Constructive Resistance: Communicating Dissent through Repetitions - Resistance and Repetition

Constructive Resistance: Repetitions, Emotions, and Time - Mona Lilja 2021

Constructive Resistance: Communicating Dissent through Repetitions
Resistance and Repetition

Robert Dahl (1967), Steven Lukes (1974), and Foucault (1991) all touch upon a type of power that can be seen as a form of direct decision-making—“power-over” or even violent forms of repression. Power in this understanding is frequently used in liberal forms of analysis where power is defined as individuals’ procession of power or ability to force their will upon others (Kabeer 1994, 224—29; Haugaard 2012; Dean 1999, 105—6; Foucault 1994, 83—85; Baaz et al. 2017). The resistance against repressive forms of power can be exemplified with Marta Iñiguez de Heredia’s definition of resistance where resistance is “the pattern of acts undertaken by individuals or collectives in a subordinated position to mitigate or deny elite claims and the effects of domination, while advancing their own agenda” (Iñiguez de Heredia 2013, 6). This definition establishes resistance as a practice that is directed toward elite claims and the experience of domination (Iñiguez de Heredia 2017). The emphasis on elite claims, agendas, and the effects of domination could be read as an attempt to put repressive forms of power, rather than truth regimes, in focus (Lilja and Vinthagen 2018).

The notion of counter-repressive resistance could, as stated above, be complemented with another form of resistance; that is, constructive resistance, which produces societies, truths, identities, and practices. Or, in other words, another part of the field of resistance studies—instead of elaborating on counter-repressive resistance—embraces reverse discourses, meaning-making, and the negotiating of truths, as well as the creation of other ways of life through counter-conduct and techniques of self (Foucault 1981, 1988; Baaz et al. 2016; Butler 2018; Bleiker 2000). This research indicates, as stated above, that the most powerful practices of dissent might work in discursive ways, by engendering a slow transformation of values (Bleiker 2000). Researchers who belong to this part of resistance studies emphasize “ ’less than tangible’ entities such as texts, signs, symbols, identity and language” (Törnberg 2013; Lilja 2017). Overall, within this subfield of resistance studies, there is a focus on cultural processes, ways of life, subjectivities, and shared meaning systems, and how these can be understood from the concepts of dominant discourses and resistance (Lilja and Vinthagen 2018). This chapter embraces the more constructive form of resistance by studying patterns of repetitions as a powerful form of dissent. How is it possible to repeat representations against constructions of power and what patterns of repetitions are important to recognize when practicing a more “linguistic” form of resistance? This is elaborated below.

This chapter displays three different patterns of repetition—in the nexus between the symbolic and the material—that can be employed in order to establish, maintain, or resist certain political truths. Among other things, as elaborated in the introduction, the repetition of words, sentences, images, or sounds that are too similar might result in an automatized reading of these representations. This implies that when one seeks to advance political claims, approximate speech-acts might be more effective than exact repetitions. This and other patterns are suggested and elaborated on below.

The chapter is structured as follows: In the next section, the concepts of repetition and resistance are outlined and developed. The fourth section, “Repetition and Change: The Art of Establishing Political Discourses,” adds to previous research by suggesting three communicative patterns that contribute to the establishment of certain truths. These patterns can, in some senses, be regarded as tools for practicing resistance for civil society organisations, who aim to establish certain discourses in order to increase the public awareness of their causes. Hereby, the chapter answers the calls from a number of leading critical sociologists such as Klaus Dörre, Stephan Lessenich, and Hartmut Rosa, among others, who urge us to place the future well-being of society at the center of our current sociological research (Dörre et al. 2015; Rosa’s keynote speech at the 13th Conference of the European Sociological Association 2017, Athens).

Drawing on the work of Lundquist (1993), I suggest that contestations can be studied empirically, normatively, and constructively. Empirical research is directed toward describing various contestations and, by extension, seeking to explain or understand them. By adding a normative perspective, the spotlight is directed toward types of contestations that are preferable or most effective, as well as the desired outcome of the contestations. Finally, if we as scholars are interested in what the future social order could look like and the role that contestations can play in order to achieve this utopia, then our focus is constructive; that is, this chapter is interested in giving recommendations of how we can achieve as much as possible of what is desired, given the circumstances of the world, or, perhaps more correctly, how we think it is constructed (Baaz 2002; cf. Lundquist 1993, 1998; Baaz et al. 2017, 13—14). This chapter is primarily normative and constructive in its outline, and draws on previous research and theoretical suggestions in order to try to understand what forms of resistance are the most preferable or effective, and how we can achieve as much as possible of what we desire in a socially constructed, but still material world—the example that is in focus, here, is climate change activism (Baaz 2002; Lundquist 1993, 85, 1998, 28; Rothstein 1994; Baaz et al. 2017, 13—14).


We know today that various forms of resistance have the capacity to drastically disestablish and (re)structure societies. According to Chenoweth and Stephan (2011, 6), “In recent years organized civilian populations have successfully used nonviolent resistance methods, including boycotts, strikes, protest, and organized non-cooperation to exact political concessions and challenge entrenched power.” Chenoweth’s and Stephan’s studies have greatly contributed to our understanding of how mass-mobilized resistance works; still their research mainly discussed more visible forms of resistance struggles in highly repressive contexts. Thus, it does not display linguistic performativity and how resistance involves communicative practices that can generate norm changes. This chapter, however, seeks to understand resistance through meaning-making and the advancement of political claims through communicative strategies, in particular forms of repetition of representations.

Mass-mobilized resistance entangles with, or departs from, shared discourses that mobilize people into action. These discourses are established by the repetition of different words, objects, figures, and so on. Or in other words, repetitions contribute to the establishment of patterns or truths, which have the potential to provide people with a common ground for political action. Foucault argues that “truth isn’t outside power (. . .) Each society has its regime of truth, its ’general politics’ of truth: that is, the types of discourse which it accepts and makes function as true, the mechanisms and instances which enable one to distinguish true and false statements” (Foucault 1980, 131).

In the old art of rhetoric, repetition embraces the repetition of an expression as well as the repetition of an idea (Lausberg 1960; Vossius 1990). Repetition is a resource by which speakers create discourses and create grounds for belonging, which is the very condition that is required for social interactions (Tannen 1987, 2007). The repetition of different representations is, for example, an engine of emotions; and emotions and cognition can be seen as inseparable.

Repeated words, images, and sounds are both a copy of and, simultaneously, a reinvention of earlier linguistic or material representations. Repetition means the establishment of patterns and a steady return to what is already stated. This repetition is, as stated above, a reenactment and a re-experiencing of a set of meanings that have already been socially established (Turner 1974).

Gilles Deleuze displays how repetitions lead to the establishment of patterns. In Difference and Repetition (1968/1994), Deleuze argues that repetitions change something in the mind of those who harbor them. As a point of departure, Deleuze takes the repetition of cases of the type A-B, A-B, A-B, A-[...]. Whenever the A appears, the reader of the A-B reiteration expects the appearance of -B. Or in the words of Deleuze, “When A appears, we expect B with a force corresponding to the qualitative impression of all the contracted ABs” (Deleuze 1968/1994, 70). The expectations of the appearance of a -B has nothing to do with memory. According to Deleuze, contraction is not a matter of an individual’s reflections. He argues, “Does not the paradox of repetition lie in the fact that one can speak of repetition only by virtue of the change or difference that it introduces into the mind which contemplates it” (Deleuze 1968/1994, 70)? The above reflections clarify how the modes and operations of repetitions contribute to the regulation of practices, identities, and discourses. By following the works of Deleuze, it can be argued that the repetition of cases leads to the expectations of the appearance of new cases. Thus, repetitions lead to repetitions. This makes repetitions even more interesting (Lilja and Baaz 2016).

As stated in previous chapters, verbal repetitions depend on both sameness and differences. The repeat borrows recognizable elements from previous repeats (the “original”) through reference to it, although in contextual separation from it. Thus, each time a word or phrase is repeated, while expressed in a new time/space, its meaning is (slightly) changed (cf. Derrida 1976). Barbara Johnston claims that repetitions are both constructive (through reinforcement, emphasis, confirmation, validation, patterning, etc.) and destructive (by creating fragmentation, by copying, becoming automatic, etc.). There are also different types of repetition such as mirroring the continuous presence of happenings (such as violent incidents), or multiple signs of a single event (Johnston 1994).

Repetition might be placed along a scale of fixity in its form, ranging from (almost) exact (the same words uttered in a similar rhythmic pattern) to paraphrased (similar ideas in different words). Rhetoric also makes a difference between strict repetitions and approximate ones. In some situations, the solution will be to repeat something as carefully as possible, but in other cases approximate repetitions will, as is displayed below, enrich or maintain the discourse (Lausberg 1960; Vossius 1990). There is also a temporal scale or variation, which ranges from immediate to delayed repetition (Tannen 1987, 585—86).

Repetition functions on an interactive level and accomplishes social goals, or simply deals with different practices of conversation. The various functions of repetitions can include getting the attention of an audience, showing listenership, postponing, display humor and play, and/or showing appreciation of a good line or a good joke (Tannen 1987, 2007; Lilja and Baaz 2018).

Below, different patterns of repetition, which are to be seen as means of resistance, are discussed. The resistance that is suggested in this chapter—resisting through different patterns of repetition—targets dominant norms, and is parasitic on different discourses. Still, it is constructive resistance that fuels new truths and practices that emanate from these truths.


Above, different functions and forms of repetition were outlined in order to provide a background for the forthcoming argumentation. The sections below continue the discussion by unfolding three different patterns of repetition, which are of central importance when communicating and enhancing different norms as a form of resistance (Tannen 1987, 2007; Lilja and Baaz 2018). The following themes will be explored: (1) Maintaining by Change; (2) Simplifications, Reductions, and Repetition; and (3) Twisting the Cause-and-Effect Linkages.

Maintaining by Change

As previously stated, repetitions are vital for the establishment of truths and for promoting different political agendas. Repetitions link one speaker’s ideas to another’s and tie parts of a discourse to other parts; but they also connect participants to the discourse and to each other (Tannen 1987, 2007; Lilja and Baaz 2018). An example of this is a development that has occurred over the last two decades that may be termed the “global discourse of human rights.” The rhetoric of human rights is used by numerous forms of agencies such as state leaders, civil-society activists, business executives, academics, journalists, lawyers, and celebrities. The discourse is characterized by the call for various practices, phenomena, and policies to be addressed in the name of human rights. By repeatedly interpreting torture, war crimes, religious intolerance, gender-based discrimination, mistreatment of immigrants, poverty, and underdevelopment as human rights abuses, the new discourse has rapidly spread (Manokha 2010). The human right discourse is used to tie different phenomena and stakeholders to the discourses and to each other.

However, repeating certain words, sentences, or images in order to establish a discourse—such as the human rights discourse—is not as simple as it sounds. Several patterns complicate the process. One such complication can be displayed by drawing on Ann Danielsen’s research on funk songs. Danielsen’s analysis links Deleuze’s concept of repetition with James Brown’s molecular microsound repetitions of funk songs (Danielsen 2006). Danielsen suggests that while it appears that if we hear the same rhythm over and over again, after a while what we hear is changing. This is because our listening becomes automatized and we hear the rhythm in a different—a more reluctant—way. Thus, the meaning attached to the rhythm alters with time, even though it is the very same rhythm that is repeated over and over again (Lilja and Baaz 2016). Every time we hear the same message, we interpret it differently. If we look again and again at the same picture, the semantics are gradually emptied, and the image’s meaning has changed. For instance, when we drive a car our perception of a road-sign that warns us about moose modifies each time we pass it. While at first, we think that a moose might show up, once countless road-signs have been passed and no moose has appeared, the significance of the sign has changed (Lilja and Baaz 2016, 2018). Thus, even if it sounds like a paradox, the lack of difference, in fact, modifies the meaning of a repeated utterance.

If one wants to maintain the original meaning, the repetitions must change, or the message must be repeated via another medium or from another subject position. For example, when warnings by an “expert” on the car-radio add to the road-signs, the new “repeat” makes us return to the original feeling of “Huh, a moose might turn up!” Thus, to change (the expression or position) is to strengthen. Or in the words of Danielsen when commenting on James Brown’s funk songs, “The funky wah-wah riff is extended so that the gesture gradually gets bigger and looser, occupying more space and more time. However, we never think of the change as a change, probably due to the fact that it is contained in the act of producing the same” (Danielsen 2006, 159). To repeat things slightly differently is then a way of producing the same discursive truth. A small change in the utterance does not change the discourse. On the contrary, it will strengthen it. However, the variation must be kept within the limits of the discourse—it has to be the same message that is repeated.

The above can help us understand how constructive resistance can be played out in regard to various political issues, such as human rights or environmental issues. As stated in a previous section, approximate repetitions and paraphrases can, due to their variation, enrich or maintain the discourse (Lausberg 1960; Vossius 1990). This means, in practice, that constructive resistance must be composed of a multitude of linguistic statements that are mixed with other representations and use different subject positions in order to succeed.

Simplifications, Reductions, and Repetition

Another complication in the production of discourses is that complexity is reduced as the discourse is repeated. Individuals adopt specific entry-points or simplify the message when participating in meaning-making processes. In these processes “sense and meaning-making not only reduce complexity for actors (and observers) but also give meaning to the world” (Sum and Jessop 2013, 3). Processes of meaning-making, and the repetition of discourses in new ways tend to change and simplify their messages. One pattern that can be distinguished here is that less and less will be perceived, and the discourse will become coarse and simplified over time, often losing its previous meanings.

This can be exemplified by the climate change discourse. Climate change is often traced back and claimed to emanate from human actions, lifestyles, and social patterns, which, according to environmental activists, must be challenged and transformed in the face of recent meteorological and very material changes. These truths have been repeated and “confirmed” by, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) 2014 report, which established that we must radically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, otherwise people’s lives and quality of life will be exposed to imminent danger, and that our current lifestyle choices and actions will cause irreversible damage to the ecosystem (IPCC 2014). The IPCC’s report is quite complicated in its character, and displays scientific details and formal language. The summary of the report indicates its complexity:

Future climate changes, risks and impacts (Topic 2) presents information about future climate change, risks and impacts. It integrates information about key drivers of future climate, the relationship between cumulative emissions and temperature change, and projected changes in the climate system in the 21st century and beyond. It assesses future risks and impacts caused by a changing climate and the interaction of climate-related and other hazards. It provides information about long-term changes including sea-level rise and ocean acidification, and the risk of irreversible and abrupt changes. (IPCC 2014)

As the preceding quotation shows, the IPCC report embraces complex patterns and interconnections that are sometimes hard to grasp. However, when translated into everyday conversations and media language, the contents of the IPCC reports are converted into popular versions or scandal articles in evening newspapers. The complicated, scientific language of the IPCC is reduced, simplified, and becomes denser (Jansson and Brandstedt 2014). For example, in one of Sweden’s biggest daily evening newspapers, climate change was addressed in the following terms during November 2016: “Scientists warn of the pollen monster” (Aftonbladet 2016a), “the 16-year-old who leads a climate movement” (Aftonbladet 2016b) and “Blueberries decrease, ferns increase” (Aftonbladet 2016c). Even though these articles seem to present specific, simplified, and dense aspects of climate change, they still repeat the overall climate change discourse with the help of their mutual similarities. The articles of the daily evening newspaper also redefine the discourse by simplifying and, in some senses, storytelling the material-semiotics of climate change of which we are collectively a part. Just as suggested by Ngai-Ling Sum and Bob Jessop (2013), specific entry-points and standpoints are adopted by the newspapers so that when readers are participating in the meaning-making processes around climate change, they are repeating, changing, adding to, and simplifying the discourse. The message becomes abridged and invokes the most important or scandalous things; for example, “Don’t eat red meat” or “Our blueberries disappear.”

In this example, repeating complex messages means a return to what has already been stated, which is simplified while passing it on. Given this, different possibilities must be displayed, which is important for how various forms of linguistic resistance inform current discourses. First of all, a simplified utterance becomes more distinct and entrenched when details disappear, which contributes to the establishing of new truths (Lilja and Baaz 2018). However, the loss of information in the simplification process confuses the discourse and transforms it, while also loading it with new meaning.

Second, when a message gets reduced too much, or becomes too simple, streamlined, or ordinary, the reader might lose interest and the message is read in a reluctant way. Complex statements that have not been expressed before are sometimes better received by the listener than simple and dense messages. In these cases, the listener has to concentrate on the new message, which slows down the interpretation or decoding process, and makes the receiver concentrate more on the message. Tsur (2012) calls this “delayed categorization,” and here he comes close to the main points of Daniel Kahneman (2011), who states that two patterns can illustrate how we think. The first system refers to when we sometimes read things in a fast, shallow, and intuitive way, which, in some senses, prevents us from embracing the complexity of reality. The other, however, is when we think more slowly, deliberately, and logically. This slow thinking, which embraces complexity, sharpens our judgments and decisions (Kahneman 2011).

The above implies that repetitions of political messages should preferably be done in a way that is simple—in order to strengthen the positive discourse—but still in a way that embraces complexity. Linguistic resistance must, thus, balance the messages between the dense and the complex in order to have an impact and produce counter-discourses as a form of constructive resistance.

Twisting the Cause-and-Effect Linkages

Above, two patterns of repetitions have been discussed, which impact upon processes of signification and how discourses are perceived and unfold. It has also been discussed that producing discourses, by repeating, could, when related to power, be understood as a constructive form of resistance that produces new understandings and realities. In this section, another way of reiterating “repeats” is suggested. As Edkins (1999, 2003) argues, there is a fluid relationship between the real and the symbolic that enables us to twist our interpretations of the interpreted. Edkins exemplifies this with the word “famine.” According to Edkins, this name—famine—appears as a signifier connoting a cluster of supposedly effective properties—“general and widespread shortages of food, leading to widespread death by starvation” (Edkins 1999, 99). Thus, when interpreting and mapping the “world out there” we label these occurrences as “famine.” Or in other words, when we observe widespread death by starvation that is caused by shortages of food, we categories it and label it as famine. However, in the next moment the relationship is inverted. Suddenly we conclude that people are dying because there is a famine. This twist, which slightly changes the discourse, is made possible in the nexus between the real and the symbolic. It is also enabled by the repetition of a concept, which is used in a slightly different way as time goes by. At one moment we are calling and naming objects, figures, or happenings, by referring to the concept through which they are interpreted. In the next moment, however, we repeat the very same object, figure, or happening, but now as the reason for the observed situation.

A similar, but maybe more complex, pattern can be seen when discussing gender. When interpreting bodies that move in everyday life, we tend to label certain bodies; for example, bodies wearing skirts are labeled as “women.” However, in the next moment the storytelling is reversed; women have skirts because they are women. Or in other words, the repetitive and, in some senses, forced “doing” of gender, in Butler’s outline, produces the illusion that an individual has a stable “gender,” which they are just “expressing” in their actions (Butler 1990/1999, 178—79).

The pattern of repeating differently—using the name/category but twisting it from a “label” to a “cause” or “reason”—tends to strengthen our discourses by making “famines” or “women” understood as natural and static phenomena, concepts that could be used to explain the “world out there.” Hall writes: “ ’Naturalization’ is (. . .) a representational strategy designed to fix ’difference’, and thus secure it forever. It is an attempt to halt the inevitable ’slide’ of meaning, to secure discursive or ideological ’closure’ ” (Hall 1997, 245). This means that if power works through processes of normalization then resistance must react to these processes. As stated several times by Foucault (1982), specific forms of power give rise to specific forms of resistance.

Thus, dominant discourses are naturalized and made static as they are twisted. And as we twist our interpretations of the interpreted, this must be resisted in deconstructing ways. Environmental movements, for example, in regard to the perceived issue of climate change, must formulate their resistance so that they repeat against normalizing moves. There are probably different patterns that intersect here, and that must be resisted: Arguing that there is an ongoing process of climate change makes the bad weather logical and understandable. It removes human actions as the source of climate change and takes away the personal responsibilities. It also, in some senses, makes climate change appear as natural and unchangeable. Resistance here becomes a matter of revealing the twisted character of the vocabulary that is used and putting human beings back as the origin of these weather-related disasters.


Political organizations and resistance movements aim to establish certain discourses that work toward increased public awareness of their causes. Departing from this, this chapter has discussed communicative patterns, in general, and the impact of repetitions, in particular. The overall aim has been to unfold, or suggest, three patterns of repetition, which are argued to be of central importance when communicating and establishing truths as a form of resistance. By elaborating on how repetition are important for launching, maintaining, as well as questioning certain truths, the aim of this chapter was mainly constructive; that is, the spotlight is directed toward recommendations of how we can achieve as much as possible of what is desired, given the circumstances of the world and, specifically, different technologies of repetition.

Overall, the three different kinds of reiterations that are suggested could contribute to creating and maintaining norms and thus create social change. First, one argument promoted in the chapter is that to strengthen or maintain a discourse, it must be repeated in a slightly different way. The first time one hears about climate change, for example, one might become shocked or surprised. But when similar sentence/message (representation) is repeated and read for a second, third, or fourth time, the reader’s understanding of the representation has changed. Now the message is not read with surprise or shock, but is read in a more reluctant way. Thus, in theory, this means that every time a representation is repeated, it is read and understood in a new way, even though it appears to be the same representation that is being repeated. It also implies that after seeing the same representation again and again, we do not listen as carefully and are not as interested as we were when we heard it for the first time. Thus, for example, to maintain an interest in the discourse about climate change, the discourse needs to be constantly added to, altered, or expressed in new ways. One must change a discourse in order to maintain it.

Second, it is argued in the chapter that repetitions create simplifications that strengthen, reduce, as well as add to the discourses. Discourses are established when different norms are reiterated. In the process of repeating, the representations that are repeated sometimes lose their complexity. For every repetition less and less will be included and there is both a simplification and reduction of the message. The simplified discourse, in some senses, becomes more distinct and entrenched when details disappear, or specific entrances chosen, making it easier to establish the discourse. As time passes it gets stronger and simpler. But the loss of information may also be disastrous as it is transformed and its message changed. Complexity is needed in order to motivate the reader to fully pay attention to the message.

Third, to strengthen a discourse, naturalize it, and make it static, another strategy could be to twist it; instead of using a discourse/concept to label and categorize the reality, it could be used, so to speak, to explain—or be the origin of—our empirical observations. This could be a strategy of resistance. However, it is mostly a strategy that is used when dominant discourses are strengthened or naturalized. This is also of interest from the perspective of climate change communication. We observe an increased average global temperature and more frequent extreme weather events, and label them “climate change.” However, thereafter we seem to twist the argumentation inside out, now stating that the increased average global temperature happens because there is an ongoing climate change event. The latter makes the bad weather logical and understandable and must/should be deconstructed by the climate change movement. Resistance must be about repeating against processes of naturalizations.


1. The first version of this chapter was written with Eva Lilja; thank you Eva Lilja for letting me republish this here.


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