Repetition is the Shadow of Structure

November 2, 2019

One of my favorite thoughts recently is the sacred value of repetition. You can escalate any conversation into mystical territory just by saying the same sentence over and over again, and everyone (you included!) will start to hallucinate loads of meaning behind it. I think it’s just exploiting a good-faith social assumption of “I guess that means I must not have understood it the (n)th time, so I’ll think harder about it”, but it’s still effective.

Repetition is the shadow of “structure”: the 2d shadow of a cube looks like several squares all hanging out, and the 3d shadow of a tesseract looks like a cube with extra cubes. And even though it seems kind of silly and low-effort, I think all the 2d people subconsciously understand that a bunch of squares all in the same place represents something seriously significant, even if they don’t quite know what.

There’s something to say about Trypophobia here too.

This process can be run in reverse: making shadows directly to hint at higher significance! I said “hallucinate” and “exploit” earlier but that’s not to knock it - repetition is one of our few tools for expressing the inexpressible. I think music has this figured out in a big way. Layered and looped phrases can take on lives of their own in a really grand way that’s hard to describe. My electronic music teacher’s favorite piece is the just a paragraph spoken over and over for eleven minutes (it’s transcendental and there’s not even any music). And then there’s the whole concept of “rituals” that conduct substance through repetition and accumulation of others' repetitions. Rituals are load-bearing for most religions!

I’ve been thinking about this especially in the context of conversations, like hearing the same story from a friend a dozen times or having the same argument with my parents over and over. I used to have a strong allergy to things I’ve heard before, but (maybe out of the depths of boredom) more and more I’m realizing that there are always bigger things to listen for - like different frequencies or higher levels of /(meta)+/. In the same way that a song might use a repeated phrase as a building block to construct a bigger narrative, the friend’s old story isn’t just a news bulletin, it’s a vehicle for their current mood, a small token in a much larger dialog. And arguments with my parents are never quite the exact same, and their minor variations trace out genuine growth (for all of us!) in understanding each other.

Other times, repetition has a dissociating effect. Sometimes words start to no longer feel like words (“movie”, “true”, “can”) and sometimes whole topics completely lost all meaning (“was Interstellar good”, “do we have free will”, “are you introverted or extroverted”) just because I’ve heard them too many times and they’ve all coagulated into symbols without referent.

Sometimes this is good - dissociation can jolt you out of a narrow perspective and let you glimpse the view from outside the box (e.g. “it’s weird to frame movies as requiring value judgement, where the expected outcome of viewing one is a ‘verdict’"). But it usually seems to lead to a pit of alien detachment that ruins whatever effect the thing had in the beginning. So it seems like repetition can either be constructive, accumulating higher meaning, or destructive, annihilating all meaning. Maybe it must be done gently, like a magic eye: straining perception too hard too quickly is destructive, throwing everything out of focus, while easing into it coaxes the bigger picture into view.