chapter  8
16 Pages

Habit, instinct, survivals: repetition, history, biopower

In 1844, Lord Stanley, Secretary of State of the Colonial Office, wrote to Sir George Gipps, the colonial governor of New South Wales, regarding a report that Gipps had forwarded to him from Captain G. Gray. Drawing on his experience as the commander of an expedition into the interior of Australia, Gray had dwelt on the lacklustre results of all the attempts that had so far been made to civilise the Aborigines. Stanley acknowledged that it seemed ‘impossible any longer to deny’ that such attempts ‘have been unavailing; that no real progress has yet been effected, and that there is not reasonable ground to expect from them greater success in the future’ (cited Anderson 2007: 120). Yet he was reluctant to accept the conclusion that followed from this. Noting that he could not admit ‘that with respect to them alone the doctrines of Christianity must be inoperative, and the advantages of civilisation incommunicable’, he declined to believe that Aborigines ‘[are] incapable of improvement, and that their extinction before the advance of the white settler is a necessity which it is impossible to control’ (120-21). Kay Anderson argues that Stanley’s equivocations over this matter were

symptomatic of a moment when Australian colonial discourses were poised between two options. On the one hand, both Christian salvationist discourses and the secular progressivism of Enlightenment stadial theory allowed – indeed, urged – that the Australian Aborigine might be improved. Set against these views, increasingly influential somatic conceptions of race rooted racial divisions ineradicably in the body and, thereby, removed Aborigines from both the Christian time of salvation and the progressive time of civilisation, placing them instead in the dead-end time of extinction as the inevitable losers in the struggle for existence with a superior race. This somatisation of race initially took the form of polygenetic accounts of racial divisions that called into question both Christian and Enlightenment accounts of human unity. While Darwin’s account of evolution opened up a space in which Aborigines might be enfolded within civilising programmes by denying that racial differences were innate or constituted unbridgeable gaps, Anderson suggests that subsequent developments in anthropology placed Aborigines beyond the reach of such programmes by consigning them to the newly historicised twilight zone between nature and culture represented by the category

of prehistory. As survivals of the past in the present, Aborigines presented the difficulty not of being innately different but of being too far away in time. Still on the cusp of the journey from nature into culture, they had simply too far to travel across the eons of evolutionary time separating them from the properly historical time of their colonisers before the imperatives of racial competition resulted in their elimination. I have no quarrels with this account that, indeed, resonates with many

aspects of my argument in Chapter 4. My purpose here, however, is to argue that the distinctive dynamics that connected a belief in the ‘unimprovability’ of Aborigines and the doctrine of survivals in the late-nineteenth and earlytwentieth centuries depended on the ways in which the relationships between habit and instinct were reconfigured in the context of post-Darwinian social, political and anthropological thought. For this pluralised and historicised the concept of innateness in ways that reordered its relations to race. This argument also serves as a vehicle for a broader purpose: to shade and qualify the role that has been attributed to habit within liberal forms of government in the post-Foucauldian literature on governmentality (see, for example, Mehta 1997; Valverde 1996; White 2005). This has largely been concerned with habit as a mechanism distinguishing where the assumption that individuals are to be governed through their capacities for freedom should apply and where, instead, more coercive forms of rule should be brought into play. Where behaviour has become so habituated through frequent repetition that it trespasses on the capacity for the will, guided by reflexive judgement, to be freely exercised, the shutters have been drawn on liberal strategies of rule in favour of reinforcing the mechanisms of habit as an automated form of self-rule. This argument has proved of considerable value in highlighting the wide

range of exclusions – of race, class, age and gender – through which liberal government has been constituted. Its chief limitation is that it fails to take account of the different places that habit has occupied within the architectures of the person associated with different discourses and strategies for organising ‘the conduct of conduct’. By ‘architectures of the person’ I have in mind what Nikolas Rose (1996a) characterises as a historically mutable set of ‘spaces, cavities, relations, divisions’ that are produced by the infolding of diverse ways of partitioning the self and working on its varied parts that are proposed by different authorities. I develop this argument by examining how post-Darwinian social, political and anthropological thought shifted the place that habit occupied within the architecture of the person that had been proposed by classical liberalism by refashioning its relationship to custom on the one hand and instinct on the other. The consequence of this, I argue, was a distinctive habit-instinct nexus that inscribed the governance of ‘unimprovable’ Aborigines in a specific form of biopower. I shall, in this connection, revisit the work of Baldwin Spencer to examine the respects in which his racialisation of Aboriginality was informed by the distinctive configuration of the relations between habit and instinct that emerged from these post-Darwinian trajectories of classical


liberalism. First, though, to provide a contrapuntal historical backdrop to these concerns, I look at the role played by the concept of habit in earlier moments in the development of English liberal political thought.