- The Plasticity of Mimesis
Repetition has become the question, what questions us. …are we able to deal with this new urgency of repetition without seeking revenge toward it?
Catherine Malabou, "From the Overman to the Posthuman: How Many Ends?"
There is a philosophical urgency from which it is now impossible to shy away from: the obligation is on us to think or to rethink mimesis.
Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe, L'Imitation des modernes
What is the link between mimesis and plasticity? Is mimesis a plastic concept? Or plasticity a mimetic concept? Or both? Either way, the duplicity of my title mirrors a destabilizing double movement that bears the traces of Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe's thought, a thought that continues to form, inform, and transform my understanding of what mimesis "is"—or can possibly become.
Taking my clue from the two epigraphs that frame this essay, I would like to trace a logic of repetition that is currently generating a mimetic turn or, better, return in critical theory by suggesting that plasticity is one of the most recent, most innovative, but not necessarily original conceptual manifestations of what the Greeks called, enigmatically, mimēsis. And that consequently, Lacoue-Labarthe's penetrating thought on "the imitation of the moderns"—and thus of the ancients—opens up an alternative genealogy that sharpens the formal contours of plasticity as an emerging conceptual protagonist on the theoretical scene. [End Page 1201]
To delineate this double move, let me briefly dissociate the two sides of this Janus-faced title. On one side, the phrase "the plasticity of mimesis" indicates a certain malleability of the ancient concept of mimēsis itself. Mimesis has often been confined within a stabilizing conception of aesthetic "representation" characteristic of a realist poetics, an influential but restricted translation of a concept that, as Jacques Derrida and, more recently, Barbara Cassin, caution us, "one should not hasten to translate" ("Double Session" 183).1 Supplementing homogeneous definitions of mimesis restricted to simple representation, or realism, Lacoue-Labarthe's heterogeneous thought tirelessly reminds us that mimesis is a theoretical concept without a proper identity that originates in the practice of the theater (mimesis, from mîmos, actor). Consequently, it entails both visual representations and bodily impersonations, which, once enacted, dramatized, or better, mimed, by actors on a stage, generate protean affects such as identification and contagion, enthusiastic frenzy and manic (dis) possessions that continue to haunt what Lacoue-Labarthe calls the imitation of the moderns. Hence his claim in L'Imitation des modernes that it is philosophically urgent to step back to the ancients in order "to think or rethink mimesis" [obligation nous est faite de penser ou de repenser la mimèsis] (282).
On the other, related, yet less visible side, it may be the emerging concept of "plasticity" that has mimetic properties. The scientific discovery of the brain's "neuroplasticity" is, in fact, currently forming a new picture of subjectivity as flexible, impressionable, adaptable and, in this material, neurological sense, mimetic. This view is equally at play in the philosophical delineation of plasticity as a "concept" in Catherine Malabou's double sense. That is, in plasticity's capacity to both "receive form" and "give form" (Brain 5), and, in the process, generate contradictory effects such as passive adaptations and creative formations, psychic pathologies and therapeutic cures, perhaps even revolutionary transformations as plasticity gains consciousness of itself in its dialectical progress toward what Malabou calls the "future" (Avenir 11).2 [End Page 1202]
The plasticity of mimesis, then, turns around two seemingly antithetical concepts that look in two opposed direction: one back to the past origins of Western poetics; the other ahead toward the future of new theoretical destinations. And yet, my wager is that Lacoue-Labarthe's account of what he calls "the plastic constitution of the subject" (Typography 178) reveals that mimesis and plasticity are, perhaps, two sides of the same Janus-faced concept. Joining these two sides does not establish the unity of a stable identity. Instead, it generates a destabilizing repetition with a difference in which these two concepts face each other, mirror one another and, above all, reflect on each other. In this genealogical reflection, I argue that...