Is Repetition Ontological?

In my research, I’ve been confronted with the problem of whether or not “repetition” is meant to be a term describing reality as it is (an ontology) or something different. After reading an unpublished piece Kierkegaard wrote under Constantin Constantinus, I’m beginning to have serious doubts about the concept as an ontological option. The piece is a reply to a Denmark professor, Heiberg, who reviewed Repetition and contended that the book was primarily a way to celebrate the beauty of repetitions in nature.

That interpretation is not incredibly difficult to come away with. The book is slippery, and Constantin admits that the terms are intentionally obscured throughout. However, Constantin is overwhelmingly clear that Heiberg has misunderstood his thesis. Instead of providing the basis of an ontology, Repetition seeks to articulate only a spiritual point, a point for freedom. His main criticism of Heiberg is that nowhere in the text does he ever mention the repetitions of the natural world; the subtitle of the book expresses its purpose as a psychological exploration. Repetition is, instead, a task for the self. Ultimately, repetition points toward religious categories–in the later authorship, it almost seems like “repetition” is replaced entirely by “atonement,” and perhaps to a lesser extent “imitation.”

This has severe implications for a variety of thinkers, most especially Deleuze and Rosenzweig. Of course, it’s true that they’re still onto something–the articulation of reality as an amalgam of repeating events and objects is compelling, and not at all incompatible with Constantin’s point here. It does, however, suggest that Deleuze is subject to the same criticisms as Heiberg–he translates a spiritual concept into a natural one, an explicitly transcendent concept into an explicitly immanent one. Difference and Repetition is indeed a great work of ontology and metaphysics, but its metaphysical problems are completely opposite with regard to the metaphysical problems of the freedom of the self dealt with in Constantin’s Repetition.

While “repetition” as a category might form the basis for an ontology, it’s at least exegetically important to name the fact that this is in no way the goal of Repetition. When Constantin accuses Heiberg, who assumes “repetition” is best expressed via poetic recourse to observing the revolving stars, of essentially losing the existential weight and importance of the concept, we might lay the same criticism against Deleuze. “If there is nothing else to offer them but astronomy, then individuals are indeed made to renounce all the tasks of freedom” (Constantin, Repetition, 288).

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6 Responses to Is Repetition Ontological?

  1. Jazz says:

    [Enter Deleuze Police]:
    “It does, however, suggest that Deleuze is subject to the same criticisms as Heiberg–he translates a spiritual concept into a natural one, an explicitly transcendent concept into an explicitly immanent one.”

    Wouldn’t this be the case only if Deleuze was claiming that Kierkegaard’s notion of repetition was the same as that developed in D&R?

    • Dean says:

      Yes, definitely. On that you’re right. Deleuze never claims to be exegeting Constantinus. But he does seem to totally ignore Constantinus’s existential point, which I think is suspicious, and he does appear to use the same insights drawn from Repetition in order to make his ontological points (repetition being the site of difference, creation of the new, etc.). In other words, I do think he sort of re-translates Constantinus’s spiritual-existential point back into a natural one, which is a big no-no according to Constantinus.

      Like I said, I don’t think the two are necessarily incompatible with one another (the ontology and the spiritual points, that is), but I don’t see Deleuze even acknowledging the difference, and I think that’s a blindspot.

      What are your thoughts, Commissioner Jazz?

      • Jazz says:

        I think it is sufficient to simply say Deleuze disagrees with SK on those points. While his assessment of SK in D&R is more than a mere footnote, it can hardly be considered an argument. The account of repetition that unfolds in D&R is in no way affected by a misreading (or correct reading) of SK or his Pseudonyms.

        Apropos to SK, I think it would be necessary to question him on such a narrow account of repetition. First, Why is the self the only entity that enjoys/fears a relationship with God such that it would bequeath repetition? Second, concerning Atonement, since when was Atonement reserved for humans? Third, what the hell are the concepts “spiritual” or “freedom” if they have no ontological status?

        While I think that Deleuze’s favoring of Nietzsche influences a hasty dismissal of SK, I find his conclusions to be a thinking “through”, not a thinking “erroneous”. Such a “thinking through” points toward, in my opinion, not only a more broad approach to repetition but possibly a more Christian approach. That is, an account of repeitition/atonement that looks beyond the redemption of the self (but does not disrecard the self) and is concerned with the redemption of creation.

        • Dean says:

          As to your first point, that the argument of D&R is unaffected by Constantinus’ criticisms of Heiberg, I agree. As I suggested above, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive–Constantinus’ repetition is not incompatible with the ontological version offered by Deleuze and others. But it is affected, in one sense, by Kierkegaard’s resolute commitment to existential problems. It’s well and good to suggest that the world is as Deleuze says it is–but this is hardly the rallying call for a subject to become itself.

          As to the second point, put simply the anthropocentric nature of K’s thought, there’s a sense in which I agree with you. Kierkegaard does not give sufficient space to other aspects of creation. Nonetheless, I don’t think that takes away from the kind of repetition discussed here. For example, repetition, for K., is dependent on a subject’s consciousness, most specifically a subject’s ability to sin. In being faced with the wall of sin, the subject sees it as insurmountable until a repetition occurs. It may be possible that this could be expanded to non-human things, but I can’t really see how at this point. There seems to be no denying that, on a certain level, humans do appear to enjoy a privileged form of consciousness, and as such I suppose I don’t find it too dangerous to posit problems that are specific to humans. As for spirituality and freedom, perhaps I’ve been too quick with my words. I’m making a dichotomy between a metaphysics of ontology and a metaphysics of subjectivity.

          I by no means have thrown Deleuze’s ontology out as a result of my study–if anything, I’m more compelled than ever. But I think it’s exegetically important to note the difference, and on top of that it’s likewise important to stress the existential problem that does seem to be unique to human beings. I’m open to expanding this concept to non-human things, I just can’t really see how. Is there something I’m missing?

          • Jazz says:

            It seems we are moving from considering whether Deleuze (GD) misreads SK towards considering the difference between GD and SK regarding their accounts of repetition. In regards to the latter I have no qualms with your exposition.

            My last post may have conveyed a sence of rejection of SK’s version of repetition because of its anthropocentrism. Just to be clear, I don’t expect dead authors to be writing and thinking through problems that they did not live through. SK was way ahead of his contemporaries in thinking the emerging philosophical problems of his time. This however doesn’t mean he thought of all philosophical problems at all times. Thus in using SK (and all past philosophers), we must work within the problems they addressed to the extent that they resonate with our contemporary problems.

            Regarding conciousness and sin. Maybe we could make a destinction between necessary and sufficent regarding sin’s relationship to conciousness.

            Sin effects all of creation.
            Consciousness creatures are a part of creation.
            Therefore, sin effects concious creatures.

            From this we can gather that because conscious creature exist in the creation and all of creation is affected by sin, then sin must *necessarily* effect concious creatures. However, creation does not consist in solely concious creatures, thus conciousness cannot be a *suffient* condition for sin.

            Provided that this distinction holds, we could then use SK’s account of repetition/atonement and sin with regards to humans *and* explore the possibilites of his observations regarding concious creatures for the rest of creation. This way, SK’s “existential” account is maintained without reserve while simultainiously allotting the possibility of expansion into other parts of creation.

            Re: a way to expand the existential problem beyond human beings. The way I have currently beeing thinking in about this problem is heavily influenced by GD. I think it must begin with a basic understanding of sin that can incorporate all of creation. Fundamentally sin is the turning away from God. This “turning away” can also be articulated as self-absolution or self-sufficiency. Sin is turning from God and self-sufficency. Isolation and Openness. Repetition/Atonement thus describe the act of turning to God and self-opening. Such a broad defintion (which is not arbitrarily conceieved but is instegated by the Scriptures attributing both sin and redemption to all of creation) can apply to the specific problem of conciousness while also applying to ecosystems, non-rational animals, and vegitation. In each it operates in a unique way but is univocal as sin/redeption.

            • Dean says:

              In all of that, I agree, and I think that’s an incredibly helpful insight. The way you escape Constantinus’ critique is by positing a consciousness within creation that requires its own openness toward freedom. To be honest, I still find it a bit difficult to dislocate human consciousness from a particular privilege, but I’m not committed to that point–I just really can’t see another way, and that may very well be the result of having neglected that area of research. For example, for me it’s hard to conceive of, say, a plant needing to open itself to atonement. Not that it doesn’t require atonement, but perhaps its atonement is different from the one needed by conscious creatures. It may be dangerously anthropocentric to suggest non-human things require atonement in the same way that humans do. Not that they are not in need of redemption, but I don’t think it’s too inconceivable to suggest this redemption is accomplished differently.

              These are all very germinal thoughts, of course, so I welcome your developments. I do think Constantinus’ account of repetition is legitimately useful for existential reasons. It’s incredibly helpful for one bound up in suffering or despair, and regardless of what one’s ontology is I think the psychological question involved here is important and worth exploring. That it is a psychological question makes it difficult to transfer to non-human things, but difficulty is not impossibility.

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