In the second chapter of Difference and Repetition, Deleuze breaks the flow of his argument to deliver something of a digression. Titled the ‘Note on the Three Repetitions’, the digression tracks a tripartite model of historical of repetition occurring across a range of different philosophical and theoretical approaches to the phenomenon of historical development. Deleuze’s goal, which he ultimately finds to be tenuous and problematic, is to uncover a commonality in the figures, so scattered and dispersed across time and place he offers up: the medieval millenarian Joachim of Fiore, Enlightenment philosopher Giambattista Vico, and Pierre-Simon Ballanche, a largely forgotten French philosopher who managed, intriguingly enough, to settle himself in the double-pincer of both the progressive and counterrevolutionary camps in the wake of the French revolution. The primary anchor for these three figures, however, is Marx, and most specifically the Marx of the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte (1852), with his formula—one that, Deleuze says, has yet to be properly understood by historians—that “all great world-historical facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice… the first time as tragedy, the second as farce”.
Also Deleuze summarizes, Marx here draws forth two forms of historical repetition that run in different directions, but are yet aligned in the sense that they appear as distinction moments in the series (or, more properly, the circuit) that composes historical evolution. The tragic moment is a tragic metamorphosis: a repeating occurs that unleashes something new into history, producing a jagged fracture between the emergent time and what came before. The farcical or comic moment, however, is a repetition that “falls short” and fails to offer any sort of “authentic creation” (D&R, 114). In Marx’s schema, itself a dynamic confrontation of Hegel’s own insights concerning historical repetition with Aristotle’s distinction between the tragic and the comic (which ultimately pivoted on whether or not the characters were a ‘higher’ or ‘lower’ type, respectively), the tragic precedes the comic, thus providing the provocative diagram of the comic as a repetition of the tragic, a repetition of the repetition, which can only ever fail…
In Deleuze’s hands, this order is reversed, and he presents the tragic as succeeding the comic in the most generalized, abstracted form of the series. In the matrix of historical production, the comic does easily follow the tragic, but in the abstract form the ultimate metamorphosis comes in the aftermath of the failure of attempted transformation. From here, we close in on Deleuze’s ultimate goal, the revelation of the third moment in the series, which is the Eternal Return, difference-in-itself, which comes clashing through the spiroform of the comic-tragic to open the very possibility of the future (understood, in the case of Vico and others, the resetting of the cycle in order for it to advance, itself a distinctly spirodynamic formulation). This curious temporal architecture, however, is not the chief concern here, though its ghost continues to hover close, just out of sight. Its mention here is only to install it in the back of the mind. Instead, it is Marx’s own treatment of the tragic-comic cycling in the context of historical evolution, as well as the commentary offered by Harold Rosenberg—American Trotskyite and art critic (known for his early commentaries on what would later be called abstract expressionism) and Deleuze’s primary interlocutor when discussing the Eighteenth Brumaire—that should be stressed at the current juncture.
As Deleuze notes, Rosenberg foregrounds the importance of myth in his discussion of the tragic-comic repetition (this discussion, incidentally, is to be found in his essay ‘The Resurrected Romans’, though it can also be found in the volume of collected writings called The Tradition of the New (highly recommended)). It is the myth that loops together the strange dynamism of historical repetition with what is perhaps the most famous insight from the Eighteenth Brumaire: “Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past”. The present, and the possibilities of the future contained in the present, are colonized by the past. Historical lock-in reigns supreme and the “tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living”. In the grip of possession, the revolution that is capable of creating the new—by which we mean a temporal order distinct from the present—itself “conjure[s] up the spirits of the past to their service”.
In his restaging of Marx’s argument, Rosenberg describes how “In the act of creating new social forms men had ceased to behave ‘realistically’. They lost touch with the time and place they occupied as living men—they became, more or less automatically, actors playing a part” (The Tradition of the New, 154). The revolutionaries were thrown out of joint with their time, not out individual volition or collective choice, but because of the historico-temporal wall that conditioned their range of actions—and, as a result, their very identities melted away, precisely in order to gain new ones as mythic characters. “Social reality”, wrote Rosenberg, “gave way to mimesis because history did not allow humans to pursue their own ends… It was the pressure of the past that took revolutions out of the ‘naturalistic’ prose of the everyday and gave them the form of a special kind of dramatic poetry” (The Tradition of the New, 154-155). Or, as Marx himself put it:
Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire, and the Revolution of 1848 knew nothing better to do than to parody, now 1789, now the revolutionary tradition of 1793-95. In like manner, the beginner who has learned a new language always translates it back into his mother tongue, but he assimilates the spirit of the new language and expresses himself freely in it only when he moves in it without recalling the old and when he forgets his native tongue.
When we think about this conjuring up of the dead of world history, a salient difference reveals itself. Camille Desmoulins, Danton, Robespierre, St. Just, Napoleon, the heroes as well as the parties and the masses of the old French Revolution, performed the task of their time – that of unchaining and establishing modern bourgeois society – in Roman costumes and with Roman phrases. The first one destroyed the feudal foundation and cut off the feudal heads that had grown on it. The other created inside France the only conditions under which free competition could be developed, parceled-out land properly used, and the unfettered productive power of the nation employed; and beyond the French borders it swept away feudal institutions everywhere, to provide, as far as necessary, bourgeois society in France with an appropriate up-to-date environment on the European continent.
Revolution, then—and it is important that what Marx is describing here are the bourgeois revolutions, which set in motion the historical mission of capital—blows across the desert of history in the form of a mythic wind that bears within itself a complex and knotted time structure. The future is obstructed by the domination of the present by the past, but it is exactly through a return to the past, the resurrection of something in the past in the form of some weird simulation, that breaks these temporal bindings. Once these loops have been followed, the time of the myth melts away and history restabilizes; what was previously out of joint is recoded, and the dramatic character masks are discarded for those of the everyday. As for Marx, his pen betrays a sense of a restlessness in the face of this transference into the epoch of bourgeois harmony:
Once the new social formation was established, the antediluvian colossi disappeared and with them also the resurrected Romanism – the Brutuses, the Gracchi, the publicolas, the tribunes, the senators, and Caesar himself. Bourgeois society in its sober reality bred its own true interpreters and spokesmen in the Says, Cousins, Royer-Collards, Benjamin Constants, and Guizots; its real military leaders sat behind the office desk and the hog-headed Louis XVIII was its political chief. Entirely absorbed in the production of wealth and in peaceful competitive struggle, it no longer remembered that the ghosts of the Roman period had watched over its cradle.
Rosenberg suggests that because of this, the subversiveness of history, with its ruses and capacity for sudden reversals, is to be understood as ironical. One is transformed into oneself by being transformed into something else—and it is in this sense that history defeats the actors that seek to break from it. For this reason, he continues, the myth itself is denigrated: “Marx, having admitted the myth into history, refuses to concede to it the power to affect history’s direction” (The Tradition of the New, 161). It’s hard to see, however, how Roseneberg stands to make this claim, given precisely the function of the myth that he draws out from the pages of the Eighteenth Brumaire. In the case of the bourgeois revolutions the myth appears as the vital component in engendering a direction to history; primary to their enrapturing by its templex machinery, the revolutionaries were paralyzed. Men might not make history as they choose, but history proceeds immanently through their actors, perhaps precisely because of the twists, reversals, catastrophic breaks and bizarre surprises that constantly dog the smooth expectations of how events will play out. The myth, for the revolutionaries, was the fuel needed for combustion, for the cascade of cruel ironies that propel pre-history towards its conclusion.
The dissipation of the myth and the advent of the ‘new normal’ of the bourgeoisie is what sets the stage for the comic repetition. Marx saw this shambolic ghost appearing in history in his own moment, as the radical spirits attempted to recreate the events of the French Revolution during the course of the revolution of 1848. The repetition of the repetition:
From 1848 to 1851, only the ghost of the old revolution circulated – from Marrast, the républicain en gants jaunes [Republican in yellow gloves], who disguised himself as old Bailly, down to the adventurer who hides his trivial and repulsive features behind the iron death mask of Napoleon. A whole nation, which thought it had acquired an accelerated power of motion by means of a revolution, suddenly finds itself set back into a defunct epoch, and to remove any doubt about the relapse, the old dates arise again – the old chronology, the old names, the old edicts, which had long since become a subject of antiquarian scholarship, and the old minions of the law who had seemed long dead. The nation feels like the mad Englishman in Bedlam who thinks he is living in the time of the old Pharaohs and daily bewails the hard labor he must perform in the Ethiopian gold mines, immured in this subterranean prison, a pale lamp fastened to his head, the overseer of the slaves behind him with a long whip, and at the exits a confused welter of barbarian war slaves who understand neither the forced laborers nor each other, since they speak no common language. “And all this,” sighs the mad Englishman, “is expected of me, a freeborn Briton, in order to make gold for the Pharaohs.” “In order to pay the debts of the Bonaparte family,” sighs the French nation. The Englishman, so long as he was not in his right mind, could not get rid of his idée fixé of mining gold. The French, so long as they were engaged in revolution, could not get rid of the memory of Napoleon, as the election of December 10 [1848, when Louis Bonaparte was elected President of the French Republic by plebiscite.] was proved. They longed to return from the perils of revolution to the fleshpots of Egypt, and December 2, 1851 [The date of the coup d’état by Louis Bonaparte], was the answer. Now they have not only a caricature of the old Napoleon, but the old Napoleon himself, caricatured as he would have to be in the middle of the nineteenth century.
It is at this point that Deleuze’s third repetition—which he identifies not only with Nietzsche’s Eternal Return, but also (with varying degrees of asymmetry) the turning of Vico’s ricorso and Ballanche’s third age, characterized by regicide, the late-stage voyage of Oedipus and the reign of the “Man without a Name”—hovers closer. For Marx, comic repetition is doomed to failure because what is not needed is a repetition of the repetition, but something that angles beyond the historical space-time of bourgeois society: proletarian (the class without a name?) revolution, not a bourgeois one.
In Rosenberg’s reading, the proletarian revolution is viewed at this point as proceeding through a repudiation of the myth’s essential role. “The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot take its poetry from the past but only from the future”, wrote Marx. “The former revolutions required recollections of past world history to in order to smother their own content”. To this, Rosenberg adds that “[d]eprived of the myth the proletarian revolution would have to take place without passion, or with a kind of passion altogether different from the ecstasy of the doubled time which ‘drugged’ the revolutionary middle class” (The Tradition of the New, 163). This reading, however, seems to run into two problems. In the first case, it’s not clear that myth itself vanishes from Marx’s account, as for Marx the term ‘poetry’ acts as a cipher for what Rosenberg identifies as the myth. In the Eighteenth Brumaire, the poetry which flavors the proletarian revolution—which is to say, of course, what lends it its passions—flows not from the past from the future: the future-myth. This leads us, quite naturally, to the second case, which is that the temporality of proletarian revolution is still seen by Marx as a time doubled, one that is out of joint. It’s a restaging of the incredible temporal schizzing that opens the preamble of the Communist Manifesto: “A specter is haunting Europe—the specter of communism”.
Dickering over this sort of minutia in Rosenberg’s reading of Marx is ultimately immaterial, particularly when we contextualize these multi-faceted mechanisms into the present moment. When Marx described the poetry or myth of communist futurity igniting the passion of revolution in the present, comic repetition was viewed as occurring within a historical trajectory that still maintained a telic structure, albeit one that, as Etienne Balibar describes in The Philosophy of Marx, forced him back to his drawing boards and notebooks. But even as he was plunging himself into the white-hot maelstrom of churning industrialization and the delirious loops of commodity circulation, he could glimpse the ghost of the possible futures radiating backwards into the darkness of bourgeois society. It was, in fact, the maelstrom and the loops themselves that allowed this light to pierce the vale, drawing the class war towards itself…
This situation is, of course, not reflective of current postmodern conditions. Much more of this is to be said in a series of in-progress posts, but what is worth remarking on is that the present, while shut off from the radiance of the future, does not appear as being colonized by the past. Instead, past, present and future all appear as if smeared across a singular, infinite field, in turn effectively obliterating the time-structure of history by cancelling out all three. One might reach for Zizek’s handy quote about imagining the end of the world being easier than imagining the end of capitalism, but this seems radically insufficient in grappling with the endless scroll of postmodernity. Imagining isn’t enough, for it already conjures a faint outline of the necessary time-structure—one must push through from imagining to believing. It’s readily apparent that belief in the end of capitalism, despite the rapid cooling of its revolutionary flames, isn’t accessible in any meaningful sense. By the same token, it’s hard to see that people truly believe in the end of the world—at best, there is a great pretending to believe in the end of the world, which is something entirely different from believing that one believes in the end of the world, much less the end of capitalism. If one finds exaggeration in these words, a quick assessment of the relationship between climate discourse and action is recommended.
At this seemingly intractable impasse, another strange twist presents itself: the mythic loop that was unique to the bourgeois revolution, which the proletarian revolution was meant to eschew, appears as the potential ground for an exit from postmodernity (which is to say that it appears as the precondition for the proletarian revolution). After the repeat failures of the postmodern politics of the occupation and the multitude, which for Fredric Jameson entailed the replacement of the “politics of duration” with the “politics of the instant” (An American Utopia, 13), a falling backwards in time is required in order to actualize the future—and once this formula is in play, so too is the specter of the myth.
The time-structure was recognized, perhaps inadvertently, by Alex Williams and Nick Srnicek in their 2013 #Accelerate Manifesto, where they wrote of the “need to revive the argument that was traditionally made for post-capitalism: not only is capitalism an unjust and perverted system, but it is also a system that holds back progress” (it’s telling that this manifesto was penned in part as a direct reaction to the politics of the occupation and multitude). While there’s much to quibble about concerning the distinction between Williams and Srnicek’s mode of analysis and conclusions and that of Marx—and this blog certainly veers hard to the latter—this is far less important than the signal that is covertly bleeding through their words. It’s a signal that is picked up by Nick Land, who sees in their retroprogressivism a left-wing mirror-image to the temporalities of Neoreaction, which itself conforms quite well to time-tangledness captured by Marx in the Eighteenth Brumaire. Citing the same quote as above, Land points out that
it’s a revival, it’s a return to tradition, it’s an invocation of postcapitalism, it’s absolutely templex in this sense of being deeply ambiguous or schizoid in terms of its temporal structure. And I think this goes deep into their project. The project of left accelerationism as outlined in the MAP is retroprogressivist, and actually has exactly the same retroprogressivist time structure as right accelerationism in the sense that it is both kind of hyper-futurist and drawn back particularly to something like the 1920s. It’s like art deco, it’s a return to this point at which modernization was lost. Obviously from the right it’s lost because of the New Deal and the destruction of classical liberalism. From the left it’s lost by the disappointments of Soviet Communism and the betrayal from that point of view of these socialist dreams contemporary with the Bolshevik revolution.
Elsewhere we can find the instructive identification of Williams and Srnicek’s marriage of the “command of The Plan” to the “improvised order of The Network” with an abstracted view of the developmentalist moment in the evolution of modernity—and here, too, the signal holds (indeed, the sort of socialist dreams identified by Land above flood through the developmentalist imperative as much as capital itself).
Left accelerationism never elevated itself to the level capable of breaking postmodernity. Even as they actively identified their project as hyperstitional, a tool to bootstrap a future-oriented movement into existence, the escalation via self-excitation never same: its function as myth was not realized. Two reasons that bear immediately on matters here. The first of these is movement from mythopoesis to myth construction, which can be traced along a line running from the engagement with the time-structure to its subsequent abandoning in later iterations of the program. The second is the issue of an evolving technocratic orientation, which follows in parallel to the two previous transition. While it is indeed present in the Manifesto—developmentalism, it seems, is always shot through with technocratic impulses of varying degrees—its appearance in the guise of The Plan is mitigated by The Network. The Manifesto proposes their marriage, but perhaps a more interesting and instructive way of viewing it would be as two elements in constant tension, not unlike the Maoist dialectical formula of the Two proceeding from the One (it’s not by coincidence that the formula originates not with Mao, but in Lenin’s Philosophical Notebooks). This tension ultimately falls away, and with it dissipates the very thing that the myth is supposed to infuse itself with: the class war.
In a post on ‘left hyperstition’ Mark Fisher took up Badiou’s demand for “great fictions” capable of engendering “great politics” with the following “intensely compressed suggestions”:
The first hypothesis we might hazard is that, counter-intuitively, only fictions are capable of generating belief. ‘The final belief must be in a fiction,’ Badiou quoted Wallace Stevens as writing. The belief at stake is clearly not a propositional but an attitudinal belief; which is to say, not a belief that a particular factual state of affairs obtains but belief as a set of commitments.
Secondly, since capitalism is itself inherently fictional, it is essential that counter-capitalist fictions be produced. Fiction here would not mean an ‘imaginary’ (in a Lacanian or any other sense) alternative but an already-operative generator of possibilities.
Fiction ensures that things are not only themselves. Capital is the most effective sorcery operative on the planet at the moment because it is adept at transforming banal objects into a sublimely mysterious commodities. Trans-substantiation. The allure of the commodity arises from the non-coincidence of the object with itself. (cf Zizek’s famous analysis of the ‘nothingness’ of Coke.) Anti-capitalism needs to take the form not only of a demystifying, depressive desublimation but of the production of alternative modes of sublimation.
If class struggle is to be re-ignited—and make no mistake, this conflagration is necessary to end postmodern decadence—this line appears as a fertile zero for its emergence. And that, as we have seen, is a question of time.