Habit: posthuman aesthetics from prehuman physiology

Critical Writing
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Abstract (in English): 

Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century advances in physiology – in particular the discovery and characterisation of the autonomic nervous system, an adaptive physiological mechanism that carries out life-sustaining functions entirely automatically – led to growing awareness of the central role of automaticity in human survival.

Reflecting this growing awareness, French physiologist Claude Bernard observed that, despite appearing 'free and independent', humans largely rely on automatic processes for their survival, just like their evolutionarily more ancient precursors. Further emphasising Bernard's idea, at the turn of the century American philosopher and psychologist William James estimated that ‘nine hundred and ninety-nine thousandths of [human] activity is purely automatic and habitual'. These and similar observations suggested that, whilst intuitively appearing defined by individual agency and free deliberate choice, humans are, to a large extent, dependent upon evolutionarily ancient automatic physiological mechanisms.

Human thought, action, and survival itself, are largely a matter of habit. Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century progress in the understanding of the central role of automaticity and habit in human physiology was paralleled by growing interest in the role of automaticity and habit in literature and art.

Some of the physiological observations on automaticity elaborated in the medico-scientific literature were assimilated into and mobilised by avant-garde art in ways that challenged the understanding of the human as voluntary agent. For example, echoing James's claim that most human activity is 'purely automatic’, French poet AndrĂ© Breton proclaimed Surrealism to be '[p]ure psychic automatism'. Surrealists strove to free their work from rational restraints by becoming spectators of their own subconscious, relinquishing control over their own selves, and turning into passive vessels for creative forces.

In an attempt to access the 'superior reality' of the automatic thought, late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century artists developed techniques of automatic writing, drawing, and painting, which effectively integrated physiological insights on the centrality of habit in human survival, thought, and behaviour, and mobilised habit for its creative potential.

In my paper I will explore specific aspects of this integration of physiological insights on automaticity and creative mobilisation of habit, by examining ways in which the resulting literary and art-practices (e.g. automatic writing, automatic painting) challenged contemporary conceptions of the human individual, author, artist, and spectator as free independent agent defined by voluntary choice and action, and capitalised instead on the idea of humans as physiological organisms, largely deterministic and dependent upon fixed automatic habit.

I will suggest that the result is an ante litteram posthuman (because deterministic, mechanical, and automatised) aesthetics, rooted in prehuman (because evolutionarily ancient) physiology

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Cecilie Klingenberg