BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 10 SEP 03
Featured in
Issue 77

Eternal Return

The philosophy of repetition

BY Brian Dillon in Opinion | 10 SEP 03

When Wire's Colin Newman introduced the swift svelte stab of '12XU' with these words (on their 1977 début album Pink Flag), he doubtless intended a sardonic swipe at the so quickly sublimated, normalized expectations of a Punk audience already willing to hear the shock of the new parlayed into fresh orthodoxy; already favouring the recognizable classic over the fractured innovation that was ostensibly Punk's point. If the song itself, with its faux guttersnipe delivery and mad dash to the 1 minute, 55 seconds mark, was a knowing parody of expected Punk moves, the intro was a neat rejoinder to the audience's hankering for newly canonized favourites: in short, for repetition.

When the band performed Pink Flag once more at London's Barbican Centre earlier this year, and Newman duly delivered the pointed preface to '12XU' right on cue, it was doubly difficult to know just what manner of repetition was being canvassed 26 years on. Here it was again. Again: though not quite; now laden with the weight of a nostalgia that threatened to consign the whole performance to the status of mere heritage event; yet also, somehow, in its uncannily accurate reanimation of a dead time, quiveringly and weirdly alive.

Such is the nature of repetition. On the one hand, there is nothing so predictable, so tiresomely unwelcome, as the ideal copy: it is a marker of a merely traditional, conventional desire for consistency, a loyalty to a past that, repetition assures us, has never really gone away. Repetition, as some of our most lingering modern cultural beliefs inform us, is nothing but a serial disorder: a compulsion equally tragic and pathological, so the argument goes, in both its contemporary manifestation as revival or nostalgia and in its classic form as cultural continuity, the way 'we' do things. On one reading, repetition is a sort of endlessly reflected dementia: echopraxia (the thoughtless and meaningless repetition of the actions or movements of others) or echolalia (imitation of speech).

But repetition is also the indispensable condition for all kinds of cultural values: from a coherent sense of a self that we carry from one moment to another, to the notion of scientific truth. How valid would an experiment be if it could never be repeated? What would a human history look like that was incapable of discerning, in the tumult of events, surprises and cataclysmic upheavals, some strand of repetition? In fact, at precisely those moments when history seems to convulse in the agony of innovation and renewal, repetition is not far away. The very word 'revolution' implies a movement of return, a spectral rehearsal of what has gone before that, so the revolutionary believes, can be made to live again. Yet the repetition is never quite the perfect restaging of the past that its instigators envisaged: the French Revolution may have imagined itself remaking the ancient history of Rome, but an unpredictable element, an ineluctable difference, intervened. Likewise the coup of 1851, a travesty of Napoleon Bonaparte's 55 years earlier, inspired Karl Marx to write famously: 'all great events and historical personages occur, as it were, twice - the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.'

If Marx was the first great political thinker of the ambiguous energies of repetition, Søren Kierkegaard was its torturedly private, intimate adherent. In Repetition (1843) - a bizarre, pseudonymous work in which Kierkegaard's narrating persona, Constantin Constantius (even his name is a repetition), engages in ironic correspondence on the possibility of true repetition with a lovelorn, melancholic young man - he conjures up the possibility of a pure and total repetition. Repetition, says Kierkegaard, is not the same as remembering: where recollection is in thrall to what it has lost (and can only ever experience it as lost), repetition is dedicated to the perfect rehearsal of the past, to experiencing one's whole life as a story that has already been told.

Constantius travels to Berlin, hoping to re-enact an earlier visit. But the repetition fails: his hotel room is subtly different, the coffee in a local restaurant lacks the exact quality it had before, and, even worse, when he returns home his servant has rearranged the furniture, dispelling even the reliable repetition of home. The repeated experience, it turns out, is always something different, and this, in fact, is its very value for Kierkegaard. Repetition, paradoxically, is always new: 'the dialectic or repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been - otherwise it could not be repeated - but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into something new.' 1 Even if Constantius' Berlin sojourn had managed to recapture every detail of his earlier stay, from the perspective of Kierkegaardian repetition everything would still have been different.

Here then is repetition's double nature: it names both an endlessly predictable recurrence (the relentless crawl to infinity that is the experience of boredom, for example; or the equally unreachable horizon of obsession) and a ceaselessly renewable starting-point (the repetition that results from forgetting: at its most extreme, a neurological catastrophe that plunges the brain-damaged or demented patient into a lifetime of repetition). Repetition, as Gilles Deleuze wrote, has both its tragic and its comic aspects: nothing is more appalling, and at the same time ludicrous, than the individual condemned to the same action over and over again. But repetition, says Deleuze, is also a kind of freedom: without its regular framing and punctuating insistence we would never be able to experience difference, to relish the new, at all. In the simple repetition of a clock's ticking is already the possibility of movement, of a narrative (we hear the actual and meaningless 'tick, tick' as 'tick, tock': a tiny story). In the repetition of rhyme we hear something new, experience the words of a poem afresh, just as much as we discern their similarity. Everywhere, supposedly uniform repetition is marked by the instability of difference: 'modern life is such that, confronted with the most mechanical, the most stereotypical repetitions, inside and outside ourselves, we endlessly extract from them little differences, variations and modifications.' 2

We need to listen, says Deleuze, to these differences (just as we need to attend to the repetitions inherent in apparent chaos): we find in them a new economy of thought, experience and aesthetic expression. The enemy of repetition's difference is the order of mere representation: a mode of thinking that tries to exchange one thing for another, to make one thing mean another, according to an essentially capitalist logic of equivalence and exchange. Repetition undoes representation with the twin weapons of theft and the gift: it's only by stealing, or giving unconditionally, that we enter into the realm of true repetition, where the same and the different overlap without asking anything of each other.

Deleuze imagines an aesthetics of repetition, and 20th-century art responds with a name: Warhol. But not the Warhol of the arguably belated insight into the inherently commodified, reproducible nature of the work of art (when all is said and done, still a Romantic, if ironized, insight). A Deleuzian Warhol would be something else: the Warhol of a pure repetition that turns out to be a startling difference. The Warhol who wonders, as he wanders repetitively 'from A to B and back again', at a comedian who says the same thing every night: 'but then I realized what's the difference, because you're always repeating your same things anyway.' The serial movie-watching Warhol for whom repetition, not surprise, is the point, and is then surprised to find that repetition is the surprise: 'what makes a movie fast is when you see it, and then when you see it a second time it goes really fast. If you really want to suffer, go see something and then go see it again. You'll see that your suffering goes by quicker the second time.' 3

Repetition and difference: this is, after all, precisely the historical problem of the avant-garde (hence decades of endlessly repetitive theorizing: how to be avant-garde again?). For every Modernist evocation of innovation (Ezra Pound: 'make it new') and every Postmodernist embrace of the copy, there have been those who recognized the difference that repetition makes. Gertrude Stein, whose prose 'portraits' of the likes of Picasso and Hemingway were not representations but, she claimed, repetitions, is the missing link between Marx and Warhol: between tragedy turning to farce and finding the tragedy in the comedy of the modern image. She came to the ultimate repetition of her most famous statement - 'a rose is a rose is a rose' - through listening to her aged, half-deaf aunts repeating themselves endlessly, their conversations spiralling into comfortable confusion. 'The succeeding and failing', she wrote repetitively, 'is what makes the repetition, not the moment to moment emphasizing that makes the repetition.' Somewhere in that statement too are Samuel Beckett's narrators ('Try again. Fail again. Fail better.'), doling out their collections of stones in endless series, or giving up the narrative ghost only to start again, cursed with hope.

For all the avant-garde's fetishization of repetition, there is still something inherently reprehensible about the blank embrace of echo, reflection, the merest multiplication of instances of the same (even if the same comes with lofty philosophical justifications of its own difference). Repetition still scandalizes - with its seamless, frictionless glide into the flat distance - all our notions of originality, innovation and authenticity. How often do connoisseurs of repetition justify apparent monotony by appeal to actual (simply misheard, badly intuited) variety? Especially in music, where one person's dumb, dull, distinction-free repetition is another's endless plane of minutely unfolding, beautiful possibilities. As if the purest repetition would be in the end inseparable from the purest stupidity; as if we can't quite believe anybody could actually find something in what is after all just one damn thing after another. Perhaps we only believe in repetition (as something interesting, engaging, even moving) by claiming that it's not really repetition at all. Which is in turn a way of claiming that our lives - all our habits, routines, obsessions, mistakes unrecognized and patterns unbroken - are really, despite all evidence to the contrary, not repetitive. And so we watch, listen, read and live, all the time intoning the same mantra. There is repetition. There is no repetition. Repeat to fade ...

1. Søren Kierkegaard, Fear and Trembling, Repetition, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1983, p. 149.
2. Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans. Paul Patton, Athlone Press, London, 1994, p. xix.
3. Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (From A to B and Back Again), Harcourt Brace, New York, 1975, p. 116.

Brian Dillon is professor of creative writing at Queen Mary University of London, UK. Suppose a Sentence (Fitzcarraldo Editions/New York Review Books) will be published in September 2020. He lives in London.