What if there was no Repetition?

Sel-similarity barb (c)2014 Jane Boyer

self-similarity barb (c)2014 Jane Boyer

My own artwork is leading me to research the mechanisms, structures and relationships between simulacrum and autobiography, this naturally involves repetition – a lot of repetition. RECURSIVE has been a starting point for this study in a way, by peeling the layers of repetition and sort of mulling it over. We’ve discussed some of what repetition is, how we react to it, when it frightens us, and whether it even exists. All this begs the question: what if there was no repetition?

After thinking, ‘oh, that would be interesting…’, then I panicked. Can you imagine a world without repetition? It would be a world of singularity and we would have no reference points, no memory, no experiential knowledge, no rhythms.

What do you think? Can you imagine a world without repetition? Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your thoughts.



31 thoughts on “What if there was no Repetition?

  1. At the most fundamental levels, I think it’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be much without repetition. Literally all of mathematics boils down to fundamental principles that are repetition: any integer +1 results in the next integer is how we define integers (assuming that we’ve already defined the concept of 1 and 0). Life itself thrives on repetition from cells dividing to night/day to tidal patterns to seasonal changes.

    1. Thanks David, I was just thinking about you. You’re right. As a mathematician (or at least someone who has a mathematical mind and understands it like I don’t), what would you see a world based on singularity being like? I mean, the things I can imagine are pretty frightening, but I don’t have as much of a scientific understanding of what that would really be like. Any thoughts? If everything we know is based in repetition, what would things not based in repetition be like?

  2. Everything would be so fundamentally different that a universe sans repetition is unobservable, unrecordable, and incomprehensible.

    Time is measured by the duration between repeating events. There is no concept of time without repetition. Stars exist by repeatedly fusing hydrogen into helium. If that can only happen once, then there are no stars, no light, no complex elements, no nothing.

    Imagining a universe without repetition is like imagining a universe without matter.

    1. That’s a good comparison! Haven’t they been looking into that, with dark matter and anti-matter, etc and are we absolutely certain what matter is? Weren’t those the very conditions Einstein worked with, unobservable, unrecordable, and incomprehensible? 🙂

      My point is not to be facetious, because what you say is true, but rather to suggest that unobservable, unrecordable and incomprehensible should be no boundary to asking what, why and how. There seems to be a paradox because if there is no actual repetition – meaning a moment of time does not come around twice, each moment is a new moment and all other related circumstances and conditions have changed in the passage of that moment, as David Riley has suggested in earlier comments, what have we got? Another set of measurable conditions which act in a similar way to previous measurable sets, so we think we have repetition, or do we actually experience singularity all the time in this way without thinking of it that way? If this is singularity, why do we only (seemingly) perceive repetition? Would time exist in either case? Does singularity happen at the sub-atomic level, because I don’t imagine it is the same hydrogen and helium molecules that fuse over and over again, there must be a source of new hydrogen and helium which combine and fuse – am I right? I always feel like I need my own personal science expert on hand!

      1. I guess the question boils down to how you’re defining repetition.

        If you are saying that no given moment will ever repeat, then we live in a cosmos with no repetition. Each point of time happens exactly one time and will never be repeated. If that’s what you mean, then congrats! You made it.

        On the other hand, if we’re talking about events, then everything repeats. The Earth repeatedly rotates as well as orbits the sun. Atoms give off regular and recordable radiation which is what lets us define time (http://www.bipm.org/en/si/si_brochure/chapter2/2-1/second.html)

        Thought itself is patterns of neurons tracing repeating paths through the brain. If a neuron can only take one path once, then thought isn’t possible. On the other hand, if you’re looking at the state of entire brain, then I’d hypothesize that it’s never in exactly the same state with the same neurons firing exactly the same way twice — so no repetition.

        As it so frequently happens, it boils down to semantics and definitions.

      2. You’re right and semantics be damned! Semantics always brings end to a good discussion. Though I must admit that I wonder at both things being true – the non-repetition of ‘things’ (I feel like Peregrin Took here, for a lack of word) like a precise moment, an exact neuron etc and the repetition of events. Both are true as far as we know, but they don’t seem to be able to coexist in explaining repetition.

  3. My tweet to this was “processes attempt to repeat but each time are faced with different inputs influenced by past outputs, so nothing repeats exactly”. So, I think we already have no repetition.

    However, this view depends on having quite a wide perspective. If we observe ever closer, reducing the system boundary to focus in on one single process, we can observe repetition.

    As humans, our lives are more complex than that, we observe change, it is how our lives work. We are born, we grow, we die. Ever changing we are.

    We (currently) measure time by referencing a ‘regular and recordable radiation’, but this is not time, just a unit of measurement, a way to quantify it. Time is change, without change there is no time.

    If there were perfect repetition, there would be no change, “it would be a world of singularity and we would have no reference points, no memory, no experiential knowledge, no rhythms.”.

    Does that work? Did I turn your original argument on its head?

    Maybe, maybe not…

    1. “Time is change, without change there is no time.”
      That’s one perspective, but I think that’s more of a philosophical one. From my perspective (a more science-based one, although I don’t claim to speak for Science), time is just another dimension for measurement.

      Picture a ball sitting in a vacuum. It’s not moving and not changing, but there’s still time. If we were to graph its position in relation to time, it would be a straight line on a graph. Time still passes regardless of the ball changing or not.

      Time is a fundamental part of the universe. In fact, Einstein proved that time and space are the same thing, which is why it’s generally referred to as “space/time”.

    2. No, I’m quite sure it doesn’t work, if you mean my statement of what it would be like with no repetition, which you quoted there. If however, you mean does it work as a proposition, it seems a good one to me! The idea of perfect repetition essentially being a state of no repetition is fascinating. It makes me consider the state of change we are in, which you suggest. Is our very perceptual existence possible because we can perceive change? (I ask rhetorically) So not only can we not imagine no repetition, but no repetition would be perfect repetition, either way it all comes down to a pulse; the pulse of repetition which causes the event in an imperfect changing universe or the event in a constant and perfect state of sameness. What would it take to perceive that?! It makes me think of Heaven by the Talking Heads – “Heaven is a place where nothing ever happens…” http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_detailpage&v=5zNdMc6wGtU

  4. I was being philosophical.

    Is there anywhere in the universe where something is not moving at all? Stationary appears to me to be a local perceptual state. When I am stood still I am said to be stationary, but I am spinning round on the surface of the world and the world is orbiting our sun and the sun is in motion relative to our galaxy, etc., etc…

    Perfect repetition is a state where nothing new happens. Where time would be irrelevant. We might measure time in some given unit of measurement, but what we actually perceive are the differences in state between now and then. If there are no differences between now and then, our perception of time would be lost. Making time somewhat pointless from our perspective.

    I am making an imperfect argument based on bits of knowledge (as an engineer and an artist) and mostly a few decades of personal perception.

    It may be worth mentioning that, recursion in computing is about repeatedly applying a process to a set of changing parameters until such time as a goal is reached. If the parameters do not change between one cycle of recursion and the next, then the process becomes locked in a never ending loop of repetition. This usually results in an error when the computer runs out of memory.

    When the art world deals with stuck loops, or lack of change, the consensus appears to be that this is a very bad state of affairs. The Talking Heads were describing a Hell. The Ground Hog Day describes a Hell. There must be many more examples.

    Perfect repetition is what we should fear. Imperfect repetition is how we move forward.

    1. I love the idea that perfection in null, and also that it might be hell, though I’d point out that one person’s hell is another’s paradise. I’ve always thought the Talking Heads were making a point that heaven might not be the blissful state we’re give to believe, though you could be right, they might be describing hell. It’s interesting to note that many notions of hell and punishment involve repetition, such as the myth of Sisyphus condemned to repeatedly rolling the boulder up hill, only to watch it roll down again to start the process all over again, for his crimes.

  5. Hi Jane, It is impossible to imagine a world in which there is no repetition. To imagine is to be in the world as it is and therefore to operate within repetition; to be outside the world as it is ( which would be necessary in order to respond to the question) is is a description of death and is unknowable. Stillness and time are terms that describe relationships. The notion of time is an artefact – to wonder about David’s notion that time is a fundamental part of the universe, ‘time’ is rather a name; everyday life infers something that we call ‘time’ but nobody has ever seen it.

    1. I think I’m going to call this my David Forum! Only David’s can reply to this post, or at least anyone going under the pseudonym of ‘David’ can 😀

      It is impossible to imagine a world without repetition, I think it is also a physical impossibility, but trying to imagine it widens our horizons, curiously enough. We are utterly trapped and defined by our sensory perceptions aren’t we. It is quite hard to try to picture what may be beyond those boundaries. I think we’ve done pretty well to come up with perfect repetition is no repetition. I like your notion that stillness and time describe relationships, it is true because we only recognize one by linking it in relationship to something else. It is difficult to describe something that we cannot see. I think we’ve been very cleaver to figure out ways to measure it nonetheless.

      David’s, over to you…

    2. One other thought, we can imagine what we don’t know, but our imaginings are just confined to the parameters we can understand. The world used to be flat once.

  6. To imagine something is at one level to come to know. Knowing is an act of imagination. To imagine something ‘new’ is not a magical act but an inventive or creative (re)configuration of what is known and based in past experience; the systems whereby we imagine – mathematics, music, poetry, physics and so on are open-ended memories. They are our means to imagination of the possible. Otherwise we simply construct mental images of weird and wonderful things like the unicorn.

    1. And are flabbergasted by new discoveries we could never have imagined…

      You’re right David and express it very eloquently. The fascinating thing about those weird and wonderful things like unicorns (and Minotaurs, Satyrs, sphinx etc.) is the re-composition of elements. It would be interesting to know why humans do that, because that kind of re-composition goes back to prehistoric art. I mean certainly, it has to do with symbolism, but I wonder if there is more to it than that – if there can be anything more than the symbolic, if you know what I mean.

      ‘Knowing’ is also a source of knowledge, academically speaking, and is a very interesting concept involved in visual art research. In this case, the ‘knowing’ involves lived experience. The question is where does the symbolism enter into that? I think it must be in trying to convey the experience or the ‘knowing’. I’m reading The Order of Things by Foucault at the moment and he’s discussing the difference in the theory of signs of the Renaissance and modern language and how meanings were based in a ternary system (“that which is marked, that which did the marking and that which made it possible to see in the first the mark of the second [or resemblance]” p70) rather than a binary system (“the thing representing and the thing represented” p71), which is what modern language has. So signs carried a resemblance of the symbol to the thing represented, whereas in modern language the sign is utterly empty of meaning other than it’s connection to what it symbolises (I think!) So it is entirely possible that our understanding of those weird and wonderful things is not what it used to be. I admit, I’m still wrapping my head around all this.

  7. Wouldn’t we be left with originality, which would become boring?
    Why would anyone want to be original if everyone became original?
    What happens if there is no repetition and you choose not to be original? Where does one stand with this; it is somewhat a conundrum that I am becoming to enjoy just thinking about it…

    1. Hello Dan, thank you for your comment. You make a very interesting point, and it’s one I’ve had a bit of experience with in a way. I’ll explain that first before responding to your comment. As a fine art student in the US during the 80’s, we were still very involved with abstract expressionism and the idea of the creative genius/maverick. We were taught to search for originality at all costs in our work. I can tell you, that was a huge burden, but we all wanted to be the next Jackson Pollock so we worked hard at mixing it up to find what would make us original. Though we of course studied Rouchenburg, and Wharol and Johns and all those artists working in the 60’s and 70’s, they were still quite new and I think their importance wasn’t quite understood yet. It’s really only been since post-modernism that we’ve thought a lot about repetition and can look back at their work to see what they were saying about repetition and simulacrum. What I’m trying to say is I’ve felt, in a very small way, the pressure of originality, of trying to be original; it is (or was) a deeply embedded cultural reality to strive for originality in America too, not just with art students from the 80’s, it was a thread that ran throughout American culture. And yes, we did get pretty bored with it, though in fairness our boredom was more at our failings than in our success at being original 🙂 It is impossible to be original because everything is built on what came before. The genius is to be insightful, to see things in ways that others haven’t seen. It sort of goes back to what David Minton was saying, that it is impossible to imagine what is beyond what is known.

      Your comment also relates originality with singularity. If everything and everyone was original, i.e. singular, I think we wouldn’t recognize it because we wouldn’t have the repetitive comparisons to make. I think it might feel sort of like living in a state of infinity because nothing would ever repeat, and without the repetition we wouldn’t feel time, as suggested by David Cross and David Riley. I think also that my original panic at the thought of living in a world of singularity, was based in a reality of repetition – what doesn’t repeat must be chaos. Order is repetition, and we live in a world of order, even when it doesn’t seem like it. I think a world of singularity, if such a thing could even be possible, as David C. and David R. assure me it isn’t, would be an infinity of experience, though not an infinity of experiential memory.

      “What happens if there is no repetition and you choose not to be original?” It becomes original to repeat…which brings us back to post-modernism.

      A really interesting conundrum, let me know if you have any other insights, thanks Dan.

  8. What could be the nature of a ‘…new discovery that we could never have imagined’? Is a new discovery not a new imagining? The business of being new, or perhaps as Dan puts it,’original’ begs questions of what it might be to be creative. For me there must be two levels at which my experience results in new insight (which I think is what creativity in essence,offers) Firstly I might through my painting or whatever arrive at an experience that challenges my current understanding, adds to or fractures my preconceptions, illuminates for me something of which I was unaware. Secondly I might experience such things through the work of others; those thinkers and doers who, drive the whole of culture generate simultaneously at their own personal level and at a social level. The drive for originality that Jane writes about was of its time, spoke of its time. But that is one instance of the notion of originality. It no doubt was responsible for an amount of shallow work, but in all probability no more that the shallowness that accumulates in all times. Our creativity, if it happens, results from engagement with the questions that our worlds present us with. All of our responses that are not mindless repetitions, must involve originality in some sense, but in the context of a disciple, a tradition. It is in the discipline that recursiveness provides a foundation for creativity. Originality is necessary but not sufficient.

    1. I hope this won’t embarrass you unduly, but this is just too good, I really have to repeat it: “All of our responses that are not mindless repetitions, must involve originality in some sense, but in the context of a disciple, a tradition.” You just have said so much about our western culture in that one little typo 😀

      As with all disciplines, one must define terms.’New’, for my purposes, means not known before. Yes, I think probably most new discoveries come out of new imagining, they happen because we were looking for them in the right places. But there are also new discoveries which come from chance, penicillin comes to mind; an unforeseen development which happens, perhaps when conditions are right for the development to happen, but unexpected nonetheless.

      I agree with what you say, recursiveness does provide a foundation for creativity, it is the measurement of what we want to move away from or move toward. In considering LOLFACEMCTHISONE’s contribution of quasicrystals into the mix, I have to wonder if perhaps we already live in a universe without repetition, but because our point of view is limited, we may not be able to see it, and what we can see appears to be repetitive. It seems that repetition and singularity can co-exist. So “originality is necessary but not sufficient” for creativity, for discovery, for imagination – but is it necessary for singularity? Does singularity stand apart from originality?

  9. ……….from above, the recursiveness of predictive text……..’ ‘……..the context of a disciple………’ is interesting , but should read, ‘………..context of a discipline …’

    1. Thanks LOL, this is fascinating! Am I right in understanding that quasicrystals are ordered but non-repeating and contain singularities? So to surmise, a universe without repetition, would be ordered, but non-translational, meaning no two points in any structure would be the same (if I’ve got that right). How do you think that would affect perceptual experience of such a reality? I’d love to know how a quasicrystal structure would translate into language. The article you sent suggests we have the visual equivalents in medieval Islamic architecture and the Girih tiles: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Girih_tiles

      I’m going to add this site to yours in explaining quasicrystals: http://www.jcrystal.com/steffenweber/qc.html

  10. Jane, I’m puzzled by the notion of a singularity in all this. Is this a reference to the singularity that constitutes the theoretical starting point of the expansion of the universe, or something else?

    1. Any singularity, as in anything that does not repeat. But it’s granted, the main singularity we comprehend is the theoretical starting point of the universe.

      1. I’m going to get my brain tied into knots over this, and I don’t want to lead this into a cul-de-sac of nonsense. As I understand (or otherwise), the singularity which is that theoretical starting point is where the laws of physics fail. Therefore nothing can be said; the singularity is an inference of physics whose existence cannot be proved by it since it is unobservable. Anything post the big bang is necessarily observable and subject to repetition on some level such as the behaviour of its atomic structure – the laws of the physical world. Any particular object or event that does not in itself ‘repeat’ i.e. is apparently singular, still conforms to those physical rules. Thus processes are repeated through instances that appear not to do so?

      2. Your guess is as good as mine, when it comes to science! But I tend to believe our physical laws still represent a homo-centric position, in that if we can’t observe it, it must not be. Personally, I think it’s just a white area on the map, so to speak, a boundary that we have not yet crossed in our knowledge. We have observed a lot and understand a great many things about the universe, but it isn’t everything there is to know, I’ll wager. Repetition is fundamental to life and the laws of physics, there is no denying that, but as LOLFACEMCTHISONE, pointed out with the link about quasicrystal physics, there are structures that do not repeat. Snowflakes are supposedly singular in their structure, as my husband David contributes to the David forum. Is there a difference between singular events and singular structure? Does singularity remain a singularity no matter what? Is repetition contained within singularity? Or is singularity contained within repetition? I don’t know the answer to any of these questions, but my guess is the answer is far more complicated that we know, or simpler, for that matter. It’s far more important to ask the question than to know the answer, to my mind. I’ve posed this discussion to my astrophysicist nephew, I’m hoping he will join us. He’s mulling it over at the moment.

      3. By the way, I don’t dispute or disagree with what you say, David. I think I’ve headed into the cul-de-sac myself and need more knowledge and understanding than what I currently have. It occurred to me earlier today that one of the things that baffles physicists is that physical laws at subatomic levels don’t conform to our physical laws, so I think there is fair room to pose what may seem to be nonsensical questions. However, my concern is posing questions here which will get people thinking, it certainly isn’t to solve any physics mysteries. Thank you everyone who contributed to this discussion, it’s been really great. The question, ‘what if there was no repetition?’ remains open for any comment, as do all the other questions I’ve posed so far on this blog.

  11. I’m currently reading “The Order of Things” by Foucault and I came across this, which I thought was perfectly pertinent to our discussion and touches on your point of originality Dan:

    “If everything were absolute diversity, thought would be doomed to singularity…it would be doomed also to absolute dispersion and absolute monotony. Neither memory nor imagination, nor, therefore, reflection, would be possible. And it would be impossible to compare things with each other, to define their identical characteristics, and to establish a common name for them. There would be no language. If language exists, it is because below the level of identities and differences there is a foundation provided by continuities, resemblances, repetitions, and natural criss-crossings.” (p. 132)

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