Mimesis [my-mee-sis] (‘to immitate’) is a critical and philosophical term that carries a wide range of meanings, which include imitation, representation, mimicry, Dionysian imitatio (an influential literary method of imitation, receptivity, nonsensuous similarity, the act of resembling, the act of expression, and the presentation of the self.
In ancient Greece, mimesis was an idea that governed the creation of works of art, in particular, with correspondence to the physical world understood as a model for beauty, truth, and the good. Plato contrasted ‘mimesis,’ or ‘imitation,’ with ‘diegesis,’ or ‘narrative.’ After Plato, the meaning of mimesis eventually shifted toward a specifically literary function in ancient Greek society, and its use has changed and been reinterpreted many times since then.
One of the best-known modern studies of mimesis, understood as a form of realism in the arts, is Erich Auerbach’s ‘Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature.’ Published in 1946 and written while the author was in exile from Nazi Germany, the book opens with a famous comparison between the way the world is represented in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’ and the way it appears in the Bible.
From these two seminal Western texts, Auerbach builds the foundation for a unified theory of representation that spans the entire history of Western literature, including the Modernist novels being written at the time. The Frankfurt school critical theorist T. W. Adorno made use of mimesis as a central philosophical term, interpreting it as a way in which works of art embodied a form of reason that was non-repressive and non-violent.
Both Plato and Aristotle saw in mimesis the representation of nature. In ‘Ion,’ Plato states that poetry is the art of divine madness, or inspiration. Because the poet is subject to this divine madness, it is not his/her function to convey the truth. As Plato has it, truth is the concern of the philosopher only. As culture in those days did not consist in the solitary reading of books, but in the listening to performances, the recitals of orators (and poets), or the acting out by classical actors of tragedy, Plato maintained in his critique that theater was not sufficient in conveying the truth. He was concerned that actors or orators were thus able to persuade an audience by rhetoric rather than by telling the truth.
In ‘Book II’ of ‘The Republic,’ Plato describes Socrates’ dialogue with his pupils. Socrates warns we should not seriously regard poetry as being capable of attaining the truth and that we who listen to poetry should be on our guard against its seductions, since the poet has no place in our idea of God. In developing this in ‘Book X,’ Plato told of Socrates’ metaphor of the three beds: one bed exists as an idea made by God (the Platonic 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. So the artist’s bed is twice removed from the truth. The copiers only touch on a small part of things as they really are, where a bed may appear differently from various points of view, looked at obliquely or directly, or differently again in a mirror.
So painters or poets, though they may paint or describe a carpenter or any other maker of things, know nothing of the carpenter’s (the craftsman’s) art, and though the better painters or poets they are, the more faithfully their works of art will resemble the reality of the carpenter making a bed, nonetheless the imitators will still not attain the truth (of God’s creation). The poets, beginning with Homer, far from improving and educating humanity, do not possess the knowledge of craftsmen and are mere imitators who copy again and again images of virtue and rhapsodize about them, but never reach the truth in the way the superior philosophers do.
Aristotle also defined mimesis as the perfection and imitation of nature. Art is not only imitation but also the use of mathematical ideas and symmetry in the search for the perfect, the timeless, and contrasting being with becoming. Nature is full of change, decay, and cycles, but art can also search for what is everlasting and the first causes of natural phenomena. Aristotle wrote about the idea of four causes in nature. The first formal cause is like a blueprint, or an immortal idea. The second cause is the material, or what a thing is made out of. The third cause is the process and the agent, in which the artist or creator makes the thing.
The fourth cause is the good, or the purpose and end of a thing, known as ‘telos.’ Aristotle’s ‘Poetics’ is often referred to as the counterpart to this Platonic conception of poetry. ‘Poetics’ is his treatise on the subject of mimesis. Aristotle was not against literature as such; he stated that human beings are mimetic beings, feeling an urge to create texts (art) that reflect and represent reality.
Aristotle considered it important that there be a certain distance between the work of art on the one hand and life on the other; we draw knowledge and consolation from tragedies only because they do not happen to us. Without this distance, tragedy could not give rise to catharsis. However, it is equally important that the text causes the audience to identify with the characters and the events in the text, and unless this identification occurs, it does not touch us as an audience. Aristotle holds that it is through ‘simulated representation,’ mimesis, that we respond to the acting on the stage which is conveying to us what the characters feel, so that we may empathize with them in this way through the mimetic form of dramatic roleplay. It is the task of the dramatist to produce the tragic enactment in order to accomplish this empathy by means of what is taking place on stage.
In short, catharsis can only be achieved if we see something that is both recognizable and distant. Aristotle argued that literature is more interesting as a means of learning than history, because history deals with specific facts that have happened, and which are contingent, whereas literature, although sometimes based on history, deals with events that could have taken place or ought to have taken place. Aristotle thought of drama as being ‘an imitation of an action’ and of tragedy as ‘falling from a higher to a lower estate’ and so being removed to a less ideal situation in more tragic circumstances than before. He posited the characters in tragedy as being better than the average human being, and those of comedy as being worse. Michael Davis, a translator and commentator of Aristotle writes:
‘At first glance, mimesis seems to be a stylizing of reality in which the ordinary features of our world are brought into focus by a certain exaggeration, the relationship of the imitation to the object it imitates being something like the relationship of dancing to walking. Imitation always involves selecting something from the continuum of experience, thus giving boundaries to what really has no beginning or end. Mimêsis involves a framing of reality that announces that what is contained within the frame is not simply real. Thus the more ‘real’ the imitation the more fraudulent it becomes.’
Mimesis shows, rather than tells, by means of directly represented action that is enacted. Diegesis, however, is the telling of the story by a narrator; the author narrates action indirectly and describes what is in the characters’ minds and emotions. The narrator may speak as a particular character or may be the ‘invisible narrator’ or even the ‘all-knowing narrator’ who speaks from above in the form of commenting on the action or the characters. In ‘Book III,’ Plato examines the style of poetry (the term includes ‘comedy,’ ‘tragedy,’ ‘epic,’ and ‘lyric poetry’). All types narrate events, he argues, but by differing means. He distinguishes between narration or report (diegesis) and imitation or representation (mimesis).
Tragedy and comedy, he goes on to explain, are wholly imitative types; the dithyramb (an ancient Greek hymn sung and danced in honor of Dionysus; the clearest example of poetry in which the poet is the only speaker) is wholly narrative; and their combination is found in epic poetry. When reporting or narrating, ‘the poet is speaking in his own person; he never leads us to suppose that he is any one else’; when imitating, the poet produces an ‘assimilation of himself to another, either by the use of voice or gesture.’ In dramatic texts, the poet never speaks directly; in narrative texts, the poet speaks as himself or herself.
In his ‘Poetics,’ Aristotle argues that kinds of poetry may be differentiated in three ways: according to their medium, according to their objects, and according to their mode or manner; ‘For the medium being the same, and the objects the same, the poet may imitate by narration—in which case he can either take another personality, as Homer does, or speak in his own person, unchanged—or he may present all his characters as living and moving before us.’ Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato’s and Aristotle’s formulations; one represents, the other reports; one embodies, the other narrates; one transforms, the other indicates; one knows only a continuous present, the other looks back on a past.
In ludology (game theory), mimesis is sometimes used to refer to the self-consistency of a represented world, and the availability of in-game rationalizations for elements of the gameplay. In this context, mimesis has an associated grade: highly self-consistent worlds that provide explanations for their puzzles and game mechanics are said to display a higher degree of mimesis.
Dionysian imitatio is the literary method of imitation as formulated by Greek author Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the 1st century BCE. It is a tool of rhetoric: emulating, adaptating, reworking and enriching a source text by an earlier author. Dionysius’ concept marked a significant depart from the concept of mimesis formulated by Aristotle’s in the 4th century BCE, which was only concerned with ‘imitation of nature’ instead of the ‘imitation of other authors.’ Latin orators and rhetoricians adopted the literary method of Dionysius’ imitatio and discarded Aristotle’s mimesis.
Mimesis, or imitation, as he referred to it, was a crucial concept for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s theory of the imagination. Coleridge begins his thoughts on imitation and poetry from Plato, Aristotle, and Philip Sidney, adopting their concept of imitation of nature instead of other writers. His significant departure from the earlier thinkers lies in his arguing that art does not reveal a unity of essence through its ability to achieve sameness with nature. Coleridge claims:
‘[T]he composition of a poem is among the imitative arts; and that imitation, as opposed to copying, consists either in the interfusion of the SAME throughout the radically DIFFERENT, or the different throughout a base radically the same.’ Here, Coleridge opposes imitation to copying, the latter referring to William Wordsworth’s notion that poetry should duplicate nature by capturing actual speech. Coleridge instead argues that the unity of essence is revealed precisely through different materialities and media. Imitation, therefore, reveals the sameness of processes in nature.
The Belgian feminist Luce Irigaray used the term to describe a form of resistance where women imperfectly imitate stereotypes about themselves so as to show up these stereotypes and undermine them.
In ‘Mimesis and Alterity’ (1993), the anthropologist Michael Taussig examines the way that people from one culture adopt another’s nature and culture (the process of mimesis) at the same time as distancing themselves from it (the process of ‘alterity’). The Cuna have adopted a set of wooden figurines for magical ritual that look remarkably like white colonists, to the point of sometimes being recognizable as figures from history that traveled through those parts. If you asked one of the Cuna about the figurines, he would likely deny all connection between the two, creating an epistemic dilemma where something that may appear obvious to anthropologists is anything but obvious to those they study.
Another noteworthy peculiarity of Cuna culture that Taussig mentions is the way in which the Cuna have adopted, in their traditional art, images from western pop culture, including a distorted reflection of the Jack Daniel’s bottle, and also a popular iconic image from the early twentieth century, The Talking Dog, used in advertising gramophones.
Taussig criticizes anthropology for reducing the Cuna culture to one in which the Cuna had simply come across the white colonists in the past, were impressed by their large ships and exotic technologies, and mistook them for Gods. For Taussig, this very reduction of the Other is suspect in itself, and through ‘Mimesis and Alterity,’ he argues from both sides, demonstrating why exactly anthropologists have come to reduce the Cuna culture in this way, and the value of this perspective, at the same time as defending the independence of lived culture from Anthropological reductionism.