The Power of Experimental Interpretation in Seeking Self-Knowledge: Aesthetic Repetition and Ideology

by Frank Godden

But why shouldn’t we overthink things? To overanalyse, in the eyes of some, is to commit a cardinal sin in thought. They point out how Freud himself, the messiah of seeing too much in things, remarked on a pipe’s sometimes being just a pipe, devoid of any meaning beyond trivial facticity. If even he could recognise this, then why can’t the pretentious philosophy students of today, with their longform projects on the “real” significance of mere frivolities? 

Perhaps the answer lies in an acknowledgement of philosophy’s historic valuation of self-knowledge, and the power of experimental thinking in its pursuit. It is mistakenly assumed by these critics of overzealous thinking – possibly as a result of the natural sciences’ influence on thinking more broadly – that the student who writes about, for example, the significance of death in 19th century Italian puppetry, is concerned primarily with concrete truths about the world as a whole. Such a view fails to recognise that these specific projects, as obscure as they may seem, can offer up powerful insights into the self. These insights can then be experimentally generalised in the search for useful interpretations in broader (social/political) spheres.

What follows is an experimental analysis of repetition in art and its relation to ideological change and self-knowledge. It is by no means complete, or even cohesive, but I hope it may demonstrate nonetheless the potential power of playful interpretation. Beginning with a focus on Gertrude Stein’s timeless poetic motto “Rose is a rose is a rose”, it will go on to explore repetition’s function in the cognitive reduction of objects to their essence, and its failings in this regard when its objects are self-contradictory or conceptually unstable/indeterminate. Finally, it will be observed how R. D. Laing’s work on self-entanglement fit into this framework.    

Stein held her immortal line in high regard, believing it to have restored redness to the poetic rose after a century of its colour’s being lost. This claim to restoration likely centres around Stein’s repurposing of patriarchal poetic forms: the rose can only be made red again because, for a century, it has been reduced to grey by its constant and contrived use as a romantic, sexual, nationalistic, etc. image within the quintessentially male literary structures of 19th century English poetry. The line’s repetition, in this sense, works as a progressive movement away from standard associations: Rose is a rose (it is not a symbol of male desire) is a rose (nor is it a symbol of male love) is a rose (nor is it a symbol of male patriotism). As an internal part of Stein’s poetry, this allows for the rose to be repurposed through surrounding implications. It can become, for example, a symbol of female sexual desire, rather than of its male counterpart.

Alice Toklas, Stein’s collaborator and life-partner, imbued this process of progressive reduction with an entirely new significance when, soon after the motto’s first appearance in Stein’s 1913 poem Sacred Emily, she chose it as the phrase to appear on Stein’s letterhead. The circular design of Toklas’ stamp removes from the motto any linear context; it is no longer found between two lines, to be read and then moved on from, and instead feeds back into itself endlessly, so long as it is read. The rose is now never re-contextualised, and a fascinating new function of repetition appears. The process of clarification that Stein’s limited repetition enables is replaced by a process of clarification with no determinate end. One is eventually left with the rose itself, in all of its experienced non-symbolic redness. By simply reiterating the signifier over and over, we arrive at the signified.  

Stein’s letterhead cheerfully echoes the constant Socratic ‘why-ing’ of inquisitive children, whose simple causal questions so quickly become infuriating repetitions towards a looming unknown. This exponential obscurity – magnified further with each repeated ‘why?’ – pales in significance, however, to the clarification of the word itself, which the child comes ever closer to through its repetition. The concept with which the child was originally interested gives way to the concept of the why’s questioning function, which is elucidated through its use in interrogation, rather than through its being interrogated. There is nothing novel about a word’s being understood through its use, but there is something interesting in repetition’s importance to this process: the way that “Why? Why? Why?” continues into “Why? Why. Why.” 

Alongside this elucidation occurs an obfuscation in the domain of the signifier. The word is repeated so often that it becomes absurd, as in those everyday conversations where a word becomes alien through its being said so often1. This common experience is a reminder of the thing beyond the word, whether it be the rose (object) or the ‘why?’ (concept). It is not simply the case, then, that the repetition of the signifier reveals the signified. It seems, rather, that the word is (at least susceptible to being) destroyed in the process, leaving only that to which it refers. The signified becomes clearer while the signifier becomes more obscure. The word ‘why’ now looks like a nonsensical jumble of letters (‘w-h-y’), sounds like a non-word, but its function, as well as its power, has become clear(er). Repetition, then, by this view, brings us closer to the signified whilst blurring the signifier, like a contra-zoom towards the thing’s essential qualities. 

Impossible objects such as the circular square simply cannot be subjected to the process of progressive reduction. They are not reducible beyond their contradictory character, and any of their apparent defining features (square, circle) are necessarily imagined in parallel. They are disconnected and incomplete. Moving towards the non-existent object, however, raises few issues. If one imagines a barnacle tree and attempts to remove from it all non-phenomenon, one is left with the imagined experience of the barnacle tree itself, as distant as this experience may feel. Importantly, anyone to whom this task is given will picture something basically similar, a tree with barnacles from which geese hatch. 

When attempting to enact the same process with indeterminate concepts, however, we run into a great deal of uncertainty. Two people, if asked to reach the pure concept of wealth through this eliminative process, would likely arrive at different conceptions, possibly with wild variance. One could reduce wealth to millionaire status where the other could, for example, find it to consist in basic sustenance and rich personal relationships. This can be clearly seen in Plato’s early dialogues, where Socrates’ interlocutors are driven into a progressive confusion by the instability of the concepts about which they profess to know. If piety was an external object like the rose, then it would be possible to cognize, through a progressive reduction, something like its core essence; but it is the total opposite, existing as a perpetually nebulous collection of contradictory notions. To put such a concept through a process of repetition, then, is totally aimless, doomed to fail. 

But is this not exactly what we do? It seems that the ideologies underlying everyday life, as constituted by a general collective adherence to certain social concepts, are basically comprised of repetitions. Beginning as a nebulous collection of interacting ideas, the concept is gradually reified through its constant reassertion: justice becomes law, religiousness becomes religion, body becomes image, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. The repetition here is, of course, not solely discursive. It is also found behind every one of its particulars. The image of the model, for example, both contains within it, and contributes to the repetitions that cause, the exponentially narrowing conception of the ‘model’ model’s body. 

This endless reduction, with all of its bizarre effects, is only possible because that towards which the conception’s repetitions are directed is without essence. The indeterminate concept is reduced in being repeated, but towards something that simply cannot exist in any essential way. We are left with only ceaseless repetition and temporary illusions of essence, reforming one another in a constant flux. The repetition alters the illusory essence, and the newly altered illusory essence becomes that which is repeated. This is not the case with Stein’s rose (with stable objects/concepts in general), as the essence of her object is simplified, rather than altered. Nothing about the rose is actually lost in the process. 

In the case of the indeterminate concept, however, something is always being lost. The repetition points to a mere partiality and, in doing so, discards an entire varied array in favour of one previously nested within it. The signifier, meanwhile, either stays the same or, if it does change, becomes synonymous with an original concept (as is the case with ‘law’ and ‘justice’). The word ‘piety’, for example, refers originally to one array of ideas before it is eventually reified to another (this being a partial selection of the first), which is also called ‘piety’ in spite of its being basically different. This process, driven by underlying repetitions, is itself repeated over and over to absurdity. That which is being referred to is eventually recognised as alien, but its rejection is never seriously considered. Either one trajectory maintains, and the concept is relegated to a social niche, or a reactionary vector is introduced (a new partial array is selected), only for the exact same dualism to later appear.  

R. D. Laing, in Knots – his short collection of poetic observations on human self-entanglement – reveals the omnipresence of these futile movements on a smaller scale, in our day-to-day confusions and frustrations. Central to this somewhat painful compilation is a vitalisation of inert paradox and tautology. The most explicit example of this centres around one’s experience of rightful ownership, in which Laing observes an impossible duality of belief. On one hand, the subject concludes that they have stolen something based on the fact that they are not entitled to it; on the other, they conclude that they are not entitled to something because of the fact that they have stolen it. These beliefs are held simultaneously, and a moving circularity ensues: 

There is a powerful intuitiveness to Laing’s analysis, particularly when the emotional effects of this looping are taken into account. Indeed, the progressive descent into worsening emotional states is often referred to as spiralling, a distinctly circular term. Perhaps we could even go as far as to treat Laing’s circular diagrams as partial representations of something three-dimensional, with each return to the loop’s beginning being found extended further downwards.

As we reflect on these impossible situations, we become increasingly tangled within them, and gradually descend towards sharpened feelings of confusion, anxiety, anguish, and so on. The paradox is vitalised in the negative feelings that its ceaseless repetition brings about. The cyclical thinking pushes one to accept, and later reject, partial selections of an entire complex array. This process’ lack of telos, meanwhile, makes this entire experience – with its illusion of potential clarification – completely directionless. 

1 Toklas’ letterhead notably accentuates this word-absurdity in its doubling up of the the word ‘Rose’ such that the circle reads “Rose is a rose is a rose. Rose is a rose is a rose.” and so on. This adds a slight hesitation to its being casually read. It may be said internally as something like ‘Rose is a rose is a r-Rose is a rose is a r-Rose’, for example. 

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