mimetic faculty


Mark Hansen on Walter Benjamin

"Benjamin's historical account of mimetic practice forms an experiential correlate to his strongly technological conception of natural history [5].
In a swerve from the Aristotelian tradition as he understood it, Benjamin situates mimesis not as an imitation (or supplement) of nature but as an irreducible, material element of nature itself.

"Nature creates similarities," Benjamin contends, citing mimicry as an example. He argues that the human capacity for producing similarities is, however, higher than nature's, since it is rooted in practice and specifically in the practice of becoming-other: "[The human] gift of seeing resemblances is nothing other than a rudiment of the powerful compulsion in former times to become and behave like something else [lich zu werden and sick zu verhalten] (Benjamin 1986b, 331).

The sensuous correspondences that formerly governed nature find their true importance in human beings, whose gift for mimesis they are said by Benjamin to "stimulate and awaken." Consequently, according to Benjamin, the mimetic faculty is a deeply historical human product, one that has changed with historical development (331).

Both essays on the mimetic faculty concentrate on the transitional moment in the history of mimesis moment of rupture when the experience of sensuous correspondences passed over into the experience of nonsensuous ones.
This rupture brings the mimetic capacity of language to the fore and, with it, a certain diminution in our practical command as materially embodied and situated beings.
Benjamin explains: ... our existence no longer includes what once made it possible to speak of this kind of similarity [the nonsensuous]: above all, the ability to produce it. Nevertheless we, too, possess a canon [Kanon] according to which the meaning of nonsensuous similarity can be at least partly clarified. And this canon is language (334).

According to Benjamin, since language has been informed, "from time immemorial," by the mimetic faculty, the rupture responsible for its modern reign might best be understood as a transformation, one that brings out the latent potential and priority of language as mimetic medium: "language," Benjamin concludes, "may be seen as the highest level of mimetic behavior and the most complete archive of nonsensuous similarity: a medium into which the earlier powers of mimetic production and comprehension have passed without residue" (336; emphasis added).
[5] Benjamin addresses the mimetic faculty in two essays from 1933, "On the Mimetic Faculty" and "Die Lehre von Ahnlichkeit" (The doctrine of the similar). An English translation of the former is contained in Benjamin 1986b; the German of both texts can be found in Benjamin 1972 .89, II, 210 .13 and 204 .10, respectively.