“Our problem,” Deleuze writes, “concerns the essence of repetition” (DR 19). I admit that I winced the first time I read this sentence some years ago, probably because “essence” has become a dirty word in literary and cultural studies. Indeed, critics and theorists in these fields have built up an allergy to talk of “essences” over the last four or five decades. To be accused of “essentialism,” after all, is to be accused of a destructive determinist mode of thinking. It is also to be accused of a trans- and thus anti-historicism. It is also to be accused of imposing a coercive, oppressive, or repressive category or concept (what is now commonly called a “social construct”) onto something or someone as if it were the natural truth of that something, someone, or someones. Though I tend to align myself with this “essentialism” allergy, I find that Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak offers a pretty important reminder: “essentialism is a loose-tongued phrase, not a philosophical school. It is used by nonphilosophers simply to mean all kinds of things when they don’t know what other word to use [. . .] [Deconstruction] teaches me something about essentialisms being among the conditions of the production of doing, being, but does not give me a clue to the real. The real in deconstruction is neither essentialist nor antiessentialist. It invites us to think through the counterintuitive position that there might be essences and there might not be essences” (Outside in the Teaching Machine 8, 11).
But here I’m not concerned with deconstruction. Since Deleuze seems to believe in the reality of essences, we might ask: what sort of essence is Deleuze after? In Difference and Repetition, he is pursuing, qua essence, an ontological operation, one that will bring about the complete reconceptualizaion of what a self, a subject, or a substance might be in the first place. Are these essences? Do they have essences? If so, what are the ontological conditions of their essences? Here, in Deleuze’s willingness to retain a notion of essence, no matter how re-imagined it may become, we mark a radical distinction between Difference and Repetition and the philosophy of Jacques Derrida, for whom the term “essence” always already implies, at least in Of Grammatology, a persistent logocentric privileging of presence, fullness, authenticity, origination, or proximity over absence, partiality, inauthenticity, derivativeness, or distance. It is clear to me that Deleuze does not worry himself about these hiearchicies of valued terms and that for him they are far less strict, far less policed and reinforced in the history of philosophy than Derrida propounds (so expertly).
At the very least, sticking with Deleuze’s introduction, whatever an essence is remains exterior to the mechanics of representation: “[Our question] is a question of knowing why repetition cannot be explained by the form of identity in concepts or representations; in what sense it demands a superior ‘positive’ principle. This enquiry must embrace all the concepts of nature and freedom” (DR 19). We see here a strict division between “essence” and “identity.” This will be important later on when I conclude this post.
But first: another overview of concepts of nature and freedom. As you may recall from the excruciatingly difficult third section of the introduction, these terms refer, respectively, to two instances of conceptual blockage, that is, to two instances in which the ideal conceptual ratio of comprehension to extension (infinity to one) is blocked by something outside of my control or intention. Additionally, these instances of blockage also form the (negative) conditions under which a repetition occurs (under a condition either alienation or repression). In the case of concepts of nature, the entirety of the spatiotemporal field—before/after, right/left, first/last, here/there, then/now/to come and so on—introduces an odd indefiniteness into the comprehension and extension of a concept with which I try to understand a thing or an object in nature. There is a crucial distinction, we might say, between my concept of the planet Jupiter—with which I “distinguish [one] object from every other object” in the universe—and my concept of a planet in general (DR 13). The latter concept pursues “its comprehension indefinitely,” meaning that it does not concern itself with all predications or determinations, and thus “always subsum[es] [an indefinite] plurality of objects” whose differences remain non-conceptual, which is say spatiotemporal (13). Indefinite comprehension (virtually infinite), indefinite extension (again, virtually infinite). We conceive of “a planet” in just such a way that it can refer to seemingly innumerable cosmic bodies yet still enable one (at the same time) to insist that a body like Pluto cannot possibly be “a planet” at all.
Deleuze claims that repetition occurs under a concept like “a planet” insofar as scientific minds have gathered together particular reoccurrences of specific phenomena, forming a pattern that Nature could not communicate or express or remember on its own. Nature is alienated from itself—partes extra partes, mens momentanea—and under the “natural” condition of this alienation, scientific minds manage to form indefinite, general concepts; draw together clusters of distinct and separated things (in this instance, certain cosmic bodies); and subtract “something new from the repetition that it contemplates” (DR 14). In Difference and Repetition, Deleuze wants to discover and articulate the “positive principle” of repetition that subsists beneath, beyond, beside, or behind the purportedly negative condition of Nature’s alienation from itself. (Just like he attempted to find the positive principle subsisting beneath, beyond, beside, or behind repression in the fourth section of this introduction: see SR 1.17 and 1.18.) Thus, his investigations, as he puts it in the passage above, must “embrace all the concepts of nature and freedom” in order to find the positive principle that might explain alienation and repression (among other things).
After spending so much time on the first three sentences of this section, let’s look at Deleuze’s example:
Consider, on the border between these two cases, the repetition of a decorative motif: a figure is reproduced, while the concept remains absolutely identical . . . (DR 19)
This example borders, Deleuze suggests, between a concept of nature and a concept of freedom. On the one hand, we might say that the artist’s motif (his or her concept of a figure) gathers together an indefinite number of its material reproductions, which remain, like natural objects, fully separated or alienated from one another (even when set in patterns or symmetries). In this sense, the artist’s concept of a figure is akin to a concept of nature. On the other hand, we might also say that the artist’s motif refers to a repressed memory or sensation; the reproduction of this figure is then a compulsion that masks this unconscious concept (of which the artist remains unaware). In this sense, the artist’s motif is akin to a concept of freedom. [Note: my understanding of “concepts of nature” and “concepts of freedom” has developed and changed a bit as I’ve continued through the introduction. If you notice inconsistency between my treatment of them here and in my original posts on Deleuze’s third section (see SR 1.15 and 1.16), take heart that those inconsistencies might actually be evidence of my learning to read Deleuze! Or not…]
So this instance of a motif, from the perspective of natural blockage, can be understood either as a concept of nature or a concept of freedom resulting, respectively, from a negative condition of alienation or repression. “However,” Deleuze writes,
this is not how artists proceed in reality. They do not juxtapose instances of the figure, but rather each time combine an element of one instance with another element of a following instance. They introduce a disequilibrium into the dynamic process of construction, an instability, dissymetry, or gap which disappears only in the overall effect. Commenting on such a case, Lévi-Strauss writes: ‘These elements interlock with each other through dislocation, and it is only at the end that the pattern achieves a stability which both confirms and belies the dynamic process according to which it has been carried out.’ (DR 19-20)
How does an artist make art? Here Deleuze intimates a philosophy of art, which he unfolds at greater length in other texts, for which recognizable, repeatable figures are not the readymade causes or conditions of aesthetic patterns or symmetry but, rather, the retrospective effects of a primary “disequilibrium.” While we may think of an aesthetic pattern as an order of repeated figures, Deleuze wants to call our attention to the dynamic formation of these patterns, orders, and their figures, a process that actually disrupts things that are, in a sense, already in place. If nothing else, when an artist is in the midst of creating, he or she enters into a gap between the very materiality of their aesthetic material (e.g., color, paint, shape, surface, texture, tone, sound, fabric, word, ink, thread, etc.) and the ongoing taking-shape of that material into some kind of whole that will continue to affect (and perhaps be affected by) its future environments. This approach to art frames it as literal composition, that is, as com-position, as the putting-together of materials and elements and ideas and sensations from distinct, even disparate fields. Any sense of order, pattern, intention, or balance among repeated figures emerges “at the end” of “the dynamic process” (according to Lévi-Strauss). The praise of balance is, in this way, the praise of a forgotten, now secretive imbalance that continues to make the “overall effect” of the work possible.
What matters here is that, for Deleuze, the alienated state of two symmetrical figures or the repressed state of the unconscious intention or memory of the artist (which this symmetry masks) are really just the aftereffect of a more fundamental process, a more radical, groundless condition of repetition without which alienation, repression, composition, or (as Deleuze is about to describe) signification would not—could not—occur.
But before I get to signification, Deleuze’s claim about aesthetic labor reminds me of an early passage in Virginia Woolf’s brilliant essay, “How Should One Read a Book?” (It appears as the last essay in her 1932 Common Reader collection, though earlier versions, revised for different audiences, appear elsewhere.) She writes,
Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write; to make your own experiment with the dangers and difficulties of words. Recall, then, some event that has left a distinct impression on you—how at the corner of the street, perhaps, you passed two people talking. A tree shook; an electric light danced; the tone of the talk was comic, but also tragic; a whole vision, an entire conception, seemed contained in the moment.
But when you attempt to reconstruct it in words, you will find that it breaks into a thousand conflicting impressions. Some must be subdued; others emphasised; in the process you will lose, probably, all grasp upon the emotion itself. (The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 5: 1929-1932 574)
Woolf suggests a compositional task here that is, in actuality, a task of repetition. How do I make a “distinct impression” repeat itself? The key to this repetition (and the difficulty involved in this task) is that the origin of my effort has nothing to do with a pre-existing equilibrium, balance, or symmetry between the impression and my experiment. Rather, my aesthetic labor begins and must begin in a state of imbalance, dissymetry, or disequilbrium between two very different levels. I do not build up my “novel” in a linear way toward my literary intention or concept—a representation of my impression in words—but, rather, I join together various elements and actions and affects into some kind of whole. Along the way, Woolf warns, all sorts of things get lost. My single impression fragments into “a thousand conflicting impressions.” My intention splinters, and my grasp on my literary concept loosens . . . and yet this is precisely the process by which I attempt to make the work stand on its own as a reflection of a singular impression (whether or not it was the impression I had in mind). One problem: at least two levels of repetition begin to emerge here. First, the repetition of the components of my impression (“tree”; “electric light”; “tone of the talk”; etc.) and, perhaps, the repetition of tropes and narrative conventions. And, second, the repetition of the impression itself . . . But more on this in just a bit.
Turning back to Deleuze’s paragraph, we note a turn away from his example of aesthetic composition to much more general notions of causality and signification/signaling:
[. . .] what matters is the possibility of the cause having less symmetry than the effect. Moreover, causality would remain eternally conjectural, a simple logical category, if that possibility were not at some moment or other fulfilled. For this reason, the logical relation of causality is inseparable from a physical process of signalling, without which it would not be translated into action. By ‘signal’ we mean a system with orders of disparate size, endowed with elements of dissymetry; by ‘sign’ we mean what happens within such a system, what flashes across the intervals when communication takes place between disparates. The sign is indeed an effect, but an effect with two aspects: in one of these it expresses, qua sign, the productive dissymetry; in the other it tends to cancel it. The sign is not entirely of the order of the symbol; nevertheless, it makes way for it by implying an internal difference (while leaving the conditions of its reproduction still external). (DR 20)
Goodness, there are a lot of moving parts here, and Deleuze does not make it easy to flesh out how they work together. What do we have in play?  The process of composing art,  the logical relation of causality, and  something that Deleuze calls “signaling,” which is itself made up of [a] disparates, [b] signals, and [c] signs (which are then compared with [d] symbols). What ties this cluster of terms and theories together? For Deleuze, it would seem, all states of affairs, all events, all sequences and strategies, all patterns or predictions, all works of art, all effective communications are not the necessary outcomes of an a priori order of things. Rather, their symmetries and predictabilities and repetitions are nothing but aftereffects of a primary condition of imbalance among non-related components: that is, of a (natural) disorder of disparates. Deleuze turns to the example of causality in general, I think, because the often misunderstood (logical) relation between causes and effects serves as an instructive blueprint for how all potential movements actualize (whether they be movements of words, bodies, planets, sensations, thoughts, or molecules). In an effort to avoid summarizing Hume and Kant on causality (I’m not trained to do so anyway), it might be best to try and put it simply, for Deleuze is actually making a rather straightforward point. The movement from cause to effect is not natural or rational, not a mere playing-out of balanced, coherent laws or rules. Rather, this movement constitutes a leap from the chaotic state immanent to nature to an ordered effect that (effectively) manages and masks this chaos. This is the case in the evolution of species, the formation of ecosystems, the composition of a novel, and the everyday communications I might have with my partner, landlords, friends, and strangers.
The provisional theory of signaling which Deleuze just barely sketches out here suggests that the secret of that which repeats—whether it be an aesthetic figure, a particular sign within a signal, or a mere recognizable effect (what goes up must come down; if I drink too much caffeine, I won’t be able to sleep, etc.)—has to do with the leap across a radical gap or separation between two aspects of repetition: namely between this primary and “productive dissymetry” (an analogue to the “death drive” of Deleuze’s previous section) and the resulting effect of balance or wholeness that cancels all evidence of this dissymetry. Between sender and receiver, speaker and audience, lighthousekeeper and helmsman, meaning and message, intention and material or media, there is not some sort of natural symmetry that secures the possibility of communication. Though humans and their cultures may establish tropes, conventions, and recognizable gestures that ease and secure the possibility of effective communication (what Deleuze terms signals in this passage), errors in communication—we might surmise—have little to do with a deviation from some sort of primary natural symmetry. Rather, they constitute the seeping-through of the primary “lack of symmetry” that simultaneously possibilizes an effective play of masks and roles as well as the failure of that play. The sign, as Deleuze says, makes symbols possible because it too sets up a relation between disparates, disclosing both the difficulty of effectively making the communicative leap (or writing an effective novel, if I’m Woolf) and the immanence of disorder according to which some sort of effect (communication or confusion) will occur.
Goodness… am I really done with that paragraph?! Finally! Deleuze begins this section’s second paragraph, which I won’t spend quite as much time with, by insisting that one should resist thinking of a “lack of symmetry” as a negative condition (DR 20). But can there be a positive lack? How? Why? We’ll be getting to some of his evidence in my next post. For now, it is important to note that Deleuze makes a strong claim that this dissymmetry “is positivity itself” (DR 20). It is, quite literally and in a perfectly mundane sort of way, the starting point of genetic activity: of building, inventing, courting, writing, thinking, feeling, and affecting. Extending the example of “the decorative motif” from his first paragraph, Deleuze argues that causality itself breaks down into “two types of repetition”:
[The first] concerns only the overall, abstract effect [. . .]
[It] is a static repetition [. . .]
[It] results from the work [of the artist . . .]
[And it] refers back to a single concept [here the motif], which leaves only an external difference between the ordinary instances of the figure [e.g., one of the right, one of the left, one over here, one over there].
[The second] concerns the acting cause [. . .]
[It] is dynamic [. . .]
[It] is like the ‘evolution’ of a bodily movement [. . .]
[It] is the repetition of an internal difference [immanence?] which it incorporates in each of its moments, and carries from one distinctive point to another [. . .]
In the dynamic order there is no representative concept, nor any figure represented in a pre-existing space. There is an Idea, and a pure dynamism which creates a corresponding space. (DR 20)
Repetitions that occur by way of the natural blockage of the concept (forming nominal concepts, concepts of nature, or concepts of freedom) correspond to the first order of repetitions Deleuze lays out here. (First only in order of comparison; the second is the primary or genetic repetition in this case.) Like the second type of repetition, these recurrences are not generalities. Unlike the second, however, they still refer back to a single concept. Even if they remain outside of it, they are still tethered to the domain of representation.
The second type of repetition returns us to Deleuze’s use of the term “singularity” earlier in the introduction and also to this section’s distinction between essence and identity. An identity, for Deleuze, is a concept under which distinct objects (or subjects) in the world are gathered together under the representational category of Sameness. For Deleuze, essence is exterior to this category and immanent to the arrangement of objects or subjects in the world. Essence = singularity = Idea (!!) = “a more secret vibration which animates” the effects of a signal, work of art, concept, law, or identity (DR 1). It seems to me that Difference and Repetition is anticipating, here, Deleuze and Guattari’s later attempts to conceptualize planes of immanence, composition, and/or consistence. If so, then an essence of a novel has nothing to do with the meaning of the novel or the intention of its author. Rather, it has to do with the ever-repeating, ever-vibrating Idea that forms the subsisting texture of the novel, the plane on which the author composes settings, characters, scenes, themes, plots, and perspectives. It has suddenly occurred to me that my own method of reading literature strives to let that plane of composition repeat, to let the disequilibrium at the genetic root of the novel express its Idea . . .
Or something like that. Is this really different from what any other “close reader” of literature does?
Woolf’s “How Should One Read a Book?” is once again instructive, I think. Near the end of her essay, having surveyed the difficulties that various genres pose to readers (e.g., fiction, biography, history, and poetry), she turns to another matter: that of judging a book. When one finishes a book, she suggests, one should probably figure out what one thinks of it! She writes:
We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions [of a book]; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reading to settle; for the conflict and the questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. (Essays 579)
While my own experience of reading may be quite a bit different from Woolf’s, it seems to me that she is on to something that is not so far removed from Deleuze in Difference and Repetition. To properly judge a novel or a book of poetry, she suggests, means waiting for the repetition of “a whole,” a repetition which could not occur amongst the second-order repetitions of its parts, all of which were in connection with aesthetic or narrative concepts. For Woolf, the whole is independent of the process of reading, independent of these concepts and conventions and tropes for which it nevertheless creates a literary space. Could one confidently adequate Woolf’s sense of “the book as a whole,” which repeats “without our willing it,” with the Deleuzian repetition of essence, singularity, or Idea? It seems worthwhile pursuing that adequation, if only to open up unpursued resonances between Woolf and Deleuze in matters of art, thought, being, and difference. Another time, perhaps.
Next time, I will examine some of Deleuze’s evidence regarding his “two types of repetition,” particularly his quick forays into geometry, music, evolution, and literature. Goodness.