Slow Reading (1.8): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 5-8)

CameraAwesomePhotoIn the next six pages of his introduction (pp. 5-11), Deleuze reveals two (and teases a third) influence behind the enigmatic argument of his first five pages (See SR 1.1 through 1.7). “There is a force common to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche,” he begins (5). Despite the “considerable, evident and well-known” conceptual and philosophical contrasts between these two philosophers, they nevertheless share one significant position: “they oppose repetition to all forms of generality” (5, original emphasis). According to Deleuze, they take repetition “literally” (rather than taking it as a metaphor of resemblance or equivalence) and even “introduc[e] it into their” respective writing and thinking “style[s]” (Ibid.). What do we make of this revelation of source material? Why Kierkegaard and Nietzsche? Why such an abrupt comparison? Surely Deleuze has several influences – Proust, Bergson, Leibniz, and others – who will factor into his arguments much later, so, again, why these two philosophers here, especially when the first one (Kierkegaard) seems to matter so little to the development of Deleuze’s thought and oeuvre?

I’ve read a good deal of Nietzsche (though several years ago) but very, very little of Kierkegaard. What I do know about both thinkers, however, is that they actively resist the philosophical style of argument that preceded them, that is, a style marked, despite its potential difficulty, by systematicity, consistency, schematicity, paraphraseability, propositionality, rationality, veracity, verifiability, etc., etc. In the place of impressive tomes like the Critique of Pure Reason (Kant) or The Phenomenology of Spirit (Hegel), Kierkegaard and Nietzsche produce a whole range of queer, puzzling texts that explicitly make it difficult to express their collective ideas as systematic oeuvres. Kierkegaard, according to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, invented “a form of rhetoric which would force people back onto their own resources, to take responsibility for their own existential choices, and to become who they are beyond their socially imposed identities.” This SEP entry continues,

He used irony, parody, satire, humor, and deconstructive techniques in order to make conventionally accepted forms of knowledge and value untenable. He was a [quasi-Socratic] gadfly — constantly irritating his contemporaries with discomforting thoughts. He was also a midwife — assisting at the birth of individual subjectivity by forcing his contemporaries to think for themselves. His art of communication became “the art of taking away” since he thought his audience suffered from too much knowledge rather than too little. (“Kierkegaard’s Rhetoric”)

Likewise, Nietzsche’s aphoristic, prophetic, and manic style (which may be a bit more familiar to non-philosophers like me) verges on the literary. It invents concepts ironically and suggestively rather than logically and thus becomes a kind of reading pedagogy. In his preface to Daybreak (1881), Nietzsche writes,

[. . .] why should we have to say what we are and what we want and do not want so loudly and with such fervour? Let us view it more coldly, more distantly, more prudently, from a greater height; let us say it, as it is fitting it should be said between ourselves, so secretly that no one hears it, that no one hears us! Above all let us say it slowly [. . .] It is not for nothing that I have been a philologist, perhaps I am a philologist still, that is to say, a teacher of slow reading: — in the end I also write slowly. Nowadays it is not only my habit, it is also to my taste — a malicious taste, perhaps? — no longer to write anything which does not reduce to despair every sort of man who is ‘in a hurry’. For philology is that venerable art which demands of its votaries one thing above all: to go aside, to take time, to become still, to become slow [. . .] [T]his art does not so easily get anything done, it teaches to read well, that is to say, to read slowly, deeply, looking cautiously before and aft, with reservations, with doors left open, with delicate eyes and fingers . . . My patient friends, this book desires for itself only perfect readers and philologists: learn to read me well! (pg. 5)

IMG_0480Of course, this sort of conscious and strategic self-exceptionalism has limited mileage for Nietzsche’s readers. Some might read this paragraph with frustration; others (like me) have trouble finishing it without swooning. Be that as it may, whether or not one is sympathetic to the strategies and styles of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, it is clear that they both introduce something fascinating into the history of philosophy: i.e., an extreme irony, an occasional humorousness and hilarity, and an explicit transgressiveness. I  take up the relation between repetition and irony/humor in SR 1.7, but how does Deleuze substantiate the alignment of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche in regard to repetition? In what ways do they (and Charles Péguy, who I’ll return to later) “make[] repetition not only a power peculiar to language and thought, a superior pathos and pathology, but also the fundamental category of a philosophy of the future” (DR 5)?

Deleuze’s answers to these questions rephrase and extend some of the negative definitions of repetition which he gives in his first five pages and come in the form of four imperatives (which he attributes to Kierkegaard and Nietzsche):

1. Make something new of repetition itself: connect it with a test, with a selection or selective test; make it the supreme object of the will and of freedom. [. . .]

2. In consequence, oppose repetition to the laws of nature. [. . .]

3. Oppose repetition to moral law, to the point where it becomes the suspension of ethics, a thought beyond good and evil. [. . .]

4. Oppose repetition not only to the generalities of habit but also to the particularities of memory. (DR 6-7)

I want to take a closer look at these four positions in the remainder of this sprawling post (the longest “slow reading” thus far!).

Position 1: Repetition, Test, and Will

The second, third, and fourth positions are, of course, identical to the claims that Deleuze obliquely develops earlier in the text, but the first imperative and the latter half of the fourth one stand out as unique extensions of this particular section. What does the first one mean? How does one “connect” repetition “with a test” or “make it the supreme object of the will and of freedom”? The James, Hughes, and Somers-Hall guidebooks are not all that useful when looking for answers to these questions, for though Somers-Hall does offer brief “readings” of these four positions, they don’t really assess their full weight. For instance, in regard to the first imperative, Somers-Hall writes, “The test in [Kierkegaard’s] case is God’s commandment to Abraham to sacrifice his son. Abraham believes in repetition on the strength of the absurd to the extent that he believes he will get Isaac back in spite of the impossibility of the fact” (13). While it is clear from pg. 7 that Deleuze is probably referring to Kierkegaard’s strange reading of the Abraham-Isaac “sacrifice” episode in the book of Genesis, I am not sure Somers-Hall gets Deleuze’s point here. Is it true to say that Abraham, according to Kierkegaard (and Deleuze), “believes in repetition”? What does this even mean?

What seems right to say is that belief itself (i.e., faith), when brought into contact with a test of one’s belief-limit, becomes a potential condition of repetition. But a repetition of what, exactly? There is something in the lunacy of Abraham’s response to his peculiar circumstance — an immoral commandment to which he responds with radical resignation and surprising obedience — that reveals an irreducible “Abraham-believing.” Indeed, we might say that Abraham’s act becomes the “mirror” which reflects the singularity of his mad faith, which itself grounds a whole series of decisions before and after the twenty-second chapter of Genesis. The singularity of his faith grounds and connects a long legacy of faithfulness stretching from Job to Abraham to Moses to Christ, but this faith also serves to bracket each of these faithful ones from one another (each are singular) and from any commitment to reason or to others. Had a third party been present, for instance, when Abraham attempts to sacrifice his son, this third party would have been rationally obliged to stop him, for he would have appeared — by any account — utterly psychotic! In the garden of Gethsemane, to take another example, Peter acts impulsively (yet sensibly) to save Christ from an unjust arrest and execution, yet he earns nothing for his courage except a rebuke from his master.

The tests of Abraham and Christ require a will detached — which is to say free — from all legibility, rationality, and recognizability. But where, then, is repetition? Repetition emerges in the very immediacy of their responses to their respective tests. Their strict obedience expresses the recurrence of something unique to them, something for which they will be celebrated, something unavoidably captured . . . as if in the surface of a mirror. It is noteworthy that their repetition does not occasion some sort of doctrinal conduct; it is interesting, in other words, that their obedience expresses nothing — no rule, no law, no general model, no act worthy of reenactment — but only the unrecognizability of a passionate faith. (Remember Deleuze’s weird formulation earlier in Difference and Repetition: “the heart is the amorous organ of repetition” (DR 2)!]

Abraham does not “believe[] in repetition” because he believes “he will get Isaac back,” as Somers-Hall reads it. Indeed, the repetition has nothing to do with a prediction, a stay of execution, or a getting-back of a lost son. After all, if Abraham could confidently predict the outcome of his obedience ahead of time, then he would not be acting on faith at all! There would, quite literally, be no test. There would be nothing to celebrate. Though I am certainly out of my depth here, it makes sense to cite Kierkegaard directly:

If the one who is to act wants to judge himself by the result, he will never begin. Although the result may give joy to the entire world, it cannot help the hero, for he would not know the result until the whole thing was over [. . .]

The knight of faith is assigned solely to himself; he feels the pain of being unable to make himself understandable to others, but he has no vain desire to instruct others. The pain is his assurance; vain desire he does not know — for that his soul is too earnest. The spurious knight quickly betrays himself by this expertise that he has acquired instantly. He by no means grasps what is at stake: that insofar as another individual is to go the same path he must become the single individual in the very same way and then does not require anyone’s advice, least of all the advice of one who wants to intrude. (63, 80)

Thus, Abraham’s faithful conduct, which believers will go on to commend, respect, mythologize, and celebrate (but never reenact), is akin to the fall of the Bastille, “repeat[ing] in advance” — taking to the nth power — the faith of his descendants to come (DR 1). I cannot reenact the fall of the Bastille here and now, but I can devote festivals to it (see SR 1.2). Likewise, I cannot — should not — reenact Abraham’s test and obedience, but I can repeat the singularity of the episode and his extreme faithfulness in homilies, artworks of a devotee, and in bedtime stories to children of my own. If I did attempt to encode and encourage others to take up Abraham’s act (rather than his faith), I would simply be encouraging murder . . .

And what of Nietzsche? Deleuze writes,

In the case of Nietzshce: liberate the will from everything which binds it by making repetition the very object of willing. No doubt it is repetition which already binds; but if we die of repetition we are also saved and healed by it — healed, above all, by the other repetition [which contains the] whole mystical game of loss and salvation [. . .] the whole theatrical game of life and death and the whole positive game of illness and health (cf. Zarathustra ill and Zarathustra convalescent by virtue of one and the same power which is that of repetition in the eternal return). (DR 6)

Oh my. While I want to avoid filling the next 3,000 words with explications of The Gay Science (1882-1887) and Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883-1885), for now it might just be enough to refer back to the passage from Daybreak above. There, after all, is a similar test of our readerly faith, a test to which we might respond either with a free and faithful slowness or with flustered rationality. How will we respond to this test?

But perhaps we need a different example, one that has nothing to do with Kierkegaard or Nietzsche. In one of my very first posts, I referenced AMC’s Breaking Bad as a means to challenge Catherine Malabou’s Ontology of the Accident. I believe it is useful here too as a (disturbing) way to discuss the project of connecting repetition to a selective test and to make it the object of an act of will and freedom. How does Walter White respond, after all, to his diagnosis of lung cancer in the very first episode? By strategically selecting — in a position unbound by propriety, with no concern for setting a standard or code, without the reassurance of a future or a care for consequences — a particular mode of generating capital for a future that will not include him. Each subsequent choice and dilemma that he faces — with and without Jessie Pinkman, with and without the knowledge of Skylar, in the face of each violent death, each near capture or collapse — entails yet another choice that repeats Walter’s initial selection. In each choice, Water decides — again, free of propriety — to act in accordance with his unique response to his cancer diagnosis. The singularity of his initial selection (to become a meth cook) recurs, and thus he himself repeats. Just as Abraham’s maddening obedience — ignorant of any outcome — repeats him as singularity, that is, as a radical and absolute faith that cannot be generalized or substituted or exchanged, Walter likewise becomes non-exchangeable and non-substitutable, despite being one mere meth cook among a whole empire of production and distribution. Unlike Abraham, Walter is not beholden to a transcendental order but to a radical self-overcoming. He is less an obedient patriarch and more a frightening repetition of Nietzsche’s Zarathustra, remaining faithful to the eternal return of his initial response to his cancer (to become a meth cook, to become a meth distributer, to become a king pin) even through the cycles of his illness and convalescence.  More on the “eternal return” below . . .

So what is the point of all this madness? Of making repetition — which continues to seem such a minor, innocuous concept — such a huge philosophical problem and concern? The urgent question for Deleuze is similar to Kierkegaard’s in RepetitionIs repetition possible? And, if so, what repeats? For both of them (and for Nietzsche), answers to these questions reveal something crucial about each of us. That repetition as a conduct or an act has nothing to do with mimicking the behavior of others or the barricades of reason. Rather, it has to do with activities that seem to have nothing in common except an expression or reflection of a form, a singular “me.” Which acts express or reflect “me” as a singularity (despite my resemblance to others)? What choice or event do these acts repeat? What moments display a sort of willful freedom from generalities, a “me” that does not fall under the orders of equivalence or resemblance? Where and when and why and in relation to what do “I” (and my loves) become non-exchangeable and non-substituteable? And how — despite the disturbing examples of Zarathustra, Abraham, and Walter White — can I connect my repetition to a test and project? To a mode of living? And what on earth would ground such a mode? If this mode would be free of generality, then what would guarantee its effectiveness? What would make it worthwhile?

Positions 3 and 2: Repetition, Moral Law, Nature, and Being

Though it might not seem worthwhile to explicate position 2 (oppose natural law and repetition) and position 3 (oppose moral law and repetition) yet again, it is somewhat useful to try and work out Deleuze’s reference to Job and Abraham in point 3 and then work backward, through Nietzsche’s eternal return, to point 2. (See SR 1.3 and SR 1.5 for my initial take on these positions and oppositions.) Deleuze writes:

Job is infinite contestation and Abraham infinite resignation, but these are one and the same thing. Job challenges the law in an ironic manner, refusing all second-hand explanations and dismissing the general in order to reach the most singular as principle or as universal. Abraham submits humorously to the law, but finds in that submission precisely the singularity of his only son whom the law commanded him to sacrifice. As Kierkegaard understands it, repetition is the transcendental correlate shared by psychical intentions of contestation and resignation. (DR 7)

In the cases of Job and Abraham, both of whom precede (at least historically) the official record of God’s law, beginning in Exodus and continuing through Deuteronomy, one discovers a “suspension of ethics” (DR 6). Repetition does not emerge here as a universal rule (“thou shalt sacrifice your first born son”) or even as a praiseworthy act (“man, I wish I had the guts to sacrifice my own son!”). It emerges, rather, in the form of a response to the transcendental: the initial promise which God made to Abraham, that is, that he would have a son (even in his old age) and that his descendants would be as numerous as the stars in the sky. The “singularity” of Isaac that also repeats in the midst of this radical act of resignation has nothing to do with Isaac’s hair or eye color or even with the bond of love he might share with his father but, rather, with the miraculous condition of his birth. This singular event of God’s grace repeats (as if in a mirror) beyond the bounds and grasp of God’s law. In the case of Job, we have a similar event. Job rejects all arguments concerning why so much devastation has befallen him (and his family). As Kierkegaard puts it, “From the point of view of immediacy, everything is lost. His friends, especially Bildad, know but one way out, that by submitting to the punishment he may dare to hope for a repetition to the point of overflowing. Job will not have it. With that the knot and the entanglement are tightened and can be untied only by a thunderstorm” (Repetition 212-13). Here, the event of grace (God appearing in a storm and restoring Job after having made him the object of a bet with Satan) repeats yet again, but not in answer to an alignment between Job and a moral precept but, rather, to a radical, ironic dismissal of all attempts to apply precepts to his misfortune.

And what of Nietzsche? Deleuze claims that “in a certain sense one can see the eternal return in direct competition with Kant’s categorical imperative. The eternal return says: whatever you will, will it in such a manner that you also will its eternal return” (DR 7). This paraphrase of aphorism 341 in The Gay Science certainly sounds a great deal like Kant’s categorical imperative, and yet it does away with any “supposed moral law” (Ibid.). If there is a “transcendental” dimension in Nietzsche’s version of the test of one’s choices and actions, this dimension merely expresses — contra Kierkegaard — a “striking atheism, hatred of the law and amor fati (love of fate),” which is to say “a thought beyond good and evil” (DR 6-7).

Perhaps it is a good idea to quote Nietzsche directly:

The heaviest weight. — What if some day or night a demon were to steal into your loneliest loneliness and say to you: ‘This life as you now live it and have lived it you will have to live once again and innumerable times again [. . .] every pain and every joy and every thought and sign and everything unspeakably small or great in your life must return to you[‘] [. . .] If this thought gained power over you [. . .] it would transform and possibly crush you; the question in each and every thing, ‘Do you want this again and innumerable times again?’ would lie on your actions as the heaviest weight! Or how well disposed would you have to become to yourself and to life to long for nothing more fervently than for this ultimate eternal confirmation and seal? (Gay Science 194-95)

A new problem emerges here concerning the ontological ground of repetition, of the very existential mechanics according to which Deleuze’s whole logic of singularities and their repetitions operates. Kant grounds his categorical imperative (see SR 1.5 and 1.6) in the idea of a moral law that exists outside the reach of our senses. It cannot be empirically studied or verified. But what grounds Nietzsche’s test (“Do you want this again and innumerable times again?”)? What makes his implicit heuristic — “repetition [as] the only form of a law beyond morality” (DR 7) — worthwhile? As Deleuze argues in position 2, “Nietzsche [. . .] conceives of repetition in the eternal return as Being” (DR 6). In other words, Nietzsche’s test only makes sense if eternal recurrence is itself the inescapable spatiotemporal logic of my existence, “the brutal form of the immediate” that folds together a “within-the-law” (universal) and a “beyond-the-law” (singular) (DR 7). Nietzsche has no need of Kant’s as if”. The Zarathustrian urgency of the demon’s test only makes sense if my response to the test of recurrence — that is, my selection or free choice — will, in fact and necessarily, recur eternally. It only works because the eternal return is always already the shape of fate, of existence. “How will you live?” the demon asks. “Here and now, how will you act? Choose wisely and carefully, for your decision to teach, to learn, to love, to save, to conform, to transgress, to cook, to wage war, to politic, to craft, to write, to read, to think, to sleep, to worry . . . your decision will repeat!”

It is only by understanding that repetition is a far more fundamental ontological category (and not just an ontic form that I connect to my conduct) that position 2 makes any sense to me at all (i.e., the opposition of nature and repetition). As I already cited, Deleuze reads Nietzsche’s eternal return as the ontological form of repetition, that is, repetition as the form of “Being” itself (DR 6). The eternal return, again as Deleuze reads it, constitutes “a will willing itself through all change, a power opposed to law, an interior of the earth opposed to the laws of its surface” (Ibid.). In other words, in every phenomenon that science composes into functions and hypotheses and theories, which they use to make predictions and to inspire the development of new technologies, Nietzsche does not simply see an automatic adherence to a set of natural laws but a far more radical will at work . . .  a will which Deleuze will analyze at greater length later in Difference and Repetition. He asks here (but leaves unanswered), “How could the thinker who goes furthest in criticising the notion of law reintroduce eternal return as a law of nature?” (DR 6). Regarding Kierkegaard’s opposition of repetition and natural law, I have to admit my complete inadequacy as a reader. I can only point interested readers to the supplemental section of Repetition, in which he responds at length to a Professor Heidelberg (cf. pp. 306-319).

So, in position 1, Deleuze shows how Kierkegaard and Nietzsche attempt to connect repetition to a free activity or conduct. In positions 2 and 3, however, they also shape it into a far more ontological ground to which “I” remain subject and according to which my choice and selection will become non-exchangeable, which is to say repeatable: i.e., God’s grace (Kierkegaard) or the eternal return (Nietzsche).

Position 4: Repetition, Habit, and Memory

I do not really have all that much to say in regard to Deleuze’s explanations of Kierkegaard and Nietzsche here, since he appears, for the most part, rehearse his arguments in positions 1 through 3. However, he does say something interesting here:

With habit, we act only on the condition that there is a little Self within us which contemplates: it is this which extracts the new — in other words, the general — from the pseudo-repetition of particular cases. Memory, then, perhaps recovers the particulars dissolved in generality. These psychological movements are of little consequence: for both Nietzsche and Kierkegaard they fade away in the face of repetition proposed as the double condemnation of habit and memory. In this way, repetition is the thought of the future: it is opposed to both the ancient category of reminiscence and the modern category of habitus. It is in repetition and by repetition that Forgetting becomes a positive power while the unconscious becomes a positive and superior unconscious. (DR 7-8)

I want to end with comments on this passage, partly because Deleuze’s examples and explanations following this passage are not altogether helpful. What if we look back to Breaking Bad for help? In Season Three, after initially refusing to help Jessie get revenge for the murder of one of his friends (shot selling meth in a rival territory), the following scene takes place:

Walt’s behavior is not “positive” here in a “moral,” “courageous,” or “praiseworthy” sense. Rather, it is positive in the sense that it honors, unconsciously and without reference to a moral, natural, or habitual form, his initial selection of a future in response to his cancer diagnosis. While it might be nice to read this scene as a touching rescue of Jessie, it in fact expresses something else entirely: that there is no “half measure” in the eternal return, that the condition of his unique choice to cook and sell crystal meth repeats itself in entirely disparate settings and situations, that each emergence of the figure “Heisenberg” constitutes the expressiveness of this repetition “carr[ied] to the ‘nth’ power” (DR 8), and (most importantly for Deleuze’s fourth position) that the eternal return operates according to a radical “Forgetting [l’Oubli]” (DR 7): a forgetting or stripping away of law, of security, of consistency, of identity, of family, of former lives, of duties, of propriety, of formats, of scripts, of norms, of exchange rates, of substitutions, of equivalencies, and of resemblances. Repetition — when taken literally — is the terrifying, positive, and unconscious recurrence of a singularity that results from a test of free selection: from Walt’s response to his diagnosis, from Abraham’s immediate obedience to God, from Job’s stubborn contestation of all rational explanations, and from Zarathustra’s insistence on teaching others (his animals, us, a people to come) how to fashion life otherwise. It is important, I think, to note that Deleuze does not deny the existence or the efficacy or the vital importance of generalities or laws. Rather, he seems to be taking up the audacious task of linking a metaphysics and an ontology of repetition to the creative and critical task of analyzing the radically open conditions of lived existence in itself.

But then again, I might be misreading it . . . next time I’ll finish up his section on Kierkegaard and Nietzsche.


  1. thank you very much for your interesting readings. But I have a question: if the original choice of walter white is “honoured” in each of is acts, that are a repetion of that choice, why we cant affirm that he created its on law (do whatever is necessary to assure money to the family) ? And so that his new conduct has just changed faith while staying in the order of generality?

  2. thank you for your reading. But I have a question: Why we cannot assume the original choice of Walter white as a new law?. Like: Do everything u can to assure money to your family. In this case we would stay in the order of generality.

    1. I’m definitely open to your reading. Indeed, there is a way in which Walter’s choice initially seems to conform to a rather standard patriarchal response to tragedy (we might not even call it new; it’s rather old, I think). However, as the show plays out we learn that his decision is not motivated by the welfare of his family but by the excitement of the transformation itself (an increase in power which Spinoza might call, even if it unsettles us, “joy”). He does not admit this non-altruistic motivation until the final episode, but there is plenty of evidence that his choice has more to do with something outside of his family (and even his old self). Does that make sense?

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