Taussig and Mimesis

(note: this is a review of "Memesis and Alterity" by Michael Taussig)

According to Michael Taussig, mimesis is the best game in town.

When representation is at stake, when it is necessary to know not just who is saying what, but why and how it is being said, and when the comparison of elements within a particular representation are extrapolated in order to better illustrate the similarities and differences between said points – then mimesis is the means by which the most comprehensive examination is made possible.

Taussig’s main claim in Mimesis and Alterity is one of comprehension. Not what we know, but rather, how we know what we know. He admits freely the postmodern conundrum of construction: Sex is a social construction, race is a social construction, the nation is an invention. But his concern lies in where we go from there. How does this information help us in moving forward? “Not enough surprise has been expressed as to how we nevertheless get on with living, pretending…that we live facts, not fictions.” (xv) His attempt is an examination of the mimetic act which, once understood (goes his claim), will clarify the very act of life itself. More, comparisons between pre-capitalist and capitalist peoples can be further understood in regard to their mimetic relations (this is another way of stating a Western-and-Other or primitive-and-civilized investigation).

Through the mimetic faculty (“the nature that culture uses to create second nature”), our imitation distances us from that being imitated, releasing the hold of our social constructions, freeing us, providing us the opportunity to “live as neither subject nor object of history but as both, at one and the same time.” (255) It is an extrapolation of Nordenskiold’s idea of imitation and power, as presented by Taussig in the early pages of Mimesis and Alterity: “In some way or another one can protect oneself from evil spirits by portraying them.” (13) The reproduction gives the reproducer power over that being reproduced.

This brings us to the second point of the book, that of understanding our relationship to the Other. However, it is through this examination that the clarification of the first objective will be made. Taussig, in fact, situates his entire argument upon the framework of relationships to the Other. Much in the same way we learn about our (Western) relationship to capitalism by looking at the Cauca Valley population’s relationship to the same issue (Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America), so do we here learn about ourselves by examining the Other – specifically, the ways in which we mimic the Other, and the ways the Other mimics us. Again, the emphasis is not on what we know, but rather, how we come to know it.

Throughout his argument, this emphasis on the Other – specifically gaining power through mimesis – is reiterated. Cuna nuchus carved in the shape of Westerners, for example, or RCA Victor’s “Talking Dog” on Cuna mola’s, and even R.O. Marsh’s quest to find the white Indians of Darien (a biologically mimetic being!).

If we take a contemporary answer to a contemporary question as Taussig’s goal (social construction being flawed, how do we erase those borders, etc.), then placing ourselves (capitalists, Westerners) into the equation is necessary. Further, an investigation into the Other is a necessary (and vital, in how Taussig frames his argument) element for discussion.

Thus, the relationships between “primitive” and “civilized” peoples (also referred to as Other and Western, or pre-capitalist and capitalist) can be understood as mimesis as a means to grasp, understand, and make use of an element had by the other side. The pre-capitalist Cuna marvels at the goods coming out of Marsh’s “trunkful of gifts”, the Fuegians stare awestruck at Darwin’s scarlet cloth: the Westerners in these examples providing things which are at once rare and mysterious – a Western magic. The mimetic reproduction of the Westerners visage upon a wooden figurine is the capture of that magic, the gaining of that power.

The mimetic act is only slightly different from the other side: The Westerner, having long ago separated himself from the realm of magic (during that fateful period whereupon mechanical reproduction – and loss of “aura” – was born), seeks a different kind of power from the Other – power of a capital type.

Whether this involves the exploitation of a people (Panamanian revolution and Banana Republics to the “small change…US 0.25” required to photograph a Cuna and Marsh’s “In two hours I collected more San Blas works of art than all the museums in the world possessed.”) is almost irrelevant. The transferal of power, the trading of magic, is what is at stake here – even if the things being traded are of seemingly different characteristics.

The “primitive” gains powerful magic through his mimetic relation to the mysterious Westerner while the Westerner gains unique goods and experience through his mimetic relation to the Other – unique things being powerful capital objects in a capitalist realm where mass production has swiftly removed the unique from the sphere of the everyday.

It is for this reason that I wonder if a historically-varying mimesis (whereupon the mimetic act takes different forms, from Frazer’s early imitative magic and later Benjamin’s mechanical reproduction) is completely accurate. After all, the term “magic” is a relatively vague term, and Taussig provides a wonderful example of a more contemporary “magic” – western advertising utilizing the “love and beauty magic” which works to “spirit money from our pockets.” (212) A truly contemporary example of pre-capitalist magic at work within a capitalist realm (simultaneous eras of Frazer and Benjamin!). In fact, one might argue that mechanical reproduction has caused the removal of magic from the object’s realm (as Benjamin does when he discusses the removal of the object’s “aura”), and that the process of mimesis is even more important to Western capitalism now than it ever was. The power still needs to be attained, and thanks to mass production, the venues for the acquisition of that power have been reduced. Western dependence upon the Other has been increased – enter the explosion of colonialism; mass-consumption of the “primitive.”

This idea of “magic” needs more discussion. It is important to clarify that while the mimetic act is rather concrete, what that mimetic act does – to reiterate – is something magical. And it is this emphasis on magic which provides Taussig with the most illustrative segment of his argument. It is also here that he uses Frazer to augment and support his claim, showing us how “sympathetic magic” requires use of the Other, not only as its base for reference (Cuna helping spirits appearing as Western figures, for example), but because this unknown entity, this Other, provides the mystery from which magic (power) is culled. The nameless Other is the well from which the power one seeks will be drawn.

But in our modern times, we have lost touch with the magic at the heart of the mimetic act. As previously stated, mechanical reproduction has forced the removal of the “aura” Walter Benjamin spoke so much about. And we find ourselves needing the Other once again, requiring a “second contact” through which the primitive will reinvigorate the mimetic act with the magic which we so desperately require. Our fascination with the Other now goes from desiring its power to give us ours, to a rebirth in that Other’s fascination which will, in the end, give us our power back. It is Charles Darwin on the beach of Tierra del Fuego, marveling at the primitives mimicking his sailors mimicking the primitives all over again, a “somersaulting back to sacred actions implicated in the puzzle that empowered mimesis any time, any place – namely the power to both double yet double endlessly…” (255)

Again, Frazer’s notion of magic cannot be removed from Taussig’s evaluative equation. Untapped power acquired through magic extrapolated from the unknown explains our (and so argues Taussig, Benjamin’s) fascination with that Other. And this (abstract or concrete) power, once attained, can be used to promote ourselves. “The nature that culture uses to create second nature,” is an interesting definition, and one that smacks of common sense: Through mimesis we gain control of something, an event or act. Once we have control, that event or act has the potential to become “second nature” – it becomes a part of us which we can then use. It is a repetitive act of sympathetic magic, repeating until the ability is gained, the attribute acquired and then utilized.

The argument can be thus summed: used according to Taussig’s rules of play, mimesis can go beyond imitation for the sake of power and control of and by Others. By illustrating the nature of mimesis, Taussig seeks to remove the borders established by “the monopoly of mediums and the media” and place control back into our own hands, making mimesis a “matter of choice”. (255)

I find myself wondering just how possible this really is. Can an exposure to the way mimesis has worked, and continues to work, truly “dissolve the borders” of social construction? Admittedly, I am suspicious – though during countless points during the day I find myself analyzing the various mimetic acts being engaged all around me. In the newspaper I read about children playing video games, become cyborg-like (mimesis-squared!). On the radio I hear a country-western singer bolt out a tune about becoming a musical celebrity (in which the playing musician plays at being a musician wanting to be famous, when in actuality he’s already famous – mimesis-cubed!).

Even knowing what Taussig wants of his reader, I have difficulty coming back to that objective. In the end, it seems that Taussig has made such a strong argument for the all-encompassing, all-invasive mimetic act that instead of thinking of dissolving constructionist borders, I think of how many acts of mimesis occur in one single event. Could Taussig have argued too effectively?