I’ve been thinking a little more about habit, and what I said earlier, without wanting to go back and edit that entry.

I said that

in general terror and habit are opposed. Terror seizes up all the processes that had become habitual, semi-automatic: it forces us to rethink our habits, by making us self-conscious about getting on the tube, sitting in an aeroplane, doing our shopping, seeing people with rucksacks, or whatever. Terror shocks us out of our routines; that’s part of its trauma and most of its objective.

Now, that too is ambivalent. Without becoming an apologist for terror, if it makes us rethink a thing or two, then that’s no bad thing.

Prevailing political discourse is rather contradictory on this point. On the one hand, it would have us, if possible, ignore terror and go on our merry way without changing our habits in the slightest. The fact that tube trains were (almost) full a few days after the attacks on the London Underground was touted as a victory for British stoicism, common sense, the “spirit of the Blitz” and so on. Meanwhile, the fact that the bombings on the Madrid train system may well have influenced the subsequent election has been portrayed as “giving in to terror,” as allowing the terrorists to win.

On the other hand, we are to be eternally vigilant, to “learn the lessons” that terror has taught. The same people who denounce Spaniards for “giving in” are likely also to describe the attacks on New York and Washington as a “wake-up call” to rouse us out of our earlier somnolence, finally to do something about, whatever, the threat of Muslim fundamentalism or (in the case of the London incidents) the precariousness of multiculturalism.

I think it might be more helpful to think of terror as a “shock to thought” (to borrow a phrase from Brian Massumi) that occupies two temporalities. First, in the event itself, time stands still. Habit is suspended. Thought (by which I now mean the whole biological nervous and synaptic apparatus) is paralyzed. A pause, a ghastly instant of indecision, of an impossibility to decide (run, hide, fight, flight). Confusion. Even sensation may be in abeyance (“I didn’t even realize I’d been hurt.”) This is the time of the bomb itself, and it is almost outside of politics.

Second, after the event, a new, narrative temporality emerges. This is the time of explanation and recrimination, the elaboration of justifications, apologies, denunciations, or retaliations. Here the non-political event of terror itself is politicized, narrativized, given sense and coherence. Old narratives and habits may be resumed, recycled, reclaimed, but this is also an opportunity for the articulation of new, post-crisis analysis or political projects. Which would also help engender new habits, new ways of being.

And if terror has been put to use by the right (as it undoubtedly has been, to provide justification for imperial adventures in the Middle East and so on), why can it not be put to use by the left?


Back over at Fuller’s Speed Shop, in response to a post of Glen’s about “alternative security”, I mused a little about “habit.”

Habit has something of a bad press. Radicals (I mentioned Massumi’s User’s Guide to Capitalism and Schizophrenia, but there are plenty of other examples) see habit either in terms of clinging on to the remnants of convention and subjectivity or (in Marxist vein) as conformism and false consciousness. Meanwhile, liberals and the right too have a hard time with habit: it’s regarded as pernicious by the ideologists of the market and the theorists of rational choice. After all, as soon as you do something out of habit, you are exhibiting some kind of unreason. Overall, habit is equated with addiction, with weakness, with bad faith, and with unadventurousness by both left and right.

But habit is simply a form of incorporated memory. I don’t see it as essentially problematic in itself. Without the security (to use Glen’s word) that habit brings, we would be essentially paralyzed. And while, as I said in a previous entry, being terrorist can and does become habitual, in general terror and habit are opposed. Terror seizes up all the processes that had become habitual, semi-automatic: it forces us to rethink our habits, by making us self-conscious about getting on the tube, sitting in an aeroplane, doing our shopping, seeing people with rucksacks, or whatever. Terror shocks us out of our routines; that’s part of its trauma and most of its objective.

And habit goes every which way: it’s a posthegemonic mode of control, but could surely also be a means of constructing posthegemonic community.

For while there are certainly (politically) bad habits, such as the unconscious sexism of men interrupting women, or the everyday racism that draws assumptions from skin colour, one could also imagine a political programme that saw itself as the inculcation of good habits: solidarity, say, could be a habit we might want to work on a little more. A solidarity that went beyond consciousness and good intentions, policy-making and self-dramatization, that was a habitual, affective mode of relating to the “other.”

(Which somewhat circuitously brings us to “I’m alright, Jack”, a recent and rather bizarre entry at Harry’s Place that claims that the pro-war left has somehow assumed the mantle of internationalism. I contributed some comments to the discussion. It is a little odd to think that Harry’s logic would lead one to nominate Oliver North as one of the foremost internationalists of the twentieth century. Well, I suppose in a way he was, but then we might want to distinguish better between internationalisms.)


Another placeholder…

In an entry on “Freelance Freedom Fighters” (which also mentioned a post of mine from a few days back), the folk at Lenin’s Tomb point to an article by Loretta Napoleoni on “The New Economy of Terrorism”.

I think the point of Napoleoni’s article (as is the point of most such articles) is to instruct us about the power of contemporary terrorism, and our powerlessness to do much about it. Lenin’s Tomb comments (after some further references to Iraq) that “it looks as if the occupation is fucked.”

But Napoleoni’s first example is the Red Brigades, and she tells us effectively that soon enough the financial tail was wagging the terrorist dog:

Just to give an idea of the vast amount of money required by an armed organization to function, in the 1970s, the Red Brigades had a turnover of $8 to 10 million, equivalent to about $100 million today. This figure was equivalent to the turnover of a medium size Italian company. Generating such vast flow of money required constant attention and absorbed the bulk of the time of the full time members of the organization.

If this was indeed the case, one might argue that it was all to the good that the Red Brigades had their hands full trying to keep their financial show on the road, and so had little disposable time to engage in much real political violence.

At the very least, the picture Napoleoni provides is of a rather inefficient organization, more concerned with striving to maintain its overheads than with engaging in the activity to which it was purportedly dedicated.

Back to my earlier post, it would seem worth investigating the “tipping points” at which a political organization is transformed into what is effectively a mafia-style commercial (or better, perhaps, financial services) operation. Is that also the point at which such an organization ceases to be politically effective?

Of course, the violence continues. The FARC and the IRA (to use examples I invoked before) continued and continue to terrorize their respective populations in more or less everyday, low-level ways. But they have lost sight of their political goals and, more importantly perhaps, are in any case no longer in a position to accomplish them.

If I were a convinced free marketeer, I might even suggest that at this point (if not before) the best way of combatting such terrorists-turned-financiers would be to ensure that there were other more profitable, legitimate, channels for their financial investments. I.e. follow the money, and construct economic mechanisms (oh, I dunno, reducing taxes, say) to allow it to flow elsewhere. But I’m not, in part because you can’t overlook the importance of affect and habit: as being terrorist, even growing up terrorist, becomes a way of life, it also becomes a habit or lifestyle that’s hard to shake off. It shapes your affective and emotional life. (Look at the trauma when guerrilla groups disband, as in the Salvadoran case.)

Anyhow, more on this anon.

Oh except, and this does vaguely tie in with what I’m supposed to be doing, all this reminds me of the anecdote that opens Jorge Castañeda’s Utopia Unarmed: the question, in the 1970s, of what to do with the Montoneros’ $70 million in unspent ransom money, which ended up in trust with the Cubans after an earlier financial arrangement went wrong. The Cubans tried to get the Argentines to give the money to the Sandinistas, but the Argentines initially refused until under pressure they agreed to hand over $1 million, but on condition that the Nicaraguans would spread the word and set up some photo ops to give the impression that the Montonero leader Firmenich was a key figure fighting to defeat Somoza. The principle being that this would cheer up the chaps back home: the fight might be going badly in Argentina, as the military junta busily eliminated up to 30,000 people under the Proceso, but at least the head Argentine rebel honchos were helping out the Revolution elsewhere, rather than simply getting lazy and unfit sipping Havana Club on the Malecón.