Our lives are habitual. We habitualise what is familiar in order to be able to function day to day, and through this a vast chunk of our living becomes automatic. The process makes life easier by decreasing the confusion and tension of having to constantly develop new responses to previously encountered situations. The habitual way of thinking eases the stress of confrontation with the unknown, giving us a strategy to quickly disarm and digest it. Our default tendency is therefore to habitualise everything to the greatest extent possible.
In the essay Art as Technique (1917) the Russian formalist poet Viktor Shklovsky (1893–1984) describes habitualisation as an ‘algebraic’ process. Instead of paying precise attention to each object of perception, we skip over the details and assign it a rough placeholder symbol, as X or Y symbolises a complex number in an equation. Thus, rather than having to formulate a response to the unique encounter with the object, we can bypass conscious thought and simply deploy a learned response to the familiar symbol.
Article originally published in Modes of Criticism 2 – Critique of Method (2016).