Academic journal article The Comparatist

Deleuze on Habit

Academic journal article The Comparatist

Deleuze on Habit

Article excerpt

Habits hook us into our sense of self-consistency: we sense life's pattern as our habits stabilize time's flux into predictable routine. To have habits is to set down a multiplicity of little anchors into that flux, each habit constituting a continuum of behavior persisting over time. Of course, too much routine can be a bad thing. But a life with no habits is no life at all, or else it is a fickle existence, unmoored and mercurial. A person without habits sticks at nothing. On the matter of habit, then, it is all about getting the balance right. In The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes:

   Brief habits.--I love brief habits and consider them an invaluable
   means for getting to know many things and states down to the bottom
   of their sweetnesses and bitternesses; my nature is designed
   entirely for brief habits [...]. Enduring habits, however, I
   hate, and feel as if a tyrant has come near me and the air around
   me is thickening when events take a shape that seems inevitably to
   produce enduring habits--for instance, owing to an official
   position, constant relations with the same people, a permanent
   residence, or uniquely good health. Yes, at the very bottom of my
   soul I am grateful to all my misery and illnesses and whatever is
   imperfect in me because they provide a hundred back doors through
   which I can escape enduring habits. To me the most intolerable, the
   truly terrible, would of course be a life entirely without habits,
   a life that continually demanded improvisation--that would be my
   exile and my Siberia. (167-68)

Brevity is the soul of habit. Enduring habits only lead to a clotted, coagulated existence made up of burdensome obligation. Consider his resistance to the obligation to be always in good health: imagine the impudent pleasure one gets in telling the doc--always concerned to impose the doctrine of "wellness"--that one has a pack-a-day smoking habit, and then sitting back to enjoy the scolding lecture with indifference. Illness, a hacking smoker's cough, or a slightly enlarged liver, can be escape routes from the irritating officiousness of the sane, the well, and the well-meaning. Yet, if Nietzsche detests enduring habits, what is worse is having no habits. A life that never settled into any routine at all would be a skittish kind of life, so mercurial and improvised--wholly new at each instant--it would be like living in the gulag. Siberia, for Nietzsche, is a sort of nowhere place of utter inconstancy.

Elsewhere in philosophy, opinions on the matter of habit are sometimes mixed, sometimes starkly pro or con. For Kant, thinking of the moral subject, obeying the law out of mere habit is dangerously lax. Habitual action is too passive, whereas real obedience requires a strenuous act of will. Habitual thinking edges into thoughtlessness, whereas moral action requires a moment of lucid deliberation, particularly vis-a-vis one's moral maxims. For the Aristotle of the Nichomachean Ethics, on the other hand, "virtue of character is a result of habituation" (23). The virtuous person acquires good character in various ways--it helps to have upstanding role-models and congenial circumstances for the flowering of goodness, but one also needs opportunities to practice and gain experience so that doing good will feel second nature. "The person who is to be good must be nobly brought up and habituated," Aristotle writes, "and then spend his life engaged in good pursuits" (201).

Morality offers an initial sense of the importance of habit to philosophy, but gaining any greater purchase on the topic is hampered by the sheer mystery of habit. How do they begin and take hold? How are we aware of having habits? To answer such questions entails tolerating a messy blurring of the neat dichotomies and oppositions that conventionally shape philosophical enquiry. One problem is the extent to which a habit is both involuntary and voluntary, since while having a habit seems to induce a certain passivity, the will nonetheless exerts itself--the smoker actively motivates himself to reach for another cigarette. …

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