Imagine a culture without routines. Is this possible? The routine for eating, cooking, harvesting, hunting, traveling, not to mention curing, excreting, making love – don’t these practical matters have to become routines?
But as we press the question, the concept of the routine seems to become more indistinct.
Imagine a culture without rituals, then. The late nineteenth century anthropologists became obsessed with rituals – rituals and art, rituals and magic, rituals and taboo. The rituals of savages – the people without the law, the non-Western Europeans – and their survivals among the civilized savages of the European zones, among whom are the scientists themselves, the middle class, the peasants and workers - were intensely studied, taxonomized, and generalized. Basing their claims on the huge data base that was presented in The Golden Bough, the anthropologists claimed that there was no culture without ritual. Without, as Jane Ellen Harrison was fond of pointing out, dromenon, the ancient Greek term for “thing done” – connected philologically and socially to drama. Ritual for the ancient Greeks became drama, was Harrison’s claim.
But routines… I will leave undecided, here, at the start, whether there are cultures without some base of routines, some transmitted program for doing things.
But what we do know is that the word “routine” did not exist in early modern England up until the late seventeenth century.
“Behold, I am now become a grammarian, I, who never learn’t tongue but by way of rote, and that yet know not what either Adjective, Conjunctive or Ablative meaneth.” This is John Florio’s 1603 translation of Montaigne’s essay, Des Destries – On Steeds, Florio called it. Behind the phrase “by way of rote”, Montaigne uses a single French word – “routine.” Rote, an etymologically related word, was in the English vocabulary of the early 17th century. It appears in Shakespeare’s Midsummer Nights Dream, when Titania says to the fairies, instructing them on their roles:
“First, rehearse your song by rote
To each word a warbling note.”
Shakespeare, however, never uses the word routine. Nor does Bacon. In France, Montaigne uses it twice in his essays, and his friend, Amyot, uses it a couple of times in his translation of Plutarch’s collected works. A particularly interesting instance is in the translation of the essay, “That Virtue can be Taught”, in which Plutarch, at one point, takes up the opposite view and shows how absurd it would be that there are schools and precepts and masters for other things – ‘pueriles choses’ – but for the “great and perfect there is only a routine, or only chance meeting a case of adventure.”
Routine, in Montaigne and Amyot, already carries an ambiguity in its soul. On the one hand, it points to cognitivizing a procedure – doing a routine is knowing how to proceed with a practice. On the other hand, this knowledge, to be a routine, undergoes a sort of baptism in the world of instincts. It becomes inert, habitual, and takes on a slightly negative coloration in contrast to the knowing associated with the higher intellect. In the soul’s division of labor, as laid out by the theologians – influenced by Aristotle – and the doctors – influenced by Galen – routine engages, so to speak, the lesser self, the vegatative soul, the inner dark that is wholly immersed in heartbeat, breathing, animal warmth – hardly skills at all, although they need to be practiced, repeated, and in fact repeated correctly – the heart otherwise suddenly seizes up, we choke, we freeze. The tongue may paddle, but it is no natural grammarian.
It is more than fifty years later that the word “routine” finally does cross the channel and make its appearance in English. It first appears in a translation by John Evelyn of a book written by Gabriel Naudé, Advis pour dresser une Bibliotheque. Naudé was relatively young when the first edition of this book was published in 1627; by 1644, when the second edition was published, he’d garnered a large reputation as a librarian – or more than that, a builder of libraries. In 1644 Evelyn was visiting France, and perhaps this is where he picked up a copy of the book. Evelyn, calling his translation an ‘interpretation’, titled it Instructions for the Erecting of a Library. When it came out in 1661, Evelyn recorded in his diary that he was disappointed that it was “miserably false printed” – and later, in a letter to the man it is dedicated to, Lord Clarendon, Evelyn suggests a new program – new routines – for printing books. But the diary is otherwise not forthcoming about when or where Evelyn began his translation, or why. In the diary that Evelyn kept for 1644, there is not mention of Naudé’s Advis. The entries are crammed with highly detailed descriptions of the gardens, architecture and painting Evelyn discovered in France: more than the traveler’s notes, these lists have a certain sensu-round feeling, the child in the midst of his toys. He also visited scholars and controversialists. When, finally, Evelyn returned home from the continent, his England was gone, or at least in hibernation, for the Puritans and Parliament had won, and King Charles I was dead. Evelyn bided his loyalist time until the Protector died, and then threw himself into public affairs under Charles II, becoming one of the leading members of the Royal society, an advisor on rebuilding London after the great fire, an advocate of forestry, and an influential gardner – his books on gardening helped create the English style. He was the kind of man known, at the time, as a virtuoso: a man of many talents and interests, for whom knowledge was literally a venture. It is easy to see what might have attracted such a man to ‘Naudaeus’’s book.
Like Evelyn, Naudé was a man of the modern spirit – a reader of Galileo and Machiavelli, a collector, a spirited opponent of mystification – be it of the Rosicrucians or of the witchhunters. Naudé, however, belonged to an earlier generation. Born in 1600, he has been classed in the twentieth century with the group of ‘erudite libertines’ who flourished in the first half of the 17th century in France, only to be frozen out by the authoritarian King Louis XIV. These were the esprits forts to whom Pascal addresses various of his Pensees. It was a group that was more attracted by Pierre Gassendi’s materialism – which Gassendi embraces by way of Epicurus - than Descartes’ reclamation of St. Augustine’s cogito; who sympathized, sometimes covertly, with the great freethinking nobles, many of whom ended up aligning themselves with the Fronde, the disastrous aristocratic rebellion of 1648 against Naudé’s patron, Cardinal Mazarin ; and whose deepest beliefs were, perhaps, less structured by the Christian ideal of redemption than a mixture of the Stoic resignation and the Epicurian cosmology which seemed somehow to match their circumstances, political and existential. The Epicurian universe was almost absolutely material, composed of atoms streaming ceaselessly across the void, obeying geometric laws – except for the mysterious emergence of random fluctuations among them. That fluctuation – the clinamen – was the basis of free will. It was a picture that beautifully accomodated order and disorder, the sovereign and the aristocrat, rule and whim, the rules of art and style. Against the ascetic ideal of baroque piety, the erudite libertines posited a moral code based on volupté. The career of volupté is instructive: in the seventeenth century, it was not yet simply a matter of sexual hedonism. It was not yet defined by the air of excuse floating over all those softcore eighteenth century novellas – the memoirs of a flea, the confessions of a sofa. Rather, it was about embracing nature. The code of volupté was a way of living that found its supposed master in Epicurus and the new learning; in the chain of sememes of those texts that were dedicated to it, if volupté appears, soon nature will appear also. Nature is new, it is modern, it is something that doesn’t yet have a full meaning. It isn’t quite God, but it is adverted to as though it “taught”, as though it were a guide to living. In the reference to nature there is the promise of a program, of a way of casting off the ideology of sacrifice. Certainly, it leads the esprit fort to a negation – the negation of those things that are against nature, or supernatural. Saint-Beuve, in a very sympathetic ‘portrait’ of Naudé (one in which he even elevates him into the link between Montaigne and Bayle) quotes Naudé’s friend, the doctor Gui Pantin, whose description of Naude’s spiritual attitude could be extended to any number of “honnetes hommes” in this period: «As long as I knew him, he seemed to me to be extremely indifferent in his choice of religion and to have learned this at Rome, where he stayed a dozen good years; and I even remember hearing him say that he had, in the past, a teacher, a professor of rhetoric at the college of Navarre, named M. Belurgey, a native of Flavigny in Bourgogne, who he highly valued… Thus, this professor of rhetoric vaunted himself notoriously to be of the religion of Lucretius, of Pliny, and of the great men of antiquity; for his unique article of faith, he often alleged the line of a certain chorus in Seneca’s Troade.” Lucretius, Pliny, Seneca. Amyot, Montaigne. The names conjure up a connection in the mind, and it is out of this mix that routine takes its first flavor.
Naudé recognized, perhaps, in Seneca a man of his own sorrows, even if those sorrows, in Naude’s case, were cocooned by a position of privilege that he had carefully carved out for himself, at least by the time of the second edition of his book: thus, the instructions for erecting a library are charged with a program that runs underneath the lists of the names of books. In the erudite libertines one can trace the embryo of the program of the Enlightenment that was articulated by the philosophes in the 18th century, but even so, the seventeenth century esprit fort was an enlightenment that fully accepts,understands, and codifies – through a combination of cynicism and deep frivolity - its own defeat by, on the one hand, the credulity of the populace, and on the other, by the interests of established power. Which is one way of understanding Saint-Breuve’s marvelous summing up of the world of these baroque free spirits: atrocité içi, mauvais gout là.
Naudé worked as a librarian for a number of seventeenth century eminences – Cardinal da Bagno, for whom he went to Italy, where he spent eleven years and immersed himself in the Renaissance writers, Cardinal Mazarin, and Queen Christina of Sweden. Perhaps Evelyn had heard of Naudé’s circle of ‘free thinkers” at Gentilly, outside of Paris. Naudé was in Paris in 1644, having accepted an offer from Cardinal Richelieu to be his official librarian - which, by the time he got back to France, was transferred to Cardinal Mazarin, Richelieu having died in the meantime. Probably, too, Evelyn was familiar with another book Naudé wrote in his youth: a History of Magick By Way ofApology, For all the Wise Men Who Have Unjustly Been Reputed Magicians, from the Creation, to the Present Age, which was ‘englished’ by John Davies in 1657. The wise men of the title are for the most part the authors of the books that Naudé discusses in his Advis. Both building a library and defending the reputation of the sages were part of Naudé’s program to “deniaiser les esprits” – to destupify minds – by edging in, as it were, into the field of cultural politics, without exposing too much of oneself to the awful coercive power of the church or the state. This was and is a tricky task – requiring both the broad view of the learned and the guarded rhetoric of the courtier.
Here, then, is the context – early modern – scholarly/political – enlightened/disenchanted - out of which the word leaps into Evelyn’s translation. It is not a passage that stands out for any other reason in the world of English prose. It is easy to imagine this lexical firstling appearing around this time in some other text. Evelyn’s sentence reads: “What we may discern, one must be carefuyl to take with him divers theorems and praecautions, which may with more facility be reduced to practice as opportunity happens, by those who have the routine and are vers’d in books, and who judge all things fairly and without passion.”  Evelyn, while transposing Naudé’s word, “routine”, is still not comfortable enough to leave it alone. In the French, it is simply “ceux qui ont une grande routine des livres” – the “and vers’d in” is Evelyn’s gloss. The “great routine of books” is, for Naudé, a tacit knowledge, a compound of experience, taste and perception, that allows the librarian to successfully decide on the questions of quality versus quantity, the ancients versus the moderns, and even the heretical versus the orthodox – for in Naudé’s opinion, a library is the one social space where virtue and vice, orthodoxy and heresy, the new learning and the old, not only can but, if the library is to be great, must coexist. The book shelf is where one can discretely build Rabelais’ utopia, the abby of Thélème, with its motto – do what you will. The link between utopia and its survival in 1644 is routine, a “great routine”.
But this is not enough. We can’t stop here. There is, as well, a larger etymological context to consider. For the word takes us, by way of the word “route”, back into Latin, where the root term from which routine arises is “rota”, or wheel. And from rota we can go back to the Sanskrit, “ratha”, chariot. Routine is thus connected with the great family of rotational words. The wheel, of course, provided a central affordance space for technology in Europe and America (the gear, the mill, the turbine) well up until the age of electrification, when it was replaced in the collective imagination by the switch – connecting routine to a very powerful family of concepts and images.
Such philological reasoning has long been dismissed as a voyage to Cratylia, a relapse into word magic. I don’t want to defend the Cratylian position – that is to say, I don’t think the earlier meanings of the roots of words give us the secret meaning of the word - but I do want to rethink the sense of etymological reasoning, outlining a position that is, perhaps, neo-Cratylian. Etymologies stand rather like totem poles – positivistic totem poles – at the entrance to words in the dictionary. The great tribe of philologists built them. Here, we are given a series of words that precedes,as their evolutionary development, a specific word that is now current. One notices that each of the older words is accorded a naively unambiguous meaning, as though each word in its time was tied unambiguously to a certain definition. How else could etymology be done? And yet, at the same time, etymology suggests that there are forces that work on words, forces that change words, change pronunciations, displace meanings into other conceptual fields, records of semiotic smears and blurs, metaphoric offerings that not only work outside the dictionary, but fret against the differential structure, the individuated lexemes that it so patiently records. As Jane Harrison puts it, “feeling ahead for distinctions is characteristic
of all languages”. In this respect, the etymological totem pole operates less positivistically, and more totemically. The way words are essentially linked leads us to a history that is open to occult forces and anthropological understandings. One of the first Western descriptions of a totem pole, by Captain George Dixon in 1787, describes “… figures that might be taken for a species of hieroglyphics, fishes and other animals, heads of men and various whimsical designs, mingled and confounded in order to compose a subject.” Indeed, the totem combines these objects, animals, designs in complicated ritualistic ways to map a certain power, released by ritual. That power divides and compounds. Taking each etymological “stage” in this totemic way, one can think of the totem pole of meanings and deviations that towers in the background over “routine” as itself a current force, a repressed figure that continually returns, operating invisibly, compulsively, linking “routine” with metaphors and examples that keep turning up throughout its history, as though imprinted on the word’s wheel of fate.
We should remark, as well, that here, as so often, ancient technologies crop up at the deepest level of the word – which one sees happen so often with key words. The road in “routine”, the stamp or incision in “character”, the chain in “addiction”. How many great families of words congregate around primitive tools? The wheel, of course, exists as a specific discovery during a specific epoch among specific cultures. It never finds a place among, for instance, Mesoamerican cultures. But in the Meditteranean, Northern Europe and whereever the Europeans colonized, it became an essential metaphor for a whole vision of things. To turn a wheel is eventually to come to the point where one started. And yet that point only returns after it has gone through a predictable cycle of variations in its cardinal location. As those variations are gone through (as the wheel turns – and the turn itself is buried as a metaphor in the very language that I am using to explore the metaphor of the wheel), the wheel moves forward. The motion of the wheel, given these two structural elements, became the privileged metaphor and symbol for both fortune and nemesis – figures that are so closely connected that there has been a long transfer of symbols and identities between them. In the history of economics, for instance, these qualities of the wheel – fortune’s wheel – are at the center of it. Fortune was used, in the Renaissance, in places where we would now say “market” – and one of fortune’s symbols, the balance, is constantly evoked beneath the concept of “equilibrium”, which neo-classical economists, at least, consider to be the very basis of intelligibility for economic analysis. Even when, in the nineteenth century, the positivists sought to break out of the cyclical view of history, the wheel still became a privileged reference for progress – for forward motion. The nineteenth century historians thought that they buried Nemesis, but Nemesis survived, Nemesis colonized progress, an event that Walter Benjamin wrestles with in his theses on history.
Within this matrix of connotations, at the crossroads of these philological intersigns, sits “routine”, a term that carries a certain semantic and semiotic weight into sociology and art.