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.

Thanks to the internet!

Open Culture is one of the great doorways to courses and information! For example:


When you dive into our collection of 1,300 Free Online Courses, you can begin an intellectual journey that can last for many months, if not years. The collection lets you drop into the classrooms of leading universities (like Stanford, Harvard, MIT and Oxford) and essentially audit their courses for free. You get to be a fly on the wall and soak up whatever knowledge you want. All you need is an internet connection and some free time on your hands.

Today, we’re featuring two courses taught by Professor Richard Bulliet at Columbia University, which will teach you the history of the world in 46 lectures. The first course, History of the World to 1500 CE (available on YouTube and iTunes Video, or fully streamable below) takes you from prehistoric times to 1500, the cusp of early modernity. The origins of agriculture; the Greek, Roman and Persian empires; the rise of Islam and Christian medieval kingdoms; transformations in Asia; and the Maritime revolution — they’re all covered here.

In the second course, History of the World Since 1500 CE (find it on YouTube, iTunes or embedded below), Bulliet focuses on the rise of colonialism in the Americas and India; historical developments in China, Japan and Korea; the Industrial Revolution; the Ottoman Empire; the emergence of Social Darwinism; and various key moments in 20th century history.

Bulliet helped write the popular textbook The Earth and its Peoples: A Global History, and it serves as the main textbook for the course. Above, we’re starting you off with Lecture 2, which moves from the Origins of Agriculture to the First River – Valley Civilizations, circa 8000-1500 B.C.E. The first lecture deals with methodological issues that underpin the course. All of the remaining lectures are available below.

Once you get the big picture with Professor Bulliet, don’t forget to visit our collection of Free Online History Courses, a subset of our big collection, 1,300 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.


Anonymity and Art


“What is good art?” is a standard philosophical quandary that never really goes very far as long as there’s a relativist in the room (and there usually is). With art more than most things it’s harder to argue that its goodness isn’t in the eye of the beholder. A better question is “What is required to make good art?” And that, I argue, is at least two things: authenticity and anonymity.

A good artist is authentic. We need not argue exactly what “authentic” means to proceed; just to agree what it’s not. It’s not pandering to the masses. It’s not for increasing social status. It’s not from desiring praise. If it happens to be for anybody at all, it’s incidental to the artist’s need to express.  And if it’s to be judged, an artist should prefer it be on its own merit. And that’s where anonymity comes in.

Artists should be anonymous not simply because it doesn’t matter who the artist is (with some exceptions), but because it enables authenticity in both the artist and the audience. The anonymous artist is free to express without their identity being tied to success or failure, and they cannot doubt their own intentions.

Let’s take for granted that good art, beyond mere technical skill, is an expression of the artist’s soul. It relates to some part heretofore unknown to ourselves, or gets us thinking about something familiar in a new way. Whether or not it is understood depends on the experiences the artist/audience has had in their lives (in this way they are equals – an artist is not to be revered). It’ll either be gotten or not – and not everyone will get it because not everyone will get the artist, and that’s ok. But for the artist who has made themselves one with their art for public consumption and judgement, the failure of the art to connect is internalized and externalized as a failure of the artist. This giving-of-fucks is like poison and will lead the artist down a path of angst and dissatisfaction, not to mention bad art.

Another reason artists should remain anonymous is to reduce the amount of career artists who are making art for the wrong reasons. Artists need to have an existence that is not primarily about making art for the sake of it. If someone is locked in a contract or becomes too focused on maintaining their brand or income stream, then they cease to be authentic, and if they are creating at the expense of living, then they cease to be relatable. Art should be the byproduct of experience; an experience of life as we know it – through the artist’s eyes. Their gift to us.

But anonymity is really more for the benefit of the audience than the artist. The general audience is so impressionable that if they see, hear, or read something unfamiliar, they naturally look to other markers for how to react. The artists preexisting works, reputation, or other such subconscious biases might influence their perception of the art. When J.K. Rowling released her adult crime/fiction novel under the pseudonym “Robert Galbraith”, she was hoping to bring the focus back to the work; to, as she says, “work without hype or expectation and receive totally unvarnished feedback.” As a result, the book was read and reviewed, came and went, entirely on its own merit.

We must not conflate the art with the artist. We must focus our attention on the art itself and judge it according to our own aesthetic sensibilities – which we must continually develop by seeking art out where it’s hiding or being overshadowed; choosing what to be exposed to rather than passively letting ourselves be exposed to whatever is front and center. As many of us know,  that’s not where the best art is.

Popularity is the enemy of our and society’s aesthetic development. The more popular an artist becomes the more their name is spread around and passed down without people actually coming into direct contact with the work but feeling like they know its quality already, the more automatic exposure they will get before even producing, and the more people will be tricked into thinking that good art necessarily comes from popular artists.

With artists as anonymous, each work of art will be judged with no other reference point but itself, and the art that survives will be the art that deserves to.