10.30.2016

NASCAR is Life: On Deleuze, Repetition, & Copying



I enjoy watching sports — some sports, sometimes. But like most people I know, including sports fans, I was always confused by NASCAR. What, where, and how exactly is the sport? The cars just go round and around, round and around. And that's when it dawned on me: NASCAR is the exemplary sport, the exemplary event. NASCAR is life.

Yes, the cars go round and round. But that is precisely the challenge! To repeat each turn, each lap, anew! The Daytona 500 involves 200 laps. 200 laps! Holy shit! The demand on the drivers seems excruciating to me, even sublime — to heed this track, to be absolutely focused on each moment right here, right now, 200 times, all while going 200 miles per hour. My god!

Think about it for a second. You're hurtling around the track, dozens of other cars all around you, also going 200 miles an hour. Think how easy it'd be to lapse into a kind of daze, to go on autopilot, to just go through the motions as you go through lap 57, lap 94, lap 153. We all know that feeling.

But the demand of NASCAR is that you never go on autopilot. The demand is that that you take each turn — each acceleration, each downshift — as a live event, here and now, everything on the line. Your attention never wavers. You heed the moment as if for the first time with all the knowledge and experience of someone who's driven this lap thousands of times. In the words of the Buddhists of our American times, NASCAR demands mindfulness. Anything less and you lose.

Recently, I've been keenly aware of my aging. I see, sense, and feel the past everywhere I turn. The ghosts, which is to say the presence, of past selves are rearing their heads — and more. At times, I find myself stymied by it all. I'm overwhelmed with images and sensations of the past. And the gap between there and here seems grotesque, a dark and abysmal chasm. How did I get here? Where am I? What do I do with all this?

This is to say, as I go through the laps of my life, doing this and that, I am overcome with all the past laps and feel I can't go on. I can feel the existential plight of the NASCAR driver. I can see him just stopping, his car slowly coming to a halt mid-lap, the driver either weeping or staring off into space as cars veer and fly around him. Or perhaps confounded by his predicament of having to repeat another lap, he accelerates as fast as he can until he hits another car, loses control, runs into the railing, explodes and incinerates — anything to make this all feel fucking alive!!

Most of us experience this at some point amid the drone of the everyday and the harassment of modernity. Cooking, dishes, shopping, paying bills, dating, working, traffic, vacuuming: it's all so many laps, many more than 200. The only finish line is death. And many of us, myself included, imagine getting to that finish line a little faster, dreaming of the big sleep. Or, more commonly, we seek distraction — shopping, porn, Facebook, Tinder, Ambien, cocktails, "Game of Thrones".  Were we NASCAR drivers, we wouldn't last one season, not to mention one race.

And yet the NASCAR driver has a luxury we don't: the finish line is imminent and not absolute. He — with one exception, as far as I know, it is always he — only has to be absolutely mindful for those 200 laps. On the other hand, we have to me mindful 24/7; our finish line is unknown and could be decades away. We have to heed the now with no end in sight.

Deleuze, or at least my reading of Deleuze, distinguishes between copying and repeating. To repeat something is to initiate, discover, and inaugurate difference. To repeat is to differentiate, to forge this moment anew, even if if looks like every other moment. It's to drive the 14th, the 76th, the 152nd lap as if it were the first. It's to do the dishes again and anew, as if for the first time, to be present to the dish washing, to not just go through the motions as your mind wanders but to become dish washing as you dish wash.

To copy, meanwhile, is to go through the motions. It's to ape the gestures we know, even if trying to make them look and feel and seem new, to seem "authentic." It's to wash the dishes while we curse dish washing and think of all the TV we could be watching. (Note that this is often when we break a dish, stub a toe, bang our heads.) To copy is to drive lap 74 doing all the things that look and seem right but, somehow, aren't. You're not present, not aware, not actively creating that moment anew.

This happens with opinions all the time. We repeat things we believe we believe even when, sometimes, we're not even sure anymore if we believe them (pace Nicholson Baker). I know that there are plenty of ideas I've taken on from doing philosophy — the plenum, difference, calculus vs. geometry, rhizomes vs. trees — that I often regurgitate on reflex. I proffer them unthinkingly — or based on thinking I did ages ago. Sometimes, I even summon the gestures of fresh excitement, adding emphatics and gesticulations. This is copying.

But what complicates this neat distinction between repetition and copying is that often I do feel the idea anew — only it's not my belief in the idea that animates me but the mechanics of it. In explaining, say, rhizomes, the movements of the concept animate and choreograph my gestures. Is this copying? Or repeating? Or, more likely, is this the point at which the two can't be differentiated from each other?

Copying, often, is living death. It's to go through the gestures of living without actually living. On the other hand, copying is a survival mode, a version of what Nietzsche calls Russian fatalism — not moving so as to conserve energy. I, for one, have gone through long stretches of time when I try to keep still — socially and intellectually. Life becomes too much, the sublimity of time and death more than I can bear. The only way to survive is to stay still and copy, pretend I'm living, do the minimal to get through the day.

But this is what it is to be human! We copy! We don't just repeat ourselves, differentiating each moment anew; we copy ourselves. We say things we believe we believe; we do things we've always done. And we do it all without reckoning. This is not bad per se. This is to be alive, as well. At some point, as we drive our 78,653rd lap, we tune out, go on autopilot, call it in, glide, live without living. But this is living, too! Sometimes, it's the only way to live, to let life happen without being drowned.

I had an exchange with a former student recently about my book. "You're clearly on the same shtick as when I took your class which was 2007?" she wrote. The answer, of course, is yes. But part of writing that book was to shed some of those ideas so I could stop copying and begin new lines of inquiry. But I've also devoted the last eight years since teaching to repeating many of the ideas I proclaimed. This blog is dedicated to thinking through things I've thought through before but now I want to think through them again from the inside out, to see if and how they resonate, to see if and how I can repeat them, to see what shapes they'll take today. When successful, these blog posts, like my book, are repetitions.

This is where life happens: between and among copying and repeating. This is how we make our way — gliding at times, eyes and senses closed at times, beaming and emanating and flowering at times, surging at times, drifting at times. Sure, vitally creating the world with every gesture is exciting, noble, a calling worth heeding. But to drift is heroic, too.

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