GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

September 12, 2008

Samples of Originary Political Thinking I: Habits and Maxims

Filed under: GA — adam @ 2:51 pm

I would like to try out something new for the GABlog:  a minimal approach focusing on brief, sometimes enigmatic or paradoxical, sometimes exploratory, always compact “samples” of political thinking which we might call “originary” because they defer sacrifice and propose a political stance predicated upon such deferral.  Here is a well known piece by Gertrude Stein, and my own reflections.


Gertrude Stein, “Reflections on the Atomic Bomb” (1946)


They asked me what I thought of the atomic bomb. I said I had not been able to take any interest in it.I like to read detective and mystery stories. I never get enough of them but whenever one of them is or was about death rays and atomic bombs I never could read them. 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, not any more interesting than any other machine, and machines are only interesting in being invented or in what they do, so why be interested. I never could take any interest in the atomic bomb, I just couldn’t any more than in everybody’s secret weapon. That it has to be secret makes it dull and meaningless. Sure it will destroy a lot and kill a lot, but it’s the living that are interesting not the way of killing them, because if there were not a lot left living how could there be any interest in destruction. Alright, that is the way I feel about it. They think they are interested about the atomic bomb but they really are not not any more than I am. Really not. They may be a little scared, I am not so scared, there is so much to be scared of so what is the use of bothering to be scared, and if you are not scared the atomic bomb is not interesting. Everybody gets so much information all day long that they lose their common sense. They listen so much that they forget to be natural. This is a nice story.

Stein claims that neither she nor anyone else is “interested” in the atomic bomb.  “Interest” would seem to attach to events or phenomena that are, on the one hand, below the threshold above which “interest” would be impossible because nothing recognizable would remain and, on the other hand, above the threshold below which nothing would be of interest because nothing would have changed.  Furthermore, change that nevertheless occurs within recognizable parameters concerns the living, not destruction and not machinery:  no matter how destructive a weapon gets, our interest would always be addressed to what remains, not the destruction itself.

The implicit question the “reflections” raises, then, is what would count as change in the “living” that would count as “interesting”?  Stein’s interest in detective and mystery stories (which are ruined as soon as extravagant sci-fi effects are introduced) suggests that the basic elements of human variety and unpredictability are involved:  surprises, secrets revealed, unanticipated consequences, and so on. 

Surely, though, all those people asking Stein for her thoughts on the atomic bomb think that there is something new in it for the living:  indeed, wouldn’t the fact that total destruction is now a possibility something that the kind of existential and strategic representation Stein finds in the detective story have to account for?  Wouldn’t the problem of how to prevent such total destruction be interesting?  But how could one figure into our calculations today the possibility that there would be “nothing left”?  If that possibility is not representable, because we can’t situate ourselves in a post-apocalyptic space as a possible signifier, then even if we think we are trying to rise to the occasion of this more urgent deferral, we are really just trying harder to do the same kind of thing we have always done in rivalrous situations.  When it comes to anything more than trying harder to prevent what would be even worse destruction, we don’t really know what we are doing and hence can’t really be “interested” in it.

But in that case, the effect of the atomic bomb, as we come to have more of them to the point where “nothing left” is the only plausible outcome of it being put into play, would be to narrow the sphere of human interest.  As more and more conflicts are liable to being caught up in a chain of consequences that might lead to nuclear exchange in which no one could have any idea what they are doing, that much human interest is subtracted from our activities.  It might follow, then, that increasing the sphere of human interest might be a way of countering that subtraction, giving Stein’s refusal to grant any “interest” to the atomic bomb a strategic dimension.  All human conflicts would need to be, somehow, pre-emptively deferred, to remove them from the various chains of consequences leading toward nuclear war:  but it’s hard to see how human interest stories like detective novels could do anything more than reinforce a primitive logic of deterrence and retaliation.  Mimetic relations and rivalries would have to embedded in some mode of deferral that doesn’t rely upon these sacrificial narratives.

So, what could be these new sources of interest?  Stein’s mysteries and detective stories offer the reassurance of the familiar, the reinforcement of habit, and it is certainly Stein’s love of habit that accounts for the political conservatism of this most radical of esthetic radicals.  We might assign habit to the imperative sphere of existence–habits start with events, the results or feelings associated with which we wish to repeat or avoid, leading to instructions, as inflexible as need be, designed to guarantee the recurrence or neutralization of such events.  After a while we forget the instructions because we forget we might have ever done things otherwise.  Habit ends up as a more or less imperceptible rumbling through our daily lives, as in the feeling that accompanies our morning coffee and newspaper. 

But habits, in themselves, are not particularly interesting either:  Stein remarks elsewhere that she is against utopianism because while she likes having habits she doesn’t like other people talking about her habits.  I take this cryptic remark to suggest that habits can rarely withstand public scrutiny, and insisting that they do so is the key to the violence of utopias–once you start organizing social life in accord with some abstract schema you must arrive at the point where you start scrutinizing habits, which inevitably interfere with such reconstructions, and once you start scrutinizing habits there is no end to it and the further you go the more intractable and “irrational” habits become–and the more violence that would be needed to uproot them. 

If habits are not interesting, then, the unexpected disruption of habits might be:  indeed, we only really notice habits in their disruption.  Such disruptions might be especially pleasurable and interesting when they lead you to see that your habits have serendipitously enabled you to now see something completely new–an internal disposition is brought into the light along with an external revelation.

The exposure of the internal disposition, the tacit knowledge deposited in the habit now opened to view, presents that disposition as the implementation of some maxim.  At some point, one settled on the maxim, say, that “coffee along with the newspaper makes for a nice morning.”  The interruption of the habit–say, through the development of a caffeine allergy–however unpleasant in itself, opens up other possible compositions of one’s morning.  In accord with another maxim, inevitably, one, at first at least, less steadily tied to existing habits and more eccentric.  As, for example, “air and static [i.e., listening to the radio instead of reading the paper–once one thing is changed why not review the entire routine?] make a morning.”  This maxim would be as intelligible for the person involved as the previous one, along with carrying with it the pleasure of invention, discovery and ownership; it would only be intelligible to another, though, who has sufficiently entered the life of that person, and for whom the combination of rightness and idiosyncrasy embodied in the maxim would provide the same enjoyment, ramified by the intimacy created between those sharing it.

Those who insist that Stein take an interest in the atomic bomb want to see some habit and its attendant maxim continued–a habit of conventional strategic thinking, newly applied, perhaps; or a habit of denouncing the alienating effects of modern weaponry, modern technology, modern society.  What would be interesting, though, is interrupting these habits by not being interested in the bomb.  Such subtraction of interest neutralizes the demands pressed by these habits and requires a new composition of the relation between our thinking and the unthinkable. The first maxim I would propose for guidng these practices of composition is:  creating idiosyncratic maxims distracts attention from the unthinkable.  A second one:  entering and disrupting each other’s habits helps us combine common sense and the revelatory. 

The discursive form given to the interrupted habit is “one should always do x except for…”  The revelation of an exception is the revelation of a new possible rule.  If we are interested in the deferral of sacrifice, even the more sublimated and deferred forms of sacrifice embodied in, among other things, political irony (which is useless in deferring the unthinkable), added attention to our habits might serve us better than arguments about principles.  Habits drag us along with them in the path of least resistance, which is always toward scapegoating; at the same time, the active preservation of our habits in all their distinctiveness and idiosyncrasy might prevent us from being dragged.  And if we stand still while others are pulled along, everyone else’s movement becomes evident to us while it remains invisible to them.  And we will notice anyone else also standing still, anchored by their habits.  All the intersections and forms of reciprocal visibility between those standing still would be new and interesting.  Maxims helping us maintain our interest in standing still and being unaffected by the latest rush to sacrifice would evolve; perhaps some of them would take on a public form.

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