GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

March 2, 2009

Habits, Error, Assignments

Filed under: GA — adam @ 4:15 pm

When institutions fail, we must direct our attention toward habits–habits are foundation of institutions, which essentially codify and police habits, and which must fail when habits degenerate; but the degeneration of habits really means the interference of one set of habits with another.  Thinking in terms of habits adds greatly to our clarity, because there are only positive terms:  habits are “bad” only from the standpoint of some other set of habits, and norms are nothing more than the winnowing process of distinguishing what is shared in our habits and which are the idiosyncratic deviations, or errors, each of us imparts to our own enactment of shared habits. 

I turn to habits because I can’t find anything to say about politics in the normal sense of public, representative events that transcend resentment.  The trajectory of the Obama Presidency and the Democratic congress seems very clear to me:  interference in the economy to the point where there is no “economy,” but rather a “political economy” in which one would need knowledge of imponderables–like the way Obama’s wise men are reading whatever tea leaves they are reading these days; or which interest group needs to be stroked by Congress this month–in order to chart out the direction of the economy.  This interference will be combined with bouts of scapegoating of the “rich,” who will be blamed for continuing decline.  I have already written pretty extensively on their plans for foreign policy.  Finally, I believe they plan to stay in power for as long as they can, regardless of the means (and there are many available to them)–the Democrats had a near-death experience between 2000-2006, when they were shut out of power at all levels of the federal government for what I assume was the first time since the founding of the party, they have never seen the Republican revolt against the New Deal State as legitimate, and they are determined not to go through all that again.  The Global Intifada is in the ascendancy and normalcy is on the defensive–who knows, maybe on its last legs.  Of course, it will all crash, but when and how can’t be predicted, not can the precise shape and size of the pieces that will need to be picked up–much less who will be around with the capacity to start putting them back together.  So why talk about it?

So, habits.  Habits emerge from the modeling of our behavior in accord with events which have revealed some new sign to us.  Imitation of a model is (I don’t have to tell you) a very complicated affair.  Taking someone, in one of their incarnations, or in an averaging out of their incarnations, as a model, is in large part tacit–indeed, being impressed by an event is to initiate the process of modeling.  At the same time, in order to do something “like” someone else does it I need to derive imperatives from their activity:  I need to tell myself, no, he does it this way; more of that; no, that’s more like the way x does it…  In order to derive imperatives from someone’s activity or, more precisely, their being as it is made present in their activity, I must suspend all criticism of that figure–indeed, defending the model against criticism is part of the process of “internalizing” it–his rivals become mine.  A couple of years back, I think, Eric Gans wrote a Chroncle of Love & Resentment on celebrity, arguing for the way in which celebrity functions to limit rivalries by measuring all contestants in a given arena against some model elevated above and hence unattainable to all of them.  One kid’s jump shot might be better than another’s while the other might be a better dribbler, but it all gets evened when we keep in mind that they share Michael Jordan as a model.  The implication for my discussion here will be that if we want to restore habits, we will need to restore unquestionable models, something which may not be as impossible as it sounds.

Watching children who, as Gans says somewhere else (in a discussion of the Harry Potter phenomenon, I believe) are completely untroubled by the mimetic origin of their desires, is particularly instructive in this regard.  Children are simply a melange of habits cobbled together from their parents, friends, siblings, celebrities, fictional characters, and so on.  And, as Gertrude Stein says somewhere (as I mix up my own incompatible models), we repeat what we love and we love what we repeat.  And cause and effect get confused beyond distinction here–in the end, we love our repeating and repeat our loving and our models become our habits.  Others can see the rules we are implicitly following–the results of whatever consistency we have been able to create among all the orders we have been giving ourselves–but to the extent that they have become our habits, we don’t.  We love the new habit region we have created. 

Of course, our models are not responsible for the habit regions we create, and serial killers love their habits too.  By the time they have become our habits they have traveled a long way from our original being taken up as a model.  But let’s go back to the beginning, to the originary scene, and to the question, what makes an imitation an imitation in the first place?  Who says that what I do is “like” what you do, and how do they know?  What would it mean to argue over whether something is a genuine imitation or not–what are we pointing to as the decisive markers of a “real imitation”?  Indeed, the more aware you are that you are imitating, the less you actually are because a consciousness of your distance from your model is animating your mapping of that model.  This is why I believe that whoever first put forward the aborted gesture of appropriation on the originary scene could not have known what he was doing until he saw its imitations come back to him the iteration of others–the gesture probably “improved” as it coursed through the emergent community, which means that the others “mistook” the gesture but in doing so constituted it as gesture.  Even more, that first gesturer must have been attending to the especially aggressive grasp of one of his fellows, and that suprised attention led to his own “mistaken,” hesistant imitation in deference to that model. 

In other words, we never get imitation right, and this is the open secret at the heart of all culture.  Nothing is more shameful and embarrassing to witness, not to say experience, than a patently failed imitation–whether it is the kid trying to be “cool” or the graduate student mimicking too closely the prose of his teacher or favored scholar.  This doesn’t make such attempts any less imitative–to the contrary, it is the accumulation of such errors and the emergence of a norm which the shameful or embarrassing moment then validates that confirms our mimetic being.  What accounts for error, and makes it extremely interesting, is that some other habit, deriving from some other model, interferes with the imitation.  The kid trying to be cool is still marked by the habits of studiousness; the graduate student is marked by the habits of someone who needs to “prove himself” for some other reason. 

That moment of error, where everyone validates their own belonging to the mimetic space by noting that someone else is doing some other thing, whatever it is, is undoubtedly a major source of scapegoating–once someone finds her self outside of the circle in this way, it is only be the good graces of others that she will find her way back in.  But we can also treat error as generative, as the starting point of a new, eccentric habit region that arrests the habits of convergence of the rest of the group and emerges as a new, idiosyncratic model through a series of refinements, defilements, caricatures, and loving revelations.  Indeed, maybe our YouTube, Reality TV culture is making us more open to the generativity of error–but even such regions are careful not to dwell too much on the shame of error which draws us all in, and in public life we see mostly opportunistic reactions to error in the form of pious calls for “competence” which somehow no one is really able to define or describe in a convincing way in any concrete instance–they know it when they don’t see it.   There is less and less tolerance for the “gaffe,” however harmless–this is the bullying of the media which everyone complies with for reasons i’m not completely sure I understand.

The originary scene itself provides us with two models for the construction of habits in the concepts of “firstness” and “lastness”–the two, of course, imply each other:  once we reject the simultaneous emission by all on the scene of the sign, then someone must have gone first; and if someone must have gone first, someone, or some several, must have gone last.  As I just suggested, the first signifier sees his sign taken up by others and thereby recognizes it as sign, ultimately participating more deliberately in its dissemination–he conceives both his courage and his convictions in the process, and becomes invested in the sign’s successful circulation throughout the group.  The scene is fundamentally contingent for him, and the various errors in emission upon the scene are smoothed out or “normed”; nor does he have any thought as to what will come after the scene–he will participate in the sparagmos like everyone else, but he has been assimilated to the group, which can take care of itself, by that point.

The last, meanwhile, has already watched the scene take shape, and in a sense it pre-exists him.  He has imitated an already rather fixed or “standardized” sign, and the stakes of his participation are lower–he joins with the combination of cynicism and fear of exclusion which marks one who does what he “has to” while viewing the rules he must follow as rather arbitrary and probably serving other, mysterious, purposes.  His sign is of high value to the group, which will cohere much better in a unanimous gesture; and yet it is rather cheap because the group can after all do without his assent.  He feels the power of the sign primarily through the shaping of the scene, the coordinated movements he witnesses, and his own bargaining power is derivative in turn of that social more than divine power.

The habits of the first, then, involve modeling beginnings in the middle of things–the first works in the midst of error and norming and sharpens canons of recognition, judgment and acknowledgement (what counts as “x”?) that sustain the present itself as a model; the habits of the last, meanwhile, keep extending the completed scene as a model indefinitely into the future–the errors of representatives of the center are deviations from the perfected model for which dependents on the scene must be compensated.  The last also expects his own errors to be treated mercilessly, and therefore has no hesistation in using that weapon against others.  The last assesses the sign with one eye on the coming sparagmos, since he is never completely sure of his place at the table.

The first takes risks, but never everything he has except in an emergency, and certainly never what others have–the first needs his credibility so as to see the circulation of the sign through to the end.  The last eschews risks, but this might take various forms:  the discipline imposed by the poor parent–the unwavering insistence upon the exact imitation of the best models–upon the children who might, in a reasonably open environment, do better, initiate something of their own; or it might be a parasitic set of demands upon “society,” which, after all, is rich enough to support anyone.  The most productive errors in an open society where rituals have been mostly replaced by habits (that’s another story, isn’t it?) are precisely those where the lasts make their bid for firstness, and get the model all wrong–thereby transforming it into new models.  Meanwhile, the terror of error is reinforced by the alliance between those legatees of firstness who blame firstness for lastness and the worst habits of the last–both participants in this alliance collude in confirming for each other that their errors are nothing of the sort, but an arbitrary exclusion mechanism deployed by the firsts. 

So, extricating ourselves from the conjoined and mutually reinforcing crises of the Global Intifada and the financial meltdown, and getting the process started without any expectation of help or good models from our mainstream institutions, involves creating sites of generative interaction between the habits of those who are first on the current scene and those who are last but would be first on some future one.  The way to set these (or any) divergent sets of habit in productive interaction is to create assignments–minimal tasks and rules in following which the limits of each set of habits opens it to the other set.  A good assignment generates productive errors around which we then gather so as to turn them into a sign.  The best way to approach it is to establish a model, transcending both the first and the last, as absolute–our common starting point is then delineating its distinctiveness and establishing a “perimeter” distancing the model from criticism (resentment).  We all–first and last alike–then commence to iterate that model, knowing we shall all err, and committing ourselves to the creation of new models out of that array of errors.  The beauty of this approach is that we can all follow our own habits slavishly (a key ingredient of happiness) in perfectly good conscience because doing the same thing over and over again (iterating my own eccentric appopriation of the model) keeps making everything different–that is, generating new signs.  Together we gather maxims–which I am coming to see as the highest form of thinking–from the process:  maxims are translations of the interference of one set of habits with another into rules (both in the sense of discerning regularities and in the sense of obeying a series of imperatives) and are generative of new habits in turn–ultimately, what Charles Sanders Peirce called the “deliberately formed, self-analyzing habit.”


  1. how! (injune greeting) how to say this; how is it possible to comprehend the relational space (gasp!) or distance between the irretrievability, unlocatability? .. of our own, personal orginal models, and the present possession by a handfulofus of a theory managing to comprehend these modelings taking place on a scene both universal to everyone and yet more chronologically remote than anyoneofus can begin to thafom? Or ARE these two seemingly outrageously torn-apart junctures in both time and conceptual (gasp) space! coming slowly but most surely together? And if so, how come more of the world seems not to need a thoroughly theoretical grasp of that? Gans’ deliberations back when on the forging of a ‘personal sacred’ out of the wholestorm of resentments still failed to convince me that here was any kind of explanation for the formation of what one might, or might not, call the ultimate in “deliberately-formed, self-analyzing habit”, oiow, addiction!!! Who excoriates herself more elaborately & consistently than the assict, i mean addict? (I met a guy named Maxim last year – he was rooting for acupuncturology!) interference>rules>groovy new habits! Oh gosh! But back to imagining/ recalling yer own models! As Lily Allen, a celebriity herself, said, “how can you take as a model someone you don’t even know”? In what way forexamp did defending Gertrude Stein curtail your fast-breaking rivalries with others? What if they never heard of her? Why can you imitate Americans until yr redwhite&blue in the face and they’ll never ever take umbrage but mimic – i know it’s all conscious – say, an Irish person and they’ll sqiurm like a insect burned by the sun? this is the bit i’d like you to amplify or unpack:
    “it is the accumulation of such errors and the emergence of a norm which the shameful or embarrassing moment then validates that confirms our mimetic being.”

    is it the confirmation of our mimetic being that folks do have in mind?
    what would they think if they knew this???

    I am gonna re-read you and re-read you AK, as i always always do and this is just a tiny tiny start which i am hoping like a hoot-owl you will be able to do something WITH..

    gestationally and gestureally incomplete
    as hallways
    of shuddering rememberance and moshpittance

    Comment by lightweed — March 5, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

  2. Excellent post! His Holiness the Pope could not have said it better. My question then: As a mature adult, possibly past my prime, who can help me choose my model? What would be the impetus, criterea and for what purpose? Socrates? Christ? Caesar? St. Thomas? Montaigne? Napolean? Goethe? Ben Franklin? Harry Truman? Obama? Which knight? Which poet? What phronemos? Again, a thought provoking post. I hope you continue to think and write around this topic and I shall make it a habit to read.

    Comment by Pookie — March 5, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

  3. In response to both very interesting comments, I would refer to the thing neither of you mention (except lightweed in quoting me): error. We are always already following all kinds of models, but we follow them resentfully–this means we compare them to other models, so that we can find them lacking enough to alleviate out own concerns of failed imitation, which is essentially lack of being. We also protect ourselves from contagion and scapegoating this way, so it is “rational”:a distribution of models prevents one from singling out one in particular, that one in particular who in the end will not only give all but take all. The impulse to scapegoating, though, may also be the fear of error, which fear being that one will be cut off completely, and so the other, who thus imperils one, must be cut off first. And if everyone agrees to cut, all the better–one is back inside. So I would argue for idiosyncratic models–not the Presidents, philosophers and other Great Men (or even women)–today, at any rate, I think we should want models that are imitable in their inimitability.

    I can write about Stein–I can even force my students to read her! And I can try to show–and to enact and embody–her willingness, even her addiction, to having attention drawn to her, whether it be ridiculously inflated adulation or just plain ridicule (Stein was herself a kind of celebrity); while at the same time giving that attention nothing to fix on, no center, nothing you can either map out and do by the numbers or tear to pieces in a frenzy. But, then, it would have to be “my” Stein, and I would have to get you interested in it as a way of inflating your own Stein, or perhaps (a guess at the source of your prose, lightweed) your own cummings. And then we would be talking about all the ways we are messing up Stein and cummings, which takes us back to how they messed up…and forward to realizing we have messed up our own projections of our interpretive activities. Amazingly though, things still get pieced back together.

    Comment by adam — March 6, 2009 @ 5:07 am

  4. But now I see another point of yours, lightweed–if we all follow our own idiosyncratic constructions of our idiosyncratic models, what leads us back to the originary scene? Maybe we all have to speak for ourselves here–maybe a motivation for taking my thinking in this direction is a haunting suspicion that I’ve got the originary scene all wrong and that was my way of getting it exactly right and out of that suspicion and affirmation emerges a model that I can exemplify if others want. The metaphysical dream is that if the higher reality behind appearances is presented unvarnished, free of superstition and corrupted self-interested, everyone will be able to gaze upon it together. To some extent, one’s belief in the originary hypothesis encourages a similar fantasy–it is so perfect, if only everyone could just see it, really see it. But that’s one of the more typical sources of error–maybe all we can do is generate small circles, eddies of interest that we might hope will flow back into a wider cultural stream.

    Comment by adam — March 6, 2009 @ 5:26 am

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