MIMESIS Munich Doctoral Program for Literature and the Arts

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Area C: Mimesis and Alterity, Authority and Production

Area C.1: Mimesis and Alterity

Mimesis is predicated and proceeds on difference. Without some notion of a gap between the self and the other, alter and ego, mimetic operations would neither work nor make much sense. But whenever such a gap is felt or noted to exist, the mimetic faculties serve as basic ways to address alterity, striving to approach or grasp, behold or ban it by symbolic means.

Mimesis and alterity are crucial, for example, in the continual reconstitution of the natural. If nature is regarded as primary and given, then all mimetic engagements with it must be considered secondary and non-natural. For this reason, however, they are the crucial condition to determine, distinguish and define what should be seen as ‘nature’ in the first place. This distinction is central in sex/gender theories where critical accounts of “the second sex” (de Beauvoir), or “the sex that is not one” (Irigaray) have radically re-evaluated the mimetic to account for the formation of sexed bodies through travesty and imitative iteration (Butler). In related terms, a similar scenario has been played out in the history of wonder and travel, with its phantasm of first encounter and the primitive, in some cases (such as America) promoting visions of perennial paradise where everything is always new and at the same time echoed and where bourgeois fables of original self-creation (such as Robinson Crusoe’s) are given local habitation and a name as mimetic makings.

Area C.2: Mimesis and Authority

Mimesis is an act that matters. The theory and practice of mimetic engagements amply show how such copies may not only draw on, but actually take on the power of the copied, thereby rendering mimesis a form of possession. Issues of authority are therefore central in this field, connecting ethics and aesthetics. Clearly, all notions of originality depend on practices of replicating, representing and repeating what is posited as such, so as to demonstrate singularity by means of doubling its features. Mimetic acts both forge and exert this kind of agency by which authority establishes itself and has its own position at the same time undermined, when imitative affiliations and peripheries continue to haunt the centre.

One aspect of the topic of mimesis and authority is the idea that all history is, in fact, history of mimetic struggle. Related to this idea is the conception of cultural memory as vital interaction between acts of mimesis and programmatic acts of cultural erasure or oblivion. Another but much less well understood aspect of the authoritative power of mimesis concerns its normative force in the history of cross-cultural contacts, where the attribution or non-attribution of mimetic functions has frequently contributed to a marginalization of non-European arts forms and practices.

Area C.3: Mimesis and Production

The challenge is to think mimesis not just as a reproductive but as a productive principle. Just as translation – a thoroughly mimetic venture – cannot simply be described as derivation, mimetic acts must be acknowledged in their proactive, projective and productive power.

This holds especially in periods and places where literature and the arts are proclaimed to emancipate themselves from policies of mirroring or rule-abiding copying in favour of alternative agendas such as, in the romantic age, “expression”. In the last analysis, the production of artworks, their enigmatic point or process of originating and of bringing forth a thing that has not been in the world before, has eluded observation and is, instead, accounted for by a telling repertoire of metaphors: ‘gestation’, ‘growth’ and other notions drawn from nature or, alternatively, ‘inspiration’, god-like ‘creation’ and such notions drawn from metaphysics, and many others. What they all share is the attempt to imagine the opaque act of art production and, in the absence of viable conceptual structures, provisionally make it part of a discursive domain. Mimetic models of production open up towards the future, because they suggest some ways for cultures, not just to imagine their own genesis, but also their regeneration and renewal.