Eternal return


When Wire’s Colin Newman introduced the swift svelte stab of ‘12XU’ with these words (on their 1977 debut album Pink Flag), he doubtless intended a sardonic swipe at the so quickly sublimated, normalized expectations of a Punk audience already willing to hear the shock of the new parlayed into fresh orthodoxy; already favouring the recognizable classic over the fractured innovation that was ostensibly Punk’s point. If the song itself, with its faux guttersnipe delivery and mad dash to the 1 minute, 55 seconds mark, was a knowing parody of expected Punk moves, the intro was a neat rejoinder to the audience’s hankering for newly canonized favourites: in short, for repetition.

When the band performed Pink Flag once more at London’s Barbican Centre earlier this year, and Newman duly delivered the pointed preface to ‘12XU’ right on cue, it was doubly difficult to know just what manner of repetition was being canvassed 26 years on. Here it was again. Again: though not quite; now laden with the weight of a nostalgia that threatened to consign the whole performance to the status of mere heritage event; yet also, somehow, in its uncannily accurate reanimation of a dead time, quiveringly and weirdly alive.

Such is the nature of repetition. On the one hand, there is nothing so predictable, so tiresomely unwelcome, as the ideal copy: it is a marker of a merely traditional, conventional desire for consistency, a loyalty to a past that, repetition assures us, has never really gone away. Repetition, as some of our most lingering modern cultural beliefs inform us, is nothing but a serial disorder: a compulsion equally tragic and pathological, so the argument goes, in both its contemporary manifestation as revival or nostalgia and in its classic form as cultural continuity, the way ‘we’ do things. On one reading, repetition is a sort of endlessly reflected dementia: echopraxia (the thoughtless and meaningless repetition of the actions or movements of others) or echolalia (imitation of speech).

But repetition is also the indispensable condition for all kinds of cultural values: from a coherent sense of a self that we carry from one moment to another, to the notion of scientific truth. How valid would an experiment be if it could never be repeated? What would a human history look like that was incapable of discerning, in the tumult of events, surprises and cataclysmic upheavals, some strand of repetition? In fact, at precisely those moments when history seems to convulse in the agony of innovation and renewal, repetition is not far away. The very word ‘revolution’ implies a movement of return, a spectral rehearsal of what has gone before that, so the revolutionary believes, can be made to live again …