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From Modern Philosophies of Repetition to Lyric as Non-Identical Repetition

Repetition de-objectifies our relation to the world and to the past. The past is no longer something I remember as an object of my memory. When I repeat a past event, I am within the horizon of the event rather than its being within mine. I am actually living it: the event is happening in and shaping my life at present. I cannot apprehend my present except through the past that it repeats. The connection with the past that is repeated is not that of a static representation. It consists, instead, in the past’s being always already operative as a legacy of residues that determine my present horizon for living. Conversely, my present also impinges on this past, on its meaning and all that it can yield for the future. In this sense, we are always “repeating.” The philosophical force of this term

Language beyond Representation 215 is in its connoting the present actuality of the past—rather than just its passive, static recollection. In some religious traditions, “recollection” is a meditative activity of gathering and “collecting together,” as opposed to merely remembering. Ignatian exercises, for example, entail a powerful actualizing in present imagination of past events. To repeat something is to realize it in one’s own existence rather than only ideally or intellectually in a representation referring to something absent or past instead of real and actual.

A crucial aspect of the sort of relation between language and the world that we are calling “repetition” has been highlighted as “performative” by J. L. Austin.[1] Philosophers in the wake of Austin demonstrated that fact-stating or representing statements can never be rigorously separated and isolated from performative utterances. Performativity turns out to be a dimension of all language, including constative language. A cognate insight drives also philosophers developing the use-theory of meaning following Ludwig Wittgenstein and his refutation of his own earlier picture-theory of language in the Tractatus (4.01-4.032). Language meaningfully relates to the world not by representing something detachedly as an object. Instead, language’s meaning is determined pragmatically by how it is used and by its own implication in what it says. What language means has to be interpreted from what it does and thus from an act transpiring within the context of a practice or way of life. Consequently, representation is rooted in something extra-linguistic that is not present as an object placed in evidence but, instead, obscurely determines meaning. This extra-linguistic “something” (or nothing) has priority as the rule and reason for representation, which can only “repeat” or enact it.

Self-reflection operating in the form of repetition springs open closed systems of representation. Specifically, Kierkegaard’s theory of repetition counters Hegel by pursuing the traces of the transcendent in the spheres of the religious, the ethical, and the aesthetic. Kierkegaard effects an apophatic turn that opens representation toward something infinite and fathomless that cannot be objectively represented, but can only be repeated in existence by a subject. Kierkegaard works out his Trinitarian understanding of self-reflexivity through infinite “reduplication” (Fordoblelse) in line with his doctrine of “repetition” (Gjentagelse).

Such self-reflection is not mere repetition of the same, but can rather effect reflection through to the source and the ground of all. The latter, however, is not objectively representable. Instead, non-identical repetition places the reflected element or self into relation with everything else by imagining a ground that would be common to all. Theology (in its

medieval synthesis) harbors such reflection as inhabiting the nature of being itself (section 30).

The seminal modern texts standing as landmarks on this terrain of a revolutionary philosophical rethinking of non-identical repetition (“Wiederholung”) include Soren Kierkegaard’s Repetition: A Venture in Experimental Psychology (1843), pseudonymously attributed to Constantin Constantius, and Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time (Sein und Zeit, 1927), especially Part II, Chapter 5, on “Zeitlichkeit und Geschichtlichkeit” (temporality and historicity). Gilles Deleuze also pursues such reflection, working especially from the Nietzschean teaching on the Eternal Return of the Same.[2] Heidegger and Deleuze both show how returning is itself the only constant. The Same (which is not the identical) is constructed via the re-turn—a turning again in a self-reflexive movement. This performance of reflection is what gives us being and time alike in the Heideggerian theory of repetition as Wieder-holung (literally “taking up again”).11 This eternal return is the recurring of the unique, since everything, every being, is unique.

Following the suggestions especially of Kierkegaard, Catherine Pickstock’s theologically motivated thinking of the role of repetition in ontology likewise aims to safeguard the unique being of things and yet, at the same time, evinces a crucial nuance of difference from poststructuralist appropriations of such thinking. She emphasizes a link between things, an obscure analogical unity that must remain ineffable because it is mediated by a subject and can only be poetically performed. The subject can repeat through imaginative performance—but cannot objectively represent—this connection with a transcendent reality.

We already encountered this subjective, personal, “existential” repetition of the absolute as theorized by the Islamic thinkers that background Dante’s reenactment of a philosophia perennis (section 36). Applications of such repetition radiate throughout the domains of culture and symbolic representation. The poetic-symbolic and the sacred unite in such realizations through repetition of an event of the transcendent in the immanence of actual experience. Catholic theologian Louis-Marie Chauvet perceives this sacramental outlook on liturgy and life as “homologous in attitude” with Heidegger’s overcoming of metaphysics through an ontology of repetition. An unrepresentable “source” or “ground”

Language beyond Representation 217 (all expressions are inadequate as representations) can be accessed only through repetition. Similarly, scholars have effectively highlighted the paramount role of repetition in realizing the experience of the sacred, for example, in early modern literature.

Lyric typically transpires in a temporality of repetition. It originates for modern times with the Troubadours as the “circularity of song,” where singing comes to be fundamentally about itself. This singing creates a structure of repetition between what it is and what it is about or what it says: its act, the taking place of language, is repeated in its thematic content and vice versa. As self-reflexive, the lyric is about its own creative act and ultimately about the act of Creation itself. In pure lyric, the poem becomes identified with a repeatable Saying itself. Repetition concerns the way that language, or any event, takes place existentially rather than just the representational content that it conveys.

From the beginning of the Inferno, Dante inscribes his poem expressly into a time repeating the Creation. “The time was the beginning of the morning, / and the sun was mounting with the stars that accompanied him, I when first the divine Love moved those lovely things” (“Temp’era dal principio del mattino, /e il sol montava in su con quelle stelle che eran con lui, / quando l’amor divino mosse di prima quelle cose belle,” 1.37-42). In fact, lyric circularity posits the contemporaneity of all moments. In so doing, it strives to transcend time as an implacable factor of difference and to absorb difference back into itself by self-reflection. This makes difference only a moment within lyric circularity. Paradoxically, poetry must abandon itself completely to time so as to have no exteriority to time. And this is exactly what the poetry of the Divine Comedy does by delivering itself to the impermanence of the vernacular. This selfabandon of language to time transfigures it into a vanishing image of what transcends any given representation and becomes, instead, eternally (re)present(able). This dialectic of time and eternity in lyric is expounded in section 58.


For instance, Regina Schwartz, Remembering and Repeating: On Milton’s Theology and Poetics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993), followed up by her Sacramental Poetics at the Dawn of Secularism: When God Left the World (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008).

  • [1] J. L. Austin, How to Do Things with Words (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1962). 2 Peter Kline, Passion for Nothing: Kierkegaard’s Apophatic Theology (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017) offers a kindred interpretation.
  • [2] Gilles Deleuze, Différence et répétition (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1968). 2 Claus Caesar, Poetik der Wiederholung: ethische Dichtung und ökonomisches “Spiel” in Hermann Brochs Romanen “Der Tod Vergils” und “Die Schuldlosen” (Würzburg: Königshausen & Neumann, 2001) offers detailed application of Heidegger’s theories to (modern) literary texts. 3 Catherine Pickstock, Repetition and Identity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014). 4 Chauvet, Symbole et sacrement: Une relecture sacramentelle de l’existence chrétienne (Paris: Cerf 1987). In English and focusing this issue, see Glenn Ambrose, The Theology of Louis-Marie Chauvet: Overcoming Onto-Theology with the Sacramental Tradition (Burlington: Ashgate, 2012).
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