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 2. What is repetition?


Yi-Jinkyung, Professor

Seoul National University of Technology


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Repetition is the act or an instance of repeating. Rather it is something grasped as being repeated or repeating. For example, the clock sound repeats ‘tick-tack tick-tack,’ sunrise repeats every morning, and the rainy season does too every summer. But the sun rises differently every morning, and the rainy season also comes differently every year. When we say something repeats, and even say ‘the same’ sun or ‘the same’ rainy season, it’s because we grasp it that way. The same is true of our words and actions. We repeat three meals every day and a similar walk each time, and call the same name every time we see our colleague. If this is the case, shouldn’t we say this is something not just grasped but also memorized? Oh, you do it without memorizing? That’s because it’s well memorized. The repetition of meals is due to the memory of the stomach, nice steps are owing to that of the leg, and the names you call or hear is thanks to the memory of the tongue and ears. The memories don't belong to the soul but the body, not the consciousness but the unconsciousness. We memorize without even realizing we memorize it.

Even though there exist only differences in the world, we grasp repetitions in them. The constellations return, the seasons come back, and birth and death repeat. The heartbeats return into the blood vessels, the reaction of the eyes to the light repeats, and the sound of music returns from the noise. Repetition occurs only when there’re the ‘soul’ and the ‘body’ that grasp. Why does the body or soul grasp repetition? Without it, the world would be chaos, and it would be difficult to live in chaos. From the grasped repetitions comes the cosmos.

If we go back a little more, we might have to put it the opposite way. When the perceptible stimuli of the light are repeated as opportunities to find food, the light-sensitive organs are developed. We call it ‘evolution.’ And the sense of taste is formed when a certain taste repeatedly gives pleasure. Sounds intriguing? Then you are now on the path of evolution when it comes to philosophy. This is the repetition of habit, that is, the repetition that forms the body or the repetition that shapes our present behavior.

After the repetition of habit, the repetition of memory awaits. Habit is also memory. However, it is the impulsive memory that responds immediately to stimuli, commonly called ‘reflex,’ This is the memory that does not call out the past to the present, that is, the memory of the present tense. When we say memory, it’s usually the memory of the next layer, that of the past tense; the memory of the movie I watched yesterday, the memory of a frequent visitor’s face, the memory of the lecture this semester, and that of the taste of my first Tom-Yum-Goong, etc. Among what I perceive now, only important ones are selected and moved on to the long-term memory. Such memories again permeate the perception. Therefore, even what we see for the first is usually seen ‘as the way we know.’ All the present perceptions are made according to the memories of the past, so it can be said the past is already permeated in the present. Of course, the present settles in the past along the path of memory.

Why do we memorize so laboriously? It’s for repetition among other reasons. We would like to eat what we remember as delicious again, listen to the lectures of instructors that we like again, and go meet someone we like again... Without this, we have to think about ‘what to do’ and ‘how to do’ every moment. And add to this memory is also for prediction; overeating will cause an upset stomach; attending a strict professor’s lecture will give a hard time; getting angry over trifles will make all your friends leave you, etc. In this regard, without memory life becomes very difficult, as shown by Shelby, the main character of the movie “Memento.”

 The survival of living things is possible when repetition is grasped in the chaos of infinite change. We live, in that way, in the cosmos made through repetition. The cosmos of space. the cosmos of life, and that of living. The habit of the individual body, the conventions of cultural groups, and even the spirit that seeks laws everywhere are all associated with the activity that grasps repetition and the activity that is repeated. We may say difference belongs to the ‘universe’ before we grasp it, whereas repetition belongs to the ‘world’ we made. In other words, difference belongs to the being itself, whereas repetition belongs to our ability that grasps and acts. To express somewhat eruditely, difference is in itself, whereas repetition is for itself.

There exist only differences. Therefore all the repetitions are indeed those of differences. The sun rises again every morning, but differently. The same dish of the same restaurant can never be the same, nor can the same lecture of the same instructor who just repeats the same lecture notes. However, we easily forget differences in the repetitions. When difference being repeated, we mistake the difference for ‘the identical,' or make it ‘be the same’ without even knowing it. We change the repetition of difference into the repetition without difference. The various rhythms of The Clash’s ‘London Calling’ that repeats, while being differentiated, are grasped in a rhythm pattern called ‘reggae,’ which again becomes a four-beat song. In fact, it’s easy and convenient. That’s why Deleuze emphasizes that repetition is the repetition of the difference, consequently repetition is another name for difference.

Repetition is an ability. To know is usually to apprehend the repetition and to live is to live through repetitions. Anyway, if there’s no difference in repetition, our perception stops making efforts. If no difference occurs, there’s no need for a new look or attention. No reason to spend energy on what we already know. That’s why it’s easy and convenient. On the other hand, searching for and grasping a certain difference in repetition requires energy as well as keen senses and attention. If we watch the same movie over and over again, it’s because we see something different each time we watch it. If we can’t find any difference anymore, no matter how much we like it, we probably won’t see it anymore. Monet repeatedly painted the pictures of the water lilies in the same place or those of Rouen Cathedral. That’s because he could sense the different light every time he saw it. “All Monet has is his eye,’’ said Cezanne. 'But what an amazing eye!' Consequently, it’s the difference in repetition that makes the repetition repeatable. The repetition without difference gets tired and it soon ‘dies’ of boredom. The repetition with difference can last forever.

There’s repetition that erases difference, repetition that saves difference, and repetition that makes difference in itself. For example, an experiment is a practice that must be repeated under strict control of the relationships among variables so that others can repeat it identically in other laboratories. It reduces the result to a single variable by removing the other variables that will cause differences in the result. On the other hand, an artist who tries to draw the same figure in different ways seeks to make a difference in repetition. All of Rembrandt's self-portraits are the pictures of ‘the same’ figure, but all different. Those who seek universality usually head towards repetition that erases difference, whereas those who try to see singularity aim at the difference that becomes different whenever they see it. Which side are you?

Those who pay attention to the difference in repetition and try to bring the invisible difference into repetition are those who try to bring the wind of space into the familiar world. They are those who try to bring the wind of the chaos into the cosmos called order. “when the wind full of space wears out our faces,”(Rilke) we live different lives with different faces. When the wind of space wears out our world, we live a different world. It’s the creation of different cosmos through the wind of chaos.

When Deleuze talks about the habitual synthesis and the synthesis by memory, followed by the synthesis that erases habit and memory, he aims to bring in this wind of dark from space. This is why Deleuze speaks about the time of ‘empty future’, or “time out of joint” that erases the present which the habit makes or the past which the memory makes. In Nietzsche’s way, it’s about trying to bring the active force of oblivion into life. The wind that wears out my face! Isn’t it scary? The ghost of oblivion out of joint! Don’t you feel like running away?

However, in Deleuzian philosophy, repetition is not a mere supporting role brought in to hand over the power to difference. repetition is not only an ability but also associated with an ethical choice called ‘eternal return.’ Sisyphus struggles to climb up with a rock on his back but falls down to end in failure over and over again. This repetition of failure is not just the fate of Sisyphus. Neither the repetition of boredom that we face when things become clichés even though efforts are exerted to bring in differences with all the strength nor the repetition of the bureaucratized system that returns to square one despite the effort to do differently is no different from that of Sisyphus either. As Nietzsche said, this is the fate that leads the noble to nihilism. Like Nietzsche, Deleuze also asks. Can you lift the rock with ‘Okay, once again!’ despite the repeated failures? Can you repeat beginning eternally with ‘Once again!’ regardless of the failure?

Whether it's revolution or love, the moment we calculate it, we get stuck in the overwhelming probability of failure that compels us to give up. It is indeed the ‘overman, Übermensch’ and the person living eternal return that can repeat ‘Okay, but once again!’ regardless of the calculated probability. By the way, the fiance of the repetition of this eternal return is difference. The dice of eternal return is thrown at the unexpected chance stuck to the dice being thrown once again, the power of differentiation that this chance makes. The repetition engaged to difference, this is surely what makes the eternal return possible. You feel you’ll get tired? Well, tiredness is the enemy of repetition, the enemy of eternal return. The repetition holding hands with difference, however, is neither tired nor boring. If it’s a journey with a beloved fiance, who wouldn’t like to continue it forever?


translated by Jung Ki Lee