Repetition, Again

Found this great image from a blog post entitled, "Slow Reading Deleuze's DR." This is the opening line: "It took me nine or ten months to make it (slowly) through the introduction to Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. Will it take me a year or two to finish the first proper chapter? We'll see."
I love this. Read more here >

I remember when I first read Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition. It was one of the more intellectually humbling experiences of my life: I couldn't understand a word. I was in a small grad seminar lead by my great teacher and mentor, Felipe Gutterriez. There were about 10 of us including my excellent friend, the poet qua sophist, Lohren Green. We both fancied ourselves pretty smart guys, like we could understand anything — an erroneous feeling, clearly; a delusion, for sure; hubris, indubitably. We couldn't make heads or tails of this damn book.

The thing I kept coming back to, the thing that nagged at me, was: Why repetition? How did Deleuze come upon this word, this idea, this operation? As an avid reader of Kierkegaard, I felt the same about his book entitled, yes, Repetition. What the heck was he talking about? Why repetition? I could grasp why Kierkegaard had a book on irony, on dread, on love, on the stages on life's way. But why repetition?

Deleuze's book opens like this: "Repetition is not generality." Huh? What? From the get go, I was stymied. Who thought it was generality? To whom is he talking? The book continues: "Repetition and generality must be distinguished in several ways. Every formula which implies their confusion is regrettable..." Oy vey: I was completely disoriented. He's using imperatives and declarations, referring to existing formula, as if we've already been talking, as if the conversation has already begun — only it feels like I missed the part where we began.

How'd I get here? Why am I here? The sensation is uncanny: I am being spoken to in this familiar way and yet I have no idea what's happening. This leaves me in a very strange position. I cannot have mastery of this subject, of this playing field; there is no balcony from which to gain view of the land, no preface which frames the discussion and orients me, as reader, about what I'm reading. To read the book — in fact, to read any Deleuze book — is to join a conversation that's already in progress.

Such is the logic and operation of repetition. It refuses any origin or destination; it inaugurates a trajectory, or trajectories, of becoming — not becoming anything, just becoming.

After that initial experience with Deleuze's difficult book, after what would be years of confusion and self-doubt, repetition became an integral part of my way of going. I can no longer think without the concept of repetition. It took me up and remade me, reconfigured me, redistributed me until I was not quite me but rather was me again, me anew, me reborn: repetition forged a repetition of me.

So when I find myself talking about some of my favorite philosophers, favorite ideas, repetition inevitably comes up. And, just as inevitably, my interlocutor is as befuddled as I was in that seminar 22 years ago. Only the person to whom I'm talking isn't a grad student so, well, her confusion is amplified: What the heck are you talking about?

Confusion might be the wrong word in that it suggests some orientation that has been temporarily dismantled when, in fact, there never was any orientation. The word repetition comes to her, comes to any layman, like an alien. What is this? Why is this? How is this? It's so different, so utterly alien, that it becomes silly, a piece of conceptual trash, easy to turn away from. As a grad student studying 20th century French philosophy, it was my job to understand this book. For anyone else, the drive is, well, less driven. And so I find myself in the position of trying to explain repetition — a pleasurable, if difficult, proposition.

I've tried before (almost exactly 7 years ego. Egad!). I used this fantastic David Shrigley cartoon:

Here I go again, repeating my explanation of repetition.

I think the best way to explain repetition is through identity — the identity of anything but I'll focus on identity of me (yes yes, such is my narcissism).

There I am. Who am I? What defines my identity? Is there a true self? If so, which self would this be — the baby screaming for milk? The confused toddler poking a pile of dog shit with a stick? The father confused and anxious looking at his newborn child? The hippie at a Dead show lost in Dionysian revelry? What ties all these different selves together? Is it one thing?

Without the concept — or, to be pedantic, the operation — of repetition, we might say: Yes, there is a deep self, a true self, that stays the same from birth to death. Everything else is an expression that is closer to or farther from that true self.

But then we're in an odd position of saying that sometimes we're not ourselves — which is odd for how can you not be yourself when you are always yourself? Which means we can skirt certain accountability: That guy who screamed at you wasn't me! And that we're constantly judging ourselves: This ecstatic dancing feels great....but I'm not sure it's really me.

The concept of a true self, then, creates a relationship to the self that can be uncomfortable if not downright unsavory. For instance, extend it to a true American, a true man, a true wife and we begin to see the violence inherent to such a notion of the true self: it becomes a set standard by which we judge deviations.

But it's absurd to say I have no self at all. Surely, I have some continuity. I have this scar in my finger from when I cut myself at camp when I was seven. I have all these memories, these allergies, this relationships to the world: I like chicken salad but not with raisins; that's how I drive to Davis, California and, once on the freeway, how I change lanes; this is how I tie shoes, brush teeth, cook ramen. Which is to say, there is no absolutely new me at every moment; I bring everything that's ever happened to me with me. (Kierkegaard writes: "Repetition and recollection are the same movement, except in opposite directions, for what is recollected has been, is repeated backward." Think about that one for a while!)

And yet I have some freedom from those memories, from that continuity. I am not predetermined. I may have loved shrimp tempura but now it wields apocalyptic intestinal mayhem. So which is the true me?

Different me's. What ties them all together? Is there a master term? Or do they have internal relationships that vary?

Is there a master term that sits above all these version of me, an Ideal Daniel? What does he look like? What foods does he like? What does he think and feel? And who decided which Daniel is the Ideal Daniel? How did they decide? When did they decide? And if there is no Ideal Daniel, no arbiter of who I really am, what ties all these different versions of me together?

Then again, do they need to be tied together? Well, legally, the state sure wants there to be some continuity. And my friends appreciate it. My name kind of ties them all together. Then again, I changed my name when I was 16 — I was born Daniel Schlosser so most of these pictures are pictures of him. "Daniel" is consistent but lots of people are tied together with that name so, in the above montage, there'd be other Daniels (but let me ask you: How many Daniels are in the above pictures? One? Six? Four? How do you decide?).

So no true self and no absolute different self moment to moment: so what and where are the threads that stitch this identity together? What links these selves, these different moments and modes, together. If, like all things, I am a creature in flux, what keeps me from dissipating into the ether as so many specks of dust?

From the young cute me to the bar mitzvah me to Jewfro me to the pudgy bald me to the skinny serious me: the connections are internal to those different me's in that they don't make a detour through an Ideal Me. Rather, the movement happens between the different me's. The terms of the links change— sometimes it's voice or look; other times, it's phrasing or attitude. You tell me. In any case, they don't all connect through an Ideal Me; they connect in different ways at different times to create a me that is both the same and different. They are all repetitions of me!

But doesn't repetition mean the same thing over and over, the same self over and over?

Fortunately, I changed over time. All things change over time. For instance, now I have no hair.

Well, no. That is one of Deleuze's deft moves: if it were the same me, I'd be the same so there'd be no reason to invoke repetition: there would just be one me. Repetition is temporal and hence forges difference in its very operation — a bigger nose, curly hair, no hair, a different posture.

From Jewfro to bald: we are creatures of and in flux. How, then, do we remain ourselves?

Parenthood is such an explicit act of repetition. Here is me and me again in the form of my son. The repetition marks continuity as much as it marks discontinuity.  What links my son to me? A glimmer of skin tone, a curl of hair, an out turned foot, a smile, a sense of humor: what ties us together is not as much an external link as an internal one. That is repetition.

Breeding — or, rather, all parenting as repetition need not be only a passing of DNA — is a clear form of repetition.
There's me and not me.

When I taught writing, an assignment I'd give is to have the students write something in the style of an author we'd just read, say, Nietzsche. But what would count as writing something in that style? Talking about the same kinds of things? What about discussing totally opposed things but in the same rhythm and tone?  

My point is this: to repeat something is not to hold yourself accountable to an external law but to continue one trajectory or another. So perhaps a student writes about the beauty of Christian faith — but using Nietzsche's adamant reversals. Those would be one mode of repeating Nietzsche. But there are others. You could write an expository essay, something Nietzsche never did, fleshing out Nietzsche's conception of the will to power — a repetition of another sort. One takes up his form but not his content; the other takes up his content but not his form. Both are repetitions.

A thing is run through with many other things. My self is a momentary nexus of trajectories — needy lover, momma's boy, aggressive intellectual, stoner sage, big nose, skinny body, sometimes a big belly. A repetition of me could follow one or a combination of many of these trajectories in order to continue that style: in order to repeat me.

Repetition, then, is a way to conceive of identity in all of its multiplicity. It lets us think identity without an anchor, without a truth: identity as relentless becoming. Repetition is an operation, a doing that takes up a mode of going and moves it, moves with it, moves as it. It doesn't adhere to an external law; it moves from the inside out.

(Just staying on the outside would be copying; to copy something is do that thing but not do it anew, not move it anywhere, not introduce difference. Copying is opposed to repetition. For instance, there are times I say something and I feel like my brother; I'm not copying him — I sometimes do that if I'm telling a story and impersonating him. No, I'm talking about a certain mannerism or phrasing in which I become him, I live him from my inside out: I repeat him.)

Thinking repetition introduces a certain vertigo. It is the disorientation I experienced when I first read Deleuze's book, coming into a conversation that's already happening. In repetition, there is no linear movement, no progressive path from an origin point to death. Repetition moves forwards and backwards (and sideways and every which way). Remember: there is no origin, no absolute beginning point, no fixed point to hold onto. And there's no destination, no "on my way" there. With no anchor, we are in constant free fall. Or, rather, we are in outer space as there is no clear up and down.
We happen in the middle. I am already a repetition of my parents, my brother (hear us talk and you'll know immediately what I mean), of the concept of man, father, Jew, nudge. I am constantly taking up different pieces of the world and repeating them as me. The repetition that is me is my repetition of the world. My birth happens in the middle of a conversation; my life extends this conversation this way and that.

So why repetition? Why talk about it? Because it lets us think identity without a true identity. It lets us be. (Or lets us become.) It lets all the weird me's still be me! It lets us think a more generous way of being in the world, a way to exist without tethering ourselves to truth — while not disintegrating, either. It is a beautiful figure that inaugurates, allows, and facilitates more beautiful thought. And more beautiful, if disorienting, ways of going.


Posture, Or the Calculus of Standing With the World

My ridiculous posture reveals — betrays — my stance towards the world. For such is posture: it is an ethics, a world view.

A certain man, when younger, is uncomfortable in his skin. He's angry — at his parents for what he considers their cruelty, his teachers for their demanding incompetence, at the whole freakin' world for everything from the drinking age to the insane distribution of federal tax monies (it's rare to be able to use the plural of money; I seize every opportunity). It's as if there's a conspiracy that runs from his DNA, which gave him this absurd nose and even more absurd body, all the way through the federal government which forces him to register for the draft so he can pay for his education, a state sanctioned extortion. So when he walks around, he walks with a furrowed brow, a craning neck, slumped shoulders, and a will to whine — a posture of cowering poised to lash out.

Decades later, he sees the world a bit differently. There's incompetence, sure, and plenty of violence in and out of households. The government's distribution of monies hasn't changed one iota from Nixon to Trump. It may be a conspiracy, he now believes, but it's a conspiracy of dunces. And so rather than a furrowed brow and slumped shoulders, he now walks with greater ease. Sure, his shoulders are not a dancer's. But they are not slumped in rejection; they're slouched with world weary sloth.

A world view is a posture and a posture, a world view.  To exist in the world is to stand towards other things — people, cars and phones, traffic, towards work and romance, men and women and kids, towards trees, bees, birds, and dogs, towards death. I flinch when a mosquito buzzes my ear; I lean in when talking to this person in this mood, lean back when talking to this other person in this other mood. At a Pixies show, I stand like this; at a Lil Uzi Vert show, I might stand like that. And in all circumstances, I am navigating and negotiating this body of mine — this skinny, perpetually hunched, and decaying bag of blood and organs.

Which is to say, posture marks this complex intersection of the material and conceptual worlds, a juncture of our body, the bodies of those around us, the ideas we have in our head, and what we believe it means to be a person in the world. Posture is not fixed in place. Nor is it totally fluid. We are always shifting how we stand based on any number of factors — perhaps an infinite number of factors — from the crick in a knee to the fact that in 1945 we completely destroyed a city with one bomb. (Look at art, read books, listen to music pre- and post-bomb; there is a conspicuous difference, a new limit term to reckon which creates different ways of standing in the world. Would Burroughs' cut ups be possible before the bomb?).

There is such an obvious correlation between mood and physical stance. When I feel shitty, I feel shit upon. And so I duck my head, scowl, respond with a too-ready nay. You can see it by the way I walk or enter a room — a little reticent, a little tense, ready to strike. Other times, when feeling content and calm, I walk with sense of the magnanimous, enter the social with a hearty openness. I literally and metaphorically hold myself differently.

Posture is a stance that comes from that impossible calculus of body, breeding, one's conception of the world, and one's place in said world. Surely, a 19 year old African-American man and I have different postures in different neighborhoods as our bodies mean different things depending on the context. The gazes and economies in which we participate shape how we hold ourselves. Women know this well: a certain posture at a certain time can be the difference between life and death (and any number of other exchanges from the awkward and uncomfortable to the romantic and erotic).

Our very way of holding ourselves, of comporting ourselves, is inflected by those around us — say, a big dog or a hunky guy — as well as by our perception of what's around us but not visible. We believe the world is such-and-such a place based on information that's not present, namely, the "news" and things you've been taught in school and at home. Posture is an ethical stance, a way of standing towards others. 

Sometimes, the correlation between posture and circumstance is obvious: it's raining so I bend my neck and duck my head. Most of the time, the correlation is nebulous: I think this neighborhood is "unsafe" because I heard a story about it once when I was a kid — so when I walk there, I am heads down but alert (because that's my conception of being "safe"). Or I think the world is vicious and cruel due to reading a certain paper-qua-snuff film every morning and so I carry myself with knowing anger everywhere I g (see the Facebook feeds of all-too-familiar piety and angst).

Bands are a great way to think about posture. Every band performs — puts on, lives in, and enacts — a world view. Take the Sex Pistols and the Grateful Dead. These two postures, like all postures, exceed physicality. To stand towards the world in such a manner is to assume the world is such a place which demands that they stand this way.

I saw Poi Dog Pondering at the TLA in Philly in 1990. This is not irrelevant. 

What's so complex about all this is that there are so many ways of standing towards the world. Some people really go all in one way or another. Think of punks and Deadheads. They really double down on one posture! Me, I get the Sex Pistols' anger. I also dig the Dead's noodling, Poi Dog Pondering's fruity fun, My Bloody Valentine's morose ambience. I get The Smiths dramatic plaintive; Die Antwoord's playful obscenity; Jethro Tull's agricultural Renaissance prog rock. I get early Dylan; I get rock Dylan; I get Christian Dylan which makes many I know recoil. A posture, then, of postures.

Comedians, too. In fact, comedians might be better in that it's just one body with a distinct physical posture we get to focus on. Think of Chris Rock, his pacing, his delivery, the way he stops to smile that mischievous smile. Now think of Louis CK's slumped shtick. Then Steven Wrights surreal deadpan absurdity. Then Larry David's broad gesturing self-deprecation, George Carlin's slumped curmudgeon, Dave Chappelle's hunched laughing with you.

O, the ways we come to consider the world so as to hold ourselves this way or that! It's staggering! The very way I stand in the world, stand towards myself and others, is informed and inflected by how I imagine a world I don't see but have to believe exists.

For me, maturity means recognizing the factors that have informed, and continue to inform, my posture — and then adjusting accordingly. I thought the world was like this. But it's not! I thought this is what I was in the world. But it's not! I'm this other thing entirely! Which shifts how I stand. Wisdom means reckoning the way I hold myself in the world in every sense, physically and metaphysically. One might say that it's matter of aligning one's bodily stance with one's world view. Alignment, in this sense, is not as much a matter of spine, hips, and head but of ethics, gait, and world view.

What, then, of yoga? Yoga, we might believe, is all about posture, the asanas. In yoga, you mindfully — which is a funny word to use as many yogis I know speak of being free of the mind, but that's for another time — so, in yoga, you consciously try on different postures, even absurd postures, postures you'd never, ever find yourself in. Many no doubt do this because it helps their body, a kind of physical therapy — this pose for a bad hip, this other for a funky back.

But what interests me about yoga is that it doesn't address a body out of context. On the contrary, it is always a question of the body in the world — albeit a world with an infinite horizon. That is to say, whereas my understanding of Pilates is that it addresses the posture of the body free of any conception of the world, a body qua body — whatever that is — yoga is distinctly about one's posture as a living, breathing cosmic being. If Pilates imagines alignment beginning at the feet and ending at the head, yoga imagines alignment beginning at the earth and ending at the infinite cosmic horizon — and the body is just an inflection of that flowing line. Which is to say, yoga addresses one's posture towards the universe. Which, one believes, inflects posture towards other people. (Although this is not yoga's explicit concern and a point in which it seems more or less indifferent: for all the people practicing yoga in the world, there are still so many assholes. This is not the fault of yoga. I'm just pointing out that yoga is not interested in a social body but in a cosmic body.)

And so it has you try on all these different postures. Ok, so now pretend you're a corpse. Now, a baby. Now stand on your head. Then slowly go backwards until you're in some kind of bridge. All of this, mind you, not just to stretch the back, hips, or hamstrings but to see how you feel. Because how you stand in the world is how you stand in the world. How do you go when your foot is behind your head? How do you go, how does the world go, when you're supine?

Yoga, it seems to me, recontextualizes physical posture by having you address a different horizon. Rather than assuming your same old posture of you watching TV, working at the computer, talking to your lover, boss, mother, yoga has you assume all kinds of poses as you address the cosmos. Its primacy focus is not how you go in the social. Rather, it teaches you different postures of standing towards the universe which might have you stand in and towards the social differently.

This is all to say that we don't just stand in the world. We comport ourselves. Our posture is always already a movement, a mode of address, an ethics, a self-relation, a way to engage the world.