Mimesis is perhaps the best known of the traditional aesthetic principles. Of course it is never precisely, or simply, an aesthetic principle. This is not only because aesthetics itself is a more recent invention. It is also because mimesis represents less a straightforwardly positive principle in Ancient Greek thought than a relation to knowledge, truth and being that is subject to ambivalent evaluation. Whereas Plato rejects it in terms of its distance from truth – its simulation of surface details that involves no genuine understanding of things, and more particularly of the abstract forms that underlie them – Aristotle, more pragmatically, regards mimesis as a natural inclination and as a means of learning about the world. It should be noted that Plato’s concern is with the epistemological claims of representations, whereas Aristotle focuses on the performative dimension of imitation. The one entails a relation between an image and an underlying formal model, while the other entails a play of repetition in time. For Aristotle, we learn (or can learn) via imitation, while Plato’s concern is with the distance between simulation and truth. Plato’s concern has a spatial, logical emphasis, while Aristotle’s more positive conception of mimesis has a temporal and social reproductive emphasis. Plato’s critique hinges on the substance of knowledge, while Aristotle’s focuses on the process of learning.
We have become too attached to a narrowly Platonic and spatial conception of mimesis. We think of distance and doubling, as though the model and the representation (a surfeit of representations) exist simultaneously, as there is no sense of displacement and loss within this scenario – no sense that the model may have no substantial existence, that it may constantly be threatening to disappear, and only a work of imitation can make it persist. We think of mimesis in terms of simulation – the immoral creation of doubles – rather than in terms of necessity. Mimesis is not simply a playful luxury in oral societies, it is absolutely needed if anything is to be maintained and persist. For this reason, there is a need to reconsider mimesis – and the motivation for mimesis – not only in terms of the metaphor of relatively static images, and of the play of mirroring and epistemological confusion this entails, but also to consider mimesis as a form of repetition that is fundamentally concerned with conservation through time.
So if modernism rejects mimesis, it is not simply to prefer abstraction. It is also to forget the traditional, pre-literate relation to time and its fundamental relation to the problem of cultural reproduction and survival. Yet paradoxically, modernism can only celebrate the new and resist the spectre of repetition by incorporating repetition more closely within itself. Everything can exist at once since everything is infinitely reproduced.