Mime-esis: Benjamin and Beyond

Nature creates similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else. Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.

—Walter Benjamin, “On the Mimetic Faculty,” Reflections (333)

For Benjamin, mimesis is adaptive: it is how we interact with things in the world via acculturation, affinity and reciprocity. (For Adorno, on the other hand, it is assimilatory: it is how we conform with the culture industry’s images of us.) It is the Ur-drive of creativity. It combines semblance [Schein] and play [Spiel], to both re-present and re-produce something, i.e., to make it appear and to make it emotionally and sensorially real.

———

Mimesis is from Gk mimesis (μίμησις) “imitation,” from mimeisthai (μιμεîσθαι) “to imitate,” which original meaning persists in our words “mime,” “mimic” and, less directly, “image” and related words like “imagine” and “emulate” (via L. imitari), Richard Dawkins’ “meme,” the plant mimosa, because the leaves of some species (including the common Sensitive Plant) fold when touched, seeming to mimic animal behavior.

Jan Van Eyck, The Arnolfini Marriage (1434)

Though a reductio ad absurdum of orders of representation is possible, in practice, representation can be reduced to two orders . . .

Mimicry (presentation)—mimesis (representation [first-order])—metamimesis (representation of a representation [second-order])

  • mimicry:
    • “the action, practice, or art of mimicking or closely imitating … the manner, gesture, speech, or mode of actions and persons, or the superficial characteristics of a thing” (atextuality)
    • identical similarity to the other
    • empathy
    • pure intention, a.k.a. extension (to-and-fro)
    • examples: echolalia and -praxia
    • cf. cryptomnesia
  • mimesis:
    • “a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated” (OED), “figure of speech” being the operative phrase (textuality/mediation)
    • nonidentical similarity to the other
    • observation
    • singly mediated intention (to-and-fro through a medium)
    • examples: aleatory art, automatism, documentary photography, photorealism, trompe l’œil, etc.
    • cf. unironic plagiarism
  • metamimesis:
    • artworks that represent or include other artworks (intertextuality/intermediation), or comment on authorship or representation, those where the medium is explicitly part of the message (metatextuality/metamediation)
    • nonidentical similarity to another similarity
    • irony
    • doubly mediated intention (to-and-fro through a medium and another representation or with a representation)
    • examples: allegory, double portrait (like The Arnolfini Marriage), ecphrasis (art describing other art), parody, pastiche (cut-and-paste), self-referential art (like The Treachery of Images), etc.
    • cf. ironic plagiarism

Rene Magritte, La Trahison des Images [The Treachery of Images] (1928-29) [see Michel Foucault, This is not a Pipe (1983)]

It could be argued that all art that is metamimetic because it follows certain representational procedures, i.e., mediating technologies and techniques, that are part of the representation.

N.B. These forms of mimesis are relatively other-directed and involve resemblance of some sort; in nature, mimesis is mainly self-directed, i.e., organisms can defend themselves by dissembling or crypsis (though there is aggressive mimesis), which takes three forms:

  1. camouflage: an organism mimics an object in its environment to conceal itself, e.g., a moth camouflages itself against, i.e., has evolved a similar colouration to, the tree-bark it inhabits;
  2. mimesis: a species mimics a specific object or organism or part of one, but one to which the dupe is indifferent, e.g., a stick-insect “imitates,” i.e., has evolved to resemble, a twig;
  3. mimicry: an organism mimics another organism that is unpalatable or threatening to the dupe, e.g., a palatable butterfly mimics an unpalatable one.

Shklovsky’s theory of priem ostranenie (“defamiliarisation”; cf. Brecht’s alienation effect [Verfremdungseffekt]) as the essence of art, might well be the equivalent in literature of aggressive mimicry in nature, e.g., a predator mimics a harmless object or organism, e.g., a snapping turtle’s tongue is disguised as a worm to lure fish.

———

Talk of mimesis, as the word suggests, goes back to the mimetic theories of the Greeks (surprise!) . . .

Aristotle’s rhetorical triangle (of ethos, logos and pathos, moving clockwise) reinterpreted

  • Plato: in Book X of the Republic, Plato describes mimesis metaphysically—and pejoratively—in terms of Socrates’ metaphor of the three beds: one bed exists as an idea made by God (the Platonic Idea/ideal); one is made by the carpenter in imitation of God’s Idea; one is made by the artist in imitation of the carpenter’s. The artist never gets at truth (the Idea of the bed). Mimesis is thus deceptive, which for Plato indicates that human beings are essentially ignorant beings. In Book III, he also uses the term to describe the way a “poet” impersonates the person speaking in direct speech. (Note that Plato’s primary theory of poetry is not mimetic but expressive: of the furor poeticus for which the poet should be exiled from the polis [see Ion and Republic II].)
  • Aristotle: in the Poetics, Aristotle describes mimesis as the capacity to copy and to beautify nature, for example, in making images (iconopoeia) and making plots (dramaturgy)—the latter involving two orders of representation: of life in the text and of the text in the performance. It beautifies—or universalizes—nature by seeking out and/or capturing its telos (the “end” or “good,” a.k.a. the “fourth” or “final cause”). Mimesis thus produces fiction, which for Aristotle indicates that human beings are essentially mimetic beings. (Note that Aristotle’s theory of tragedy as cathartic mimesis is expressive too.)

Both Plato and Aristotle also distinguish mimesis (imitation: showing or representation) and diegesis (narration: telling or report). They don’t see diegesis as mimetic because there is a narrator more or less explicitly framing and commenting the action. For Plato, tragic and comic poetry are mimetic, lyric (dithyramb) is diegetic, epic is both; for Aristotle, poetry (art) with an authorial narrator or persona is diegetic, otherwise it’s mimetic.

———

But to return to Benjamin: besides the ontogenetic (developmental) aspect of  mimesis, which is most apparent in mimetic play, there is its phylogenetic (evolutionary) aspect, which goes back to the magical correspondences that could be produced to control natural processes for propitiatory or prophetic ends (such correspondences survive in astrology).

The most suggestive kind of correspondence is “non-sensuous similarity”: a kind of textual—and, perhaps, even metatextual—similarity “not only between the spoken and the signified but also between the written and the signified, and equally between the spoken and the written” (Reflections 335). Onomatopoeia (Gk. “the making of a name or word” in imitation of a sound associated with the thing being named) is the most obvious example of such similarity, but there are others like spells, mantras, systems of divination (omens, sortilege, augury, textual—like bibliomancy—or semiotic—like tasseomancy), etc.

Language, i.e., the human word that communicates things, takes over from magic, i.e., the divine Word that names them (see “On Language as Such and on the Languages of Man,” Reflections 324, 327). It, then, “has thus become . . . an archive of non-sensuous similarities, of non-sensuous correspondences,” a reservoir of the traces left by divine language in the postlapsarian world (Reflections 335).

Cf. Baudelaire’s “Correspondances” (from Fleurs du Mal [1857]):

Nature is a temple where living pillars
Let sometimes emerge confused words;
Man crosses it through forests of symbols
Which watch him with intimate eyes. (23)

———

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature. Princeton: PUP, 1953.

Baudelaire, Charles. Selected Poems of Charles Baudelaire. Trans. Geoffrey Wagner. New York: Grove Press, 1974.

Benjamin, Walter. “Doctrine of the Similar [Die Lehre von Ahnlichkeit].” 1933. Trans. Knut Tarnowski. New German Critique 17 (Spring 1979): 65-69. (See Gesammelte Schriften 2.1 [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977] 204-10.)

—. “On the Mimetic Faculty [Über das mimetische Vermögen].” 1934. Reflections: Essays, Aphorisms, Autobiographical Writings. Ed. Peter Demetz. Trans. Edmund Jephcott. New York: Schocken Books, 1986. 333-36. (See Gesammelte Schriften 2.1 [Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1977] 98-99.)

Bhabha, Homi. “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” October 28, Discipleship: A Special Issue on Psychoanalysis (Spring 1984) 125-33. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994. 85-92. [in short, in full].

Foucault, Michel (with René Magritte). This is not a Pipe. Illus. René Magritte. Ed. and trans. James Harkness. Berkeley; Los Angeles: U California P, 1982.

Puetz, Michelle. “mimesis [sic].” The University of Chicago: Theories of Media: Keywords Glossary. Winter 2002.

Taussig, Michael.  Mimesis and Alterity.  New York: Routledge, 1993.

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