Book: Mimesis: culture – art – society by Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf

Whereas the word has its ancient Greek roots in ‘mime’ and is related to ‘mimicry’, mimesis is not mere imitation. As this book shows, there is enough meaning in the term to have kept philosophers chewing it over for the last two millennia.

But the discussion remains vital because the stakes are high. Facts, Gebauer and Wulf recall (via Nelson Goodman and later Mary Douglas,) have no autonomous existence and depend on people for their presentation. And it is the presentation of facts which brings into being the worlds we inhabit. The presentation of this artefactual reality, in which people work, vote, and go to war, cannot be neutral and so, whether they know it or not, all those who make descriptions or representations are working with agendas.

The authors discuss a range of philosophers –  from the ancient world to the postmodern academy – and mimesis emerges as a confusing word to conjure with. It is perhaps fitting that in one of its recent resting points, within the writings of Jacques Derrida, the term is compared with the hymen, with différence, the supplement, the pharmakon, and all the many slippery quasi concepts which offer a way in to understanding deconstruction.

More helpful for my research is the discussion of Walter Benjamin. The authors find that his notion of aura is diminished as mimesis gives way to language. The aura of an artwork stems from a magical mimetic relation of image and world, but it is language which slowly petrifies our relation to that real world. In the wake of this theory comes the (I think) connected idea that regression is a universal human goal, as people attempt to reconnect with pre-linguistic images and forms.

Theodor Adorno also speaks of mimesis in magical terms, but rather than displaying an anti-auratic excess of language, his magicians use reason to control their production of a work of mimetic art. To speak in a schema, mimicry plus reason equals mimesis. And it is this in turn offers the art work’s audience an aesthetic experience, a vital experience whereby a certain passivity allows the viewer makes themselves similar to the artwork. Or, I might add, aesthetic experience allows the viewer to make the artwork similar to themselves.

By contrast to the artists discussed by these twentieth century Marxists, Gebauer and Wulf draw attention to the seventeenth century Dutch artists who went about capturing reality with minimal interference from reason. Dutch painting of the baroque era is said to be a near transparent medium, bringing an arsenal of optical instruments to bear on imitations of landscapes and still life, perhaps slavishly so. But the characterisation of these descriptive painters from the Lowlands, which holds particular interest for me, is the work of American art historian Svetlana Alpers, and I shall discuss her relevant book on these pages in due course.

Mimesis: culture – art – society appears in a translation by Don Reneau, and is published by the University of California Press (1992).

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