“Our understanding of ourselves is a narrative understanding, that is, we cannot grasp ourselves outside of time and hence outside of some narrative. There is an equivalence therefore between what I am and the story of my life.”
“I confess that I am much more concerned about the current growth of the “desire not to know,” as Julia Kristeva puts it, and the seemingly triumphant success of the pharmaceutical cocktail over the spoken word. There once was a brilliant, if chilling, ad for a certain tranquilizer: “Not a pseudo-solution for problems, but a solution for pseudo-problems.”
“One of the effects of this shift in the focus of production is the speeding up of the turnover time of capital, which helps the process of the production of profit. But of course a side effect of this is to speed up the experience of time, and by speeding up time to bring about situations where forgetting is enhanced. Forgetting is absolutely crucial to the operation of this kind of obsolescence and absolutely basic to the functioning of the market.”
“The day is short, the bitter night long–
Why not take a candle and go wandering?”
It is something I have written on before; the odd degrading of taste in the U.S., but also largely in Europe as well. Cutting across this topic are two other issues; one is the hegemonic power of film and TV, and the second is the reluctance of western cultures to see in art, popular art certainly, any political or spiritual value. And perhaps thirdly is, under this hegemonic rule of film, why there is so little serious analysis of the industry that produces it.
First though, there is a real question about how Western culture has come to think of art. In terms of narrative, fiction, or journalism, and then by extension in film and TV, the sense of ourselves-as-stories has faded. In other words where once the telling of stories meant, by common agreement, that something of our own life was being told in every story, today the notion of story is connected to film and TV and this medium is presented to people as NOT being about their own story. This is one of the key semi hidden realities of *entertainment* and mass culture, I think. Nobody believes TV shows are foundational myths, nor are they narratives that shape our morals, nor are they roads toward insight and awakening. They are entertainment. They only nominally are seen to reflect society back at us. Lip service is paid to that idea, but nobody believes it. Entertainment is a production of forgetting, but in that lies a contradiction. The contradiction is that while officially designated as ephemeral, the entertainment industry encloses all discourse today.
But there is something else, which is a deeper question in a sense, and one linked, I think, to mimesis. I am reminded of this almost daily whenever the subject of art is brought up. I am reminded that the parameters for any discussion of art or entertainment are very vague, and almost produce a kind of anxiety in people. There are critiques, and reviews and gossip, but in very little of any of this is there a reference point for why anyone is bothering with the topic, unless of course it’s money. But if one puts aside the economic issues, the discussion of culture becomes very vague.
Mimesis goes back much further, as a concept, than the Greeks, but it was in Greece that today’s conventional ideas about mimesis were formulated. The base level, from the word mimos, means imitation. But it also always meant representation. Mimema were persons who imitated, and the action was mimesis. Homer did not know the word, but Aeschylus did. And it was during the fourth century it was associated with representation through dance. Now the significant juncture in this evolution, at least in the Grecian world, was with Plato, for his third definition (following emulation and imitation…narrowly, of a thing) was *metaphor*. Plato said mimesis was interpretation of a speaker. Someone, an actor or dancer, can imitate something absent, or general, i.e. metaphoric. Now this is a very reductive explanation of the Platonic position, but the point is, I think, that imitation very early on was recognized to exceed the idea of a guy pretending to be a horse he just saw gallop past.
There is an important aspect to Greek thinking on mimesis, and Jean Paul Vernant points to it when discussing Plato’s Cratylus. Gunther Gebauer writes …“According to Vernant’s analysis, these Platonic ideas of the image are bound to archaic ideas from Homer’s time, for which the characteristic factor is that something nonimagistic, something invisible, comes to expression in the image.” The example are cemetary statues, figures meant to conjur the dead in the sense they can take on the psyches of the dead. The dead made visible. But the dead are being made visible by first clearly establishing themselves as dead. Or absent. As Gebaur says, the mystery and otherness of death becomes visible. It is metaphor again. The statue is a metaphor for not just a dead person, but for death. In the cold grey stone we see *death* represented.
Now, Plato marked the disappearance of the old oral culture and the arrival of the new alphabetic culture of writing. That is a huge discussion by itself, but for the purposes of this post the written had subsumed the oral by the end of the fifth century B.C. In the middle ages the notion of mimesis actually shed much of the literal imitative aspect of this idea, and followed imitatio Christi, the imitative act was always an action toward the divine. It is also simply a relation to a previous mimetic act. Layers accrue. One detail is added to another to another to another over hundreds of years. A simple cross or an arch or vault for buriel take on details of imitation. It is also the installing of *Nature* as a conceptual idea. Or at least formalizes it. It is worth noting that the Medieval idea of mimetic deeds, done properly, with an eye to the past, bears a certain resemblance to Chinese aesthetics in the pre Confucian period. Chinese aesthetics is rooted in ritual and practice, with an idea (at least the classical theory) to harmonizing emotions. Representation was not the goal. Recognition was not the goal. Or rather, not the recognition of the outer world. One did not paint a mountain in order for the viewer to stare and then recognize, ah, a mountain. In the morning. In the mist. But then this emphasis on harmony came out of music, firstly. So the mimetic was de-linked from the visual reading of similarity. And rather was bound to familiar repetitions of form. Mimesis was always metaphor in a sense.
But representation changed forever with Shakespeare. This is another level of writing, if one thinks about it mimetically. Now Gebauer and Wulf, in their exhaustive book on mimesis (Mimesis; Culture, Art and Society) peg this change to Montaigne and before that in a sense to Erasmus. And then to Shakespeare. But Shakespeare was theatre. Theatre means actors. So, if mimesis is not simply imitation, and if written text changed how representation was perceived, theatre…Shakespeare’s theatre, invented modern mimesis. This jump cuts to Adorno, of course, and modernist aesthetics, but for the moment I want to look at Shakespeare. The recitation of text, dialogue, is not simply representation. It is a form of thinking. The text thinks the audience. This is one of those ideas that start to sound absurdist, but in fact something very significant happened with Elizabethan drama. Mimesis in Shakespearean narrative returns the listener to something distant, something from the oral past. But it is heterogenous, and the mimetic action is personal at the same time that it is collective. This is the exact moment of de-stabilization. Why do people create? I know that if mimesis were only imitation, and representation, few people would bother after the age of seven or eight. But the mimetic action, when it becomes metaphor, becomes much more than metaphor. It becomes a sort of existential reflex search for who we are. It links the personal to the collective. To the *other*. The actor is in our head and he or she is on stage. The formation of our psyche, our Oedipal narrative is echoed on stage, as is the story of our society. The listener is invested in the story. Stories are always stories of ourselves (except when they intentionally try not to be). All stories are crime stories, and all crimes are emotionally pegged to guilt and shame. And all stories are about homesickness.
There are no facial expressions for shame. Shame is hidden. Guilt is partially hidden, at least in western society. The infant born into estrangement, and rivalry, recognizes that feeling the rest of his or her life. But the trauma remains occluded. Death, the death drive, thanatos, is absence. The cremorial and cementary statues metaphorically present the absent. Looking forward and looking backward, we see only absence. The role of narrative is a very large discussion, but one of the dimensions of theatre is that it is recreating a psychoanalytic experience in mediated form. Our repression is linguistic, on one level. Lacan said the structure of the unconscious was the same as that of language. The repressed material is always a story. The narrative, on stage, is always re-narrated (mimetically) by the audience. Our desire is why we have theatres, why there is a stage. For desire is performance. As Ricoeur says, the analytic cure is bringing to language what has been excluded from language (I paraphrase). This process of excavation entails metaphor, but also symbol, or more precisely desymbolization (per Mitscherlich). It was Freud who saw the censoring mechanisms of our psyche as linguistic. In any event, the narrative on stage is re-created in our interior and simultaneous narration, which I always sort of imagine like the UN translators speaking into the ears of various foreign diplomats. Or the Polish *lektor* used to speak the subtitles of films. In this process, to reference Lacan again, the other is never the other we desire, or think we desire. This is the essential reason for art in my humble opinion. The imaginary is simply the working through of our own trauma, and, significantly, the working through of our experience of absence, and its relationship to the *other*. And by other we include society.
However and to what degree one accepts the Lacanian opposition between the imaginary and symbolic, the narrative exists on this border, this, again per Ricoeur, ‘border between two countries, two political regimes’. As he says there is a linguistic exclusion, and only narrative is there to reunite this exiled material. These are the primordial metaphors that are reborn over and over. Psychoanalysis is the reconstituting in narrative of the memories of father and mother, and childhood desire and ambivalence. In theatre then, to return to Shakespeare as the example, the actor becomes hugely important. The unspoken, the gestural, the facial expressions, and all that cannot be said, are the techniques for reconciling our schizoid psyches.
“Shakespeare instills in mimesis an unprecedented intricacy. Mimesis is not only a force that refers people to one another and renders them similar to each other, but one that divides and destroys them; merging and diverging, that is to say, appear in equal measure in mimetic desire…Shakespeare represents entanglements in mimetic desire in plays with comic and tragic outcomes. In the former case, the mimetic conflict is playfully resolved; in the latter it is unresolvable. The destruction of the social order in a mimetic crisis, the sacrifice of a scapegoat, is the result.”
Adorno would suggest that mimesis was the genesis of being human, of being civilized (a loaded word). The fear was a return to the irrational, to the nightmare of Nature. Hovering over all this is, of course, a fear of death. Mimicry is also always a miming of the dead. The death instinct, stasis. The tendency is for all people to submit to their surroundings. And here is the strange haunted contradiction of existence; as Freud and Adorno both recognized, that in the development of adaptation (including mimesis) there is a submission to this adaptive process that as it is repeated leads to the character armoring and rigidity of the modern man. If the earliest humans mimed the world around them, in fear, then as metaphor entered, as text shaped the stories people invented, the self control intensified.
“Man’s domination over himself, which grounds his selfhood, is almost always the destruction of the subject in whose service it is undertaken.”
Art is magic, but a magic removed from goals of control. Still, on the Shakespearean stage a form of thinking takes place that is a thinking about ourselves. The mimetic narration is now more directly connected to our own history, our own story, and therefore is more directly linked to the social and political.
Larry Tye, Boston Globe journalist quoted Edward Bernays:
“This whole matter of effective counter-Communist propaganda is not one of improvising,” Bernays noted in a 1952 memo to United Fruit’s publicity chief. “What is needed,” he added, is “the same type of scientific approach that is applied, let us say, to a problem of fighting a certain plant disease.”
Domination has become the framework for narrative. If American Sniper broke box office records this week, it is testament to the pathological endgame of our civilizing process. A process it seems now fully broken for the societies of the Imperialist west. Most acutely, naturally, in the U.S. As Gebaur and Wulf write: “Subjective self empowerment entails a commitment to universal disposability.” The subject sees self domination as the reasonable or patriotic or responsible. Where once the role of art, or even of community ritual, of shamans and selfless cooperation was mediated by how story and image were employed, today the western world operates under the logic of men like Edward Bernays. Self loathing is seen as self disenfecting, but you cannot cleanse yourself without first cleansing the world around you.
Art is crucial. But not entertainment. Being entertained is actually regressive. The Shakesperean stage was the coming together of several strands in mimetic evolution, and it introduced formally the actor speaking our own narrative at the same time as speaking societies story. The rise of instrumental rationality was a belief that one thread of observation, one that produced remarkable results in the material world, could be relied upon for all things. The conceptualizing of self, the separation of the subject from the object, and by logical neccessity, then, the shunning of mimesis, leads to isolation and alienation. Here Marx enters the discussion. This is what Adorno and Horkheimer called disenchantment. Sacrifice is internalized. Advanced mimesis becomes a taboo, a prohibition. In this sense, Bruce Alexander and others like Gabor Mate, in their work on addiction, are suggesting the need for connection is primordial.
Johann Hari wrote:
“But in the 1970s, a Professor of Psychology in Vancouver called Bruce Alexander noticed something odd about this experiment. The rat is put in the cage all alone. It has nothing to do but take the drugs. What would happen, he wondered, if we tried this differently? So Professor Alexander built Rat Park. It is a lush cage where the rats would have colored balls and the best rat-food and tunnels to scamper down and plenty of friends: everything a rat about town could want. What, Alexander wanted to know, will happen then?
In Rat Park, all the rats obviously tried both water bottles, because they didn’t know what was in them. But what happened next was startling. The rats with good lives didn’t like the drugged water. They mostly shunned it, consuming less than a quarter of the drugs the isolated rats used. None of them died. While all the rats who were alone and unhappy became heavy users, none of the rats who had a happy environment did.”
The war on drugs is a war on several things; connection, desire, and dreams. It’s a war on Dionysian energy. Wilhelm Reich saw a version of this, too. In Portugal, as Hari recounts:
“The results of all this are now in. An independent study by the British Journal of Criminology found that since total decriminalization, addiction has fallen, and injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. I’ll repeat that: injecting drug use is down by 50 percent. Decriminalization has been such a manifest success that very few people in Portugal want to go back to the old system.”
In other words, the rigidity of adaptation means shunning and shame, the hidden realm, without even facial expressions, is the cause of not just addiction, but self punishment on many levels. The internalized sacrificial victim is ourselves, but that mechanism doesnt work. Not as myth. It works our logically only as self extermination.
Work such as American Sniper is not engaging the viewer in mimetic search. It is a cartoon retelling of a message that says the armored self, the emotional plague, the violence and inequality around us is good. Killing is good. It is not mimesis, it is a schematic for death and violence. You read without that interior narrator, for its only a blueprint. A blueprint for building a death machine.
Art, aesthetic experience, is partly the viewer submitting to the recognition that the *I* is similar to the artwork. But similar because the artwork is allowed its narration. It is not the rigid mimicry of fear, that prehistoric fear of Nature; it is the submissive relaxing of those anxieties in an effort to reclaim what we have lost of ourselves. In theatre this submission is shared. The actor recites the dreams of everyone. It is no surprise that today the only validated theatre is that which shrinks this realm and props up in desperation the world of disenchantment. Bourgeois melodrama is Nurse Ratched reciting the rules, it is not Hamlet or Prospero conducting dream analysis.
Adorno came to the United States in 1938. He studied the effects of radio musical broadcasts. The effects on the music. But he soon forgot that and realized that what mattered was the audience that was evolving in the U.S. It was one, he thought, that art could not reach. Hullot-Kenter wrote:
“Adorno observed the contemporary American has been so overwhelmed by real and constant anxiety, has been so broken in on by heteronomous forces, that this autonomy and its capacity to breach subjectivit’s own claustrum could no longer be presumed. Adorno thought that this incapacitation of the person began in earliest childhood, and he noted several aspects of what he believed had happened: first the world no longer provides actual images to the American child, but only images that arrive with the insignia of their own untruth stamped on them; second the objects of action have all become technical objects that primarily demand adaptation to their own instructions, third the collapsed family no longer provides a buffer between society and person, which is part of why the American child is so flooded with anxiety, fourth the traditional language of people has been supplanted by a language of advertisement that no longer fulfills but instead leaves people speechless. Fifth the libido is directed toward tools…and sixth…the transformed relation of people to their own nature, their own bodies.”
This is 1938 mind you. Seventy five years ago. A year after Freud died.
Amy Buzby wrote: “No radical political project can succeed today unless it simultaneously resists domination as it operates both in society and in the mental life of individuals.” Yeah, I’d say that’s right, and it is where art and mimesis come into importance. But it is also because of the mental costs of resistance. The percentages of madness among both radical artists, and activists is very high. It takes a toll to refuse. The retreat from radical form in art is given false compensation by notions of success and agreement. This is as Ive said before, the society of agreement. Robert Hullot Kenter wrote that Adorno’s Aesthetic Theory is a book “that stands in utter opposition to what we are.” He goes on to posit that taste needs a project of reclamation. An exactitude. I would say that this then connects to a reclaiming of the radical nature of psychoanalysis as well. For mimesis is not engaged because we can cry at Pepsi commercials, or laugh at the neurotic comedies Hollywood spews out. Mimesis is the tragic confrontation with ourselves, with that which a system of domination is even now working overtime to erase.
The runaway success of a film such as American Sniper speaks directly to the repressed guilt of the white bourgeoisie today. To the continuing attraction of false fathers, to a worshiping of authority. But more than that it is structurally appealing on a psychic level for really this is the film version of the death instinct. It is interesting to compare it to a film such as Foxcatcher which questions the idea of power and domination, that suggests the military industrial complex and its links to extreme wealth contains erotic components, and this makes today’s audience, the one Adorno saw as incapable of cultivation, uncomfortable. Better to just give in and embrace Death. The resurgent racism seen today, from U.S. police departments to the demonizing of Muslims, is intertwined with guilt, and with an atrophied mimetic potential. In The Authoritarian Personality Adorno and his collaborators identified a refusal to deal with guilt among those predisposed to align themselves with fascism. As Amy Buzby writes (in her very fine book Subterranean Politics and Freud’s Legacy); “Where prejudice and the disposition toward authoritarianism is found, the unconscious is dissociated.”
The individual who identifies with American Sniper is one who, (again per Buzby) has “failed to develop the capacity to test and engage reality.” Art was a hedge against conformity and blind obedience. The autonomy of the artwork was exactly there to allow for the dialectical process of mimesis. Without such challenges, art is simply propaganda. The mass hostility toward Muslims today, in the U.S. and Europe, is proof of a group psychology of bad conscience. The obvious emotional shut-off and disconnect of such mass prejudice serves Empire, but is constructed on the basis of a disfigured and immature personality. The modern individual in the advanced west is one who believes in the appearance of his *individuality*, but is really a lonely rat in the cage. The evolution of mimesis is linked at it’s most advanced stage, with narrative. It is worth pondering again the effects of a society in which narrative has been reduced to almost first grade reader levels. The appeal of sentimentality is, of course, an aspect of sadism. It sets up a world view in which emotion is channeled into infantile desires and rewards. Couple this to projection, perhaps Freud’s most cogent theoretical construction, and it’s not hard to understand the reflexes of bigotry and hatred. The guilt of the white bourgeois populace today, built on two hundred years (or more) of colonial crimes and violence is never dealt with. It is projected onto Muslims or black teenagers or just generally the poor and vulnerable. But guilt is complex, and in the deformed mass culture of the U.S., guilt has no meaning outside legal contexts. It is mute and silent. Like shame, it really has no face. The projection of white men in particular is directed at, I think, firstly women. Second it moves outward to include Muslims, and blacks and Latinos. But the misogyny that resides at the core is worthy of an entire post, probably, for it is the most masked and buried, and hence the most volatile. The loss of ability to mobilize mimetic readings means that the individual today is inextricably tied into a sado/masochistic dynamic of punishment and violence. The population is treated to endless kitsch stories of faux guilt that require endless confessions of *taking responsibility*. Guilt is both accepted and projected out. But that which is accepted is never really for actual crimes. It is for crimes that takes place in this manufactured false reality of screen life and mass culture. This dynamic only intensifies the repression of real feelings of guilt. The false admissions of responsibility are approved of ahead of time, and the entire 12 step cult and new age self improvement guides are there to salve the real psychic wounds, but only temporarily. This is a society now, in the U.S., that tacitly accepts torture and mass killing. At least among the more affluent and educated classes. The deepest pathologies are those of the upper twenty percent. That educated white demographic that determines taste and defines culture and also among the ruling class that make policy. Beneath this pop psychology that rules public discourse are the very structures of Capitalism. The individual may not own property, but he can treat himself as property and divide and sub-divide himself into various ownership allotments. Alongside this the individual is primed to accept his treatment as property by the ruling class. The culture of therapy provides ever new psychic self improvements akin to a fresh coat of paint or new rust proofing. The personality is a DIY self improvement kit. And beneath all of this is the stunted caged rat suffering in an isolation it cannot identify. Hence the intensified projection and sado/masochism. And, ambivalence. The failure to grow up in Western society has resulted, I suspect anyway, in a particularly ruthless super-ego. For the individual is always still a child, and as such has never abandoned the childhood fear and ambivalence to the father. There is much more to say about all this, but I had wanted to raise the issue of mimesis, and its absence in popular cultural product. For all self expression and creativity is at its origins, mimesis. Technology has increased isolation, and eroded notions of a real public or material commons. What Hullot Kentor calls *a public world*. Each year hundreds of films and TV shows are made, thousands, for which there is no reason except profit. There is no primary imagination behind them, no basic mimetic or creative impulse. They are no more essential to their creators than are chewing gum commercials. Art’s justification is in its failure, in a sense. It must, through its form, its semblance more accurately, critique semblance. But there is another layer here, and a significant one, and that is memory and history. One cannot create without participating in that mimicry of birds of prey, or predators, that frightened early humans. The traces of that rigid body and reading of portents in Nature, remains in all metaphor. It is there in Shakespeare, in the body of the actor, in his or her expression, or eyes. Just as this mimicry allow access to our own story, and to the mistaken desires we follow. The abject shallowness of accepted culture today, the bourgeois gatekeepers of middle brow bromides or the corporate paeans to violence and mayhem. There is really not much separating American Sniper from whatever play is going up at Lincoln Center. The audience, Adorno knew over seventy years ago, could not engage with more than mere cartoon.
“…there is an element of the historically dynamic, whose form is dialectical, in all great myths as well as in the mythical images that our consciousness still carries. The mythical fundamental elements are in themselves contradictory and move in a contradictory manner (recall the phenomenon of the ambivalence, the ‘antithetical sense’ of primal words). The myth of Kronos is just such a myth in which the most extreme godly power of creation is coupled with the fact that he is a god who annihilates his children. Likewise, the mythology that underlies tragedy is in every instance dialectical because it includes the subjugation of the guilty man to nature at the same time that it develops out of itself the reconciliation of this fate: man raises himself up out of his fate as man. The dialectical element here is that tragic myths contain at one and the same time subjection to guilt and nature and the element of reconciliation that transcends the realm of nature.”
“The Idea of Natural History”