Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Repetition: The part it plays in our lives

"I've been here before,"  I said, "I've been here before." 
Repetition: The part it plays in our lives

Robert L Fielding
Our lives are full of repetition, twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, fifty two weeks a year.
Our lives are so replete with repetition, from breathing, from the beat of our hearts, to  the things we eat, drink, say, watch and do, that the English language has a prefix to deal with it.  Repetition in its varied forms figures heavily in how we use it to communicate, particularly in the written word.

In the repetition of letters, syllables and sounds we have  alliteration, assonance, and consonance, and many more.    When repeating  words we can use anadiplosis, antistasis, and epistrophe among others and when repeating clauses and phrases we use mesarchia, repotia and isocolon.
Apart from the obvious physiological movements and workings of our bodies, which repeat processes thousands, if not millions of times a day, other  facets of our existence are full of repetitive and repeated phenomena.  The Italian philosopher, Vico proposed that history was cyclical in nature, and consisted of  four stages; The Divine Age, The Heroic Age, the Human Age and the Ricurso, which brought us straight back to the Divine Age.  Vico's view of history also presented James Joyce with a convenient framework for his novel, 'Finnegans Wake'.
In the world of art, for example, the phenomenon known as 'serial music' is…..
In music's grander forms repetition figures heavily;  in symphonic tone poems, from Honegger's Pacific 231, in which an express train is depicted in sound, to Berlioz' Symphonie Fantastique,  in which the recurring theme, what is referred to as the 'idee fixe', runs through the whole symphony in a series of notes played on various different instruments.
In literature, masters of the written word all knew the value and effect of repeated themes, words and phrases on their readers.  The memorable opening and closing lines of Dickens' 'A Tale of Two Cities', and the opening line of Waugh's 'Brideshead Revisited', used in the title of this article  illustrate this point.
Repetition, at least partial repetition, is one of the devices writers and film makers use to show their audience that things have changed, or to illustrate how much things have changed, which is not quite the same thing.  Macbeth's predicament is heightened by his words when he says: "I am in blood stepped in so far that to go back were as tedious as to go o'er."

Michael Henchard, 'The mayor of Casterbridge' in Hardy's novel  comes himself to see how low he has stooped through a series of partial repetitions which begin with the chance meeting of his wife many  years after his selling  her in a tent at a show in Weydon Priors at the beginning of the novel.  The reader is shown what he has become through an almost chance series of encounters , and his plight is made more trenchant  by these 6 recurrences that Hardy marshals to make his point.

Repetition in the film industry

Children's stories, music hall songs, Gilbert and Sullivan's timeless operettas, are all full to the brim with repetition.
Repetition has always been an important part of storytelling, and in most stories told to children the major parts are repeated. 
In the precision world of the hard sciences and technology, as well as in the social sciences, repeatability is one of the cornerstones of scientific validity and objectivity.  If an experiment can yield similar results every time it is performed then it is deemed worthy of inclusion into the particular canon of scientific knowledge to which it belongs.
Sociological constructs are only held to accurately represent reality out there, so to speak, once they have provided repeatedly reliable findings.
In the field of commerce, manufacture, and trade, the ability of experts  to repeat operations precisely, minutely and in a measured manner has given us the factory system, production line, and piece work.
From Sir Richard Arkwright to Henry Ford, from Isembard Kingdom Brunel to Bill Gates, repetitiveness has given the world scientific and technological progress, and has made the world what it is today.
Its largely unsung heroes have transformed manufacturing industry, for example, from little more than a cottage industry at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, to a highly integrated, automated continuous process at the end of it.
Both F.W. Taylor and Henry Ford were responsible for the breaking down of processes into simple tasks, effectively de-skilling processes that had formerly required skilled artisans to perform them.  The principles of Taylor's 'Scientific Management' were used by Ford to produce cars on the forerunner to what is now the modern assembly line, and economies of scale together with repetition of tasks broken down to their simplest ensured that automobiles were made cheaply by largely unskilled labour.  The Model T Ford was the result, and Henry Ford built his empire on Taylor's principles. 

Ford once said, famously, that' "A customer can have any colour he likes as long as it's black."
 While this is somewhat amusing and reminiscent of Sam Goldwyn in the film industry, it points to an important aspect of manufacturing, then as now; that lower costs in production are achieved through systematic repetition of tasks, components and products.  More importantly, Ford's words also point to the fact that, perhaps for the first time since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, a manufacturer was able, by virtue of its position in the marketplace, to dictate to the consumer what his tastes would be.
Bringing that concept up to date, we have the fast food chain giants, dictating to their customers, not only what they can eat, but the packaging it will come in, the type of service that will be responsible for dishing it up, the types of chairs and tables it will be eaten at, and the general ambience of the facilities in which it is purchased and consumed.
This would be nothing new were  it not for the monopoly such establishments have over consumers' tastes, in almost every country in the world.
When Ford was producing cheap Model Ts for the mass  markets of his native America, he was placing his company in the forefront of car manufacturers such that if you didn't buy a T from Ford, you didn't buy a car, not at an affordable price, at any rate.
Today, if you want a quick fix on your hunger and you happen to be in a shopping mall in an urban conurbation, the choice open to you is more or less limited to one of the better known fast food outlets, and occasionally several of the lesser known ones.  There is little difference in any of them.  Choice is limited, as it admittedly is in any restaurant.  The difference though, between one of these establishments and say a family run place on a street corner is that in the latter, the chef may be able to fix you something specially for your own dietary needs.  He may be able to rustle up a lasagne without meat, a drink of some kind without sugar, or any manner of specific meal to suit the customer.  That person, we were always led to believe, was always right, but these days, he takes what is on offer.
This doesn't mean that he has no choice.  On the contrary, he has lots of choice.  What it does mean, however, is that his choice must be made from a limited set of articles, and which no one in the  establishment has the power, or indeed the will to change.
One swift glance behind the counter at any of these fast food outlets is enough to show you what has happened to the catering industry in this sector.  It has been Taylorised, which means that it has been broken down into steps that do not require the presence of skilled chefs to produce  what is on offer.  The machine dictates the number of chips dispensed for the price paid, the size of the bun for the particular variety of burger, and the quantity of fizzy drink equal to the container into which it is poured.  Everything is repeated, everything is quantifiable back at Head Office, and with that, costs are cut, profits are increased and tastes are dictated.
Even the youngest customer sitting eating her burger and her fries, and drinking her Cola knows exactly what she is entitled to and what she gets.  Everything is that simple; a three year old can understand it fully.

For the ancient Greeks, however,  repetition was impossible.  Stepping back into the water, so to speak, involved change.  For the person stepping gingerly back in, her frame of mind would have changed, and the water, the air and the whole atmosphere would not be exactly the same.

In modern times, though, we are too rushed and too prosaic to appreciate that point; repetition, for us, is ubiquitous and all consuming.

While this is reassuring on one level, it is less so on many others.  Where will such 'engineering' end?  Will it be applied to other parts of our lives in which the free ability to choose between many options is vital in a democratic, liberal sense?  Has it already been so applied to some of those areas, and if so, who is doing the limiting of choices and for what reasons, and to what ends?
Robert L. Fielding


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