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Mimesis and ScienceEmpirical Research on Imitation and the Mimetic Theory of Culture and Religion
Michigan State University PressCopyright © 2011 Michigan State University
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Chapter OneHuman Imitation: Historical, Philosophical, and Scientific Perspectives
Scott R. Garrels
In the science of man and culture today there is a unilateral swerve away from anything that could be called mimicry, imitation, or mimesis. And yet there is nothing, or next to nothing, in human behavior that is not learned, and all learning is based on imitation. If human beings suddenly ceased imitating, all forms of culture would vanish.... To develop a science of man it is necessary to compare human imitation with animal mimicry, and to specify the properly human modalities of mimetic behavior, if they indeed exist. —René Girard, Things Hidden since the Foundation of the World
Few areas of recent research have shed as much light on our understanding of human nature as those that address with fresh insight the unique and foundational properties of human imitation. Far from being the simple and mindless act that we typically associate it with ("monkey see, monkey do"), imitation is now understood as a complex, generative, and multidimensional phenomenon at the heart of what makes us human. In fact, imitation 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 of our conscious awareness.
This renewed view of imitation as one of the most compelling and overlooked capacities of the human species can be seen across a wide range of disciplines, in both the humanities and the cognitive and social sciences. While divergent in their methodological goals and aims, each approach shares in common the view that our pervasive tendency to imitate highlights the essentially relational nature of the human mind and person—a perspective that is antithetical to what has been the predominant and overarching view of Western philosophical and scientific thinking for over the last four hundred years; namely, that humans are fundamentally self-enlightened or autonomous beings. As a result, contemporary research on human imitation offers new and exciting potential for exploring and reevaluating fundamental questions about what it means to be human.
However, despite recent work attesting to its essential role, imitation still remains largely misunderstood within many fields as a secondary, rather than central, feature of human life. This is due largely to many enduring and deeply ingrained philosophical and conceptual biases concerning imitation, some dating back thousands of years, which only recently have come under critical question and reevaluation. In addition, there are still too few scholars investigating the obvious links between recent research on imitation and existing theories of human development, cognition, and culture. What is more, the present need for interdisciplinary collaboration addressed by this volume comes from the remarkable fact that many scholars and researchers have arrived at their groundbreaking conclusions concerning human imitation in complete isolation from one another. Nowhere is this more poignantly demonstrated than in the separate developments of René Girard's mimetic theory, and contemporary experimental research on human imitation.
Beginning with his literary research in the early 1960s, Girard discovered certain repetitive patterns of imitation that proved reliable and consistent throughout different periods of history. He concluded that humans not only imitated surface behaviors but also, more fundamentally, were motivated, unknowingly, according to imitative or mimetic principles of desire. Mimetic desire, as Girard perceived it, was an essential yet paradoxical feature of human relations that generated social bonding and affiliation as well as intense forms of competition, rivalry, and even violence. From this understanding, Girard went on to interpret a wide range of anthropological texts and phenomena. He further concluded not only that imitation was essentially human, but that it was the founding social force that propelled proto-humans to establish culture and religion through primitive forms of ritual sacrifice—a social mechanism that contained escalating in-group violence by deflecting it against an outside or surrogate victim. In effect, Girard developed an entire theory of human intersubjectivity and religious and cultural evolution on the basis of his understanding of imitation. As a result of his extensive writing and research over the last 50 years, it is "clear to a wide range of scholars that Girard is one of the most original and influential cultural theorists on the contemporary scene."
Until recently, such a pervasive and foundational role of imitation in human life was either largely ignored or misunderstood by experimental scientists. This is no longer the case. Within the last few decades, there has been a dramatic surge of interest across a wide range of disciplines. Researchers now argue that imitation is an innate, and characteristically human, ability that guides cognitive and social development from the very beginning of life, both from developmental and evolutionary perspectives. Not only does imitation function powerfully in the parent-infant dyad to bring about experience-dependent neurocognitive growth, but it thrives in adulthood as one of the most ubiquitous, organizing, and unconscious characteristics of human social relations. In fact, so foundational is our capacity to imitate, that many researchers believe it to be the linchpin that contributed to a wide-scale neural reorganization of the brain, allowing for the coevolution of more complex social, cultural, and representational abilities from earlier primates to humans. Undoubtedly, empirical investigations on human imitation are now among the most innovative areas of research contributing to the future of a more unified and coherent understanding of the cognitive and social sciences.
The parallels between Girard's literary and anthropological insights and the conclusions based on contemporary empirical investigations are therefore remarkable and deserve a more detailed and comparative review. Yet surprisingly, despite the inherent overlap between these two fields, there have been no substantial inquiries concerning the critical question of human imitation that have attempted to apply and synthesize recent empirical research with Girard's mimetic theory. The purpose of this book, then, is to help initiate such a process by pioneering collaboration between scholars of Girard's mimetic theory and experimental researchers in the cognitive and social sciences.
Is imitation unique to the human species? If so, how is such a seemingly mundane ability central to the generative and complex processes necessary for human development and religious and cultural evolution? Furthermore, is it possible that imitation is foundational to our most prized forms of human intelligence, empathy, and sociality as well as our most enduring and reproachful acts of human conflict, violence, and destruction? If so, how do we understand this paradox? And why is it so difficult to acknowledge and come to terms with our natural human tendency to imitate?
These are some of the main questions addressed in this book. In doing so, we have put together a collection of chapters that display the unique theoretical links that can now be made from the neural basis of social interaction to the structure and evolution of human culture and religion. These chapters also demonstrate the valuable contribution that contemporary experimental science can make to Girard's theoretical formulations by clarifying important cognitive, developmental, and evolutionary dimensions of imitation that are not accounted for in his mimetic theory—and in complementary fashion, how empirical researchers may benefit from previously unsuspected implications of human imitative phenomena already discovered by Girard and other mimetic scholars working from a more anthropological perspective. As this volume reveals, when taken together, both imitation research and mimetic theory provide a complementary set of theories that lend greater clarity and explanatory depth to the study of human imitation than is found in either field alone.
Ultimately, we feel that furthering this collaborative effort is essential, not only for the impact it might have on a wide range of disciplines in arriving at a more encompassing view of our human imitative nature, but also for the potential of this shared knowledge to shed light on some of the most pressing and complex questions of our contemporary world; namely, how are we to understand the immense quandary of human violence (even the threat of violence) as manifest in a variety of forms on the world scene, and what are the religious, cultural, and relational factors that contribute to its proliferation or reduction? Mimetic scholars and imitation researchers are on the cutting edge of some of the most innovative breakthroughs in understanding our distinctive capacities for both incredible acts of empathy and compassion as well as mass antipathy and violence. If genuine dialogue can be created and sustained between these two bodies of research, then perhaps we may benefit from a greater appreciation of the incredible nature of human life, culture, and religion—one that may very well be essential to understanding how human relationships can be transformed through infinitely more imaginative and nonviolent ways of relating. This, at least, is what we hope to convey and inspire with the following chapters.
The purpose of this introductory chapter is to provide some background to the theories and issues considered in this book. A brief historical sketch will serve to highlight the significance of the more recent developments of Girard's mimetic theory and the new science of human imitation, as well as the need for integration between the two.
A Brief History of Imitation
Contemporary theory and research produces a profound curiosity about past conceptualizations concerning human imitation. If it is true that imitation is one, if not the fundamental mechanism driving human development, motivation, and cultural evolution, then how have previous generations of philosophers and social scientists understood this central human ability? One would think that if imitation were so vital and important to human life, then it would be evident and known in some ways by the experiences and observations of it throughout history. Indeed, imitation has been central to philosophical discourse since the foundation of Western civilization. The issue at hand is not so much that imitation has been unrecognized, but rather the way in which it has been treated and emphasized during different periods of history, including important dimensions that, until recently, have been overlooked.
From Antiquity through the Renaissance
Beginning in ancient Greece and extending through the Renaissance, imitation in human life was conceptualized primarily in two ways: the imitation, or re-presentation of nature and human behavior in the arts, and the imitation of preceding artists, writers, religious leaders, philosophers, and tradesmen alike. These two dimensions reflect the most self-evident, or consciously recognizable, features of human imitation that are still emphasized today—that is, our unique representational skills and our unsurpassed capacity for cultural learning, including the creation, transmission, and improvement upon knowledge across generations.
Plato and Aristotle were the first to treat the subject of mimesis (the Greek word for imitation) at length, with each representing opposing attitudes that would prove influential throughout history, including up to the present day. Plato's ideas are considered a primary source of our modern tendency to devalue imitation. In Plato's system of thought, all elements of matter in the created world were a mere shadow, or imitation, of their absolute Form in the nonmaterial realm of the Good. In his pursuit of objective truth and ethical grounds for the moral life, Plato believed that reason alone was capable of perceiving directly these most absolute forms of reality. On the other hand, knowledge based on mimesis in the arts was considered a devalued form of the truth since it was based on a twice-removed imitation of reality (e.g., the artist's painting of a table was a copy of the material object, which itself was a copy of the absolute form). Plato also perceived that the arts played on the emotions of their audience in a way that exaggerated certain aspects of reality for their effect (e.g., plays that dramatized the life of the gods and their relation to humans).
While open at times to the importance of mimesis in the arts, Plato "saw in philosophy a much more potent and secure pedagogy, whereby reason, unshackled by feeling, passion, and the other agencies of matter, might more effectively form and liberate the human spirit." Thus, in Plato's idealistic system of knowledge, mimesis was viewed as a weaker version and potentially grave distortion of the truth, one that could not measure up to the percept of abstract reason. Indeed, "mimesis was seen to limit intelligence, destroy identity, and even lead to murder or suicide!" As a result, the Platonic tradition has been viewed, in part, as having an "insidious influence" on our contemporary attitude toward imitation. "Even today, conformism, lack of initiative, and submissiveness are associated with imitation."
Aristotle had a much more positive view of imitation. Early on, he affirmed that "Imitation is natural to man from childhood, one of his advantages over the lower animals being this, that he is the most imitative creature in the world, and learns at first by imitation." His Poetics dealt primarily with drama and art as the mirror of nature with respect to the natural world and human behavior. In contrast to Plato's idealized separation between form and matter, Aristotle saw the two as fundamentally interdependent, where "form needed matter to express its full potential and grow to maturity; and matter needed form for determination and stability.... The subsequent intentional union of the mind with the world about it was direct, in the sense that things were known in themselves and not merely as shadows; hence poetry, a special kind of imitative knowledge, was proportionately direct, unlike Plato's imitation of an imitation." From this perspective, the practice of mimesis was seen in all of its positive aspects and benefits for furthering knowledge and creating beauty that both strove to represent, and in some respects improve upon, the natural world, including human conduct and knowledge in general.
The Aristotelian view of imitation dominated discourse from antiquity through the Renaissance period. In fact, the wide range of cultural and artistic innovations characteristic of the Renaissance were based philosophically on the importance of imitation, particularly the communal aspects of artistic collaboration and the imitation of previous generations. "Despite the various ways ancient authors cast their discussions of imitation, all agreed that it is inevitable, and desirable to the extent that the imitator recasts his source and appropriates it to his own inventive capacity; only in this way can the art evolve and avoid decline." This "mimetic tradition" was not only applied to the arts, but was also the basis for continued advancement and reform in religious, historical, and philosophical traditions. Thomas à Kempis's Imitation of Christ in the fifteenth century is a classic example of the positive attitude toward imitation that was widely evident throughout this period. In effect, in contrast to our modern notion of limiting growth, or mere conformity, imitation was seen as a primary means of social and cultural progress throughout this long period of human history. "Undoubtedly the change in attitude in modern times has made more difficult our understanding of imitation and our capacity to perceive its benefits and its ties to Renaissance inventiveness."
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