak out against class distinctions are in reality not willing to take the necessary steps to abolish class distinction. "It is easy for me to say that I want to get rid of class-distinctions, but nearly everything I think and do is a result of class-distinctions [...] I have got to alter myself so completely that at the end I should hardly be recognisable as the same person" (165).

Thus, on a couple levels, the personal, the social, the political, habit is a serious issue. I'll have to do a lot more reading into it.

Over the last two days I have been reading Zizek's essay 'Madness and Habit in German Idealism'. The focus of the essay is on Hegel and his work on habit. Frankly, I find the entire article to be completely confusing. I really just don't understand so much of what is going on. One thing I almost grasp, though, is that habit seems to be a positive force in some ways, an ally for personal change. He says that there is tension between madness and habit for some reason. That our mindless/habitual behavior is a problem because it seems to negate our conception of freedom. Zizek says that there is often a tension between how we act in front of people and how we really perceive ourselves. I don't know how to put this clearly. But then he says, "Habit provides the way out of this predicament – how? Not "true expression," but by putting the truth in "mindless" expression: Hegel’s constant motif, truth is in what you SAY, not in what you MEAN to say." So what does this mean? How do I deal with this? As I said, I don't grasp the article. Hegel seems intensely difficult. Zizek is already difficult. So Zizek writing on Hegel is pretty tough going.

But one thing does seem obvious: habit is framed as a way that we can align our reliance on unreflective behavior and our desire to be true to ourselves and our feelings. We can imbue our habits with what we think of as the true stuff of our hearts. We can make a habit of being genuinely expressive. Or something like that.

In Part III.3 of AZI, and in some older essays, I talked at some length about the purposeful creation of habits. I talked about 'densifying the content of our intuitive actions', by which I meant that we can create habits for ourselves that reflect the depth of our thought and feelings.

I don't know where this leaves me. I need to find out how to read about habits. Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics apparently contains stuff on the issue. Foucault discusses it implicitly. I don't know. Seems like an important issue.

Seems like culture is the stuff of our habits. Seems like politics is buttressed by culture. Seems like creating good political systems might rest on the purposeful creation of culture. Seems like politics thus in some ways would rest on the purposeful creation of habits. That would line up with Clausewitz's ideas in some way. Ummmmm.

This issue of habit is no small business. It seems to matter on quite a lot of levels.

What are my habits? Sometimes I think I am out of touch with them. Out of touch with how I feel about things, how i unconsciously react to things. Who knows. But I do retain my conviction that habit is an important issue to parse. I just don't really know how to do it.

No comments:

Post a Comment