Mimesis: Representation and Aesthetics;
Rituality, the Beautiful and the Sublime;
Performativity and Architecture.
Architecture, the Beautiful and the Sublime
1) Mimesis I (Definitions…).
2) Mimesis II (A Beautiful Mimesis /Mimesis of the Sublime).
3) Mimesis III (Poetics & Politics).
4) Anti-Mimesis I (Architecture and Mimesis).
5) Anti-Mimesis II (The Promise of Architecture/Architecture’s Promise).
6) Anti-Mimesis III (Again Aesthetics).
Mimesis/Anti-Mimesis: Architecture, the Beautiful and the Sublime investigates the misleading role of Mimesis in forming our understanding of representation and its others, in pretending to explain our relationship to architecture, and in its underpinning of the concepts of the Beautiful and the Sublime. So occluding the sense of performativity, or ritual exchange, which offers us an alternative way of understanding architecture, along with the rhetorical value of a troubling pleasure coupled with the rhetoric of the outside (the rhetoric of eternity); a rhetoric associated in a one-sided fashion with the terms Beautiful and Sublime.
The first section, ‘Mimesis I’, can safely be passed over by those willing to get straight to architectural matters (dealt with in Sections 4 and 5, ‘Anti-mimesis I’ and ‘II’ respectively) or to the re-examination of the terms ‘Beautiful’ and ‘Sublime’ from an non-exclusive point of view, which finds their kernel of truth to lie in their relation to the ritual element in human culture (Sections 2 and 6, ‘Mimesis II’ and ‘Anti-mimesis III’, respectively). The contents of Section 1 list the range of the concept of ‘Mimesis’ focusing on three issues, Mimesis and representation, Mimesis and the performative (in many ways the ‘opposite’ of the mimetic) and its relationship with the rhetoric of eternity (or the rhetoric of the ‘outside’).
‘Mimesis II’ treats of the terms ‘the Beautiful’ and ‘the Sublime’ as aesthetically privileged forms of Mimesis, to be superseded by an examination of their constitutive elements (as but two ‘moments’ from an aesthetic spectrum configured by comforting and discomforting forms of pleasure and a related opposition, featured in discussions of advanced rhetoric, that of the ‘inside’ and ‘outside’).
‘Mimesis III’ treats of a ragbag of attendant theoretical issues broadly concerning poetics and the political (the copy, the original, Myth, Nature).
‘Anti-Mimesis I’ the first of the two sections devoted to architecture, seeks to debunk the relevance of the concept of Mimesis in understanding architecture and suggests an approach based upon the human experience of architecture as made up of relations of contiguity, of layers or horizons.
‘Anti-Mimesis II’, the second section devoted to architecture, is perhaps the most difficult of the set, arguing for the role of the performative in the understanding of architecture. Indeed for the re-grounding of the understanding of (the role of consciousness in constituting) architecture through its performative functions. Architecture performs identity.
‘Anti-Mimesis III (Again Aesthetics)’, offers a summary of the fore-going critique of the concepts of ‘Mimesis’, ‘the Beautiful’, and ‘the Sublime’. Suggesting a recasting of the latter two terms as useful in describing the workings of (the effects of) a broad -that is inclusive- range of cultural phenomena.
Concerning the art of the copy from the mirror of Nature to the mirroring of the heavens, the copy of the map of the stars, the motions of the Hand of God. Where the hand of finite inscription passes without warning into the inscription of the Infinite Hand. And we the writers (the readers) find we are the written (and the read).
Mimesis. Always with a sense of representation, of repetition, of an accompanying, doubling shadow. A reference to something, somewhere else. Outside of itself (when identified, as beside itself: when unidentified, as beside the point, as pointing elsewhere… absolutely elsewhere). In whatever denomination of reference. Coin of memory. Means of exchange. Currency of communication. Currency of identification and belief.
Beginning with the temporal as the source of representation, of our everyday acts of Mimesis, and proceeding to that which might be thought to be beyond representation, the a-temporal, the impossible Mimesis of the Beyond. En route finding the relationship of representation, of Mimesis, to that which is designated the same and the other; first through the relationship of the (community of the) Same to the other (to its ‘other’) and then in the relationship of the Same to the Other (writ large). The latter offering to us an other without a same. A Mimesis therefore not the same at all. A copy which is not the same…
The Mimesis of the Temporal (making/copying). The bottom-line in duplication. Duplicity of word and thing (even down to the echo of thing in word, the material nature of the word, its phonic, graphic, mental trace). Representation as it is, as such; relations of similarity and resemblance, the miracle of the translation of actions into words. More cogently the degree of evolution of realism; mimesis here is used for the ‘realistic’ description of events (Auerbach); its degree of correspondence to its object. Then (or on the other hand) there is (this) representation as divisible into mimesis and diegesis, a matter of the directness of the relation between speaker and spoken (not word and thing), the division into showing and telling, citing and describing (at one remove), direct and indirect speech (Plato). Making the words of drama and the images of film (and their interpenetration in realisation) into mimetic arts: leaving poetry and verbal/textual narrative (citation aside) to diegesis. Then finally we have the degree of mixture, or co-reliance of both (of the overt or covert presence of a narrator) in the tug-of-war between citation and description, in the poetics of verbal narrative, the poetics of the word.
Showing (showing the words spoken) and telling (paraphrasing the words spoken or describing an event) as mimesis and diegesis; but these terms may also, and very quickly, be inverted: ‘showing’ is, of course, shown through representation (be it repeated words or made images and not a matter of witnessing the original event)they are thus re-shown, and so retold; and ‘telling’ as the showing of the telling; leading us, not least through their convertibility, their aporetic ambiguity, to the world of the text where the text is the world (Derrida).
Mimesis and Metaphor. At first sight, metaphor is the mimicry at the heart of Mimesis (whose relation of similitude is spelt out in simile, but offered up without apology -if sometimes in disguise- in metaphor). This replication of the elements that make up the similarity, the parallel parts that make wholes similar, may also be read as resolving themselves in a double synecdoche (the Liege group). Yet the strings of words themselves offer no real mimicry (unless we pass them by the route of the image) rather the mimetic element is built up out of reconstructing the events (real or imaginary, actual or fictive) from the flow of symbols, as one would unravel a code. Unless we pass by the image (the image of the thing represented), then the word is related (as it is in life) to the thing only by convention, as a symbol, or better, as a signifier (material or mental inscription) and signified (mental picture or meaning) to its referent (Saussure). Language is only indirectly mimetic. Language is only mimetic in relation to itself. Reality, putative source of Mimesis, is always, and quite literally, a different order of things.
The real victory of Mimesis will be digital (when all aspects of an object-event will be stored and replicated, not just the light bouncing from it, but its weight also, so that it may interact realistically with other such stored data/object-events in a virtual environment). The ends of Mimesis: the virtual copy.
Anti-Plato. The copy is not less
(as Plato maintained) but more. Mimesis is more? We, here before it, sense it
is more. Why? (And how on earth?) First, it has or represents or indicates more
than itself if it has, or has had, or is believed to have had, contact with
something more – its referent (and because of the looseness of this
connection, to many other possible referents). And most especially if it represents a link to something beyond, something larger, beyond
even its referent - the beyond (not on earth). Likewise, a similar aura may obtain if we perceive in it an echo of a copy of
something beyond (again, over and above the literal field of reference),
something apparently not of this earth (the something that also transforms the
genres of Landscape and Still Life) the power of which still hovers around it,
although a mere copy. Yet could it be that this power is in some part bestowed
upon it by its presence as representation? For it is the ideal, or unanchored,
nature of representation itself (its presence as a copy, a stand in) that is
found conferring this effect. An aggrandisement which is the most basic source
of a sense of the sacred. This glow is further magnified if the representation
is present in, or presented through, a means of expression such as a precious
metal. The stamp of an everyday object or creature is transformed by being
stamped onto, by being moulded in precious metal; as in the case of a plate, a
broach, or of coins (or vice versa, as with the shroud of
Mimesis and the Performative (between Ritual and the Word). Where x is said to be the same as y (to represent or to ‘be’ y for the purposes of communication) and believed to be so, this act of union constitutes, not only a sign (the relation of representation), but also a performative (the act of identity): x is y if and only if we say so (we believe so) and when we say so (when this event is performed). This is the agreement that underlies the union of words and things (in this way there is a trace of the performative in all meaning, in all words, in all identity, the identity of words and meaning). As when we promise… a promise to others or to ourselves about the nature of something. Like the meaning of a word. An unspoken compact. A promise ‘understood’. A social contract on the meaning of words, without words. A social ritual. Without words, the word becomes the Word. The power of agreement meets the force of belief. Through the force of habit: ritual. Changing word into act. Proposition into emotion. (Representation) thing into (some) thing. Something else. (Sometimes…)
(But done invisibly. Like the other everyday rituals of life. Like the near invisibility of the performative in the construction of meaning. Whilst at the visible end, the performative proper loudly announces its intention to create, seemingly ex nihilo, shared ground between word and event, of word as event – over and above its phonic presence, its semantic network, its context in syntax and world. Over and above these: the change of state, of identity, of classification, of being, performed by the performative. The ritual force of the promissory note, irrevocable, eternal - or so we would think - the verbal end of the continuum that ends with the grand events, consumerist or otherwise, with which we construct, conform and consecrate our collective being.)
Often embedded in ritual format, we may locate the form of Mimesis that invokes copying into the self (enacting/copying). Consciously or unconsciously making of oneself, from the display of external demeanour to the folds of inner being… a copy. Whether being influenced by Nature (mimicry, by any other name). Or being influenced by others’ behaviour (from semi-conscious, semi-automatic protective imitation, like the colouring of insects, to the deliberate setting up of someone or something as model for emulation). If the ‘others’ are the Same (our group and its norms, as with the concept of Mimesis in the work of Girard) then we have our community of identification (imaginary or otherwise – remembering, of course, that all such communities are in some way imaginary, facts of the mind). If the ‘others’ in question are in fact of the other (small case), the other case, the other side of the equation, then we have found our competition, our equals-as-enemies, those (definitively) not part of the community of the Same. Copy or die (if you are fortunate enough to be given the choice, or to be able to choose…).
Mimesis and the A-temporal. If the Mimesis in question is in relation to the Other (upper case), then we have the metaphysical relation; the sublime relation to the Other. Often governed by an edict forbidding the copy (from the varieties of religious iconoclasm, to philosophical disapproval as in the work of Levinas). Copying ideals, the ideal, immortals, the mythic, the relation to the universal as foundational (fictional, axiom-dependant) or society as a model of, as modelled upon an absent ideal. With ourselves read as already (poor, degraded) copies of something sublime (Nature, the Gods, the ideal forms of Plato or some other fundamentalist credo). On the other hand such a mimesis may be read as the attempt to reverse the trajectory of the Fall (essentialism, alienation, authenticity, where difference is defined by the negative). Heaven (and the mode of being of its inhabitants, the angels) realisable here, on earth. The way of salvation, the narrow route of the righteous, the path of panacea. Paths requiring a single truth, an undivided (unfolded) map, sectarianism masquerading as a universal (the ubiquitous rhetoric of part for whole, ‘some’ for ‘all’).
another definition, one following on from the a-temporal formula suggested
above, Mimesis is read as the earliest human relation to Nature (the
However it has more recently it has been suggested (Taussig, writing in the wake of Benjamin, Adorno and… Bataille) that the mimetic faculty is that capacity in all of us (a species-being) which enables us to use the other to help make the world signify; to use ‘the nature that culture uses to make second nature’, to make ourselves, to understand others.
Reprise. Mimesis in three modalities: Same; other; Other.
(i) Mimesis of the Same; as recognition; membership, learning, socialisation, community (if of the same community). The Same as that which is bigger, successful, surviving – or so we would like to believe (our hyperbole, as opposed to the unutterable hyperbole of the Other). Parents. Peers. An ideal, that is, nevertheless, largely an imaginary community of identification.
(ii) Mimesis of the other… as an enemy to be either destroyed or incorporated; but to be learnt from first (whence classified as foe, not just as prey…). It approaches. Bigger again, than ourselves. A threat. Or almost; we are not sure. Better to copy first… a safety check! If scared, than take what scares and throw it back. Mimesis. Learn what it is that gives the other the advantage. And repeat. Mimesis. Always assuming that the other did in fact intend to scare or to dominate, has come to steal or control, an assumption made of the similarity of the other to us, the other as the same (as us), made the same here in order to identify motivation, intention and rationale, a paranoid assumption made out of the worst of ourselves, our fears born of collective self-knowledge. A mimesis whose origin may be ourselves. Mirror mimesis. Potential trap.
(iii) Mimesis of the Other (unmistakably, unquestionably, the Other). As fear, as terror; as the Sublime relation - the very configuration of the Sublime relation. The Pythagorean imitation of the heavens, the divine made concrete, the world of graven images and universal formulas. A copying of the highest power, the first term, the last word, the superior level, of the divinity, of the greater power, of Lord and Master, of the hand that moves the horoscope, that rocks the cradle - as with a child before its parents, as with all dependants. Therefore of the relation to the stars, to ideals, to ideal types, to immortals and other imaginary but crucial notions. To objects we must copy… on that side, the other-side and so inaccessible to us… this side, temporality’s side. The sublime relation as the unavoidable, impossible relation to the eternal. Mimesis in the context of this shadow play is simultaneously the desire to understand larger matters (matters larger than ourselves) and to justify the existence of current totems, the masks of power. The Mimetic paradox.
Copying the invisible. Making appear the invisible ones. The Beautiful ones; the Angels and Immortals. Copying as calling up, conjuring. Our compact with the Other. The very origin and rationale of ritual. The function of its uncanny frame. The beings called up in the centre of the pentagram. So ritual is ‘as if’…a mimesis without an origin, a real relation to a ‘fictional’ otherside, to the realm of myth; for all relations to the eternal are relations to the Sublime, are types of the sublime relation (not least to the eternally beautiful). The mimesis of these immaterial matters, the ritual relation; the wafer of community confirmation. The cup of communal blood. Renewal proceeds via the sublime relation. Mimesis is its handmaiden.
But Mimesis as fictive.
And Mimesis as (in the context of) ritual.
Mimesis as Ritual.
(A Beautiful Mimesis /A Mimesis of the Sublime)
Two historically privileged modes of Mimesis: Mimesis in heightened form, bearing intensified affect; the Beautiful and the Sublime. Representation as Art.
The Beautiful and the Sublime… An outworn opposition? Dancing partners who have held the floor for too long?
And Mimesis? Also an old tool. But a tool to unpick the pattern of the dance.
When attempting to go through the notions of the Beautiful and the Sublime (assuming that they are still of some use and that we may learn something from them, rather than simply ignore them or go around them) two pathways appear, one dealing with the notion of the copy as such, one relying upon a particular, and somewhat strange, form of the copy: the Via Mimetica and the Via Gothica.
The Via Mimetica. Via the concept of Mimesis, of which the Beautiful and the Sublime are sub-sets, even as they may point beyond it (we ask: what it is that is copied and how does it work; what is the relationship of sign and affect, and what it is that is supposed to be happening there…).
And then from one particularly faded copy, one less dazzling, distinctly (or indistinctly) darker; we find a mode of copying that makes up a less serious, ‘impure’, even ‘sacrilegious’ – even… ‘demonic’ - genre (also a genre of hyperbole):
The Via Gothica. Via ‘Gothic’ representations (the role of a ‘lesser’ or less unsettling content – as compared with the ideal type of the Sublime as such). The presentation of unpleasantness. Of discomfort or of the discomforting. Or via the equivalent of the ‘Gothic’ mixed pleasures that result from an emphasis on form that is no longer, or not simply, beautiful: that of genre-mixing, introversion and content or citation-mixing; all capable of calling up uncanny, unsettling effects (affects) in the reader or viewer.
Beauty offers us, is offered to us, by the copying, the representation of actual forms said to be beautiful (yet already it is as if a further pre-existing harmony was responsible for transfiguring the presence of these actual forms…). The Beautiful is present in form. The sublime copies, the representations that call forth the Sublime, however, are supposed to be of no such existing forms, rather it is through the presence of the chaotic, unsettling forms represented we are lead to the hidden presence of the Sublime (the presence of hidden forms beyond our understanding). The Sublime is always behind something.
Yet both are actually just representations that call-up differing responses: One set of signs offer Beauty; the other (or another) the Sublime…If we ignore the ideological (or even metaphysical) explanation they bear, then both sets of responses are triggered by things we can see and copy. They are both ‘this side’, ‘inside’; and even worse (for the binary nature of these two concepts), Beauty can also be said to have one foot ‘outside’, in the abstractable, pure, or ideal nature of the forms involved. Furthermore, if all this is the case then there is nothing to say that these two supposed opposites are not actually composed of a number of key elements found in combination. As we would expect when faced with moments of quantitative degree or points along a continuum rather than of qualitative contradiction.
So in the copying of unsettling forms, forms said to be Sublime, this aesthetic relation is already represented in Nature, in mountains, canyons, the sea, the stars, vistas already felt to be sources of sublime feeling, already said to be thought of as the representation of the unrepresentable, of the unattainable Beyond, of religious verities (matters larger than the self) best represented in poetry or art. It is these absent entities that we feel to be represented (as symbol, as figure) in art said to be ‘Sublime’. In Chinese traditional painting (landscape) for example, we have the presence of both the Beautiful and the Sublime. Combined. Inseparable. Beauty (previous patterns, pre-existing forms and models, idealised types, moments –spaces- of harmony) and the Sublime (manifesting an exterior or external, and so religious deixis). As witnessed by the history of Chinese art. (A history that also suggests to us the redefinition of our own forms of understanding of effects said to be ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Sublime’.)
Moreover, the copying of unsettling forms or contents as such, whether small or large scale, ‘frivolous or ‘serious’, ‘Gothic’ or Sublime, questioning or overwhelming, puzzling or portentous, whether by showing ghosts or mentioning the unmentionable (the work of H. P. Lovecraft expoits this ambiguity shamelessly), all refer in some way to an outside, an inaccessible, invisible realm. At its most gentle the portrayal of such scenes (unearthly, uncanny) posses their own beauty - which are sublime by reference, yet beautiful in form. The modest scale contradicts the grandiose nature of the traditional concept of the Sublime, yet the content is barely ‘classical’ or ‘pure’ in any formal way.
So both terms may point beyond. Leaving the Sublime as the court of terror and awe.
Then there is the presence of the Sublime as infinite number, as a vastness that would effect us (or so we like to think not wishing to take responsibility for our trembling). Unsettling. Only a step away from terror. We before it, before the presence of something vast (denying that before it we also felt such emotion). This quantitative scale of discomfort, of inner disturbance, ranging from the flavour of the ‘Gothic’ all the way to the Sublime (often accompanied with the suggestion of supernatural content) indicates that this classification, and not the ‘Sublime’ as such, is logically as well as experientially prior. Indeed the ‘Gothic’ may be read with profit as the hidden or occluded branch of the Sublime, the unruly relation consigned to the back room when guests arrive (or hidden in the attic…). Or perhaps the Sublime should even be reclassified as the art-house branch of the ‘Gothic’. Rather both appear to share their origins in and recurrent obsessions with, the supernatural - the Other and Beyond so beloved of human culture. This route proffers access to the sacred in human culture in all its forms, popular and negative as well as serious, mysterious and unspeakable.
So the sublime, like beauty, is also present in the popular, is an important part of popular culture (witness the popularity of the genres of horror, the supernatural, science-fiction and fantasy, and the discomforting situations of the thriller, not to mention the evolution of the melodrama with its familial and romantic crises). Even the terror and awe of landscape, traditionally the key to sublime emotion, is to be found in the disaster movie and in all forms of exploitation of the spectacle (now augmented by CGI). Hence the move of ‘high’ art into the sublime of non-representation…
Therefore the combination of ‘discomfort’ or ‘non-simple’ pleasure + reference to an exterior, an ‘outside’, a beyond (via semantics, theme or some other mode of deixis), these are the two key elements usually found supporting in this area of aesthetic experience. A definition of the sense of the Sublime (Beauty, as we have seen, can also point ‘outside’). Number and fear (relation to a greater power, the disturbing notion of infinity) come second; a quantitative extrapolation which leads to a form of the ‘Sublime’ (as classically defined in Romantic thought) where (infinite) number is read as the unthinkable, invisible, reinforcing the importance of unrepresentability and inner disturbance in the definition and workings of the Sublime.
Beautiful. As when all is in its exact place and proportion (it could not be better arranged). Flowers. The Still Life. Confirmation of our sanity in a sane world. And confirmation of a Beyond yet more rational, yet more ordered. A form-based aesthetic + apposite content: a combination which yields the option on ever greater refinement in the organisation of the chosen content. This same form-based element will take us into 20th century Abstraction and Minimalism and the evaporation of this content. Leaving only the Sublime (in this way behind the Beautiful we find the Sublime). By contrast other 20th century genres, such as Figurative Expressionism, the ‘Found Object’ tradition, and Pop Art seem to be impure, materialist, chaotic; a touch of the same aesthetic as the ‘Gothic’ – perhaps even constituting a ‘kitchen sink’ sublime.
The ‘Gothic’ was anyway the genre that incited the theory of the Sublime in literature and drama (an inheritance from the uncanny in renaissance and baroque drama, itself an inheritance from supernatural elements of the late classical and medieval Saint’s Life). Indeed it is this reference to the supernatural, a ‘pop’ sacred, or a ‘low’ negative sacred consecrated to entertainment (a feature as old as the Greek Romances, if not older, see early Egyptian literature) that defines the ‘Gothic’ as a genre and as a cultural classification - as opposed to a historical phenomena limited to a specific period. The ‘Gothic’ therefore will be seen as manifesting a family resemblance to the ‘Sublime’ in the sense of a relation, a deixis, a topic referring to the Unseen; perhaps itself requiring a small case ‘sublime’… Anyway a ‘Gothic’, mixed or unsettling pleasure (an impure pleasure; a pleasure coloured with the feelings one might well have, enjoy, and not enjoy; would not enjoy at all if they were real, if they did not happen at one remove, as representation, as mimesis, as a mimesis of our fears and anxieties; truly a … masochistic pleasure). A pleasure one suspects to be as old as art (be it the art of image-making or the art of fiction) and therefore as old as the sacred in art. The nightmare in art. As old as the shadows waiting beyond the warmth and light of the fire. As old as the cold hand that touches the back of ones neck.
Mixed pleasures: this notion also provides a key to today’s post-modern pleasures; the disturbance caused by genre-mixing, citation, and self-referentiality; infinite recycling made possible by the use of a knowing irony as a form of sublime pleasure (the post-modern sublime). Or just by ‘mixing it’, as art -before modernism- has always done...
It is this mix of beautiful and sublime (steadying and unsteadying) effects that is central to the rounded description and comprehension of art; not the simplistic (and elitist) binary we have inherited from the philosophy of the 19th century.
A combination that works for, that works its way through and in, other arts, the arts of the West’s Others, (the Chinese, Indian, African and pre-Columbian American art traditions). Therefore why not our own? To escape from the classical definition of Beauty, and the Romantic concept of the Sublime, to by-pass their modern appropriation as the parallels to high and low, serious and popular art, so to inhabit mixed continuums; the more or less beautiful, the more or less sublime; the sublimity at the base of beauty, the beauty of sublime effects. A descriptive poetics, as well as a theoretical aesthetics, that will cover all effects - including the ritual relation in art.
The ritual relation in art. Found most quickly in the relation of identity to the aesthetic effects we call the ‘Beautiful’ and the ‘Sublime’ (respectively reassuring: and destroying/shaking – but only in order to reconfirm… to refound the self and its supporting cast). The way to the secret of the ritual relation in art lies through the sublime relation in art, a relation to the other side, and its attendant rhetorics…governed by such terms as ‘infinity’ and ‘eternity’. But in combination with -and not as opposed to- the Beautiful. All in the service of the most fundamental function of Mimesis: the copying of the self (and its place in community) that constitutes (self) recognition.
Mimesis again: copying, representing, self and others; self in relation to others, and to the Other; the visible and the invisible; combining the two artificially separated modes called the ‘Beautiful’ and the ‘Sublime’ (or redefining, indeed refining, their effects according to the interiority or exteriority of their deixis and the degrees of comfort or discomfort conjured by their forms or contents). And by means of combining these two (whichever two, Beautiful and Sublime, or deixis and mode of pleasure) arriving at sublime beauty.
(Poetics & Politics)
(Politics) Foremost there is the realm of the social copy; the kingdom of the exemplar and the democratic pressure of the equal. The parade of peers and ideals, comrades and gurus, middle management and the top of the hierarchy, level playing fields and pyramids (not to mention the base, abject home of the negative exemplar). All incorporated into the self through copying and memory; with units of memory (words, images, sequences/events) as units of mimesis and identity (perhaps as a special kind of ‘meme’, unit of semiotics). Adding value and morality offers a division into good and bad forms of mimesis; good and bad collective ideals, exemplary and problematic roles and identifications. With the memory of such mimetic formations maintained in our rituals of everyday life as in feasts and other major ritual exchanges. Two sides of same identity coin: often involving destructive exchange: memory may even out live the actor, as in the martyr video, where suicide as identity statement and mode of exchange for that (posthumous) identity. On the smaller scale, destructive exchange is a feature of ‘macho’ masculine identities, as in the waste of smoking, etc. Consumption as imitation and ritual; or as definition against and ritual (employing the symbolic destruction or sacrifice of the other) – at the same time forming and remembering. Mimesis guaranteed by ritual.
Concerning other terminologies describing the copying of the ideal and its relation to social survival, we have the thinking of Max Weber and Renée Girard on social renewal (via, respectively, charismatic or sacrificial means). The central concern of both thinkers is the means employed in alleviating the crisis of identity, and so of social solidarity, a by-product of the lack of socially effective (shared) affect; result of the crisis of the belief in traditional authority as the crisis of ‘old’ authority. Such perspectives therefore are concerned with ritual renewal, and so are generational in essence (and include defining relations to some designated ‘other’, often in a sacrificial context). Mimesis, in this light, is a matter of copying exemplars and of mobilising the force that inspires them (and this is also true of negative exemplars, ‘others’, or scapegoats). Renewal is (like) ritual. All (prior or would-be) authorities attempt to use a-temporal ideals (the sublime) to cement their reign; but only the new are believable, are found to be sufficiently charged with affect. Further sets of distinctions are particular to religion, region, place and person.
(Poetics) Sublunary: the poetics of the word as the war between mimesis and diegesis, a war fought over the soul of narrative (and so history, remembering, reporting, bearing witness). The chosen battleground is the politics of showing, the degree of proximity (or illusionism) when confronted with the question of the real or point of origin. Yet this is a showing that is always (in verbal matters) a citation, true of both mimesis and diegesis, whether as exchangeable in terms of their fundamental ambiguity or more finally in terms of their status as absolute representation (in matters of the image, all this is true of the copy). Yet in fiction (and in the fictional image) all are without any possible point of origin (or specific external reference). Yet still believable, recognisable as if possessing such an original referent (maintaining a ‘general’ frame of reference). But as with the ‘actual’ copy, the original is absent. Making both types of representation (fictional and ‘real’ (sic)) account of themselves equally before the court of illusion (whence the possibility of Holocaust denial and of the general re-writing of history, the debate over history as ‘fact’ – in the absence of a time machine only (its) representation and archives are left). Moreover, the element of each as (re)presentation offers its presence (regardless of prior connection or genesis) as something more. Mimesis in art reinforces the notion of mimesis as ‘more’… the copy as more that the original (its presence alone guarantees this superabundance, this plenitude, when contrasted to the shadow world that is the abode of the absent original). The original, could such a thing be said to exist, is it not simply something ‘more’ than its previous copy…
(Politics). Nature (Object). Mimesis as Mythic, the modern myth of the anchor deep in the sea of the Real, as the still centre of ideology, as its sanctified and sanctifying exterior, its transcendent outside, its foundation … (almost extra-temporal, such is its status, yet this would make it unreal and wholly absent, banished to the realm of eternity, home of true myth). The always exterior, the foundation, known elsewhere as Nature (or Matter, Nature’s gift, our homage). Our use of …such as the (our) return on Nature’s gift: as if we were unaware of the spider that unspins the world, makes cease the turning of the gyre, of entropy, of the power of waste. No free lunch; no free gift. Nothing can be treated as absolutely free, without the debt of responsibility. As if maternal, parental love was extrapolated into all transactions in, and with, the World, after infancy (Nature as undemanding Mother, the myth of Mother Nature). Mimetic confusion; misleading Myth. Mimesis in full subjunctive mode. Once we believed our waste would go away, become radically (and superstitiously) absent; now we observe our waste products diverting the course of our civilisation. Mimesis must learn to mimic Nature by copying ‘her’ cyclicity and contexuality, ‘her’ habit of co-adaptation. Otherwise Nature in its sublime and threatening guise of extinction will appear like a dark storm on the horizon. And we find ourselves back with another variation on the Sublime, now re-robed as Ecology, as the revenge of Nature, as the unrelenting face of Entropy. (All in capitals signifying their status as our new and most cogent myths, most proximate forms of Mimesis)
Entropy. One antidote to which is ritual, the art of renewal (and art as ritual, see Monet’s ‘Grainstacks’).
Which may help us find an apposite, less self-defeatingly destructive form of Mimesis, of mimetic existence; least we end up following too profoundly that other definition of Mimesis (favoured by the Pythagoreans) and become, not the copies of the ideal, the otherworldly, the existence of Beings as they are written in the stars, but their companions, newly lit stars in the deep, deep blue of the heavens.
(Poetics) The Rhetoric of the Eternal. Mimesis of the Sublime. The always Other, a presence guaranteed via myth. Its persistence as a cultural (literary) attraction offering (as it always has done) the pull of a force not to be slighted as a source of rhetorical advantage. Providing the pole of gravity that makes turn the text. But not always as a repetition of the Myth (of the old myth) rather of its structure, its formula, its abstracted rhetorical force, renewed in recent clothing, the essence of prior ritual renewed in modern ritual form, the forms of rituality in representation. Myth masquerading as Mimesis. The ritual at the heart of the Realist text.
Myth can be found as surviving in the Modern as the source of (the rhetoric of) the uncanny effect. This, often realist, detail, which nevertheless admits of a sublime reference, brings the shadowlands of ritual, the approaching steps of Fate, unreasoning and beyond comprehension, closer than we might have expected, or might find comfortable. What we have is quite simply disturbing; as much a decorative frisson as a meaning-trail to be followed; part ornament, hidden in mimesis; part intimator of hidden grand designs. Like the use of suicide, the sacrifice that is also a Saint’s Life (a martyr narrative) in Goethe’s novel, Elective Affinities, and in films, such as Von Trier’s Breaking the Waves. Also true of the mimetic use (and so the rhetoric) of coincidence in film and literature in general.
(Politics). Nature (Subject). Then there is the survival of the relation of Mimesis to Nature in the guise of the true and authentic, and more particularly in the gift relation (as a ‘natural’ pre-capitalist, pre-civilised form of exchange and relationship). A relation writ large in the firmament of capitalist society such that, after its (putative) disconnection from religion (slighter than imagined by the Enlightenment) in the epoch of early capitalism, elements of it were still sufficiently at large to be appropriated by totalitarianism during the crises of industrial capitalism (and later in those countries going through a similar phase of economic development and class/national strife). Later still, in the countries of advanced capitalism, this complex of relations was to be bound to the commodity (as well as to nation, language and other forms of group identity). The ubiquity of the commodity relation is re-sacralised, that is, through the good offices of the gift relation in social life, now part of the general life of the commodity (on whom it is dependant for its means of circulation, as, under capitalist market conditions, is everything else). But who is using whom? Different social forms have different means of circulation: recognition, social cohesion and community continue. Identity’s proximity to the gift relation means that the latter is not so easily dispensed with. Better to say it has been wisely appropriated, even tamed - but then is not the reverse also true... If the (objective) market transaction does not consist of a gift relation (in fact it is usually regarded as its opposite) then it is in the (subjective) decision to purchase that the gift relation now resides. Just as before when a choice had to be made concerning the apportionment of ones time and ones labour together with its crystallisation and store: things and their tokens exchanged according to a rationale whose light is filtered through the prism of identity. Recognition (our resemblance and the affirmation of that resemblance to our ‘home’ community, the community of the Same) as the survival of this form of Mimesis into our everyday (post)modernity. Identity’s ritual reliance upon Mimeses for its further assertion and continuity.
(Architecture and Mimesis)
First things. Who is copying whom? Or what? (And why? When? Under what circumstances? Is this copying avoidable or ineluctable, is it voluntary or involuntary?). Either way there must be an original (a place and time when the process of copying begins). A first instance. Something or someone to be copied. What is this Ur-thing? Where is it? And how can we know? Were a passage back to such an origin possible, what use would it be, what value could we ascribe it, how could we justify its impact on our lives? What we do know is that the ‘copy’ (or copy of a copy of a…) is experienced, is seen, is felt - and is used. Experience and appropriation are the two great cures for the myth of origin.
Juxtaposed here are the two opposing forms of genealogy: a (absolute) origin beloved of myth and historicism (origin explains and predicts everything); and the description of the contexts, the uses and appropriations through which a word, concept, visual style, or object has passed, each of which may have changed its meaning for its own place and period, and for ourselves since (no origin, only transformation). On this account there can be no Mimesis, only theft. No copies, only transmutations.
Relationships, moreover, can not be copied. Nor can they be shown (although they may perhaps be performed, as in a film or a ritual, or present as a symbol, present even as a symbol where the designing consciousness did not place it, but where the perceiving consciousness sought it out). So…
If columns occasionally look like people it is because they do (they have been made to do so: Caryatids). This does not mean that all columns look like people (they certainly do not). Or that, by some extension of logic (Rykwerts), buildings look like people (or are understood as being like people, or are understood because they are taken to look like people). Furthermore…
If columns have three parts it is because most buildings (and most parts of buildings, ie; columns) are (still) experienced as having three parts, and not the other way round…
For many, division by three is a logical stage of development in the column (Gabriel Tarde) as in the building itself (Sullivan, obviously, but even Gropius). A stage which itself is followed by a further efflorescence of the decorative, divided even in style by three. A pattern found repeated even in the frames of windows and doors, the texture of walls, the colour of plaster. A contrast of experiential zones even made present by the simple presence of dividing line. Recognition given to the immaterial, uneconomic force of the demand found in the human gaze. Our desire of architecture answered.
The notions of experience (perception) and engineering (structure) are essential in the comprehension of buildings. This is not true of the concept of Mimesis (and certainly not true of an over-literal humanism in which average -Western male- height is taken as the measure of all things). The nearest thing to this understanding of Mimesis is the importance to engineering of human scale and proportion. That is, regarding buildings, human beings must be able to use them – but they must also, indeed they have no choice but to, perceive them… to live with them (as well as within them). And try as some might to tie function to appearance, the final word, as given by the public at large, is given by the building’s suitability to its context. It is this, the degree of appropriateness to its surrounding urban environment and the perception of this relationship, taken as a whole, which orientates actually existing responses to the building (and not some limited notion of function as architectural essence).
Synecdoche, the relationship of part and whole, the building in question in its setting, is the means by which most would offer the final word, the final significant frame, with, or through, which we must judge a building’s suitability. Synecdoche also governs another crucial way we have of experiencing buildings; as zones which bear a similarity to one another and which we experience in similar fashions: the ground level, the middle layers and the topmost story. In our experience of a street or a square it is these levels, these continuities (and their interaction) which call from us a set of responses; responses differentiated according to which level it is that we are experiencing. So, in practise, we live in a world of horizontally zoned parts. Parts that are transbuilding in character; that are part, that are the key parts, of the built environment experienced as a whole and (in the environment as such) that follow the lines of the earth and the sky and their union in the horizon, rather than the verticals beloved of most architectural theory.
Private property as the division of the vertical (not to be confused with the pull of gravity or the hypsosis of light): public consumption as the division of the horizontal (the imprint of the watcher in turn reflected back).
Mimesis as representation (as representing). Architecture as the thing represented?
Do public toilets resemble their function, products or other symbols associated with the activities they contain (taboos, for example)? No.
Do post offices look like letters or parcels? No.
Decorative elements may appear themed according to function. Are the things going on inside, represented outside, represented in the form of the building? Or is this representation only true of the social functions of which they are a part? Generally not.
Architecture, if representing unrepresentable relations (the Sublime) then brings us back to the symbolic value of architecture, that is, our consumption and experience of it as ideal, as deictic, as referencing the unshowable, as symbol, as Solar (a building’s, even a city’s, relationship, exercised mainly through its uppermost portion, to society’s ideals and aspiration). There is no mimetic relation.
Test case (I). The form is the meaning. Openness, regarding the functioning of a building, its institution, and of democracy as such; all these are to be found in the use of glass and of open structures (as in the Strasbourg European Parliament). The connotation is of access to the centre, (rhetorically) on view, from without. All this is rhetoric, yes; but symbolic, not mimetic. The open or transparent structure may contain elements of mimesis (the ‘copying’, or resemblance to other open or transparent structures) but this is the material, the signifier; the meaning, the signified (if not simply some first meaning, as ‘building’ or ‘parts of a building’), lies in its existence as a symbol (or second meaning) for something else, open government, the ideals of democracy.
Do buildings even have first meanings (they are not words, although they often function like images) do we not move directly to the (second) meaning, to its symbolic value?
Test case (II). Mimesis/Symbolism. Does the ground floor resemble the foot (‘the foot of the building’). We may be ‘at the foot of the building’ but it still does not resemble a foot. Rather it is, first, a world unto itself when experienced from the outside, from the street, from the inside of the outside, as it were, in our experience of it as pedestrians, shoppers, transients and city dwellers. The street level experience. A key part of the lived ‘actually experienced’ urban environment. Second, this portion of architecture, this part of a building, of the street, square or city is (even in the most minimal of Modernisms) differentiated from the rest of the building or buildings in question (in view) according to physical access (the degree of security required) and visual access (the degree of display required). These relationships employ very little Mimesis. Rather it is the symbolism of entrances and exits, of windows and framed space that play with our memories, our imaginations and our expectations.
Then there are the other decorations that mark out the street level, the ground, the entry-fronting of a building. These markings are in every sense gratuitous, that is, symbolic, a gift to the viewer, to the reputation of the building, street, or view of which they are a part. A gift to the city, to its self-image, its self-regard. Free to us; offered at a cost to the builders/developers. Offered as an act of recognition of our consumption of the visual, our interaction with architecture; a recognition of the fact that how we see ourselves is something also refracted though our sense of our built environment.
Bad architecture pains us because it is part of our collective being, part of our self-image. Because it is at once intimate and social, so a jewel or a nail in our being. Because it immediately symbolises a lack of care for ourselves (for our home) and so a pollutant in that which touches our experience. Not because it copies something bad or painful.
Test case (III). From function/symbol to symbolic function. The most symbolically cogent parts, the most visually arresting, most meaningful parts of a building are those which contain the least inspiring human activity – if any… the top. From the inside, an attic: from outside, the sublime reference of the Solar. The fire of the horizon and the blue infinity of the sky.
The place where Mimesis takes the form of the statue; the rest is a matter for the sky, of matter reaching for the sky. A matter for us. What makes the building matter for the skyline. Matter for us.
And so to other forms of Mimesis …or other definitions. Most appropriately (and most distantly), the notion of Mimesis as an imitation of forces only to be found in the heavens (School of Pythagoras) and so reflecting the relation to the larger set, the Sublime (in the Frankfurt School, including Walter Benjamin and the recent work of Michael Taussig, as that which indicates our relationship with Nature, including human nature). On this reading Mimesis is one aspect of a symbol that stands for a community, a society, for its ideals, for any ideal. All this, however (outside of the statue that decorates the building and is itself a symbol of such relations, a personification, a prosopopoeia) has nothing to do with human form. Rather it is a matter of the forms best calculated to reference the super human, the supra-human, the inhuman and even the post-human… (All) for us; (us) still all-to-human. The sublime relation in architecture does this. An experiential category which leads our eyes upwards, as it does (as it is supposed to) our souls… collectively (if possible). A hypsosis, or eye-raising, first governed by the demands of natural light, of our raising our eyes to the light, to the Solar regions of the built environment (the topmost of the three parts). In this way determining the architectural features that will in turn aid and abet this process, whether they were designed with this effect in mind, or become marshalled by our expectations into such a relationship - regardless of the architect’s intentions… (the aesthetics of architecture is the death of the architect).
A distant mimesis is indistinguishable from the most distant of allegories.
This is anyway to use ‘Mimesis’ at the end of its stretch. Where nothing is copied there is no Mimesis. We remain lost in the land of the Symbol. Awash amid a sea of signs.
Mimesis (its positing); our desperate attempt to find an anchorage.
(The Promise of Architecture/Architecture’s Promise).
Is there a performative in Architecture (…is there a performative effect in visual culture)? In order to understand the role of the performative in architecture it will be necessary to examine the different degrees of subjectivity and objectivity that obtain in two relations to the performative: constative and performative; and mimetic and performative (or stating and doing, and copying and doing). One relation begins from the point of view of language (the word) the other from the point of view of the visual field (the image). The constative as a linguistic relation is given an initially subjective position as against the objective action of the performative: the mimetic as a form of reproduction is given a initially objective position as against the more subjective emphasis on identity in the performative. Both, of course, in the end are types of sign, modes of representation.
On one level a sign may be constative or performative (description or action; a ‘this is x’ as opposed to an ‘I promise’). The latter is both the word and the action/event simultaneously (it performs what it says) and includes ‘felicity conditions’ that are necessary for its successful performance (for example, we are the kind of person who may do this, that the time, place and manner are right). An identity statement is combined with the proper context constituting the ground of performance and resulting in an event with ritual force - often involving a renewal of self (promising to be better, to be or become the kind of person who may act in such a way). The action that results from a performative leads from word to reality, from discourse to event. Whilst constituting the objective pole of the process, this kind of verbal sign also expresses a subjective desire of, or identity proposition about, the speaker/performer (as described above). This proposition (implied or otherwise) is itself a verbal description of an event, and so a constative relation. However this subjective moment is also a statement about reality, indeed it offers the best statements we have (the only statements we have) it is the royal road to reality (and so objective). Moreover the constative also has further implications; insofar as it implies a point of view (whether imaginary, ideological, or actual) which is repeatable and identifiable, it, like all repeated actions, bears more than a trace of ritual (functioning as a reinforcement of subjectivity).
On another level the sign may be mimetic or performative.
If we place the emphasis in the mimetic relation, the iconic sign copies, is objective and indicates ‘Reality’. By contrast the performative is itself an action, and so leads to ritual, to identity confirmation, and so to the realm of subjective experience. As architecture the sign taken as mimetic offers an image of the matter, of the building in question, of reality (objective): as a performative it offers a symbol, performative of identity propositions, conferring identity; identity as specific, sexed, believing, consuming, recognition-seeking identity (subjective).
Furthermore: the mimetic relation offers recognition of the building, or slice of the urban environment in question, or even of a specific detail (objective), albeit from a point of view carrying memory, an iconic sign (albeit all but inextricable from language) referring back to previous experience (and so in this sense, subjective). Whilst the performative pole of the architectural sign offers recognition as an existential, identity-founding pre-condition, as the aspect of the sign which offers meaning, which places the building’s meaning in a broader context, of one’s place, of belief, of values, of pleasure. Architecture as symbol only makes sense in the context of a way of life, a culture (or in the eyes of many contesting cultures, if we take today’s plural social manifold as given). Architecture is the sign of a culture (and so objective).
Architecture means itself and us, our relation, together, our co-implication (insofar as it means anything at all).
Q: Can architecture really be performative?
A: Could it possibly be constative?
Architecture can not be true: but it can be… ‘felicitous’.
Architects and engineers, planners and developers, shop-keepers and politicians may or may not intend various effects to be the case concerning a given building (illocution); the perception and effect (affect) of a building for those who gaze upon it is another matter (perlocution): buildings and parts (sub- and super-sections) of the built environment generally only have perlocutions. (As does landscape…).
The performative again (reprise). The performative is a word or image or some other symbol, artefact or thing that functions, or can function as such (that is performative, that performs). A sign that can be read (at the same time) as an action (an ‘expression of activity’). An action which is also an event of binding, a binding event; to say it is thus is for it to be, and only to be, thus, a (putative) exclusion of contingency; and so in touch with the beyond, a ritual - home of eternal binding, of infinite application. Such as a promise, a declaration that henceforth some thing will be identifiable as a particular thing (and not, or no longer, as it had been before). The performative is the word’s attempt to change the world.
The social meanings, symbolic associations, of architecture are ‘performed’ even as we perceive it. At the same time as one says something, utters a performative, its action also takes place, likewise, at the same time as one sees something, that is reproduces an image within oneself, the other meanings and (interior) events also take place, their effects on identity performed (both kinds carrying ritual force). These kinds of meaning may be carried by parts of buildings or by parts of the built environment, sections through the urban landscape – meanings above and beyond the obvious message of an advertising hoarding or a statue.
Architecture as performance. Performing… the relations we have with it… its material form as frame and receptacle of the social relation: its ability to reflect the relation of the self to others; the desire for recognition and belonging as much as the solace and ecstasy of the flesh - and finally in its intimation of the relation of the soul to the stars. If the meaning of the word (its signified) may be immaterial, or transient (its performative echo launching the process that will outlast it), then the artefact, architecture, appears as if it may last forever, although its social meaning will of course change with the ebb and flow of the cultural tide (poetry moreover usually survives most architecture; out of so many fragments, one at least may outlive the monolith).
Performatives: a key to understanding ritual. Where a (repeated action) has ritual significance: where its performance means more, confirms and prolongs (as well as restates) our identity… Little rituals often occur in words alone (or in small everyday repeated actions). Big rituals perform our need for bigger meanings. In between, the regular rituals of life bear witness to the regular renewal of belief and our place in the universe through culture (through art and music as rituals that return us to the matters of the infinite). But the most persistent repository of all of our meanings, available to all (interpretable and renegotiable by all – at least in private, or within the counsels of a small community) is that of architecture. Matter for the infinite.
Performativity as ritualistic. So conveying ritual force or carrying the functions of rituality (and so carrying reality itself, our human reality, the reality of quality and value carried by a culture, by a language, a reality beyond measure, beyond quantification). The basic unit of ritual in language is the hinge linking word and event. Performativity is the join, not only between the orders of language (representation) and the material world (event), but also (as the means of cementing this relation) of the temporal order with the eternal and so of cementing all relations. This is equally true of universals and laws that are, by definition, also reliant on the force of eternity, of being put beyond the reach of the merely contingent, for their cohesive effect. The infinite reach of the promise, as of other performatives, declares it to be a model ritual. A model also found in our relations with the shape of our built environment and in our reflections upon architecture. The promise of architecture.
Part ritual. Parts in Performance. Three theses on rituality in architecture:
(I) The delimitation/separation of a certain quality, experience or flavour of space/time may occur with the perception, delimitation, even highlighting, of a feature on a ground. A detail, aspect (or part) of a building, or the sense of part of the built environment, may be found to be saying something more than that attributable to the sum of a given configuration of glass and stone.
(II) The time suggested by a building or, more usually, by its parts, may be found to connote past or future time (trigger for memory or speculation), or even the outside of time (the relationship to bigger things); we may find ourselves caught unawares in the epiphany of the eternal moment.
(III) And so the exchange, the sacrifice that makes possible the return on our identity, which appears to seal it, to guarantee it ... the gift of our time (a time removed from the everyday). Yet happening everyday – an everyday part of our urban lives. The consumer’s return on his or her investment of time and energy, as on the investment of finance, labour and material (actual and congealed time) by the producers.
(For all cause and effect relationships, not least after their demolition by Nietzsche, their privileging and relating moments in a process, may equally be conceptualised as exchanges, as investments and returns – indeed this point of view is more human than the would-be scientific notion of cause and effect…)
Parts in Exchange. Concerning our everyday relation to the key phenomenological parts of architecture (the parts of human experience). Three zones of operation; three zones over which these theses can range. If the vertical is the natural unit of ownership and engineering, then the horizontal is that of experience. For each part of our own inner experience (making-sacred, desiring, recognition-seeking) a part of the built environment, a part of architecture (top, middle, bottom) one part of the architectural experience. Part exchange.
Top. The long top, the sky-touching strip, the continuous edge of architecture. As much a relation with the sky (the skyline) as a material zone (as a material recognition of the existence of this relation). A relation with light, with the sun, an eye raising, invitation to gaze heavenwards and sense the place of demarcation, separation between worldly and otherworldly (ideal) realms, of the role of these in our concerns; a solar relation. The place of the Solar as ritual… as made up of an object (the top and its proximity to the sky, the sun, the heavens) and our gaze, our veneration. As a sacrificial exchange dedicated to our social, communal and personal meta-set; to first and last things (putative), infinite in application, and range (eternal…). The proof of this relation lies in the existence of the top as a (now) renewed and continual sacrifice (economic, objective) to our collective religious desire. Of our gaze as sacrificial (objective) of our time. Eye-raising is performative of the truth of our indebtedness to our most fundamental (but always obviously religious) belief structures. Beyond functionality, and so beyond rationalism and economics as the logic of material return (objective) this ritual exchange, the performance of an identity, or of the desire for that identity, re-implicates the identity of the watchers, the community of the participants in the building’s collective public life. The return is there, but translated onto the level of identity (subjective). Such a return is hated by all (material) functionalists (who refuse to understand symbolic functionalism) where absence or brute minimalism is the performance of this relation (subjective). To them the return as subjective is inconceivable.
Middle. The tall façade of the middle as ritual; fired by the question: what do they do there…behind the glass wall? Zone of the lives and the stories of lives, of the stories of others as centering on sex. Insofar as sex is constitutive of the self, of personal identity, the thought of sexual ecstasy as bearing a trace of infinity and eternity (a trace of the sublime) an imaginary exchange. An imaginary sacrifice throughout, of thoughts, motion of the eyes, motion of our thoughts, performative of our desire, of our eternal (lifelong) obsession with sex as the secret of the lives of others….
Bottom. The long corridor of the bottom, the ground, procession of doors and windows as ritual (place of suture of the relationship of identity exchange with commodity exchange, key relation of our social form, key relation to our identity). An exchange for self, a self mirrored in shop-front windows as in the mind’s eye, the eye of the self, the self that forms the I. Constantly self-aware in its eternal present. Infinity and eternity are found in the belief that this self will last… forever. Through the exchange of possessions or money (materialised time, time in lieu, exchangeable time, stored therefore) in exchange for a new self (image). This exchange, this promise, too, thought, in advance; the lure of commodity exchange, lure of a new start, a new self (image). Subjective until actualised, objective in impact; but then remaining subjective to the end. The return takes place in the imagination (but is nonetheless real for all that), of the self in its relation to others, to its inclusion in the desired peer group and of an exclusive position (putative) within such. This is the true return on expenditure - on our spending of cash and time.
Time given, in exchange, stopping and looking, a part of one finite life, a percentage of ones allotted time. Attention given, ones senses, ones mind, filled by one thing rather than another. Recognition given, community or priority acknowledged - or withheld (a dangerous exchange, if we remember the force of ‘honour’ codes). And a fraction of a second is enough to renew an already established meaning (‘looking up’, recognising, having ones sense of place confirmed, with ones sense of self as one who is not lost, a feature of speedy city life). An instant of ritual exchange. Given time.
The subject of architecture. Who sees? Who feels? First, the collective subject; the implied subject as collective (unitary, so largely fictional or ideal, an average or majority). Part fiction of theory. Second, the mediated relationships as informed by the key binary divisions in society (brutal, ideological, fixed) such as male/female, boss and worker, blue and white colour, native and migrant, adult and child, and so on. All aspects of our identity, but not exhaustive of it. Third, our (real or imaginary) membership of communities (plural, differential, fluid). Actual groups in relation to their environment, the true collective aspect of human experience (to which we owe plural membership, often in tension with our other loyalties, and identifications – the stuff of narrative, fiction and tragedy). Finally, we have the level of concrete individuals together with their individual appropriations of the architecture that encompasses them. Some of which may be dissenting from those of the implied collective or the (real) communities to which they belong (a relation itself fluid, particular to time as well as the relation of place, of an individual with place…in time, contingent and subject to mutability, in studies, quantifiable as to time/place and participant).
Architecture as home to many imaginary exchange relations. As many as it takes (to constitute our selves). Mutating to infinity: fixed as ourselves.
(Do I dare suggest that this argument offers a starting point for the re-theorisation of architecture and the built environment in the 21st century?)
The critique of Mimesis offers the following gains. An understanding of how the world makes us, influences us, confirms us, as read through our on-going experience of things (from object to subject) – from the experience of urban and ‘natural’ landscape, and most especially that of ‘art’ as a special (intense) case. With the self as contingent and requiring support from its environment in a perpetual sequence of exchanges. Whence the potency of ‘culture shock’ when dislocation occurs (including such ‘little’ things as arrival at the office to find ones table has been moved, the subject of much literature). Suddenly we are no longer at home in the world. The self itself is threatened here, where the world is no longer ‘ours’ (…and so become the sole possession of the other, with oneself also the terrified possession of the other). Therefore the link of the Sublime to the sense and concept of the Other (capital ‘O’ already indicating a sublime, metaphysical relation) and of the sacrificial exchange of the other, in fact or in symbol, as the cure for this dispossession. If rituality is the cure for the disease of the loss of self, then rituality in art, or as art, is perhaps our most frequently found form of this medicine. Just which modality of rituality, ‘Beautiful’ or ‘Sublime’, affirming or threatening, confirming or shaking, depends upon the given art work or even on the given reader….
A critique of Mimesis is also a critique of our mode of seizure of objects (from subject to object). Our experience of things as the appropriation of things (as through the nomination and constitution of the art object, the role of the reader). But not as if on a tabula rasa. A different culture may erase (refuse) all previous meanings in its own appropriation (commercial or otherwise) of another culture. Its own identity propositions will then be stamped on objects and their exchanges, replacing those of previous or originating cultures, leaving them as a shadow, a ghost at the table, proposing guilt, and memory, if only as a demi-presence, as past to presence’s present, the black and white photograph that stands forgotten at the back of the sideboard. And so readable as an augur of the future, a sign of guilt, of a dawning awareness of the return of the obliterated culture as (imaginary) threat. A sublime move in the ‘home’ world.
Negative aspect of appropriation; at once bringer of enablement to all and so affirmative of the identities enacting this re-definition: and wanton destruction of old meanings; the symbolic destruction of those identities once (or in any way) connected with them. Leaving only the memory of an exorcism (or the exorcism of a memory).
Therefore the criticism of the concept of Mimesis that as a description of a relationship to the world it is too simple given our embedding in the world, given our fraught relations with the object (not least of which, ourselves). That is to say; we do not just copy ‘it’ (there is more to life than the mirror) we form ‘it’ and ‘it’ forms ‘us’. This exchange is a ritual relation in embryo, a performative relation: as it happens so we are made, as the signs are exchanged so we too are transformed… A site is set up, which in turn ‘sets us up’ for the next part of our lives (the more crucial the stage the more formalised the event). At each exchange we emerge reformed; from the short conversation that refreshes our memory as to our ties to someone, to community events which enact our debt to society in general and to a given cultural grouping in particular. As we ourselves are events, are process and action, so there is an understandable emphasis upon the performative as opposed to the simple mimetic relation. Not least in the experience of architecture (where our social meanings may be refreshed, but where we do not imitate the inorganic).
Mimesis, ‘in’ and ‘out’, shows us the state of the temporal or refers to eternity, with the latter pointing outside, or to what comes from outside (from religion and its imitators to ‘the Gothic’) and is often paired with a mimesis of contents ‘comfortable’ and ‘uncomfortable’ (copying matters pleasant and unpleasant). The former combination confirming self/community through comfort, the known as predictable: the latter re-confirming, renewing the self together with self/community relation, after ‘shaking’ the self, after a disturbance of order. This latter constituting a fundamental mode or affect of narrative as can be seen in the prevalence of the thriller, adventure and Gothic genres (or in the problem/solution aspect of narrative).
Leading to the abandonment of the contradictory term ‘Mimesis’, for a variety of types of representation. The copying of the seen and unseen now being a matter of the disposition of the values of ‘in’ and ‘out’; a question of deixis, of metaphysics, and so of politics (of the difference between fundamentalist and conditional thought) a matter of the disposition of the rhetoric of eternity.
If the question of Mimesis resolves itself into modalities of representation, then the thinking of the Beautiful and the Sublime has long since been subsumed by the heirs to the aesthetic tradition, a variety of language-based and sociological-pragmatic discourses. However ritual returns some validity to these categories (outworn not least in the comparative aesthetics of the international historic area which returned them to us reformed, and much less easily segregated). These ‘returns’ remind us of what was lost in the over-hasty abandonment of the Beautiful and the Sublime, or their equally over-eager conversion into just another form of high art distinction (sublime or difficult high art versus popular or easy beauty). Namely the two basic ingredients that made these terms at once so ubiquitous and so profound, ingredients also found in the art of all other cultures: the distinction, or relative association, of pleasure and displeasure and the metaphysical distinction of inside and outside. In the case of the Beautiful; the role of unproblematic pleasure and the role of unambiguous presence: for the Sublime; the role of discomfort in art and the role of an exterior to which the art work may point. Two sets of indices configure the range of operations: gradations of pleasure from positive to negative, the latter refined by displeasure experienced but not depicted occasioned by an event depicted but not experienced; and the sense of an internal or external reference point, the later offering the metaphysical hidden or absent foundation, a move found in all cultures, all belief systems and even in systematised thought as such (witness the role of axioms in the formation of artificial languages). This is the aesthetic-descriptive approach which provides a demystified method of description of a wide variety of cultural practices previously deemed ‘low’ or ‘high’, ‘art’ or ‘popular’, and can be married with profit to the ritual-functional approach which further elucidates the relationship between art and identity, art and community.
Thus we have two modalities onto the object or event deemed of aesthetic or cultural import: one formal-descriptive; one functional. The first, aesthetic-descriptive (pleasure/pain and in/out) together with comparative study, collapses the old categories. The second, ritual, in the form of simple or complex confirmation, order and identity as beauty everlasting or as to be renewed after being shaken by the presence of the sublime, returns them in transmuted form. Together they combine as, in the case of ‘the Beautiful’, the pleasure of recognition, the joy of certainty (accompanied by a reference to beauty’s hope or ideal as putatively eternal), and, in the case of ‘the Sublime’, the displeasure occasioned by a lack of recognition, where an initial uncertainty is soon rewarded by the return of recognition and order (accompanied by the return of pleasure that signals a work of art in its ritual aspect).
So the Beautiful and the Sublime, the two privileged modalities of Mimesis, are part of the remit of ritual. Both terms but two moments of ritual effect. Representing two kinds of ritual affect. These two lauded forms of Mimesis, an immediate positive and a mediated positive (a positive mediated by a moment of negation), two forms of what is good, worldly and otherworldly, are now found inextricably intertwined - always already sharing both semantic and deictic space. Yet in anthropological terms two kinds are still to be distinguished; consisting of simple confirmation and confirmation after an initial shaking of identity. Two kinds which underpin and maintain the existence of the aesthetic forms which bear the names, ‘the Beautiful’ and ‘the Sublime’, no longer functioning on the aesthetic level, but on the anthropological plane of function. Reminders of the origin and persistence of the artwork as ritual. Even of vision, of the visual itself, as ritual – as containing the possibility of ritual force. Also true, therefore, of visual culture in general, be it in the form of cities, landscape or art, all may now be read as ritually interpreted, as inflected for ideals, for important meaning-making, for the repair and (re-)placing of the individual and therefore of his or her relation to a variety of types of identity, to community making and to the crucial work of social reproduction and maintenance.
It is this way that the mobilisation of the concept of rituality, the idea of performative exchange relations taken from anthropology and critical theory, and the notion of temporality as the description and critique of the rhetoric of eternity, allows for the analysis of identity and community (of what is exchanged for these, how, and under what conditions?). In short a description of how the artwork and its values are constituted (and reconstituted) in a nexus of exchange relations.
The insights accruing to this innovation work on two fronts, poetics (description) and function (social role). So it is that we have a visual poetics which dissolves the Beautiful and the Sublime into various combinations of pleasure/pain, inside/outside, and a critical functionalism which focuses upon their performative role, on the ritual exchange which rescues them. It is in this way that the Sublime can still maintain its explanatory power as to the role of the Beyond, as a tool or rhetorical mainstay of ideology, and as a ritual, dependant upon the value of eternity or an exchange made at its behest. Yet does this new configuration of concepts do the work of the old that they would replace, explain what previous models once explained… and more? Furthermore, can they heal the rift between the ‘torn halves’ of human culture, ‘popular’ and ‘art’ cultures, (themselves, as much abstracted, ’reified’ poles of a continuum of identity-forming cultural events, as manifestations of the division and gradation of labour ‘by hand and by brain’)? On the level of methodology, we have the application of concepts across the field without exception; traversing differences and allowing comparative work to be done. On the level of critique and judgment we have a means of by-passing yesterday’s elitisms and their reactive mirror images (co-founding and mutually sustaining as always) yet still permitting critical discrimination. So dissolving the contested terms (‘the Beautiful and the Sublime’) as but another two moments (two extremes, two particular cases of identity exchange and investment) in a sea of cultural practices. If on the aesthetic level the difference between the Beautiful and the Sublime has become increasingly blurred, then on the functional level the difference between the ritual affects we once called Beautiful and Sublime becomes more important.
Dr. Peter Nesteruk lives and works in
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