On Biting your Nails and Scratching your Bollocks

Theorist Rosi Braidotti writes that ‘habits are socially enforced’. Sometimes it is easy to see how a behaviour trend could serve a particular political purpose, as for example in the clichéd lament that we are turned into passive subjects by habitual addiction to sitting in front of mindless television. But what about habits which don’t seem to serve any political, social or cultural purpose? What about biting our nails, scratching our bollocks, or splitting our ends?

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In these
habits the subject derives a pleasure which has no ‘value’ to it and may even
be to the detriment of it (it can be painful or even fatal, as the
man who recently died from biting his nails
found). As Californian nu-metal band
Linkin Park point out in ‘Breaking the Habit,’ the habit is often seen a case
of self-destruction; ‘I’m picking me apart again’ (a quote which seems
strangely apt to this unfortunate nail biter).

This
pleasure involves repeating processes which have no ‘purpose’ but which
nevertheless produce a little bit of unnameable pleasure (what
Jacques Lacan might call ‘jouissance
– a pleasure that has no use-value). If
these habits involve something like jouissance
then they are not useful to society at all but are characterized by being without social purpose.

Freud sees
such habits as an example of our failure to adhere to society’s expectations of
us. For Freud, nail biting is a symptom
of oral fixation, a desire to replace childhood oral functions (such as the sucking
of the mother’s breast) with other oral acts (such as biting the nails.) This demonstrates the subject’s failure to
become an independent adult. Strangely
sharing something with this view, our general approach to such habits is that
they are child-like (especially if one thinks of sucking one’s thumb). Thus, the
habit represents, in a strange way, the failure to grow up. It could even be
seen as a rejection of societal expectations; refusing to give up a basic
pleasure that is deemed socially unpalatable such as sucking your thumb or
scratching your balls in public.

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On the
other hand Søren Kierkegaard’s novella Repetition
defines ‘repetition’ in a way that reverses this idea of habit as the
failure to adhere to societal expectations.
In that text, repetition exists as a way of constituting the stable
identity of something through time; if we keep doing something it becomes part
of who we are. If we put our habits into
these terms, what is different from Freud is that the habitual repetition is
not the subversion of an otherwise organized and stable development of the subject
but rather; repetitious habits are the normal way of the subject developing and
constructing itself, repeating a behaviour pattern so that we can recognise
continuity in ourselves.  This is of course exactly what we are ‘supposed to do’ so that we make nice coherent subjects who don’t have too many inconsistencies and ambiguities and are easy to organise and regulate..

In her
fascinating study On Habit, Clare
Carlisle writes; ‘we say that someone acts
out of habit,
but does this ‘disposition’ or ‘tendency’ continue to exist
when the habit is not being exercised?’ The key word when thinking about habits may be
these two: disposition and tendency.
When we say that we act out of
habit
, we imply that there is something behind our actions, perhaps a
‘disposition’ (a word which means both inclination and character – making a
crucial link between the two) or maybe a ‘tendency’, a word that makes out that
behaviours come from a natural impulse.
Bringing Kierkegaard back in to the discussion: what we want to do with
our habit is construct a continuity of
tendency –
the idea that at some internal and even natural level we have an
inclination towards acts which is our own tendency,
a part of who we are, and which stays with us throughout our lives. Even these habits then, might be following social orders.

Thus,
the habit does have a purpose. Far from being the indicator of an unbalanced
subject, the habit is involved in the production of a balanced one; it makes it
appear that beneath all the changes that occur to us is a continuity of
subjectivity with tendencies true to its nature that are difficult to shift and
control. Being closely tied to our
habits prevents us realising how unstable and changeable we actually are,
giving us a comforting feeling that some of our desires have been our unchanged
from childhood onwards, something Freud might have been guilty of himself .

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