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Mimesis: Culture, Art, Society, by Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf; translated by Don Reneau; 400 pp. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, $45.00 cloth, $18.00 paper.

The purpose of this book is to develop “a historical reconstruction of important phases in the development of mimesis” (p. 1) from a brief discussion of its pre-Platonic Greek significance through contemporary thinkers. It is, then, not strictly a philosophical text, as are most of the texts and authors the book takes up. It is, however, a significant effort in the history of ideas, and as such it is shot through with traces of the traditional tropes, shaping power, ideology, and even social relations of that discipline, particularly as it is practiced in the venerable school of German scholarship. That is, the structure, tone, and argument of the book are shaped mimetically. This book’s problematic is, then, not simply historical, as Republic’s problem with the poets is not simply philosophical. Rather, both books partake of mimesis, even while each one aims to criticize or set forth the concept’s historical development.

Let this stand as notice of a deep philosophical problem with the method of historical criticism. In fairness we should note that the authors are not unconscious of their difficulty here: “The fact that mimesis cannot be represented without the use of mimetic processes poses the fundamental problem of theory formation in reference to our object. What is the relation between the representational and the represented world? Is the representation of representation structurally equivalent to simple representation?” (p. 21). The authors hope to moot the power of those questions, if not the questions themselves, by attending “first of all to representations of mimesis found in texts best selected for that purpose and only afterward begin to offer considerations of a more generalizing nature” (p. 21). Their reasoning and choice of texts here is the traditional trope of the discipline: a mimema. Among other things, this methodos requires that the authors treat Girard as developing a “literary critical examination of [mimesis in] nineteenth and twentieth century novels” (p. 359n1) and a “new ordering of nineteenth century social relations” (p. 235), rather than, as he claims, a comprehensive anthropological thesis. At least, this method requires treating the former as essential, and the latter as less justifiable, for if Girard’s anthropological thesis about mimesis were justifiable a history of the idea of mimesis would be merely a heresiology. This problem can be restated mutatis mutandis for such thinkers as Plato and Augustine, whose theses—if they have theses—about mimesis are deeply anthropological.

Two further questions arise early on and remain at the end. If, as the authors hold (and show), “the concept of mimesis necessarily loses its intellectual centrality with the rise of rational thought,” so much so that “the field of art, which comes to be regarded in the process as autonomous, undergoes a complete and fundamental restructuring” (p. 3), must we not begin to [End Page 199] suspect—as recent philosophers like Derrida attempt to show—that there is a dialectical relationship between the intentional, truth-functional relations of modern rational thought and the mimetic, unformalizable and “ambivalent” (pp. 2–3) processes of mimesis? Rather than conclude that “the question what is mimesis? is one which demonstratively leads to error” (p. 309), does it not begin to seem that intentional representation, as most visible in science, and mimetic assimilations, as most obviously effective in art, are together the necessary dialectical elements of culture, art and science? While it seems that the rise of rational scientific thought pushes mimesis to the social fringes of the arts, isn’t scientific activity and writing still just as much subject, and just as much a product, of the power of mimesis as art? Similarly art is just as bound as science to “probability” or “the convincing impossibility,” to recall Aristotle. This idea is not entirely foreign to the book; it appears subliminally as a plausible explication of the work of theorists like Benjamin and Adorno (pp. 267–93).

The third difficulty is a question about selection. As in Auerbach’s renowned precursor, Wulf and Gebauer all but...

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