Slow Reading (1.7): Deleuze’s DR (pg. 5)

This will be a shorter post than the earlier ones! The eighth paragraph of the introduction to Difference and Repetition, which I had hoped to cover last time, actually wraps up the first seven malingering paragraphs. Indeed, Deleuze’s very last sentence circles back to the very first . . .


The paragraph itself continues Deleuze’s analysis of moral law: “If repetition is possible,” as a point of view and conduct (and not just as some sort of “in itself” to which we have no experiential access), “it is as much opposed to moral law as it is to natural law. There are two known ways to overturn moral laws” (5). And what are these “two known ways”? “The first way of overturning the law is ironic, where irony appears as an art of principles, of ascent towards the principles and of overturning [them]. The second is humor, which is an art of consequences and descents, of suspensions and falls [. . .] Repetition belongs to humour and irony” (5). I think what’s important here is that Deleuze, for the first time in five very difficult pages, gives practical examples of repetition, that is, examples of something one can do and not just of natural phenomena (e.g., reflections in a mirror), mystical and fantastical figures (e.g., souls or doubles), or grand celebrations of socio-historically supercharged events (e.g., festivals). He is still being circumspect, certainly, but one can sense the creaking machinery of a conceptual transition . . .

But a few questions do come to mind: Only “two known ways to overturn moral law”? And why “irony” and “humor”? Perhaps Henri Bergson is behind Deleuze’s thinking here. In Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, Bergson writes,

Sometimes we state what ought to be done, and pretend to believe that this is just what is actually being done; then we have IRONY. Sometimes, on the contrary, we describe with scrupulous minuteness what is being done, and pretend to believe that this is just what ought to be done; such is often the method of HUMOUR. Humour, thus denned, is the counterpart of irony. Both are forms of satire, but irony is oratorical in its nature, whilst humour partakes of the scientific. Irony is emphasised the higher we allow ourselves to be uplifted by the idea of the good that ought to be: thus irony may grow so hot within us that it becomes a kind of high-pressure eloquence. On the other hand, humour is the more emphasised the deeper we go down into an evil that actually is, in order to set down its details in the most cold-blooded indifference.

Though Deleuze rarely quotes Laughter (in fact, now that I think of it, I’m not sure he ever does!), the resemblance is difficult to ignore. On the one hand, irony is “oratorical”; it uplifts and can grow hot into “high-pressure eloquence.” As Deleuze puts it, ironic ascents “denounce” the moral codes or laws or norms by revealing their “secondary, derived, [and] borrowed,” rather than primary, power (5). On the other hand, humour “go[es] down” and dissects the “details” of something with “cold-blooded indifference.” As Deleuze puts it, humor descends “towards the consequences” of a moral law by submitting to it “with a too-perfect attention to detail,” rendering its rigidity utterly absurd — even to the point of a form “of masochistic behaviour which mock[s] by submission” (5). I don’t think it is worthwhile to press Deleuze to much here about definitions of irony and humor or to concern ourselves with whether or not this brief allusion to comedic strategies expresses a developed account of comedy’s counter-normative, transgressive potential. What is important for understanding this stage of Difference and Repetition, I think, is to tease out the connection between the activity of comedy and what Deleuze has said thus far about repetition (i.e., his negative distinctions and enigmatic positive descriptions).

Consider the following Louis C.K. bit:

One can sense both irony and humor in this clip. In focusing in detail on the form and substance of the famous children’s book series, Clifford, the Big Red Dog, C.K. renders its charm completely absurd and boring, illustrating (against the norms of parental fetishism and sentimentalism) how boring it actually is to be a parent. According to Bergson and Deleuze, this would be an instance of humor. Later in the clip, when C.K. smilingly suggests how exciting and interesting an alternative series would be (one that involves mortal injury, prosecution, imprisonment, and execution), we might say he ascends, affirming with eloquence something that “should be” which, of course, “should never be.” This moment is ironic insofar as the audience laughs precisely because of this discrepancy, because they are sure that C.K. would never read such a book to a child. Even as they laugh, however, it is clear to me that they grow somewhat uncomfortable at the length of the example and the disturbing exuberance of C.K.’s demeanor. This bit is not just ironic, according to Deleuze and Bergson’s definitions, because there is some shocking discrepancy between an expressed ought and an agreed ought (and is) but because the irony lingers and exposes as secondary, derived, and general the very tropes that adults find worthwhile and entertaining: crime dramas, prison dramas, death-row dramas, etc. The genius of C.K., whether he knows it or not, is that his mode of stretching out initially hilarious and eventually too-disturbing-to-laugh examples can expand our capacity to see that what we find funny or moving or precious or entertaining or provocative is a great deal more complicated (and even unsettling and disorienting) than we might typically want to admit.

But what repeats in this example of humor and irony? Deleuze speculates, “Must we understand that repetition appears in both this suspense and this ascent, as though existence recommenced and ‘reiterated’ itself once it is no longer constrained by laws?” (5). Existence repeats itself. Can we surmise what Deleuze means here? Can we really be as audacious as to claim that “existence” repeats itself in the C.K. clip? Perhaps. Humor and irony are conducts, according to Difference and Repetition, that pervert the orders of generality (resemblance and equivalence). What does one experience after laughing at Louis C.K.? What might one think or feel? When moral laws or social norms (is there really a difference between them?) are exposed as absurd, coercive, constructed, secondary, dependent, invented, normative, and normalizing the mode of comedy that does the exposing actually expresses the repetition of things in themselves in a negative and poetic rather than mimetic way: things as they are need not be as they are. More than this: things are not as I think they are (or should be). In this sense, existence (“things as they [actually] are”) repeats itself (negatively) in the act of irony and humor, disrupting and overturning and even rendering unrecognizable the generalities through we typically make sense of the order of things.

I ended my last post with an allusion to Nietzsche. Perhaps it might be worthwhile doing so again:

Only by forgetting this primitive world of metaphor, only by virtue of the fact that a mass of images, which originally flowed in a hot, liquid stream from the primal power of the human imagination, has become hard and rigid, only because of the invincible faith that this  sun, this  window, this table is a truth in itself — in short only because man forgets himself as a subject, and indeed as an artistically creative  subject, does he live with some degree of peace, security, and consistency; if he could escape for just a moment from the prison walls of this faith, it would mean the end of his ‘consciousness of self.’ (Birth of Tragedy and Other Writings 148)

I want to sustain this sense of disturbance that Deleuze gives to repetition (and to existence) in his final paragraph, a sense of disturbance also at work here in Nietzsche. Can we actually conceive, Nietzsche claims, what it would mean to remember what we have forgotten? To actually reorient ourselves toward every norm, word, relationship, form, truth, and sign as nothing but partial tools drawn from “a hot, liquid stream”? Can we even imagine what it would mean to our sense of “peace, security, and consistency” as a self, a person in the world? To even catch a glimpse of the outside (what we might call the real) would mean to glimpse a world without such tools, a universe completely indifferent to our powers. This outside, I speculate, is the groundless ground of Deleuze’s repetition, that which gives me (and whatever “I” am) the capacity to repeat in a mirror and to disrupt, through that repetition, any intellectual generalizations I might make about that reflection. This outside, I speculate, is the groundless ground of Louis C.K. capacity — through dark humor and irony — to bring us to the brink of this outside, to let us peep over the edge, and to draw us back and distract us as if we had never actually been at that brink.

Perhaps I’m stretching my “slow reading” here, but, given the way Deleuze ends this first section of his introduction, I’m beginning to doubt it: “Repetition [. . .] is by nature transgression or exception, always revealing a singularity opposed to the particulars subsumed under laws, a universal opposed to the generalities which give rise to laws” (5).

Things don’t get any easier after the section break which follows this sentence. The second section begins: “There is a force common to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche” (5). Good Lord . . .


  1. By this point, has Deleuze taken the reader any further than his earlier instances of repetition (relfection, echo, festival …)? I don’t see how – but perhaps you are not saying he has.

    1. No, up until this point, Deleuze’s primary concern has been a negative definition of repetition (“It is not this . . . It is not that”). This means that his positive statements remain somewhat enigmatic and unexplained in the first five pages. All of my attempts to reason through these positive statements (in the first post and in a few later ones) are strictly speculative, but I think they’re convincing nonetheless.

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