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(excerpt from Twin Figure of Mimesis)
Have you read Mimesis & Alterity by Michael Taussig? If not, I think you might like it. The book presents an intriguing web of concepts, suggestions, and patterns of thoughts regarding the logic of the double and an analysis of the process we set in motion when we make an image of something. This analysis will change the way you look at the phenomenon of mimesis.
The chapter “Spacing Out” is particularly appealing. It is some sort of cross reading of Walter Benjamin’s notion of similarity and sentience with Roger Caillois’s ideas of psychaesthenia and sympathetic magic. For me this opens a new perspective on the relation between fiction, perception, and reality. It inverts the position of aesthetics by using imagery and storytelling as tools for achieving sensory connection to the world rather than for making representational images of it. Taussig’s reformation of Benjaminian mimesis as an innate desire to “slip into Otherness” through resemblance strikes me in its simplicity as both surprising and beautiful. And then there is this one sentence by Caillois that has nested in the very centre of my imagination: “He is similar, not similar to something, but just similar…”
It is amazing and completely mind blowing, and it has completely changed my concept of how to understand the logic of both imagery and performing. This trope has a double quality of being simultaneously a promise and a threat; offering a possible passage out of my isolation from the world, and at the same time opening the gateway to the horror of the dissolution of my self into sentience—my very being dissolving in the sensory encounter with its surroundings. This figure of thought, for me, describes a continuous double bind of subjectivation, an eternal balancing act between the joy of partaking in the world and the fear of getting lost in the abyssal vertigo of its signs and similarities, meanings, shapes, and figures. Nothing to do about that—any attempt to isolate the promise from the threat leads to either repressive appropriation or schizophrenia, oppressive identity politics or chaos.
And have you seen Chris Marker’s film Sans Soleil? I like it very much. Partly because the imagery it works with is so concrete and yet so enigmatic, but also because the script finds a sort of open ended intimacy; a minutious and simultaneously somewhat distracted travelogue written as letters; a speculation on the art of connecting with the world through the lens related by the anonymous addressee. In the very opening of the film there is the line: “He wrote: I’ve been around the world several times, and now only banality still interests me.”
For me this suggests a possible approach to the mimetic dilemma, both on a personal and an aesthetic level; to stay open for the potential relations and similarities to and between “whatever.” Art and life standing in what we would call in matters of the heart an open relationship with the world, offering my self and its imagery machine to the gravity of contingent similitudes, accepting that in the oscillation between two attracting figures it might just as easily be my identity that gets submerged in the other as the other way around.
Marker’s film is the camera eye’s specular stream of consciousness; a suspended vibration between subjectivity and disinterest, attention spelled as a-tension, a durational flow of seemingly randomised connections between shapes, colours, objects, rhythms, and thoughts. An aesthetic destabilization of the world, a universe filled to the brim by signs without signifiers: the shape of the eye of a woman in Guinea-Bissau meeting the gaze of the camera links to the shape of the eye of a cat in a Japanese shrine—a bond of connectivity bridging continents, as well as a narrative of gaze and subjectivity, with a ritual trope of transcendent relations between human and animal; the world as fiction & reality, memory & anti-memory; an aesthetic, speculative take on the world as a system with no obvious hierarchy of composition, in which every figure or identity whatsoever has the potential to temporarily pull its surrounding universe into the force field of contingent similarity.
As I am writing this, I realise that this has been my idea of the performer for quite some time. Through the 90s and early 00s, my take on the theatre stage was guided by a general aversion towards theatre’s paradigmatic dependency on identification, but from my current perspective I would say it was a kind of generic antipathy. My work was still very busy with interpretation and expression, focusing on the problem of deciding on the aesthetic frame I wanted in order to communicate this or that content. Today I think of it less as a matter of aesthetic preference than as a choice between representation and representativity. These two logics could also be described as two different economies: the economy of “showing,” ruled by the law of exhibition where everything has to be made visible—the “show(-ing)” must go on—and the economy of “production,” where the performative aim is to bring something into being, and the performer is understood as an interface between absence and presence.
These two paradigms have two different modi operandi: on the one hand, the performer re-presenting an already produced experience or subjectivity to the spectator and, on the other hand, the task of being a representative of the audience. Or again, on the one hand an act of expressing an image of the world—with which the spectator can identify or not—and on the other hand the act of sensing/reading the world—in which the audience takes part. A messenger rather than author, medium more than subject; using aesthetics as sensory organ and not mimicking this or that situation, relation, or identity for the spectator to identify with, but rather offering her or his figure—“Gestalt” maybe—as a surface for contingent and open ended mimesis and imagery; accepting the function of interface rather than content.
In the chapter “Year Zero: Faciality” from A Thousand Plateaus (1980), Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari sketch out a narrative of the face and its function in the apparatus of subjectivity and signification that reminds of the ambiguous attraction of mimesis, between potential and danger, passage and reappropriation. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not; either way, I’ll quote some passages to spare you the effort of looking it up.
Signifiance is never without a white wall upon which it inscribes its signs and redundancies. Subjectification is never without a black hole in which it lodges its consciousness, passion, and redundancies. Since all semiotics are mixed and strata come at least in twos, it should come as no surprise that a very special mechanism is situated at their intersection. Oddly enough, it is a face: the white wall/black hole system.
Faces are not basically individual; they define zones of frequency or probability… The face itself is redundancy. It is itself in redundancy with the redundancies of significance or frequency, and those of resonance or subjectivity. The face constructs the wall that the signifier needs in order to bounce off of; it constitutes the wall of the signifier, the frame or screen. The face digs the hole that subjectification needs in order to break through; it constitutes the black hole of subjectivity as consciousness or passion, the camera, the third eye.
The signifier does not construct the wall that it needs all by itself… Concrete faces cannot be assumed to come ready-made. They are engendered by an abstract machine of facility… Do not expect the abstract machine to resemble what it produces.
Thinking from the perspective of the performer as human figure on stage, this take on subjectivation and signification as codependency suggests an intriguing and useful distinction between face and identity: the human face as eidos, the wall being a necessary condition for the holes to appear; the face as inter-face, a surface preceding identity but enabling the passage, the threshold simultaneously separating and connecting the singular figure from and with the world. The “abstract machine” is always a double bind and, just like the twin figure of mimesis, it opens the passage to alterity and closes it again in the reappropriation of identity.
The chapter also describes some examples of contingent aesthetic relations and translational inter-spaces resembling those of Sans Soleil.
In Kafka’s novella “Blumfeld,” the bachelor returns home in the evening to find two little ping-pong balls jumping around by themselves on the “wall” constituted by the floor. They bounce everywhere and even try to hit him in the face… Blumfeld finally manages to lock them up in the black hole of a wardrobe
In a wonderful ballet by Debussy and Nijinsky, a little tennis ball comes bouncing onto the stage at dusk, and at the end another ball appears in a similar fashion. This time, between the two balls, two girls and a boy who watches them develop passional dance and facial traits in vague luminosities (curiosity, spite, irony, ecstasy…). There is nothing to explain, nothing to interpret.
The figure of the wall with its holes here appears as a playful game of re-appearing shapes and geometries; the subjectivating completion of the “Face” is fragmentic and continuously re-positioned, appearing only in the split second where the balls hit the floor or the ground, inter-acting with the affect system of the witnessing spectators, but with no consistency or agency.
Some paragraphs later, the universe we’ve entered through the faciality machine changes character: it’s no longer a landscape for innocent games, but a territory of anxiety triggered by destabilised categories and dissolved frameworks for the self. In Deleuze and Guattari’s reading of the medieval romance Parzival, the noble knight—who “spends his time forgetting his name, what he is doing, what people say to him” and who “doesn’t know where he is going or to whom he is speaking”—after drifting aimlessly around Europe in the quest of a question he has forgotten, finds himself in an open field covered by snow. In the sky, a falcon has attacked a goose, and the blood of the bird has fallen down to the ground. Face to face with the image of the three drops of blood in the white of the snow, Parzival is stunned and loses himself, loses his-self, to the resemblance of his loved one in a logic very similar to what Caillois describes as “being tempted by space:” “I know where I am, but I do not feel as though I’m at the spot where I find myself….”
When Perceval saw the snow and the blood which appeared around, he leaned upon his lance and looked at that image, for the blood and the snow together seemed to him like the fresh color which was on the face of his friend and he thinks until he forgets himself; for the vermilion seated on white was on her face just the same as these three drops of blood on the white snow… We have seen a knight who is dozing on his charger. Everything is there: the redundancy specific to the face and the landscape, the snowy white wall of the landscape-face, the black hole of the three drops distributed on the wall; and, simultaneously, the silvery line of the landscape-face spinning toward the black hole of the knight deep in catatonia… Open Chretien de Troyes to any page and you will find a catatonic knight seated on his steed, leaning on his lance, waiting, seeing the face of his loved one in the landscape…
“We are, in looking at our beloved, too, outside of ourselves,” as Taussig quotes Walter Benjamin in Mimesis & Alterity;vi sentience as a way to connect to the world aesthetically through our senses. The potential of contingent similarity as a promise of escaping solitary isolation, always co-existing with the threat of losing my self, of dissolving into whatever figures or space that surrounds me.
Parzival keeps forgetting his name, his essence, he “doesn’t know where he is going or to whom he is speaking.” This description suggests an interpretation of the mimetic faculty as a double bind between subject and otherness that is potentially dangerous since, like the Freudian idea of the uncanny, it is a concept dealing with the anxiety of the improper. Nothing is more fundamental to western thought than the idea of the authenticity and autonomy of the subject. Whether we discuss politics or aesthetics, we are firmly rooted in a philosophical tradition based on the essence of a self-identical subject. We normally think that the desire to assimilate the other into our own subjects is rooted in the need to have control over that which is alien to this self-identical subject. But when we encounter alterity in our everyday life, the problem of otherness is usually not that its subject is too different, too alien, or too difficult to understand. Unless God would suddenly answer our prayers loud and clear or we run into Cthulu on our way to the supermarket, the problem with the other probably works the other way around: the other is scary because of its proximity.
I’m losing myself here (hehe). This text was supposed to be about mimesis in relation to aesthetic practices. But the way I see it, it’s impossible to think about mimesis without relating it to our culture’s obsession with identity, and the central position we give to identity and identification as the main tools for the production of political as well as aesthetic agency.
There might be a connection between this idea and the writings of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe. I didn’t have it in mind when I started writing, but in one sense this text could be viewed as an approach to some of his thoughts in the anthology Typography. I am so happy you made me aware of his work. I haven’t finished my reading of Typography, but so far I am very intrigued. In one way the texts feel a bit like a cross reading of Derrida and Mimesis & Alterity. The last essay of the book is entitled “Transcendence Ends in Politics,” and its last sentence is a call for the acknowledgment of the faculty of mimetology: “Why would the problem of identification not be, in general, the essential problem of the political?”
The destabilization of essence and truth produced by mimesis confronts us with an anxiety that Derrida, in the preface of Typography, attributes to “an instability belonging homoiosis, which resembles what it nevertheless displaces. Hence the vertigo, the unease, the Unheimlichkeit.” In other words, the fact that two “things” are similar also points to the fact that they are not the same. If we think with and against Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection, I think it might be important to distinguish the category of “horror”—the reaction provoked by an encounter with true monsters, “things” that are beyond what is comprehensible from a human horizon—and the categories of “anxiety” and “fear,” which I think are much more what is at stake when we talk about racism, homophobia, gender issues, and other processes which excise what can’t fit into the frame of a given identity. As in all abjection, this crisis is not the problem of the other, but a crisis of my identity’s non-identity with itself. Every encounter with something outside of myself, with some-“thing” that is not part of me but part of the world, faces me with the non-identity of my own being.
In The Echo of the Subject, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe talks about this in terms of the inevitable delay of the “subject” in relation to “itself,” in terms of the subject’s incapacity to be identical, and to identify, either with itself or with the other. Departing from Lacan’s theory of the imaginary and the mirror stage, he suggests that the subject is split in two in the very moment it is conceived.
The imaginary destroys at least as much as it helps to construct. More precisely, it continually alters what it constructs. This explains, perhaps, why the subject in the mirror is first of all a subject in “desistance”… The dialectic of recognition itself does not function so well, not only because it is irremediably separated from itself (as “subject”), but simply because it comes to itself only in losing itself.
The figure is never one. Not only is it the Other, but there is no unity or stability of the figural; the image has no fixity or proper being. There is no “proper image” with which to identify totally, no essence of the imaginary.
My experience of existence can be transformed into an identity only through the imaginary image of my being as a cohesive identity; thus the identity is split in two from the beginning, since the passage from ego to self always comes about in a schizo-delay of sorts.
In the current political climate, I find this oscillating logic of opening and closure—mimesis operating in a force field between alterity and its assimilation into identification— to be a profoundly inspiring and useful landscape of thought. And from the perspective of the performing arts and storytelling, it offers a very precise set of objectives and quality criteria. It also makes for a surprisingly concrete toolbox; exchanging the paradigm of identity production with an apparatus of open-ended transcendence based on sympathetic attraction between figures that accept the fate of losing their identity into each other; aesthetics being used not to describe this or that idea about the world, but to be applied to reality to make it disconnect from itself, to render it open for us to enter into relation with it.
Talking about delay and losing oneself in sentience—have you been working anything with Hölderlin’s concept of the caesura? And have you seen Joan Jonas’ video work Songdelay? Together with Lacoue-Labarthe these frame a thematic field that I would find very interesting to discuss further.