Over the last couple of years I’ve been exploring the relationship between work and the use of self tracking for exercise. In that time I have generally taken a quite critical (perhaps negative) view of self tracking practices in relation to subjectivity. Although I can clearly see how self tracking practices are probably beneficial for many people (indeed they are quite useful for me) I have retained this assumption that they function as a sort of control mechanism and disciplinary tactic.
It has concerned me that they are bypassing the subject at a discursive level to act directly on the unconscious, this concern is similar to that which many people have of the “Nudge” approach to public health. Throughout this time without quite realising it I have probably harboured a quite negative disposition towards the notion of “habit”. I suppose this is not really a concept I have given much thought to until I recently read an article by Elizabeth Grosz in the journal Body and Society (thanks to Susan Oman for pointing me towards this).
The article is partly an attempt to reclaim the notion of habit from this more negative perception (under which I have been labouring) and instead to focus on an approach to habit of which I wasn’t aware which is influenced by Ravaisson, Bergson and Deleuze. In this tradition habit is not seen as something which reduces human behaviour to something mechanical and automatic but as part of a creative capacity.
Habit is a way of bringing the past into the present and the method of organising “lived regularities” in a world in which there is no natural repetition. This is perhaps slightly confusing as of course there are all kinds of repetition but this is (I assume) an approach which suggests that the world is constantly in flux and what occurs today is entirely different from what occurred yesterday even if the sun rises and sets.
Habit enables us to continue with desirable (or undesirable) behaviours which do not take up too much of our attention so we can concentrate on new or higher things.
Habit is a degree of instinct, a modifiable, pliable, learned impulse to act. It functions mid-way between reflective decision-making with its time and effort, and instinct with its unerring but unchangeable responsiveness. Habit is the point of transition, the mode by which reflective oo voluntary actions function as if they were instinctive. Habit is the movement by which effort and consideration is transformed into action.
(Grosz, 2013: 221)
Habit is seen here as a means of acting on our own in our lives and nature with the control of our seemingly automatic responses. Rather than being a kind of cage, habits are seen as a means to be free.
Without habits and their tendency to automatism, living beings would not have the energy and singularity of purpose to enable them to survive and to create, to produce the new, to live artistically.
(Grosz, 2013: 225)
Of course all of these points are only valid if the individual themselves is in control of their habits or at least to the extent that an individual can be. Certainly if these are imposed on someone by another (a state, a school, a parent) it is hard to see how they could be an enabler individual freedom.
What is needed, according to Grosz, is a philosophical approach to habit rather than one concerned with social control.
Habit is one of the modes of connection that link living beings to a world which is open to innovative behaviour: it is the link that bridges the relations between the organic on the inorganic, introducing the needs of the organism to each environment and inserting his environment into the behaviour of the organism.
(Grosz, 2013: 234)
Without naming it she seems to be starting from a “New Materialist” ontological approach (a tradition with which she has been associated). Grosz would seem to be suggesting that an approach to habit which enables freedom would be one which enables us to see ourselves and our habits in relation to how the non-human world constitutes us and vice versa.
This strikes me as a crucial approach to self tracking and one which Nick Fox has started to explore in relation to personal medical technologies in general.
This begs the question of to what extent and in what ways could self tracking be used as a means for enabling freedom. It is possible that self tracking could open up a new form of knowledge of our own habits. Indeed, early adopters of self tracking in the quantified self movement have tended to see their approach as being a means of enabling greater “self knowledge” and therefore enabling them to be more in control of their habits which they can direct towards positive ends.
While this does perhaps get close to some aspects of what Grosz describes it is probably quite distant in other aspects. As I understand it the quantified self philosophy is quite mechanistic and individualistic. It also perhaps tends towards techno determinism.
Grosz, E. (2013) ‘Habit Today: Ravaisson, Bergson, Deleuze and Us’ Body and Society 19(2-3): 217-239.