The Purpose of Repetition

If something is cliché it mustn’t be true. I suspect that this statement is more ideological than factual, but regardless it’s an attitude that underpins my existence. I’m wary of cliché because I get bored of hearing the same sentiment over and over. The more something is said, the more likely it seems that everyone is missing some key nuance. Quick to judge, my brain is tantamount to the buzzer on British panel show, QI, that loudly warns you that what you’re saying is not just uninteresting, it’s wrong.

The main argument against clichés is that when you repeat something often enough it becomes meaningless. Signifier (the word) and signified (what the word refers to) can actually divorce through exposure, showing us that it was probably an unhappy marriage in the first place. If you say the word ‘empowerment’ (or any word, the choice is arbitrary) over and over, you’ll have forgotten what it means within a few minutes. Likewise, ‘curiosity killed the cat’ and other clichés are so oft repeated that lord knows what kind of argument this proposition is trying to make. Does it specifically relate to cats? Is the cat’s death her own fault because of her undisciplined curiosity? Or is it the world’s fault for unfairly punishing good traits? Or was curiosity itself the murderer? Is the inference that I should stop being curious, start being more careful, or expect imminent destruction? I shouldn’t have to search Wikipedia in order to understand such a common phrase in my native language.

I first learned to articulate my hatred of cliché from George Orwell, who, in his 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” argued that these phrases, particularly in political communication, obfuscate meaning. “Political language,” he argues, “is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” Lots of politicians are guilty of it, regardless of their place in the spectrum from anarchist to fascist. Here, clichés not only cover up reality and are essentially meaningless, they can also be dangerous.

From this background, I’ve been taken aback in times where I’ve caught myself enunciating cliché sentiments. It was at a time where I had, after years of turmoil, found myself in the position of helping someone else in similar circumstances. “It gets better,” I said and I cringed mightily. But I realised, actually, it kind of does. I might want to add a bit more onto the sentiment, that we all oscillate between pleasure and pain, that we all have set-backs, that human experience can’t be mapped as a linear progression, that we can’t be saved from the brink of disease and death forever, and other pedantic insights. But even then, the cliché phrase conveyed exactly what I wanted to convey in that moment, which was that we can always allow for the possibility of hope, and that there will be a time where this suffering will become a memory.

It strikes me as possible that certain ideas become cliché because they hold a nugget of truth in them. While I’m sure that some phrases gain traction because people largely want them to be true (“absence makes the heart grow fonder”), other phrases actually hold good advice (“don’t put all your eggs in one basket”). It’s possible that we shouldn’t just turn our backs on accrued wisdom for the sake of anti-cliché ideologies or aesthetics. It’s possible that there’s some value in repetition.

Performance poet, Ross Sutherland is currently touring the UK with his show, Standby for Tape Back-Up. It’s a bizarre production whereby Sutherland integrates the mashed-up excerpts recorded from television onto a single VHS tape with an engaging monologue. He includes footage from Ghostbusters, Jaws, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air, soccer games, an old bank ad, the “Thriller” music video, and others. The TV footage has been added to the tape on an ad-hoc, random basis. New things weren’t recorded at the start of the tape, and often on top of old things. As such, the result is a pastiche of 90s content and pastel clothing.

What was left on the tape, he explains, tells his life story. That the randomness of lowbrow recordings has such meanings seems to be a matter of both coincidence and not.

Sutherland came to the tape as an adult after his hard drive had crashed. The crash was a massive problem because all his photos and writings were on it. He felt as though he had never existed. Moreover, otherwise depressed, bereaved, dealing with the aftermath of a frustrating job, dealing with ongoing problems of asthma and alcoholism, Sutherland describes a newly frustrated need to turn to his past mementos to help tether himself to reality. At this point, the tape was the only thing he could turn to.

But in reliving old re-runs, and watching that tape on a frantic loop, Sutherland tracks his efforts of finding meaning through repetition. “Every moment of my life, every aspect of my personality,” he says. “Goes back to Ghostbusters.” Dealing with asthma is much like getting over the more frightening aspects of the film at age four. It also shaped his relationship with his granddad, the person who first brought him to see the film.

Will Smith’s sit-com is fashioned into a fable about dealing with grief and death, and TV generally provides a kind of “dress rehearsal” for grief. After all, characters on TV die constantly and we are perennially bearing witness.

It’s hard to explain the Sutherland’s logic as such explanations provide the bulk of his performance. But what’s interesting here is his emergent ambivalence toward cliché. When his grandfather died he knew exactly what to say and feel because he had seen death so many times before already. There is an emptiness in such an experience, of not knowing what parts of your response are authentically yours and what parts are just uncreative enactments of a cliché as a result of not knowing how to express yourself beyond them. But in repetition, there’s also a way to find yourself in everything, a way to construct meaning merely by sitting on the couch and staring at the pixels in front of you.

On this point, Sutherland’s performance is both startlingly good and disturbing. His poetic timing is right on point, perfectly synchronised with the tape footage he uses. “How can our lives so easily match the television playing in the background?” I wonder. It works both ways, the stories we are told ring true because they are true. The stories we are told ring true because we copy them. It’s a matter of life and art imitating each other.

While I still want to caution the use of clichés in the spirit of Orwell, once again such a common view ironically lacks nuance. Clichés make and recreate meaning as much as they obfuscate and hide it. The value of repetition lies in seeing where your experiences might fit in along the reams of cultural talk and the long brown ribbons of tape that are forever circulating.

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