The Readability of the World as Mimesis

October 4, 2012


Considerations in the Context of the Project “Atlas of Arcadia”

Reading the world has a long tradition. Philosophers have given it the name hermeneutics. The legend says that hermeneutics is named after the messenger god Hermes, who translated the incomprehensible messages of the gods and interpreted them so that they became understandable for everyone. This interpretation was a language-based translation of the divine utterances. To read the world means to verbalize it. Reading the world competes with reading a book. The world turns into a book of nature:

“Die Frage, wie denn in diesem Buch der Natur gelesen werden könne, in welcher Sprache es geschrieben sei und wie man ihre Grammatik herauszufinden hätte, schiebt sich erst über die metaphorische Grundschicht der Bücherkonkurrenz, in der primär Buch neben Buch, sekundär Buch gegen Buch steht.” (Blumenberg,18-19)

Like in a book, one has to decipher letters and words, even if they often hide the underlying meaning, so one also has to resolve this hidden sense into letters and assemble them in order to build words and sentences. Each phenomenon needs to be put into a text, the text needs to be placed in the context of texts, so as to extract the meaning.

“…jedes Einzelphänomen [ist] nur noch Buchstabe, der nicht um seiner selbst willen erfasst, der nicht etwa nach seinen eigenen sinnlichen Bestandteilen oder nach der Gesamtheit seines sinnlichen Aspekts betrachtet wird, sondern über den Blick hinweg und durch welchen er hindurchgeht, um sich die Bedeutung des Wortes, dem der Buchstabe angehört, und den Sinn des Satzes, in welchem dieses Wort steht, zu vergegenwärtigen.” (Cassirer quoted after Blumenberg, 20)

Modern hermeneutics historicized these contexts thus linking comprehension to the history of events. It takes away our objectivity because we have always been involved in these events. The risk of misunderstanding and misinterpretation is increased even more as it leads to a multiplication of interpretations. This constitutes a constant threat of human coexistence.

“Hermeneutik geht auf das, was nicht nur je einen Sinn haben und preisgeben soll und für alle Zeiten behalten kann, sondern was gerade wegen seiner Vieldeutigkeit seine Auslegungen in seine Bedeutung aufnimmt. Sie unterstellt ihrem Gegenstand, sich durch ständig neue Auslegung anzureichern, so dass er seine geschichtliche Wirklichkeit geradezu darin hat, neue Lesarten anzunehmen, neue Interpretationen zu tragen.” (Blumenberg, 21)

Benjamin’s Arcades Project is another attempt of reading the world, an attempt “to read what was never written.” But his proposal to read the world has nothing to do with hermeneutics. The point is not to understand or to better understand it is not about breaking up the world into letters, words and sentences, to perceive the world as syntax. It is also not about interpreting. Rather, he is interested in reading before language, reading in intestines, from stars or dances (Über die mimetische Fakultät, 213).

With the help of Benjamin one could develop a kind of counter-hermeneutics, which contains a certain practice of mimesis in its core. In the context of our project ATLAS OF ARCADIA (by Anna Artaker and Meike S. Gleim) this counter-hermeneutics inspired us to develop an innovative, non-language-based reading of the world, based on mimesis or simple imitation.

Benjamin discovered a non-sensuous mimetic relationship in all forms of social exchange. For him, mimesis is the paradigm of our social existence. Not in the sense of aesthetic representation, but in the sense of a key to social behavior. He writes: “Every wordand the whole languageis onomatopoetic (Über die mimetische Fakultät, 212).” Words of different languages often have nothing in common with each other, but each of them is derived from the object designated by it. “If one arranges namely words of different languages that mean the same around the signified as its center, it should be investigated, in how far they are all similar …… to that signified in their midst.” (Über die mimetische Fakultät, 212). The same applies to the lettering and is expressed in a mimetic relation of the typeface to the signified. This original mimetic function of language and writing is usually no longer visible, it became unrecognizable through historical change. Benjamin calls this unrecognizable mimetic context, “nonsensuous similarity”. Nonsensuous similarity means “…that in our perception we no longer dispose of the element, which made it even possible to speak of a similarity (Lehre vom Ähnlichen, 207).”

The ATLAS OF ARCADIA reinterprets this theory of non-sensuous similarity by claiming that we often do not recognize the mimetic relationships between things as well as the relationships between ourselves and the things. This is the case even in spite of formal similarities, because the things seem to belong to different categories and contexts. Bringing together things that are formally alike even when—at first glance—they seem to have nothing in common contentwise allows to read “what was never written.” Like the “oldest reading”: reading before any language (Über die mimetische Fakultät, 213 ). It allows to explore the mystery of things, because it can show what they might have been inspired by or copied from. And it allows to disregard the boundaries presented by categories and the context, which both were produced within the given conditions of production, so as to uncover hidden antagonisms. What presents itself as natural becomes palpable in its dimension of our human intervention.

What did Benjamin mean by mimesis? And how can we read the world in a new way with the help of this concept, in a way that brings things and people together without putting a classical analytical process of understanding in-between?


Mimesis as first manifestation of social existence:

Benjamin studied mimesis on the example of the child. The child learns through imitation. Eventually, it starts to wave in response to our waving to him. When it learns to speak, it repeats everything we say. When the child imitates, it does not copy the things, gestures, and people it is about to play perfectly, but embodies them. It becomes what it mimics. Let us illustrate this practice with an anecdote: A child plays  train, behind it some chairs are lined up, representing the wagons. The father comes and kisses his child, but the child exclaims indignantly, “Daddy, you are not to kiss me otherwise the wagons will think that the engine is not real.” As this anecdote shows, it is not a perfect imitation that turns the child into a locomotive. Rather it is the relations that create the things, and not the things that create the relations. Maybe one can resort here to the terminology of Althusser and borrow his concept of interpellation in the context of the ideology in order to highlight the mechanism:

The child is a locomotive as long as it is being called upon as a locomotive by the “wagons”, the father etc. The famous formula of inpellation, “Hey, you!”, is answered with a silent “Yes, it’s me” as we feel addressed and turn around into the direction of the voice that has been calling. In this sense the imitation is not a behaviorism, but a subjectivisation, in which the difference between being and doing is repealed. Blaise Pascal’s famous statement, quoted by Althusser, “Kneel down, move your lips in prayer, and you will believe!” precisely doesn’t create the cynical subject Slavoj Žižek proposed—a subject that turns the prayer wheel and therefore prays while uninhibitedly thinking of other things—but an “I”. This “I” may be temporary, provisional and playful, but it is not a clown or an actor, but the person who can reply, “It’s me”, when she is asked “Hello, are you there?”

Imitation is at the core of this new subject. However, the subject called upon does not recognize this, his/her presumed place appears to be evident to the interpellated subject and not an effect of the ideological appeal by the dominant order. (Althusser, 141) The response of Althusser’s interpellated subject is an act of submission, inscribed in the logic of reproducing the existing relations of production, but paradoxically it also turns the individual into a subject who alone is capable of acting as an agent/subject.

Our story spoke of a playing child. Is it possible to transfer Althusser’s theory—developed in the context of the state apparatus and the authorities within the dominant order—to the element of the game? Where would this leave the enforcement of the law? Does the father break the law because he does not respect the laws of the game, and is his son an outlaw because for the time of the game he rejects his rightful place as a son? How does the game relate to the “serious side of life”?

In the context of the game mimesis represents a departure from the traditional interpellation by state apparatuses insofar as the game can be interrupted. But this does not mean that the position of subject that is won during the game is mere playing around. As long as the child is playing, it is a locomotive and able to act as such; as soon as the game is interrupted, it is a child again. Or it starts a new game. In the context of the game it is not only institutions (state apparatus) that are capable of the act of interpellation. Any counter-part receives the competence to interpellate.

The mimetic game introduces a margin, a space for play, not in the sense that the locomotive is not really a locomotive, but in the sense that this locomotive is a locomotive without apparently fitting into the picture of a locomotive.


Mimesis as the origin of cultural production:

The proposition that puts mimesis at the origin of cultural production is misleading, because mimesis in its traditional meaning as an aesthetic representation of the world reflects what is seen, without adding anything to this. However, a mimesis that mimics the world and thereby produces a new world, transforming the old one, forms a contrast to the classical concept, because aesthetic representation was and is not its goal. Mimesis is a gesture of creation that presents an alternative to the genius, who creates from scratch. The imitator is neither a creator sui generis nor does he simply copy. He creates new worlds, as he references old ones.

Warburg reminds us that significant elements of the images that shape our occidental art-historical memory had a purely practical purpose when they first came up. It was only in quotes, for instance, that zodiac signs became allegorical figures.

“Man muss sich mit dem Gedanken vertraut machen, dass Zeichen und Bilder, die nur um ihres Inhaltes willen und nur zum praktischen Zweck der Orientierung im Kosmos geschaffen wurden, die echten und rechten Vorfahren lebensvoller künstlerischer Schöpfungen sind, die wir nur ästhetisch, als spontanes Geschenk des Genius, zu bewundern gewohnt sind.” (Werke Aby Warburg, 326)

Also, the first appearance of the zodiac signs did emerge from a mimetic action which had purely utilitarian character and only subsequently was charged with symbolism.

“Der erste primitive Versuch, die funkelnden Lichter gegeneinander abzugrenzen, besteht eben darin, dass man sie willkürlich mit Objekten aus dem Menschenreich vergleicht und benennt.” (Werke Aby Warburg, 327)

These processes of imitation rely on processes of decontextualization that force us to go beyond usual boundaries such as geographical boundaries and genres. As demonstrated through the example of the zodiac signs, characters get a whole new meaning in a new context.

“Die materielle Gebietserweiterung hat geografisch und stofflich einzutreten. Man muss einerseits Europa im Zusammenhange mit Vorderasien, gleichsam als Westrand der Mittelmeerkultur, betrachten und andererseits dem Niederschlag der auf diesem erweiterten Gebiet wandernden Bilderwelt auf Monumenten aller Arten nachspüren, unbekümmert darum, ob sie der freien oder angewandten, der großen oder kleinen, der schönen oder häßlichen Kunst angehören.” (Werke Aby Warburg, 326)

The possibility of decontextualization through mimetic processes, i.e. the import of certain characters and practices into a different context, is precisely what Benjamin attributes an emancipatory effect to. Chaplin, for example, makes the important presence the cinematic apparatus has in our lives clear to the spectator by treating the human motion as a cinematic montage. He imitates the movement of the film apparatus and thus creates a technoid human being. The technology and its production relations are dragged before our eyes and reveiled as what they are. Or, as Esther Leslie writes: “The film turns technical invention back into a feat of nature. In so doing they oblige audiences to confront how technology rules over them as a second nature.” (Hollywood Flatlands, 86)

“Das ist das Neue an Chaplins Gestus: er zerfällt die menschliche Ausdrucksbewegung in eine Folge kleinster Innervationen. Jede einzelne seiner Bewegungen setzt sich aus einer Folge abgehackter Bewegungsteilchen zusammen. Ob man sich an seinen Gang hält, an die Art, in der er sein Stöckchen handhabt oder seinen Hut lüftet – es ist immer dieselbe ruckartige Abfolge kleinster Bewegungen, die das Gesetz der filmischen Bilderfolge zum Gesetze der menschlichen Motorik erhebt.” (Anmerkungen, GS I, Bd. 3, 1040)

These imitations, which are based on processes of importing things, scenes and characters from one context to another, open up the opportunity to critically highlight relationships and at the same time creating new ones. Let us dream.
In the Arcades Project Benjamin devotes a chapter to the utopian writer Charles Fourier. His phantasies derive from the practice of such import.

“… das Meer in Limonade verwandeln … die Menschen die Fähigkeit erlangen werden, wie Fische im Wasser zu leben und wie Vögel in der Luft zu fliegen… Anti-Löwen, anti-Walfische werden dann dem Menschen dienstbar sein und …seine Schiffe ziehen… der Löwe als das beste Pferd benutzt …” (Passagenwerk, Bd. 2, 765)

The mimetic relationships of human technology and technology of the human are particularly virulent. Whereas Warburg‘s text still reads:

“Weil der Mensch mit der Natur eins ist, ist sein Leib ein Abbild des Kosmos selbst, und seine Organe stehen mit den Organen des Kosmos, den Sternen in geheimnisvoll harmonikalem Zusammenhang….”(Werke Aby Warburg, 329)

… Benjamin claims that only technology makes humans truly human. As Esther Leslie commented:

“The human is a lie. Existence is technoid; that is to say, an understanding of technical life is the starting point for social theory…” (Hollywood Flatlands, 87)

Benjamin himself refers to Fourier, who develops a concept of technology against a technology that is an exploitation of nature:

“La technique se présente bien plutôt pour Fourier comme l’étincelle qui met le feu aux poudres de la nature.” (Passagenwerk, Bd. 1, 64)

This favorable concept of technology is not accompanied by a blindness towards relations of exploitation, because Benjamin locates the source of exploitation not in the technology itself but in the relations of production of the dominant order. This differentiation also plays a role with regard to the decontextualization: the flood of images in the internet and the mass media is also based on a decontextualization of images. Behind this decontextualisation, however, there is no utopian intention, the purpose is in fact to conceal the relations of production from which these images emerge. The images become phantasmagorical.

In contrast the ATLAS OF ARCADIA arranges and assembles the images in a way that highlights the antagonisms. Headlights are shown in their functionality as monitoring instruments (the helicopter searchlight that scans the rooftops of a city) as well as stage spotlights; globe forms in architecture are presented in their role as spy devices, as well as utopian architecture; and mirrors in their aspect as glamour attribute of architecture as well as camouflage device (mirrored windows).

The latest technological developments of the media have increased the concealment of such antagonisms, because many functions of the mirror have been taken over by the camera, the presence of which has become very subtle, almost unnoticeable. The same is true for lighting, which has become a moment of any broadcast, as any digital device is a luminous body. A mimetic treatment can illustrate the nonsensuous similarity between the mirror and the camera, between lighting and digital images.

Creating proximity with mimesis, the I as the Other:

A linguistic understanding of the world always includes the risk of misunderstanding or misinterpretation of the other. Thus there is a constant threat that speech may turn into violence or become violence itself, eg. in cases of hate speech.
Language bears the potential of non-violence, but can just as easily cause mischief, its use can lead to misunderstandings or it only serves  to manifest hierarchies in the first place.

“Mit dem Verlust der Sprache, […] meinte [Aristoteles] nicht die physische Kapazität, die auch Barbaren und Sklaven zukam, sondern die Fähigkeit im Zusammenleben durch Sprechen und nicht durch Gewalt, die Angelegenheiten des menschlichen und vor allem öffentlichen Lebens zu regeln.” (Hannah Arendt, 615).

Now, Benjamin’s concept of mimesis shall not be directed against speech, but develop a different understanding of language, a mimetic one, which goes beyond the speaking of words. Language is based on onomatopoeia, and more broadly on silent imitation of the other person in gestures similar to those of dance, that involve an adjustment to the counterpart. This imitation doesn’t reduce a thing to its meaning, but captures its essence. Essence however should not obtain the ontological significance of a substance, but the recognition of the other through imitation.

Language is thus an exchange with the things it signifies, it constitutes a relation of respect in that it imitates what it signifies. This understanding of language is fundamentally different from the conception that language is a concerted code that arbitrarily attributes signs to the things. Rather, language expresses the intention to strive towards the other, to reflect and to become the other. This has the potential to achieve proximity, without understanding (in the sense of interpretation) or misunderstanding the other. The ATLAS OF ARCADIA attempts to learn from this view of language, experimenting to what extent it enables a new research in images (and possibly also in performance, in dance), a research that is not interpreting, but instead advances in a mimetic manner, approximating the other.



Louis Althusser, Ideologie und ideologische Staatsapparate, VSA, 1977

Hannah Arendt, Ursprünge und Elemente totaler Herrschaft, Piper: München, 1991

Hans Blumenberg, Die Lesbarkeit der Welt, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M., 1981

Walter Benjamin (1933), Über das mimetische Vermögen, GS II, 1, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M., 1985

Walter Benjamin (1933), Lehre vom Ähnlichen, GS II, 1, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M., 1985

Walter Benjamin (1929-1940), Passagenwerk, GS V, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M., 1985

Walter Benjamin, Anmerkungen, GS I, Bd. 3, 1040, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M., 1985

Esther Leslie, Hollywood Flatlands. Critical Theory and the Avantgarde, Verso 2002

Aby Warburg, Werke Aby Warburg, (ed.) Sigrid Weigel, Martin Treml, Perdita Ladwig, Suhrkamp: Frankfurt a. M., 2010

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