November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
March 2, 2020
When, in the conclusion to her now-famous work Gender Trouble, Judith Butler writes that “it is only within the practices of repetitive signifying that a subversion of identity becomes possible,” she means that we are shaped and formed by repetition, specifically by repetition in language.1 In Butler’s thought, the regulated repetition of language determines our identities by closing off possibilities for thinking and acting and by forcing us into a rule-governed discourse that reinforces these same predetermined identities. To escape this vicious cycle, Butler indicates that we must make subversive parodic repetitions in discourse that challenge from within the identities imposed upon us by a discursive regime. In short, she believes that by repeating differently the words and concepts that in their normal usage, shape how we think, act, and conceive of ourselves, we can challenge, and thereby denaturalize, the very identities which seem natural, revealing them to be constructed.
Butler’s understanding of parody and its relation to the self is implicitly linked to Søren Kierkegaard’s conception and use of repetition.2 For Kierkegaard, repetition refers not simply to the use of words in alternative contexts but to the repetition of the self, an idea that has its beginning in his thinking of the human self as a synthesis of time and eternity. That is, the self before God exists at the intersection of time and eternity, what Kierkegaard’s pseudonyms describe as “the moment” of crisis in which we confront the uncertain future with all its hopeful and terrible possibilities and undertake a movement that expresses the types of selves we are becoming. It will, I hope, become more clear why Kierkegaard names this act of will “repetition,” but for now, let me simply say that Kierkegaard thinks that in the decisive moments in our lives when our relations to God and to the world are at stake, we come to recognize ourselves for who we are, and we are faced with the decision of whether we will choose to be that self—to repeat that self—before God. Put simply, we become fully human when we recognize our existence at this intersection and will to be ourselves before God.
And although Kierkegaard insists that this movement of repetition is both interior and inexpressible, we nonetheless articulate it, so to speak, through concrete action, often in opposition to established orders. To be sure, the actions we take against the ethics of our society do not prove that repetition has occurred, but by acting in ways contrary to the established order of our society, we may in fact be expressing our inexpressible relation to the divine. Such a conception of the self and the religious task incumbent upon us leads me to conclude that the linguistic repetitions employed by Kierkegaard and theorized by Butler are key ways that we as Christians may express our existence before God against prevailing social and ethical norms. My hope is that by attending to Kierkegaard’s thought on the relationship between repetition, agency, and irony, we may come to understand that the use of our human agency in deconstructive acts has constructive promise for us, precisely because it both expresses and is grounded in the inexpressible relation to God.
In Kierkegaard’s Repetition, a nameless young man who is involved in an unhappy love affair turns to Constantin Constantius, the book’s pseudonymous author, for help. Constantius observes that the young girl almost immediately becomes the young man’s muse, awakening in him a poetic expression of his ideal love. Yet after only a few days, the young man finds he cannot repeat his love in the present; he can only look back with poetic longing upon the ideal experience of love, an ideal that the girl can never fully embody. The young man’s affair is unhappy because, as Constantius observes, he makes the Platonic movement of recollection in which he abstracts from his relationship in the present in order to gain an eternal ideal.3 In Constantius’s telling, the young man has entered eternity backwards, forsaking the present for the past and thus removing himself from his present existence.
The import of this narrative, particularly the treatment of time, eternity, and self that it illustrates, comes into clearer view when read in conjunction with Kierkegaard’s The Concept of Anxiety, beginning with a discussion of Platonism by Vigilius Haufniensis, the book’s pseudonymous author. According to Haufniensis, Platonic thought argues that becoming one’s true self occurs through the flight from a concrete and imperfect temporality in order to recover or recollect the ideal eternal reality—a flight that looks much like the young man’s in Repetition. Platonic thought posits that the eternal lies eternally in the past and is only recoverable by abstraction from the present to that immutable and truly real past. To become ourselves, then, we must abandon the present to the past; our task is to recover—to recollect—in the present what we were ideally and eternally in the past.4
Repetition is, conversely, “actuality and the earnestness of existence.” Entering eternity forward through repetition means accentuating the present as the time at which we engage with and relate ourselves to the eternal. Rather than retreating to the past or removing ourselves from time in order to access the truly real, as in Platonic thought, entering the eternal in a forward direction means that we relate to the eternal in the moment as it presents itself in the uncertain future. The current moment is neither a vacuous abstraction nor a contentless division between past and future, which, as in Greek thought, holds no possibility for forming a self. Indeed, the moment as Kierkegaard conceives of it is not simply a category of time but takes on increased significance as an “atom of eternity,” an “ambiguity” in which “time and eternity touch each other.”5 In other words, the present moment takes on eternal significance because it holds the possibility of altering decisively the types of selves we are and will become.
Although this moment is no mere point in time, the confluence of time and eternity nevertheless occurs in time. Haufniensis observes further that in Christianity, the crucial idea is not abstraction from time but the “fullness of time,” which occurs in the incarnation of the eternal God into the temporal sphere.6 This conception of the moment imbues time with eternal significance: the moment of self-becoming occurs within time because the eternal intersects with the temporal in the incarnation of Jesus Christ and endows subsequent humans with the consciousness of every human self as a paradoxical synthesis of time and eternity.7
Moreover, Christian thought aligns the eternal with the future. In Christianity, “the future is the incognito in which the eternal, even though it is incommensurable with time, nevertheless preserves its association with time.”8 The eternal lies always ahead. We relate to the eternal as we relate to future possibility, not as we relate to past necessity. Thus, we do not recollect our true ideal self from the eternal past. Rather, we look forward to what is yet to come as the possibility for who we will turn out to be.
From this open-ended point of view, we face innumerable possibilities for who we may become, which fill us with anxiety. This anxiety indicates that we are being confronted with the possibility of a new, elevated self. And “each ascent to a more spiritual level of selfhood requires a leap into the unknown,” a leap into “the eternal’s (freedom’s) possibility.”9 Thus, the self becomes itself precisely in relation to the unknown possibility that confronts it. That is, the way in which we relate to and respond with this anxiety reflects the sort of selves we are and will become. The temporal position of repetition, then, must be the present, gazing into the future, or in other words, the moment of intersection between time and eternity.10
Haufniensis’s analysis of time allows us to think of our present as the time of our possible self-transformation. We—each of us individually—face daily the difficulties of interpersonal, cultural, and political relations and are perhaps tempted to escape to an ideal as the Platonic form of our own existence. But Haufniensis’s insight into the Christian understanding of the character of time brooks no escape from the concrete present. It is neither the abstract past nor the disembodied future but our actual existence in the present that holds eternal significance. Becoming a self in this interpretation of Christianity requires us to remain present in the present and attentive to the decisions that face us at every instant, for the actions we take in these moments are intimately related to the selves we are becoming.
Perhaps it has become clear now that the concept of repetition comes into sharp relief in moments of crisis. Constantius points this out explicitly in his reply to H. L. Heiberg’s review of Repetition: repetition means that “when happiness ceases, when the crisis comes, freedom must press forward, not retreat.” The crises we face in existence indicate that we have come to a moment of decision, a moment that is ripe for willing the repetition of the self. Moments of crisis—and as I will show, moments that concern our identity in relation to our broader society—are precisely the types of events that indicate the kinds of selves we are becoming. A crisis reveals to us that we stand “at the border of the marvelous” between stages of existence and forces us to confront who we are and will be.11 In this sense, the moment of crisis represents “the moment” Haufniensis speaks of: the intersection of time and eternity in which we gaze into an unknown future.
This notion of crisis as an event that clarifies the moment of repetition is demonstrated in the unhappy young man’s interpretation of Job. In his anxiety and guilt over his ill-fated affair with the girl, the young letter writer from Repetition turns to the biblical narrative for comfort.The moment of crisis and anxiety for Job occurs when he loses everything, his family and friends insist that this disaster must be punishment for sins, and he must decide how to respond. In more general terms, the moment Job faces takes place between the conception of the self before the universally accepted ethical standards of the day and the conception of the self before the divine. The young man recognizes the religious character of Job’s crisis, and he rightly perceives himself to be in a similar situation. Like Job, he must decide whether to follow the ethical path, which in the young man’s case would be to stay true to the girl, or to will himself through an action that cuts against the ethics of the day. He stands, then, at the “border of the marvelous” and, indeed, at “the border of his being.”
Despite opposition from his society, Job remains steadfast, thanking and worshiping God, and maintaining that he is in the right. His insistence has significance for his self-development precisely because he wills to be himself in relation to God.12 Here, I see an important link between Kierkegaard’s conceptions of repetition and faith, particularly as he describes faith in The Sickness unto Death. Recognizing our existence in relation to God constitutes the religious development of the self and the self’s highest becoming, for “not until a self as this specific single individual is conscious of existing before God, not until then is it the infinite self.” Faith, the pseudonymous author Anti-Climacus insists, occurs when “the self in being itself and in willing to be itself rests transparently in God.” This is the height of self-becoming, and what I take to be true repetition, given that repetition “begins in faith” and concerns the unity of the self before God.13 Moreover, the highest form of this repetition takes place when our human reason and ethical duty conflict with our duty to God “by virtue of the absurd,” “when every thinkable human certainty and probability were impossible.” Such a movement, of course, cannot be accomplished on our own. Indeed, “at this point the finite spirit despairs,” and we need divine help.14
Kierkegaard’s insight into the significance of crises for self-transformation provides a framework for understanding the moments of crisis in our present—like, say, immigration and our collective relation to those from other countries, prison reform and the death penalty, the projected ecological catastrophe, not to mention the innumerable individual crises we each face. The personal and global crises that confront us reveal that we, like Job and the young man, exist at the border between established orders and the divine, and they call us to respond.
If we heed that call, then we bravely undertake the repetition of the self. “It takes youthfulness to hope,” Constantius writes, “youthfulness to recollect, but it takes courage to will repetition. He who will merely hope is cowardly; he who will merely recollect is voluptuous; he who wills repetition is a man, and the more emphatically he is able to realize it, the more profound a human being he is.”15 In other words, what it means to be a human being is, in part, to have consciousness of one’s freedom to express oneself over and against established orders. Such consciousness indicates that one exists as the synthesis of time and eternity, for when this consciousness is present, Haufniensis tells us, so too is the moment.16
The young man in Repetition recognizes this. He realizes the difference between his society’s expectations of him and the religious claim upon him, but he fails to display the courage to will repetition. He has only the youth to recollect. In contrast, Job displays the religious fortitude (no doubt with divine help) to will to be himself over and against the established order. Here, then, we can begin to grasp the final piece to the concept of repetition. The development of the self requires an act of freedom, a willed expression of the self as distinct from one’s society. Thus, Kierkegaard’s concept brings us from a Christian understanding of time and eternity to a notion of the human being as a free synthesis of time and eternity who is able to will herself.
Repetition involves willing to be ourselves before God and is thus a movement of a decidedly inward and spiritual character. In his reply to Heiberg, Constantius suggests that repetition should be contrasted with everything external: “[The young man’s] being has been split, and so it is not a question of the repetition of something external but of the repetition of his freedom.”17 Likewise, the clearest statements in Kierkegaard’s work concerning the self’s relation to God suggest that faith, or repetition, cannot be expressed linguistically. The movement of faith puts us at odds with the universal order of the day, and because Kierkegaard, following G. W. F. Hegel, thinks that language only expresses the universal, we cannot make our experience of this movement intelligible through language.18 For example, in Fear and Trembling,we read of Abraham’s silence concerning his plans to sacrifice Isaac, demonstrating the incommensurability between the command Abraham has received from God and his universally recognized duty toward his son. He remains silent because there can be no direct explanation between the individual person of faith and those in the society in which that person exists.19 In the eyes of his society, Abraham is, and must always be, a murderer, and no explanation could convince his society otherwise. His movement of faith remains always inexpressible.
In light of the decidedly interior character of repetition, what is the relationship between the movement of repetition and our outward activity? Although the movement of repetition is an inward one, this does not mean that Kierkegaard thinks that the movement of repetition has no outward expression. Kierkegaard illustrates his concern for action in a signed discourse on Job in Eighteen Upbuilding Discourses entitled “The Lord Gave, and the Lord Took Away; Blessed Be the Name of the Lord.” In this discourse, Kierkegaard does not highlight Job’s speech or his insistence that he is in the right. Rather, he posits Job as a paragon of the action of faith. Job’s importance lies in his having acted upon the statement that he made—thanking God for God’s gifts, recognizing that God and no other is responsible for the catastrophes he experienced, and worshipping God in spite of his losses—and not in his having made the statement. We can, to be sure, reflect upon Job’s words, but we do so only in hopes that in the “moment of decision” such reflection will give rise to “the incorruptible life of action,” to our imitation of Job’s example.20 It is our actions that are to be remembered because actions leave behind an indelible expression of the selves we are before God.
Thus, we are to express the movement of repetition through concrete acts that place us at odds with the universal social and ethical orders in which we exist. This, it seems to me, is the necessary outcome of a repetition that presses forward in the midst of crisis. Relating ourselves to the absolute—that is, to God—renders all other orders relative. Thus, the actions we take indicate the realignment of our loyalties: by acting against established orders in the face of an unknown future, we display our allegiance to God over and against the universal, thereby revealing our consciousness of our freedom and our existence in relation to a higher reality than the relative orders of the day.
To be sure, these outward actions do not prove a religious repetition. Only we can know that we have undertaken this movement. Nonetheless, the outward actions of the self remain grounded in the inexpressible relation to God. Kierkegaard’s examples of repetition bear this out. In Fear and Trembling, Abraham acts against the established order in his faithful obedience to God by going to Mount Moriah to sacrifice Isaac. In Repetition, Job doggedly insists upon his right relation to God and resists his society’s perception of him.21 Kierkegaard himself—if we are to take him as a person of faith—displays his own selfhood over and against the state-sponsored Hegelian Christianity that he dubbed Christendom. In each case, selfhood before God manifests itself in concrete opposition to the established orders that structure ethical and societal life. For Kierkegaard, opposition takes the form of indirect discourse: the use of irony, parody, and pseudonymity as a means of challenging the established orders through linguistic repetition. Thus, it is the interior repetition that guides us toward a consideration of linguistic repetitions and links Kierkegaard’s writing practices with Judith Butler’s theory about parodic speech.
In the preceding sections I sought to show that the self, constituted as a synthesis of time and eternity, develops into itself when we undertake the inward movement of repetition in the moment of crisis. This inward movement forms the basis for Kierkegaard’s notion of an agency that challenges established social and ethical orders. These actions do not verify the self’s religious existence, but they are nonetheless the type of actions that are indicative of and grounded in a religious existence before God. These actions are what Kierkegaard had in mind when he spoke of the “incorruptible life of action”: actions that, despite the inability of speech to communicate one’s inward movement of faith, express this crucial movement by placing the self in opposition to established orders and in service to a higher allegiance, namely the God before whom the self exists.
In this final section, I aim to show that the inward movement of repetition is the basis for an external, linguistic repetition that can operate as a concrete opposition to established orders. Understood in this way, Kierkegaard’s thought and use of linguistic repetition begins to resemble Butler’s performative theory of language and, indeed, Butler’s thought even starts to take on a religious resonance.
Butler’s exploration of parodic repetition in Gender Trouble and in Excitable Speech reveals repetition in language to be a primary form of resistance to power structures. Her performative theory suggests that parody and satire deploy repetitions of language in ways that deconstruct or denaturalize the seemingly natural power structures of our world. For Butler, terms repeated in ways that expose and challenge structures of oppression by altering the meaning of those terms place their speakers in opposition to universally accepted ways of speaking; when considered in conjunction with Kierkegaard, such repetitions can indicate a religious existence as well. That is, challenging the meaning of injurious names and social practices through parodic repetition can be understood as a manifestation of the religious repetition Kierkegaard thought to be so crucial, provided it involves a prior inward movement of repetition before God.
The repetition involved in satirical rhetoric entails a repetition of an event but with a difference—a change in wording or context—in order to achieve a comical result. The absurdity that satire makes of serious social and political events or speech renders relative the seemingly absolute nature of social ethics and public policy. The comical element also functions to place the speaker in opposition to that which she parodies and to question the loyalties of those who witness it. This is perhaps best illustrated by the parodic repetitions on late-night television. In an episode of The Late Show with Stephen Colbert from June 2018, Colbert recapitulated (here is the repetition) the story of the White House Press Secretary at the time, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, being asked to leave a Washington, DC, restaurant. Colbert told this story in close proximity to the ongoing immigration debate (here is the contextual difference), suggesting that because the restaurant staff had taken a vote to ask her to leave, Sanders had received the due process that the administration she represents had denied to illegal immigrants.22 This parodic repetition renders relative the humanly constructed legal practices of the current presidential administration and places Colbert at odds with them. In expressing his position vis-à-vis immigration policy, Colbert potentially reveals that his selfhood is established in relation to a higher order than that of the present legal system.
Kierkegaard himself engages in this external repetition through what he calls indirect communication. Indirect discourse—including irony, parody, and satire—when conceived as a performative act and not merely speech is one way to deconstruct one’s own established orders. Kierkegaard’s use of pseudonyms and irony were intended as a challenge to the direct philosophical and theological systems of his day in which society and religion were thought to be compatible. His ironic repetitions of Hegelian philosophy and his attack on the Danish church were his concrete resistance to the ethical and religious mores of his day and a subtle call for others in his community to recognize their own task to become themselves. As such, they constituted an expression of his own repetition in relation to God rather than to the established orders of his age.
In the early 1990s, Judith Butler picked up on Kierkegaard’s use of rhetorical devices and brought him into conversation with her own project. According to Butler, Kierkegaard’s parodic repetition of Hegel in The Sickness unto Death performs a break with Hegelian subjectivity and aims to construct a subject in light of the inabilities of language to express the subject itself. Thus, for Butler, as for Kierkegaard, one’s linguistic repetitions manifest the inexpressible duty one has to God over and against the ethical norms of one’s society.23
In light of these examples we can see more clearly the religious grounding that satirical expressions can have. Those whose allegiance lies not with the policies of this (or any other) administration and those whose loyalty lies not with any political party or ideological position are free to express their selfhood over and against these very policies, parties, and ideologies. Moreover, they are free to do so in ways that undermine those very institutions, exposing them as relative human constructions rather than orders that demand absolute loyalty. What both Kierkegaard and Butler offer in their own ways is a strategy for how to do precisely this.
The crucial insight Kierkegaard gives us is that the sorts of decisions that shape our selfhood have a decidedly inward character. In Kierkegaard’s thinking, the outward crises one faces force an individual and interior response—whether or not to relate ourselves to God in the face of the unknown future. But Kierkegaard recognizes that responses to the anxiety of the present moment also have a corresponding outward dimension. The inexpressible movement of religious repetition expresses itself through the concrete actions of a human agent. That religious repetition carries with it the impetus toward an “incorruptible life of action” is another way of expressing the apostle James’s insight that “faith by itself, if it has no works, is dead” (James 2:17 NRSV). A corresponding outward movement must accompany the inward movement if the inward movement is to have any significance at all.
I have sought to identify irony, parody, and satire as precisely the types of actions that correspond to the inward movement of repetition. These linguistic repetitions express the inexpressible existence of the self before God and establish the self in opposition to the established orders that pose as absolute. Such a life of action is crucial to and, indeed, is grounded in the inward life of the human subject. Noticing the convergence between Kierkegaard’s thinking on indirect communication and Judith Butler’s performative theory gives us a more concrete understanding of the ways that parodic repetition can be deployed toward Christian ends. That is, the connection between these two thinkers highlights what Kierkegaard knew but did not express in precisely these terms: our agency is closely tied to the ways that we deploy our speech, and our choices about how we use language express something profoundly intimate, indeed something otherwise inexpressible.
That one may employ these linguistic repetitions in attempts at expressing the inexpressible is itself an expression of the Christian understanding of temporality that Kierkegaard and his pseudonyms so carefully explicated. In this sense, the words the Christian uses take on an eternal significance, not by pointing us to an extraworldly ideal but by thrusting us—each one of us—back into the present moment in which, through the confluence of speech and action we choose to express that inexpressible relation to the eternal-become-temporal that we call God.
Hunter A. Bragg
Hunter A. Bragg is currently working on a PhD in theological and philosophical studies at Drew University. He is interested in the intersections between Christianity and politics.