Slow Reading (1.21): Deleuze’s DR (pp. 22-23)

In my last (and longest) post, I did my best to give an overview of the four examples Deleuze uses to illustrate his distinction between the bare repetition of the Same (which is the traditional, colloquial understanding of repetition) and a more radical (and hidden) repetition of difference. In the following paragraph of his introduction, he has one last example, which is a bit odd since he ends the previous paragraph with a disconcerting question: “How does death inspire language, given that it is always present when repetition is affirmed?” (DR 22). Deleuze will circle back to death in this next paragraph, but for now—as we may have foreseen—we will have to wait if we want more details regarding his provocative question.

So what is Deleuze’s fifth illustration of the difference between bare repetition and the repetition of difference? In a word, education:

The reproduction of the Same is not a motor of bodily movements. We know that even the simplest imitation involves a difference between inside and outside. Moreover, imitation plays only a secondary and regulatory role in the acquisition of behavior: it permits the correction of movements being made, but not their instigation. Learning takes place not in the relation between a representation and an action (reproduction of the Same) but in the relation between a sign and a response (encounter with the Other). (DR 22)

Bodily movement. Behavior acquisition and instigation. Learning. Encounters with the Other. As a teacher, I have been told numerous times—by colleagues, administrators, and students—that people learn mimetically, which is to say by copying the demonstrative models of their teachers. When it comes to the reading literature, for instance, it is important to model how to interpret, how to produce close readings, how to synthesize the arguments of scholarly articles, how to organize papers, and how to offer constructive criticism and feedback. According to Deleuze, these mimetic lessons would not be instances of learning, per se, but instances of regulating and correcting and uniforming readymade movements.

Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, pg. 23

One sees the effects of this mimetic regulation all over the place. Nearly every freshman I have had in my classes, when tasked to write an essay on a work of literature, uses the same phrasing to introduce the poem or short story or novel which is the subject of his or her paper. “In ‘A Rose for Emily’ a short story by writer William Faulkner…” “In Mrs. Dalloway a novel by novelist Virginia Woolf…” “In ‘Morning Song’ a poem by the American poet Sylvia Plath…” Etc. Etc. This rather mundane and inoffensive example—which is not incorrect, just a bit awkward—evinces the uncritical side of mimetic “learning.” When asked why they word their first sentences this way, many students have responded that  “In [Title], a [Genre] by [Author]” is a formula earlier teachers had used to prepare them for standardized writing tests in order to ensure that they include all necessary information in the first sentences of their exam answers. (School funding is at stake, after all, if exam evaluators don’t notice the presence of all relevant information, no matter how awkwardly phrased.) When students are drilled in formulating their sentences this way—in a way from which they are warned not to deviate—in what sense can we call these English lessons in “learning to write”? Moreover: In what sense is memorizing multiplication tables the same thing as learning how to do math? Or memorizing the periodic table the same thing as learning to do chemistry? Or following the instructions that come with a Lego set the same thing as learning to build? For Deleuze, mimesis has a secondary, exterior, and regulative (one might even say coercive) relation—if any—to learning, for learning is primarily a matter of instigating desire, feeling, response, that is, an encounter with the sudden sense that one wants do something else. Perhaps this rough, somewhat romantic theory of learning is akin to what Gayatri Chakravotry Spivak means with the obscure phrase “an uncoercive rearrangement of desires” (Aesthetic Education 373).

But, of course, I’ve redirected this passage toward classroom learning whereas Deleuze focuses on the instigation and acquisition of particular corporeal movements. Initially it seems somewhat silly to claim that motor skills are not reproductions of the Same. Surely, little children mimic the physical gestures of adults, don’t they? From a certain point of view, this is perfectly reasonable, but I think we need a concrete example to flesh out what Deleuze is getting at. Imagine a young child watching its parent looking in a mirror, brushing his or her hair as he or she prepares for the day ahead. The child (without noticeable prompting) begins to mimic its parent, awkwardly reproducing these movements, running its hand across its forehead, stroking its head over and over again, turning its head from side to side, perhaps even glancing into the reflective surface of the nearest window and making its own sounds of exasperation or satisfaction. Is this not an instance of motor-symmetry? The repetition of the Same? According to Deleuze, as unintuitive as it may sound, no. Or, rather, yes but (more profoundly) no. From the point of view that Deleuze has been composing throughout his introduction, so much more is going on than a process of reproduction or imitation.

What do we learn if we juxtapose Proust’s narrator and the many, many loves in the Recherche beside the child awkwardly learning to brush hair from its own eyes in the way its parent does? We might begin to see, Deleuze would suggest, that the parent’s movement of brushing hair from its face is no more “original” than the narrator’s desperate love for his mother. Again, from a certain point of view it makes sense to assign the category “original” to these purportedly originary events, yet within Proust’s novel other loves antedate the narrator’s desire for his mother. (I covered this in SR 1.17). That “first” love is always already a repetition of the difference that other loves have made, loves that always remain composed with distinct and disparate lives, settings, and sensibilites. Love is only recognizable as “love” by way of its repetition and differentiation among and between others. Likewise, my hypothetical child and its reproduction of hair-brushing masks a hidden repetition of difference: the child responds to a movement it does not understand (which its parent also must have learned as a child) and attaches it to unarticulated concerns that have nothing to do with the parent’s day. The child selects and incorporates the parent’s habitual movement much the same way that an actor selects a role or a script—or the way two (or three or four?) lovers discover a style or charm in the minutest of gestures, phrases, situations, and madnesses in the Other to whom they are drawn with excitement, contentment, or fury.

Perhaps it is more appropriate to say that my hypothetical child enters into a becoming-selected by the hair-brushing of the parent, that the actor is selected by the role or the script, or that the lover is tripped up by the queer features of his or her once and future lovers. Although the logic of these formulations will have to wait, we can glimpse in them what Deleuze means when he aligns learning and repetition with an “encounter with the Other,” that is, with a happening which the would-be apprentice undergoes. To learn is, for Deleuze, to be tasked with a project of repeating something wholly unrecognizable, to incorporate components of that unrecognizable Other with one’s own body, mind, setting, sensibility, and desire. The child does not understand why the parent brushes his or her hair; it is simply compelled to repeat (for no one reason). The actor does not necessarily understand why a role beckons (though he or she may relate in part to a character, scene, or line). He or she merely knows that the role must be learned and repeated. The lover’s other lovers are initially and maybe forever a set of unknowns, a plane of charming features that become enveloped with the lover’s life, features which the lover wishes to repeat over and over again. In each of these wildly discrepant cases—the hair-brushing child, the would-be actor, the enthusiastic lover—there is a pedagogy at work, an emerging and accidental apprenticeship (without master) that has (if any) a secondary relation to mimesis and a primary relation to alterity, difference, and newness.

But what constitutes the Deleuzian encounter? Signs and heterogeneity. “Signs involve heterogeneity in at least three ways,” he writes,

[1.] in the object which bears or emits them, and is necessarily on a different level, as though there were two orders of size or disparate realities between which the sign flashes;

[2.] in themselves, since a sign envelops another ‘object’ within the limits of the object which bears it, and incarnates a natural or spiritual power (an Idea);

[3.] in the response they elicit, since the movement of the response does not ‘resemble’ that of the sign. (DR 22-23, numbers added)

This model of encounter is not a model of communication, signification, or even imitation. While the Sausserian approach to signs concerns the larger system of language (langue) that determines how signs mean things in particular utterances (parole) or how they arbitrarily suture together sound and sense, the Deleuzian sign is not about meaning or the distinction of signifier and signifieds or even the differential relations of signs, indexes, and icons. For him, a sign does not simply mean. Rather, it does stuff. It elicits. It envelopes. It relates. It piques. It beckons. It disgusts. It befuddles. And it moves independently of the bodies and minds which bear or emit it. While the circumstances under which a sign comes into being are various, for Deleuze it matters much more that they constitute a variable, sensuous, and creative structure of call and response than a  system of meaning delivery, regulation, or competence. James Williams put it nicely when he writes, “So signs are not a matter of correct interpretation or reading, they are a matter of a necessary experimentation with what the sign triggers in the individual (What if I try this?)” (Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition 53). (Note: Deleuze does create an inventory of signs in Proust and Signs, though it is clear that he is attempting to develop the novel‘s own inventory. It would be a mistake, I think, to assign this inventory too quickly to Deleuze’s references to signs in his later work.)

Indeed, the reality of the object that bears a sign (e.g., the parent’s body, which brushes hair from its own eyes) is distinct from the reality of the sign that it emits. The body and the sign exist, as it were, differently. Deleuze relies on a figurative language of light or enlightenment (“the sign flashes”) in order to capture the radical division between the levels or planes of the object and the sign, the latter of which can move without and beyond the body itself. The sign, once it emerges, has no need of and yet is, in a sense, tethered to the purportedly original object. After all, the body of the parent need not even be present for the sign itself (the call for response, for repetition) to become operative.

But how do we account for the operativity of the sign? Deleuze’s second point gestures toward some sort of answer, but his language is incredibly difficult to parse. What does it mean that “a sign envelops another ‘object'”? Is this other object, for the instance, the body of the child? The general significance of “hair brushing”? Is it akin to “meaning”? Whatever it is, Deleuze claims that the sign operates by wrapping up something else with the object that emits it. If this is the case, then the eventual “learning-to-brush-hair” is not a matter of reproduction, for the “original” activity itself undergoes some sort of change in the emergence and operation of the sign, in its becoming-powerful as “an Idea.” What Deleuze seems to be getting at is the way in which something completely mundane or uninteresting (brushing hair, doing math, playing the guitar) begins to travel and to work on others independently of the one originally doing the brushing, multiplying, or playing. “Brushing hair” is not just a meaningful linguistic phrase in this instance; it becomes an Idea (and one that can be represented in all sorts of ways with all sorts of words). But heterogeneity is also at work in the response, that is, in the child who experiments with brushing hair from its own face in circumstances that are wholly unlike the circumstances of the parent. In a sense (and Deleuze will develop this at various points throughout the book), the child does not learn from the actual movements of the parent, for the parent’s body makes all sorts of movements that the child does not select as interesting or as worthy of incorporation into its own bodily repetoire. Rather, the child only learns because of a serendipitous, surprising, and accidental encounter with a sign that beckons, elicits, interests, and piques it to move and to repeat in a certain way.

But what is it that is actually being repeated in these instances? Given what Deleuze writes in the earliest pages of the introduction, we have to answer: a singularity, the non-substitutable style of a parent’s gesture, the non-exchangeable charm of a potential lover, the unique composition of a well-wrought role . . . In becoming the reflective surfaces for these singularities, the child, the lover, and the actor are components in these singularities’ trajectories of becoming-otherwise, repeating as difference, enabling the composition of new styles, charms, and singularities to come.

I think. I’m probably overreaching. But back to the paragraph.

Using his own example—that of a swimmer—Deleuze expands his odd theory of signs, learning, and education:

The movement of the swimmer does not resemble that of the wave, in particular, the movements of the swimming instructor which we reproduce on the sand bear no relation to the movements of the wave, which we learn to deal with only by grasping the former in practice as signs. That is why it is so difficult to say how someone learns: there is an innate or acquired practical familiarity with signs, which means that there is something amorous—but also something fatal—about all education. We learn nothing from those who say: ‘Do as I do’. Our only teachers are those who tell us to ‘do with me’, and are able to emit signs to be developed in heterogeneity rather than propose gestures for us to reproduce. In other words, there is no ideo-motivity, only sensory-motivity. When a body combines some of its own distinctive points with those of a wave, it espouses the principle of a repetition which is no longer that of the Same, but involves the Other—involves difference, from one wave and one gesture to another, and carries that difference through the repetitive space thereby constituted. To learn is indeed to constitute this space of an encounter with signs, in which the distinctive points renew themselves in each other, and repetition takes shape while disguising itself. (DR 23)

Although I have always struggled to grasp what Deleuze means here, this passage has been one of my favorites from Difference and Repetition for many years. Why? Because here he aligns his notion of learning with spatiotemporal immersion, that is, with a process that requires both activity and passivity. Learning to swim is not a matter of mastering one’s own body alone. It is not good enough to watch the instructor or to reproduce movements outside of the water. Rather, to learn in this case requires a literal conjunction of my body with a space I cannot control and with a duration in which my habitual movements no longer serve me very well. To learn requires a position and an ordeal in which I must (if I am to thrive) learn to move differently. While it is easy to visualize this theory of learning with an example like swimming, in which it is obvious that a long apprenticeship of repetition and attunement to the sensuous signs of waves and depths and pressures is necessary, Deleuze suggests that all good teachers (no matter the discipline) must translate their tones and styles and lesson plans into spaces that are somehow akin to bodies of water. Thus, he subsumes all pedagogic projects under the concept of feeling—”sensory-motivity” rather than “ideo-motivity”—and argues that effective pedagogies must be sensuous pedagogies that emphasize sensation, investment, interest, desire, and even love (“there is something amorous . . . about all education”). The spaces and ordeals of these pedagogies and apprenticeships, like bodies of water, must also be about allowing students—much like the hair-brushing child—to experiment with the signs it encounters, to incorporate them in provisional ways with their own projects and interests and tastes. Thus, a good teacher is a teacher who is continually in an apprenticeship of his or her own, modeling close reading (for instance) by perpetually learning to reread (that is, to repeat his or her own encounters with literature side-by-side with students). Thus, Deleuze’s emphasis (yet again) on the develop of skills and movements “in heterogeneity” rather than uniformity. Such teaching, one assumes would require a great deal of preparation, strategy, frustration, disappointment, and improvisation . . . and a teaching that focuses on experimenting with the conditions of student learning rather than the outcomes of readymade lessons, tests, and projects.

But one also sees some sort of “body theory” at work in this passage, a body not as a readymade organism, a harmony of parts that must work in certain ways but, rather, as a set of points that can join up with the points of other bodies (especially non-human ones). Perhaps we’ll return to this point in the future, but for now I only want to speculate that a kind of double repetition is at work: the repetition of the waters’ waves in the movements of the swimmer, the repetition of the swimmer’s body upon the movements of the waves .

But what about death?! “[T]here is something amorous—but also something fatal—about all education.” Deleuze kind of returns to this point, but (as always) it takes a bit of work to figure out what he’s after. Here are the last sentences of this rich paragraph:

Apprenticeship always gives rise to images of death, on the edges of the space it creates and with the help of the heterogeneity it engenders. Signs are deadly when they are lost in the distance, but also when they strike us with full force. Oedipus receives a sign once from too far away, once from too close, and between the two a terrible repetition of the crime is woven . . . Signs are the true elements of theatre. They testify to the spiritual and natural powers [i.e., Ideas?] which act beneath the words, gestures, characters and objects represented. They signify repetition as real movement, in opposition to representation which is a false movement of the abstract. (DR 23)

Goodness. So in what sense is the idea of “death” working here? In previous pages—especially those where Deleuze borrows Freud’s speculative notion of the “death drive” or “death instinct”—it seems that death figures as the great ungroundedness of existence, that is, the immanent emptiness subsisting beneath nature, life, and existence. This emptiness, of course, is also dynamic, since it is this depth that enables one to take up (or be taken up by) masks, roles, purposes, aims, rhymes, rhythms, ratios, or gestures that will bring about a radical repetition of difference. Because there is no ground, in other words, it is possible to become otherwise by way of repetition in the midst of strange ordeals and spaces that require a bodily and/or mental transformation. Is this what Deleuze means here? Perhaps. After all, he claims that in projects of learning there is a kind of death occurring beyond the borders of its space. The world as it was before I was a student of this or that begins to fall away as I undergo my apprenticeship.

But isn’t all this talk of death just metaphorical? In what way can we really say that “[s]igns are deadly”? Is the fatality immanent to education just figurative? By turning to his previous figure of the theater—repetition of difference as the donning of masks, the taking on of gestures, the experimenting with words and objects and characters—isn’t Deleuze just changing the subject? (See SR 1.9, 1.10, and 1.11 for more about Deleuze’s allusion to theatre as a space of repetition.)

I’ve been struggling with Deleuze’s sense of signs, theatre, and death for years now, and I can never quite come up with a “reading” that satisfies me (though my fumblings in previous posts come the closest). Let’s take the case of swimming. If signs are too distant from the swimmer, one risks developing an unearned confidence in the water. The conjunction of the body of water and the body of the apprentice have not quite developed an intimacy that warrants a leap from a vessel or a dock or even a diving board (in this case the sign is deadly, is in some sense responsible for a potential future drowning or injury). And if the signs are too forceful, if the swimmer is overwhelmed by the forces of the waves, here too he is in a fatal situation. Deleuze, it seems, wants to universalize this condition of pedagogic signs . . . though I have often experienced reactions from students that are analogous to the overconfident swimmer and the overwhelmed swimmer, it is hard to grasp these situations as potentially fatal. But perhaps I’m not honoring the force that literature’s signs might possess. But what of math? What of chess? I see the role of intimacy, of sense and sensation in these sorts of apprenticeships, but I fail to see the role of fatality in anything other than a metaphorical, which is to say, a metaphysical sense.

But then again, there is a sense in which to learn requires the death of a particular fiction: of my self, my will, my sense of mastery over an ordeal, my sense (even) of sense itself. I think that Deleuze, in insisting on the fatal component of all education, is anticipating the stakes of his ontology for subjectivity, agency, creativity, and criticality. “There is something unsettling here,” he seems to be saying . . .

Representations, he argues, are false movements, representations like the written formulas my freshmen use, the recitations of “times tables,” the cold readings of the words in a script or a book of poetry. These students believe they can write; do math; read literature. But these beliefs, Deleuze would insist, are as false as the objects, words, and characters that circulate on the stage of a theatre. The real movements—in theatre as in the classroom as in a body of water—are signs. These signs are not simply words; they are forces that act upon us, forces that circulate within pressing ordeals. They have claws, charms, styles, and intensities. They allure, disgust, confuse, and teach. They call for responses, they envelop objects and subjects, they compose friendships, they shape destinies (of Oedipus, of Hamlet, of me, of you). Moreover, they put to death our “real worlds” and let slip the glimpse of a different world immanent to our false movements. This is a world of partials, roles, masks, and gestures—all of which are grounded in a universal but dynamic ungroundedness. The circulation of “a life” predicated upon an immanent “death.”  That still doesn’t do it . . . but it gets at something that seems missing in most introductions to Difference and Repetition and even in the most recent treatments of this text.


  1. Hi Benjamin, thanks for these posts, which I have been enjoying while reading D&R. Regarding the use of ‘fatal’ and ‘amorous'(wish I had the original), might it not be read in this context as pertaining to ‘fate’ rather than ‘death’ in any literal sense? When you ‘take a plunge’ into any learning event there is no way you can be sure what will become of you, but you will definitely discover what/who you ‘will have been’ as you sink or swim. In every case, there may not be any possible harmony arising from the encounter between two bodies with all their singularities. There is no guarantee, but you should do it any way. Amor fati, eternal return, etc. The plunge of genuine learning is always risky in this sense – like saying ‘I love you’ without knowing if the other will reciprocate (Barthes wrote about that). The swan dive is also a swooning collapse into the arms of the other. This ‘caveat’ might be a corollary of the later advice ‘never think a body without organs will be enough to save us’.

    1. Thanks for this comment, Bill! I keep promising myself every week that I’ll get back to this project—some how I will. Re: the "fatal" dimension of education, here’s the original sentence: "il y a une familiarity pratique, innée ou acquise, avec les signes, qui fait de toute éducation quelque chose d’amoureux, mais aussi de mortel." While I like your reading—the connection to fate, to Nietzsche, and to Barthes—and while I agree that there is something sensual/sexual to impassioned learning and teaching—I think there is still a component here of the deadly and the lethal. Thanks for reading!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s