Understanding Aspects of Deleuze's Repetition via an Episode of "Community"

Within the span of 21 minutes, we are presented with two forms of quotation. On the one hand, there's the Pulp Fiction themed surprise birthday party. On the other, it's Abed enacting My Dinner with Andre. Even these two films suggest a poignant juxtaposition: the quiet sincerity of Andre juxtaposed with the citational abandon of Quentin Tarantino.  But the episode — Season 2, Episode 19, entitled, "Critical Film Studies" — deftly shifts the very terms of this juxtaposition.

It's Abed's birthday. He's meeting Jeff at a restaurant for dinner and it's Jeff's job to take Abed to the surprise party the group has organized for their pop culture obsessed friend.

But Jeff is thrown for a loop. The restaurant — Abed's suggestion — is fancy. And then Abed shows up not acting like his usual Asperger's, pop culture referencing boyish self. In fact, he seems normal, even mature, socially engaged, articulate. The two end up staying at the restaurant as their conversation becomes increasingly intense and personal.

Then, towards the end of their dinner, Jeff has a realization. Abed hasn't changed his pop culture obsessed ways — he's enacting the film, My Dinner with Andre. Which pisses Jeff off: just when he thought Abed was being "real," it seems like it's just one more pop cultural reference.

We seem to have two examples of people pretending to be what they're not — one, Abed playing Andre; the other, the Pulp Fiction-attired group. And yet not all citation is equal; not all pretending is in fact pretending. The two modes here could not be more different.

The friends dressed up as Pulp Fiction remain very much themselves. They stay true, as it were, to their characters — Britta is Britta, Troy is Troy, Chang is Chang. The only thing different about them is their costumes. It's solely an external difference, a shift of veneer. 

The group references Pulp Fiction but remain themselves: they copy rather than repeat.
But Abed becomes a fundamentally different person. He's not just play acting at Andre. He has become other.

Abed, meanwhile, doesn't just dress like Andre. In repeating that film, he becomes something new: Abed-Andre.
And this is the difference between copying and repeating. When you copy, you say the right things, dress the right way. But your mode of operating doesn't change. You may dress as Mia Wallace but you still make sense of the world like Britta.

But when you repeat, you take on the way of another and, in so doing, become something different. You don't just say the right things. You actually make sense of the world differently. Look at Abed: everything about him is different.

He's not just quoting someone else's lines, as if the real Abed existed below or within. He's not pretending to be Andre. But nor has he become Andre per se (whatever that would mean). He's repeating Andre via his own metabolism, creating something new, what Deleuze might call a nuptial: Andre-Abed.

We tend to think about repetition as doing the same thing over and over. But, for Deleuze (and for Kierkegaard), repetition is forward movement, a process of surging ahead differently. If you were the same, there'd be no movement. This changes the very way we think about identity. Rather than being this fixed thing, we are creatures who repeat ourselves (hopefully) — not by doing the same thing over and over but by picking ourselves up and dancing ourselves forward. We are ever anew in the becoming we are.

With repetition, identity is nomadic: always somewhere different, always home.

In some sense, this seems kind of obvious. I am a different person today than I was when I was 2, 8, 16, 28, 34. And yet I am not absolutely new. I'm still me. But what I am is this process of change. The name Deleuze gives this process is repetition. This is the beautiful delirium, the uncanny, at the heart of being: I am ever familiar and unfamiliar, ever anew while still being me (until I am not — I may change so radically as to no longer be me in which case I would no longer be repeating). When I repeat myself — or when I repeat My Dinner with Andre — I don't stay the same. On the contrary, I become something new. 

This is clearly a far cry from dressing up as Mia Wallace. That's just a matter of putting on a costume. There is no internal movement, no  "secret vibration which animates it, a more profound internal repetition within the singular" (see Deleuze's Difference and Repetition). Abed is inside Andre and Andre is inside Abed. It's not that Abed becomes Andre — if he did, we'd see Andre, not Abed. No, in repeating Andre, Abed becomes something new: Abed-Andre.

Consider the cover song. The bar band playing a faithful rendition of The Stones' "Satisfaction" copies. Devo doing "Satisfaction" repeats: it is "Satisfaction" again and anew. This is the difference between copying and repeating. To repeat something is to inhabit from the inside and, in the process, to create something new. (Or take Tarantino. He "steals" from a breadth of films from Leone and Godard to B-films I've never heard of and, in the process, creates his own style.)

"Community" mocks the very will to authenticity as the avowed reality of My Dinner with Andre becomes a repetition. Meanwhile, the letter of authenticity for a briefcase used in Pulp Fiction — a gift for Abed — goes up in flames.

Echoing Deleuze, "Community" tells us that nothing is true in and of itself. We are all playing characters — all citing, referencing, stealing, quoting. After all, none of our words are "our" words; all the lines we speak are, in some sense, borrowed. There is no true authenticity. But that doesn't mean all citation is created equally. Some copy. The trick is to repeat. 

At the end of the episode, Jeff realizes that reference — quotation, citation — is how Abed becomes himself. When Britta dresses as Mia Wallace, there is no internal movement. Nothing has changed: she's still Britta. But when Abed plays Andre, he takes up aspects of Andre into himself and becomes something new, something different.  She copies. He repeats. 


Jesse Furgurson said...

Cool. Coolcoolcool, in fact.

This is among a precious handful of TV episodes that pretty much note-perfectly address/encapsulate/embody a complex philosophical question. All due respect to the HBO holy texts, but the only other episodes that pull this off that are coming to mind are from Buffy the Fuggin Vampire Slayer.

Shame Community's being written by less brilliant and probably more psychologically healthy people now.

Daniel Coffeen said...

In case it wasn't obvious, I had a hard time writing this piece (it's a bit awkward, isn't it?). I'm happy writing critiques of things but using them as examples of other things throws me off. But this one was so perfect I felt compelled.

There is a larger argument to be made about Community — namely, about the nature of community and the role of what they call "meta" but is, in fact, constitutive.

I'm just not quite in love with the show the way I am with — here it comes — Deadwood or The Wire. Frankly, I just don't know it, as well, mostly due to the annoying commercials on Hulu.

Always liked Buffy.

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