Difference and Repetition: Introduction, Repetition and Difference

Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition is notoriously difficult. It is arguably the most difficult of Deleuze’s writings (though I’d put my money on The Fold). In this post I’ve attempted to provide an outline of the introduction of the text, titled “Repetition and Difference.”

On Pedagogy

In the midst of Deleuze’s Introduction to Difference and Repetition (succinctly titled Repetition and Difference’ the reader catches a glimpse of his pedagogy: “We learn nothing from those who say: ‘Do as I do.’ Only our teachers are those who tell us ‘do with me” (23).[1] Deleuze names this interaction an ‘apprenticeship.’ I want to posit the reading of Difference and Repetition as an act of apprenticeship. This is not a text that reveals the truth (Deleuze is not a Heideggerian searching for the truth revealed as alētheia), but a text that encourages the reader to repeat Deleuze — not as a crude repetition or reproduction, but as the type of repetition this text seeks to unpack: a repetition involving difference without a concept.

A passage from the third chapter, on ‘The Image of Thought,’ can aid with this position. Here, Deleuze locates learning against mere reproduction, specifically through swimming:

The idea of the sea, for example, as Leibniz showed, is a system of liaisons or differential relations between particulars and singularities corresponding to degrees of variation among these relations — the totality of the system being incarnated in the real movement of the waves. Too learn to swim is to conjugate the distinctive points of our bodies with the singular points of the objective idea, in order to form a problematic field. (165)

This passage is incredibly dense. One could potentially write an entire dissertation on Deleuzian pedagogy drawing from it. Nevertheless, even at this point in our study there are notions that can be drawn from it. We are dealing with two ‘things:’ the sea and the human body. The sea, in its totality, contains an almost infinite number of relations. Consider, for example, the relations of a single wave to both other waves and to the undercurrent (not to mention, sea life, winds, tides, birds, etc.). The Idea of the sea is not abstracted from these different relations (the sea is not the intelligible form of the sea) but is rather — in Deleuzian terms — a singular point that is identified as ‘sea’ amidst these various singularities.[2] The Idea of the sea is not located in the intelligible world of forms: to know the Idea of the sea, one must physically get their body into the water. Swimming is an act of learning: an apprenticeship with the sea. It is the bodies learning with the rhythms and variations of the various singularities: the body learning the patterns of the waves, the undercurrents and all the other variables. Swimming is not, then, the mere reproduction fo the instructor, but the repetition of the instructor with a difference given the different trajectories of these variables.

When reading Difference and Repetition we are, in effect, learning to swim. We are getting acquainted with the rhythms of the text, not merely representing or reproducing it. Like the water, the text changes. This is true not only as we read through the text but also as we return to it. Here I turn to the preface to relay Deleuze’s suggestion that the book is “in part a very peculiar species of detective novel, in part a science fiction” (xx). The detective aspect deals with problems: problems uncovered as one works through the book. However, these problems are not fixed: they change and develop and expand. They repeat, but each time with a difference. When I read the book today, what I encounter is different than what I read, for the first time, 5 years ago. Different Ideas emerge as I read, and what sticks out is different than it used to be. To add to this, the content of the book deals with things that are not well understood. Deleuze writes that the act of writing emerges here, working on problems that quickly slip away: “We write only at the frontiers of knowledge, at the border which separates our knowledge from our ignorance, and transforms this one into the other” (xxi). Deleuze, in our introduction, will say that repetition disguises itself as it works. Just when we feel close it slips away. But this is part of the apprenticeship: to get the body used to being in the waves as we learn to swim at the very edge of the intelligible.

Repetition and Difference

Figure 1

This apprenticeship begins with repetition. Repetition is opposed, at the outset, to generality. In the introduction this is shown in three ways: 1. Conduct, 2. Laws, 3. Concepts. To unpack these, let’s turn to an example from the end of the text: Leibniz and the court ladies examining leaves. From the point of view of generality, each leaf is a particular of a general concept of ‘leaf.’ According to a generality of conduct, the general leaf serves as something of a genus of particular leaves. Against this, repetition takes up each leaf as a singularity. This can, perhaps, be explained using the language of concepts. From the point of view of generality, each leaf is a particular of a general concept of ‘leaf.’ Qualitatively, the leaves are said to resemble one another; quantitatively each leaf is equivalent as =1. When we deal with a leaf, we are dealing with a thing that resembles both the concept of leaf (concepts) and other leaves in a family of leaves (conduct). In conduct, each leaf is equivalent and can stand in the place of any other.[3] Deleuze outlines that repetition is different in kind from both generality and resemblance. Rather than a species-individual relationship, repetition is invested in singularities. Deleuze follows Leibniz and the court ladies in suggesting that two leaves cannot have the same Idea.[4] Each leaf is a singularity, with its own uniqueness. When I look at leaves on a tree I am looking at a multiplicity of singularities: not a group of equivalent objects. Each leaf is its own, individuated singularity.[5]

In addition to a distinction in conduct and concepts, repetition is opposed to the law. Deleuze names it a transgression (3,6). This is true of both scientific or natural law and moral law. For scientific law, Deleuze turns to physics. Even practical physics is measured within closed environments. In a Heideggerian sense, physics is mathematical, because it doesn’t account for the differential movements in the world outside of a vacuum. As such, the laws of physics are bound to be disrupted by the singularities of reality. This is even more apparent in the way repetition ruptures moral laws. We might take Nietzsche’s arguments from Beyond Good and Evil or Spinoza’s discussions of good and evil in the Ethics. For both, moral law is imposed on reality as a hegemonic or dogmatic law from outside reality. Repetition, for Deleuze, is a transgressive act against this dogmatic imposition. Deleuze unpacks the operations of this transgression through Nietzsche and Kierkegaard.[6] He outlines a basic structure consisting of two characteristics: 1. Both thinkers turn repetition into something that is itself novel: in Kierkegaard’s Repetition this occurs through repetition as the generative movement of paradox; in Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra repetition is the will to power as it repeats the eternal return;[7] 2. Both thinkers oppose this repetition to the law and generality (whether this be the laws of nature, moral law, or the generalities of habit and particularities of memory — repetition is not oriented to the past but to the future).

Through this transgression of the law, Deleuze writes “Kierkegaard and Nietzsche are among those who bring to philosophy new means of expression” (8). The use of expression is important: it signals the theatrical or artistic aspects of repetition: repetition is expressive, musical, theatrical, artistic. Nietzsche’s Overhuman and Kierkegaard’s Knight of Faith are not representatives to be resembled, but roles to be played. The best performers do not resemble a character but make the character their own. A musical example comes to mind: Johnny Cash’s cover of ‘Hurt’ by the Nine Inch Nails sounds nothing like the original. Cash doesn’t resemble the original but repeats it in his own voice. In theatre one might consider the various performances of Lady Macbeth. She is most strongly realized in the singularity of the actor interpreting the singularity of the character. For both Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, repetition occurs in this theatre: Kierkegaard’s a theatre of faith; Nietzsche’s a theatre of cruelty (11). Both are theatre, rather than dogma.

Insofar as repetition is opposed to concept, it is posed in opposition to a ‘brute’ repetition that rests on a ‘vulgar’ theory of difference (or a ‘vulgar Leibnizianism’). Deleuze suggests that there are at least three ways that repetition is blocked: 1. Artificial blockage, 2. Natural blockage, and 3. Repression. I don’t want to spend a lot of time teasing out the differences between these three, as these passages are very dense, and these notes are already too long! But we can at least think through how these blockages operate in relation to repetition. We see artificial blockage through the imposition of nominal definitions. Benjamin Hagen offers a useful example of this. Pluto used to be a planet because we thought it resembled certain objects in a certain way. Pluto is no longer a planet because we decided that it resembles some other objects more than it resembles the objects we used to think it resembled.[8] The nominal definition of planet is dogmatically applied to Pluto. But Pluto, as a singularity, didn’t change. It remains as it was. Here, the concept becomes more important than the singularity. Difference is reduced to the difference between concepts — the difference between a planet and transneptunian object in the Kyper belt. The singularity is erased.

Figure 2

Something similar occurs in the natural blockage. We might start with nominal concepts in a taxonomical system (Figure 2). The tree in my in-laws yard is of the species coastal redwood (sequoia sempervirens) which is in the genus Taxodiaceae. Within the taxonomy each category is beneath another. This system is, nevertheless, open to change in a way that nominalism isn’t. A species may bifurcate (as the Sequoia sempervirens and Sequoiadendron did something like 13 million years ago). Nature allows for this split into new species — the bifurcation is a repetition. But this repetition isn’t a transgression: it remains bound to the laws of nature. The singular bifurcation is generalized in the patterns of nature: this is not yet a genuine repetition.

Finally, we get a brief passage on repression. Repression is, in Freud, a repression of freedom: “the less one remembers, the less one is conscious of remembering one’s past, the more one repeats it” (15). One repeats, then, because one is repressed. Yet, once again, this blockage deals with a repetition of a concept: when I repeat, I repeat an act. This is not yet a genuine repetition in the vein of Kierkegaard or Nietzsche.

As such, there are three blockages tied to repetition (nominal, natural, and freedom), but to repetition of concepts. We are dealing with repetition of the Same or brute repetition. But Freud does venture in the right direction. Deleuze turns to Beyond the Pleasure Principle, where Freud introduces the ‘death instinct’ and the ‘pleasure principle.’ Through the notion of repression, one repeats because one is repressed. But this isn’t what happens with the death instinct. The death instinct is not a tool of representation, but a drive. As such, it is possible for Deleuze to align it with repetition (16). Using the death instinct, Deleuze suggests that repetition is transcendental. This is a term from Kantian philosophy. In The Critique of Pure Reason the transcendental aesthetic examines the necessary and universal conditions of rational inquiry. In suggesting that repetition is transcendental, Deleuze is suggesting that it is a necessary and universal condition of experience. Freud’s death drive offers a recourse to many of the other thinkers Deleuze is dealing with: Leibniz’s consideration of substance as force; Nietzsche’s will to power; Kierkegaard’s repetition.

The issue with Freud seems to be that he keeps returning to brute repetition. This may be because repetition, as a transcendental, keeps disguising itself (recall that we are dealing with a sort of science fiction!). At this point it does seem clear about one thing: we are not seeking out brute repetition, but something almost alien to that consideration. Deleuze says, at this point, that if we are dealing with a repetition (of difference) without concept, we may refer to this as the symbolic or the simulacra. Deleuze’s example from In Search of Lost Time is helpful if you have read parts of that text. The narrator’s love for his mother is repeated in Swann’s love for Odette is repeated in the narrator’s love for Gilberte, etc., etc., but there is no original love that is repeated. Each love is simulacrum. We might read these as brute repetitions, but in that case we aren’t dealing with a transcendental repetition: we are dealing with masks. Repetition is hidden behind the brute repetition. It is here that Deleuze locates the power of the death instinct: it grants repetition “an original, positive principle, but also an autonomous disguising power” (19). Despite the opposition, it seems that there is a relation between the two repetitions. When we deal with bare repetition, it hides a transcendental repetition.

To begin to locate a starting point for a consideration of bare repetition — a repetition of difference without concept; a repetition for itself tied to a difference in itself — Deleuze introduces a semiology. He considers an artist: when an artist constructs a work, it builds on a previous instance by adding something to it. The artist introduces an act of theft or borrowing. What occurs here is a physical semiosis: the original work is taken up by the artist but transformed with the act of theft. In Saussure, a sign is composed of a sound pattern and a concept. Deleuze, at least here, retains a dissymmetry in the signal. But this dissymmetry occurs in the act of communication itself: a dissymmetry not between the sound pattern and the concept, but between the sign and the interpretation of the sign. To express this material semiology, we can return to the example of learning to swim:

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 Sign). Signs involve heterogeneity in at least three ways: first, in the object which bears or emits them, and is necessary on a different level, as though there were two orders of size or disparate realities between which the sign flashes; secondly, 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); finally, in the response they elicit, since the movement of the response does not ‘resemble’ that of the sign. 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 be grasping the former in practice as signs […] 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. (23)

Deleuze’s semiotics is, abundantly, non-linguistic (hence: non-Saussurean).[9] The dissymmetry is not between what I say and what I conceive (as we might get in Lacan use or in Derrida’s deconstruction of Saussure), but a dissymmetry between multiple material signs coordinated at a single point. The waves are a sign. When I swim, I do not resemble that sign, but I do repeat it: in my bodily movements. But I also repeat the signs of the instructor, allowing them to interact with the signs of the sea. Using later language, we might state that several (regimes of) signs converge and are repeated at this single point which is expressed in the act of swimming. This is not a brute repetition, but the repetition of difference expressed in a singular point.

Yet even here it appears I am still dealing with some form of brute repetition. It may be the case that the signs repeated are not repetitions of the Same on a conceptual level, but it is the repetition of signs. As quickly as we appeared to reach repetition for itself, it has already slipped away. Nevertheless, we have attained something of a starting point: A repetition as difference without concept that is hidden behind and/or interior to the bare repetition. It is here that we might find — against the distribution of concepts — “the play of singularities” (26). What is now sought is a more thorough exploration of difference in itself and repetition for itself.

Works Cited

Deleuze, Gilles, Difference and Repetition, Translated by Paul Patton, New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.

Hagen, Benjamin D. “Slow Reading (1.12): Deleuze’s DR (PG. 12)” Sketching a Present, blog. September 6, 2013. URL: https://sketchingapresent.com/2013/09/06/slow-reading-1-12-deleuzes-dr-pg-12/

Vangeest, Jacob “Deleuzian Problematics,” La Deleuziana 11: Heterogenesis, 2020 (81–98), http://www.ladeleuziana.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Vangeest.pdf

Vangeest, Jacob. “Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information / Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information, Volume II: Supplemental Texts.” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 0, no. 0 (July 22, 2021): 1–3. https://doi.org/10.1080/09608788.2021.1947774.

[1] All in-text citation from Gilles Deleuze, Difference and Repetition, translated by Paul Patton (New York: Columbia University Press, 1994).

[2] See my discussion of singular point in Jacob Vangeest, “Deleuzian Problematics,” La Deleuziana 11: Heterogenesis, 2020, p. 91–92. http://www.ladeleuziana.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/06/Vangeest.pdf.

[3] Deleuze makes an interesting claim: “If exchange is the criterion of generality, theft and gift are those of repetition. There is, therefore, an economic difference between the two” (1). Resemblance relates to something like a market economy: all commodities are granted value by some general equivalence (money). All is reduced to the general equivalent, even labour. Repetition, related to the gift economy, presents something Other to this general equivalency. Something we might find in the work of Maus or Bataille. There is something anti-capitalist in repetition: but, as we read in Anti-Oedipus and A Thousand Plateaus, this anti-capitalist repetition is really and truly the heart of Capitalism.

[4] See Leibniz’s Monadology: https://plato-philosophy.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/The-Monadology-1714-by-Gottfried-Wilhelm-LEIBNIZ-1646-1716.pdf

[5] The term singularity comes from Simondon. I haven’t yet put together notes on Simondon that would be helpful here, but I do have a recently published review that may be helpful. If you would like access and don’t have it, please contact me. Jacob Vangeest, “Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information / Individuation in Light of Notions of Form and Information, Volume II: Supplemental Texts,” British Journal for the History of Philosophy 0, no. 0 (July 22, 2021): 1–3, https://doi.org/10.1080/09608788.2021.1947774.

[6] Kiekegaard is the first to posit repetition as providing novelty.

[7] In both Nietzsche and Philosophy and Difference and Repetition, Deleuze aligns the will to power with repetition and the eternal return with difference.

[8] Benjamin D. Hagen, “Slow Reading (1.12): Deleuze’s DR (PG. 12)” Sketching a Present, blog. September 6, 2013. URL: https://sketchingapresent.com/2013/09/06/slow-reading-1-12-deleuzes-dr-pg-12/

[9] In A Thousand Plateaus Deleuze and Guattari express alliance with Louis Hjemslev and Charles Sanders Peirce.

taken from here

Foto: Sylvia John

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