Institute of Para-Enactment Research
Softcore Historicism and Embodied Heritage



The term “mimicry” has been used since the antiquity in relation to the human capacity to imitate. Mimesis is defined as a "a figure of speech, whereby the words or actions of another are imitated" and "the deliberate imitation of the behavior of one group of people by another as a factor in social change" [2].  Mimicry is defined as "the action, practice, or art of mimicking or closely imitating ... the manner, gesture, speech, or mode of actions and persons, or the superficial characteristics of a thing”. Already Plato and Aristoteles defined mimicry as an implicit process in any representation or imitation, and therefore being a substantial term to define art and the artistic practice.  Human beings are born with the mimetic faculty, which allows and predisposes them to imitate other phenomena.

Walter Benjamin stated in relation to mimetic faculty that “(t)he highest capacity for producing similarities, however, is man’s.  His gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else.  Perhaps there is none of his higher functions in which his mimetic faculty does not play a decisive role.”

The following text was published by  Michelle Puetz in the Theories of Media Keywords Glossary of the University of Chicago:

“Michael Taussig's discussion of mimesis in Mimesis and Alterity is centered around Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno's biologically determined model [16], in which mimesis is posited as an adaptive behavior (prior to language) that allows humans to make themselves similar to their surrounding environments through assimilation and play.  Through physical and bodily acts of mimesis (i.e. the chameleon blending in with its environment, a child imitating a windmill, etc.), the distinction between the self and other becomes porous and flexible.  Rather than dominating nature, mimesis as mimicry opens up a tactile experience of the world in which the Cartesian categories of subject and object are not firm, but rather malleable; paradoxically, difference is created by making oneself similar to something else by mimetic "imitation".  Observing subjects thus assimilate themselves to the objective world rather than anthropomorphizing it in their own image [17].

Adorno's discussion of mimesis originates within a biological context in which mimicry (which mediates between the two states of life and death) is a zoological predecessor to mimesis.  Animals are seen as genealogically perfecting mimicry (adaptation to their surroundings with the intent to deceive or delude their pursuer) as a means of survival. Survival, the attempt to guarantee life, is thus dependant upon the identification with something external and other, with "dead, lifeless material" [18]. Magic constitutes a "prehistorical" or anthropological mimetic model - in which the identification with an aggressor (i.e. the witch doctor's identification with the wild animal) results in an immunization - an elimination of danger and the possibility of annihilation [19]. Such a model of mimetic behavior is ambiguous in that "imitation might designate the production of a thinglike copy, but on the other hand, it might also refer to the activity of a subject which models itself according to a given prototype" [20].  The manner in which mimesis is viewed as a correlative behavior in which a subject actively engages in "making oneself similar to an Other" dissociates mimesis from its definition as merely imitation [21].

In Adorno and Horkheimer's Dialectic of Enlightenment, mimesis (once a dominant practice) becomes a repressed presence in Western history in which one yields to nature (as opposed to the impulse of Enlightenment science which seeks to dominate nature) to the extent that the subject loses itself and sinks into the surrounding world. They argue that, in Western history, mimesis has been transformed by Enlightenment science from a dominant presence into a distorted, repressed, and hidden force.  Artworks can "provide modernity with a possibility to revise or neutralize the domination of nature" [22].

Socialization and rationality suppress the "natural" behavior of man, and art provides a "refuge for mimetic behavior" [23].  Aesthetic mimesis assimilates social reality without the subordination of nature such that the subject disappears in the work of art and the artwork allows for a reconciliation with nature [24].

Derrida uses the concept of mimesis in relation to texts - which are non-disposable doubles that always stand in relation to what has preceded them.  Texts are deemed "nondisposable" and "double" in that they always refer to something that has preceded them and are thus "never the origin, never inner, never outer, but always doubled" [25]. The mimetic text (which always begins as a double) lacks an original model and its inherent intertextuality demands deconstruction." Differénce is the principle of mimesis, a productive freedom, not the elimination of ambiguity; mimesis contributes to the profusion of images, words, thoughts, theories, and action, without itself becoming tangible" [26].  Mimesis thus resists theory and constructs a world of illusion, appearances, aesthetics, and images in which existing worlds are appropriated, changed, and re-interpreted.  Images are a part of our material existence, but also mimetically bind our experience of reality to subjectivity and connote a "sensuous experience that is beyond reference to reality" [27].

︎︎︎Mimesis. Accessed January 21, 2022. https://csmt.uchicago.edu/glossary2004/mimesis.htm#_ftnref20.


[16] As opposed to the aestheticized version of mimesis found in Aristotle and, more recently, Auerbach (see Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1953).

[17] Taussig's theory of mimesis is critiqued by Martin Jay in his review article, "Unsympathetic Magic".

[18] Spariosu, Mihai, ed.  Mimesis in Contemporary Theory .  (Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company, 1984) 33.

[19] For a further explication of "magic mimesis" ( Dialectic of Enlightenment and Aesthetic Theory ) see Michael Cahn's "Subversive Mimesis: Theodor Adorno and the Modern Impasse of Critique" in Spariosu's Mimesis in Contemporary Theory .

[20] Spariosu, 34.

[21] Spariosu, 34.

[22] Kelly, 236.

[23] Kelly, 236.

[24] Kelly, 236.

[25] Kelly, 236.

[26] Kelly, 237.

[27] Kelly, 237.

︎︎︎ Berlin, 2022

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