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Freud's most important discussion of the "repetition compulsion" (Wiederholungszwang) occurs in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920) where he links it to the concept of the death drive.

A characteristic expression of unconscious psychic processes, repetition drives the subject, more or less regularly, but inflexibly, to reiterate systematically certain experiences, thoughts, ideas, and representations.

Discovering and accounting for repetition opened up one of the most fertile areas of study for Freudian psychoanalysis. Whereas others emphasized hereditary, physiological, traumatic or circumstantial causes, Freud stressed that what was involved was the automatic repetition of memories and experiences that are no longer conscious, according to modalities that vary with the circumstances and individual case. The technique adopted from the time of Studies on Hysteria (1895) favored placing this process of repetition within the special framework of the psychoanalytic relation, wherein the idea or affect that was blocked from conscious manifestation could be expressed (catharsis). Freud pointed out, all the same, that if the memory was blocked in the unconscious, this was because it was comprised of elements that had taken the turn of "deferred action." Consequently, repetition does not mean similitude, which contrasts it from the symptom properly speaking, particularly the obsessional symptom, where it is repeated as such.

The notion of repetition was originally introduced by Karl Groos, for whom recognition was the basis of ludic and aesthetic pleasure, and also by Gustav Fechner, who defined pleasure as the result of an economy of psychic effort, leading to a lowering of tension. Repetition provokes the return of the already-known, "reunion with the object" and the tranquility of a satisfaction whose experience is deeply rooted in the psyche. This can take two possible directions: regression pure and simple, which, when it is engaged, imposes the repetition of the same on the entire psychic life; or conversely, that of an alternating rhythm of falling into a rut and coming out of it, which becomes the indispensable basis for new experiences.

In the subsequent work of Freud, there were two distinct periods, separated in 1920 by Beyond the Pleasure Principle. Until this time, when repetition was mentioned, in various contexts, it was always in the same sense and often conjoined with other notions such as recall, abreaction, construction, and working through. After 1920, it almost never came up again except in the form of a "repetition compulsion." Here the focus will be, essentially, on repetition of the first period, and its extensions.

In the first meaning of the term, repetition was equivalent to reiteration. In The Interpretation of Dreams it was a significant primary process: "The temporal repetition of an act is regularly shown in dreams by the numerical multiplication of an object" (1900a). In Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905c), it was the source of the comic, by reason of the economy of concentrated effort and the effect of pleasure thus obtained. With a child this pleasurable effect of repetition is quite evident. But for an adult, when something is repeated, what was first pleasurable arouses anxiety and a feeling of abnormality, especially when the repetition emerges from an encounter or an experience where it was least expected. Freud cited a few examples of this in "The 'Uncanny"' (1919h), such as the repetition of the same number, the same place, or the multiplied encounter of the same face—all of which can become the source of considerable anxiety. Freud was known to harbor quasi-superstitious feelings about certain times of the year, the repetition of numbers, or about coincidences. In his Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of His Childhood (1910c), he called a repetition that occurred in the context of the death of the father perseveration, adding that "It is an excellent means of indicating affective colour."

In his article "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g), Freud described the role of repetition in the analytic cure, considerably narrowing its significance by linking repetition to acting out. Repetition matters only when the subject "does not remember anything of what he has forgotten and repressed, but acts it out" (p. 150). In which case, "We soon perceive that the transference is itself only a piece of repetition" (p. 151). This accounts for the rule that no serious decision should be made in the course of the analysis. Insofar as it is only purely and simply repetition, transference is a resistance, since it is marked by the anachronism of repeated contents and aims to disguise the effects of deferred action.

In clinical practice, the most typical example of this is the fate neurosis, which produces ineluctably the translation of memories or repressed events into acts, a process discussed in "Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through" (1914g). In transference neurosis, the repetition intervenes basically on the level of affects or representations, which constitute undeniably for Freud evidence of early repressed pleasures that the subject has not been able to renounce, to the point that his thoughts are invaded by the repetitions, or he becomes fixated and obsessed. The problem here then is to limit the fascination they exert, so as to make it possible to break free of them, which can only be done in the framework of a transference-neurosis type of repetition—but one made flexible by means of interpretation. With perversion, the repetition is focused essentially on the scenario, the practice or means utilized in the search for pleasure, which leads to stereotyping and systematizing.

Daniel Lagache placed much emphasis on the role of repetition in the transference: "In the course of the sessions of psychoanalysis, as in the course of life, the patient draws from his repertoire of habits," and on this basis, "the liquidation of the transference should be understood as a liquidation of the transference neurosis, that is to say of neurotic repetitions, inadequate for present-day reality." This assimilation of "repetition" with "inappropriate" characteristics was echoed a few years later by Ralph Greenson (1967). Jean Laplanche criticized this conception of repetition, which he considered too adaptationist, opposing it to a repetition such as is manifested in "full transference," which is a positive repetition of infantile images or relations—or the kind of repetition such as is behind the "hollow transference," whereby the infantile repeated relation rediscovers its enigmatic quality, with meaningful questions surging to the surface when this occurs (1987).

In childhood the role of repetition is decisive. Through the first articulation of meaningful phonemes, primitive gestures or initial mimicry, it results in the establishment and gradual reinforcement of signs, rhythms, and habits that will shape the being of the subject, his physiognomy and rapport with the world.

However, in the form of tics, stereotypes, stammering, etc., repetition signals real blockages; but when repetition turns into swayings, rictus, suckings, cries, and so on, it constitutes a valuable sign of early autism (Leo Kanner) or of anaclitic depression (René Spitz). These repetitions are evidence, in effect, of a progressive withdrawal of the child into a regressive internal world where his tendency is to lose himself. In this sense, childhood is a privileged period for observing the relation to others and situating oneself: as long as the other person remains a partner, there are progressive clarifications that result in a relatively stable habitus, one that it is possible to build on. However, when the partner is distant, unknown, mysterious, enigmatic, and silent, then sometimes obstructions and inhibitions occur that require external intervention. On the other hand, when real stereotyping ensues, it can only mean that the other has been confused with an internal object.

Repetition plays an especially important role in all activities centered on sublimation, and consequently in literary or artistic creation. In analyzing the Gradiva of Jensen (1907a), or meditating over Leonardo da Vinci and a Memory of his Childhood (1910c), Freud isolated a form of repetition that not only becomes renewal, but also metamorphosis or creation: in the case of Gradiva there was a risk of alienation from reality, while repetition clearly allows, in the case of Leonardo, for a very special way of working with reality. Freud's intuition was applied later to the subject of music, where repetition becomes rhythm, which is probably its source, engendering irreplaceable drive pleasures and satisfactions at the deepest levels of psychic functioning (Guy Rosolato).

GÉRARD BONNET Bibliography

   * Freud, Sigmund. (1914g). Remembering, Repeating and Working-Through (Further recommendations on the technique of psycho-analysis II). SE, 12: 145-156.
   * Rosolato, Guy (1993). L'écoute musicale comme méditation. In Pour une psychanalyse exploratrice de la culture (pp. 187-197). Paris: Presses Universitaires de France.


repetition (rÈpÈtition) Freud's most important discussion of the repetition compulsion (Wiederholungszwang) occurs in Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920g) where he links it to the concept of the death drive. Freud posited the existence of a basic compulsion to repeat in order to explain certain clinical data: namely, the tendency of the subject to expose himself again and again to distressing situations. It is a basic principle of psychoanalysis that a person is only condemned to repeat something when he has forgotten the origins of the compulsion, and that psychoanalytic treatment can therefore break the cycle of repetition by helping the patient remember (see Acting Out).

In Lacan's pre-1950s work, the concept of repetition is linked with that of the complex - an internalised social structure which the subject repeatedly and compulsively re-enacts. At this time Lacan often translates Freud's Wiederholungszwang as automatisme de rÈpÈtition, a term borrowed from French psychiatry. [1]

While Lacan never completely abandons the term automatisme de rÈpÈtition, in the 1950s he increasingly uses the term 'insistence' (Fr. instance) to refer to the repetition compulsion. Thus repetition is -- now defined -- as the insistence of the signifier, or the insistence of the signifying chain, or the insistence of the letter (l'instance de la lettre); 'repetition is fundamentally the insistence of speech.'[2] Certain signifiers insist on returning in the life of the subject, despite the resistances which block them. In schema L, repetition / insistence is represented by the axis A-S, while the axis a-a' represents the resistance (or 'inertia') which opposes repetition.

In the 1960s, repetition is redefined as the return of jouissance, an excess of enjoyment which returns again and again to transgress the limits of the pleasure principle and seek death.[3]

The repetition compulsion manifests itself in analytic treatment in the transference, whereby the analysand repeats in his relationship to the analyst certain attitudes which characterised his earlier relationships with his parents and others. Lacan lays great emphasis on this Symbolic aspect of transference, distinguishing it from the Imaginary dimension of transference (the affects of love and hate).[4] However, Lacan points out that although the repetition compulsion manifests itself perhaps most clearly in the transference, it is not in itself limited to the transference; in itself, 'the concept of repetition has nothing to do with the concept of transference.'[5]

Repetition is the general characteristic of the signifying chain, the manifestation of the unconscious in every subject, and transference is only a very special form of repetition (i.e. it is repetition within psychoanalytic treatment), which cannot simply be equated with the repetition compulsion itself. [6]


Further information about Repetition can be found in the following reference(s):

repetition, repeating (Wiederholen), 12, 19, 33, 39-40, 48-51, 53-4, 58, 60-2, 67-9, 79-80, 127-8, 143, 239, 263
automaton (return, insistence of signs), 52-64, 67
repetition and the arbitrary (Zufall), 39, 45
repetition-compulsion (Wiederholungszwang), 56, 67
reproduction and repetition, 50, 54
return (Wiederkehr), 48-9

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