On Repetition

I’ve been obsessed with the concept of repetition lately. Broadly speaking. It comes in multiple forms: imitation, recreation, copying. Then there’s expansion-as-repetition: taking inspiration from and improving on an idea, building on something existing. Ranging from perfect copies to artists stealing from each other (cf TS Eliot’s “immature poets imitate; mature poets steal”), repetition is something we’ve done forever as humans. We’ve copied tools and art; we’ve been inspired by products and stories. We create new things that can be pale imitators or great advancements. Repetition is how we’ve maintained and improved our societies. Yet it’s all a form or extension of something else. “There is nothing new under the sun,” the saying goes.

I don’t think I could ever explore all the fascinating facets of the concept in a single piece, but the above quote (from Laura Hudson’s review of Ernest Cline’s Armada, written in Slate) hones in on a distinction that captivates me. Somewhere within the nature of repetition is a series of thin lines. Simple copying gives way to creating something new, yet utterly uninspired and can be considered referential at best, like Armada. Then there’s the creations that are improvements, but only slight–this year’s iPhone is 1% better than last year’s. But then somewhere beyond that, deep in the woods is a clearing where new creations, albeit inspired, become wholly new. Masterpieces exist in this small clearing, masterworks that then go on to create new genres or industries or art forms themselves.

Copying is the most prevalent form of repetition–especially in our internet age. Files fly about over WiFi with ease. Every time I open a webpage I’m shown a copy of it that my browser has been instructed to display via a series of instructions it has downloaded. We retweet each other and ‘share’ articles or other media created by someone else. Beyond the ethereal internet, we’ve long lived in a mass-produced age in the West. Factories spit out tens of thousands of identical products and things to eat for the masses. Before the industrial era, the printing press copied its way to mass literacy. I don’t mean to be negative about copying. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it, inherently. If you don’t have something nice relevant to say, don’t say anything at all. Let someone else say it, echo them. Products are mass-produced because they’ve been tested by the market and succeeded. Copying irons out idiosyncrasies, but it also helps us to feed and clothe and inform a lot of people.

Referencing, on the other hand, is almost always something I roll my eyes at. While I can appreciate a bit of referential humor in a conversation, anything beyond that is usually dreck. To refer back to some earlier incarnation of a product or idea without adding to it or modifying it somehow tends to just dilute it. (I’d place the distinction between referencing and copying at the same junction between paraphrasing and quoting.) Referencing some past idea usually just becomes a way of namechecking something if it’s not used to bolster a new argument. References without weight or heft tend to be pointless, just calls and responses from in-groups signaling with their own. Perhaps all pop culture subgroups are like this, but I notice it the most with nerd cultures: signaling that you know this specialized knowledge with no more purpose than reference is super common.

Building upon something is usually the goal most new creative works try for. It’s achievable, though difficult. No one wants to reproduce or just be referential; we all want to make something new. We all want to make something real. A perfect example is the TV series Brooklyn 99: it’s nowhere near anything mold-breaking. It’s a comedy show set in a police precinct in New York–well-tread ground, no doubt. But it still feels new enough, original enough. It references and copies, but it also builds and twists. There’s a marriage proposal plot in the latest episode that was just ace. Despite taking a series of extant ideas and concepts and seemingly just reformulating and reordering then, B99 has become it’s own thing. It’s furthered the concepts in its own way, it’s added to this great gamut of creation that we humans find appreciable.

Masterworks is the final category we can easily break repetition down into. Masterworks are few and far between and they’re hard to define. It’s hard to even say what is a masterpiece, and I’m sure that different people consider different things masterpieces. There’s often consensus, but not always. Some types of creation don’t even have accepted masterpieces, I’d imagine. Others maybe have one hit, ever–I’ll again reference the iPhone as probably the only masterpiece of consumer capitalism in the past decade. Masterpieces are often indelible in that they create a new standard by which the cycles of imitation, reference, and building repeat.

I wonder how many masterpieces begin with the creator(s) thinking that this will be something that changes the world. Surely every creator hopes that, but what creator has the ego to set out with that goal, first and foremost? I almost wonder if some masterpieces are almost happened upon. Did David Foster Wallace realize what he had with Infinite Jest? Did Shakespeare think he would be turning pages hundreds of years on? Did Bob Dylan know he was writing Nobel-worthy music? Hard to imagine, honestly.

This exposition has sort of narrowed into an examination of repetition within creation, but it exists everywhere else in human life too. We’re creatures of habit in our actions, too. Many people complain that their jobs are repetitious. I’ll listen to the same song or album on repeat for hours. Repetition is how we learn, and it’s how we create. It’s a fundamental part of our lives.