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The Story of Repetition

Marc Rlli
Published online: 16 Jan 2012.

To cite this article: Marc Rlli (2012) The Story of Repetition, Parallax, 18:1, 96-103, DOI:
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parallax, 2012, vol. 18, no. 1, 96103

The Story of Repetition

Marc Ro

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In order to follow the Deleuzian project more deeply into music and music studies, it is
helpful to comment on resonance by reiterating its theoretical implications. Deleuze
introduces the concept at the end of the second chapter in Difference and Repetition,
demonstrating how differential elements are able to enter reciprocal relations.1 These
relations are not purely abstract (in the sense of ideal syntheses) but refer to processes
in time and space that actualize virtual structures. They always involve bodily
thresholds. The displacement and shifting of sense or the virtual that is never
completely absorbed in the actual points to movements of repetition. It is the refrain or
ritournelle that embodies resonance, the conceptually unmediated differentiation of
differences, minima audibilia, nano rumor, that make sound or compose greater entities
that are empirically audible and assignable to certain objects. Following Christopher
Hasty, music is problematic in its resistance to representation and repetition (of the
same?) represents the philosophical problem inherent in resonance captured between
difference and identity.2 This paper examines the history of repetition as a
philosophical concept and in doing so throws light on the type of relations that inhabit
musical ways of listening, experiencing and producing sounds. Deleuzes repeated
recourse to music tells his readers that a full exploration of his thought requires that
music and philosophy constantly mediate one another through their extremes.3
It is common knowledge in the history of philosophical concepts that Kierkegaards
Repetition was the rst book to turn this term into a philosophically and conceptually
determined category.4 The establishment of this new category for future philosophical thought signals an escape from the self-contained philosophy of Hegel.5 The
phenomenon of repetition gained philosophical acceptance at the very moment
dialectical synthesis was losing its power and the philosophy of history was
encountering ever greater difculties. It fell upon the category of repetition to bring
something absolutely new into play. One way to elucidate this paradox could be to
emphasise its eventfulness and thus to think repetition, against Hegel, against an
idealized version of repetition as grounded in recollection:
When the Eleates denied motion, Diogenes, as everyone knows, came
forward as an opponent. He literally did come forward, because he
did not say a word but merely paced back and forth a few times,
thereby assuming that he had sufciently refuted them. When I was
occupied for some time, at least on occasion, with the question of

ISSN 1353-4645 print/ISSN 1460-700X online q 2012 Taylor & Francis

repetition whether or not it is possible [ . . . ] I suddenly had the

thought: You can, after all, take a trip to Berlin; you have been there
once before, and now you can prove to yourself whether a repetition is
possible and what importance it has.6

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Kierkegaard alludes here, probably ironically, to the evidence of a real and

authentic existence in order to dissociate himself from Hegel and his idea of an
Eleatic abolition of a nite and variable existence. Repetition this mysterious idea
of experimental psychology inherits from mediation in that it refers to a future it
does not control. History has not come to an end precisely because the processes of
becoming and the temporality of existence could not be accommodated within the
logical construct of intellectual mediation.
The dialectic of repetition is easy, for that which is repeated has been otherwise it
could not be repeated but the very fact that it has been makes the repetition into
something new.7 What is essential is not the past but rather that the past comes into
existence, and this only occurs through repetition. Repetition provides the basis for
what repetition repeats and not the other way around. Repetition poses a particular
problem, as it cannot be understood by thinking of it as something essential resting
securely in the past. Its only blessed certainty lies in the moment it takes place.
Kierkegaard explicitly stresses that repetition is the interest of metaphysics, and also
the interest upon which metaphysics comes to grief.8 Repetition, in this sense, must
be understood as the modern and post-metaphysical, i.e. post-Hegelian, motto of
In his essay On an image of Proust Benjamin refers to the dialectics of happiness; a
hymnal and an elegiac gure of happiness. The rst: the never heard, the incredible,
the height of bliss. The second: the eternal once more, the never ending restoration of a
genuine, rst happiness.9 Elegiac happiness, which could also be called eleatic
happiness, belongs to the melancholy logic of recollection, while hymnal happiness is
related to the moment of repetition.10 It remains unclear, however, whether it is
possible to combine the two antinomic principles of happiness. I will try to investigate
this question by dening the conceptual relationship between repetition and event. At
rst glance it looks as if repetition qua repetition excludes all reference to eventfulness
(Ereignishaftigkeit). Only at second glance do we discover a paradoxical afnity
grounded in the fact that the event only exudes fascination because it refers to
something that has always been close without our ever noticing it. It is for this reason
that the event can make us lose our footing. Maybe the modern event-culture industry
aims at exactly this: increasing this effect in such a way that it can be intentionally
provoked and controlled. In that case, individualization would be coupled with a loss
of existence, which out of a desire to increase the feeling of actually being and
existing has to be compensated in wild and unfamiliar zones and states of emergency.

Phenomenology of Repetition
When Kierkegaard, otherwise known as Constantin Constantius, regrets that
his attempt to repeat his previous stay in Berlin failed, it is because, as he says, too

much possibly including himself has changed. This time the theatre bores him,
the coffee is bad and the landlord has got married. Repetition is impossible simply
because all the things and persons involved are subject to the inuence of time. It
might be otherwise in physics, but in the eld of psychic systems repetitions are
only possible in a relative way relative to conrmed habits.11 While objective
repetitions require an unchanging and xed system of reference so that identical
results can be produced, inner and subjective repetitions are always part of a
structure that changes with every act.

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Conceiving of this contrast in phenomenological terms, one might say that actual
repetition in the life-world precedes an objective and scientically grounded
understanding of reality. Husserls transcendental reduction denes at least three
different phenomena that are considered constitutive for experience: besides habit
there is association and the inner awareness of time. I am refering here to phenomena
of repetition, provided that it is a matter of a non-subjectively controlled sequence
of dened moments of experience that are permanent enough to create a context. As
Hume has shown, it is possible to state the principles of association that form our
habits of living and thinking. Thus, many of our everyday experiences are embedded
in a structure of repetition: we believe in the world, we believe that the world will
continue to exist even when we close our eyes. Situations repeat themselves at work,
while driving, on the way to school, under the shower or in bed.
But what exactly is it that repeats itself? If a stone falls to the ground, it might be a
(foreseeable) case presupposing natural law inside a technical frame of experiment.
Is repetition only possible with reference to universal denitions that abstract from
insignicant, empirical deviations? And what happens when the phenomenologist
gives up his natural attitude? A rst solution to the problem appears when we hold
on to the fact that only external repetitions are phenomenologically bracketed.
What is repeated, then, are not associative or habitual givens that have to be
identied on an abstract level, but time itself as an unchanging form which affects
everything that is changeable. Repetition means that the present permanently falls
into the past, that two moments of experience are unconsciously associated with
each other, or that we expect something to happen because of habit. It becomes
clear that only initially do repetitions in ordinary, everyday life seem incompatible
with the event which is then erroneously regarded as a simple disturbance in this
monotonous force. Repetition seen from this perspective is impossible and just as
deceptive as the hope of being happy over a long period of time. Kierkegaard related
this discovery with the necessity to make a religious movement which would lead
from the immanence of a worldly existence to the transcendence of an Archimedean
I do not wish to embrace Kierkegaards solution but would like to discuss instead
his question regarding the justication of the impossibility of repetition within
immanence. This question brings us to the limits of phenomenology. Phenomenologys unclear position on this matter is expressed in notions like passive synthesis13 or
passive intention.14 We can say that traditional phenomenology does not have a
concept of internal repetition because it thinks experience in terms of a whole that
nds expression in the essential laws of consciousness. It is true that phenomenology

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has discovered a variety of subterranean layers in the concept of experience but these
are related to a thoroughly evolved and subjectively rational form of apperception
and are dened from that perspective. In contrast to the essential laws of
consciousness, repetition must therefore remain a rather external and irrelevant
phenomenon, referring only to variations of time and space that are lost forever.
If we want to raise repetition to a philosophical category, we will nevertheless have
to situate it within immanence, whereby our concept of immanence must be the one
that can do without transcendence. This is only possible if the phenomenon of
repetition is understood in terms of internal repetition. This in turn requires a
positive interpretation of repetition i.e. a philosophical articulation of the
problem of time that does not delegate it to other static concepts. In this way, events
can have an internal relation to repetition and repetition can, indeed, bring about
something new. Support for such an understanding of repetition can be found in the
work of Freud and Nietzsche when read from a Deleuzian point of view.

Freuds Approach
I will begin with a short outline of some of the core aspects of the theory of recidivism
(Wiederholungszwang) as developed by Freud in his essay Beyond the Pleasure
Principle.15 The basic idea is that in certain cases of pathological neurosis some past
and unconsciously repressed events, regardless of whether they are real or imaginary
or whether they were originally accompanied by feelings of reluctance or not, cause
repetitions in the psyche. The urge to repeat, as it happens for example in dreams
about accidents, is obviously original, elementary and more compulsive than the
pleasure principle.16
From a metapsychological understanding of this phenomenon, Freud hopes to gain
insight into the nature of the forces of resistence, which prevent a conscious
recollection of the repressed content. Recollection is contrasted with repetition,
much as health contrasts with illness. But of course the problem of repetition must be
situated on a deeper level in that it refers to a necessity that is presupposed by the
dominance of the pleasure principle.
At this point, Freuds psychoanalytic theory reproduces the ambivalence of
Husserls phenomenology. On the one hand, he points to internal phenomena of
repetition, on the other he remains focused on therapeutic clarication in a way that
is indebted to a philosophy of consciousness.
Why, according to Freud, does it become necessary to repeat? Put negatively, we
could say that repetition is tied to an insufcient and unnished process of working
through trauma. From a different perspective, we might say that the psyche is
confronted with libidinal content (molecular movements) that simply overows its
capacities and cannot be contained or responded to. How does this happen? Freud
compares human consciousness to a cortex of the brain that has been fried by
permanent stimulation so that it is in the position to protect the internal, still living
systems. If even this protection breaks down, we are dealing with trauma or as

Benjamin would say with shock. The reaction to trauma or shock is repetition,
which is beyond the pleasure principle. The psychic apparatus tries to make up for
its lack of preparation and failure in coping with the stimuli by producing, for
example, belated anxiety.

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This rather schematic model gets more complicated as soon as we become aware that
consciousness only constitutes one special function within the psychic apparatus.
Freud states that all stimuli leave permanent traces in all the systems that together
build the basis of our memory. We are not aware of these shreds of recollection
because they are incompatible with our conscious perception. The fact that
protection against internal stimuli is impossible means that a counter movement will
be aimed against this internal agitation. It seems reasonable to assume that those
traces Freud calls prehistoric are moments of genuine repetition that oppose the
higher levels of the psychic apparatus. These higher ego-levels produce resistance and
repression and are responsible for conscious recollection. Seen from the perspective of
the theory of time, the difference between unconscious and conscious memories
appears to be an essential one, but not one of opposition. Pathological repetition,
according to Freud, reveals that the prehistoric traces cannot be contained. These
traces seem to be characterized by the fact that they can be easily condensed and
transferred within the unconscious. At the same time Freud states that precisely those
traces that are the most durable never gain access to consciousness.17 He thus
articulates a positive denition of repetition that follows its own rules, comparable to
the masquerade of dreams and, in a structural dimension, to a total past a` la Bergson.
But like Kierkegaard before him, Freud relates repetition to a regressive tendency
that aims at reconstructing an earlier state (redintegratio in statum pristinum), a
tendency he denes as death drive (Todestrieb). Of course he differentiates between
two different forms of repetition, one which he calls playful and another which he
considers pathological. This means that repetition can be either liberating or
destructive, whereby the negative model is nevertheless given priority.
Perhaps it is possible to return to the remarkable phenomenon of internal repetition
with Nietzsche. Freud writes: We are very little surprised about the eternal return of
the same when active behaviour is concerned. But we are very impressed by those
cases, where people experience something passively, something they have no inuence
on, while it appears as a never ending repetition of the same fate.18 Freud sticks closer
than Nietzsche to an abstract understanding of time that correlates to the structure of
consciousness and its self-perception. Seen from this perspective, Freud is closer to
Schopenhauer than to Nietzsche when he describes the unconscious as timeless.

Eternal Recurrence
There can be no doubt that Nietzsche understood the concept of the eternal return
as a pure event. In Sils-Maria, in 1881, he notes about his location: 6000 feet above
the sea and even much higher above all human affairs.19 It is well known that his
Zarathustra revolves around this idea and that his late conception of the will is closely
related to it.

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I will start with a principle that Nietzsche articulated in the context of his cosmological
interpretation of the phenomenon of an eternal return. If the world could have a
destination at all it should be reached by now [ . . . ] If the world would be able to
remain and become rigid if only one moment of being could have existed during the
course, then no becoming would be possible anymore.20 Following Nietzsches
critiques of thermodynamics, the world, if possible at all, would already have come to
a standstill under the premise of an innity of time. But the unceasing processes
establishes becoming as a primary non-teleological reality. Becoming is everywhere;
permanence is only an impression of our coarse faculty of perception.21 Everything is
in a state of ow and there are no lasting forms and qualities, no transcendent entities
that function as a central hub that can subordinate changes. Nietzsches criticism of
morality and religion has its roots right here: the eeting, confused, deceptive,
temporal and affective features of human life are denied and interpreted away in the
name of an eternal God, an absolute truth, moral commandments and a handful of
categories. Only in this metaphysical context can repetion be thought merely in
terms of a transition from a lasting dead state into another.22
The question remains how becoming and repetition can be thought together.
Nietzsche insists on the return of the same, assuming that certain constellations of
forces will keep returning. But that is not my concern here. I am interested instead in
the essential element of Nietzsches critique of reason and its impact: the loss of a
reliable, external point of view from which one would be able to survey the world.
Kierkegaard thinks in terms of an inaccessible power that cannot be made an object
of self-empowerment: where my soul longs to be, there where ideas spume with
elemental fury [ . . . ] there where each moment one is staking ones life, each moment
losing it and nding it again.23 Kierkegaard interprets this idea of repetition in a
religious way. Appealing to a higher law, an immediate relationship with God and a
transcendental category of testing, he turns toward negative theology and associates
repetition with a prior, non-alienated state of being. Compared with such a
[spiritual] repetition, what is a repetition of worldly possessions? [ . . . ] Here only
repetition of the spirit is possible, even though it is never so perfect in time as in
eternity, which is the true repetition.24 Nietzsche, on the other hand, situates
repetition within immanence: We should not reach out for unknown salvations and
reprieves, but live in a way that makes us want to live again and the same way for
ever. That is our task in any moment.25 In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, the moment
(Augenblick) is the name of a gateway where two alleys meet: the past and the future.
Here Nietzsche on the one hand stresses the selective power of repetition, which is
able to free us from the disgust of being like the shepherd who bites off the snakes
head and gives the lie to the crooked truth of the dwarf and on the other hand the
eventful and the temporal determination of the moment. Nietzsches unpublished
notes on the return of the same describe the moment when the individual loses its
coherence and realizes that it is constantly changing: that there is no individual, that
in one moment it is different from the next moment [ . . . ] the tiny little moment is the
higher reality and truth, images like lightning emerging from an eternal ow.26
In contrast to a phenomenological description of a lived present that integrates past
and future into an extended period of time, the Augenblick undermines the concept of

time upon which the philosophical notion of self-presence rests. The moment, or
Augenblick, is the innitely small point of a present that cannot last, that is already
gone as soon as we try to grasp it. It is always both not yet and no more. This means
that the redistribution of past and future, continuously occuring in every moment,
cannot be controlled and standardized by a subjective power. But neither does such
a withdrawal (Entzug) lead us into another world. What repeats itself because
becoming can never stand still is time, which cannot be represented as such: it is the
past that accumulates; the past that accompanies and colours every new present as
its implicit background. In this sense what has become obsolete and fallen into the
past inheres in every new moment because it cannot come to a standstill as an object
of conscious reection.

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Nietzsche placed great importance on the transforming power of the eternal

return: If you incorporate the thought of thoughts it will change you.27 The
metamorphosis that places man beyond himself results from the selectivity of
repetition. Repetition weeds out what cannot be repeated; all those supposed truths
ostensibly created in the pure element of the human mind, elevating themselves
above the process of repetition. Afrmation does not aim at the ugly and revolting
things of life but only at what can return, at what is not lost in repetition and can be
transformed without loosing itself. Nietzsche calls this the will to power.
Gilles Deleuze proposes an interpretation of the the return of the same from the
perspective of the philosophy of time. He claims that the break between before and
after constitutes an unchanging form that can admit change precisely because it is
constantly returning. All that can be said about it is difference: It is not the same
which recurs, [ . . . ] the same is the recurrence of the recurring, that is the different.
The repetition of the eternal return is the same, but in the sense, that it can only be
stated from the difference and the different.28 Only difference returns that is, the
totality of all differential structures of the will to power which are de jure immanent to
themselves. The negative is eliminated in the sense of a double afrmation, whereby
whatever introduces a negative moment into afrmation is negated. The eternal
return afrms difference; it afrms dissimilarity, dispersion, chance, becoming and
The play of differences repeats itself incessantly but it disguises itself by becoming
differentiated. What remains is a blind spot that cannot be represented. This is not to
evoke a mystical or esoteric indifference but rather the popular idea of an empiricist
ux of experience that never is consciously given but expresses the virtual depth of
the condition of the given. Seen from this perspective, the historical past is neither the
sum total of historical incidents nor the object of imaginary constructs. Rather, it is a
structural eld that always maintains an internal relation to historical experience. If
this internal relation becomes interrupted, or we lose sight of it, a compulsive
repetition begins in an effort to redeem the past in the present. The constantly
occuring differences do in fact playfully and permanently deform the past. This does
not mean, however, that the event itself is permanent. Habits of thought and action
have always established themselves against the backdrop of repetition, and are
accompanied by numerous convictions, certainties of belief, and assumptions that
are taken for granted, which together make up what Deleuze calls the banality of

representation. This is a table, that is an apple, this is a piece of wax, good morning
Theaitetos. Who could ever believe that the fate of thought is put at stake here?29
Perhaps it makes sense to speak of a continuously unconscious process of repetition,
which is hidden from the different forms of consciousness. This suggests an intelligible
difference between an immanent and an empirical order of things, which is capable
of laying hold of the uncommonness we generally associate with events.

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Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, trans.
Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University
Press, 1993), pp.143156.
Christopher Hasty, The Image of Thought and
Ideas of Music, in Sounding the Virtual: Gilles
Deleuze and the Theory and Philosophy of Music, ed.
Brian Hulse and Nick Nesbitt (Burlington, VT:
Ashgate, 2010), pp.122.
Brian Hulse and Nick Nesbitt, Introduction, in
Sounding the Virtual: Gilles Deleuze and the Theory and
Philosophy of Music, ed. Brian Hulse and Nick
Nesbitt (Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2010), p.xvi.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, in Kierkegaards
Writings, vol. 6, ed. and trans. Howard V. Hong
and Edna H. Hong (Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press 1983), pp.125231.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.226.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.131.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.149.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.149.
Walter Benjamin, Zum Bilde Prousts, Illuminationen. Ausgewahlte Schriften Bd. 1. (Frankfurt:
Suhrkamp 1977), p. 337.
Walter Benjamin, Zum Bilde Prousts, p.337.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.106.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.183.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.91.
Edmund Husserl, Analyses concerning passive and
active synthesis, trans. Anthony Steinbock (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers).
Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips,

Studienausgabe, Bd. 3, Psychologie des Unbewussten, ed.

Alexander Mitscherlich (Frankfurt: Fischer 2000),
Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips,
Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips,
Sigmund Freud, Jenseits des Lustprinzips,
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, in Kritische Studienausgabe in 15
Banden, vol. 9: Nachgelassene Fragmente 18801882,
ed. Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari (Berlin:
De Gruyter 1967), p.141.
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, p.292.
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, p.293.
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, p.150.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.221.
Soren Kierkegaard, Repetition, p.221.
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, p.161.
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, p.156.
Friedrich Nietzsche, M III 1. Fruhjahr
Herbst 1881, p.143.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.373.
Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, p.176.

li teaches Philosophy at Fatih University, Istanbul, Turkey. He is the author

Marc Ro
of Gilles Deleuze. Philosophie des transzendentalen Empirismus (Wien, 2003; English
translation forthcoming: Edinburgh, 2012) and Kritik der anthropologischen Vernunft
(Berlin, 2011). He is currently editing (with Friedrich Balke) a volume on Deleuze,
philosophy and non-philosophy (Bielefeld, 2011). E-mail: