A central claim of Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition is that we only ever create something new through repetition.  Here, then, we might encounter a fundamental difference between Badiou and Deleuze (or is it a proximity between the two?).  For Badiou the new is created as a result of a truth-procedure that is evoked through fidelity to an event.  We don’t, in fact, have to await events as people sometimes suggest of Badiou; for there are plenty of events that have already occurred throughout history.  It is not the event that produces newness in Badiou’s universe, but rather fidelity to that event and the transformation of a situation or world in terms of what is uncounted by the encyclopedia of that situation.  One can continue to pay fidelity to the Paris Commune or May of 68 (if the latter was an event) today, unfolding its consequences in the present.

In the case of Deleuze, by contrast, it is a repetition of the past that produces the new.  In an inspired passion, Deleuze writes that,

Historians sometimes look for empirical correspondences between the present and the past, but however rich it may be, this network of historical correspondences involves repetition only by analogy or similitude.  In truth, the past is in itself repetition, as is the present, but they are repetition in two different modes which repeat each other.  Repetition is never a historical fact, but rather the historical condition under which something new is effectively produced.  It is not the historian’s reflection which demonstrates a resemblance between Luther and Paul, between the Revolution of 1789 and the Roman Republic, etc.  Rather, it is in the first place for themselves that the revolutionaries are determined to lead their lives as ‘resuscitated Romans’, before becoming capable of the act which they have begun by repeating in the mode of a proper past, therefore under conditions such that they necessarily identify with a figure from the historical past.  Repetition is a condition of action before it is is a concept of reflection.  We produce something new only on the condition that we repeat– once in the mode which constitutes the past, and once more in the present of metamorphosis.  (DR, 90)

In seeking to live as resuscitated Romans, the revolutionaries do not simply repeat what the Romans did, nor do they imitate the Romans.  Rather, they encounter a specifically Roman problem or, perhaps, a Roman dream, that they must revitalize in the present.  The world is a different place in the present– populated by different peoples, technologies, modes of production, religions, and geographies –generating a new set of questions and problems in response to “repeating Rome”.  Rome becomes something new in this repetition.

read on!

Later in Difference and Repetition, Deleuze gives us a sense of what he has in mind by creative repetition.  Favorably quoting a passage from Heidegger’s Kant and the Problem of Metaphysics, the Black Forest philosopher writes that,

By a repetition of a fundamental problem we understand the disclosure of the primordial possibilities concealed in it.  The development of these possibilities has the effect of transforming the problem and thus preserving it on its import as a problem.  To preserve a problem means to free and to safeguard its intrinsic powers, which are the source of its essence and which make it possible as a problem.  The repetition of the possibilities of a problem, therefore, is not a simple taking up of that which is ‘in vogue’ with regard to this problem…  The possible, thus understood, in fact hinders all genuine repetition and thereby all relation to history…  [A good interpretation must, on the contrary, decide] how far the understanding of the possible which governs all repetition extends and whether it is equal to that which is repeatable.  (DR, 201)

Here Heidegger implicitly draws a distinction between two types of reading.  Let us call the first type of reading, not explicitly mentioned in the passage, “scholarly reading”.  The second sort of reading can be called “creative repetition”.  I hesitate in drawing this crude distinction because it is likely that good reading involves elements of both, so I worry about setting up a binary opposition where one option is considered bad and the other good.  There can be something emancipatory in a scholarly reading because it can allow us to see the world in an entirely different light by seeing just how differently people have conceived the universe and the problems of existence.  Isn’t it interesting, for example, that the question of moral duties in the Kantian form doesn’t arise for Aristotle (or the Epicureans and the Stoics)?  Doesn’t that suggest something about how society has shifted?  Doesn’t it lead us to ask the Nietzschean question “how did duty become a question?  How did the issue of whether to keep a contract become a problem?”

A scholarly reading tries to get the philosopher “right”.  To put it very crudely and inadequately:  What is it that animated Aristotle in his time?  What were the reigning debates that he was responding to?  What did he really mean?  And so on.  A creative repetition repeats the problem that animated the philosophy and might very well produce something very different and new as a result.  It is not interested in “accuracy” in its reading, but a comprehension and unfolding of the problem that animated the philosophy.

This, it seems, was the core of Deleuze’s own “method” of reading philosophers.  In a passage that it far too often quoted (so I’ll quote it again), Deleuze writes that…

…I suppose the main way I coped with [the dominance of history of philosophy in the academy] at the time was to see the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to the same thing) immaculate conception.  I saw myself as taking an author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own offspring, yet monstrous.  It was really important for it to be his own child, because the author had to actually say al I had him saying.  But the child was bound to be monstrous too, because it resulted form all sorts of shifting, slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really enjoyed.  (Negotiations, 6)

Perhaps “monstrous reading” became a problem and goal for Deleuze because, in a academic sociological environment dominated by scholarly reading, he faced the question “how can I do philosophy through commentary?”  If I’ve never particularly cared for these remarks by Deleuze, then this is because they too easily lend themselves to a gimmick.  When we read this passage superficially, we ask “how can I bugger this philosopher”, as if buggering the philosophy were the goal or is what a virtuous reading is supposed to do.  But I don’t think that good buggery, interesting buggery, can proceed in this way.  We have to take a philosophy seriously, we have to love it, to bugger it well.  Good buggery can’t take place through a frontal assault.  It has to take place from behind, inadvertently.  We have to relate to the philosophy as those revolutionaries imagining themselves as Roman republicans.

Repeating a philosophy, buggering it, really repeating it, means repeating the problem of that philosophy.  Suppose that we wished to repeat Lucretius’s De Rerum Natura.  One way of reading Lucretius consists in trying to figure out what he really meant.  Another way of writing a commentary on it is to repeat Lucretius.  What was Lucretius’s problem?  “What’s your problem, Lucretius!?!”  Lucretius’s problem is human anxiety and how it distorts our thought, but also the imagination and desire:  the manner in which we desire infinite life and pleasure and are thus led into all the illusions of love (Book III and IV) and the manner in which we imagine the possibility of infinite suffering with both the pain of dying as well as the afterlife.  Lucretius’s cure is a critique of superstition and love.

What would it mean to repeat Lucretius today?  Well clearly we don’t encounter the same problem of superstition or religion in our current historical setting today that Lucretius encountered in our time.  Imagination doesn’t haunt our minds with superstition or religion as it did in his time.  Rather, it is ideology that haunts our minds today.  A creative repetition of Lucretius would involve reading him not as a critic of superstition, but as a critic of ideology.  Lucretius becomes something very different under this reading.  Likewise, in the aftermath of psychoanalysis, we have a very different understanding of love and desire.  The Epicureans obscurely sensed the problems of jouissance and desire– when Lucretius speaks of imagination imagining infinite pleasure and finding nothing but disappointment with the world, they’re alluding to the problems of jouissance and desire –but they did not fully articulate it.  A creative repetition of Lucretius would involve a renewed discourse on love and desire, exploring how it pervades every aspect of our existence and our identifications, distorting our thought and social relations in a variety of ways.  And, of course, we would have to thoroughly reinterpret Lucretius’s atomism and materialism based on the transformations of modern science.

This is something that Serres does in his beautiful book on Lucretius when he reinterprets ancient atomism in terms of turbulence, thermodynamics of dynamic systems.  What we get in Serres’s reading is an unheard of Lucretius, an entirely new Lucretius, that nonetheless maintains fidelity to Lucretius.  The problem becomes new in a contemporary context.  There is, for Serres, something worth preserving and repeating in Lucretius, but it is not necessarily a Lucretius that the scholar would recognize…  It is, rather, Lucretius treated as a contemporary in dialogue with us today and the problems that we encounter today.  And it seems to me that Badiou is up to something similar with his repetition of Plato and above all in his “translation”– which I don’t find particularly successful as I feel it still remains too close to the original –of Plato’s Republic.  What would it mean to rewrite the Republic today or Marx’s Capital or Rousseau’s Social Contract or Descartes’s Meditations?  What was it that Lacan did, above all, if not repeat Freud, making Freud become something very different even as he maintained rigorous fidelity to Freud?