The Friday Fillip: Lather, Rinse, Repeat

We tend to repeat ourselves. We like doing that. Perhaps because if “it” was good, we’d be crazy not to want “it” again. After all, as Voltaire said (though he laid it off on a “wise Italian”), better is the enemy of good. So why risk loss, when the gain promised by repetition is assured? And, too, there’s something about the fact of repetition itself, regardless of what the thing is that gets repeated, that is pleasing, soothing: a child being rocked, jiggled gently — or a heart beating again and again and again . . .

Things can go wonky (for non-heartbeat cases), of course, if you follow the “shampoo algorithm,” because it doesn’t contain a “quit” command. This is the old Peat/Repeat joke that children used to enjoy: Peat and Repeat were in a boat. Pete fell out. Who was left in the boat? suggesting that at times repetition has the appeal of a joke, something comic because it’s stuck.1

Novelty is at the other pole. And as with any two constructs on one stick, there’s a connection, a dynamic between the ends. Built into us human beings is, for example, the ability — the need as potential prey, in fact — to keep a sharp eye out for deviation from the norm. Thus, whatever moves attracts our attention, becomes figural, something that wouldn’t be possible without a corresponding ground of sameness, familiar and expected objects recurring from the past.

In a kind of double tap, a repeat of repetition, our current craze for animated gifs makes some of the above points obvious. Animated gifs first appeared back in the palaeolithic days of the web along with their psychopathic cousin, the blink function. Both disappeared fairly quickly, as website makers were shamed into finding a “quit” command. Alas, strobing Pete may be off the boat but Repeat’s back, out of the bilge endlessly stuttering that cute cat’s paw.

More darkly comic is Joulien Douvier’s series of little films in which he uses animated gifs to show us the routine in our lives, exemplified by that morning walk to work. If you click on the image below, you should see one of his pieces in action, and the link just above will take you to his portfolio.

Douvier suggests that you listen to “Happiness Does Not Wait” by Ólafur Arnalds2 while you’re contemplating his gifs. Unfortunately the link on his site doesn’t work (for me, at least), but here’s the piece of music in question, which is, unsurprisingly, full of repetition.

Arnald’s music has nothing on that by Philip Glass or Steve Reich, when it comes to “rinse, repeat.” Yet, none of this is simply a matter of “gif-ing” a riff. Subtle variations are introduced, teasing our ability to spot novelty within the Ganzfeld. For fun, here’s a visualization of Reich’s 1967 piece, Piano Phase, in which two pianists play the same 12 notes again and again, with one of them, however, speeding up and causing the phrases to move out of phase and then back in again: repetition (of replication) against repetition (of replication) creating perpetual novelty, a neat, if nerve racking trick.

Repetition, you’ll not be surprised to learn, goes on and on: I haven’t even touched on the possibilities offered by geometry, particularly as applied to tiling and as exemplified by the glorious artwork found in Moorish and other Islamic buildings. But fortunately for all of us, myself included, there’s a “quit” command build right into the Friday Fillip algorithm.

  1. As is so often the case, Charlie Chaplin shows us this, using comedy’s power to frighten us, in the last great silent film, Modern Times. You can see an analysis of that classic here; and if you don’t mind Russian subtitles, you can see the whole film here.

  2. By the by, Arnalds has written the cool music for the British TV cop show Broadchurch, the first season of which I highly recommend. It’s available on Netflix.


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