Exploring Mimesis – The New Critical Idiom, Chapter 1 – Plato’s Joke?

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I get this feeling that we are all, historically, being left out of Plato’s joke. In the Republic, Plato takes on the voice of Socrates and proceeds through books 2 and 3, but mainly book 10, to lambast mimesis. Yet, as Potolsky offers Socrates’ definitions of mimesis, Plato identifies with a  form of mimesis in which the narrator takes the voice of the actor, which in this case would be Socrates. It is in this voice (Socrates) which Plato speaks the most strongly against the use of mimesis.

Before I go further, this is not a review, reflection or otherwise. Indeed, it is merely a walking through this book, and using my blog not only as a bank, so to speak, but as a proving ground in exploring this subject as well as building my thesis (and who knows, my dissertation later on). Consider this something like notes to myself.

Potolsky, in the first chapter, takes us through ]] which is one of the first extended interactions with mimesis by the ancient Greeks, although as the author points out, mimesis was more than likely coined around the 5th century. It would seem, however, that the context of the Republic must be understood in order for us to ascertain Plato’s view of mimesis. Like other writers, especially in the genre of apology, Plato disparages mimesis because of his own interactions with it as well as his needed goals. His readers must not see the value in mimesis and thus, Plato takes the hardline against it. It is, as Potolsky notes later, a political issue in that Plato is assaulting the role in which Homer’s two testaments, the Iliad and the Odyssey, had taken in Greek society, and through them the use of poetry. What is this role? Potolsky positions Plato’s parable of the cave, in which prisoners see nothing but shadows, assuming that they are real; however, one prisoner is led out, turns to the sun and embraces the truth (i.e, the light of philosophy) and finally sees what is ‘real’, as a central clue in understanding the philosopher’s abhorrence of mimesis. He who controls the images (in this case, the wardens of the prison) controlled the political situation. Poetry (which was acted out) contained nothing but images. Plato, using Socrates’ voice, sought to banish the imitators from the Republic’s City in order to govern by reason and not by emotion.

Interesting to me is Socrates’ use of mimesis as a ‘stamp’ for children, especially so since these children would grow up to be the guardians of the Republic. The idea of the ‘stamp’, or image, is one familiar in the New Testament. The Greek word is used for those not able to bare the image is ἀδόκιμος
(adokimos) (Heb 6.8, etc…) For Plato, the use of mimesis, at first, was used to stamp on the children the proper way of doing things. Here, Plato wanted mimesis, which was using familiar images, to be acted on later by the children in their role as Guardians, but it goes down hill from there. Socrates believed in specialization. Thus, to be an imitator, you had to act different roles (including gender) which went against the basic rule the Republic. Further, and this is where I have to wonder about this entire notion that Plato and Socrates were really opposed to mimesis, the imitator had to speak in the voice of another in the stories told to children to enforce a standard or hoped for goal. Potolsky writes, “in mimetic narration, by contrast, the narrator imitates the character in voice or gesture, as in a theatrical performance: ‘he gives a speech as through he were someone else.’ (Plato, 1991.71) (Potolsky 20). How is this widely different than Plato’s use of Socrates’ voice in writing the Republic? Interestingly enough, Plato again uses the same, or nearly the same trick, as what he opposes. He (or Socrates) decries mimesis as something other than true knowledge saying that Homer only acted as if he knew about politics and battles. Yet, Plato is using the voice of Socrates to establish a body politick, neither of which the men had any real knowledge of (p23-24).

Plato obviously didn’t care for mimesis. For him, it was a part of education, but it was also something which detracted from the society. Potolsky writes, “No longer a quality of just the pupil or the performer, mimesis describes the identification of an audience with the spectacle on stage. (p27)” This was dangerous because these stage plays, these tragedies, were playing into the social structures and would, even in a perfectly controlled city such as the Republic. What Plato was identifying was the social control of what we would call media as he knew that “political power lies in the control of images. (p29)”. This is why he took such a hardline against mimesis, because as a philosopher who had turned to face the sun, he was afraid of the return to the prison. It was reason against emotions, philosophy against poetry.

The stories told to the children were stripped of their human elements, such as gods who were debauched, heroes “lamenting their fate”, or the lack of modesty when it came to “sex, food, or money.” He took known figures, the gods and heroes, and turned the stories around to serve not as tragedies or humorous tales of more-human-than-divine-gods, but as ethical and moral tales used to sow the seeds of reason and good government. Plato gives mimesis, visual or oral, a certain degree of power. If Mark 5.1-20 utilizes mimesis, then it does so because of the then-recent events, which the people must be liberated from. Perhaps the Evangelist is fulfilling his vocation and Plato’s political aims in that he is using mimesis to liberate people into the Victory of God. Mark strips out the negative, replaces it with the positive so that this story is then used to teach the Gospel of Christ.

Just some thoughts.

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