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  • Mind the GapToward a Political History of Habit
  • Tony Bennett

Habit has become a lively topic of debate across a range of contemporary fields of inquiry: in affect theory, sociological accounts of reflexivity, the neurosciences, cultural geography, actor network theory, aesthetics and philosophy. This has paralleled its increasing prominence as a matter of practical concern in debates focused on the need for new and/or transformed habits in relation to racism, waste management, climate change, the routes and routines of urban life, and so on. In this paper I bring these two concerns together by examining the ways in which authorities of various kinds (philosophical, sociological, psychological, neurological, biological, and aesthetic) have constituted habit as their points of entry into the management of conduct.1 I shall be particularly concerned with the ways in which varied strategies of intervention into the “conduct of conduct” developed since the mid-nineteenth century have posited a gap or interval in which the force of acquired or inherited habits is temporarily halted. It is this gap that opens up the possibility of re-shaping habits by providing scope for practices of freedom and self-determination that escape the constraints of habit, understood as a form of automatic repetitive conduct. At the same time, this gap provides an opportunity for conduct to be re-shaped by being brought under the direction of epistemological or aesthetic authorities which aspire to “mind the gap” that is produced when the mechanisms of habit are temporarily stalled. My primary engagement with these questions will be through recent programs for “minding the gap” developed at the interfaces of sociology, aesthetics and the neurosciences.

I shall set the compass for the directions my argument will take by considering Bruno Latour’s reasons for including habit as one of the modes of existence in his project for an anthropology of the moderns. Indeed, Latour goes further than this in according habit a foundational role in relation to the other modes of existence he discusses. This assessment rests on his interpretation of habit as a mechanism that enables the individual to accumulate the lessons of experience in ways which—by allowing these to be “black-boxed” as automatic—frees her or him up to develop new capacities which, through repetition, become, in turn, new habits. The positive spin Latour places on habit is pitched against its largely negative assessments in the mind-body dualisms of the Descartes-to-Kant philosophical lineage in which habit [End Page 28] defines a liminal zone that both separates and connects the animal and the human and, within the latter, differentiates more from lesser developed forms of humanity according to the degree to which they are confined by, or liberated from, habit’s bondage. Rather, he argues, habit must be counted as a blessing—“habit, blessed habit” (Latour, An Inquiry into Modes of Existence 265)—in view of its ability to free us from the incessant anxieties provoked by the need to choose that would otherwise face us at each moment of what would be an excessively stressful daily life. Equally, though, this blessing can turn into a curse if habit’s sway is granted too much latitude, degenerating into “mechanical gestures” as its repetitions slide once again into “automatism and routine” (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence 269).

In restoring to habit its “ontological dignity” (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence 273), Latour also wants to rescue the topic from neglect: “philosophers of habit,” he says, “are even less numerous than those of technology” (An Inquiry into Modes of Existence 267). This is surprising, as there are few philosophers, classical or modern, or, in between, Christian theologians, who haven’t paid the question of habit considerable attention: Aristotle, Seneca and the Stoics, Aquinas, Luther, Descartes, Spinoza, Montaigne, Locke, Hume, Mill, Bentham, Kant, Ravaisson, Hegel, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, James, Dewey, Bergson, Sartre, Merleau Ponty, Freud, Husserl, Derrida and Deleuze: these are among the philosophers of habit who are included in two recent histories of the topic (Carlisle, On Habit; Sparrow and Hutchinson, A History of Habit), all of whom accord a significant place to habit in their accounts of the relations between human and other forms of life...


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pp. 28-55
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