What is Mimesis and Why Does it Matter?

What is Mimesis and Why Does it Matter?

Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space

What is Mimesis and Why Does it Matter?

The Intrusion of Gaia

Bruno Latour begins his book Facing Gaia by telling us that although we have known for thirty years we are facing an “ecological crisis,” we have remained “astonishingly calm” about it. Even the word “crisis”, he writes, implies that it is something that will “soon be behind us.” Even the word “ecological” he suggests, keeps reality at a distance, as if seen “through the shelter of bay windows”.

Since Latour’s book was written in 2018, there has been a growing awareness of the climate and ecological crisis in the West. But the vast majority of the public, led by governments and the media, still remain apparently oblivious. Given that we are the most adaptive of all creatures, it does seem extraordinary in the face of ever-escalating fires, floods, droughts, sea level rise, and dramatic extinction of species on a global scale, that we have still not reached the point where we have come to realise that “the intrusion of Gaia”, as Latour characterises our times, should not be seen as an ecological crisis, but as “a profound mutation in our relationship to the world.”

Introducing Mimesis

So, what is mimesis and what does it have to do with this predicament?

Mimesis, according to a definition by the writer Mike Mowbray, (the dictionary’s definition being surprisingly insufficient), refers to the human inclination to mimic or to imitate, to produce symbolic forms, representations, and artefacts that both mirror and transform their objects. Mimesis might sound like an elusive concept, but it is fundamental to life. By that I don’t just mean human life, but nature as well, (as if they are any different!) Animals for example, mimic behaviour. Think of the sophisticated language of whales, passed down through generations that carries over hundreds of miles. Both plants and creatures adapt themselves to the environment. Think of the bee orchid that disguises itself as a bee to attract pollination. Think of the chameleon that skilfully camouflages itself to its surroundings.

Mimesis as a human cultural concept first appeared with Plato, who spoke of mimesis as imitation. For Plato, all artistic creation was at best an imitation, at worst a corruption of the ideal form. But for Aristotle, in a significant revisioning, mimesis was an active aesthetic process in how we interpret reality.

Mimesis functions in culture in different ways. Cultural artifacts and traditions are passed down through language, dance, music, art, ritual, and literature; forms that are both copied and repeated but also evolve and develop into new interpretations over time. These cultural artifacts demonstrate mimesis in their attempt to “re-present” the human experience. But there have also been articulations of mimesis in fields as diverse as literary theory, psychology, social theory, and evolutionary biology.

Further Exponents of Mimetic Theory

Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno of the Frankfurt School, saw mimesis as having a creative and interactive function, fundamental to human experience. As Benjamin wrote, “Nature produces similarities. One need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is Man’s.”

Young animals and children both imitate their parents as a way of learning how to be, and in the case of humans, find their identity; how to fit into their family, and later their tribe. See memes here. As Theodor Adorno comments, “the human is indissolubly linked with imitation: a human being becomes human at all by imitating other human beings.”

In the French philosopher René Girard’s mimetic theory, a central part of the psychological faculty of mimesis is our compulsion to literally “become the Other.” In human development, this can of course be problematic. For example, when a young child is compelled to copy destructive aspects of their parents’ behaviour, which they almost inevitably will do, until they are old enough to consider whether this is something they want to do. Even then, it might be difficult to create new pathways of behaviour that break the pattern. Think here of young men’s compulsion to imitate or ‘become’ Andrew Tate.

A central part of Girard’s theory of mimesis is that what we desire, we learn or copy from others. If we can’t get what we desire, this leads to conflict and violence, the creation of scapegoats, and the perception of the other as the source of conflict. Countless examples of this phenomenon are happening right now in different parts of the world, as well as of mimetic adherence to an individual or an ideology, and its often world-shattering results.

There is obviously a great deal of truth to Girard’s theory. But its absolutism and narrow parameters tend toward a depressingly determinist view of human nature, and of mimesis itself. For instance, Girard writes, “Mimeticism is the original source of all man’s troubles.”

Mimesis: An Anathema to Rationality?

The whole notion of imitation is of course an anathema to the rationality and secularisation of the European Enlightenment, and the scientific drive to objectify nature. The academician Patrick Ladwig believes Plato’s view of mimesis as mere imitation, may well have influenced its negative perception in the European Enlightenment.

But for Walter Benjamin, mimesis is not imitation. And this is where it gets interesting. “Mimetic behaviour does not imitate something but assimilates itself to something.” And as Neil Leach observes, it “allows for an identification with the external world. It facilitates the possibility of forging a link between self and other. It becomes a way of empathising with the world.”

Through the industrial and post-industrial eras, we are gradually losing touch with this bio-semiotic capacity for relational development and creative meaning making in the faculty of mimesis. In pre-industrial societies, meaning making developed through the imitation and assimilation of cultural signs and artifacts through reciprocal relationship, pattern, and repetition.

No doubt, as Girard has commented on extensively, there is a dangerous potential in mimesis that was played out in some rituals and other forms in pre-modern cultures. But mimesis has never been simply a pre-rational process. To a far greater extent it has been one in which mimesis and rationality, as Adorno recognises in his Aesthetic Theory, although “irreconcilable”, work in a complimentary nexus. In pre-modern societies particularly, because there was no effective split between subject and object, it was as Neil Leach suggests, “knowledge-as-sensuous-correspondence” versus the “knowledge-as-quantification” of the Enlightenment.

Colonialism and Counterfeit Mimesis

There is a world of difference between this form of bio-semiotic, “knowledge-as-sensuous-correspondence” and the kind of imitation inherent to the experience of the colonised in colonialism. In a recent video we shared on 3rd Space, Indian former journalist Venkatesh Rajan, spoke of how stifled India’s imagination has become as a result of colonialism and the countries virtual wholesale imitation of the West in all its civic, economic, governmental structures, and public discourse. As he put it, “When you keep imitating, something in you dies”.

But as some scholars have suggested this is a ‘counterfeit’ imitation, in contrast to the faculty of mimesis described by Adorno, because it is at the expense of the individual’s or the country’s original authority. In Indian traditional culture, mimesis was an integral part of the process of cultural continuity, made up of assimilating forms and patterns that were continually re-interpreted over millennia.

Another example of counterfeit imitation is the one that takes place through cultural appropriation of indigenous traditions, where what is imitated is not deeply assimilated as part of a creative process, but instead remains a superficial adornment, bereft of original meaning.

The Consequences of Modern Culture

This corruption of the faculty of mimesis has become an integral part of the hollowing out of western post-industrial society, as we have become steadily unmoored from nature’s relational semiotics and embedded in the monetization and commodification of culture. This began with a vengeance in the mid 20th century. The video series, Century of the Self, brilliantly deconstructs the birth of consumer culture, and how Sigmund Freud’s nephew, Edward Bernays, utilising his uncle’s understanding of mimetic desire, convinced the public to want and covet things they didn’t already have, or previously would have thought they needed.

As Michael Taussig writes while quoting from Adorno, “this born-again mimetic faculty of modernity has affinity with ‘the earliest period of childhood prior to the ego having taken a definitive shape.’” To explain, mimesis is a natural and inherent part of children’s development, but when this is extended into adulthood without the balance of individuation and self-authorship, mimesis’s integral function in human development becomes distorted. This begins to explain something of the roots of our sleepwalking into the greatest crisis humanity has ever faced.

Fast forward to the 21st century and this corruption of mimesis has reached systemic levels in the West, where the entire social and economic order is now based on an insatiable desire to purchase goods and services. This has resulted in unbridled consumerism, incentivised social media, a deeply centralised state, and the subversive influence of powerful interest groups.

As explained by Sarah Stein Lubrano, the French theorist Jean Baudrillard, sees us as living inside a whole system of signifiers such as the stock market, which rather than acting as relational correspondence with the living world, are instead a stand-in for the real thing, “untethered from any wider reality”. This leaves us abstracted from the living tissue of the world while allowing it to disintegrate around us.

A Mutation in our Relationship to the World

Ultimately, our predicament has to do with the nature of power itself, in a global system that relies for its continuance on our false mimesis. Science can give us the facts about the global crisis, but it cannot help us think for ourselves. Instead of blindly following the dictates and vested interests of the state, what is needed is the willingness to exercise our agency and unique adaptive capacity as human beings to make sense of and act judiciously in an increasingly complex world, teetering on the brink.

This is something that Nate Hagens and Daniel Schmachtenberger elaborate on to great effect in their video series, Bend Not Break. In laying out the reality of the global catastrophic risks we face and how to meet them, on the level of pragmatics, I think Daniel Schmachtenberger is right, we do need some form of global governance, one with checks and balances that insure it doesn’t become either corrupt or dystopic.

But if Latour is right that the intrusion of Gaia is not merely an ecological crisis, but a mutation in our relationship to the world, then empiricism alone, however essential, is never going to be enough, or necessarily even the way to get there. Maybe what is needed is all already here. Above all, it is about finding the ways and means to reconnect, value, and discover a sense of responsibility to each other and all others in the biosphere.

It is understandable to think of mimesis in its current degenerate state as the antithesis of the agency and self-determination we need to awaken ourselves to the tasks ahead. Yet, mimesis itself doesn’t eschew rationality. It simply functions in an altogether other sphere; a critical part of a system of signalling and reciprocity built into our biology and the biosphere itself, that enables correspondence and empathic resonance with the other. As such, it enhances our developmental, imaginative, and creative capacities in relationship to the living world, in ways we would do well to consider how to recover and allow the opportunity to flower once more.

The header photo is of the famous French mimic, Marcel Marceau.


Bruno Latour: Facing Gaia – Eight Lectures on the New Climate Regime

Mike Mowbray: Mimetic Faculty from Sixth Sense

Walter Benjamin: On the Mimetic Faculty

Theodor Adorno: Aesthetic Theory

René Girard: Mimesis and Violence

Patrick Latwig: Mimetic Theories, Representation, and “Savages:” Critiques of the Enlightenment and Modernity Through the Lens of Primitive Mimesis

Neil Leach: Mimesis from Walter Benjamin and Architecture

Venkatesh Rajan: A Value System is not a Personal Opinion (video)

Adam Curtis: Century of the Self (film)

Michael Taussig: Mimesis and Alterity – A Particular History of the Senses

Sarah Stein Lubrano: Beyond The Matrix: Today’s Hyper-fictional Hyperreality and Synecdoche New York

Nate Hagens with Daniel Schmachtenberger: Bend Not Break (video)

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Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space
Picture of Steve Brett

Steve Brett

Co-founder of 3rd Space