The word ‘repetition’ is understood to signify the act of repeating something (actions, words, objects) as well as the result of this act – the repeated action, word, or object. In the latter sense, we speak of copy, reproduction, or replica. In the instances of recital, oral narration, and rehearsal, repetition is connected with memorization. ‘Repetition’ also denotes the recurrence of an action or an event, with or without an explicit agency or motivation. In the context of law, ‘repetition’ is used synonymously with ‘restitution’, ‘recovery’, and ‘restoration’. Finally, the word can signify the very capacity for repetition, as in the context of describing the comparative ability of a musical instrument to repeat the same note in quick succession (OED, Webster’s).
We can think of repetition as occurring in series or in linear succession; repetition in time, bridging the past and the present, and repetition in space; repetition of the ever (slightly) different, as in reproduction within the technique of lithography, or repetition of the same in the context of digital reproduction, where the product of repetition shares all the qualities of the repeated and is yet another.
Original, uniqueness, and sameness can be thought as contrastives to repetition, as can novelty and creativity. A particular contrast or opposition, however, appears adequate only in a particular context and is always connected with a particular set of values. A Renaissance work of art that has an entry in the catalogue of a museum and in the canon of Western art is usually perceived as qualitatively superior and distinct from its copies or forgeries, while in the context of new media, such distinctions appear obsolete.
‘Repetition’ is a central term in the works of many modern philosophers, including Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Adorno, Deleuze, and Derrida. The philosophical discussion of repetition ranges from Plato’s understanding of repetition as reminiscence or recollection of an already existing knowledge (cf. Phaedo, Meno, Philebus) to Deleuze’s “upgrading” of repetition as an “active force […] producing difference” (Deleuze Dictionary, 223). In Difference and Repetition (1968), Deleuze discusses Nietzsche’s concept of the “eternal return” as “the power of beginning and beginning again” (Deleuze, 136). Deleuze counters Freud’s understanding of repetition as a compulsive reiteration of the past which psychoanalysis attempts to stop by representing it, with the understanding that repetition allows for reinvention (The Deleuze Dictionary, 224).
A glimpse of Deleuze’s discussion and enrichment of philosophical thought on repetition shows the possibilities of thinking about repetition in a vast array of categories, including mimesis and invention, sameness and difference, habit and creativity. I would like to explore repetition within the binary categories of production-reproduction, finite-infinite, similarity and alteration, the organic and the mechanical, and norm and deviation. Each of these frames should be understood not as a binary opposition, but as a dynamic relation, able to adjust to different contexts and their inherent politics of evaluation.
But what is repetition in the context of media? Repetition is the essence of many techniques of industrial and artistic production as well as reproduction. It is a poetic or aesthetic device. Finally, repetition itself appears as a medium – a virtual space or screen for inscription of meaning – in the instances when the act of repeating, and not the repeated serves to interpret, negotiate, and disrupt meaning (in the latter instance creating meaning ex negativo). Repetition can establish and reinforce the authority of the repeated or undermine and even abolish such authority. In repetition, we can project the notion of life or see the assertion of the mechanistic, counter-natural principle. In this sense, we can apply to repetition McLuhan’s slogan “The medium is the message”. In the realm of media, repetition is always “nested”, it cannot appear on its own.
We associate repetition with different forms of reproduction, such as copy, replica, and forgery. All these imitate the supposed uniqueness and disseminate the singularity of an object. The tradition of regarding the copy as being deficient in comparison with the original goes back to Plato and his understanding that copies are obstacles in our search for truth. Copies appear as deceptive shadow-images in the Republic or enigmatic dead traces of living speech in Phaedrus. In the context of art, we can say with Benjamin that the reproduction transcends the here and now of the work of art and dissipates its aura1. Reproduction is thus seen as a deficient – or illegitimate – repetition of the original, except in the realm of those visual arts for which mechanical reproduction is inherent in the very mode of production, such as film or photography2. Negatively speaking, the process of reproduction abolishes the uniqueness of the work of art and estranges it from its original context. Positively speaking, it creates a new meaning by placing a semblance of the old in a new context. While the old may still be recognizable as repetition, it ceases to be a semblance and takes on a new life in its new environment. In this sense, reproduction is always connected with production.
As a mode of production, repetition can have different effects. It can repeat the same or the similar, i.e., it can copy and alter; it can repeat the same in a series or produce repetitions independent from each other. A meander presents a linear repetition of the same ornament, a series in which the repeated becomes an inseparable part of the whole, like a ring in a chain. A concentric spiral is a product of repetition which involves alteration. It is a series in which the individual element is repeated not as the same but as the similar, changing its diameter and allowing for space to intersect and “separate” the individual levels. Despite this spatial separation, it is impossible to dissect the spiral into individual elements. The repeated is dissolved in the process of repetition, and the series evolves as something new out of the substrate of the old.
Both the meander and the spiral are repetitions of one element in one particular mode or combination. Repetition is an especially potent technique of production when a finite number of elements can be organized in infinite combinations. Most manually produced objects of art and craft are the result of such repetition: A rug is the sum of a – relatively limited – number of combinations of a finite number of dyed threads. A pointillist painting can be described in a similar way. Painting in general is produced by potentially infinite combinations (in terms of mixing as well as in terms of application) of a finite number of colors. In a pointillist painting, however, repetition is exhibited – the individual dots of color appear more discrete when the viewer comes closer to the painting. Language itself is a product of the repetition of finite elements in infinite combinations. In every language, a finite number of sounds form a potentially infinite number of words. The ways in which the sounds are organized is strictly regulated. In German, for example, you cannot have a voiceless [s] at a beginning of a word. A phonetic rule like this limits the number of ways in which sounds can combine to build words, but the number of newly produced words is nevertheless unlimited. The same is true for the production of sentences through repetition of words. The rules of syntax limit the ways of combining words, yet there is no limit to the number of sentences resulting from these combinations. Writing is analogous, since it is produced via repetition of finite alphabetical characters.
Observed within performance arts, repetition oscillates between the always same notation (a drama or a lyrical text, a musical or choreographic score, etc.) and the always new performance. The performance complies with the notation, but it also interprets, disputes, reinvents it. If we perceive the notation as some sort of original and the performance as its copy, then the usual dynamic between copy and original will be reversed: The performance is unique and lives in the present, whereas the notation is a remote and rather abstract idea of it. The copy reinforces the notion of originality by altering the original. While in a sense “repeating” the notation, the performance asserts its difference. It is different, or new, not only in terms of concept and medium, but in terms of temporality – it is different because always situated in a different moment.
Characteristics such as natural, organic, and alive versus artificial, mechanistic, and rigid are likely to be projected onto the process of repetition. Whenever repetition appears to be motivated, as in the change of night and day or the change of the seasons, or when an interlocutor demands it for the purpose of interpretation or negotiation of meaning, repetition is perceived as necessary, organic, self-explanatory. It is in these cases that we don’t pay much attention to it. Repetition “shows through” when stripped of its necessity, for example when an insecure language teacher says a word multiple times assuming that the students may not understand it the first time (instead of leaving to them to signal lack of comprehension should that be the case). Repetition of gestures or movements can also remind of the “crust of the mechanical placed upon the living”3. The surprise of the juxtaposition of the living and the mechanical elicits laughter. For this reason, repetition is major medium of the comical. It undermines the repeated, estranging it from its original context without supplying it with a new one.
By the same token, repetition is a subversive tool, a forum for questioning or even dissolving the authority of an individual or their particular performance as well as of patterns or structures. Narcissus eschews Echo because he thinks that she makes fun of him when repeating his words. A parody of a canonized work of art repeats its form to undermine its message. In certain contexts, however, repetition can assert the authority of the repeated. A recitation, especially in the context of a rite, asserts the authority of the recited text. Improvisation is not acceptable, since every word and the sequence of words are carefully chosen and confirmed by authority and tradition. As a means of memorization, especially in the context of education, repetition silently professes the value of the repeated: it is worth remembering.
1 Cf. Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility [Third Version]. In: Selected Writings, vol. 4. Ed. by Howard Eiland et al. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2003, pp. 251-283. Benjamin saw in what he presumed to be the end of the aura a chance for the emancipation of the viewer from a state of contemplation in front of the work of art into a gesture of active appropriation of art, and yet the distinction between the unique original and the [deficient] copy undermines his argument, suggesting the supremacy of the original and the legitimacy of its traditional reception.
2 Benjamin begins his essay with a taxonomy of reproduction, as it can be observed in 1939. Ibid, pp. 252-253.
3 Paraphrased from Henri Bergson’s definition in: Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Los Angeles: Green Integer 1999. In the same essay, Bergson discusses repetition explicitly on pp. 84-87.
Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Mechanical Reproducibility” [Third Version]. In: Selected Writings, vol. 4. Ed. by Howard Eiland et al. Cambridge and London: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2003, pp. 251-283.
Bergson, Henri. Laughter. An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic. Los Angeles: Green Integer 1999.
Deleuze, Gilles. Difference and Repetition. Trans. by Paul Patton. London : Athlone Press 1994.
Plato. Complete Works. Ed. by John M. Cooper. Indianapolis, IN: Hackett 1997.
“Repetition”. The Deleuze Dictionary. Ed. by Adrian Parr. New York: Columbia University Press 2005, pp. 223-225.
“repetition, n.1” The Oxford English Dictionary. 2nd ed. 1989. OED Online.
“Repetition”. Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster 1986, p. 1924.