Browsing Tag: jacques derrida


    Book: Mimesis: culture – art – society by Gunter Gebauer and Christoph Wulf

    March 29, 2021

    Whereas the word has its ancient Greek roots in ‘mime’ and is related to ‘mimicry’, mimesis is not mere imitation. As this book shows, there is enough meaning in the term to have kept philosophers chewing it over for the last two millennia.

    But the discussion remains vital because the stakes are high. Facts, Gebauer and Wulf recall (via Nelson Goodman and later Mary Douglas,) have no autonomous existence and depend on people for their presentation. And it is the presentation of facts which brings into being the worlds we inhabit. The presentation of this artefactual reality, in which people work, vote, and go to war, cannot be neutral and so, whether they know it or not, all those who make descriptions or representations are working with agendas.

    The authors discuss a range of philosophers –  from the ancient world to the postmodern academy – and mimesis emerges as a confusing word to conjure with. It is perhaps fitting that in one of its recent resting points, within the writings of Jacques Derrida, the term is compared with the hymen, with différence, the supplement, the pharmakon, and all the many slippery quasi concepts which offer a way in to understanding deconstruction.

    More helpful for my research is the discussion of Walter Benjamin. The authors find that his notion of aura is diminished as mimesis gives way to language. The aura of an artwork stems from a magical mimetic relation of image and world, but it is language which slowly petrifies our relation to that real world. In the wake of this theory comes the (I think) connected idea that regression is a universal human goal, as people attempt to reconnect with pre-linguistic images and forms.

    Theodor Adorno also speaks of mimesis in magical terms, but rather than displaying an anti-auratic excess of language, his magicians use reason to control their production of a work of mimetic art. To speak in a schema, mimicry plus reason equals mimesis. And it is this in turn offers the art work’s audience an aesthetic experience, a vital experience whereby a certain passivity allows the viewer makes themselves similar to the artwork. Or, I might add, aesthetic experience allows the viewer to make the artwork similar to themselves.

    By contrast to the artists discussed by these twentieth century Marxists, Gebauer and Wulf draw attention to the seventeenth century Dutch artists who went about capturing reality with minimal interference from reason. Dutch painting of the baroque era is said to be a near transparent medium, bringing an arsenal of optical instruments to bear on imitations of landscapes and still life, perhaps slavishly so. But the characterisation of these descriptive painters from the Lowlands, which holds particular interest for me, is the work of American art historian Svetlana Alpers, and I shall discuss her relevant book on these pages in due course.

    Mimesis: culture – art – society appears in a translation by Don Reneau, and is published by the University of California Press (1992).


    A history of madness

    September 28, 2020
    “UFO” by astraverkhau is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

    I remember reading Derrida take issue with Foucault. It was about madness, funnily, and the founder of deconstruction asked how it was possible to bear witness to insanity, The essay was ‘Cogito and the history of madness’, and while much flew over my head, I was struck by the humility with which Derrida showed to take on Foucault and critique his former teacher.

    It was a long time ago. I was 28, 29 years old. Derrida was at first utterly incomprehensible to me. Then eventually I got to grips with some of his thinking. It was on an MA course in critical theory at the University of Sussex and it gave me a lot of confidence, to engage with deconstruction.

    My former teacher was Professor Nicholas Royle. It was the first year he led his module on Derrida and much of the course formed the basis for his book on Derrida in the Routledge Critical Thinkers series. My cohort are all there, in the acknowledgements together. It was a very generous act by our former teacher. But if Derrida describes himself as a disciple of Foucault, that is surely what we were in a way and for a while: disciples.

    I should probably keep this quiet and any Derrida expert reading this could probably deconstruct this post in no time; but I’m no longer so convinced about what I learned about my strand of Derrida.

    My dissertation was on madness and much of it revolved around a phrase which appears in an interview from the collection Points; Derrida says “A madness must watch over thinking”. That is to say, we should not allow our decisions to unfold by reason alone because to do so would render our lives too mechanistic. That way danger lies and, yes, we should avoid an excess of reason.

    But to inform a decision with madness? I must now be honest; it seems a bad idea. Madness, to my mind, is choosing cigarette brands according to religion. Or believing you can tune into radio stations on your teeth. That sort of thing. It should not watch over thinking. Emotion should inevitably watch over thinking, but emotion is not madness and I no longer subscribe to the idea that madness and emotion are on a sliding scale.

    Madness is not an absence of reason or an excess of emotion. I think the mad have plenty of reasons for most of what they think or do. And I don’t believe they are any more passionate than those of us above ground. And yes, I do think one can bear witness. You can witness madness by observing the barefoot guy picking through the trash outside the shopping centre. You can observe it by reading Judge Schreber, or even Swedenborg.

    Swedenborg was in contact with aliens, apparently, while remaining one of Earth’s first rank philosophers. Derrida asks, with what I recall seemed like alarm at the time, in his essay Passions: an Oblique Offering, “How is a Swedenborg possible?”.  How indeed? This is a profound question, and it indicates that Derrida’s understanding of madness has its limits. As does mine or yours. But you would not want aliens to watch over thinking.