The Trouble with Resolutions
I am typing in the living room of my chilly, dimly lit apartment. This Chicago morning is blandly gray—nothing new under the wan wintry sun. But it’s December 31st, the one day of the year that harbors the promise of beautiful novelty. We will soon flee from ourselves and become completed humans. We will vow to make a minor adjustment, which also stands in for every adjustment we possibly could make in order to perfect ourselves. We will start again. We will make New Years resolutions.
What is the fantasy that goes by this name? A New Years resolution is a symbolic game we play with ourselves, but in the midst of others; we seize the fact that while midnight of January 1st is a purely arbitrary moment in time, it nonetheless carries the weight of a collective ritual. The New Years resolution is the perfect expression of what Slavoj Žižek calls fetishistic disavowal. In other words, we stubbornly believe in the efficacy of the event of New Years even if we “see through” its trite falsity. We say something like, “I know very well that this date is meaningless, but nonetheless, I can use it to change myself, etc.” The practice of resolving on December 31 is extremely tantalizing: I’m in no position to ridicule it, if only because it’s quite likely that at some point today I’ll start spouting about something I’ll do differently in 2013.
Resolutions don’t occur in a vacuum, but are communally inflected. If I were the last man on earth there would be no meaning to my “resolution”; it’s not that by asserting a resolution, I become a law unto myself. Were that the case I could simply make a silent promise to myself. I feel compelled to articulate my resolution to others, thereby making a spectacle of my own new policy. It’s no accident that New Years resolutions are so often spoken, advertised, argued about, but forgotten within a week. New Years resolutions tend to generate a collective narcissistic frenzy that quickly burns out.
What’s curious about the term “resolution,” in this context, is that it paradoxically evokes an ending while signifying a beginning. It expresses two seemingly contradictory desires—to begin again and to resolve, to wrap up. We seek to inaugurate a new stretch of time but in such a way that resolves this time with the certainty of a self-imposed necessity. We negate ourselves and complete ourselves in the same gesture. But if we push this thought to its limit and imagine its consequences, we realize that when practice stems from “resolution,” it tends to undermine itself.
The self-defeating quality of resolution is the theme of Kafka’s aptly titled short story, “Resolutions.” Kafka’s speaker imagines the ease with which he can become less miserable; all it takes is a little will. “Defy my own feelings, welcome A. enthusiastically supposing he comes to see me…” The rub, however, is that “one single slip…will stop the whole process, easy and painful alike, and I will have to shrink back into my own circle again.” In a vicious parody of a self-help manual, Kafka’s speaker offers a prescription for how to “keep” a resolution:
“So perhaps the best resource is to meet everything passively, to make yourself an inert mass, and, if you feel that you are being carried away, not to let yourself be lured into taking a single unnecessary step, to stare at others with the eyes of an animal, to feel no compunction, in short, with your own hand to throttle down whatever ghostly life remains in you, that is, to enlarge the final peace of the graveyard and let nothing survive save that.”
In other words, if I am not to fuck up I must renounce life itself in all its contingency. If I am to begin again and conclude in a single stroke—as the term “resolution” implies—I must become an “inert mass,” impervious to whatever might threaten my resolve.
Now, one could object that I’ve taken this too far, and treated “resolution” too literally. After all some New Years resolutions seem to succeed, and moreover, there are degrees of success. I resolve to quit smoking and slip up once or twice during the year, but surely even this counts as an improvement, and hence testifies to the value of the resolution. The point of Kafka’s tale, however, is not that, empirically, all New Years resolutions will fail. Instead, Kafka suggests that “resolution” might be the wrong concept to employ.
I shall propose an alternative—repetition. Those “resolutions” which succeed are actually repetitions, fueled by neither gimmicky symbolic rituals nor by delusions of completion or perfection.
To repeat is to have done with the fantasy of absolute beginning and absolute ending. It is to exist in the middle of things, unanchored by temporal markers, and nonetheless persist in some passionate engagement. If “resolution” evokes the cruelty of what Freud called the superego—that internalized, punishing force that constantly monitors your activity—then repetition evokes the difficult work of love. Kierkegaard saw the intimate connection between love and repetition: If I am to authentically repeat, I must love, that is, commit myself to some object or pursuit without the crutch of recent novelty or future guarantee. Moreover, I must not only learn to love what I repeat; I must learn to love repetition itself. For, by repeating, I am not simply doing something over and over, but on a second-order level, repeating the act of repetition itself. If resolution can’t be loved, it’s because it is over too quickly. A flash as bright and ephemeral as a firework in Times Square. Repetition, on the contrary, is loveable, on the condition that we can love the banality of commitment.
Like Kierkegaard, Nietzsche possessed an unusual passion for repetition. In one of my favorite passages from Gay Science, “By doing we forgo,” Nietzsche attacks moralities that enjoin us to “renounce!”—moralities that invariably underpin New Years resolutions—in favor an ethos of repetition. Nietzsche praises “moralities that impel me to do something again and again from morning till evening, and to dream of it at night, and to think of nothing else than doing this well, as well as I alone can.” For Nietzsche, one should seek to “forgo,” not “renounce.” What is the difference? Renouncing begins with a prohibition (and again, it’s no accident that New Years resolutions most often, implicitly or explicitly, take the form of self-imposed laws). Forgoing, on the other hand, is an effect of an alternative, positive pursuit. To forgo is to allow exhaust to dissipate while doing something else. A bad habit does indeed fall off, but as a result of repetition rather than prohibition. By doing we forgo, and by repeating we transform.
Take this not as an attack on the aspiration undergirding New Years resolutions, but on the form of resolution itself. The conceptual shift from resolution to repetition may seem trivial, but sometimes trivial shifts can produce the greatest consequences. Could 2013 be a year of repetitions rather than resolutions? One can only hope and hope and hope…