Monday, August 26, 2013

Welcome Internet Scum!

I just saw that I've been linked to on Reddit with a really generous and cool link-title - so if you came here through that, hey, you're awesome. Reddit, for as much as its got some bile and chuck sometimes, is a dangerous and cool beast. I've been working like a dog trying to save up money to throw some theory events in Toronto this semester (one of which is going to have Drew Burk of Univocal Press, Anthony Paul Smith, Duane Rousselle and Svitlana Matviyenko, which ought to be a riot) so I haven't put much up lately, which will change as I start writing things again during the year. But for now I thought I'd put up an excerpt from a piece on the Mimetic - enjoy, you digital lumpen-proleys = )


In Xenophon’s Symposium the speakers are discussing perfume when Socrates opines that they serve to obscure the more subtle smells with which one might determine social standing – the smell of olive oil from the gymnasium, for example. Lycon inquires as to what those who are too old for the gymnasium ought to smell like, and Socrates doesn’t miss a beat: “καλοκἀγαθίας νὴ Δί”1 [“Nobility, surely.”2]. He continues, “εσθλῶν μὲν γὰρ ἀπ᾽ ἐσθλὰδιδάξεαι: ἢν δὲ κακοῖσι συμμίσγῃς, ἀπολεῖς καὶ τὸν ἐόντα νόον.”3 [“You will learn good things from good men, but if you mingle with the bad, you will destroy what good mind you have.”4] – the Attic Greek equivalent of ‘if you lay with dogs you’ll get fleas.’ The mimetic faculty is therefore figured as inherently dangerous and subversive in Socratic philosophy precisely because Socratic philosophy interrogates difference – agitates it to a finite segment – while disavowing its own determination of identity in the act of interrogation and agitation. Mimetic engagement is, in other words, discouraged here on the basis of a prior memetic determination – that is, the ‘smell’ of who is and is not ‘nobility’ – and hence invites the very mimetic infection and dissolution of the proscription itself. That is, “marking 'difference' leads us, symbolically, to close ranks, shore up culture and to stigmatize and expel anything which is defined as impure, abnormal,” as Stuart Hall writes, “paradoxically, it also makes 'difference' powerful, strangely attractive precisely because it is forbidden, taboo, threatening to cultural order.”5 The qualified threat – that such mimetic engagement will ‘destroy what good mind you have’ – is therefore all too accurate, insofar as mimetic contact threatens not only the body as such, but threatens moreover the determination of the body; not only an encroachment upon boundaries but an encroachment upon the ‘good’ in the ‘good mind’ that determines boundaries itself. That is, mimesis itself threatens, as Adorno and Horkheimer write, the “organized manipulation of mimesis.”6
‘What will we do then?’ I said. ‘Shall we admit all of them into the city, or one of the unmixed, or the one who is mixed?’
‘If my side wins,’ he said, ‘it will be the unmixed imitator of the decent.’7
To be sure, mimesis can be the restricted mimicry of a particular kind in absolute terms – as in the quote from The Republic above – just as it can be the imitation of an absolute kind in particular terms, in the sense that one can emulate a limited set totally just as one can emulate the total set partially. The contrast of or progression between the ‘mixed’ or ‘unmixed’ mimeses is linked in the Republic to exceptionalism and exclusion – “how ardently these gringos labor for the abstract universal”8 as Michael Taussig writes – and Socratic philosophy is hence reticent to poetry as anything other than a mindless distraction and recapitulation of the prior determination. Indeed mimetic art, Socrates explains, ought to figure in their ideal Republic only to the extent that it literally represents, doubles, and reproduces the ‘truth’ of that Republic, and ought to be forbidden to the extent that it doesn’t. Note, however, that while these ‘true’ mimeses are figured explicitly within The Republic as “hymns to gods or celebration of good men,”9 they participate, allegedly, in the composition of neither – i.e. the determination of the gods or what constitutes a ‘good’ man (quite clearly mimetic circumscriptions in their own right), are disavowed. In other words, all that poetry which represents the particular ‘truth’ of Plato’s geometric rigor and ideal forms is to be mimetically allowed, and that which presents otherwise is therein to be disallowed, both on the basis of a prior determination – one which the mimetic as such acts against and would otherwise decay – which is treated as intransient and without origin.
[T]hese comportments partake mimetically in a singular distaste for the singular, and speak to the hegemonic production of ‘the same,’ and in so doing produce amongst themselves ‘the same’ rejection of the isolate and hermetic body-philosophic that Socratic philosophy champions, but differently – whether as oppressive, in the case of the critical materialist, inapplicable, in the case of the sociological and anthropological, or inverted, in the case of the post-structural and non-philosophic. Theorizing ‘the foreign’ as though the unknown, unruly or indeterminate weren’t already part and parcel with one’s own determination is a false game, theorizing ‘the other’ as a determinate alterity is to capitulate already to a history of mimetic determinations; their genesis and their necrologies are only so many performative echoes of the like. Our ‘determinacy,’ so called, is premised upon the determinacy of others and, in being so premised, our ‘determinacy,’ so called, is undone – to withdraw from the mimetic upon the instruction of its critics is the mimetic’s most confused and yet most prolific expression. The monological soliloquy of self-determination is as much a feat of the mimetic as is the determination of self before it; the rejection of the field of the empirical as the terrain of mimetic agents, so beloved by the arbiters of the internal, is self-defeating. “[Genuineness] is always liked with social legitimation” as Adorno writes, “all ruling strata claim to be the oldest settlers, autochthonous.”10 The circumscription of the mimetic that Socratic philosophy inaugurates is incoherent in its ‘first’ expression, conservative in the edifice that critical philosophy unveils, lifeless and out of place with respect to its organic development, and overturned in its most contemporary investigations. “The recent discovery of ‘mirror neurons’ places the problem of mimesis at the core of attempts to model cognition” as Marcus Boon writes, “in the social sciences, theories of social contagion, with their attendant popularizations in the form of ‘memes’ and ‘tipping points,’ explain the dynamism of human communities in terms of imitation.”11 The literature surrounding the mimetic is itself mimetic, mixed, combinatory and liminal, composing a body that is at once infected and infectious, framed in static articulations and yet otherwise indifferent to their generation, degeneration and flux. The aperture of contact, the valve of the alike, the mimetic resists its own constraints of both its own origins and its first practitioners, and this is reflected, inflected, debased and perverted in the ways that it has been taken up since.
1 Xenophon, Symposium Ed. Samuel Ross Winans, (Boston: John Allyn, 1883) 2:4, p. 6.
2 Quoted in Robert Germany, Mimetic Contagion in Terence’s ‘Eunuchus’ (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008), 156.
3 Xenophon, Symposium, 2:4, p.6.
4 Quoted in Germany, Mimetic Contagion in Terence’s ‘Eunuchus,’ 156.
5 Stuart Hall, Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices (UK: Open University Press, 1997), 237.
6 Theodor Adorno & Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment tr. Edmund Jephcott (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 148.
7 Plato, The Republic Tr. Allan Bloom (New York: Basic Books, 1991), 76, 397d.
8 Michael Taussig, Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses (New York: Routledge, 1993), 18.
9 Plato, The Republic, 290, 607a.
10  Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life tr. Edmund Jephcott (London: Verso, 1999), 155.
11 Marcus Boon, In Praise of Copying (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010), 9.

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