Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Human Factory: Re-Enactment & Repetition

NelsonYogaInversions, “Handstand Balance Trng” 2010 (Is this even possible?)

Athletes practice in order to improve technique. They do the same thing over and over. They also practice repetitive visualization. Having watched hours of their sport prior to a game, they are known to sit and rework plays in their mind over and over until it becomes ‘real’ — identifiable and possible. This is because it has been shown that repeating action — even if it is only theoretical — enhances performance.

If you exercise your pinky in your mind’s eye every day for several hours, apparently your pinky will get stronger. Alternately, if you never exercise your actual pinky, or use your arm, even imaginatively, your mind might eliminate it from the map it has formed of your spatial body and you will lose the ability to use it. In this way, the human body is entirely functioned by the brain, as trained by the body, in a reciprocity that is uncanny, primal and exquisite. We are sensitive to our brains, and our brains are sensitive to our bodies.

ARTE, “Verdun aux portes de l’enfer,” 2006 (Repeating tremor patterns)

When I was a little girl, I learned things by rote. We practiced times tables and we practiced spelling and reading by oral and written visualization. In French class it was “écoutez et répétez”. In every subject, we repeated as the teacher — her long white patent leather boots shimmering at the front of the class — pointed to words or numbers on the board. In unison, we repeated and repeated, like automatons, like factory widgets going down the conveyor belt of intelligence, learning, getting it in our heads, in our product ingredient lists, so that by the end of the year, it could be measured, quantified, and duly noted for our parents to bray or scold: This is exactly how clever you are, my darling, my spawn.

Sesame Street, “School Classroom” 1980s (Between the children, row on row)

And if you were deemed smart enough that was all very well, but not everyone was deemed so, and these — mostly boys — failed. What does failure look like? There was little space for grey tones in the classroom. A student either mastered the material — which meant memorizing and regurgitating — or did not. If he did not, he was set back to repeat the year. The only way to learn was to repeat, and having failed to learn by repetition, the logical solution was to repeat again and again.

Training the Afghans,” 2007 (The disciplined discipline the undisciplined)

Discipline is being able to perform a task on command and at will. In other words, automatically. Our template for good, successful behaviour is industrial. Quality and Production are the measure of human endeavour and therefore human virtue. And as individuals achieve both these functions, the bar is raised. Better quality and higher production is expected. Because more is MORE.

I Love Lucy, “Job Switching” 1952 (Faster!)

Until more is too much, or until more is attached to traumatic experience. It seems to be true that the brain thrives through repetition — it learns best by rote. And as in mastering the technique of riding a bicycle, it also has a hard time unlearning information once it is learned. The mind retains and reenacts what it has learned, sometimes compulsively, as if, unable to unlearn it, it is fated to repeat it; that is how intricate a behavioural link there seems to be between repetition and knowing.

CBSNewsOnline, “Sgt. James Pitts On Killing His Wife,” 2009 (Good to go)

How do you unlearn to walk? To breathe? To kill? The things that scare us or confuse us seem to want to be re-experienced, sometimes as memory, sometimes bodily. The automatic response happens in the reptile brain, in the sediment of humanity’s beginnings, and it seems that once one has learned something, and archived it in the brain, it wants to stay; it wants also to play it back, repeat.

Crystal Pite, “Kidd Pivot” 2009 (Trauma art)

If renewal and rebirth rise out of the ashes of destruction, might not that renewal and rebirth bear repetition and re-enactment ad infinitum? Might not it be possible that for generations we have been joyously and miserably reliving, repeating, re-enacting the joy and misery of our parents, grandparents, and on, and that, automatically, we give our children what we have bodily learned? Our culture is ultimately the space in which our culture plays out. Slowly we’ve built and conducted a system. Now we reap its rewards.

Johnnyjct, “Roller Coaster,” 2009 (I want to go again! I want to go again!)

- Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer

Ryeberg Curator Bio

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Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer is the author of three novels, "Perfecting," "The Nettle Spinner," and most recently, "All the Broken Things," as well as a short fiction collection, "Way Up." She teaches creative writing through The University of Toronto and online through The New York Times Knowledge Network. For more Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer, go here. Photo by Ken Woroner.