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by Mike Mowbray

The ‘mimetic faculty’ is an elusive concept, foregrounding a human inclination to mimic or to imitate, to produce symbolic forms, representations and artefacts that mirror and also perhaps transform their objects. In essence, the notion may be described as referring to a capacity to produce and to recognize similarity. Although it is difficult to identify any essential origin or core that is preeminent and enduring in the cultural and intellectual history of the concept, it is possible to reach back to Greek antiquity for a pre-platonic root of the term mimesis. The term, derived from the word ‘mimos’, meaning mime or mimic, then (as now) revolved around questions of imitation, representation, and expression. The root term makes some of its earliest recorded appearances, for example in the Delian hymn or in a fragment from the philosopher Aeschylus (c. 525-456BC), in the context of music and dance – prompting some scholars to fix an early meaning in reference to acts of representation through dance. This view is disputed, however, as others refuse such a narrow definition, even in this early context (Gebauer and Wulf 1995: 6, 25-30). Gerald Else, for example, suggests three possible implications associated with the term ‘mimesis’:

1. ‘Miming’: direct representation of the looks, actions and/or utterances of animals or men through speech, song or dancing…

2. ‘Imitation’ of the actions of one person by another, in a general sense…

3. ‘Replication’: an image or effigy of a person or thing in material form (cited in Gebauer and Wulf 1995: 28).

  In Doric Sicily, words from this family were associated with theatrical mime, a tradition of performance consisting either of individual recitations or dramatic productions which tended to simplify or caricature everyday life (ibid: 28-29). A double-meaning appears to have existed around the 5th century BCE, whereby the verb mimos could designate a) a type of patterned action implying artistic expression (i.e. performace of ‘mimos,’ a type of play, or b) behaviour similar to that of a mime (i.e. behaviour like that performed in the play called ‘mimos’). Over time, the second meaning gained currency at the expense of the first, coming to include within the range of its connotations the act of “representing something animate and concrete with characteristics of other phenomena” (ibid: 29).

Mimos, or mimesis, may be said to generate impure, adulterated, or creatively inflected representations, or imitations, which exaggerate or project qualities that are nonetheless essentially similar between the object and its representation through mimetic endeavour. Such a view finds echoes in Aristotle, who concerned himself mainly with mimesis’ role in image-production and literary creation. For Aristotle, such processes have a tendency to simultaneously produce the possible and the general, to give rise to the literary fable or plot, to render their objects as fiction (as adulterated or creatively-inflected representation) in which only a mediated reference to ‘objective’ reality persists. In so doing, mimesis is a “process of re-creation,” which introduces “embellishment, improvement and the generalization of individual qualities” (ibid: 26). In contradistinction to Plato’s concern that mimetic endeavors pose a danger of giving rise to a world of appearances or illusory images,1 which could erode adherence to the strictly conceptual models (or Ideas) that he saw as a preferred basis for social ordering and education, the view which arises in Aristotle appears to give license to the positive and creative potentiality of a human capacity for mimesis.

The term ‘mimesis’ has, since its apparently contentious and variably interpreted origins, puzzled and been picked up on by a variety of thinkers: Erich Auerbach in literary theory (assessing the possibilities for literary realism), the French social theorist Roger Caillois (who saw a seemingly instinctual mimetic impulse, exceeding evolutionary necessity, ranging from the realm of insects to that of both ‘primitive’ and ‘modern’ societies), Frankfurt School iconoclasts Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer (who saw mimesis as an adaptive capacity predicated on a weak separation between subject and object, a primordial basis for reason which is denied and repressed in modernity) and the philosopher Jacques Derrida (interested in questions of similarity and difference in textual representation) are only a handful of the most prominent such figures in the 20th century alone. In the Western tradition, rhetorical or behavioral imitation, theatricality and artistic realism all remain associated with the term, though such a list can barely contain the ‘thematic complex’ (Gebauer and Wulf 1995) which emerges in any examination of the ways in which mimesis has been conceptualized and employed (for a critical view of the historical development of the concept, see Gebauer and Wulf 1995 and Potolsky 2006).

A key 20th century intervention is that of the German critical theorist Walter Benjamin. Although others, from Aeschylus to Auerbach and beyond, have addressed the subject of mimesis, Benjamin focused attention specifically on a posited ‘faculty’ of mimesis, the mimetic faculty. Benjamin’s thinking on the notion of the mimetic faculty is presented in the succinct (posthumously published) essay “On the Mimetic Faculty” (1999/1933), itself a revision of an earlier fragment, titled “Doctrine of the Similar,” which was composed the same year (Rabinbach 1979: 60). The revised essay begins with a strong claim for the scope and significance of the posited faculty. As Benjamin puts it:

Nature produces similarities; one need only think of mimicry. The highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s. His gift for seeing similarity is nothing but a rudiment of the once powerful compulsion to become similar and to behave mimetically. There is perhaps not a single one of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role (Benjamin 1999/1933: 720).

For Benjamin, the mimetic faculty is historically dynamic; he mentions historical change in both “mimetic powers” and ”mimetic objects” – in the ability to produce and to recognize similarities. “[T]he perceptual world of modern man contains,” he writes, “only minimal residues of the magical correspondences and analogies that were familiar to ancient peoples” (ibid: 721) Such correspondences (that is, the perceived, felt and culturally relevant mutual connections which cast human and nature, self and other as part of an intimate and causally interrelated cosmological whole) are highlighted in mimetic production through dance (its “oldest function”) or in occult practices, “entrails, the stars,” magic, which sought – and produced – a mystical connection between macrocosm and microcosm, individuals and objects. The basic human impulse to such production is illustrated in children, who play  “not only at being a shopkeeper or a teacher, but a windmill or a train” (ibid: 720). With regard to its historic transformation, Benjamin suggests that the mimetic faculty is subject to “increasingly fragility” in light of its displacement or permutation into the spoken and written forms of language.

Rather than the ‘sensuous similarity’ (which Benjamin still holds to provide an original basis of language formation, through something crudely akin to onomatopoetic utterances) of ‘primitive’ mimesis, a world dominated by linguistic representations and correspondences increasingly dwells in ‘non-sensuous similarities,’ such as (in his example) that which may be said to exist between a written word and its signified. But rather than simply being a system of arbitrary signs (as proposed by Ferdinand de Saussure), Benjamin suggests that language represents an increasingly disenchanted and codified extrusion of mimetic production. Moving from the mystical or occult realm of microcosm and macrocosm, where astrology both affects and reflects earthly human affairs and where incantations are forms of action, through the intermediary stage of runes or hieroglyphs, towards its contemporary form, “language may be seen as the highest level of mimetic behavior and the most complete archive of non-sensuous similarity: a medium into which earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue, to the point where they have liquidated those of magic” (ibid: 722).

Taking up Benjamin’s ideas (and those of fellow Frankfurt School theorists Adorno and Horkheimer) sixty years later, Michael Taussig, in Mimesis and Alterity (1993), re-articulates the idea of that “famous ‘sixth sense’ […] a formidable mimetic faculty, the basis for judging similitude” (Taussig 1993: 213). This faculty, Taussig suggests, is “the nature that culture uses to create second nature” (ibid: xiii), implying an undecided space between the role of “sensuous” and “non-sensuous similarity” (and a ‘natural,’ pre-linguistic ‘sense’ which furnishes the bases upon which humans generate and discern resemblance or correspondence) in human experience and cultural systems. In essence, his project seeks avenues of recovery and possibility for aspects of the “powers of mimetic production and comprehension” which Benjamin sees as having been effectively “liquidated” (Benjamin 1999/1933: 722). Against the distance (and disvalue) imposed by historical developments that have overemphasized the representational primacy of language and Enlightenment rationality, he insists that symbols matter, that the human capacity for image-based, sensuous communication provides an alternate (and valuable) means of apprehending and acting upon the world.

Taussig concurs with earlier critical theorists’ contention that the onset of modernity has estranged the mimetic powers of contemporary Western subjects. At one point, he cites Adorno and Horkheimer’s suggestion that Western capitalist civilization has replaced “mimetic behaviour proper by organized control of mimesis”:

Uncontrolled mimesis is outlawed. The angel with the fiery sword who drove man out of paradise and onto the path of technical progress is the very symbol of that progress. For centuries, the severity with which the rulers prevented their own followers and the subjugated masses from reverting to mimetic modes of existence, starting with the religious prohibition on images, going on to the social banishment of actors and gypsies, and leading finally to the kind of teaching which does not allow children to behave as children, has been the condition of civilization (cited in Taussig 1993: 215, 219).

Against this procession, he presents a vision that is also, at times,2 consonant with some of the ideas of his Frankfurt School predecessors. When Taussig describes mimesis as invoking an “optical tactility, plunging us into the plane where the object world and the visual copy merge” (35), or when he invokes the possibilities of “mimetic excess” (“mimetic self-awareness,” (252, discussed further below), his position resonates with Adorno’s description of the mimetic faculty as enabling what he calls “vital experiences” (lebendige Erfahungen), by which creative artistic production and encounters with its products mobilize mimetic capacities to make it “possible for reality to absorb into itself the utopian promise of art and change itself” (Gebauer and Wulf 1995: 268; see also Gunster 2004).

Taussig invokes previous work on the ‘mimetic faculty’ in light of an analysis of ethnographic material describing the cultural worldview and practices of the Cuna Indians of San Blas, Panama. The latter, he suggests, conceive of “two levels of reality, spiritual and substantial […] seen as distinct yet complementary” (121). Thus, the worldview of the Cuna invokes a kind of “magical mimesis” by which “working on the copy, in this case the ‘spiritual copy’ is meant to effect the ‘original,’ in this case the substantial body” (ibid), as in the case of curative ritual and song in the Cuna tradition. Magical practices, such as the carving and ritual treatment of wooden figurines (which, at least since the 19th century, tend to resemble Europeans) for curative purposes, evoke the notion of “a secret sympathy” between objects and humans described by Frazer (1922: 138), “a kind of mimetic network of reciprocal influence” (Potolsky 2006: 138). Frazer, for his part, characterized such ‘sympathetic magic’ as mere superstition. Yet Taussig finds this aspect of Cuna cosmology doubled in the affective notion of the ‘uncanny’ in Freud (as the “secretly familiar,” a return of the repressed familiarity of the womb) which he evokes alongside the Cuna view of reality as “a façade behind which the spiritual doubles are active” (125) – with the thought-provoking caveat that the Cuna “Origin Histories (equivalent to a thing’s soul/psyche)” (ibid) trace the whole world, rather than the individual self, to such a point of origin.

In his examinations of Cuna ethnography, Taussig notes the practices of appropriation and adaptive (creative or playful) representation of Western images and products in everyday life, in their cosmologies, and materially – for example, in the practice of mola making. The production of mola, elaborate cloth prints on blouses or head coverings, which incorporate all manner of technological artefacts, images from popular culture and trademarks of Western origin in their visual design (suggesting that these “excite the Indian’s imagination” (228)), generated what turned out to be a hot commodity in Western folk art markets – an interesting case of cross-cultural exchange. In a passage evoking a further connection between the cultural practices of the Cuna and their mimetic relations with western commodity-images, Taussig discusses ethnographic accounts of Cuna ritually burning illustrations from trade catalogues and spreading the ashes as a curative. This act “released the soul of the pictures, thus forming,” in the words of one ethnographer, “a vast shopping emporium,” the result of which was that “the evil spirits that were congregating upon a house got so busy looking at all the wonderful things contained in that store that they had no time to spare for [bothering] the sick person” (ibid: 134-135). Thus, the commodities of the West are accorded a special significance (the Cuna ‘kingdom of the dead’ is characterized as replete with Western commodities, the “Indian rich and the white man poor” (133)), but, as Taussig puts it, “[i]t’s as if some perversely nostalgic logic applies wherein the spirit-form can only exist as an active agent through the erasure of its material form” (135). This only serves to foreground the effect by which the “object, be it a commodity or fetish,” (and not just for the Cuna), “spills over its referent and suffuses its component parts with an ineffable radiance” (233).

Taussig goes on to reiterate his definition of “the mimetic faculty” as “the nature that culture uses to create second nature” (233), an echo of a more comprehensive version he employs earlier, which describes it as

the nature that culture uses to create second nature, the faculty to copy, imitate, make models, explore difference, yield into and become Other.  The wonder of mimesis lies in the copy drawing on the character and power of the original, to the point whereby the representation may even assume that character and that power (xiii).

The focus on the commodity (and its image) which often inflects the text, apparent throughout Taussig’s discussion and connecting his concerns with those of Benjamin and Adorno, is especially relevant in reference to the wonderment of Westerners enchanted by the mola, a case where the ‘primitive’ representation of recognizably Western images – case-in-point being the appropriated motif of the ‘talking dog’ image trademarked and made famous by RCA Victor – only further highlights the movement of fashion and novelty inherent in the procession of commodity culture. “What,” Taussig asks, “could better highlight, magnify, and bring out the viscerality hidden in the optical unconscious than the auratic sheen of mimesis and alterity provided by these demure women stitching the West on their chests with the same gesture as they preserve tradition?” (231). At play is the very notion of representation and re-framing across cultural context, the possibility of the West portraying its Other, and in turn being portrayed (and sold to itself) as othered by its Others. As Taussig suggests,

Such interaction created mimetic excess – mimetic self-awareness, mimesis turned on itself, on its colonial endowment, such that now, in our time, mimesis as a natural faculty and mimesis as a historical product turn in on each other as never before […] Selves dissolve into senses and the senses show signs of becoming their own theoreticians as world histories regroup (Taussig 1993: 252-253).

Bringing together both notions of sympathetic magic and the captivation with which Westerners view mola adorned with re-worked representations of images such as the ‘talking dog’ (an image which has its own power in the original, evocative of that which an array of such images may hold over us in excess of their specific content, viewed in detached fashion), Taussig describes an operation which makes the symbolic co-extensive with the material, allowing the action of the former upon the latter. His most basic interest, he writes, is in the “the power of the copy to influence what it is a copy of” (250). Taussig further insists upon the tendency towards a “radical displacement of self” implied by the operations of the mimetic faculty, and sees this radical displacement as potentially positive generative possibility in the present. “Sentience takes us outside of ourselves,” Benjamin writes, and for Taussig, “no proposition could be more fundamental to understanding the visceral bond connecting perceiver to perceived in the operation of mimesis” (1993: 39). This, he concludes, speaks to “[t]he fundamental move of the mimetic faculty taking us bodily into alterity” (ibid: 40).

As one commentator on Taussig’s text summarizes, “The power of the mimetic faculty devolves from its fundamental sensuality: miming something entails contact” (Stoller 1994: 157). This ‘contact,’ however, falls outside of models of perception that cast the senses merely as means of observing a given object. The recognition, as well as the production, of similarity in mimetic endeavors entails a more elemental connection with that which lies outside of the self; albeit historically (and culturally) variable in how it is experienced and deployed, the mimetic faculty is posited as a kind of pre-modern, embodied ‘imagination’ that works against the divide between subject and object and underlies possibilities for understanding and recognition. The appeal to an underlying faculty that renders possible the achievement of any representational act and suggests a more ‘natural,’ visceral component at work is almost endlessly suggestive. It implies, as does the ambiguity that often surrounds the very term ‘mimesis’ from its cultural origins to the diverse treatments it is given by contemporary thinkers, that the play of similarity and difference, imitation and creative action, are somehow both fundamental and fundamentally unclear in their boundaries. The power and fascination that invests image-based, sensuous forms of communication, we may perhaps conclude, lies not, strictly speaking, in any of the five senses recognized by traditional science. Rather, as Taussig suggests, the mimetic faculty may stand for consideration as a kind of “sixth sense” (213).


1.    Indeed, such concerns prompted Plato to suggest a need for limits on mimetic endeavors – as in the case of the guardians of the polis, who were to avoid inessential craft-making, effeminate conduct or the imitation of the sounds of nature. He essentially suggested that they keep their minds on their business, as it were. More broadly, he was concerned to exclude uncontrolled or plural mimetic practices and influences, in favour of those which reinforced functional behaviour and instilled a love of order (Gebauer and Wulf 1995: 6, 25-30). Nonetheless, a remarkable plurality of meanings can be ascribed to mimesis in Plato’s work: “in addition to imitation, representation, and expression, there is also emulation, transformation, the creation of similarity, the production of appearances, and illusion” (ibid: 25).

2. For a view critical of Taussig’s deployment of Benjamin and Adorno, see Jay 1993.

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. 1979. “Doctrine of the Similar.” New German Critique 17: 65-68.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999. “On the Mimetic Faculty,” in Selected Writings, 1926-1934,

translated by Rodney Livingstone and Others, edited by Michael W. Jennings,  Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Gebauer, Gunter and Christoph Wulf. 1995. Mimesis: Culture, Art, Society, translated

by Don Reneau. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gunster, Shane. 2004. Capitalizing on Culture: Critical Theory for Cultural Studies.

Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Jay, Martin. 1993. “Unsympathetic Magic.” Visual Anthropology Review 9(2): 79-82.

Polotsky, Matthew. 2006. Mimesis. New York: Routledge.

Stoller, Paul. 1994. “Double Takes: Paul Stoller on Jay on Taussig.” Visual

Anthropology Review 10(1): 155-162.

Taussig, Michael. 1993. Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses. New

York: Routledge.

Rabinbach, Anson. 1979. “Introduction to Walter Benjamin’s ‘Doctrine of the

Similar.” New German Critique 17: 60-64.