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.


Unknown said...

I am wondering if repetition can be something that we are striving toward as well. Perhaps there was a time when I was very confident or content, and I am aware of that moment. I am constantly trying to repeat that state of existence while fully acknowledging that to copy it is impossible the moment its over. The most confident I have ever been was when I was guiding a friend through a problem mushroom trip, that moment is gone, but I can strive to be that same person who confidently guided another person toward a more positive experience.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Anthony: First, thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment. I appreciate it enormously....And, jeez, that's a fantastic question. I think there are two ways to come at it (there are probably more):

1. In your scenario, I don't think you want to repeat: you want to return. It's backwards looking. Which is not a bad thing! I mean it's backwards structurally: you don't want to move into a new space; you don't want to differentiate; you want to create the same. In this case, repetition is not the ideal; that beautiful way of being in that moment is the ideal.

But I do think there is a way to seek a repetition of it: How can you go like that all these years later (or days later; that doesn't matter)? What would it mean to do it, be it, anew?

2. For me, repetition as a function is an ideal behavior (as distinct from trying to repeat one particular event). That is, I usually don't want to slip into habit — which is copying, not repeating. It's doing the behavior but not inhabiting it, living through it. So when I eat breakfast, get ready for bed, brush my teeth, I seek not to just do it out of habit, asleep at the wheel. I want to repeat it: to decide anew to brush my teeth every night — because it feels good and right. Again! This is a challenge I give myself every day (well, maybe not every day): to experience the same things anew.

I think the risk is in making anything an ideal as ideals are outside of experience, something we use to judge ourselves.

I address your question at all?? And thanks again.

Unknown said...

@ Anthony

Anthony, I cannot be as generous as Daniel. No, it is a weakness of thinking and existing that causes one to desire a-return-to. Daniel has the right of it. Your statement is a backwards-looking-to or a holding-on-to with out letting go so no growth occurs. This should not be done. We cannot hold onto. We are beings in time. But even if time were something that could be traveled. Then, it could have a destination. Say your moment was that destination. A time destination. It would be a point not an unfolding. Points have a fixity about them. They do not change and have no flux. Thus, to desire this return-to is not proper thinking. It says, "I did not get enough of that. I will seek to have the EXACT thing again and again until I am full." But this is not possible.

In truth, each moment should cause this fullness feeling. I have had enough of that exact moment I want repetition. RepItion. REpition. These are not to be though of as Echos for sure. Though Pink Floyd does come to mind. No! This is a moving forward. Think of a rain barrel that is full and the rain is still coming down. There are more rain barrels out there and they all catch the rain. Each drop is unique but the same. The rain that fell on Friedrich Nietzsche's head is not the rain that fell on my head, though it could be made from the exact same water. AND I DO MEAN EXACT. It is theoretically possible that the exact molecules formed the rain drop that fell on both of our heads, still they would be different drops. A repetition, yes, but a copy? No!

@ Daniel: I enjoy habit. It allows my body to go off and do stuff while my mind is elsewhere. I remember driving one time from California to Texas on my motorcycle. On that trip, my body took over while my mind slipped away and did its thing. It happened in Arizona. I know this because the last place I remember was in Arizona and when my mind finally returned I was in Utah on I-70. That is 7hrs out of the way. I meant to stay on I-40, but here I was on I-70. Habit let my body drive so I could get on with whatever I was doing. Sadly, I missed out on that whole stretch of road. Maybe, my body will take me there again someday. Maybe, I can repeat the trip.

@ Both I would suggest dropping the concept of the IDEAL. There is no ideal. Everything is ideal unto itself. It is as it is. Perfect always.

Lastly, F*** Plato.

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