This article proposes that the practice of relaxation—a mode of bodily self-organisation within time—provides a way to diversify times as political and creative intervention. Relaxation, which could seem counter-intuitive, may function as intentional temporal intervention and means to slip some of the binds of neoliberal, surveillance capitalist logics. Noting the importance of decision-making (resonant with what Zuboff has called “promising”) as political, ethical capacity (and what dilutes it), I will argue here that relaxation precedes and invites a more active relation to the future. Relaxing and deciding are contrasted, in turn, with something dubbed ‘sub-habituality.’ This neologism would work as a critical poetics for the kind of (non)time in which we may be increasingly living. If, in Discipline and Punish, 1970s Foucault explored the various strategies of coupling time constraints/‘refining’ of time periods (150) with surveillance, I argue here that we might reconsider these same elements—time, constraint, intentionality—aslant and anew, as we approach the third decade of the 21st century (nearly 20 years after Google began opportunistically gathering the data exhaust of its searches). If in a disciplinary society, the organisation of bodies in time served various orders of domination, is it possible that in a control society (as Deleuze has named it), time and bodily composure may be harnessed otherwise to evade surreptitious logics of a neoliberal flavour?
The elements noted by Foucault (i.e. structured time, bodily organisation) can—when rendered decisive, coupled with relaxation (to be defined), and with surveillance muddled or subtracted—become tools and modes for questioning, resisting and unsettling various mechanisms of domination and the dilutions of ethical capacity that accompany them in the current moment. We may, in other words, decide to structure our time when unobserved (for example with Flight Mode or connectivity off on laptops, etc.) for intentional, onto-political ends. A later Foucault, incidentally, went on to connect certain practices of care of the self to ethics, as ethical obligations (Foucault, “Ethics”). Time plays a role in such practices. With this as background, this article will read atmospherically some of Gilles Deleuze’s ontological offerings regarding time from his 1968 work Difference and Repetition. However, before this, I wish to clarify the article’s understanding of neoliberalisation in a digital moment.
A neoliberalising moment, to use Springer’s preferred nomenclature (5), co-exists presently with a ubiquity of digital media engagement and co-opts it and exacerbates its reach for its manoeuvres. The former’s logics—which digital practices might at once support and/or contest—involve well-known imperatives of ‘efficiency’, aesthetics of striving, untrammelled growth, logics of scarcity and competition, privatisation of community assets, the so-called autonomy of the market, and so on. In his essay on control societies (which notably, after World War II, eclipse the disciplinary societies described by Foucault), Deleuze puts it like this:
the corporation constantly presents the brashest rivalry as a healthy form of emulation, an excellent motivational force that opposes individuals against one another and runs through each, dividing each within. (5, my emphasis)
Neoliberalism, where corporations have tended to replace factories, relies variously on competition between peers, dubious forms of (often ludicrous) motivation, fluctuating salaries and debt (in the place of explicit enclosures), so as to reduce the capacity and the lived expansiveness of the human (and non-human) beings who exist within its order.
With this as background, I’m interested in the ways that personal electronic devices (PEDs) and the apps they house may—if used mostly compliantly and uncritically—impact what I would like to call our temporal diversity. This would involve a whittling-down of our access to atmospheres, thus to more impoverished constellations of living, and finally to profound disenablings in many spheres. PEDs provide a monetisable means of pervasive surveillance and increasingly-normalised "veillance" (Lupton 44). Certain modes of domination—if we read this term to mean a reduction of (ethical, creative, political) capacity—furthermore mobilise very specifically a co-opting of time (in the form of ‘engagement’, our eyes on a screen) and time’s strategic fragmentation. The latter is facilitated variously by monetised, gamified apps, and social media Skinner-box effects, entwined with the veillance made possible by the data exhaust of our searches and other trackable online behaviours, self-loggings, and so on. Recalling the way, in disciplinary societies, that power relations play out via the enclosure and regulation of bodies and their movement—the latter imposed externally and with the imperative of a ‘useful time’ or with the aim of self-optimising—I’m curious about how self-selected modes of resistant bodily organisation might operate to insulate or shelter humans living under and within various intensities of neoliberalisation, its discourse and its gaze. Sheltered, one might recover a creative or robust response. To use temporal strategies and understandings, we may subtract ourselves (even just sometimes) from stealthy modes of control or ‘nudging’, from ways of being which are increasingly marketed as ‘common sense’ approaches to activity and spendings of time.
With regard to neoliberalisation (defined according to Springer, 37-38) and its coupling with digital life, I query if we may be finding ourselves too-often dipping below the threshold of what ought to be our most assumed temporality: namely, Deleuze’s ‘living’ or habitual present (from the second chapter of his Difference and Repetition). The moniker of ‘temporal diversity’ seeks to flag that—in a moment where we observe and resist the shutting down of diversity in numerous spheres, of species, eco-systems, cultures and languages, and their eclipse by modes produced for our consumption by globalisation—we could easily miss another register at which diversity is threatened. We might arguably be facing the loss of something which, after the fact, we may struggle to name—since it is not a ‘thing’—and whose trajectory of disappearance might wholly elude us. This diversity is that of times.
Deleuze’s Three Syntheses in Difference and Repetition
In Chapter 2 of his 1968 work, Deleuze explores three ways in which time can synthesise. Each synthesis involves a kind of weaving of the basic operations of difference and repetition. One way to read Deleuze in this work is that he (among other things) effectively sketches three kinds of atmospheres of time. Each of these, I argue, if seen as frame, contributes a richness and diversity to what a life—and what our shared life—can be and feel like.
The first kind of time is called the habitual or ‘living’ present. It synthesises from a stitching together, drawing together, of the retaining of disappearing, disparate instances that otherwise bear no basic relation to one another (Deleuze, Difference 97). As a ‘present’, it has a stretch, a ‘reach’ which depends somewhat on our organism’s capacity to contract discontinuous instants. As Hughes beautifully puts it: “Our contractile range is the index of our finitude” (110). As we’ll see below, it would be a crumbling of this ‘range’ that sub-habituality designates. This living present of Deleuze also has a past inflection, marked by the just-gone and by a mode of memory, as well as by a future aspect, marked—not always constructively—by anticipation.
One way to read the ‘living’ present is as being akin to our temporal ‘food and shelter’, a basic synthesis in which to dwell basically. Not thrilling or obviously creative, seductive or vast, it is the time—I’d suggest—in which we establish routine, in which we maintain a liveable life. Theorists such as Grosz have argued—in this tradition with Deleuze which positively evaluates habit—that habit, as mode of time, frees the organism up so that invention and innovation can then seed (see Grosz).
The ‘living’ present turns out, however, not to be assumable in every case. For example, in cases of PTSD, I’d contend, it may be interrupted, lost, thus is not to be taken for granted under all conditions. Its status under a gamified neoliberalisation or surveillance capitalism is of interest to me and thus I offer this poetics of sub-habituality as a way to designate its vulnerability—that we might slip below its steadying threshold.
Neither does the habitual present constitute much of a diversity; it would not cut it, let’s say, as enough for an abundant or varied temporal life. The habitual present contributes to the conditions that would enable me to form intentions (as a cohering ‘self’), to fashion basic schedules with my own initiative, to order an adult life. For a truly rich temporal life, however, we’d wish to include the poetics intimated by Deleuze’s two other syntheses, their more diverse atmospheres and the arguably political capacities they open to us.
The second (passive) synthesis pertains to a vast and insisting past, in the lineage of Henri Bergson, and which, Deleuze notes, might be accessed or ‘saved for ourselves’ via that which we call reminiscence (Difference 107)—a dreamy, expansive and often-pleasurable state (except, for example, in cases of PTSD, or even perhaps versions of dementia, where the person may not be able to leave or surface from it). To dig, in thought, ‘down’ into the register of this vast past and to unearth a rigorous account of it, one goes via a series of paradoxes (see Deleuze, Difference 101-105). If the first passive synthesis is constituted by habit’s mechanisms, the second passive synthesis is constituted by memory’s: “memory is the fundamental synthesis of time which constitutes the being of the past (that which causes the present to pass)” (Deleuze, Difference 101). Hughes puts it thus: “the pure past in general [is] a horizon of having-been-ness, in which what was apprehended [in the first synthesis] finds the conditions of its reproducibility” (108). If such a pastness designates one moment in how selves and their being-as-time synthesise, one might want to know how to include this rich, languorous, sometimes lost and meandering, atmosphere in a life. This might assist an understanding of what distorts or precludes it, and thus our learning for how to invite it in, alongside our more habitual modes.
No mode of time, therefore, is simplistically inflected as positive or negative. Without their multiplicity, I’m arguing, we are left temporally less endowed. I wish to articulate not the swapping of one kind of time for another—as if one would only favour productive ‘times’, or efficient ‘times’, or competitive ‘times’, or steady ‘times’, or dreamy, meandering ‘times’—but a diversity. When we feel wildly dissatisfied and imagine that a tangible thing, situation or acquisition—content in time, in other words—would serve as a salve for this uneasiness, we might also consider that what’s missing could be a temporal mode. Which one have we lost the capacity to access or drift into? I’ll now turn to the third synthesis which Deleuze explores, which pertains to the future and its opening up.
For the purposes of my argument here, I want to use this third synthesis to gesture towards the future as a possible mode—empty, sheer—and which distinguishes itself entirely from the future ‘aspects’ of the first two syntheses. I both take a poetic cue from Deleuze, as well as note that this synthesis is the least obvious or accessible in a usual life, one in which habit’s organisation is established, and even in which perhaps there are pockets of the ‘erotic’ (Deleuze, Difference 107) and/or expansive driftings of the second synthesis of memory. The third synthesis, then—associated with Deleuze’s take on thought—marks the moment when something becomes active. Deleuze presents it to the reader of Difference and Repetition in relation to Nietzsche’s Eternal Return:
that is why it is properly called a belief of the future, a belief in the future. Eternal Return affects only the new, what is produced under the condition of default and by the intermediary of metamorphosis. However it causes neither the condition nor the agent to return: on the contrary, it repudiates these and expels them with all its centrifugal force. (Difference 113, emphasis original)
When habit dominates our temporal palette, the future appears to be possible only in habit’s guise of it—that is, in the mode of anticipation, which then morphs to prediction as this synthesis moves into its more active modes. Anticipation is a pragmatic but weak future. It is useful, without doubt, since habit’s future mode knows to say: at three o’clock I need to get my shoes on, grab keys and wallet, and drive to pick up X. I anticipate that they will be waiting on this corner, and so on. Habit’s internally available ‘future’ is crucial and steadying. Knowing how to manoeuvre within it is part of learning to live some kind of organised life. In sub-habituality I’d argue, we may not even have that. Zuboff intimates this when in Chapter 11 she speaks of a right to a future tense.
Deleuze’s third synthesis opens the self precisely onto that which-cannot-be-anticipated. The Nietzschean mode of the future that Deleuze explores at length is not akin to habit’s ordering and stabilising; it is not to be compared to the reminiscent climes of pure memory, to the vast dilations and contractions of its insisting topographies. The third synthesis asks more of us. It asks us to forget the versions of ourselves we have been (in the very moment that we affirm the repetition of everything that has been, to the letter) and to stare unblinkingly into a roaring Nothingness, or better into the strange weathers of a Not-Determined-Yet.
My own practice-based creative research into these matters confirms Deleuze’s architectures. I say: we need the two other temporal syntheses and rely on them in order to dramatise something new in the third synthesis. The is the ability, in other words, to decide and to forget enough to be able to dance forward into an unknown future.
Sub-Habituality: Or Less than a ‘Living’ Present
Korean thinker Byung-Chul Han links our use of devices, and the necessity of engaging with them for our social/economic survival, to the kind of dispersed and fretful awareness needed by animals surviving predators in the wild. He sees ‘multitasking’ in no way as any kind of evolution, but names it provocatively a regression, which precludes the kind of contemplation upon which sophisticated cultural practices and fields, such as art and philosophy, arguably depend (Han 26-29).
Habit involves the crucial notion of a ‘range’ of, or a capacity for, contracting disparate instants—so as to make possible their being stitched together, via contemplation’s passivity (Deleuze 100), and thereby to synthesise a (stable, even liveable) present. Recall that Hughes called it the index of our finitude. How do digital engagements—specifically with apps and their intentionally gamified designs, and which involve a certain velocity of uncadenced movement and gesture (eyes, hands, neck position)—impact an ability to synthesise a steady-enough present? Sub-habituality, as name, seeks a poetics to bring to articulation an un-ease that would be specifically temporal, not psychological, or even merely physiological.
To know about the stability offered by habit’s time allows the cultivation of temporal atmospheres that are pleasant and stable, as well as having the potential to open onto creative/erotic modes of a vast past, as well as not be closed to the pure future. This would be a curation of the present, learning how to ‘play’ its mechanisms such that the most expansive and interesting aspects of this mode—which can condition and court other modes—can come forth.
Sub-habituality is that time where the gathering of instants into any stretch is hindered, shattering the operations of coherence and narrowing aperture for certain experiences. No stretch in which to dwell. The vast and calming surfaces of our attention breaking into shards. Sub-habituality would be anti-contemplative, in an ontological sense. No instant could hold for long enough to relate to its temporal peers. Teetering there on the edge of a non-time, any ‘subject’ who might intend is undermined.
Next, I turn to the notion of relaxation as bodily practice and strategy to insulate or shelter humans living under and within various intensities of digitalised neoliberalisation. Instead of offering oneself up for monetised organisation, one organises oneself via the nuanced effort that is a ‘dropping of excess effort’. The latter is relaxation and may thwart surreptitious modes of (imposed temporal) (dis)organisation, or what tends to appear increasingly as ‘common sense’ approaches to activity and spendings of time. We practise deciding to structure blocks of time, so that within their bounds we can risk experimenting with relaxation, its erotics and its vectors of transformation.
Neoliberalisation, after Springer, involves the becoming common-sensical of numerous logics: competitiveness in every sphere of life, ubiquity of free market logics, supposed scarcity (of time, opportunity), rationalisation and instrumentalisation of processes and attitudes to doing, and an emphasis on a discourse of efficiency (even when it is not, in actuality, what obtains). For Deleuze, in a control society, similarly
many young people strangely boast of being “motivated”; they re-request apprenticeships and permanent training. It’s up to them to discover what they are being made to serve, just as their elders discovered, not without difficulty, the telos of the disciplines. ("Postscript", 7)
How can we serve less this current telos? What (counter or subtractive) practices might undermine the conditions for the entrenching of such logics? My contention in this article is that practices of the body that also involve the intentional organising of time, along with approaches to movement generally that forgo striving and forcing (that is: kinds of violent ‘work’), may counter some of the impacts (especially of a temporal nature, as discussed above) that align with and allow for neoliberal logics’ pervading of all spheres of life. Relaxation is a useful shorthand for such strategies.
In my work elsewhere on practising, I’ve argued that relaxation is the third (of four) criteria that constitute the specific approach to ‘doing’ that can be designated practising (see Pont; Attiwill et al.). Relaxation is a very particular approach to any behaviour or movement, whereby the ‘doer’ pays close attention and seeks to use only the necessary amount of effort for the activity in question. This dropping of ‘natural’ (or knee-jerk) effort is itself a kind of unusual effort. The word ‘natural’ here comes from writings by Vachaspati Mishra (192) and makes the subtle point that relaxation intervenes on what is ‘natural’ or on what has acquired inertia, on that which enacts itself without decision or intention. In this strictly ontological/temporal intervention, relaxation refuses to collude with common-sense approval for striving-as-new-piety that dominate neoliberalised discourses and their motivational propagandas.
Relaxation constitutes an enacted—repeatedly enacted—decision at the level of the body to organise movement/doing in ways subtracted from neoliberalised discourse, reawakening intention. It is a quiet intervention, precise and difficult, that works to counter a widespread fundamentalism of doing with excess (or Leistung with its inevitable flipside of collapse and exhaustion, as critiqued by Han 24-25). This dovetails with the ubiquity of digital engagements/behavioural training, which effectively constitute an unending labour for many. Counter-intuitively, relaxation (when understood strictly as practice, not in its lay inflection as compensatory ‘collapse’) can establish a minimum membrane hindering the penetration of this labour into all spheres of a life. Once PEDs are intentionally used—very difficult to do—and limited in terms of the proportion of time they are engaged with, they pose a reduced threat to times’ diversity. (To organise my time, curiously too, I make use of PED timer features, on flight mode, and so on. Others use apps specifically designed to help them use fewer apps.)
We find ourselves here faced with various and emergent practices of saying ‘no’ to serve a process that experiments with affirming something else—perhaps this ‘else’ would be the conditions for that which does yet exist, that is: truly open futures, creativity, robustness in the face of change. Promising? Deciding? My argument is that a body immersed too much in sub-habituality is less capable overall of withstanding the atmospheres of the third synthesis (and, if we follow Han, too dispersed and fragmented to access certain atmospheres that we might associate with the second). It may not even have a sense of a living present. It becomes less and less intentional, more malleable, very tired.
There is—in the work of the body that resists complying with the logics of neoliberalisation, that resists a certain corrosion of Deleuze’s first time (and of the subsequent two times that in Deleuze open from them)—a clear practice of dropping, letting fall, not picking up in the first place. We forgo then certain modes of, or approaches to, action when we work to subtract ourselves from an encroaching (a)temporality that is none at all. To foil reactivity we have two obvious options: we learn to activate our reactivity—to act it; or we pause just before enacting from within its logic. Relaxation is more about the latter.
The sub-habitual discussed in this article is, most importantly, a grim affective/temporal register to inhabit. For many, its unpleasantness is met with queries about mental health, since it naturally impacts us in a register that feels like bad thinking, like bad feeling. By introducing an onto-temporal inflection into such queries, I suggest there might be a certain kind of ‘health’ or better still a ‘pleasure’ in a life that can obtain with the cultivation of a diversity of times. Deleuze’s model of three kinds of temporal synthesis tempts me as one way to track what might be going missing in a moment when certain technologies, serving particular economic and political agendas and ideologies, can coax our rhythms, behaviours and preoccupations down particular paths. The fleshy, energetic and thinking body, as a site of affirmation, as a vehicle for practices that subtract themselves from dominant logics, can—I’ve argued here—be a crucial factor in working with temporality in such a way that one is not left with an homogenised non-time in which we are not-quite-subjects or diluted selves vulnerable to being worked on by logics that drive neoliberalisation and its sufferings. Relaxation is among a suite of strategies that may keep our times (and ourselves as modes of time) diverse: stable, pleasure-capable, imaginative and fierce.
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