Michael Taussig - Mimesis and Alterity - 1993
Nov. 24, 1998
On Taussig's Mimesis and Alterity
It is rather difficult to imagine a world without representation, without coping or portrayal. I could not tell the story of some past event, imitate a friend or even try to describe the environs in which we moved, try to recreate in the mind's eye of my listeners. Since we only have the ability to directly participate in the small section of the world which happens to surround us, we are forced to represent and portray if we want to know about anything else, anything outside. And we do, because we're curious. So Taussig says be careful, there's power in portrayal.
He makes several claims or observations which I would question, the first of which being the effect of copying without context. A symbol may mean something different in one culture than another, so if you mimic a tribal pattern in a modern oil painting, it will convey completely different things. So do you now have control over this "new" symbol that you have just copied the surface of? Does it have no connection at all to its origins? When a shaman uses the form of a European for healing, does he bring with it the idea of power and conquer that some might associate with the form, or is it fresh and ready to absorb new meaning? Why copy it if it has no context in the new adoptive society? Does mimicry imply a bit of local significance? Can a symbol be copied over as an empty symbol?
I find the whole idea of modern technology as the latest and greatest medium for mimicry to be right on. Movies and visual presentations are all about creating a small world which you then enter, accepting the local symbolic vocabulary but also bringing in your cultural background, letting the two mingle and compare. I admit, though, that I do not see how advertising is at all cathartic, as Taussig claims. We are given representations of things that perhaps we want, satisfying some sort of temporary need, but does that not create an even stronger craving for that thing which is more trapping and manipulative than cathartic?
I wonder about the role of hallucination in all this - seeing what perhaps we want to see, not what is represented. Is this some sort of internal mimicry of things observed in the past, played on an internal movie screen?
In the beginning of chapter 2, Taussig says that, in essence, the Other is just a good mimic. I think that is a bit short-sighted. Cultures create their own elements and symbols - we are not caught in a world where there are no original ideas, only copies. The power of creation is the one thing that can fuel mimicry, provide fresh material for inevitable future copy.
The idea of the dispersed self, the spacing out caused by the pull of "other envy," seems to me very true. In a way it is the drive of every traveler, every anthropologist, to absorb in some way the lives and cultures of others. By knowing them we can then mimic what we find attractive about them, at once pulling from various corners of the world into one small place and also sprawling out and getting stretched over a landscape, straddling large gaps in context that we can not hope to close or fill-in in a lifetime.