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From Reference to Repetition—The Production of Presence

Language achieves this state of poetic self-transcendence primarily by lyric figures of repetition, whereby determinate reference to an external object is transcended. Lyric is the epitome of language and shows that language’s more fundamental, comprehensive, and far-reaching function is not to refer but to repeat. Indeed, reference itself is intelligible only within a movement of repetition—or return to the same through a token restituting something that is thereby raised to a higher ontological level. As such, linguistic “reference” no longer denotes a mere object, but rather a mediated form of presence that unites subjective and objective aspects.

In Dante’s reconstruction of it, Adam’s first word, his inaugural naming of God—his primiloquium—is not so much an act of reference to God as a response to God that “repeats” the act of creation in joy by a reaffirmation of its source, the Creator. It bears repeating that Adam’s first connection with God is his feeling his own joy (gaudium) in existing. On these grounds, Dante understands the first humanly spoken word to be the Name of God: “and since no joy is external to God but wholly within God and God himself is totally joy, it follows that the first speaker said ‘God’ before all else” (“et cum nullum gaudium sit extra Deum, sed totum in Deo, et ipse Deus totus sit gaudium, consequens est quod primus loquens primo et ante omnia dixisset ‘Deus,’” De vulgari eloquentia, I.iv.4). Adam is not cogitating on joy and representing God as joy. He is rather naming God by responding immediately in joy to the gift of his own being, and this is God, esse, or at least the human enactment or repetition of God—thus God insofar as God can be humanly experienced. This type of “repetition” constitutes a transcendence of the prison house of language and a rupture of the system of symbolic representation.

Language’s self-transcendence, accordingly, as Dante discloses it lyrically in the Paradiso, needs to be understood in terms of repetition rather than of representation. Representation does not do justice to the dynamism of language’s relation to the world and to its Source. This relation consists in making the world over again in language’s own image, repeating the act of self-reflection every time language is deployed. In this respect, lyric is the epitome of language, for it makes clearly manifest that the primary function of language as poiesis is not to refer or to represent, but to repeat—to (re)actualize presence in thought and speech.

Representation presupposes that some sort of neutral, uninvolved, objectifying relation of correspondence is possible between entities otherwise not intrinsically connected. But such a relation is always only an artifice and a fiction. It requires the intentional act of a subject that


This act of repetition is considered through the lens of the Derridian “supplement” by Glen Arbery, “Adam’s First Word and the Failure of Language in Paradiso XXXIII,” in Sign, Sentence, Discourse: Language in Medieval Thought and Literature, ed. Julian N. Wasserman e Lois Roney (Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 1989), 31-44.

reproduces an object as present. Representation (together with reference) is thus best understood as itself grounded in the more primordial function of repetition. So considered, representation itself is a way of making present something that is absent, however attenuated this presenting becomes. Even the word “re-presentation” says as much. The past, in such artful repetition, is not over but is presently being lived anew. The past is opened up thereby to the genuinely and radically new. Such repetition is the site of a self-transcendence of the past as deposited in linguistic constructs in order that the past may be received again from the future as an open possibility in the present.

Lyric does not, in its essence, representational!)' objectify what it imitates but, instead, directly repeats the real, assimilating feeling or mood, the animations received from ... it cannot say exactly where. In this way, lyric is capable of being informed and energized by a reality beyond the reach of representation. Such lyricism makes possible the real presence of the transcendent in concrete elements of form, in material signifiers. Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht explores how materialities of communication exceed the hermeneutic grasp of meaning. He emphasizes “the presence effects of rhyme and alliteration” that could never be repressed by all the power of hermeneutics.[1] Such unfathomable presence underlies radical medieval insights into the Incarnation in its verbal expressions as defying rational hermeneusis, for example, by Alanus de Insulis (see section 7) or by Boethius for whom “The name of Christ is equivocal and cannot be comprehended by any definition” (“aequivocum nomen est Christi et nulla potest definitione conclude”).

  • [1] Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, The Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2004). 2 Boethius, Contra Eutychen, in Theological Tractates, ed. H. F. Stewart (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1973), 96. Alain de Libera, La philosophie médiévale (Paris: PUF, 1989), 70-71 pursues this topic.
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