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Cultural Exclusion and Frontier Zones

Repetition and Chance: The Two Effects of Revolution

Kseniya Kapelchuk
p. 69-79


The article focuses on the philosophical issues surrounding the establishment of revolution as a concept in its modern sense, as an intervention of something new that breaks from the past and produces a gap between tradition and innovation. The common interpretation of this process implies a linear conception of time, while at the same time describing the event of revolution as an implementation of this conception in a political sense. The article refers to the two prevailing works on the subject, that being of Hannah Arendt and of Reinhart Koselleck. While Arendt describes the French Revolution as an event resulting in “newness” being injected into politics and thus opening history up to its future disavowing the repetition, where as Koselleck promoted the notion of universal history disavowing chance. In any case, both believe that it is due to the phenomenon of revolution being invented as history. But the concept was not pulled out of thin air. Arendt’s and Koselleck’s analysis involves philological accounts of the etymology and history of the word “revolution,” showing its radical change in meaning. Initially revolution meant exactly what was subsequently excluded from the notion of history, though also established as a result of revolution, repetition and chance. The article aims to demonstrate that this traditional interpretation misses another idea of repetition which doesn’t contradict “newness” but, on the contrary, produces it. Thus it is not simply a denial of repetition that constitutes revolution, but displacement of repetition understood as a cycle and coming to the forefront of the repetition which we interpret as a chance.

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Note dell’autore

The reported study was funded by Rfbr according to the research project n. 18-011-00570 at St. Petersburg State University.

Testo integrale

1In reflecting on displacement and exclusion in a historical and cultural context, a revolution is most often seen as the most radical example of these aforementioned processes. Revolution can be described as a fundamental rupture and break of institutions and traditions, as an attempt to turn the course of history. Rhetorically, it can be used either as an image of repression or the return of what was being repressed. In this sense, the doubly paradoxical effect of revolution is obvious, but its consequences are still indeterminate. Revolution often appears as an appeal to the new, but “new,” in this context, can also be interpreted as the “immemorial past,” a return to which constitutes this very thing. The “effects” of revolution mentioned in the title of this article refers not to the specific changes that took place at the level of social organization, but rather to some of its paradoxical consequences on a fundamental level, which are connected to these changes and to the ideas and concepts used to describe them.

2In understanding the concept of revolution as some reversal of the historical process, one often makes the mistake of presuming that the universal understanding of history is, in fact, universal. History itself is not universal. It is actually produced as a direct result of the very processes that we’ve come to call revolution. This was described in detail, drawing on a variety of historiographical evidence, by Reinhart Koselleck, a founder of the German school of the conceptual history. In this way we can compare the events of history with synchronous, but less tangible philological events in conceptual history, thus the processes of exclusion and displacement can be localized not only at the level of the historical process, or at the level of the formation of concepts, but at the point where they intertwine and trigger the retroactive, sense-giving operation. With this perspective, revolution’s occurrence is not something that interrupts some consistent and logical course of history taking place in homogeneous empty time, but something that, in a sense, sets these very historical coordinates.

  • 1 Koselleck (2004: 32-36).

3In German historiography this crucial turn in the understanding history was introduced and accompanied by a terminological shift. Historical science was traditionally referred to as Historie, but, starting in the mid 18th century, it has been gradually replaced by the term Geschichte. What is also important in this context is the remarkable change of the word’s connotation. While the term Historie was used primarily to refer to history as a science, or narrative, representation, written evidence, or assessment, that is the history of something; the term Geschichte signified primarily the event itself, the history itself apart from its written and oral representations.1 By the latter half of the 18th century, this linguistic shift resulted in the emergence of the notion of a History behind the multiple stories, the History that is history as we understand it now. According to Koselleck, the word Geschichte also acquired a different grammatical form and was used no longer as the singular or plural, but as the “collective singular” during the time of the French Revolution.

  • 2 Ivi: 35.

It made possible the attribution to history of the latent power of human events and suffering, a power that connected and motivated everything in accordance with a secret or evident plan to which one could feel responsible, or in whose name one could believe oneself to be acting. This philological event occurred in a context of epochal significance: that of the great period of singularization and simplification which was directed socially and politically against a society of estates. Here, Freedom took the place of freedoms, Justice that of rights and servitudes, Progress that of progressions (les progrès, the plural) and from the diversity of revolutions, “The Revolution” emerged.2

4This “singularization” of history, as Koselleck calls this process, puts history in the a unique and inimitable space, bringing to question the immanence of its descriptions.

5Hannah Arendt’s theoretical position, while being quite far from Koselleck’s in some respects, is still, in a way, compatible. However Arendt’s key point is not to treat history as a singularity but rather a novelty. It is this idea of “newness” that, from Arendt’s point of view, allowed Christian thought to break the cycle of eternal natural repetition and set the linearity of history:

  • 3 Arendt (1990: 27).
  • 4 Magun (2013: 8-11).

[O]ur whole notion of history, because its course follows a rectilinear development, is Christian in origin. It is obvious that only under the conditions of a rectilinear time concept are such phenomena as novelty, uniqueness of events, and the like conceivable at all. Christian philosophy, it is true, broke with the time concept of antiquity because the birth of Christ, occurring in human secular time, constituted a new beginning as well as a unique, unrepeatable event. […] [E]mpires would rise and fall as in the past – except that Christians, in the possession of an everlasting life, could break through this cycle of everlasting change and must look with indifference upon the spectacles it offered.3 The French Revolution, in a sense, repeats this gesture by taking newness out of its own name, i.e. Revolution. The prefix “re” indicates a repeated action, the root «volutio» refers to rotation, return, or repetition, so “revolution” is quite literally a double repetition.4

6The concept of revolution has its origins in the Latin word «revolutio», an astronomical term signifying the rotation of celestial bodies. In this sense the concept of revolution gives testament to the innate relationship between revolutionary movements and natural causality, a uniform circular motion, independent from mankind’s actions and subjected to certain principles. The meaning of this word was then transferred from Latin into the spoken European languages. However later it took on a different, political significance. How did this occur, and under which conditions? Quite a common answer to this question, which Arendt, Koselleck and others agree on, is that there was a metaphorical transition of the term, or revolution’s descent from heaven to earth:

  • 5 Arendt (1990: 42).

When the word first descended from the skies and was introduced to describe what happened on earth among mortal men, it appeared clearly as a metaphor, carrying over the notion of an eternal, irresistible, ever-recurring motion to the haphazard movements, the ups and’ downs of human destiny, which have been likened to the rising and setting of sun, moon, and stars since times immemorial.5

  • 6 Ivi: 43.

7Thus the word revolution, which originally designated a cycle with natural astronomical necessity, implicitly acquired the meaning of change in the sense of fortune. However saying this is but a simple contextual change is not an accurate description of what happened to the word revolution during its transition from the realm of nature and astronomy to one of history and politics. The widespread use of the term in its second sense is reported starting in the 17th century, more precisely, the Glorious Revolution which took place in 1688 in England. It obviously marked the change, but the nature of this change was purely reactive: it signified the return to an original state, “a restoration of monarchical power to its former righteousness and glory”.6 Besides this, the term revolution began to designate not only the process but also this specifically unique event.

8The synonymous use of revolution and restoration still existed in the 18th century and was of great importance for the revolutions which later gained the opposite meaning, one of innovation – the French and the American Revolution:

  • 7 Ivi: 44.

[B]oth were played in their initial stages by men who were firmly convinced that they would do no more than restore an old order of things that had been disturbed and violated by the despotism of absolute monarchy or the abuses of colonial government. They pleaded in all sincerity that they wanted to revolve back to old times when things had been as they ought to be.7

9The original meaning of revolution was one of repetition, a return of the same. But what of the idea of newness that revolution brought? The very idea of novelty, as we can see, comes to the word quite late. What was new was, in fact, the conjunction of the two types of repetition discussed above, i.e. the imposition of necessity inherent in the law of nature to the event of historical change. That is the difference between revolt and the revolution: the first term indicates the accidental quality of the event, while the second one indicates inevitability. According to Arendt, the idea of novelty was only introduced to the understanding of revolutionary motives during the revolution itself. Being first approved in the field of philosophy and the “revolutionary” science projects as well as establishing a new basis of knowledge, novelty was only introduced into the concept of historical processes much later, thus shifting the understanding of the very essence of the history:

  • 8 Ivi: 47.

When newness had reached the market-place, it became the beginning of a new story, started – though unwittingly – by acting men, to be enacted further, to be augmented and spun out by their posterity.8

10Thus, Arendt describes this change in the understanding of the concept of revolution as a transfer of necessity and immutability, from the realm of natural causality to the dimension of history followed by innovation’s invasion into history. In Arendt’s model, repetition and innovation are strictly opposed in this sense, and the transformation of revolution’s meaning completely corresponds to this new notion of revolution as an interruption of repetition.

11This contradicts the very meaning of repetition in history and excludes it. But is it because of the nature of history, as Arendt puts it, or simply because of the inherent restrictions of this interpretation of repetition? Arendt describes repetition only within the frame of natural cyclicity. In this regard, history comes to be understood only through mediation on revolution breaking the vicious circle of repetition.

  • 9 Ivi: 55.

As long as men took their cue from the natural sciences and thought of this process as a primarily cyclical, rotating, everrecurring movement – and even Vico still thought of historical movement in these terms – it was unavoidable that necessity should be inherent in historical as it is in astronomical motion. Every cyclical movement is a necessary movement by definition. But the fact that necessity as an inherent characteristic of history should survive the modern break in the cycle of eternal recurrences and make its reappearance in a movement that was essentially rectilinear and hence did not revolve back to what was known before but stretched out into an unknown future, this fact owes its existence not to theoretical speculation but to political experience and the course of real events.9

12Thus history, according to Arendt, was originally defined by natural causality and the cycle of eternal restoration. But eventually revolution did away with natural repetition, absorbing its necessity and reassigning its necessity to the ideas of difference and innovation. In a sense, this revolutionary rupture repeats the one, that according to Arendt, came along with the establishment of the Christian paradigm. It’s structure is much the same: at its core we find the exclusion of repetition and discover a novel space, in which historical events becomes possible.

13There is a certain oddity in this description: repetition is abandoned in all but name, as “revolution,” essentially meaning repetition, remains. Moreover, contrary to the arguments made by Arendt, it can be said that the idea of revolution continues to be connected with the notion of repetition not negatively, but rather positively. The point being that there is another meaning of repetition, one overlooked by Arendt, and thus, in fact, repressed. It is a notion of repetition as a production of “newness,” which was brought into philosophy by such thinkers as Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, Deleuze, and others. Furthermore, it becomes possible to establish this sense of repetition precisely as a consequence of the changes that have been discussed above.

  • 10 Zupančič (2007b).

14In this context, an interpretation of Karl Marx’s The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte set forth by Alenka Zupančič is of great interest. In the article On repetition,10 she refers to one of the most quoted fragments of Marx’s text:

  • 11 Marx (1967: 10).

Hegel remarks somewhere that all facts and personages of great importance in world history occur, as it were, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second as farce.11

15As Mladen Dolar noted, this passage itself is in fact a literal repetition: here Marx quotes Engels’ letter. At any rate, the passage refers to the French revolutionary experience, which, as Marx shows, failed to break the circle of repetition, a form of which continued to prevail over the novelty they expected to bring. The difference between these two types of revolution – between tragedy and farce – was concisely expressed by Marx in the following:

  • 12 Ivi: 12.

Thus the awakening of the dead in those revolutions served the purpose of glorifying the new struggles, not of parodying the old; of magnifying the given task in the imagination, not recoiling from its solution in reality; of finding once more the spirit of revolution, not making its ghost walk again.12

16The first revolution is noble, the second is infamous, but both fail. As Marx insists, there must be a different kind of revolution, and so he speaks of the necessity of this sort of revolution, one not of the bourgeois but of the proletariat:

  • 13 Ivi: 12-13.

The social revolution of the nineteenth century cannot draw its poetry from the past, but only from the future. It cannot begin with itself before it has stripped off all superstition in regard to the past. Earlier revolutions required recollections of past world history in order to drug themselves concerning their own content. In order to arrive at its own content, the revolution of the nineteenth century must let the dead bury their dead. There the phrase went beyond the content – here the content goes beyond the phrase.13

17Traditional interpretations of this passage state that repetition is, in the end, a flawed form, which can not hold revolutionary substance. But is it really so unequivocal? Does revolution reject its “reactionary” meaning of repetition completely, shifting the whole burden of necessity from aspiration towards a repeated past to the innovation of linear time, as proposed by Arendt? There is another interpretation which implies that innovation is not opposed to repetition, but is derived from it.

  • 14 Marx (1967: p. 10).
  • 15 Deleuze (1998: 91-93).

18It is agreed that the first two cases of revolution (tragedy and farce) refer to repetition. The second, farcical revolution, repeats the first one, a second Napoleon parodies the first. But repetition appears from the very beginning. The tragic revolution was originally borrowing from the past, “as Luther put on the mask of the Apostle Paul, the Revolution of 1789-1814 draped itself alternately in the guise of the Roman Republic and the Roman Empire14.” In particular, Deleuze treats both tragedy and comedy as repetition15, but also points out that the repetition here is incomplete, and it needs a third cycle, a dramatic repetition, referring to something new. Zupančič shows that this element is the socialist revolution, of which Marx is dreaming, the necessity of which he postulates. She quotes the following passage:

  • 16 Marx (1967: 14).

[P]roletarian revolutions, like those of the nineteenth century, criticize themselves constantly, interrupt themselves continually in their own course, come back to the apparently accomplished in order to begin at afresh, deride with unmerciful thoroughness the inadequacies, weaknesses and paltrinesses of their first attempts, seem to throw down their adversary only in order that he may draw new strength from the earth and rise again, more gigantic, before them.16

  • 17 Zupančič (2007b: 30).
  • 18 Zupančič (2007a).

19Thus, as Zupančič says, at first Marx denies the repetitive nature of the proletarian revolution, but ultimately “the reality of proletarian revolutions, as described by Marx, is quite different. For it rather seems that with them repetition runs amok”.17 Zupančič herself considers this type of repetition not as a drama, as Deleuze had implied, but as a comedy. She presents this theory in the book The Odd One In. On Comedy.18 Comical repetition is not farce, not an empty repetition ultimately ending in failure; in her terms it is, first of all, a stubborn attempt, despite all the setbacks, to keep trying and coming back to the beginning, to start all over again.

  • 19 Zupančič (2007b: 30).

[A]s if the imperative of breaking with repetition («let the dead bury their dead») only really brought us to the repetition in its pure form, as if it were only «beyond repetition» […] that we arrive at the very quintessence of repetition, that is to repetition that repeats (and thus differentiates) itself.19

20Marx doesn’t elaborate on the complete concept of repetition, but provides a glimpse of the turn that will happen in philosophy regarding the concept of repetition. As Zupančič writes, in Marx’s argument there is a transition from necessary repetition to the necessity of the repetition represented by the third type of revolution.

21Thus, revolution can be called a specific interpretation of repetition. But it is also can be said that it is the return of the repressed sense of repetition, its non-cyclical conception. The etymology of the word itself implies not only the reference to the rotation of celestial bodies, but also to a different image of repetition.

22Artemy Magun analyses the document in which the word revolution is used in its political sense for the first time:

  • 20 Magun (2013: 6).

[T]he first known political use of “revolution” (Italian “rivoluzioni”) belongs to Italian writer of chronics Giovanni Villiani: “che in così piccolo tempo la città nostra ebbe tante novità e varie rivoluzioni”. At about the same time, and still with reference to Italian politics, the word appeared in French as “revolucion” or “révolution”.20

  • 21 Rachum (1999: 38-55).
  • 22 Magun (2013: 6).

23As you can see, here we are dealing with a slightly different meaning of revolution, which is related not to nature, but rather to Fortuna. Magun sees this version, proposed by Ilan Rachum,21 as “quite plausible since the political use of the word corresponded well with the medieval view of secular history as a circular”.22

  • 23 Ivi: 10.

24Magun himself does not favor any of these versions, noting the plausibility of both. More important is the fact that, as a result, the concept of revolution assumes both meanings. Thorough examination of the very structure of the concept of revolution allows the author to point out the implied ambiguity in repetition’s understanding and thus marks out two types of cyclic recurrence. The first one describes a repetition of the same, a natural cycle, but the second refers to the idea of the change: “here, the circularity refers not to the orderly cycle but to the unpredictable nature of movement that constantly changes direction”.23

25Thus, revolution turns out to be a complex phenomenon, with dual etymology, incorporating its different connotations, which are connected with the very formation of the word. For us, this merging is of fundamental importance, because it implies not only two different etymologies, but also the superposition of these two types of repetition which transform the very notion itself, as well as the two kinds of causality whose interweaving has the most immediate influence on history’s interpretation.

26If repetition as the cycle refers to nature, then what of the another repetition – the repetition of “fortune?” It is appropriate to recall here that Fortune is the Roman name for the Greek deity, Tyche, or the chance. What is remarkable here is that chance, just as repetition, is one of those historiographical categories discarded after the discovery of the «singularized» History.

27As Koselleck shows, the concept of chance, one that had been in wide use in historical descriptions and reflections on history before the 18th century, began to be repressed by the end of that century, and as a result, was, in most regards, absent from 19th century works on history and philosophy of history. On the one hand, the singularization of history eliminates the mechanism of causality from the reflections on history and history unfolds into a dimension of uniqueness, but on the other hand, it also eliminates chance, because the very idea of chance is a form of accidental causality. From this point of view the transition that Arendt makes becomes clearer. The transition she proposes is first that history was rediscovered through rethinking revolution, envisioning it as a space of novelty’s invasion, and in this sense as an area of freedom. Second, she shows how almost immediately the conception of history bent under the weight of a new necessity. Arendt explains it as the prevalence of a theoretical attitude over the practical. But this situation can also be read in terms of a new way of removing chance from the theory.

28Describing the new concept of history, Geschichte, in contrast to the multiple Geschichten, Koselleck shows that a chance does not belong in it.

  • 24 Koselleck (2004: 124).

Chance, or the accidental, was completely done away with by the Historical School during the nineteenth century, less through a systematic extension of the principle of causality than through theological, philosophical, and aesthetic implications contained within the modern concept of history.24

29If the chance in the «histories», or Geschichten, presented a reason that could initiate certain causal series in accordance with the existing balance of power, intruding into those processes, which followed its laws and causality, then the history itself, or Geschichte, does not presume even a possibility to consider such accidental causality. One of the representative examples here is Humboldt’s position. Koselleck comments on it in with the following:

  • 25 Ivi: 125.

History was distinguished by that which was eternally new and had never been experienced; such are the creative individualities and inner forces which, while they cohere in their superficial sequence, are never to “be deduced from their accompanying circumstances” in their given singularity and orientation. The inner unity of history and its quality of uniqueness eluded causal deduction (the progressive aspect of the historical world view is embodied in this idea), and it is therefore open neither to Fortuna (who is symbolic of repetition) nor to chance, for the singularity of chance is absorbed by the singularity of “history in itself”.25

  • 26 Ivi: 126.

30But the singularity of history, which is deficient of singularity of chance, immediately becomes subjected to the “theological principle […] and the aesthetic category of the inner unity of history”26. Hegel’s concept of “cunning of reason” in its common interpretation according to which any random event derives its justification in the history of the spirit is an example for Koselleck’s point.

31Thus the singularization of history becomes reserved in a teleological project that implies some kind of unity standing behind historical events. The point being that such process can not avoid disintegration and the return to chance, the idea of which is inseparable from a kind of repetition. Repetition which repeats something on the level of meaning, though, at the historical level, has probably never happened before.

32Koselleck himself in his reflections about history admitted a certain convergence of his own views with those that preceded the great turning point in the understanding of history he described so brightly:

  • 27 Koselleck (2004: 201).

If Engels were correct – that in the future, foresight, plan, and execution would coincide seamlessly – it would need only be added that in fact the end of all history had been reached. History is characterized (here is our second thesis) by the manner in which human foresight, human plans, and their execution always diverge in the course of time. By saying that, we are chancing a structural pronouncement or formulating a view that is older than the eighteenth century. But permit the addition of a statement that is an outcome of the Enlightenment: “history in and of itself” always occurs in the anticipation of incompleteness and therefore possesses an open future. That is, in any case, a lesson of all previous history, and whoever wishes to argue the opposite will have to prove his case.27

33Thus, it should be recognized that the conceptualization of universal history occurred due to the exclusion and displacement of repetition and chance. Upon the foundation of such transformations, the conceptualization of revolution was formed. In this respect, it seems justified that it was the return of those excluded categories – under the guise of facticity, events, repetition – would eventually destroy the structure of teleological conceptions of history and lead to the modern formulation of questioning history.

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Arendt, H.

– 1990, On Revolution, London, Penguin Books.

Deleuze, G.

– 1994, Difference and Repetition, New York, Columbia University Press.

Koselleck, R.

– 2004, Futures Past. On the Semantics of Historical Time, New York, Columbia University Press.

Magun, A.

– 2013, Negative Revolution. Modern Political Subject and its Fate After the Cold War, NY, London - New Delhi - Sydney, Bloomsbury.

Marx, K.

– 1967, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Moscow, Progress Publishers.

Rachum, I.

– 1999, Revolution: The Entrance of a New Word into Western Political Discourse, Lanham, New York - Oxford, University Press of America.

Zupančič, A.

– 2007a, The Odd One In. On Comedy. Cambridge (Ma) - London, The Mit Press.

– 2007b, On repetition, “Sats – Nordic Journal of Philosophy”, VIII, 1: 27-44.

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1 Koselleck (2004: 32-36).

2 Ivi: 35.

3 Arendt (1990: 27).

4 Magun (2013: 8-11).

5 Arendt (1990: 42).

6 Ivi: 43.

7 Ivi: 44.

8 Ivi: 47.

9 Ivi: 55.

10 Zupančič (2007b).

11 Marx (1967: 10).

12 Ivi: 12.

13 Ivi: 12-13.

14 Marx (1967: p. 10).

15 Deleuze (1998: 91-93).

16 Marx (1967: 14).

17 Zupančič (2007b: 30).

18 Zupančič (2007a).

19 Zupančič (2007b: 30).

20 Magun (2013: 6).

21 Rachum (1999: 38-55).

22 Magun (2013: 6).

23 Ivi: 10.

24 Koselleck (2004: 124).

25 Ivi: 125.

26 Ivi: 126.

27 Koselleck (2004: 201).

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Notizia bibliografica

Kseniya Kapelchuk, «Repetition and Chance: The Two Effects of Revolution»Rivista di estetica, 67 | 2018, 69-79.

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Kseniya Kapelchuk, «Repetition and Chance: The Two Effects of Revolution»Rivista di estetica [Online], 67 | 2018, online dal 01 avril 2018, consultato il 12 juin 2024. URL:; DOI:

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Kseniya Kapelchuk

St. Petersburg State University, 7/9 Universitetskaya Embankment, 199034, St. Petersburg, Russia
Sociological Institute of FCTAS RAS, 25/14 7-ya Krasnoarmeyskaya street, 190005, St. Petersburg, Russia

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