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.
One of the best-known modern studies of mimesis, understood as a form of realism in literature, is Erich Auerbach's Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, which 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 texts, the Odyssey being Western and the Bible having been written by a variety of Mid-Eastern writers, 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 Auerbach began his study. In art history, "mimesis", "realism" and "naturalism" are used, often interchangeably, as terms for the accurate, even "illusionistic", representation of the visual appearance of things.
Mimesis has been theorised by thinkers as diverse as Plato, Aristotle, Philip Sidney, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Adam Smith, Gabriel Tarde, Sigmund Freud, Walter Benjamin, Theodor Adorno, Erich Auerbach, Paul Ricœur, Luce Irigaray, Jacques Derrida, René Girard, Nikolas Kompridis, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, Michael Taussig, Merlin Donald, and Homi Bhabha.
Both Plato and Aristotle saw in mimesis the representation of nature, including human nature, as reflected in the dramas of the period. Plato wrote about mimesis in both Ion and The Republic (Books II, III, and X). In Ion, he states that poetry is the art of divine madness, or inspiration. Because the poet is subject to this divine madness, instead of possessing "art" or "knowledge" – techne – of the subject (532c), the poet does not speak truth (as characterized by Plato's account of the Forms). As Plato has it, truth is the concern of the philosopher. 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 theatre was not sufficient in conveying the truth (540c). He was concerned that actors or orators were thus able to persuade an audience by rhetoric rather than by telling the truth (535b).
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, or form); 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. Those who copy 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 rhapsodise about them, but never reach the truth in the way the superior philosophers do.
Similar to Plato's writings about mimesis, 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, the formal cause, is like a blueprint, or an immortal idea. The second cause is the material cause, or what a thing is made out of. The third cause is the efficient cause, that is, the process and the agent by which the thing is made. The fourth, the final 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 empathise 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 recognisable 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.||”|
It was also Plato and Aristotle who contrasted mimesis with diegesis (Greek διήγησις). 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 of his Republic (c. 373 BCE), 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 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 (the term includes drama, flute music, and lyre music for Aristotle) may be differentiated in three ways: according to their medium, according to their objects, and according to their mode or manner (section I); "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" (section III).
Though they conceive of mimesis in quite different ways, its relation with diegesis is identical in Plato's and Aristotle's formulations.
In ludology, mimesis is sometimes used to refer to the self-consistency of a represented world, and the availability of in-game rationalisations 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. This usage can be traced back to the essay "Crimes Against Mimesis".
Dionysian imitatio is the influential literary method of imitation as formulated by Greek author Dionysius of Halicarnassus in the 1st century BCE, which conceived it as technique 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 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.
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). He describes how a legendary tribe, the "white Indians", or Cuna, have adopted in various representations figures and images reminiscent of the white people they encountered in the past (without acknowledging doing so).
Taussig, however, criticises anthropology for reducing yet another culture, that of the Cuna, for having been so impressed by the exotic technologies of the whites that they raised them to the status of gods. To Taussig this reductionism is suspect, and he argues this from both sides in his Mimesis and Alterity to see values in the anthropologists' perspective while simultaneously defending the independence of a lived culture from the perspective of anthropological reductionism.
In Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World (1978), René Girard posits that human behavior is based upon mimesis, and that imitation can engender pointless conflict. Girard notes the productive potential of competition: "It is because of this unprecedented capacity to promote competition within limits that always remain socially, if not individually, acceptable that we have all the amazing achievements of the modern world," but states that competition stifles progress once it becomes an end in itself: "rivals are more apt to forget about whatever objects are the cause of the rivalry and instead become more fascinated with one another."
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