To be is to be repeated. This is Catherine Pickstock’s central assertion in Repetition and Identity. Paradoxically, identity, individuality, distinctiveness, and so on are secured not through absolute singularity but through “non-identical repetition.” In Pickstock’s words, “A thing or res . . . is constituted through non-identical repetition through time” (29). For anything to be recognizable to us, it requires continuity with other things, with past and future instantiations of a similar sort. The whole process of identification—that is, the whole enterprise of getting by in the world on a daily basis—depends upon familiarity, but also upon variation.
In exploring this common philosophical theme, Pickstock intentionally takes up Kierkegaard’s challenge, in his novella Repetition, “to develop simultaneously an ontology and theology of repetition” (xi). She concludes that “repetition” is an “equally ontologically primordial category” as res, that it is in “the basic ontological or reological category” (11). Claiming that “reology”—or “the study of things”—“is more fundamental than ontology” (14), Pickstock’s understanding of the thingness of things is extended not only to concrete, inanimate objects but also to language, time, human subjectivity (“the human thing”), and God (“the supreme thing”) (86, 12).
Pickstock implicitly situates her account of repetition over against two primary alternatives. On the one hand, she wishes to rule out the “mass identical repetition” or “mechanical reproduction” that seems to mark the modern condition (41). As so many dystopic novelists portray it, “modern life” has become “comprehensively bureaucratic, technologized, and capitalized,” such that humans are “docketed, tracked, timedtabled” and finally “substitutable for everyone else in the manner of capitalist wage slaves or communist cadres” (88). Henri Bergson refers to this sort of “merely identical repetition” as “the enemy of things”—and, indeed, of humanity (41). It is here that Pickstock’s account is particularly compelling, in her insightful phenomenological counterexamples of the “repetition-with-variation” of houses, waves, skeletons, people, and so on (23). While these descriptions are all offered on the way to a certain Christian-Platonist metaphysics, it is clear that Pickstock has no interest in the sort of spirit-matter binary that would render us inattentive to the beauty and manifold variegations of material reality.
On the other hand, Pickstock is persistently dissatisfied with postmodern versions of non-identical repetition. In contrast to an “immanentist” alternative—which she associates with Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, and certain strains of phenomenology—Pickstock insists that transcendence is essential to material integrity and distinctiveness (61-62). She maintains that the intelligibility of every res depends upon a stable “exemplar” that is “transcendent” (33). Referring of course to Plato’s doctrine of Forms as well as a Christian doctrine of divine ideas, she says, “the secure identity of a thing is curiously transcendent to itself, an identity in which the material thing itself only participates” (63). Thus regarding things as “signs” (47), Pickstock circles toward an analogical—and finally: incarnational—account of sense and reference that grounds the identity and distinctiveness of everything in the fullness of God.
This arc will not be surprising to Pickstock’s readers or to anyone familiar with the metaphysical vision of “Radical Orthodoxy,” a contemporary movement in philosophy and theology with which she is associated. Reiterating many themes prominent in her other writings, throughout the book Pickstock synthesizes Plato and Aquinas while taking aim at a host of “secular” and “modern” philosophical positions including, among others, nominalism, realism, Saussurean semiotics, and poststructuralism. But what makes Repetition and Identity interesting is that it is offered as a challenge not simply to theology and philosophy “without metaphysics,” but also to daily life without metaphysics. As Pickstock says, “To live is to construct an ontology” (2). Even the most mundane tasks depend upon the recognizability of things, and this is the basic experience for which she attempts to account in this work.
As the four scholars who engage Pickstock in this symposium each note in different ways, Repetition and Identity is a profoundly recursive text. The prose enacts the “serpentine line” of every res that Pickstock describes (32). Engaging an impressively expansive range of interlocutors, her thought winds across the canons of Western philosophy, theology, and literature—sometimes in a single paragraph. The reader may deem this dense circuitousness a “line of beauty,” to use William Hogarth’s phrase (30). Or perhaps it will be judged a “difficult stylistic performance,” as it is by one contributor, the “opacity” of which finally obscures the point. Either way, it is clear that its content has incited strong responses all around.
Aaron Simmons, writing from the field of postmodern philosophy of religion, explores the ontological and epistemological implications of Kierkegaard’s account of repetition through the ordinary example of the kiss. In so doing, he invites Pickstock to respond to a number of pressing questions related to both the style and the argument of the book. Silas Morgan’s primary research interests include critical theory and continental philosophy. His contribution inquires into the political implications of understanding subjectivity in terms of repetition. He wants to be sure any understanding of time and subjectivity (and therefore history and society) as repetition does not foreclose on “the New,” the genuine “political Act.” Margret Adam’s response is more theologically focused. She highlights the centrality of the incarnation for Pickstock’s theory of the existing thing. But detecting a tone of triumphalism, Adam expresses concern that the absolute assurance of continuity in the Christological patterning of being and time does not do justice to experiences of complete rupture, for example horrific violence and death. Jeffery Hanson’s main areas of expertise include philosophy of religion, contemporary continental philosophy, French phenomenology, and Kierkegaard. Hanson lauds a number of Pickstock’s comments on Kierkegaard as “perspicacious” and “expert.” However, at other points he offers a somewhat different reading of Kierkegaard, particularly when it comes to identity and contradiction as well as the relationship between “nature” and “spirit.” Together, these responses mirror the surprising breadth of subjects traversed in this short book.
About the Author
Catherine Pickstock is the author of After Writing: on the liturgical consummation of philosophy, and several other books and articles in philosophical theology. She is a University Reader in Philosophy and Theology at the University of Cambridge, and is a Fellow of Emmanuel College, Cambridge.