It became briefly popular for a while to focus on our limits to process choice – decision fatigue, “spoons”, etc – and to promote a kind of economizing around such. But I think it’s also illuminating to do the opposite: to economize around our limited capacity to deal with a lack of agency.
One of the central motivations of insurrectionary anarchism is the insight that not only can reproducible attacks inspire further acts of resistance, but that inaction breeds inaction.
Every time you defer making a choice or otherwise taking an action you habituate that deference.
Human neural nets are just imperfect that way. We innately train ourselves on a variety of meta-levels, in ways that unfairly conflict with our conscious self-narrative. Moving something to a “to do” column rather than doing it here and now feels like a self-contained action, but it isn’t.
Our very agency itself isn’t a binary force that leaps into existence with our consciousness, but is a process of thinking & acting that can be present to various degrees and likewise habituated or repressed.
We can be constructing a narrative of consciousness without also engaging in the process of agency – reflection cohering into a resolution that is applied externally in action. As so many experiments show, consciousness isn’t the same thing as agency.
This is not quite the same thing as the lag often found in consciousness creation, where the narrative we end up congealing on re the mechanism behind our actions demonstrably doesn’t precede them or in fact is clearly false. Choice clearly exists and our conscious deliberations influence and pave the way for it, but the internal causal jockeying that leads to one action or another are distributed in simultaneous many processes with conscious experience merely one process congealing amid all of them, and somewhat out of sync.
Consciousness is related to the singularity of action. The processes within our brains may be distributed and simultaneous, but the actual action our bodies can take is singular. We either crack open a beer or we do not, we cannot live in a superposition of states. This forces unification upon the distributed simultaneousness of our thinking: many circuits or flickers can fire within the network, but they must congeal, converge, or combat to some level of unification.
Consciousness is a process that helps facilitate persistent coherence generally. This is not the same thing as the process of choice that leads to any given action, they’re both matters of emergent coherence, but consciousness is given the far more involved task to cohering with one’s history. Varying circuits of choice resolving disparate processes can flicker in and out; consciousness has to persist in a linear coherent narrative.
Consciousness may not decide whether you throw a punch in a given situation, but by having access to the memories it stores in its own vernacular, it can statistically influence the construction of habits of thought that will directly influence future pugilistic choices.
All of which is to underline: just because you’re conscious doesn’t mean you’re agential. Agency is – perhaps unfortunately – habituated.
Depression is such an obvious example it seems insulting to point it out. One might be fully conscious, one might have intense and quite intelligent thoughts spinning around, and yet no congealing into action. No substantive emergence of choice.
While there are many possible causes to depression, the simple habituation of inaction can be one of them. If we’re not using the muscle of congealing disparate impulses and proto-thoughts into a resolved choice that muscle withers and becomes less instinctive. And that meta-level instinct is the only way that choice happens. Not through consciously making a chore list or whatever.
The naïve response to this is to embrace action for action’s sake, to reactively despise and fear inaction. Better to take a wrong action than to slide into zombification. This is trivially a bad strategy and listing examples where more reflection and hesitation are intensely called for instead of action is left as an exercise to the reader.
Various contexts require various levels of agency, and for the more historically-informed process of consciousness to be able to efficaciously influence the meta-choice of inaction versus action it is often helpful to cultivate some balance of instinct.
Sometimes it’s ideal to instinctively choose action, other times it’s ideal to instinctively dissuade the congealing of proto-thought into action. We can habituate distinct tendencies in distinct contexts, but there’s always the problem of slide and creep. If we’re habituating inaction in most spaces in our life that can start to affect things in other spaces.
This means that we must consider the economy of inaction in our personal lives. Are we choosing situations, contexts, struggles, etc. that overall habituate inaction and a general lack of immediate agency or choice?
Some level of such is unavoidable. We are not phantoms of immediacy and have aspirations across time that sometimes require the deferment of immediate choice. The ultimate reach of our agency out into the universe always depends to some extent on the limiting of our immediate congealment into action.
The opposite direction – habituated immediate action – leads to the collapse of persistent structures in our minds. We become all instinct, and what is knitted together in the immediate process of ‘choice’ is inferentially shallow. Instead of barely moving corpses we become predictable crude robots.
If you constantly put yourself in situations where immediate action is required you will lose your capacity to reflect and abandon the richness of internal complexity that can make us illegible or at least insufficiently predictable to institutions of domination.
But far more common in today’s world is the proliferation of experiences where immediate action or choice is a really bad idea. We condition ourselves not to act, not to choose, and certainly not to explore or experiment.
Standing at the hot griddle, checked out, while your manager berates you is perhaps a necessary evil in your life. But there are myriad other moments and experiences in your daily life. We can consciously make broad choices about at least some of the situations we put ourselves in.
There is, in short, an economics to our daily lives: a balance sheet to be constantly evaluated of situations habituating inaction and those habituating action.
And this cuts to some extent against the paradigm of an economics of attention wherein we are constantly being fatigued by too many choices. (Which, note: is quite different from the axis of habituated action or habituated inaction.)
There is cognitive fatigue or fraying that can set in from evaluating complex and stressful choices. This is partially a matter of things like mere blood sugar and oxygen. It can also be a matter of increasingly jumbling apart once productive distributed processes of proto-thought, or of simply reaching diminishing returns in the building of some extended circuit or cognitive project that needs to be reset and rebuilt in different directions. This broad sort of cognitive fatigue is largely a product of the complexity of the task or problem being sorted and the still limited raw resources of human brains.
The problem of habituated inaction is, in contrast, a problem of the very structure of cognition in neural nets.
Partisans of authoritarianism often argue that because homo sapiens presently happen to be rather limited in our raw cognitive resources immediate choice (and ultimately general agency as well) is not something to embrace and maximize but a painful hurtle to our well-being that should be minimized. Instead of the psychic trauma of picking a toothpaste, a grey authoritarian state, perhaps reskinned as a degrowthy community, should do us the pleasure of taking that choice away from us. The lack of commodities in Cuba that Surplus: Terrorized Into Being Consumers so memorably fawned over is a great example.
But taking away choice isn’t a path to happiness, it’s a path to depression. Freedom from stress or fatigue, perhaps, but certainly not a freedom to influence the wider universe. This is not to praise the shallow causal depth that a choice over mere toothpaste has, but to emphasize the often overlooked degree to which even small situations of immediate choice in our lives help habituate our capacity to act.
Capitalism, of course, recognizes this in its limited feedback capacity – everyone who has ever worked a grey and immiserating job without any real choice knows full well the relief of small choices in buying lunch or a snack, even when that act of choice is financially costly in a way that outweighs its resulting pleasures. The vending machine at work is a pressure valve, a very tiny restorative fix, so we don’t habituate inaction beyond all function as workers. We need opportunities for immediate choice just to keep functioning above the level of complete depression.
We are often quite conscious of the need for repair from fatigue. The sapping of physical energy or cognitive traction is immediately apparent. Zoning out in front of a tv show while a body recovers. Reseting an overextended brain with the small death of an orgasm. Retreating to the known-unknowns and structurally fenced-in complexity of a video game to rebuild our frayed mental circuits. Such conscious strategies for recuperation from the happenstance limits of homo sapiens are widespread. And most people quickly become old hats at consciously evaluating the balance sheets of such considerations.
But rarely do we talk or even explicitly think of how many situations we put ourselves in where we have choice, where action is habituated instead of inaction.
One problem is that today’s shallow choice becomes tomorrow’s routine or video game. Weighing options at the vending machine eventually slips out of something that actually takes disparate distributed processes of cognition congealing together into action and becomes itself just another pre-determined ritual with, perhaps, some limited value in how it destresses with certainty, but no real exercise for one’s cognition-integrating muscles.
Insofar as the necessity of this exercise reaches us we tend to treat it clumsily in terms of things like “self-actualization” or “artistic expression” or the like. But these obscure the core of what is going on: we need agency in the world and that agency depends upon the habituation of the process by which disparate thoughts resolve into singular action (before consciousness does its own transcription).
I have long worked on a shifting array of long-term projects that I believe are of sharp importance but often aren’t designed to see immediate consequence. Usually they necessitate a great degree of instrumentalization of myself over extended periods. In a certain vernacular this is described as “self-alienation” – the civilized modernist turn away from the immediate wildness of true anarchy. I dissent on such fetishization of immediacy as itself liberation, but I have also a longstanding respect for the need for regular immediate action and the dangers of habituating inaction.
Sometimes the greatest value of an attack isn’t in its direct consequences, but in reminding yourself how to act. How to resolve.
We are not magical cartesian ghosts that can pivot any which way upon the input of some mystical ‘willpower’ – and thinking so is a path to depression. We are distributed processes that must practice bottom-up unification to accomplish anything.