- Violence and the Mimetic Unconscious (Part Two)The Contagious Hypothesis: Plato, Affect, Mirror Neurons
To Bill Johnsen, mimetic theorist and innovative editor.
Have you not observed that imitations, if continued from youth far into life, settle down into habits and second nature in the body, the speech and the thought?Plato, Book 3 of Republic
Yes, we have observed the powers of mimesis. And if we reload Socrates's untimely observation for our contemporary, hypermimetic times, we cannot help but wonder yet again: What is the relation between violence, imitation, and the unconscious in a world increasingly dominated by virtual representations of violence, which, we are beginning to realize, may have contagious rather than cathartic effects? In Part One of this twofold argument, I traced a genealogy of the "cathartic hypothesis" via exemplary texts by Aristotle, Sigmund Freud, and René Girard, among others who, in different ways, contributed to the birth of an Oedipal conception of the unconscious that, if not in medical practice, at least in critical theory, still oriented discussions on the purgative effects of representations of violence in the twentieth century.1 This psychoanalytically-oriented tradition, I have argued, hinges on a medical approach to the riddle of catharsis that posits the existence of a door for the [End Page 123] psychic outlet of violent, pathological, often traumatic affects that need to be consciously acknowledged, reenacted, or re-presented in order to be worked through and, ideally, cured.
While such a hypothesis had much success in critical theory, we saw that it was much disputed in therapeutic practice. Eventually, even its most outspoken theoretical advocates who turned this hypothesis into a "cathartic method" (most notably, Sigmund Freud) abandoned it, leaving a diagnostic of the specific physio-psychological principles responsible for triggering mimetic contagion for others to pursue. After this genealogical detour via the labyrinth of cathartic theories, I return to my initial question from a different but related perspective. As this essay's subtitle suggests, I reframe the effects of representations of violence on human behavior by tracing an alternative, pre-Freudian, but also post-Freudian, genealogy of the unconscious: namely, an immanent unconscious that is based not on a repressive or cathartic hypothesis, but on a mimetic or contagious hypothesis instead.
The mimetic unconscious might initially sound like a newcomer on the stage of critical theory. After a century of benign neglect, it is in fact only now beginning to reemerge in continental philosophy and literary theory, as well as in the humanities and social sciences more generally. Yet, as the medical historian Henri Ellenberger has convincingly shown in his monumental The Discovery of the Unconscious (1970),2 this model was already dominant in the pre-Freudian period and informed the major schools of dynamic psychology in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries: from its origins in Anton Mesmer's animal magnetism to Jean-Martin Charcot's physiological reframing of hypnosis at the Salpêtrière, from Hippolyte Bernheim's psychological approach to hypnotic suggestion to Pierre Janet's psychology of the socius and the doubling of identity it entails, to many other philosophical physicians whose names might no longer be familiar to modern readers—Joseph Delboeuf, Charles Féré, Alfred Binet, among others—yet, as a growing revisionist literature on the unconscious convincingly shows, paved the way for the so-called "discovery of the unconscious."3
Building on these groundbreaking works, while at the same time expanding this genealogy of the unconscious to include philosophical physicians, social scientists, and creative writers—from Friedrich Nietzsche to Joseph Conrad, Gabriel Tarde to Pierre Janet, D. H. Lawrence to Georges Bataille, among others—I have returned to consider the physiological or, as Nietzsche calls them, "physio-psychological" reflexes as an immanent backdoor to an embodied, immanent, and relational conception of the unconscious from the angle of behavioral mimesis.4 I called this model of the unconscious "mimetic," [End Page 124] for it accounts for the all-too-human tendency to imitate with one's body, and thus with one's soul, in ways that are not fully under the control of consciousness, are prereflexive and automatic, and are, in this literal sense, un-conscious.