Friday, August 12, 2005


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?

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