Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Compulsion to Repeat

Danny Baker has talked about English fans and experts being "too quick to call an autopsy without a body". It's hard to disagree. But while our patient isn't dead, he is starting to exhibit some very strange symptoms...

The betting market for the next England manager is throwing out some uncannily familiar names. Almost every single one of our past managers is quoted. This isn't new - every time we look for a new manager, we seem to be consumed with nostalgia for one or more previous incumbents. So go on, take a punt on Kevin Keegan at the numerically significant price of 66-1. How about Terry Venables, who's been in the running every time since 1996? Or even... Steve McClaren, who's as short as 20-1 at one place? He seems to be going through levels of hurried reappraisal as quickly as the newspapers can put out new editions.

Why would there be any kind of call for McClaren to retake the job, only two years after he was laughed out of it? It would nice to think that this phenomenon was due to a sincere reappraisal of his worth following his success in the Eredivisie. But the press, who had fun at his expense for so long (how they crowed at his adopted Dutch accent), have never been ones to revise their opinions so quickly. When Twente took their first steps toward the title, it was reported (generally in thumbnail-sized articles in the inside pages) with a kind of detached amazement/amusement, with the implication that the progress said more about the Dutch league than about the manager's skill. The serious reconsideration of McClaren is a phenomenon that only dates back to the trauma of the last week.

The logic being used to build the man up by the same people who relished knocking him down is tortuous. The pundits are spinning a narrative of how quickly he has learned the ropes, and how the England job came 'just a couple of years too soon for him' - but managers don't go from imbecilic to ingenious in the space of twenty-four months. The fact that McClaren and even Kevin Keegan are now considered as serious - albeit outside - candidates to return to the England job calls for some kind of deeper explanation. This isn't just rose-tinted nostalgia - this is the desire for repetition.

We can turn to Freud, who identified one of our most powerful and overriding desires - the compulsion to repeat. We unconsciously re-enact earlier events in an impossible attempt to be able to go back and change them - and we feel compelled to do this even when the experience will be painful and cannot possibly affect the original, traumatic event. Repetition does not even help us deal with the trauma - it simply extends it. Freud could find no self-interested explanation for this behaviour, and reluctantly classed it as one of the few motivations that could override the otherwise dominant pleasure principle. We repeat even we know it will cause us pain.

We want McClaren back in charge because, hey, he's turned out not to be a laughable mug after all, and we aren't sure how a man like that failed with our Golden Generation. We want Terry Venables back in charge because we aren't entirely sure how we failed to win Euro '96, when things seemed to be going so well - surely, if we repeated it all, everything would come good? We want Glenn Hoddle back in charge because we aren't sure when, or how, he lost his good relationship with the players (close to them in age, respected by them for his enduring ability on the training pitch) and became an unpopular laughing stock in the dressing room. Surely it should have ended better? Surely it would end better a second time?

But acting out traumatic events in this way precludes remembering them. The more we become caught up in repetition, the further we get from being able to analyse and learn from the events of the past. English football isn't a corpse on the autopsy table, but it might help to think of it as a patient on a psychiatrist's couch - and re-enacting the past isn't going to help him get over his problems.

"Maybe... just maybe."


  1. "Freud could find no self-interested explanation for this behaviour, and reluctantly classed it as one of the few motivations that could override the otherwise dominant pleasure principle"

    Actually, Freud does not come to the conclusion that the compulsion to repeat is "beyond" the pleasure principle but rather that it is somehow a part of it. This is what leads him to his (in)famous notion of the death drive, which, again, is proposed as somehow – however inexplicable it might seem – a part of the pleasure principle. (The irony of the title of Freud's late masterwork is that he discovers, much to his own surprise, that nothing is beyond the pleasure principle, not even trauma or death.) I say this not as a correction to your insights though but to extend them even further, for surely the point is that the traumatic compulsion to repeat in this instance is also somehow (deathly) pleasurable.

  2. Not at all, Anon, corrections accepted and appreciated. I hope the general direction of the article stands up better than my knowledge of Freud.

    I've thought of another fine example of this - penalty shootouts. Look at our obsession with penalties before each tournament - you get the impression that a win on penalties would satisfy us more than winning in normal play, because it would in some way 'exorcize the ghosts' of past shootout defeats.

    When you see England 'hanging on for penalties' (v Argentina in 98, v Portugal in 06), and the final whistle goes, you can almost feel the team and crowd and commentators relishing the historical echoes. Everyone's thinking 'surely we must win one, sometime?'

    But even if we did win a shootout, it wouldn't exorcise those ghosts - they'd still be there. We managed it against Spain in '96, and that doesn't seem to have cleared the shadow that penalties cast over the England team. Our fatal attraction to penalties serves the same non-helpful purpose as our attraction to Terry Venables.