Session One, part 6 – The Sphere of Representation (or Mimsesis)

Well, we have seen something now of the mysteriousness of Language, and of the mysteriousness of Art, because a passion for artistry has always been associated with human nature – and also with humanity’s gods, because humans have always found artistry present in the world around them and reacted powerfully to it. (That is one, partial reason why so many scientists are theists). But what of our third sphere of mystery here on the board? This one that I’ve labeled the sphere of Representation. Or we could label this sphere with the name the Greeks used: Mimesis. Now mimesis….


Well, mimesis is a concept, these days, badly in need of a friend! Socrates ignited the fiery Western vision of the liberal arts – of an education that could actually hope to turn us into relatively free human actors within our own city-states, through the formal ways of knowing – when he started going about on the streets of Athens, befriending concepts such as “justice” and “friendship.” (This business of being a gadfly was much to the annoyance of his fellow citizens.) But in our day, I would very much like to befriend the concept of mimesis, because it has been treated reductively in contemporary theory – and indeed all through the three modern centuries. The last great era for the dynamic Greek concept of mimesis was the Renaissance, as we’ll see. Still, it seems strange to me that we find this mistreatment of mimesis among some of the Derridean theorists. Derrida himself, a faithful reader of the Greeks, never underestimated mimesis.


Still, you might ask me why I have this third circle on the board at all? Why not consider it already covered in the spheres of Language and Art, both of which involve mimesis or representation at their very cores, so to speak. If you are in the visual arts, for instance, you know that this is the case even when you are dealing with so-called “non-representational” art, when, as in music, the capacities of the medium itself to represent are experienced in their purest form…. So why do I have a separate circle on the board for Representation at all? Well, I will explain to you why. Something that belongs to one category or kind of thing – let’s say that of Language – and also to another category or kind of thing – let’s say Art – cannot be identical with either one of them, or else it would be that category. Therefore, it must be regarded as a third category or kind of thing. This is basic Plato 101. This is the Greek logos and the formal “logic” of the classical Greek mind.


Greek logic is a term logic, and a brilliantly formal – “Form”-al – thinking through of the relationships that must pertain to the various classes of things (the eidei), for human perception. (What other kind of perception do humans ever have? We are not universal knowers, if there can be such a thing, and even if we achieve a relatively full knowledge of the universe, it will be a knowledge such as humans are capable of arriving at, through the inherently limited, though awe-inspiring, faculties and tools they have for the task.) theorized the fact that whenever we as human beings encounter a particular concrete individual thing, as human beings we also encounter the kind of thing that it is as well – and this for the Greek mind brought into focus a sort of formal ratio or proportion, between the thing and its formal “kindness,” a most elegant sort of proportionality, which I’ve mentioned was the most fundamental meaning of “logic” or “ratio-nality” for the Greek philosophical mind.


Notice too that we’ve learned about the way that any language always-already preconditions perception. So we are equipped to realize that while human perceivers always encounter the kind-of-thing along with the physical thing itself, yet they will always be construing the physical thing’s identity and meaning (its kindness) according to the specific deep structures of signification inhering within the language in terms of which they are perceiving the thing. Now here’s precisely where the debate between science and the arts and humanities arises. Classically, science wanted to say that scientific observers set aside their local languages and cultures and adopted instead a mathematical language, as it were, in order to study the motions of material bodies in time and space. Any objective observer would come to exactly the same factual conclusions, given the same experiments. Non-scientific ways of knowing, in contrast, lacked this access to a universal objectivity. Linguistic communities might organize the concepts of snow differently from one another, but only science remained unaffected by such local communal will distinguish the sciences from the arts as disciplined ways of knowing, and then perhaps we’ll find that the disciplines are more alike in essentia than the Cartesian and Humean paradigms of classical science allowed. “But I intend it not to thy (science’s) diminution,” as John Donne once wrote (only in his case to the deity).


We will see that the power of classical Greek thought lies in its superb apprehension of what I like to call the elegant formalities of being, and its responsiveness to those in every field of endeavor and discovery. Still, I doubt you have been entirely following me here, and indeed I hope you have not, because it has taken me 35 years to formulate this analysis of the Greek texts, especially since many Anglo-American scholars (not to mention Nietzsche) read them as though they were proto-scientific rationalists. But instead of stopping to explain more at this point, I will steam heedlessly onward through the sphere of Representation. (We’ll deal with all these fascinating questions in Sessions Two and Three, when we’ll be reading Plato’s early dialogue Ion, which is an incisive little Platonic primer on “how human beings come to know.”)


So what is Representation or Mimesis, as its own kind or class of thing? Like language and art, it is something that is distinctively associated with the human species and with our communal or inter-subjective thought-life. First of all, we get a clue from the former word itself, in the contrast it carries within itself between “presentation” and “RE-presentation.” And from the second word, mimesis, we are reminded that the concept is first of all a Greek one, and therefore that it is probably going to prove to be fundamental both to the structure of Western thought and the structure of the Western psyche.. Now the Greeks were all about the presenting-ness of things. Heidegger is a wonderful explicator of this about the Greeks, about the way they focused on the way things manifest themselves to human beings within the space of appearance that is a shared human community.


For the Greeks, all of Nature (physis) – which is to say, all of the various kinds of being we find in the natural world – “present” or manifest themselves into the “clearing” that is the shared human thought-world. And of course for the Greeks that thought-world is always the human world of a particular polis or “city-state.” Yet, according to Heidegger’s readings of the ancient texts, things do not manifest or appear for human perception in the sense that they emerge all the way into our shared consciousness and awareness. We cannot “walk all the way around them,” so as to grasp them fully “from all sides at once,” as it were. As a matter of fact, I think that for Heidegger, falling into the illusion of this kind of “objectified” knowledge is the “forgetting of being” for which Heidegger reproached the West, and especially the scientific or “technological” West. (No wonder so many Ox-bridge dons don’t like Heidegger very much….)


For the Greeks, we humans are a kind of consciousness that wants to know and is capable of the formalizing response to elegant formalities that is coming to know, for human beings. In Heidegger’s terms, we are the kind of consciousness that “raises the question of being, and the question of the being of beings.” And without a doubt, for the Greeks to raise the question of being is to raise the question of the being of the kinds of beings (ontos on). Now this language might be simply an obscure language of Heideggerian mystification, But I think that it might be a seizing of the deepest formal ground of the “miracle” of the Greek mind.


In either case, the Greeks were all about the appearing-ness of things: that things manifest themselves in the shared human communal consciousness of a city-state. And in this sense, please note, a re-presentation is still “an appearing” or a manifestation, just as much as any other kind. This is going to be fundamentally important for dealing with Plato; you’ll see it everywhere if you read his texts in Greek. Yet Plato is always having his “Socrates” call our attention to the difference between the straight-forward kind of appearing – a “presentation” – and that other, special, very problematic, duplicated or duplicitous kind of appearing, which is re-presentation or mimesis. Plato’s Socrates often (but not always) tells us how dangerous this mimetic re-presenting of things is, how disreputable and unsavory.


In the Republic, Socrates will even say that there could never be a place in the mind of God for an “image,” because, as a mere “copy” of a true original, it would have to be a “lie.” Now from this hyper-platonizing perspective, the Christian God would of course seem to be pathological, in seeking out the risks of word and image, in submitting the purity of God’s own spiritual nature to such mortifying contaminations as mere words and images – mere incarnations – of God’s own self must by definition be. This is why we will see that within the protean mind of Augustine, the conflict between these two systems of signification, Platonistic dualism and Hebraic-Christian incarnationalism, is so intense and cruel a conflict as to be for him like nothing less than a crucifixion. Augustine could not escape his Western Platonic conditioning, and this is a conflict that will only be resolved, at least in large part, by Aquinas and Dante.


Returning to the strictures of Socrates, however, against mimesis and “the lying poets,” let us bear in mind that Plato’s Socrates is himself a “representation” of the historical Socrates. Furthermore, this “Socrates” appears as a dramatic persona in dialogues which are themselves little dramas or “representations” – and moreover they are representations of conversations that, in general, never happened. Something is going on here. This is no casual or accidental “contradiction,” not when you are dealing with Plato! When Plato raises the question of the art of poetry in Ion, he is raising the question of the role of representation in human knowing.


But what we need to focus on for today is simply that in representation there is always a structure of reflexive self-doubling going on in the process of perceptual consciousness. There is no such thing as a mimesis that we don’t know is a mimesis. If we mistake a re-presentation as a “presentation,” then for us it is not a representation. Mimesis is not a kind of factual entity, so to speak. Mimesis does not lie in its being a certain concrete subject matter. It is instead itself a perceptual structure; a special kind of formal tool empowering humans to carry out a special kind of formally reflexive knowing or perception or interpretation. Representation carries within itself necessary formal markers, however subtle, that what we are dealing with is not a “normal” or “actual” occurrence of the ordinary sort. When, for instance, we are watching Shakespeare’s Othello, we do not rush up onto the stage to stop Othello from murdering Desdemona, even though we may be feeling deep distress at the sight. We respond to the play “as though” or “as if” it were an actual occurrence; at the same time we know that it is not. We know that it is a representation or mimesis of such an occurrence. (And curiously enough, because it is a representation instead of a presentation, we expect it to have additionally fine formal characteristics, beyond the ones we would usually look for…but let’s wait for Aristotle on this.)


In a similar way, we have mimesis operating when we sometimes become aware that persons in our vicinity are not simply talking with one another in the ordinary way, but are instead putting on a little “theatre” for our benefit. And lyric poetry has been well-described as “conversation not heard, but overheard.” Always there is some formal marker that “frames” or “distances” the event, setting it off from the ordinary run of events and causing us to interpret it in vastly different ways than we would if it were an ordinary object of perception. Now Plato spent his entire life of thought pondering the relationships between presentations and representation, originals-and-likenesses, direct messages and messages that are relayed more obliquely, that are more layered. If you want to blow your mind entirely, over just how formally intricate this kind of thing can be, take a look at the introduction to Clifford Geertz’s great book, The Interpretation of Cultures. His semiotic account of interpreting the physical motion that is a wink is a beautifully clear account of how formal markers, even though very subtle ones, can radically change the meaning, in any given human interpretive situation or context.


Well, I cannot leave the sphere of representation without giving you a handy little formula for mimesis given me by my own teacher, James Craig La Driere. It is so good, and it is so Greek. La Driere was a literary theorist whose copy of the Loeb Greek edition of Aristotle’s Poetics was worn thin and all marked up with penciled annotations in his precise hand. It’s tragic that, as far as I know, he never published anything on the Poetics. But he considered it to have been an accomplishment, as a piece of thought-work in the history of literary theory, which has never been surpassed, or even equaled. Now back then, I wondered about that statement, which was no doubt what he hoped for. But now, thirty-seven years of thinking later, I’m convinced he was right. He died prematurely, shortly after I completed my doctoral dissertation under his supervision at Harvard – no, I don’t think there was any connection between the two events. But I began to take up the threads of his meditations back then, and I have woven them together with my own preoccupations into what is now the fabric of my own thought. And we’ll be reading the Poetics ourselves very soon….


Well anyway – after all that – I guess it is high time to give you La Driere’s handy little portable definition of mimesis:


We have mimesis whenever we find ourselves dealing with anything as though it were the world, even though we know it is not the world.


What I love best about this definition is that it refuses to treat mimesis as a static object, a concrete thing, such as a mechanical “copy” or “imitation.” Instead, it focuses, in the dynamic Greek manner of thinking, on the purposive activities involved in the phenomenon called mimesis. You can try out this definition any time and anywhere, to see if what’s you’ve got is mimesis or not. It’s mimesis whenever we approach something by bringing to it all of the interpretive skills we would employ in any real-world situation (and more), and yet we employ them knowing at the same time that this is not simply a real-world situation. We might be totally engaged in the scene, yet we do not attempt to stop Othello from murdering Desdemona. Whenever we recognize this kind of cognitive double awareness – what I am perceiving is / is not the actual world – we have mimesis.


Now, it doesn’t take very much thinking to realize, from this little formula, that a linguistic word can itself be “a little mimesis.” When you say “Professor Blumberg” you are invoking the actuality of Professor Blumberg in some way or another, but you know that the words themselves are not Professor Blumberg…. With the words, you can evoke a “presence” of Dr. Blumberg, even when she happens to be “absent.” On the other hand, even if she were present, her title remains a kind of absence of her as well as a presence of her. When you say “Plato” or “Kristeva,” you are invoking even more than an actual person – rather, all of that person’s signed works and public or historical influence as well. Because words are little mimeses, they can re-present to our conditioned perceptions as much as we may know about what they refer to, and yet they may be ceaselessly filled in and modified as we learn more of their relations to other things…. The boundaries of words are porous, and so – thank God – they are not “fixed.” Because words are not concrete or static things but floating “markers” for things, they can change and develop without losing a stable identity, and that’s a miracle! It means that you can talk about something with others who are on different levels of understanding of that something. And the same potent function is just as true of common nouns as of proper names, as when you say “cat” or “teacher” or “literary theory.” These words “represent” far more to our perception than any simple 1-to-1 reference to a particular concrete thing could ever do. The word constitutes a place of mediation, between each of us as the “subjects” who are doing the knowing and that which we are attempting to identify or perceive or know.


Now this matter of linguistic representation is going to get much more complicated as we go along, but also much more lucid, and much more powerful for thought, and I love this kind of analysis, because the rigor of elegant formalization has been for me the royal road to God. As Thomas Aquinas says, this path is not the only road or even the best road, and there are quicker roads, but it is such a rich and satisfying path, nonetheless. It is a road whose difficult demands and overwhelming insights and love bear the marks of God. [she is laughing] And now, however, having dared to say that, honesty compels me to add that after Aquinas experienced a contemplative vision of the Presence of God, he said that everything he had written in his great summas was “but as straw compared to this.” Now don’t misunderstand him. He wasn’t denigrating the heuristic thought-work he had done, but when you have reached the top of the ladder, you can throw the ladder away if you choose. Now given my own personal history, I would be utterly terrified of that much presence.


I am much more like Anselm, another of my favorite medieval thinkers, who said on his death bed that of course he was glad to be going to be with Christ, only he did wish that he had just a little more time. [laughter] Why? He said it was because he had gone through all of his contemporaries in his mind and he couldn’t think of a single one who would to able complete his treatise on beauty for him! [laughter] The reason he wanted to complete it, though, was that he thought it was going to be such a beautiful piece of thought-work. He took it for granted that, as such, God would be highly praised by it’s coming into existence….


But enough of this – so where was I? Let’s see…. This is Day One of the History of Literary Theory, and we have just finished our three spheres of mystery, and we are now ready to turn to our own intensely mysterious subject matter, and you are not taking notes…. Oh! But of course you are taking notes, aren’t you? Hmmm. Well, I have to say that I really do appreciate it, folks. I understand why you are. But it makes me feel very guilty for not stopping this roll that I’m on and taking questions and forth… You know, I do have a tape-recorder going here for a student who asked me to tape, because he couldn’t be here this one time. So I could have a transcript of this session made for you, and I could send it to you by email?


[murmurs of agreement]


In fact, I could tape all the sessions, so you’d have the transcripts to go back to for study and review? Should I do that? Yes? Okay, that’s what we’ll do. I’ll get back to you with the details. So now you can take notes or not, whatever you want. But I’m not slowing down!

[Please go to Session One, part 7 – The Peculiar Subject Matter of Theory and Greek Poiesis]

One thought on “Session One, part 6 – The Sphere of Representation (or Mimsesis)

  1. “I love this kind of analysis, because the rigor of elegant formalization has been for me the royal road to God… Now given my own personal history, I would be utterly terrified of that much presence.”

    Amen, sister.

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