Review: Mimesis and Science: Empirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion

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Anyone who thinks that mimesis is merely a tool of literary criticism has missed more than several decades of research across several bodies of science which shows that much of human achievement is based on this very concept. But, I can understand such a simplistic understanding of the word if one has not yet been introduced to René Girard. Indeed, much of the world still sees the work begun by Girard in the 1960’s as a literary tool forgetting the cultural aspects of it as well as the work begun by Dawkins in the 1970’s regarding meme theory which has started to come to fruition with the discovery of mirror neurons. We have yet to fully connect the two into the ancient concept of mimesis… until now, it seems. Scott R. Garrels is editing a work of love, a project which has come from years of study and work to unite a variety of scientific disciplines, including developmental psychology, anthropology, cognition, culture and religion, to produce a work which begins to shed light on the very real fact that mimesis is a, if not the (p3), key in human development, from the concrete to the abstract.

Garrels begins the book with the first, and longest, essay, entitled, Human Imitation: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspectives, in which he traces the development of mimesis. He notes the the budding belief that this concept “may very well be the basis for not only how we learn, but also how we understand each other’s intentions and desires, establish relational bonds, fall in love, become jealous, compete with one another, and violently destroy each other, all the while operating largely outside our conscious awareness (p1-2).” Thus, mimesis is relational, contrary to Western individualism. Garrels notes that a renewed understanding of imitation can lead to a new understanding of what it means to be human. His essay is key to the rest of the book because it details, if I may be so bland, in cliff-notes brevity, the long history of interaction with imitation. Beginning with Plato and Aristotle, moving through the Renaissance where Western acceptance of mimesis is seemingly stopped by Leonardo da Vinci. This is, unfortunately, where many people stop, with the literary tools discovered by Plato and Aristotle. Before Garrels gets to Girard, he details mimetics in modern philosophy and psychology. One he arrives at Girard, the centrality of his work becomes apparent. Our essayist shows his mastery of Girard’s work and indeed, for those who are unfamiliar with the body of work begun by Girard, begin here. After all of this, Garrels moves into several modern fields which are developing tracks of mimesis independently of Girard’s anthropological base, which will be detailed later in the book. This is an interesting section, because it shows that imitation is prevalent in the sciences apart from cultural considerations. Finally, Garrels, concludes with several important points, namely that mimesis is first with symbols second. Further, he sounds the call for the sciences to begin to merge and develop a more cohesive theory of mimesis. What is lacking here, and as I flip through the table of contents I suspect that it will not get any better, is interaction with physics and other high sciences. (For example, the notion that our universe is a repeating reality or with, Smolin, that universes are being formed with a slight rearrangement of order from the previous universe.) However, given that mimesis is just not being considered outside of a literary and cultural context, we cannot expect too much.

The body of the book is divided into two parts. Part One is entitled, Imitation in Child Development and Adult Psychology and contains four chapters. The first essay is by Jean-Michel Oughourlian, a French psychologist and neuropsychiatrist as well as a philosopher, entitled exploring From Mimesis to the Self, mixing Fraud and Girard. At one point, Oughourlian concludes, “This postulate, which was advanced by Girard as early as 1961, seems to me capable of serving as the foundation for a new, pure psychology – that is, one unencumbered by any sort of biologism.” This is an important concept to understanding what he is trying to get to – that psychology is not an individual enterprise any longer, but “interdividual.” The mention of this new concept is first found on page 47, but starts to be digested on 49. The sum total of his essay is to reformulate the way psychology is done, moving to a more mimetic understanding of the role in which our self is actually formed. Even in this short essay, we can see the impact that mimesis has had, and hopes to have, on understanding this concept. Following this is an essay by Andrew N. Meltzoff, an expert in infant development, turns his pen to securing a place for mimesis in developmental psychology. His essay is the summation of years of research into infants and mimicry, after which he is able to declare that infants are “natural Girardians.” (See p69-70 for what this means)

The following essay, Emotions and Mimesis, is written by Dr. Paul Dumouchel, a professor at the Graduate School of Core Ethics and Frontier Sciences at Ritsumeikan University where he teaches political philosophy and philosophy of science. He continues the notion of interdividuality in exploring the Shakespeare’s Proteus and Valentine, noting that while many have detected the use of emotionalism in such texts, the use of mimesis in understanding the why of it all has escaped what he terms “folk psychology” (Later, this term is used by Anspach to denote the use of an object-centered violence, p130). His essay is just a little lacking, giving the role of emotions in religious texts, but then again, the second part of the book actually deals with religion and culture. The final essay in this part is by Vittorio Gallese, from the University of Parma (Italy), serves as a book end to use of mimesis in developmental psychology. His thesis is built on the interdividualism and intersubjectivity towards the view that neuroscience can be supported by mimesis and uses the recent discovery of mirror neurons to facilitate this somewhat.

The second part of the work contains five essays under the heading of Imitation in Human Evolution, Culture and Religion followed by an interview with Rene Girard. The first essay is by Ann Cale Kruger, entitled Imitation, Communion, and Culture. Communion here is meant to express Kruger’s believe that humans share “joint thoughts and feelings with another person about some aspect of reality when each is aware of the other’s role in the commonality.” She notes that this ‘”we-centric space'” is a line of separation between us and the nearest evolutionary cousin, the great apes, and indeed every other species, especially in regards to cultures which grow. This communion is what leads to human intelligence; this communion is possible only because of the human ability to mimic.  Kruger takes us through the stages of infant development to the point where the first major distinctions between humans and ape develop, that of acknowledging culture. Then, the various types of learning develop. All of this contributes to the growth of culture which leads to the growth of intelligence, all because humans have the drive and the ability to imitate from an early age. Mark Anspach, an anthropologist at Centre de Recherche en Épistémologie Appliquée adds the next essay which begins to get at the usual association with Girard’s mimetic theory, violence from rivalry. He intends to break down the object-centered approach to violence while examining research from those unfamiliar with mimesis to support his view that mimesis, via Girard, is indeed a better approach to understanding the origin of violence. As with Garrels before him, Anspach details Girard’s (The Scapegoat) work in the study of his own and puts forth the case that mimetic desire is indeed traceable in the modern research.

Melvin Konner, an anthropologist from Emory University, writes on Sacred Violence, Mimetic Rivalry, and War. His essay will not sit well with those who believe that humanity will move past violence. From the start, Konner is setting the tone of the essay in that in the first few pages, one gets the image which is intended by Girard – blood, war, violence. Konner rightly undoes the so-called Tinker Theory, which Marx and others, including Foucault, seemed to have believed – that humanity should shift without violence. He, like Girard, accepts violence as part of the human condition, a theory he shows through various levels of evolution of both Creation and society. Desire and Mimesis, an essay written by William B. Hurlbut, a neuroscientist at Stanford, begins with a quote from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans. From there, Hurlbut moves to cement the notion of human desire as part of the mimetic equation. He discusses freedom, social being, and neurobiology before moving into how desire plays into the mimetic crisis. Desire, he concludes, may be eventually be exploitative to humankind’s evolution. Why? Because of the violence which comes from our desire. The conclusion of this part of the book is written by Jean-Pierre Dupuy, another Stanford professor (French and Political Science). He intends to naturalize mimetic theory as something more than a science. In a quote which needs to be explored in an entire series of works, he writes, “But if it is even partly a science, with as ambitious a goal as to account for everything from “the neuron to the eschaton,” then it cannot shy away from confronting established scientific paradigms. (193)” While he doesn’t fully explain that phrase, he does going into placing mimetic theory (MT) into various sciences. The book ends with a transcript of Scott Garrels interviewing Rene Girard.

This book is an invaluable work in advancing mimesis beyond the idea that it is merely a tool of literary criticism. Beginning with Rene Girard’s work in the 1960’s, mimetic theory has evolved into a science all of its own. Assembled is a group of professionals, from psychologists to anthropologists, who show that imitation is not merely a novel idea, but something ingrained in the very aspect of what it means to be human. Further, as a collective, they begin to move to an answer to the violence which humankind needs to advance. This must be taken into account by philosophers and theologians alike in discovering the way forward. We can no longer deny that violence is part of us, but how do we find a way to curtail it? As one essayist pointed out, modern states have created ways to keep violence at bay through judicial systems. But, that is for another book. Perhaps in that future book, theoretical physics as well as deeper Christian theology, something Dupuy only hinted at, can be included. Nevertheless, this book is essential for anyone wishing to actually begin to understand the human condition, where we have come from, where we are here, where we may in fact go if we aren’t careful and finally, how ingrained this movement is in our very humanity.

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