College of Liberal Arts & Social Sciences Theses and Dissertations

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mimesis, semblance, play, critique, aesthetics


Critical Theory demands that its forms of critique express resistance to the socially necessary illusions of a given historical period. Yet theorists have seldom discussed just how much it is the case that, for Walter Benjamin and Theodor W. Adorno, the concepts and language it employs, as well as the aesthetic comportment it would champion for the sake of generating a critical distance from these illusions, require an understanding of the mimetic faculty. The point of departure for this work is thus an attempt to delineate both the essential and the historical features of this faculty, in the hope of understanding the conditions under which the force of critique can truly find language today. With this is in view, I illustrate the manner in which these features of mimesis, namely its semblance (Schein) and play (Spiel) character, are initially at work in our experiential relation to nature, but are ultimately subject to a violent taboo that wrenches us from nature and thereby wages a desperate battle against the attempt to give voice or call a halt to the unnecessary suffering of an antagonistic historical circumstance. This shows that there is a dialectic of enlightenment built into the comportment of mimesis itself, that latent within it is the simultaneous potential for progress and regression. More specifically, it shows that mimesis is, as it were, banished from an immediate absorption with nature, and, therefore, needs to migrate into the neutralized and sorrowful (traurig) sphere of art—the sole refuge within which the outermost consequences of mimetic development are granted full expression. Parallel to the Kantian category of philosophical “ideas,” I, accordingly, argue that the recognition of this immanent struggle to end myth is synonymous with a mimesis awakened to a regulative striving after the idea of peace or reconciliation, i.e., a striving that, if realized, would at last assuage the hostility between rationality and mimesis, concept and intuition. Mimesis is thus, on the one hand, capable of sensing the material trace or hearing the musical echo stored up in the unreconciled state of language. But if, on the other hand, it becomes dislodged from the sensitivity that “reads” with and against the tempo of its material circumstance, it could just as well disavow precisely the possibility of this peace and thus regress to a catastrophic form of instrumental rationality. By virtue of immersing itself in the most minute details of the present historical constellation, exposing the falsehoods involved in, for instance, the harmony of traditional beauty, or the triumphalism and sovereignty of the traditional sublime, I argue that mimesis not only marks an indispensable moment in the dynamic movement of critique, it also brings to the fore the pressing need for a materialist conception of aesthetics.