The whole history of the interpretation of the arts of letters has moved and been transformed within the diverse logical possibilities opened up by the concept of mimesis. —Jacques Derrida1
Mimesis is one of the oldest and most central terms in literary, art and media theory. The term mimesis (Greek: __ from __) is often translated in English as “imitation” or “representation.” The word has been used to describe the relation between an original object and a representation that attempts to imitate that original.
The first known use of the term was in Plato’s Republic, where Socrates asserts that all art is mimesis. Books 2, 3 and 10 all deal with that concept. In the dialog that Plato presents in the 10th book,2 Socrates compares the artistic reproduction to the reflection of an object in a mirror or in water.3 That is to say that the notion of mimesis implies similarity between reality and its representation. However, the mimetic principle does not apply solely to art, for in the Platonic scheme of things, the world of sensory reality is in turn an imitation of the realm of Ideas. Thus the artistic image is but a shadowy simulacrum of an already degenerate world, an imitation of a model of the Form. Since art imitates appearances rather than essences, it is two steps removed from the Truth, the realm of pure Ideas and Forms. Thus, Plato concludes that art does not approximate the eternal, but rather arouses the passions and emotions of men. Therefore, he bans all artists from the ideal Republic.
In his Poetics, Aristotle follows Plato in defining all art as mimesis. His list of imitative arts includes such disparate forms as poetry, painting, theater, dance, music, sculpture, as well as epic and other kinds of narrative. Aristotle then distinguishes between the various creative arts according to three differentials: their media, objects, and mode or manner of representation.4 Unlike Plato, Aristotle only applies the notion of mimesis to the arts, and treats artistic creation as a distinct and beneficial activity. He ascribes the origin of art to a natural, universal human desire to produce imitations, and to derive pleasure from these imitations.5 Having rejected the Platonic notion of pure Ideas, Aristotle does not denounce art for depicting the sensory realm, creating “the most accurate possible images of objects.”6 Furthermore, he does not limit mimesis to the artistic reproduction of tangible things, for tragedy and epic imitate actions and experiences, whereas comedy mimics particular persons. Yet both genres are concerned with the possible rather than the actual. Keeping with this notion, Aristotle argues that “the function of the poet is not to say what has happened, but to say the kind of thing that would happen […] what is possible in accordance with probability or necessity.”7 In this statement, Aristotle emphasizes that mimetic art need not duplicate reality exactly, but rather must reproduce the plausible and the likely in the sphere of actions and experiences. Aristotle thus deems poetry philosophically superior to history. He asserts that history deals only with particulars, while poetry expresses universals, realized as behavior and speech consonant with general types of persons and their possible intentions. He formulates the notion that poetic mimesis appears credible and convincing by relying on plausibility and verisimilitude.
The tension between Platonist and Aristotelian notions of mimesis continued in Western philosophical traditions starting with the neo-Platonists in the 16th century and continued throughout the Renaissance, the 18th century, and arguably continued to structure modern media and social theory in the 20th century. The term took on “different guises in different historical contexts, masquerading under a variety of related terms and translations: emulation, mimicry, dissimulation, doubling, theatricality, realism, identification, correspondence, depiction, verisimilitude, and resemblance.”8 In its modern incarnation the distinction between the represented and the representation was mirrored in the dichotomies between nature and culture, world and word.9
Such dichotomies have been the target of several post-structuralist thinkers. For instance, Gilles Deleuze reconsiders Plato’s project as attempting to “distinguish essence from , the intelligible from the sensible, the Idea from the image, the original from the copy, the model from the simulacrum.”10The difference between the two is that “[the] copy is an image endowed with resemblance, the simulacrum is an image without resemblance,”11a difference that delineates the distinction between ethics and aesthetics, respectively. Deleuze moves away from these dichotomies by rejecting the doctrine of the copy as the true resemblance. He locates the essence of modernity in the overthrow of Platonism most clearly manifest in Pop Art, where there is no longer an original, but a creative chaos. Derrida makes a similar move towards the overthrowing of the doctrine of the copy but within the domain of textual mimesis. For him, every text defers and doubles another that has preceded it in an infinite intertextuality, or what one might call infinite chain of indexical reference.
Another attempt at overcoming the dichotomy can be located in the Greco-Arab philosophical tradition, where the idea of mimesis took a different turn. There, the idea of mimesis was not only about the relation between the work of art and the world it imitates or represents, but also with the producers and receivers of that work of art as well as their relation to the world. There was also a shift in emphasis away from dramatic imitation towards oratorical evocation. This shift was a result of a difference in the nature of poetry as an art form between Greek and Arab contexts. Drama was the highest form of art for the Greeks. But for the Arabs, drama as an art of theatrical performance, was little known. Instead, performance in Arabic poetry is recitational. Thus Arab philosophers were more concerned with mimesis in language, which they closely associated with the term takhyil—an idea close to Aristotle’s phantasia12—defined as the poetic ability to evoke images in the memory of an audience. Imagination and memory here are closely related, for the image evoked in mimesis is not simply a picture that is stored and recalled, but rather a complex whole that includes sensory, rational and emotional faculties; an image that is both particular and general, located in the past, but pointing to the future. Thus, Arabic commentaries on Aristotle’s Poetics lay stress on ‘imaginative representation’ as a means of inculcating conviction in a subject, and the treatise is taken to give an account of the logic of poetry, showing how it must be understood and the purposes it can serve.
Al-Farabi, one of the earliest commentators, distinguishes between two kinds of mimesis: actual, achieved by doing something; and verbal achieved by saying something. He further divides the each into two sub-classes. Actual mimesis can be either be achieved through the making of an object that represents an original—e.g. a statue of a person—or by a direct embodied imitation of the original—e.g. acting as someone in performance arts. Verbal mimesis, on the other hand, can either be direct imitation of the original object—e.g. onomatopoeia, or words that evoke the same feeling they describe—or an indirect imitation by evoking the presence of the original in a third.13 In sum, for al-Farabi, there are four kinds of mimesis: immediate actual, mediated actual, immediate verbal, mediated verbal. As mentioned above, for al-Farabi, mimesis is an imaginative act, not a mere representation of the world, nor of any ideals that constitute it. Rather, it is an act of re-construal and re-construction of the world as the poet lives and perceives it that evokes similar images in the hearer’s mind. The stress here is on conviction, rather than truth or falsehood—i.e. the relation between word and world—for successful mimetic evocations can be either true or false.14 The means of mimesis in poetry, al-Farabi adds, is the order of words according to a particular rhythmic succession of movement and stasis.
Avicenna (Ibn sina) starts from takhyil and makes it primary both to mimesis and the metricalization of verse. He asserts that mimesis and metricalization are only means the end of which is takhyil. He defines poetry as evocative speech, or “that to which the self submits in liking or aversion, without reflection, thought or choice, and regardless if what is said is true or false.”15 Nonetheless, he rejects the purely magical as non-evocative. In that sense, he is in agreement with Aristotle that poetry is concerned with the possible, rather than the actual, or the impossible. Fables, are not poetry even if they were written in verse since they are concerned with stating opinions rather than evoking memories. Further, he contrasts logical proof to takhyil noting that logical proof does not move the soul as takhyil does, and that people are more inclined to the latter than the former. Avicenna seems to agree with Plato that mimesis is not directed towards truth, but he does not reject it as the latter does. Rather he makes it central to morality and pedagogy since the purpose of mimesis is the evocation of likings or aversions towards objects, not the verification of abstract truth.
Contrary to al-Farabi and Avicenna, Averroes (Ibn Rushd) took poetics to be a universal category that transcends cultural differences. He looks at poetics to discover the “universal canons which are common to all or most nations.”16 Averros does not escape the influence of Ibn Sina by means of this different emphasis, however, though he has his own concerns. He seeks to clarify the rational nature of poetics, but he is more interested in defending the validity of logic and reason than in merely understanding the cognitive efficacy of poetry. Thus, he takes fables to be non-poetic because they are not concerned with the actual or the possible—that is to say, truth.
1 Derrida, p187
2 Plato, 10.595.
3 Plato, 10.602.
4 Aristotle, 1.7-12.
5 Aristotle, 4.1-22.
6 Aristotle, 4.8.
7 Aristotle 9.9-12.
9 See previous entry on mimesis
10 Deleuze, 47
11 Deleuze, 48
12 Aristotle, De Anima 3.3
13 Al-Farabi Kitab al-Shi’r, 94-95
14 Al-Farabi Canons of Poetry, 150
15 Ibn Sina, 161 (my translation)
16 Kemal, 119
Aristotle, and Malcolm Heath. Poetics. Penguin Classics. London ; New York, N.Y.: Penguin Books, 1996.
Al-Farabi, Muhammad and Aristotle. Kitab al-Shi’r. al-Qahirah: al-Hayah al-Misriyah al-‘Ammah lil-Kitab, 1976.
Al-Farabi. Muhammad. Canons of Poetry. Trans. A. J. Arberry. Revisti Iegli Studi Orientate. Vol. 17, 1938.
Deleuze, Gilles. “Plato and the Simulacrum.” October Vol. 27.Winter (1983): 45-56.
Derrida, Jacques. Dissemination. Chicago: University Press, 1981.
Ibn Sina Fann al-Shi’r li Aristotalis. al-Qahirah: al-Hayah al-Misriyah al-‘Ammah lil-Kitab, 1993.
Kemal, Salim. “Arabic Poetics and Aristotle’s Poetics.” British Journal of Aesthetics Vol. 26. Spring (1986): 112-123.
Plato, and Robin Waterfield. Republic. World’s Classics. Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Potolsky, Matthew. Mimesis. New York ; London: Routledge, 2006.