Repetition / Linearity:

Repetition vs. Structure: construction and interruption

View segments from:

  • Ramis/ Ground Hog's Day
  • Nauman/ Violent Incident
  • Viola/ The Space Between the Teeth
  • Kishlowsky/ The Double Life of Veronique
  • Akerman/ Tout Une Nuit
  • The Sliding Doors


The Functions and Effects of Repetition:


  • Reinforcement, emphasis
  • Confirmation, validation
  • Cohesion (linking, interweaving)
  • Mimesis
  • Movement, variation and change
  • Lawfulness; expectancy; patterning
  • Explanatory


  • Redundancy
  • Erasure
  • Fragmentation, neurosis
  • Copying
  • Continuous present; timelessness
  • Habit
  • Mechanical, automatic.Falsifying.


Types of Repetitions:

  • Embedding (recursion; nested boxes - e.g.Krapp's Last Tape; The Space Between the Teeth)
  • Circularity (e.g. Rockabye) / Spiraling (e.g. Ground Hog's Day)
  • Mirroring (e.g. The Double Life of Veronique; The Obscure Object of Desire)
  • Continuous present / Stasis (e.g.Tout Une Nuit; If On a Winter's Night a Traveller; Violent Incident)
  • Multiple occurrences of single event (e.g.Sliding Doors; The Garden of Forking Paths)
  • Multiple representations of single event (e.g. points of view - Rashomon; Mystery Train)


Repetition and Near Repetition:

"Except in the context of some change or progression, any repetition taking place in advancing time is undiscussible. The growth of the work, even from one identical line to another, makes exact repetition impossible [...] Repetition is a nonverbal state; it cannot be committed to any art that occurs in time." (Kawin, Telling It Again and Again)


Various Articulations of the Two (Intertwined) Forms of Repetition:


  • Repetition as an outcome/ in the service of the pleasure principle - an affirmation, a basis for change.
  • Repetition as an outcome/ in the service of the death instinct - a compulsive return, a fixation.


  • Difference on the basis of preestablished similitude or identity (copies; representations -- Platonic repetition; mimesis)
  • Similitude and identity as the product of a fundamental disparity (simulacara -- Nietzschean repetition).

Benjamin (Hillis Miller):

  • Rational, willed, lifeless, intentional remembering of the daytime; memory based on visible similarities.
  • Involuntary memory, better called forgetting, the imaginary reconstruction of dream; memory based on the "opaquely similar" ("it was a sock but it was my mother too"). An image created by the echoing of two dissimilar things, in the gap between them.



Additional Reading - Summary:

The paradoxical status of repetition/ S.Rimon-Kenan

Paradox 1 (definition): Repetition is present everywhere and nowhere:


  • In poetry -

    • Repetition of the sign: words, phrases, sentences
    • Repetition of the signifier: alliteration, rhyme
    • Repetition of the signified: synonymy

    In all these cases, repetition manifests the projection of the principle of equivalence from the axis of selection to that of combination (Jacobson)

  • In narrative -

    • Repetition of the whole sign is a re-telling of an event in the recit (sjuzet, discourse) in the exactly same words, by the same narrator, the same focalization, etc.
    • Repetition of the signifier uses the same discourse (i.e.recit, sjuzet) elements to narrate different events (i.e.histoire, fabula, story).
    • Repetition of the signified narrates the same histoire (i.e.fabula, story) event using different discourse elements.

  • In psychoanalysis -

    The repetition / return of the repressed is explained as the unconscious-signified "speaking through" a symptom-signifier.


  • The very distinction between repetition of the signifier and that of the signified implies difference at the heart of repetition, for when the signifier is repeated, the signified changes.

    Difference is introduced through the very fact of repetition: no pure repetition exists.

Paradox 2 (evaluation): Constructive repetition emphasizes difference; destructive repetition emphasizes sameness (i.e. to repeat successfully is not to repeat)

  • In literature -

    "[...] the very same features that are considered the privileged marks of the poetic function [..] should also, when hypertrophied and rendered transparent, become the very same features of, let us say, the unpoetic function, or the way the poetic function collapses." (C.Brooke -Rose)
  • In psychoanalysis -

    Some repetitions serve the pleasure principle, while others manifest the death instinct.
    What makes repetition in transference therapeutic [...] is the crucial difference between the original unconscious experience and its bringing to consciousness in the analytic session.

Paradox 3: The first time is already a repetition, and repetition is the very first time.

  • The notion of repetition implies that something is repeated, and yet in both literature and psychoanalysis this something is not unequivocally a presence but also, quite possibly, an absence.

  • In literature -

    • Narrative repeats by creating, and what it repeats is the absence from which it springs and which it renders present through its creation.

    • Reading performs the text by repeating it.

  • In psychoanalysis -

    • The repetition of an absent experience (absent because forgotten, repressed; replaced by language; an experience of loss or lack) becomes its very first performance or enactment; its first presence.

    • The first time never actually occurs; it merely reflects an interpretation, not a real event.
      "Psychoanalysis is in fact itself the primal scene it is seeking: it is the first occurrence of what had been repeating itself in the patient without ever having occurred." (Barbara Johnson).


Narration as Repetition / S.Rimon-Kenan

Narration repeats not only by what it says but also by what it does: performing, enacting that which gets concealed by the telling.

The two types of narration -- remembering (narration as reporting) vs. repeating (narration as performance, as in transference or in repetition compulsion). -- occur simultaneously.

Narration-as-repetition may lead to a working through, a resolving and an overcoming (as in transference, in the service of the pleasure principle) but it may also imprison and lock the narrative (as in repetition compulsion, in the service of the death instinct).

Narrating (telling) somebody else's story is hence always also narrating (performing) one's own story.(See the analysis of The Conversation).



Narrative Recursion / D. Spence

Narrative Embedding - The subject of the tale becomes the teller (See analysis of Nabokov's "Recruiting").

Repetition - each addition carries us further along the same narrative level.
Recursion - a spiral turning back, never to return to the starting point.

Diversity is the result of the essential property of the recursive structure: the fact that the repetition is always operating on itself.

A related feature : Interplay between form (action) and content (language).

The recursive pattern can be broken by an interpretation, by a discussion (overlooking the general pattern), or by violence.

The recursive paradox - repetition provides guidance as well as the confirmation of interpretation; but also shuts off the possibility of detecting new paradigms and avenues of investigation.



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