We can’t represent the idea of representation

A mime actor with a doll-like painted face in a big frilly collar.
Mime (or, more precisely, an image of one) by pendleburyannette from Pixabay

The late Robert Germany published Mimetic Contagion: Art and Artifice in Terence’s Eunuch several years ago. One section that drew my interest is Chapter 3, “Lifelike Likeness: Mimetic Contagion in the Philosophical Tradition.”

“The Greek word mimēsis is plainly connected to the word mimos,” he says, the latter referring to “lowbrow theatrical entertainment” as well as “the actor who plays in such a show.”

What he means by “mimetic contagion” is that an artwork is powerful: it has an “ability to generate likeness in the viewer,” that is, the artwork looks real (i.e. it resembles something that exists or could exist in the world), and it inspires people to try to interact with it and eventually to reproduce the image or otherwise imitate the idea in their lives.

Furthermore, people copy the copy, and the power persists in these copies, be they second- or third-generation or beyond. These copies begin to remind us of the idea of representation. We can think not only about how to create and enjoy a particular piece of art, but about art itself. “When what they see and imitate is itself a work of mimetic art,” Germany says, “their behaviour serves as an icon not only of the object they see, but of the unrepresentable mode of existence of that object.”

The ancients had superstitions and ethical concerns about art as imitation. Germany points out several discussions. One is by “Xenophon’s Socrates, in his conversations with the three artists in Memorabilia 3.10.” Another, by Plato in the Republic at the end of Book 2 and the beginning of Book 3. “Whatever is imitated will eventually be naturalized and settle into character and second nature,” he summarizes; “fundamentally mimesis is likening oneself to another…but if we liken ourselves to madmen ultimately the madness will be our own, and we shall find ourselves actors no more.” (395d and 396a) This was an ancient concern about stage performers who portray villains. He also points out a discussion in Book 10 of the Republic at 596b–99a. And he mentions Aristotle, who “discusses the ethical effect of art on its viewers in book 8 of the Politics (1340a)” and “implies that perception somehow involves a physical change in the observer into conformity with the sensed object” as in the De anima (424a 17–24). “Seeing is thus becoming” for Aristotle, who insists that “the very act of perception is a partial corruption of the boundary between subject and object.”

Sometimes philosophers used the word mimesis to mean “world-reflecting,” that is, representing the world as it is — Plato does this in the Republic — and other times as “world-creating,” meaning something more like fiction as Aristotle does in the Poetics. Of the latter meaning, Germany writes: “When the world is refashioned in accordance with an artwork it can no longer be clear what the boundaries of the artwork are, since by drawing the viewer into recapitulation of its own ethos or action, it effectively exceeds its frame. Its fiction now includes the viewer…” The fiction is “a replacement” for “the ‘real’ world.” Thus, “the two facets of mimesis, world-reflecting and world-creating, are fundamentally linked.”

According to the Socratic dialogue Timaeus, Germany explains, “the Demiurge gazed on the ideal world and made this world in imitation,” and we are supposed “to take note of the order in our bodies and the cosmos and to live our lives in imitation of that order…It is mimetic contagion all the way down.” (You may want to see my 2020 post on this blog, “Turtles All The Way Down: Finding Truth in Emptiness.”)

How, though, do we represent what it means to represent? All we have are examples of artistic representation. “Indeed, an actor may copy a drunk and a painter may copy a flower, but how do either of them represent mimesis itself?” This is the “radical unrepresentability” of the idea of mimesis. Plato’s cave may be our best bet for representing the idea of the generation of images that are based upon something else; here, Germany refers to Luce Irigaray’s Speculum of the Other Woman (1985), which makes this argument.

Representation is a process, not an object. To understand how it works, we have to observe it happen. Maybe, Germany says, it can be “represented transitively, in the contagious passage from one imitation to the next.”

Book cover for Mimetic Contagion

Robert Germany. Mimetic Contagion: Art and Artifice in Terence’s Eunuch. Oxford Studies in Ancient Culture and Representation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Chapter 3, pp. 72–94.

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