October 20, 2019

Mimeticism and Morality

Filed under: GA — adam @ 12:02 pm

To act morally is to sustain the center, which means sustaining, repairing and extending the shared attention or linguistic presence that relies on the center. It’s possible to get more granular here, and speak about moral practices, and to do so in a way that will be inter-intelligible with Alasdair MacIntyre’s (in particular) moral thought. We can start with mimesis, or imitation, which is not only the starting point of originary thinking but, it seems, a sticking point with some of its critics among those whom Imperius calls “desacralized power analysts.” Originary thinking is more in agreement with classical thought, whether that of the ancient Greeks, the Hebrew Bible, or Christianity, all of which recognize the centrality of mimesis to sin and virtue. The sticking point for the desacralized power theorists is the very hard acknowledgement that imitation makes up all of who we are. It is very hard to deny this—what have you ever done or said that can’t be traced back to your imitation of some model? Even if someone says something undeniably new, which, of course, happens (in a sense everything everyone says is new), it is because you have successfully imitated someone else’s (or some composite model’s) way of inventing new statements. It’s hard to accept this, though. It violates our sense of individual and intellectual independence, to the point where, it one takes imitation seriously, can lead to panic—if everything is imitation, who am I? What do I ever say or do that I can actually claim is mine, and therefore control and take responsibility for? If I’m angry at someone, is this “real” anger or some mimetically produced anxiety (he represents something I’d like be)? If I love someone, is it out of mimetically generated emotions, like envy and jealousy, or something more “real”? There is a positive side of mimesis: instruction, emulation, the sharing of goods. The negative side is much easier to note, though, especially if we’re interested in moral and political theory: rivalry over scarce goods, especially moral goods like admiration, honor appreciation, and so on. And from a merely individual perspective, it’s very hard to distinguish the positive from the negative.


With imitation in mind, a moral practice would be one that transforms negative mimesis into positive mimesis. Since we’re always modeling each other and others (think of how quickly just about any conversation or relation takes on mimetic features, as the partners “mirror” each other’s attitudes, words and gestures), once we’re aware of this we can make it explicit. “You’re just saying Y because I just said X” is the passive aggressive way of doing this. The more graceful way of doing so is to extract a question from a possible misunderstanding of the other’s gesture or utterance and answer it in a way that makes visible the other’s miming without binding him to it. This is a pedagogical move, and in this sense I would say that all moral practices are pedagogical. This way of thinking about morality can scale up while also being extendible horizontally. If moral practices are pedagogical, then we can speak of every activity as a possible sphere of moral practice. Apprenticeships are pedagogical, parenting is pedagogical, friendships are pedagogical, organizations are pedagogical, governance is pedagogical. In doing things, we show each other how to do them. Status hierarchies are best understood as pedagogical—a good leader leads by modeling the practices pertinent to the shared tasks, but also the possible mimetic pitfalls to its accomplishment, along with their remedies. Pedagogy is reciprocal: the teacher must learn from the learner how to teach, and so the learner has to teach the teacher. Modern understandings of individuality and autonomy will lead to resistance to seeing all relationships as pedagogical, but this is modernity’s way of destroying all intermediate relationships and institutions—by severing the cords of pedagogy linking one level with the next.


Our analysis here can be extremely simple or enormously complex, as needed. We can’t really be in any kind of relation or interaction without some mutual modeling going on—we have to be providing each with some cues of attention and understanding, and we do this by appropriating the other’s words and gestures and returning them in some at least somewhat affirmative form. A moral practice sustains this by eliciting more of the same and making the reciprocal modeling as explicit as it need be to encourage cooperation and better performances. At the same time, the entire complex of what Marcel Jousse calls “gestes” that make up an “individual” would direct our attention across the entire social order and back into history, to the point where we must rely on anthropological hypotheses. Here is where moral practices become the kind of narration of the self in terms of life-long project of pursuing the good within a social order and tradition that has revealed a particular array of goods that MacIntyre speaks of. Someone inherits a particular way of squinting when faced with a difficult question from his father; think of all we inherit from all those our fathers imitated, those whom our fathers imitated imitated in turn, the cultural models synthesized and preserved in history and literature, which become models, and so on. Moral practices come to allude to and advance these models, to find new ways of imitating the in new contexts, and to examine them ever more closely to make them more imitable. If all Americans strove to be like George Washington, our rivalries would be much more edifying.


Thinking in terms of imitation is also very helpful in discussing the critical examination of models and traditions. However much we try, an imitation is never perfect; even if it were perfect, the very fact that it is an imitation, situated in a different time and place, would make it different—maybe even more different than a looser interpretation. There’s always an implicit criticism even in our most faithful imitations, which always have a touch of satire or parody. The moral practices of those who identify these differences and mistakes is to bring them into conformity with the original. Maybe this is an exaggeration, maybe not, but I’m going to say that all of culture, all of our thinking and talking, is concerned with this question of the conformity of imitations to their models. If we ask whether someone is a “good” teacher, athlete, president, soldier, etc., we’re asking whether his actions conform to the model we share with others of that kind of activity. The question and subsequent discussion is necessary because there will always be some deviation, and we have to decide whether the deviation represents an improvement, an unavoidable improvisation, a betrayal, a corruption, and so on. And when we do this we are working with models, which we inspect and deconstruct in order to refine the practices that are component parts of other practices, and which those who follow us will judge in turn. And if the deviations increase, we may have to decide whether the model itself has been invalidated and replaced. Our judgments are never outside of the act being judged, and even if we see a betrayal of the model, even one that needs to be punished severely, we would still try to isolate the specific elements of the practice that constituted betrayal and preserve the rest—this prevents our justified abhorrence of betrayal from becoming an attractor of mimetic feelings that would tempt us into betrayals of our own.


The model for this moral practice is the originary scene itself, which “works” and “takes” because everyone on the scene can confirm before the others that all have put forward the same sign. The originary scene would itself be the first human learning experience, as a gesture only minimally different from one aimed at appropriation comes to mean exactly the opposite. Bertolt Brecht used the concept of an “alienation effect” to describe his pedagogical goals as a dramatist: the alienation effect involved breaking the illusion of reality the mimetic representation encourages and pointing explicitly at a gesture on the scene. The originary scene must have had a moment like that where putting forth a hand could be pointed to in the sense of “this doesn’t mean what you think it does.” And then it didn’t—but it did, because everyone now thought it meant something else. Any moral practice has this dimension of showing what you are doing because what you are doing could lead to deviations to be avoided or recuperated. And wouldn’t arguments with even bitter opponents be better if we first of all clarified the models we were bringing to bear?

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