Comparative Literature Studies 41.1 (2004) 176-179
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Mimesis and Empire: the New World, Islam, and European Identities By Barbara Fuchs. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001. xiii + 211 pp. $ 58.00.
Just down the street from the romance-language department offices at Yale University stands a strange building with thin, vertical windows and columns supporting half-arches of striped voussoirs surrounded by swirling and vegetative arabesque grillwork, all clearly suggestive of classical Islamic architecture. As the building is not a mosque or a religious site of any sort, but a campus monument, there can be little doubt about the meaning of the allusion: the presence of Islamic buildings, no matter how Disneyesque, especially among the neo-gothic architecture that dominates its surroundings, evokes a medieval European tradition, particularly, the parturiant Arab-influenced world of medieval scholasticism from which all Western universities ultimately derive.
Whether built to suggest some notion of an intellectual translatio imperii to the West or with some other intended evocation in mind, this appropriation of European history through mimicry is not without its larger implications. It is precisely this sort of meaningful reproduction that Barbara Fuchs, albeit for a different age, explores in her recent survey of the uses of mimesis within the context of early modern culture. Entering an arena of historical criticism identified with the work of critics such as Walter Mignolo and Stephen Greenblatt, she proffers her own insights into the curious phenomenon of cultural imitation as a useful new way to consider a well-worn topic. Evoking a critical tradition, as she says, starting with Auerbach's Mimesis, Fuchs aims not only to chart the role of imitation in various sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literary and historical texts, but to uncover its ideological implications within the wider context of nation-building and colonial imperialism. The real perpetuation of this mimetic tradition in our post-colonial world of multicultural aspirations makes herstudy not only historically enlightening, but politically and historically opportune. [End Page 176]
Fuchs does not, however, simply mimic the tradition she evokes. Her innovative additions and transformations to the study of mimesis simultaneously unfold in various new critical directions. She extends her analysis beyond literary mimesis to include equally compelling instances of social influence and imitation. Thus, for example, her discussion of Spanish moriscos (the Muslims who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada and were forced to convert to Christianity) is not limited to fictional manifestations such as the translator in part one of Don Quijote, but also addresses the real polemic regarding "fully integrated" moriscos in 16th-century Spanish society, which led to the morisco rebellion of Alpujarras in 1568 and, ultimately, to their expulsion from Spain in 1609. She also looks at the role of mimesis in the power struggles between competing colonial nations such as Spain and England, exploring both the historical maritime skirmishes between renegades, pirates, and privateers as well as the literary representations of these rivalries that instilled that history into the cultural consciousnesses of both nations. Fuchs also examines Spain's imperial aspirations from the perspective of its colonies, exploring real and fictional imitations of Peninsular culture in Peru by tracing the appropriation and representation of anti-Muslim "chivalry" associated with the Reconquista by a colonial indigenous population.
Fuchs has composed her ambitious study carefully, showing sensitivity to the subtle overlapping of her various sub-topics. The density of the text does not detract, however, from its rhetorical coherence. Fuchs weaves the various threads of her argument into a laudably unified theory that deftly situates her text within a relevant critical context without forestalling her own innovative treatment of the topic by drowning it in hackneyed critical posturing. Responding to what she calls the study of difference, both in post-structural and post-colonial terms, she explores "the political and rhetorical valence of sameness—identification, mimicry, reproduction" (4). Starting from previous notions of the use of imitation within a colonial context such as those of Homi Bhabha and Michael Taussig, she proposes that mimesis is "a deliberate performance of sameness...