By Adam Katz
Everything stays the same but composition, says Gertrude Stein. So, what is “everything,” and what is “composition”? (For that matter, what is the “same”?) Everything is all that falls below the threshold of our attentiveness, what remains as background, noise, the field of semblances, subsumed within habit. Composition is the raising and lowering of that threshold. In her “Reflection on the Atomic Bomb” Stein asserted that
What is the use, if they are really as destructive as all that there is nothing left and if there is nothing there nobody to be interested and nothing to be interested about. If they are not as destructive as all that then they are just a little more or less destructive than other things and that means that in spite of all destruction there are always lots left on this earth to be interested or to be willing and the thing that destroys is just one of the things that concerns the people inventing it or the people starting it off, but really nobody else can do anything about it so you have to just live along like always, so you see the atomic [bomb] is not at all interesting…
The atomic bomb is the same as everything else that destroys—if unleashed, it will kill 10 million, maybe 100 million, maybe more, but that’s just some amount more than is killed by a murderer or garden variety terrorist. If we go about living our lives when we hear about the latter, we will do the same when we hear about the former. Our lives may become different, but what do you mean by that—at what point does more violence and destruction mark a qualitative transformation compared to the previous “level” of violence and destruction, and at what point does the bundle of activities comprising our daily habits, which is anyway always undergoing silent revolutions, become a different way of living? There are still lots of interesting things and lots of ways of being interested in them and the rest we can’t do anything about.
What ties us to the world are ostensive and imperative signs: our desires and rivalries produce rifts, within each of us and between all of us; in the midst of these desires and rivalries for centrality we stumble upon the materials displaced by the nihilistic tenor of our urgencies and find ways to piece them together—we attend from some material (say, some previously overlooked habit) which is thereby converted into a sign and to the object we were pursuing, interrupting our pursuit, creating shared distance. Even more, we compose those materials, attending from and to each of its “parts” in turn, conferring upon it a formal and transcendent reality. The object we were pursuing is now framed, and accessible only via established rules and rituals.
These signs are named, and we command the names to remain in place until the names command us to model our activities on the process of their own composition. Our discourse, our sentences do little more than transcribe these commands, but what is interesting is that we get them wrong. Error is co-constitutive with norm: we imitate the small details when it is the broader intention we must be limning; we become “big-picture guys” when the devil is in the details. And so habit becomes the idiosyncratic composition of the center, as we establish commerce between all of our names, establish conformity across the field of imperatives we obey, and are then driven into new desires and rivalries by strange names and commands that are nothing more than the malapropisms of our habits.
So, what, exactly, do we think will happen with the global economy? Unemployment will go up—how much—2 points? 4 points? 10 points? Will our credit cards no longer work? If we move our money out of the volatile stock market, will our insured bank deposits then vaporize? Will agriculture cease; will there no longer be anyone to transport goods to market? I wouldn’t discount any of these possibilities—although I will note that I almost never hear any descent into such specifics in all the panic talk (which, I also note, at times suddenly morphs into speculation regarding whether we will start coming out of the recession this Fall or next Spring—in short, nobody knows anything).
Habits won’t cease, though, and just as we can raise the threshold above which we notice difference, we can lower the threshold—more likely than government finding a way to restore corporate health or put people to work is people establishing new economic and social networks on the margins of their intersecting habits. And we will thereby rediscover the laws of complementarity: if the market crashes, maybe that is just a return to the true value of the commodities circulating through it; if official money ceases to measure anything reliably people will find other measures; if the rules seeking to prevent in advance insecurities, violence and error start to paralyze creative activity, people will seek out new trade-offs between these various goods; if regulators are, as they likely will be, as unable to predict values 2, 3, 10 years down the road as the participants in the market themselves, then transparency will be the only check on inordinate risk and will itself become among the highest of values. Perhaps strategies—of the kind one would expect all good postmodernists to applaud—of fleeing established centers, which become chokeholds with increasing rapidity, and establishing novel ones, will proliferate and not so much “resist” domination as seek to render it incoherent.
I confess I am less sanguine about the Global Intifada. The Global Intifada might best be seen as the embodiment of Aime Cesaire’s remark, prescient, insightful and vicious all at once, that the West only cared about the Holocaust because the victims were white. It is true—the mass industrialized slaughter of Europe’s Jews became the foundational event of the postmodern, victimary era, because it—in the light of the new possibilities revealed by the atomic bomb—disclosed the possibility for universal destruction at the heart of the rivalries among the Western powers that culminated in the immolation.
It is true that in the event itself, the colonized world, those behind the “color line,” were a side show at best. Cesaire’s remark also revealed, though, that the future of the event lay in the rise to centrality of this side show—that the ethical effect of the virtually universally shared horror at the scene of Auschwitz would be to place under the severest scrutiny, even if not all at once, every invidious distinction, even the most implicit, between one category of humans and another; and every claim to expert neutrality, scientific objectivity and procedural probity, which had all after all just been put to work in discovering, justifying, and implementing the most invidious of imaginable distinctions. And it is vicious in the way it sets the terms for this overturning of margin and center: in the end, the Holocaust must be taken away from the Jews, and what better way to do so than to represent the Jews as the new Nazis?
Barack Obama, in his inaugural address, announced that the world is changing and we must change with it. A sentence both leaden and brutal. He must know how, exactly, the world is changing (he has commanded the world to come together as a model and has mapped out the imperatives we must follow in adhering to that model) and is either objectively describing the laws of reality (of which he is mere executor) which will force us to change accordingly or letting us know that he is determined, as voluntaristic subject, to force us to change. The world is always changing, and each of us is always changing at some angle to those of the world and the world is no more than all these angles. The Progressivist imperative, reiterated here in warmed over fashion by Obama, has always been a nihilistic metaphysics—now it has become the defense attorney of a burgeoning death cult.
The dictum composed by the “imperialist” bogeyman Churchill is far more valuable than Obama’s hideous bromides: democracy is the worst system, except for all the others. We will always be dissatisfied with democracy, that dissatisfaction will periodically reach such a pitch that we are tempted to throw it all away for some other system—formerly, more authentic and unmediated; now, less wasteful, smarter, more inclusive and shock-resistant, until we acquire the static hysteria of the blackmail victim who is not quite sure that he’ll never run out of ransom money. And we will always come to realize that precisely this set of dissatisfactions and the way it sets and sustains each of us amidst and among all the rest is democracy. Or at least we can always be coming to believe that such is the case.
Gertrude Stein also said that she liked having habits but didn’t like others talking about her habits—this by way of explaining why she wasn’t a utopian. Having habits, loving one’s habits, riding one’s habits, slavishly following one’s habits, finding extensions of one’s habits in the world and getting into the habit of finding in the world providential interference with and cause for revising one’s habits—this is not a bad definition of freedom. Having other people get into the habit of explaining one’s habits, cataloguing them, diagnosing and reordering them in accord with some template—that is not a bad definition of tyranny.
Deeper than liberalism and democracy is the imperative order—the realm in which commands are spontaneously issued and obeyed, where the proximity of emergency is more real than the ever lowering threshold of victimage. Habit is deeply rooted in the imperative order—it is an idiosyncratic method of preparing for emergency by keeping sharp the distinction between what must be kept close and hand and what can be let go. Like habit, the imperative order is most effective when unnoticed: that is, when security is ensured unobtrusively. And therefore easily forgotten or demonized until it is essential. At some point the dominant men in the community must have willingly devoted themselves to defending the weak against other men like themselves, and this initiated the process whereby they came to subordinate their own imperative order to the declarative order of principles (“all men are created equal”). Only then is freedom possible—only when those willing to risk their own lives to ensure that participants in exchange can complete their exchange unmolested outnumber those for whom exchange is fraud or easy pickings do we have freedom.
The perpetual composition of habits is sensitive to such conversions; indeed, it may be that the transformation of rituals into habits relies upon this kind of conversion—Stein insisted that verbs were interesting because there are so many ways they can be mistaken, in my last post I argued that sentences transform names into recipients and sources of imperatives, and now I can say that the connection between verbs and imperatives lies in the fact that it is first of all imperatives that can so easily and interestingly be mistaken—and so sentences are in essence the collaborative process of converting those errors which arrest our collisions into the material of norms.
The continuance and constant adjustment on exposure to reality of our own habits depends upon the covenants among those who seek mutual insurance for the errors consequent upon their imperatives. And so the vast field of centrifugal, eccentric habits depends upon and flows back into those social sites based upon explicit, publicly shared habits. Having the courage of our habits will enable us to affirm reality in the errors of our self-issued imperatives, the ones we forget and call habits, and that provide us with a source of revelation in anything that suddenly lies outside of our habit as part of our composition.
The convergence between novel compositions and ferocity harnessed and directed toward those who would hold civilization hostage by targeting its most vulnerable members and interstices—this is the answer to the Global Intifada. It’s not the answer we seem ready to provide right now, but it is encoded in the habits and composition of freedom—freedom, nothing more than no one, including you, knowing what you are going to do next, what you are about to tell yourself to do and what will then count, for you, as having done whatever you have come to be told by yourself.
Politics is for protecting the dominion of habit and helping it become self-reflexive and open to novel compositions. The inertia of the other’s habits needs to be converted into the materials of one’s own composition. We might think about such a politics as a series of assignments we give to each other, assignments that would take the general form of, “by all means keep doing whatever you are doing but just take into account this one thing I’m doing—and I will begin by doing what I’m doing and taking into account one thing of yours.” These should be the rules of political exchange—anyone who’s not ready to go first in some proposed reciprocity should be boycotted. Convert the courage of your habits into the habit of encouraging others to compose with your habits.
Adam Katz teaches writing at Quinnipiac University in Connecticut. He is the editor of The Originary Hypothesis: A Minimal Proposal for Humanistic Inquiry and an editor of Anthropoetics, the on-line journal of Generative Anthropology.